Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • New White House rules restrict use of grant funding to deal with COVID-19 impacts

    the white house

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    New rules on how U.S. universities manage federal research grants leave them with less flexibility to cope with the pandemic. The changes, which rescind many temporary measures adopted this spring as COVID-19 shuttered campuses and froze the economy, come despite continued uncertainty over the fall semester and the status of research on U.S. campuses.

    “I am speechless because I just don’t know” what lies ahead, confessed David Mayo, head of sponsored research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), during a meeting yesterday of a top-level advisory panel to the National Science Foundation (NSF) at which the changes were discussed.

  • Just 50% of Americans plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Here’s how to win over the rest

    People protesting coronavirus closures in Virginia

    Even before a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, some activists are ready to attack it; this woman attended a “Reopen Virginia” protest in Richmond in April. 

    Matthew Rodier/Sipa USA/AP IMAGES

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Within days of the first confirmed novel coronavirus case in the United States on 20 January, antivaccine activists were already hinting on Twitter that the virus was a scam—part of a plot to profit from an eventual vaccine.

    Nearly half a year later, scientists around the world are rushing to create a COVID-19 vaccine. An approved product is still months, if not years, away and public health agencies have not yet mounted campaigns to promote it. But health communication experts say they need to start to lay the groundwork for acceptance now, because the flood of misinformation from antivaccine activists has surged.

  • The line is forming for a COVID-19 vaccine. Who should be at the front?

    A pregnant woman getting a scan

    Pregnant women might normally be the last to receive a new coronaviurs vaccine, but a new study may push them to the head of the line.

    Ricardo Castelan Cruz/Eyepix/Abaca/Sipa USA

    Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    When and if the world has a COVID-19 vaccine, who should get it first? That question came into sharp relief last week. A committee that makes vaccine use recommendations to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrestled with the issue in a virtual meeting, and new data suggested how fraught any prioritization is likely to be: Pregnant women—normally the last to receive a new vaccine, given the possibility of harm to a fetus—may have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, suggesting they should be high on the list.

    Bruce Gellin, former director of the U.S. government’s National Vaccine Program who now helps lead the nonprofit Sabin Vaccine Institute, says the prioritization issue comes down to a tricky balancing act between best helping society versus protecting an individual’s health. “These are tough decisions, because everybody can make a case for why somebody should be ahead of somebody else in line,” he says. “Nobody’s going to debate health care workers and first responders—people who are putting themselves at risk for others and keeping things moving. After that is when it gets complicated.”

  • EPA gives up on barring grantees from science advisory panels

      Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill

    A federal judge ruled earlier this year that Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, had failed to properly justify policy that barred agency grantees from science advisory panels.

    AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

    Originally published by E&E News

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not fight a judge's February decision to throw out its ban on advisory committee service by agency grant recipients, meaning the heavily litigated 2017 policy is legally dead for now.

    In a carefully couched statement released late yesterday, agency lawyers said they would not appeal the opinion by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote, which found that EPA had failed to provide a "reasoned explanation" for the ban (Greenwire, 11 February).

  • Is it time to replace one of the cornerstones of animal research?

    gloved hands holding a mouse in a laboratory

    Last year marked the 60th anniversary of one of the most influential concepts in lab animal welfare—the three Rs. To promote the humane treatment of laboratory animals, these principles urge scientists to replace animals with new technologies, reduce the number of animals used in experiments, and refine lab protocols to minimize animal suffering. First outlined in the 1959 book, The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, the three Rs have become a cornerstone of lab animal legislation and oversight throughout the world.

    But as millions of animals continue to be used in biomedical research each year, and new legislation calls on federal agencies to reduce and justify their animal use, some have begun to argue that it’s time to replace the three Rs themselves. “It was an important advance in animal research ethics, but it’s no longer enough,” Tom Beauchamp told attendees last week at a lab animal conference.

    Beauchamp, an emeritus professor of ethics at Georgetown University, has studied the ethics of animal research for decades. He also co-authored the influential Belmont Report of 1978, which has guided ethical principles for conducting research on human subjects. Beauchamp recently teamed up with David DeGrazia, a bioethicist at George Washington University, to lay out six principles for the ethical use of lab animals, which would replace the three Rs. The pair published both a scientific article and book on the topic late last year.

  • South Africa slashes science budget, funds for giant radio telescope

    the silhouette of a MEERKAT telescope at sunset

    The 64 dishes of MeerKAT will eventually be folded into the Square Kilometre Array.

    South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

    South Africa, struggling to contain economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, has cut $20 million from its budget for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The cut was part of a 24 June budget announcement in which the country, anticipating severely reduced revenues and an increased need for health and social spending, slashed its science budget for the year by 16%. The country’s major research funding agency, the National Research Foundation, also lost 10% of its government allocation, about $5.6 million (96.6 million rand).

    South Africa and Australia are hosting the SKA, which when completed in the 2030s will have a total collecting area of 1 square kilometer. In a $1 billion first phase, the project aims to build some 130,000 small antennas in Australia, designed to collect low-frequency signals, while South Africa will host nearly 200 large, midfrequency dishes. Data from the linked arrays will be used to map the flows of hydrogen that fuel star formation and to study where and when the universe’s first stars fired up.

    Construction—meant to begin at the end of this year—has now been delayed “well into 2021” because of the pandemic, says SKA Director of Communications William Garnier. Before construction begins, the seven countries intending to join the international treaty organization have to ratify a convention to make their commitments legally binding. So far, only three nations—Italy, the Netherlands, and South Africa—have ratified the treaty, with South Africa signing on 2 June. As a co-host, South Africa expects to pay about 14% of construction and operating costs, says Rob Adam, head of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.

  • Graduate programs drop GRE after online version raises concerns about fairness

    Science Careers logo

    As COVID-19 swept across the United States, standardized testing centers closed and the GRE General Test—an exam that’s required for admission to many U.S. graduate programs—went online. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which offers the GRE, “completely revamped its delivery model so [aspiring graduate students] can test from the safety of home,” it declared in May. Since then, though, scores of academics have raised concerns about the equity of the online version of the test, arguing it disadvantages prospective students from rural and low-income backgrounds. “If I were ... a student trying to take this exam, satisfying [the online testing] criteria would be extremely difficult for me,” says Emily Levesque, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, Seattle.

    Levesque wrote about ETS’s requirements in a Twitter thread this month, detailing what she sees as “a shopping list of hurdles.” Test takers must have access to a computer with a webcam—“tablets and smartphones won’t cut it,” she wrote—as well as a private room in a home with a stable internet connection. Libraries and other public spaces are out. “We already know from virtual teaching this spring that not all students/prospective grads have access to [computers] in their homes,” she wrote.

    On top of that, test takers must have a whiteboard if they want to take notes, sit in a standard—not “overstuffed”—chair, and ensure that no one enters their room for the duration of the 4-hour test. In a statement, Alberto Acereda, executive director of higher education at ETS, wrote that the rules are “necessary to ensure the testing experience is similar to that in a test center, as well as to maintain the security and integrity of the test.”

    Natasha Hodges knows about the challenges of the at-home GRE firsthand. She signed up for a slot in June after her in-person appointment to take the GRE was canceled. But she ran into problems when she couldn’t install the proctoring software on her Apple laptop. “No matter how many people I chatted with, or how many times I’ve called or emailed them, no one can explain to me or even address [my problem],” she says.  

    Other test takers have reported problems on test day. One prospective graduate student who lives in the Philippines and wished to remain anonymous called her experience a “nightmare.” She had connection and technical issues that delayed her start time by 90 minutes. “I was not in the right mindset when I started the actual test,” she says. Another test taker—Madi Mollico—says her test went fine, but that the proctoring experience was “nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing.” She had expected to see her proctor on the screen, but when she started the test, she was unnerved to discover that he could see her, but she couldn’t see him. “He kept calling me sweetheart, which … definitely felt a little bit condescending,” she says.

    For some academic departments—especially those that were already questioning the value of the GRE—the burdensome requirements of the at-home test are a tipping point. Levesque’s department decided to temporarily suspend requiring GRE scores. “It was simply a question of access,” she says. “If we require the exam this year, that puts an excessive burden on folks we want to encourage to apply.”

    Other departments have decided to forgo the GRE for good. “We’ve been thinking about [eliminating it] for a long time,” says Chrissy Wiederwohl, assistant department head for engagement and graduate affairs for Texas A&M University, College Station’s oceanography department, which voted to stop requiring GRE scores earlier this month. “COVID is what helped front-burner it.”

    Levesque’s and Wiederwohl’s departments join a growing list of U.S. graduate programs that have moved away from the GRE in recent years. In 2018 alone, 44% of the country’s top molecular biology programs dropped the GRE as an application requirement, according to an investigation by Science Careers. Dubbed “GRExit,” the movement has been fueled by concerns that the GRE doesn’t predict student success in graduate school, and that its use in admissions decisions disadvantages applicants from underrepresented groups.

  • Lawsuit alleges scientific misconduct at U.S. nuclear weapons lab

    Peter Williams

    Peter Williams claims tweaks to a program for modeling a bomb’s explosive trigger make its predictions unreliable.

    Claudia Williams

    An unusual lawsuit alleges scientific misconduct at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, one of the United States’s three nuclear weapons labs. Peter Williams, a 50-year-old physicist, worked at Livermore from January 2016 until May 2017, when he says he was fired in retaliation for complaining that his superiors were mishandling a computer program that simulates the detonation of high explosives, undermining their ability to predict how a particular nuclear weapon would perform if used. Williams, who now works at a private research lab, has sued Livermore and seven individuals for reinstatement and $600,000 in damages.

    Researchers familiar with the labs say Williams’s allegations should be taken seriously. “If there’s been a cover-up, that’s something that ought to be looked into,” says Raymond Jeanloz, a geophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been involved with the weapons labs. But he also says the labs implement internal reviews and other measures to ensure the integrity of their work and head off the kind of problem Williams alleges. “This is exactly the kind of thing the people at the lab worry about,” Jeanloz says. Livermore declined to comment on the suit, but in a statement said: “Rigorous debate is a part of the scientific process—the Laboratory does not retaliate against individuals for holding differing opinions.”

    The suit, which Williams filed on 22 May, seems quixotic. He is representing himself; to make his case, he needs documents that only the lab can provide; and his complaint centers on a differential equation. Williams spent only a short time at Livermore before he was fired. (In a 12-month performance review Williams included in his suit, his superiors state he wasn’t keeping up with assignments.) Before joining the lab he did two postdocs, taught at City College of San Francisco and Sonoma State University, and worked for 8 years at Agilent Technologies. But Williams is a talented scientist, says Craig Wheeler, an astrophysicist at the University of Texas, Austin, who was his graduate adviser and has subsequently published with him. “He’s a deep, independent thinker,” Wheeler says. “He’s definitely not a crackpot.”

  • COVID-19 cancels charity galas and walks. Science is paying the price

    Firefighters hold a boot to a car window for a fundraiser

    A fundraiser in which firefighters collect donations for muscular dystrophy research was canceled this year.

    ZUMA Press Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Early this year, University of Colorado, Denver, cancer researcher Patricia Ernst was thrilled when her postdoc Therese Vu won a grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a nonprofit that has pumped more than $1.2 billion into blood cancer research since its founding in 1949. The funding would allow the scientists to launch studies using a technique to generate malignant leukemia from immature blood cells—an approach that Ernst had been eager to try for more than a decade. To hit the ground running, they journeyed to Vancouver, Canada, for 1 week to learn the technique, and developed a pipeline for novel reagents through a University of Michigan lab. Then, last month, the pair got bad news: The philanthropy organization canceled the grant, citing “unprecedented” revenue losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “I did anticipate there would be cutbacks,” Ernst says. “But I didn’t think it would be that serious, and I didn’t think it would happen to us.”

  • ‘It’s a nightmare.’ How Brazilian scientists became ensnared in chloroquine politics

    a gravedigger stands over new graves at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery

    The Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, where many COVID-19 victims are buried. The city’s clinical trial with chloroquine started in late March, when cases had begun to explode.

    MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Now that several big trials have shown disappointing results, hope has faded that chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine might be miracle drugs against COVID-19. But for one group of researchers in Brazil, the story is far from over.

    In April, a team led by Marcus Lacerda, a clinical researcher at the Heitor Vieira Dourado Tropical Medicine Foundation in Manaus, Brazil, published a study showing chloroquine can increase mortality in COVID-19 patients. Since then, they have been accused of poisoning their patients with a high dose of chloroquine just to give the drug—praised by U.S. President Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro—a bad name. Social media attacks, defamatory articles, death threats, and even a legal inquiry into the group’s work have left Lacerda and his team stressed and exhausted.

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