Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Cost of Mars 2020 mission may rise by up to 15%

    Image of the Mars 2020 rover.

    An artist’s conception of the Mars 2020 rover. Several of its instruments are costing more than expected.


    THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS—It was largely buried in the detailed budget justification for 2020 that NASA released today, but it didn’t take long for eagle-eyed scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) here to dig it up: NASA’s next flagship mission, the $2.46 billion Mars 2020 rover, is following the pattern of its predecessors and seeing its cost rise because of technical issues.

    The mission’s cost will increase by no more than 15%, Lori Glaze, NASA’s acting director of planetary science, said at LPSC’s annual “NASA night” today. But that sizable sum—which could run to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the agency’s final calculations—will take money away from other projects, including small trims to currently operating Mars missions.  

    The admission is a blow for NASA, which allowed Mars 2020 to grow in scope and ambition earlier this decade but had been proud of it staying within spending limits the agency set in 2016.

  • Appeals court dismisses charges of institutional racism at U.K.-Kenyan research partnership

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    An appeals court in Kenya has dismissed charges of institutional racism at a U.K.-Kenyan research partnership. The Court of Appeal in Nairobi overturned a 2014 verdict by a lower court that found that six Kenyan academics working for the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)–Wellcome Trust Research Programme, had faced “systemic discrimination” in their careers. The scientists haven’t proved their claims, according to the appeals court, which also struck down 5 million Kenyan shilling (about $50,000 at the current exchange rate) in compensation that the lower court had awarded to each of the plaintiffs.

    The verdict was handed down on 8 February but has not been widely reported.

    The research program is a partnership between KEMRI in Nairobi, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity, which provides the bulk of the funding. Headquartered in Kilifi, on Kenya’s coast, it now has more than 100 scientists and more than 700 support staff.

  • NSF hopes Jason can lead it through treacherous waters

    France Córdova walking

    National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, who represented the United States at a 2017 meeting in Italy of leading scientific nations, is trying to balance national security and open research.

    Nicolò Campo/LightRocket/Getty Images

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, doesn’t fund classified research. But it is hoping a group of prominent scientists with a long history of advising the U.S. military and intelligence communities can help it respond to growing concerns that international collaborations pose a security risk to the United States.

    NSF officials are negotiating with Jason, an independent group set up in 1960 that has examined everything from unconventional warfare to climate change. If a deal is reached, it would be the first time that NSF has engaged the team.

    “NSF is exploring work with Jason due to the specialized expertise of its members,” says Amanda Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. NSF officials declined to answer questions about the terms and scope of the study, and Greenwell noted that “no contract with Jason has occurred to date.”

  • Lawmakers seek delay of radio spectrum auction for next-gen cell service, saying 5G plans could hurt weather satellite data

    water vapor map of western North America

    A recent view of water vapor forming a rare “bomb cyclone” over the United States, captured by one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s geostationary satellites.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Update, 15 March: Overriding concerns from NASA, NOAA, and Congress, the FCC went ahead with its 5G spectrum auction on Thursday, 14 March. Bids after the first day totaled more than $300 million.

    Here is our initial story:

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers today asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, D.C., to delay an auction of a wireless spectrum scheduled for tomorrow to be used for future 5G service. FCC is ignoring scientific evidence that the radio spectrum being put up on the block could interfere with crucial measurements collected by weather satellites, the lawmakers say.

    In a letter sent to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Representative Frank Lucas (R–OK), the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House of Representatives’s science committee, say communications traffic in one segment of the spectrum that FCC is putting up for auction could compromise the satellites’ ability to track water vapor from space. Such water vapor measures are essential to predicting future rainfall, tracing hurricanes, and monitoring sea ice. Thanks to its intrinsic physical properties, water vapor cannot be tracked at other frequencies.

    “Any interferences with this channel would therefore seriously impact public safety,” Johnson and Lucas write.

  • New call to ban gene-edited babies divides biologists

    an embryo in a petri dish sitting on a sperm injection microscope

    Conducting research that alters human embryos with the genome editor CRISPR (shown here) would not be banned if a proposed moratorium goes in place, but implanting altered human embryos would.

    Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

    A prominent group of 18 scientists and bioethicists from seven countries has called for a global “moratorium” on introducing heritable changes into human sperm, eggs, or embryos—germline editing—to make genetically altered children. The group, which published a commentary in Nature today, hopes to influence a long-standing debate that dramatically intensified after China’s He Jiankui announced in November 2018 that he used the genome editor CRISPR to try to alter the genes of babies to be resistant to the AIDS virus.

    Their call, which is endorsed in the same issue of Nature by Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is a departure from statements issued by two global summits on genome editing in 2015 and 2018, a 2017 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), and a 2018 report from the United Kingdom’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics. None has banned human germline editing, and most have stressed that it holds promise to help correct some heritable diseases. All have warned against using germline editing for cognitive or physical “enhancement” of people. Scientists including Nobel laureate David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena remain opposed to a moratorium. Even in the wake of the He incident, Baltimore, who helped organize the summits, denounced such a ban as “draconian” and “antithetical to the goals of science.”

    Any nation that wants to greenlight a human germline edit by its scientists, the 18 authors declare, should have to give public notice, engage in an international and transparent assessment of whether the intervention is justified, and make sure the work has broad support in their own nation. “Nations might well choose different paths, but they would agree to proceed openly and with due respect to the opinions of humankind on an issue that will ultimately affect the entire species,” they write. They strongly encourage that nonscientific perspectives, including those of people with disabilities and religious groups, be included in the discussion. And they stress that they are not calling for a moratorium on genome editing of somatic cells, which would not affect future generations.

  • In a first, U.S. private sector employs nearly as many Ph.D.s as schools do

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    The job market for U.S. science and engineering Ph.D.s is about to pass a long-anticipated milestone. For decades, educational institutions have been the largest employer of Ph.D.s. In 1997, for instance, they eclipsed private sector employment by 11 percentage points, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) biennial Survey of Doctorate Recipients. But the academic job market has not kept pace with the supply of graduates, and the equivalent data for 2017—released last month—reveals a very different picture: For the first time, private sector employment (42%) is now nearly on par with educational institutions (43%).

    The trend is particularly striking in the life and health sciences, the fields that award the most Ph.D.s. In 2017, only 23% of these Ph.D.s held a tenured or tenure track position in academia—a drop of 10 percentage points since 1997. Only math and the computer sciences have seen a larger drop, from 49% to 33%. Those 20-year shifts outpace changes in psychology and the social sciences (35% to 30%), engineering (23% to 16%), and the physical and earth sciences (22% to 19%).

    The numbers understate the impact on today’s academic job seekers, says Paula Stephan, a labor economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies the scientific workforce. That’s because NSF’s data include all U.S.-trained Ph.D.s under 76 years of age who are employed full time in the United States. Newer cohorts are less likely to secure the tenure track position that many covet, Stephan says. “We’re in a system where … lots of really smart people are going to get faculty jobs and lots of really smart people aren’t,” adds Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, California, that advocates on behalf of early-career researchers.

  • The planet’s premier health agency has announced drastic reforms. Critics say they aren’t drastic enough

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at an Ebola treatment center

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited an Ebola treatment center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 9 March.

    L. Mackenzie/World Health Organization

    In a speech last week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recalled the posters about smallpox that he saw as a child in his hometown Asmara, in what is now Eritrea. “I remember hearing about an organization called the World Health Organization [WHO] that was ridding the world of this terrifying disease, one vaccination at a time,” he said. Much has changed since then. Smallpox was vanquished; Tedros, who’s Ethiopian, is the first African head of WHO; and in a series of reforms laid out in the same speech, he is trying to restore the storied organization to health.

    The changes aim to bring more talent to WHO and improve coordination between its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and six regional offices. But some observers say Tedros’s agenda doesn’t address long-standing problems, including a chronic shortage of money, little power over how to spend it, and the regional offices’ prickly independence. “The main problems of WHO are unsolved by this reform,” says Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

    Founded in 1948 as a United Nations agency to promote public health, WHO is partly financed by 194 member states, but most of its $4 billion annual budget comes from donors, many of whom earmark their contributions for specific projects. Tedros became director-general in 2017, succeeding Margaret Chan, who was heavily criticized for her handling of the West African Ebola epidemic. In last week’s speech, Tedros recalled the lofty new goals WHO set last year: ensuring that by 2023 1 billion more people benefit from universal health coverage, 1 billion people are better protected from health emergencies, and 1 billion people enjoy better health. To achieve them, Tedros said, will require “changing the DNA of the organization.”

  • NCI Director Norman Sharpless named acting FDA chief

    Ned Sharpless

    Ned Sharpless

    Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute

    Norman Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, will become acting administrator of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Silver Spring, Maryland, after current FDA chief Scott Gottlieb steps down in early April.

    The announcement came this morning from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing. “Dr. Sharpless’ deep scientific background and expertise will make him a strong leader for FDA,” Azar said in a statement. “There will be no let-up in the agency’s focus, from ongoing efforts on drug approvals and combating the opioid crisis to modernizing food safety and addressing the rapid rise in youth use of e-cigarettes.”

    Gottlieb's resignation to spend more time with his young family in Connecticut rattled markets and FDA watchers when it was announced last week. That uncertainty is at least temporarily eased by the acting appointment of Sharpless, a physician-scientist and former director of the University of North Carolina’s cancer center in Chapel Hill who has drawn praise as NCI director since October 2017.

  • Vanderbilt panel weighs in against tenure for #MeToo scientist

    students stand outside Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University

    Students sat in on 27 February at the office of Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos in Nashville in support of #MeToo advocate BethAnn McLaughlin.

    Shun Ahmed/Vanderbilt Hustler

    A faculty grievance committee last month upheld a decision to deny tenure to BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville who has become a prominent spokesperson for the #MeToo movement in science.

    “We do not find any justification to overturn the recommendation … to deny tenure,” the five-member, ad hoc Grievance Committee, composed of professors from diverse disciplines at the university and its graduate schools, wrote in a report obtained by ScienceInsider.

    The committee’s word in the 12 February report is not final. The university’s chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, can overturn its decision if he justifies his move in writing to the executive committee of the university’s Board of Trust.

  • Largest ever HIV prevention study delivers sobering message

    women carry HIV testing materials into a neighborhood

    Community health workers with the Population Effects of Antiretroviral Therapy to Reduce HIV Transmission study did door-to-door HIV testing of 1 million people annually for 3 years.

    Kim Cloete

    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—The recipe for ending HIV epidemics seems straightforward. Introduce widespread testing. Immediately put those who test positive on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, which suppress the virus to undetectable levels so those people won’t infect others. The number of new infections will drop, and the epidemic will peter out.

    But massive, costly studies done in the past few years have failed to show this strategy can reliably curb the spread of the virus, to the frustration of researchers. The latest and largest ever study presented here last week at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections did show a modest benefit. But confusingly, there was almost no decline in infections in the study group where it was most expected.

    Ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic may be harder than anticipated, it seems. “ARVs on their own are not the magic bullet,” says Collins Iwuji, an epidemiologist at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the United Kingdom who helped run one of the earlier studies, a South African treatment as prevention (TasP) trial.

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