Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Major medical journals don’t follow their own rules for reporting results from clinical trials

    Doctor's hand holding blood phial and doing paperwork

    A study finds papers describing the results of clinical trials often fail to properly report outcomes.


    It’s a well-known problem with clinical trials: Researchers start out saying they will look for a particular outcome—heart attacks, for example—but then report something else when they publish their results. That practice can make a drug or treatment look like it’s safer or more effective than it actually is. Now, a systematic effort to find out whether major journals are complying with their own pledge to ensure that outcomes are reported correctly has found many are falling down on the job—and both journals and authors are full of excuses.

    When journals and researchers were asked to correct studies, the responses “were fascinating, and alarming. Editors and researchers routinely misunderstand what correct trial reporting looks like,” says project leader Ben Goldacre, an author and physician at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and a proponent of transparency in drug research.

    Starting 4 years ago, his team’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine Outcome Monitoring Project (COMPare) project examined all trials published over 6 weeks in five journals: Annals of Internal Medicine, The BMJ, JAMA, The Lancet, and The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The study topics ranged from the health effects of drinking alcohol for diabetics to a comparison of two kidney cancer drugs. All five journals have endorsed long-established Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) guidelines. One CONSORT rule is that authors should describe the outcomes they plan to study before a trial starts and stick to that list when they publish the trial.

  • Update: U.S. science agencies see gains in final 2019 spending bills

    cleanroom test of James Webb telescope equipment

    Congress is considering spending bills that warn NASA not to exceed a new $8.8 billion cap for the James Webb Space Telescope, now under construction.

    Chris Gunn/NASA

    *Update, 15 February, 2:40 p.m.: President Donald Trump has signed a package of seven spending bills that give budget boosts to key federal science agencies. The signing marks the end of a budget battle that included a lengthy partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which disrupted work at numerous agencies that conduct or fund research. The final deal provides just $1.4 billion of the $5.7 billion Trump had sought for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—the issue that sparked the shutdown. But today, Trump announced he will attempt to use emergency powers to redirect more money to the wall project.

    As reported previously on ScienceInsider, the new spending bills, which cover the 2019 fiscal year that began in October 2018, generally reject deep cuts to research agencies proposed by Trump. The bills “would grant substantive increases for key science agencies including NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation,” notes this recent analysis prepared by David Parkes of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS in Washington, D.C. (which publishes ScienceInsider). “Agencies focused on environmental and climate research,” including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “would be protected from the administration’s proposed cuts.” Details of the 2019 bills can also be found at this budget tracker maintained by the American Institute of Physics in Washington, D.C.

    Congress also included language in the spending package that aims to slow plans by the Trump administration to relocate two agricultural research agencies based in Washington, D.C., and rearrange the agriculture department’s organizational chart.

    In August 2018, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue announced a competition for cities that wanted to host the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the department’s primary source of competitive academic research grants, and the Economic Research Service (ERS), its major in-house research and statistical office. He also said ERS would be reporting to the departments’ chief economist rather than its undersecretary for research, education, and economics (REE), who oversees NIFA and the Agricultural Research Service.

    Agricultural scientists screamed foul and mounted a vigorous lobbying effort that paid off. Voicing concern over “the unknown costs associated with the proposed move,” legislators ordered Perdue to “include all costs estimates for the proposed move” in his explanation of the president’s 2020 budget request, due out next month. They also requested “a detailed analysis of any research benefits of the relocation.”

    In addition, they ordered “an indefinite delay” in the proposed ERS reshuffling, believing it to be “appropriate for ERS to remain part of REE.”

    Here is our previous story from 22 January:

    Don’t try to take the money to the bank. But this week Congress plans to pass 2019 spending bills that would give healthy increases to the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and a handful of other science agencies that are now closed because of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

    Given the current partisan fight over a border wall, it’s no surprise that the Democratic-led House of Representatives and the Republican-led Senate will be voting on different bills. Neither version is expected to be adopted by the other body until congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump can reach some sort of deal to end the monthlong shutdown.

    When that finally happens, the numbers contained in this week’s appropriations measures stand a good chance of becoming the final spending levels for the current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. That’s because both bills are based on a conference agreement hashed out last fall by top appropriators in each house.

  • Researchers hung men on a cross and added blood in bid to prove Turin Shroud is real

    The shroud of Turin, Italy.

    Some people believe that a fuzzy, negative image of a face on a strip of linen belongs to Jesus. But studies have shown the cloth was created in the 14th century. 

    GIANNI TORTOLI/Science Source

    In an attempt to prove that the Turin Shroud—a strip of linen that some people believe was used to wrap Jesus’s body after his crucifixion and carries the image of his face—is real, researchers have strapped human volunteers to a cross and drenched them in blood. Most mainstream scientists agree the shroud is a fake created in the 14th century.

    The mock crucifixions are the most reliable recreations yet of the death of Jesus, the researchers suggest in an online abstract of a paper to be presented next week at a forensic science conference in Baltimore, Maryland (abstract E73 on p. 573 here). And they are the latest in a tit-for-tat series of tests, academic rebuttals, and furious arguments over the provenance—or lack thereof—of the centuries-old religious artifact. But the researchers hope the experiment will “support the hypothesis of Shroud authenticity in some new and unexpected ways.”

    The research team from the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado in Colorado Springs would not comment on the crucifixion experiments before presenting them to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’s (AAFS’s) annual meeting on 21 February. But the abstract describes "an experimental protocol by which special wrist and foot attachment mechanisms safely and realistically suspend the male subjects on a full-size cross."

  • EPA blasted for failing to set drinking water limits for ‘forever chemicals’

    fire fighters spray foam on a hill in LA

    Fire fighting foams often include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have contaminated water supplies across the United States.

    Mario Tama/Getty Images

    After intense pressure from politicians and environmental and public health groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today published a plan to tackle industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are showing up in drinking water supplies across the nation. But critics say the plan is vague and lacks regulatory teeth, and it will do little to reduce health risks.

    PFAS chemicals are widely used to make nonstick and water-proof products, including foams used to fight fires. The compounds can persist in the environment for decades, leading some to dub them “forever chemicals.” And studies have linked them to cancer and developmental defects, raising health concerns.

    In May 2018, EPA said it would develop a plan to tackle the substances in drinking water. Many were hoping the agency would set national regulatory limits on PFAS concentrations in water supplies. But the plan released today puts little meat on the bones of last year’s promises.

  • EXCLUSIVE: The first interview with Trump’s new science adviser

    Kelvin Droegemeier

    Portraits of the president and vice president hang on otherwise bare walls in Kelvin Droegemeier’s office.

    Stephen Voss

    The new science adviser to President Donald Trump has studied the causes and effects of extreme weather for nearly 4 decades. But meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier says he’s not a climate scientist and doesn’t want people to think he’s an expert on the topic.

    That humble demeanor comes naturally to the 60-year-old academic, colleagues say. It may serve him well as the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which helps coordinate and create science policy across the U.S. government. In filling a post that was vacant for 2 years, Droegemeier faces the stiff challenge of making a difference in an administration that many researchers say has repeatedly shown disdain for scientific evidence.

    In his first public interview since coming on board last month, Droegemeier pushed back on that criticism. “I think this president strongly supports science,” he told ScienceInsider from his office a few strides across a driveway from the West Wing. “And there’s a huge amount of evidence for the tremendous scientific advances that have happened on his watch.” (OSTP is currently updating a March 2018 document listing accomplishments in Trump’s first year.)

  • It can take a decade for species endangered by wildlife trade to get protection

    Acridotheres melanopterus, bird

    The black-winged myna of Indonesia is one of 271 species threatened by the wildlife trade, but it has not been protected under international law.


    In just a decade, the number of black-winged myna birds found in the species’ home range in Indonesia has declined by more than 80%. A big reason is the wild bird trade: The ravishing black and white plumage and bright, complex trills of the myna (Acridotheres melanopterus) have made it a coveted prize among collectors. Now, less than 50 remain in the wild.

    Despite the myna’s descent toward extinction, however, international policymakers have taken no steps to protect it. And according to new research, the myna’s situation is no outlier: On average, it can take 10 years for nations to agree on protections for species already known to be at risk from the wildlife trade.

    The study “underscores the need for quicker action to protect species threatened by the wildlife trade,” says Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the research. “Identifying this gap is a great starting point for a lot more work to come.” 

  • NASA picks mission to make all-sky infrared map


    SPHEREx would map hundreds of millions of galaxies in the infrared. 


    NASA has just given the green light to a mission that will study multiple eras of cosmic history, from the earliest fractions of a second after the big bang to modern-day planetary formation. The space-based Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) will map the entire sky in the infrared—wavelengths that are mostly blocked by Earth’s atmosphere.

    “It’s a great moment,” says SPHEREx Principal Investigator James Bock, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who says he’s glad to be just one member of a large team. “If it was just me, I’d be really panicked.”

    SPHEREx beat out one other finalist for NASA’s middle-class explorer program (MIDEX), a competitive mission line whose costs are capped at $250 million. Previous MIDEX missions include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched last year. SPHEREx has been awarded $242 million and is expected to launch in 2023.

  • Update: NASA declares end of Opportunity’s mission

    mars opportunity rover illustration composed with a photo of the surface of mars

    NASA’s Opportunity rover, seen here in a composite image, landed on Mars 15 years ago. Its end is nigh.

    Mars Exploration Rover Mission/Cornell/JPL/NASA

    *Update, 13 February, 2:10 p.m.: After more than a thousand attempts to revive the Opportunity rover, including a final unanswered command last night, NASA formally declared the end of the rover's mission today.

    Read our story from 25 January here: 

    There’s little hope left for rousing NASA’s Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars 15 years ago this month. For the past 6 months, the rover has sat silently and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is running out of tricks to revive it. In the next few weeks, officials at the agency’s headquarters will decide whether to continue the search, the mission’s scientists say.

    In June 2018, a planet-encircling dust storm blotted out the sun over Opportunity for several months, weaning it off solar power and draining its batteries. Since then, JPL has sent the golf cart–size rover 600 commands to revive it. Engineers hoped seasonal winds, running high between November 2018 and the end of January, would clear the solar panels of dust, allowing for its recovery. But that hasn’t happened.

    “The end of the windy season could spell the end of the rover,” says Steven Squyres, the mission’s principal investigator at Cornell University. “But if this is the end, I can't imagine a better way for it to happen … 15 years into a 90-day mission and taken out by one of the worst martian dust storms in many years.”

  • Trump to launch artificial intelligence initiative, but many details lacking

    President Donald Trump at a lectern

    President Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a defining issue of our time, affecting national security, economic development, human rights, and social media—for better and worse. And today, President Donald Trump will sign an executive order launching the American AI Initiative, directing federal agencies to focus on the technology.

    The administration has yet to provide many details, however, saying only that it will be assigning federal agencies specific timelines for “deliverables” and expects to release more information over the next 6 months.

    The U.S. initiative, which follows on the heels of at least 18 other countries that have announced national AI strategies, will have five “key pillars,” a senior administration official told reporters yesterday during a telephone briefing. They are:

  • EXCLUSIVE: Controversial experiments that could make bird flu more risky poised to resume

    A worker at a laboratory harvests avian flu viruses

    A worker at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory harvests avian flu viruses for sharing with other laboratories in 2013.

    James Gathany/CDC

    Controversial lab studies that modify bird flu viruses in ways that could make them more risky to humans will soon resume after being on hold for more than 4 years. ScienceInsider has learned that last year, a U.S. government review panel quietly approved experiments proposed by two labs that were previously considered so dangerous that federal officials had imposed an unusual top-down moratorium on such research.

    One of the projects has already received funding from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, and will start in a few weeks; the other is awaiting funding.

    The outcome may not satisfy scientists who believe certain studies that aim to make pathogens more potent or more likely to spread in mammals are so risky they should be limited or even banned. Some are upset because the government’s review will not be made public. “After a deliberative process that cost $1 million for [a consultant’s] external study and consumed countless weeks and months of time for many scientists, we are now being asked to trust a completely opaque process where the outcome is to permit the continuation of dangerous experiments,“ says Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch. 

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