Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Three percent of NIH grants involved a direct financial conflict of interest, watchdog report finds

    NIH building 1

    National Institutes of Health

    National Institutes of Health

    Financial conflicts of interest that could bias researchers funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) are rare, a report released last week found: About 3% of the 55,600 grants the agency awarded in 2018 involved at least one researcher reporting such a conflict. But some experts question whether the data are capturing all relevant conflicts.

    The 25 September report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH’s parent agency, follows a 2008 OIG analysis that found NIH was not collecting adequate data on financial conflicts, such as payments from drug companies for consulting or royalties from patents. The report helped prompt HHS to tighten its reporting rules, which now require investigators to tell their institution about all conflicts related to their institutional duties. The institutions then tell NIH about those that could bias an NIH-funded research project and explain how the conflict will be managed.

    A decade on, NIH’s improved tracking system allows a count for the first time. OIG found that in 2018, 202 of 2064 grantee institutions reported any financial conflicts of interests. A total of 1668 unique grants had at least one conflict. In total, 3978 separate “significant financial interests” were reported, because grants can have more than one investigator, and each investigator can have several types of conflicts.

  • Turkish scientist gets 15-month sentence for publishing environmental study

    Polluted Ergene river

    Turkish scientist Bülent Şık has studied contamination in the Ergene River Basin in Turkey’s Edirne province.

    KENAN KAYA/Alamy Stock Photo

    A Turkish food engineer and human rights activist was sentenced yesterday to 15 months in jail after publishing the results of a study he and other scientists had done that linked toxic pollution to a high incidence of cancer in western Turkey.

    Bülent Şık, former deputy director of the Food Safety and Agricultural Research Center at Akdeniz University, was convicted of disclosing classified information after he published the results as a four-part series in a Turkish newspaper in April 2018. “Bülent Şık fulfilled his duty as a citizen and a scientist and he used his right to freedom of expression,” his lawyer, Can Atalay, said in his closing statement before the sentence was handed down by a court in Istanbul.

    The study was commissioned by Turkey’s Ministry of Health to see whether there was a connection between toxicity in soil, water, and food and the high incidence of cancer in western Turkey. Working for 5 years, Şık and a team of scientists discovered dangerous levels of pesticides, heavy metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in multiple food and water samples from several provinces in western Turkey. Water in several residential areas was also found to be unsafe for drinking because of lead, aluminum, chrome, and arsenic pollution.

  • NIH reveals its formula for tracking foreign influences

    conceptual illustration of people holding balloon-like globes showing different countries.

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) thinks it may have figured out how China’s foreign talents recruitment program is undermining its system for making awards and ensuring ethical behavior by its grantees.

    In an interview yesterday with Science, Michael Lauer, director of NIH’s extramural research program in Bethesda, Maryland, described a two-pronged strategy that NIH believes China’s Thousand Talents Program has pursued to improperly reap the benefits of NIH-funded research. One entails breaching NIH’s vaunted system of reviewing grant proposals to share information with colleagues in China. The second consists of setting up shadow labs in that country to replicate NIH-funded research.

    Lauer offered no new evidence to support those assertions and no data on how often these tactics have been used. But his description adds considerable detail to previous NIH statements addressing concerns by Congress and officials in President Donald Trump’s administration that federal research agencies aren’t doing enough to combat attacks on U.S. science by foreign entities, particularly China.

  • Can you spot the duplicates? Critics say these photos of lionfish point to fraud

    collage of lionfish images

    Part of the collage posted on the Biology Letters website that a correction note says provides evidence of the number of lionfish used in experiments in an Australian lab.

    O. Lönnstedt et al., Biology Letters 10, 10.1098 (CC-BY 4.0)

    How many fish really appear in the photo collage above? The answer bears on whether a study about lionfish social behavior, published in Biology Letters in 2014, was fabricated—and whether Oona Lönnstedt, a marine biologist formerly at Uppsala University (UU) in Sweden who made up data in a 2016 Science paper, committed an earlier fraud. The case also raises fresh questions about whether senior scientists working with Lönnstedt, who was then a Ph.D. student, properly oversaw and took responsibility for her work.

    Last year, Lönnstedt and her co-authors posted the collage on the Biology Letters website in what appeared to be an attempt to end questions about whether the scientists really caught enough fish to carry out their behavioral experiments. But critics say the colorful ensemble appears to include many photos of the same fish, and in some cases doctored duplicates of the same photo—which would undermine the authors’ defense.

    The lionfish study was done in 2012, when Lönnstedt was a student at James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville, Australia. But the suspicions about it resemble those that discredited the 2016 Science study of the effects of microplastics on fish larvae. There, too, researchers questioned whether Lönnstedt had collected the claimed number of fish and wondered how she could have recorded reams of behavioral data without videotaping the experiments. In 2017, both UU and a national Swedish ethics panel confirmed the doubts about the Science paper, co-authored with UU biologist Peter Eklöv. It was retracted and Lönnstedt, who maintained her innocence, lost her job.

  • Seven years later, NIH center that aims to speed drugs to market faces challenges

    Chris Austin from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

    Chris Austin says the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, has begun to streamline drug development.


    In September 2012, when neurologist Chris Austin at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, took charge of a new translational science center, he faced a host of skeptics. In launching the new center, NIH Director Francis Collins said he wanted to re-engineer drug development to speed new treatments to the clinic. But some accused NIH of wanting to become a drug company or solve the pharmaceutical industry's challenges—a notion one former CEO likened to believing in fairies. It fell to Austin to prove that the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) wasn't going to compete with industry, but could give it powerful new tools. After 7 years, the jury is still out.

    Austin is proud of his record. In a recent conversation with Science, he pointed to a long list of programs he says will make drug development and clinical trials run more smoothly. "We've taken a quite different approach than everyone else," says Austin, who spent 7 years at Merck before joining NIH in 2002. Whereas other NIH institutes and companies study specific diseases, "Our disease is the system: the translational science process," Austin says.

    Some who have tracked NCATS, however, say it has yet to help improve the failure rate of at least 95% in drug development and is barely on the radar of major drug company executives. Even Austin admits, "I don't know how much the bigwigs have kept up" with the center's accomplishments. For one thing, his supporters say, NCATS's resources never matched its ambitions. Given that NCATS's resources were "a rounding error" compared with those of multinational companies, Collins's "grandiose vision" was unlikely to be realized, says cardiologist and pharmacologist Garret FitzGerald of the University of Pennsylvania.

  • New federal rules limit police searches of family tree DNA databases

    Joseph DeAngelo appears in a wheelchair at his arraignment in California Superior Court in Sacramento

    An ancestry database helped police identify Joseph DeAngelo, who faces charges as the Golden State Killer.


    The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released new rules yesterday governing when police can use genetic genealogy to track down suspects in serious crimes—the first-ever policy covering how these databases, popular among amateur genealogists, should be used in law enforcement attempts to balance public safety and privacy concerns.

    The value of these websites for law enforcement was highlighted last year when Joseph DeAngelo was charged with a series of rapes and murders that had occurred decades earlier. Investigators tracked down the suspect, dubbed the Golden State Killer, by uploading a DNA profile from a crime scene to a public ancestry website, identifying distant relatives, then using traditional genealogy and other information to narrow their search. The approach has led to arrests in at least 60 cold cases around the country.

    But these searches also raise privacy concerns. Relatives of those in the database can fall under suspicion even if they have never uploaded their own DNA. (One study found that 60% of white Americans can now be tracked down using such searches.) And even those who have shared their DNA may not have given informed consent to allow their data to be used for law enforcement searches.

  • Scientists clash over paper that questions Syrian government’s role in sarin attack

    A man takes samples from an impact crater in a road in Syria

    The impact crater in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, believed to be the source of the sarin that killed more than 80 people.

    OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

    On 4 April 2017, a chemical attack killed more than 80 people in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun—a crime that shocked the world and led U.S. President Donald Trump to fire 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. U.S. intelligence agencies saw clear evidence the Syrian government had dropped a bomb filled with the nerve gas sarin on the rebel-held town. Six months later, the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concurred.

    Now, a manuscript questioning that conclusion has caused a heated dispute among U.S. scientists. Until this week, the paper was scheduled for publication by Science & Global Security (SGS), a prestigious journal based at Princeton University. But as Science went to press, SGS’s editors suspended publication amid fierce criticism and warnings that the paper would help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian government. Both have denied that Syria is responsible.

    The paper’s most prominent author is Theodore Postol, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and a respected expert on missile defense and nuclear weapons. In blog posts and interviews, Postol has argued that the Syrian regime is not responsible for the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack and two others he has examined. Gregory Koblentz, a biological and chemical weapons expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, says Postol has disregarded overwhelming evidence and has a pro-Assad agenda, which Postol denies. “I’m not trying to take sides,” he says.

  • Privacy concerns could derail unprecedented plan to use Facebook data to study elections

    Wrokers in a Facebook office

    Facebook employees work to reduce the spread of misinformation that could influence elections.

    NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images

    Gary King benefited from perfect timing in selling Facebook on the idea of sharing a treasure trove of its data with academics. But now, the clock is working against efforts by King and others to keep the innovative project—which aims to better understand how information spread on Facebook influences elections and political institutions around the world—from falling apart. The key sticking point: protecting the privacy of Facebook users.

    In March 2018, King, a quantitative social scientist at Harvard University, made a visit to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. The media had just broken the news that a U.K. firm, Cambridge Analytica, had been selling voter profiles to candidates based on personal information provided unwittingly by millions of Facebook users. The resulting scandal was a sobering lesson for Facebook on how not to share its data with outsiders.

    King was pitching a better way for Facebook to share data. His plan was designed to meet high ethical and intellectual standards while achieving three important goals: preserving the privacy of Facebook users, protecting the company’s trade secrets on how its data were managed, and imposing no restrictions on what researchers could publish from the data.

  • This U.S. lawmaker wants greater scrutiny of algorithms used in criminal trials

    Chair Mark Takano, D-Calif., walks through the Hall of Columns at the Capitol

    Representative Mark Takano (D–CA) says, “Intellectual property rights should not be able to trump due process.”

    AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

    Since it was introduced in the 1980s, DNA evidence has become a “gold standard” of U.S. courtrooms, leading to the convictions—and exonerations—of thousands of accused criminals. But experts struggle to analyze degraded or contaminated samples, and many have started to use sophisticated probabilistic genotyping software to estimate the likelihood that a suspect’s DNA matches DNA at the crime scene. Such so-called forensic algorithms are far from rare: Increasingly, they’re used to estimate matches for everything from fingerprints to gun barrels to faces in security camera footage.

    Defense attorneys rarely have access to the source code or other information that would explain how such software—which is often proprietary—works. That’s because companies fear providing it would expose trade secrets or other kinds of intellectual property. But the opacity has raised concerns about fairness and transparency.

    Last week, Representative Mark Takano (D–CA) introduced legislation that would make it easier for defendants facing federal criminal charges to gain access to forensic algorithms, and further require the makers of computational forensic software to meet minimum standards set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

  • NASA to build telescope for detecting asteroids that threaten Earth

    illustration of the NEOCam space telescope

    NASA is proposing to move ahead with a telescope that would spot asteroids on a potential collision course with Earth. It is based on this proposed project, the Near-Earth Object Camera.


    NASA is moving forward with plans to launch an infrared telescope that could detect asteroids on a collision course with Earth. Its launch could come by the middle of the next decade, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, D.C., said today at a meeting of an agency advisory panel.

    The Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission, which will cost $500 million to $600 million, grows out of long-gestating plans for the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), first proposed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, nearly 15 years ago. Such a scope is essential for meeting a congressional requirement that NASA detect 90% of all potentially hazardous asteroids and comets of at least 140 meters in diameter by the end of 2020. The telescope will likely end up with a different name, but the mission is the same, says Mark Sykes, CEO of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and a member of NEOCam’s science team. “There is no independent or new spacecraft or operational design here. This mission is NEOCam.”

    Although NASA will not meet Congress’s deadline—which wasn’t attached to any funding—a combination of an infrared telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a ground-based facility being built in Chile, will eventually make it a reality, the National Academies of of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., said this summer in a report. A telescope operating in the infrared spectrum is essential, researchers say, as the past decade has shown that dark asteroids, which are nearly invisible in visible light but stand out in infrared, are more abundant than once thought. “There are a lot of really dark asteroids out there,” says Jay Melosh, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and an author of the report. “That pushes the need for the infrared system.”

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