Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Science groups, senator warn Trump administration not to change publishing rules

    The White House

    The White House

    The White House

    More than 125 scientific societies and journal publishers, as well as an influential U.S. senator, are urgently warning the Trump administration not to move forward with a rumored executive order that would make all papers produced by federally funded research immediately free to the public. In three separate letters, they argue such a move would be costly, could bankrupt many scientific societies that rely on income from journal subscriptions, and would harm the scientific enterprise.

    The White House won’t comment on whether the administration is considering issuing an executive order that would change publishing rules, and society officials say they have learned no details—nor been asked for input. But if the murmuring is accurate, the order would represent a major change from current U.S. policy, which allows publishers to keep papers that report the results of federally funded studies behind a paywall for up to 1 year. That 2013 policy was the compromise result of a fierce battle between open-access advocates, who wanted free immediate public access to the fruits of federally funded research, and scientific societies and publishers, who argued such a policy would destroy a long-standing, subscription-based business model that has well served society and scientists.

    The new letters restate that argument. “Going below the current 12 month ‘embargo’ would make it very difficult for most American publishers to invest in publishing these articles,” argues a letter to President Donald Trump released today by the Association of American Publishers in Washington, D.C., and signed by more than 125 research and publishing groups.

  • Wanted: €1 billion for troubled German nuclear physics facility

    aerial view of the construction site of the tunnel for the particle accelerator

    The Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research, under construction in Germany, is €1 billion overbudget, an independent review has discovered.

    D. Fehrenz/GSI/FAIR

    When complete, a vast nuclear physics complex being built near Darmstadt, Germany, should enable scientists to study why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter, and to test ion beams that might be used to treat cancer. First, however, countries funding the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR) must cough up an extra €1 billion to complete the project, now estimated to cost €2.3 billion.

    At a FAIR council meeting this month, officials said the German government is likely to pay its share of the extra money—about €700 million—but other member states could take longer. Some experts also worry the huge cash injection could mean that big science projects in Germany and elsewhere will suffer. “They will have to find the money somewhere,” says Lyn Evans, a particle physicist at the CERN particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. “It is going to have an impact.”

    FAIR is an ambitious extension of the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research being developed by a collaboration of eight European countries plus Russia and India. Originally due to cost €675 million and switch on in 2009, the project has since suffered from a series of price rises and delays. In response, partner countries agreed in 2015 to impose a cost cap, in 2005 prices, of just under €1.3 billion.

  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute faces race, sex bias lawsuits by two Asian American biologists

    Dr. Jeannie Lee speaks during an event to award her the Lurie Prize.

    Jeannie Lee received the $100,000 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences in 2016, the year the Howard Hughes Medical Institute decided to end her Investigator Award.

    Foundation for the National Institutes of Health

    Two Asian American women biologists who failed to win renewals of plum awards from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) are suing the private medical research funder, alleging discrimination on the basis of sex and race or national origin.

    Jeannie Lee, 55, an epigeneticist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a naturalized U.S. citizen of Taiwanese origin, failed in 2016 to win a third renewal of her 5-year HHMI Investigator Award. She sued in August, asserting that a significantly lower percentage of Asian American women than whites win renewals of these generous employment contracts. She is also suing for age and sex discrimination; the suit claims that women aged 50 or older are less likely to be renewed than their male peers. It also alleges that Thomas Cech, 72, a white biochemist and former HHMI president with whom Lee is in a scientific dispute, undermined HHMI's review of Lee's work.

    Separately, Vivian Cheung, 52, an RNA biologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in March filed a Charge of Discrimination against HHMI with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This month, she received an EEOC notice giving her the right to sue, which she plans to do soon. Her EEOC filing alleges that HHMI's failure to renew her Investigator Award in 2018 was due to discrimination based on race, sex, and disability. (Cheung has a rare genetic disorder causing progressive vision loss.)

  • Trump nominates acting NOAA leader to be permanent chief

    Neil Jacobs visiting Norman, Oklahoma

    Neil Jacobs (left) talks with a staffer at a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather forecasting and research facility in Norman, Oklahoma, in August 2018.

    NOAA/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    President Donald Trump today nominated Neil Jacobs, the acting chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to become the agency’s 11th administrator.

    Jacobs’s nomination came a month after Trump’s first pick, Barry Myers, withdrew due to health concerns.

  • European exoplanet mission will scrutinize known worlds

    testing of the Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite inside a clean room

    The Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite undergoing tests prior to launch. The European satellite could pinpoint the sizes of worlds between Neptune and Earth in size.

    European Space Agency/G. Porter

    Astronomers have discovered more than 4000 other worlds so far, but know little about them. That will change after the successful launch today of the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) first exoplanet mission, an orbiting telescope called the Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite (CHEOPS). Rather than hunt for new worlds, CHEOPS will examine known exoplanets to improve estimates of their sizes.

    “It’s not a discovery machine but a follow-up machine,” says Principal Investigator Willy Benz of the University of Bern. “We’ll pick the most interesting targets and make more accurate measurements.”

    CHEOPS was launched this morning by a Soyuz-Fregat rocket from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana into a 700-kilometer-high polar orbit. The satellite will hug the line between night and day so it can always look out over the night side of Earth and avoid picking up stray light reflected off the surface.

  • New website aims to gather all those camera trap mugs of wildlife

     A spotted hynea (crocuta crocuta) seen via a camera trap in the Zamabexi region of Namibia.

    The Wildlife Insights platform will help analyze and share camera trap images, such as this one of a spotted hyena snapped in the Zambezi region of Namibia.

    Will Burrard-Lucas/WWF-US

    Camera traps—automated cameras that snap a picture whenever an animal walks by—have become an indispensable tool for wildlife biologists, helping them study behavior and estimate populations. But each trap can generate thousands of photos, and researchers often don’t have the time to sort through all the images, pick out their study subjects, and toss the “bycatch”—all the other critters that get their portraits taken. As a result, there are countless “hard drives around the world full of very, very useful data just sitting there, unused,” says Margaret Kinnaird, a wildlife practice leader at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C.

    Today, Google Earth, WWF, and other conservation organizations are launching an online database that aims to change that. Wildlife Insights will allow users to upload camera trap images and then have software powered by artificial intelligence analyze them. Users will be able to ask the system to search for their animal of interest, and all of the images will be publicly available. That could be a huge help to researchers, Kinnaird says, saving time and putting a global data set within easy reach.

    ScienceInsider talked to Jorge Ahumada, executive director of Wildlife Insights, which is based at the offices of Conservation International in Arlington, Virginia, about how the new platform will work and the impact it might have. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Final 2020 spending bill is kind to U.S. research

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol at night
    BKL/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Most U.S. research agencies have received healthy increases for 2020 in a spending bill that resolves a 3-month deadlock between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

    Legislators released details today of how they plan to fund each federal agency for the 2020 fiscal year that ends on 30 September. In almost every case involving science, Congress agreed to give the agency an absolute increase—and much more money than the cuts President Donald Trump had sought for some in his 2020 budget request in February.

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, will receive a 7% boost, or $2.6 billion more, to $41.7 billion. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was given an additional $203 million, a 2.5% increase that lifts its budget to $8.28 billion. The budget of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science will grow by $415 million, or 6.3%, to exactly $7 billion, and space science at NASA will rise by 3.4%, or $233 million, to $7.14 billion.

  • NIH clarifies meaning of ‘disadvantaged’ in bid to boost diversity in science

    Wonder Drake and mentees looking at a computer together

    Wonder Drake of Vanderbilt University in Nashville in her lab with some of the mentees she supports through the National Institutes of Health’s diversity supplements

    Joe Howell/Vanderbilt University

    Wonder Drake knows how being poor can hinder someone’s dream of becoming a biomedical researcher.

    Raised in rural Alabama by a single mother who never graduated from high school, Drake overcame those obstacles by finding mentors willing to take her under their wing. Now a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Drake has repeatedly returned that favor by participating in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program aimed at improving the diversity of the biomedical workforce.

    Under the program, NIH grantees such as Drake can win additional funding, called diversity supplements, to aid students from one of several groups underrepresented in biomedical research. Some 90% of the awards made in 2018 serve students who are Hispanic or African American, whereas fewer than 1% of investigators cite the category of economically “disadvantaged” when applying for a diversity supplement.

  • NIH director pledges to move quickly on recommendations to stop sexual harassment

    (left to right): Kristina Johnson; Francis Cuss; Carrie Wolinetz

    The co-chairs of the National Institutes of Health’s working group on sexual harassment were (left to right) Kristina Johnson, chancellor of the State University of New York; Francis Cuss, retired executive vice president and chief scientific officer at Bristol-Myers Squibb; and Carrie Wolinetz, acting chief of staff and associate director for science policy at NIH.

    National Institutes of Health

    An advisory group yesterday issued a sweeping set of recommendations to crack down on sexual harassment in labs funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The panel’s advice included mandating that NIH-funded institutions report confirmed harassers to NIH as well as broad changes aimed at changing the culture of biomedical science to make it less dominated by white men.

    NIH Director Francis Collins said he was “supportive of these solid recommendations” and would move immediately to follow up on several of them. “NIH will make every effort to adhere to the vision of the working group,” he said in a statement following the report’s release. However, Collins said NIH does not have the legal authority to take some key steps, such as the reporting requirement.

    Still, observers welcomed the report from a 21-member working group that included NIH officials, NIH-funded researchers, and victims of sexual harassment. “I really appreciate your attention to these issues,” neuroscientist and #MeTooSTEM movement leader BethAnn McLaughlin, formerly of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told the panel, calling its report “awesome.”

  • Elsevier deal with France disappoints open-access advocates

    students walking through the library of Sorbonne University in Paris

    Sorbonne University in Paris is part of the consortium that has signed a deal with publishing giant Elsevier.


    Publishing giant Elsevier has signed a national license deal with Couperin, Frances consortium of universities and research organizations, but critics say it doesnt do enough to advance open access (OA) to scientific journal articles. Its terms are at odds with Plan S, a mandate to make publications immediately free to read starting in 2021, which Frances National Research Agency has backed.

    The 4-year agreement includes a discount on subscription costs, bringing them down to 2009 levels by the end of 2022, Couperin announced last month. The French government says the agreement, which is retroactive to January, will save €1.5 million this year. The deal does not provide that all articles be published OA immediately; instead, it includes a 25% rebate on charges that researchers pay if they elect to publish individual articles OA. For the first time, there is a decrease of expenditure, and it is a significant one,” says a spokesperson for Frances research ministry.

    But critics take issue with how the agreement handles papers for which researchers dont pay the OA fee. The agreement says these papers would become free to read, hosted on Elsevier’s servers 1 year after publishing. This is longer than the 6-month delay defined in a 2016 French law. The French government says the deal does not break the law, which gives authors the right to make their papers freely available in an online archive after 6 months but does not force publishers to do so.

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