Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers no longer run free

    aerial view of mangrove and shrimp farms

    Free-flowing rivers are increasingly threatened by dams, levees, and water diversions, such as for these shrimp farms in Ecuador.

    © Antonio Busiello/WWF-U.S.

    About two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers are no longer free flowing, compromising their ability to move sediment, facilitate fish migration, and perform other vital ecosystem services, according to a new study. And with more than 3700 large dams in the works, the future of free-flowing waterways looks even bleaker, researchers say.

    To get a global perspective on river conditions, Bernhard Lehner, a hydrologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who for years has studied the effects of dams on entire watersheds, teamed up with researchers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), based in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Using aerial, satellite, and other data, the team examined 12 million kilometers of waterways, evaluating their flows in 4.5-kilometer segments.

    Traditionally, researchers focused on dams when assessing a river’s free flow. But in this assessment, the team also considered the impacts on flow created by riverbank levees, other flood control structures, and water diversions for power, irrigation, or drinking supplies. “It’s a more comprehensive analysis of global hydrology than we have had before,” says N. LeRoy Poff, a hydroecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who was not part of the project.

  • DRC expands Ebola vaccine campaign as cases mount rapidly

    a health care worker preparing to vaccinate a patient

    More than 110,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have received an experimental Ebola vaccine, which appears to have helped slow spread of the deadly virus.

    World Bank/Vincent Tremeau (CC BY-NC-ND)

    The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will expand its use of the experimental Ebola vaccine that more than 110,000 have already received to try to stop an unusually stubborn outbreak of the disease. New vaccination strategies will attempt to reduce the security risks faced by health care workers in the outbreak region, which is home to nearly two dozen rebel groups—some of which have attacked response teams.

    There’s also a bit of good news in this bleak situation: A new analysis of the vaccine dose needed to protect people found that the amount can be substantially reduced—by more than half for some people—essentially eliminating a long-standing concern about a potential vaccine shortage.

    The changes follow recommendations made today by a group of vaccine experts that advises the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. The 9-month-old outbreak in the northeastern region of the DRC as of 6 May had sickened 1506 people, 1045 of whom have died. (Only the Ebola outbreak that exploded in West Africa in 2014 had more cases and deaths.) The outbreak has spiked over the past month, with more than 400 new cases in April alone—a doubling from March—which WHO says reflects the recent disruption of the response because of violence.

  • Landmark analysis documents the alarming global decline of nature

    A black rhino

    Black rhinos, poached for their horns, are just one of some 1 million species that a new report warns are at risk of extinction.

    Mint Images/Aurora Photos

    The state of biodiversity and ecosystems is at its most perilous point in human history and the decline is accelerating, warns a landmark assessment released today. But the hope is that the bleak assessment—crafted by hundreds of scientists and historic in its depth and breadth—will finally persuade governments and others of the need to change course and prevent further harm to the ecological systems that provide for human well-being. “What’s at stake here is a livable world,” says Robert Watson of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., who chaired the organization that produced the report.

    Only transformative changes to economic, political, and social systems will allow nations to meet agreed targets for nature conservation, the authors conclude. The core message is “quite radical,” says Georgina Mace, an ecologist at University College London who reviewed the assessment. “You have to prioritize nature and nature’s benefits to people in everything you do.”

    The report confirms “that we can’t just preserve, we must reverse the trend by increasing biodiversity locally, regionally, and globally,” said Alexandre Antonelli, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom, in a statement.

  • German research promised a decade of budget increases

    Anja Karliczek

    German research minister Anja Karliczek helped negotiate a budget deal with steady rises for science.

    Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    BERLIN—German research organizations cheered a decision announced today by state and federal ministers to increase research budgets by 3% a year for the next decade—a total boost of €17 billion over that time. For more than a decade, German research organizations have enjoyed consistent budget increases—3% boosts every year since 2006, even during downturns in the German economy. But some observers have worried that falling tax revenues and deep disagreements between state and federal ministers could bring an end to the largesse.

    The news turned out much better than most expected. Not only will the research organizations—including the Max Planck Society and the grantmaking agency the German Research Foundation—get their increases, universities and technical schools will also receive significant boosts through 2027. “It’s a huge relief,” says Matthias Kleiner, president of the country’s Leibniz Association here, which includes more than 90 research institutes. The agreement is “an extraordinarily positive and encouraging signal for science.”

    The deal also approves two new Max Planck institutes: the Institute for Cybersecurity and Privacy Protection, to be based in Bochum, and a new independent Institute for the Biology of Behavior in Radolfzell, previously part of the Institute for Ornithology. The Leibniz Association will also add two institutes: The German Resilience Center in Mainz will study factors that keep people healthy even under stressful conditions and the Center for Sustainable Architecture for Finance in Europe in Frankfurt will study the effects of political decisions on finance markets.

  • Shake-up at NIH: Term limits for important positions would open new opportunities for women, minorities

    two women working at a computer in a laboratory

    The National Institutes of Health’s in-house research program plans to limit the terms of midlevel managers, in part so that more women can move into leadership positions.

    National Institutes of Health/flickr (CC BY-NC)

    Able to pursue open-ended research without relentless grant deadlines, some scientists who work directly for the National Institutes of Health joke that NIH stands for "nerds in heaven." But the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and its other intramural research sites are also known as stodgy places where the scientific management, mostly white men, tends to stay in place for decades. Now, NIH is aiming to shake up its intramural program, the largest collection of biomedical researchers in the world, by imposing term limits on midlevel leadership positions.

    Starting next year, the 272 lab and branch chiefs who oversee NIH's intramural research will be limited to 12-year terms. The policy, now being refined by the directors of NIH's 23 institutes with in-house science programs, means up to half of the chiefs will turn over in the next 5 years, says Michael Gottesman, NIH's deputy director for intramural research. "We see this as an opportunity for diversity in the leadership at NIH, especially gender and ethnic diversity," says Hannah Valantine, NIH's chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.

    The changes are roiling the campus, with some grumbling they will have little impact and others questioning whether good leaders should automatically be replaced. "The appointment of more women … could be a plus, but the ‘coin of the realm’ still remains scientific excellence and productivity," says Malcolm Martin, who has headed a lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 37 years.

  • Senator’s queries prompt NIH and NSF to clarify how they monitor foreign research ties

    Senator Charles Grassley

    Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) wants U.S. research agencies to pay more attention to foreign collaborations.

    Stefani Reynolds/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    Responding to the rising concern within Congress that foreign governments are taking advantage of the open U.S. research enterprise, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have recently tweaked their grantmaking process to better monitor the foreign ties of the researchers they fund. And although there are subtle differences in how the two agencies are approaching the task, the goal is the same: to collect more information about the foreign affiliations of grantees. When it comes to policing suspicious relationships, however, neither agency sits in the driver’s seat.

    Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA), chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, has been leading a chorus of lawmakers who believe the large number of foreign-born scientists working in the United States—in particular those from China—pose a potential threat to the nation’s research enterprise. And they worry that U.S. universities and government agencies have been slow to respond. A longtime watchdog of federal spending practices, Grassley in recent months has sent nearly identical letters to NIH, NSF, and the Department of Defense (DOD) asking each agency about its practices in rooting out any illegal behavior.

    Last week, NSF replied to a letter Grassley sent on 15 April. NIH responded at the end of 2018 to a query sent in October 2018, and DOD has yet to reply to a letter it received on 1 April.

  • Analysis: U.S. science adviser has a vision for cutting research red tape, but details are scarce

    Kelvin Droegemeier

    Kelvin Droegemeier in his office next to the White House

    Stephen Voss

    U.S. academic scientists and university officials have long complained about how much time they must spend complying with the many rules relating to the federal dollars they receive. But since President Donald Trump assumed office, most scientists have refocused their angst on the president’s proposed large spending cuts to basic research and his administration’s seeming indifference to combatting climate change. What is known as the administrative burden issue has largely fallen off their radar, in large part because they fear that any changes by the Trump administration might make matters worse rather than better.

    Kelvin Droegemeier wants to turn back the clock. As director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the president’s science adviser, Droegemeier generally avoids the subject of federal budgets and climate change when talking to researchers. Science lobbyists say his silence is understandable, given the slim chance that his advice would alter the administration’s stance on those issues.

    Instead, Droegemeier prefers to discuss how he wants to “unleash scientists” and remove obstacles to their greater productivity—especially bureaucratic red tape. “This thing has been studied to death. Now it’s time to take action,” he said yesterday during a meeting with a panel of space scientists and aerospace engineers convened by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C. “I am absolutely intent on moving the needle. In fact, I’m almost angry.”

  • In lopsided vote, U.S. science academy backs move to eject sexual harassers

    National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.

    Breaking with their 156-year history, members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) today voted overwhelmingly in favor of amending the elite organization’s bylaws to allow ejection of members who breach the group’s new Code of Conduct, which outlines offenses including sexual harassment. Historically, membership in NAS has been an honor conferred for life.

    Marcia McNutt, president of NAS, noted “the importance of the signal that [today’s vote] sends. And I’m grateful for the many members who showed support for it.”

    The vote by those who attended NAS’s annual business meeting in Washington, D.C., this morning was lopsided: 95 in favor; nine against; and six abstaining, according to one member who attended. But it is not final. Because of the seriousness of the proposed change to the bylaws, all 2347 academy members will be offered the chance to vote either online or by mail, which should be completed by mid-June, NAS explained in a statement. The change will require approval from a simple majority of voting members.

  • Thousands of scientists in Argentina strike to protest budget cuts

    Anti-government protesters march in Buenos Aires, Argentina

    Marchers flooded the streets of Buenos Aires today to protest President Mauricio Macri’s austerity measures.

    Natacha Pisarenko/AP PHOTO

    Scientists from labs across Argentina stayed home today, joining a nationwide strike against the government’s latest round of austerity measures. One of their key rallying points: a call to restore lost opportunities for young researchers who began their education during a time of high investment in science but now have little hope of continuing their careers in Argentina.

    Schools, public transportation systems, and university offices shut down as their employees joined the strike, making it difficult to say exactly how many researchers were absent as part of the national movement. But research institute heads estimated thousands were on strike.

    Since coming to power in 2015, President Mauricio Macri’s administration has cut short efforts by his predecessors to grow the scientific community. In the latest blow, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), headquartered in Buenos Aires, announced on 5 April that it had a mere 450 new first-time investigator positions available for this year’s roughly 2600 Ph.D. graduates and former postdocs—leaving a record number of trainees without jobs. The previous government had projected that about 1400 new jobs would now be available.

  • House Democrats move to resurrect Congress’s science advisory office

    Representative Tim Ryan with other House Democrats

    Representative Tim Ryan (D–OH) leads a spending panel that wants to revive the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

    Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives want to bring back Congress’s long-dead science advice office. A draft funding bill released today calls for providing $6 million to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which Republican lawmakers killed in 1995.

    Congress established OTA in 1972 to advise federal lawmakers on a wide range of science-related issues. During its existence, it churned out some 750 reports and white papers assessing the potential promise, peril, and policy challenges associated with emerging technologies such as genetic engineering and space-based weaponry. Fans of the office lauded its reports, but some Republican lawmakers came to view it as duplicative, wasteful, and biased against their party. During the 1994 elections, then-Representative Newt Gingrich (R–GA) vowed to kill the office if his party took control of Congress, which it did. At the time of OTA’s dismantling in 1995, it had about 140 staffers and a budget of roughly $21 million.

    Since then, numerous advocacy organizations and politicians, including AAAS in Washington, D.C., (publisher of ScienceInsider) and 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, have called for restoring OTA. And when Democrats took control of the House after last year’s elections, they promised to consider ways to make that happen.

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