Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Radiation oncologist tapped for top FDA post

    Stephen Hahn

    Stephen Hahn

    MD Anderson Cancer Center

    President Donald Trump today announced his intent to nominate oncologist and cancer center executive Stephen Hahn to head the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Hahn has spent the past 4 years at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and in 2018 was named the institution’s chief medical executive. His research has focused on radiation therapy and the treatment of carcinoma and lung cancer.

    Hahn has navigated controversy in his tenures at both MD Anderson and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he ascended the ranks to become chair of radiation oncology. In testimony before Congress in 2009, Hahn apologized to patients and their families after it was revealed that the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center had administered radioactive implants for prostate cancer at the wrong dose and even to the wrong organ. This spring, after ethnically Chinese scientists were dismissed from MD Anderson for allegedly breaking federal funding rules, Hahn tried to assure the center’s staff and the media that the dismissals were not racially motivated.

  • HHMI to fund expansion of Meyerhoff program to boost minorities in science

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    Six U.S. universities will get up to $2.5 million each over 5 years from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to prepare minority students for careers in academic research.

    The new competition, first reported by Science in July and officially announced today, aims to tap into lessons learned by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in running its acclaimed Meyerhoff Scholars Program. In 2014, HHMI gave 5-year grants to the University of North Carolina and Pennsylvania State University to follow in the footsteps of the 30-year-old Meyerhoff program, which it calls “a powerful example of an effective, student-centered approach.” The new Driving Change initiative extends HHMI’ commitment to changing the culture of higher education to improve the diversity of the scientific workforce.

  • In decision certain to draw fire, journal will publish heavily criticized paper on gender differences in physics

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    In a move likely to attract criticism, a peer-reviewed journal has agreed to publish an Italian physicist’s highly contested analysis of publications, which concludes that female physicists don’t face more career obstacles than their male colleagues. The journal says it will also simultaneously publish critiques of the paper, which one member of the journal’s editorial board says is “flawed” and contains “unsubstantiated claims.”

    Last year, physicist Alessandro Strumia received widespread criticism after presenting a talk at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, where he was a guest professor. During the presentation, he asserted that physics was built and invented by men, and stated on a slide that “Physics is not sexist against women.” Thousands of physicists signed a letter voicing concerns about Strumia’s views and some researchers published detailed critiques of his findings and methods, which focused on published papers in the field of “fundamental physics” that includes theoretical and experimental studies of fundamental particles, cosmology, and astrophysics. Some of Strumia’s critics have argued that such literature analyses are not sufficient to support his claims. Both CERN and Strumia’s employer, the University of Pisa in Italy, launched investigations. Earlier this year, CERN cut all ties with Strumia and the university released a statement condemning his comments.

    The upcoming paper, which Strumia has posted on his website, has been accepted for publication by Quantitative Science Studies (QSS), which publishes “theoretical and empirical research on science and the scientific workforce.” Strumia’s study examines 1.3 million fundamental physics papers, published from 1970 to this year, which are indexed by CERN’s INSPIRE database. After identifying authors as men or women based on their names, the study confirms what Strumia calls a “well known” gender skew in fundamental physics: For every four new male Ph.D.s who publish, there is just one new female Ph.D. Strumia also concludes that male and female physicists have similar opinions about which papers deserve to be cited, and that authors of both genders cite their own studies at similar rates. (That finding diverges from a 2016 analysis, which Strumia cites, that concluded male authors cite their own work on average 56% more than female authors.) Strumia also finds that the publication records, which show institutional affiliations, reveal no statistically significant difference in how quickly men and women are hired after receiving their Ph.D.s, or the rate at which they stop publishing in the field, which Strumia uses as an indicator for when a researcher has left academic research. Strumia notes this finding contradicts other studies that have found that a higher proportion of women drop out of academia than men.

  • What one member of Trump’s new science advisory council wants it to tackle

    Dario Gil, Director of IBM Research, standing in front of IBM Q System One

    Dario Gil with IBM’s System One quantum computer

    Misha Friedman/Getty Images

    The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has yet to hold its first meeting, and the White House hasn’t even announced its full 16-person roster. But one newly appointed member, Director of IBM Research Dario Gil in Yorktown Heights, New York, already has a wish list of issues he’d like it to tackle.

    His list includes promoting scientific inquiry and its value to policymakers, ensuring that researchers have the computational tools they need in an era of big data, retraining the U.S. workforce to be more technically literate, and updating a partnership between the federal government, academia, and industry spelled out by Vannevar Bush at the end of World War II. Gil also thinks the government must strike the right balance between protecting national security and fostering international scientific collaboration with the rest of the world, using “a scalpel” instead of “a blanket policy” to monitor and prevent undue foreign influences on U.S. research.

    “I am passionate about the need for continued investment in science,” says Gil, 43, who joined IBM immediately after earning his Ph.D. in 2003 and has been rising quickly through its management ranks. “I want to be an advocate of its critical importance.”

  • USDA decides to move two research agencies to Missouri, but many employees won’t go

    Sonny Perdue speaking at a farm

    Sonny Perdue

    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    Originally published by E&E News

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) yesterday announced the final location—in downtown Kansas City, Missouri—for its two research agencies being moved out of the nation’s capital.

    Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue yesterday signed a lease for office space at 805 Pennsylvania Avenue in Kansas City, ending speculation about where the department was planning to put the agencies and whether it would be in Missouri or Kansas.

  • U.S. telescopes get a new overseer

    Kitt Peak

    The Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona is one of the facilities that will be managed by a new organization created by the National Science Foundation.

    Steve (CC BY 2.0)

    A new player has joined the leadership of publicly funded astronomy in the United States. Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, henceforth to be known as OIR Lab. The new structure, which will be managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) in Washington, D.C., is intended to bring more cohesion to NSF’s rather fractured astronomical facilities and create a technical powerhouse akin to the European Southern Observatory, headquartered in Garching, Germany.

    OIR Lab will manage four existing observatories: Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, Gemini Observatory with instruments in Hawaii and Chile, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is now under construction in Chile. The quartet represents essentially all of NSF’s observatories that operate in the optical and infrared wavelengths, but does not include telescopes that observe the Sun. OIR Lab will also incorporate the Community Science and Data Center in Tucson, Arizona.

    OIR Lab will be led by Patrick McCarthy, who was previously vice president of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) project, an effort to build a 25-meter telescope in Chile, and an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. ScienceInsider recently chatted with McCarthy about his new charge. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • A powerful tuberculosis drug gets a deep price cut

    a TB patient with an implanted tube draining his lung

    A price cut of a powerful drug that prevents tuberculosis could help thwart disease in some of the 10 million people, such as this man in Dhaka, who become ill with the disease each year.

    Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images

    A 66% price slash of a little used but powerful drug that prevents tuberculosis (TB) could help stave off the deadly lung disease in millions of people around the world.

    Sanofi, a pharmaceutical company based in Paris, announced today it will sell the drug rifapentine at the steeply discounted price. The full course of preventive treatment with the drug will drop from $45 to $15. “This is a huge step forward,” says Gavin Churchyard, CEO of the Aurum Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa, a nonprofit that does TB and HIV care and research in several sub-Saharan African countries. “It’s such a momentous change.”

    The World Health Organization estimates that about 25% of the people in the world are infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and although most will never transmit the bacteria or fall ill because of the infection, up to 15% will progress from “latent” to “active” disease. People with latent M. tuberculosis infections who are coinfected with HIV are more than 20 times as likely to develop TB. TB accounts for 1.5 million deaths globally each year, more than any other infectious disease; it is the No. 1 cause of death in South Africa, which is home to nearly 20% of the world’s 38 million HIV-infected people.

  • Unrest in Chile prompts cancellation of U.N. climate conference

    antigovernment protesters run from police spraying water cannons

    Protesters flee from police spraying water cannons in Santiago on 29 October.

    AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

    Originally published by E&E News

    Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced this morning that Chile would not host the United Nations (UN) climate talks that were set to begin in Santiago on 2 December.

    UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa released a statement this morning stating, “I was informed of the decision by the government of Chile not to host COP25 in view of the difficult situation that the country is undergoing.” She added, “We are currently exploring alternative hosting options.”

  • Ph.D.–turned–policy insider takes over world’s largest science society

    Sudip Parikh

    Sudip Parikh

    DIA Global

    Sudip Parikh has helped shape U.S. science policy as a staffer on a powerful congressional spending panel. He’s been a senior health care executive for a large nonprofit organization that manages several federal research facilities. And in January 2020, the 46-year-old structural biologist will become the new CEO of AAAS (which publishes Science) as the 171-year-old association pursues its mission to advance science and serve society.

    “It’s a marvelous organization, and I’m super excited to become a part of it,” Parikh says. “I think every scientist has a place in their heart for AAAS. My goal is to turn those warming feelings into a valuable engagement with AAAS that will help us move forward.”

    Parikh is now a senior vice president at the Drug Information Association (DIA), a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit whose 12,000 members share a common interest in drug development. He spent 8 years as part of the Senate appropriations committee before joining Battelle in 2009.

  • Hong Kong student protesters demand more support from their universities

    University students protesting

    Students forced their way into the administrative offices of the Chinese University of Hong Kong on 3 October, demanding to speak to university President Rocky Tuan.

    MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

    Student protesters in Hong Kong, China, are forcing local universities to consider their roles in the ongoing standoff between citizens demanding greater democratic representation and the city’s authorities. And the continuing disturbances may be starting to have an impact on faculty recruitment and retention.

    In the latest example of campus friction, on 22 October, a group of University of Hong Kong (HKU) students delivered a petition—now signed online by more than 3000 individuals—calling on university President Xiang Zhang to issue a statement condemning police brutality, bar police searches on campus, provide legal and financial support to arrested students, and hold a forum to listen to students’ concerns. They gave a deadline of 28 October.

    Late yesterday evening, Zhang sent a brief, four-paragraph email to all students, staff, and alumni. “I am against any form of violence by any party,” Zhang writes. He goes on to explain that a student support team established in July is providing legal advice, counseling, and other support to those in need. The letter links to an explanation of the university’s policies covering police entry onto campus. And he closes by writing: “We have held discussions with students at various occasions in different manners and will continue to do so.”

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