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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Trump plan to push seafloor mapping wins warm reception

    seamount "Kahalewai"

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mapped the sea floor in the Central Pacific Basin, including a 4200-meter-high mount called Kahalewai.

    NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research/Mountains in the Deep: Exploring the Central Pacific Basin

    The coastal waters of the United States cover an area dwarfing the nation itself. Yet more than half of that ocean floor is a blank—unmapped by all but low-resolution satellite imagery.

    Now, the White House has announced a new push to examine these 11.6 million square kilometers of undersea territory. President Donald Trump this week signed a memorandum ordering federal officials to draft a new strategy that would accelerate federal efforts to map and explore these reaches.

    The 19 November declaration comes at a time of growing interest in mapping the world’s ocean floors. A consortium of scientists from around the world is working to create a complete, detailed picture of the global seabed by 2030. Nations are probing the ocean floor in search of valuable minerals, oil, and gas. In 2021, the United Nations will launch what it’s calling the decade of ocean science.

  • Top Chinese researcher faces questions about image manipulation

    headshot of Cao Xuetao

    Cao Xuetao

    VCG/Getty Images

    One of China’s most prominent scientists is facing a barrage of questions about images in dozens of papers produced by laboratories he leads. The Chinese Academy of Engineering has launched an investigation of the publications, by immunologist Cao Xuetao, president of Nankai University in Tianjin, and the case is getting extensive attention in both traditional and social media.

    Cao has defended the scientific validity of the papers, says he is cooperating with the review, and has promised to work with journals to correct any errors. “I most sincerely apologize for any oversight on my part,” he wrote 17 November on PubPeer, the publications review website where researchers first raised questions about the papers. “I remain confident about the validity and strength of the scientific conclusions made in those publications.”

    The episode highlights long-standing concerns about China’s scientific enterprise, observers say, including whether star scientists can effectively oversee the far-flung research empires they often lead, and whether officials are making progress in stamping out chronic research misconduct.

  • Trump nominee to lead NOAA withdraws, citing medical issues

    Barry Myers

    Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather, had been nominated to lead the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    DIANE BONDAREFF/AP IMAGES FOR ACCUWEATHER

    Originally published by E&E News

    Barry Myers, the former CEO of AccuWeather Inc., withdrew late yesterday his hot-button nomination to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its 12,000 employees, citing health concerns.

    The full Senate never voted on President Donald Trump's embattled NOAA pick, even though a split Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee sent his nomination to the floor three times in party-line decisions.

  • Massive Australian blazes will ‘reframe our understanding of bushfire’

    a man looking at a burned down house

    A homeowner inspects the damage done earlier this month by one of Australia’s many wildfires.

    WILLIAM WEST/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia is on fire like never before—and this year’s “bushfire” season, which typically peaks in January and February, has barely begun. Driven in part by a severe drought, fires have burned 1.65 million hectares in the state of New South Wales, more than the state’s total in the previous 3 years combined. Six people have died and more than 500 homes have been destroyed. As Science went to press, some 70 uncontrolled fires were burning in adjacent Queensland, and South Australia was bracing for potentially “catastrophic” burns.

    David Bowman, a fire ecologist and geographer and director of the Fire Centre at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, spoke with Science about the crisis. The flames have charred even moist ecosystems once thought safe, he says. And the fires have become “white-hot politically,” with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal government drawing criticism for refusing to acknowledge any link to climate change.

    The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • European data law is impeding studies on diabetes and Alzheimer’s, researchers warn

    A picture of NIH Director Francis Collins with a quote about European privacy laws laid
    STEPHEN VOSS/REDUX

    For many people, the most apparent effect of the European privacy law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has been a flourishing of website pop-ups, demanding your consent to store browsing behavior as cookies. An annoyance, perhaps, but hardly more than an inconvenience. For Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), however, the regulation has turned out to be a serious impediment to research.

    Since 1993, Collins has been principal investigator for a project studying type 2 diabetes in Finnish people, who have relatively homogenous genetics and detailed health records. Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare has sent 32,000 DNA samples to Collins's laboratory. He and his U.S. collaborators used the data to discover more than 200 places in the genome where variants increase the risk of illness. But in May 2018, when GDPR came into force, the Finnish institute stopped all data sharing on the project, because NIH could not provide guarantees that would satisfy the institute's interpretations of the law's requirements. Progress has since "slowed to a crawl," Collins says.

    This week in Brussels, representatives from NIH, academia, industry, patient advocacy groups, the European Commission, and data protection authorities met to share their GDPR frustrations. They hope to highlight the obstacles it creates for some international collaborations and explore possible responses. "I hope this is only a temporary slowdown, and that the meeting in Brussels opens the way to a solution," Collins says.

  • U.S. Senate panel sees a standard grant application as defense against foreign influence

    Rob Portman listens to questions from reports

    Senator Rob Portman (R–OH) chaired a hearing today on protecting U.S. research.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

    The university administrators who have long advocated for a standard grant application process across the U.S. government say it would save time and money. Today, an influential Senate panel offered another reason: to prevent the fruits of government-funded research from falling into the wrong hands.

    How to deal with China’s transformation into a technological superpower is a front-burner issue for national policymakers. A new report by the intelligence panel of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs says federal research agencies have been tardy in responding to China’s aggressive moves, which are exemplified by its decadelong effort to recruit world-class scientists working in U.S. labs.

    The report’s release coincided with a hearing today that featured senior managers from three of those agencies—the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science—as well as from the Department of State official who oversees visas and the head of counterintelligence at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Those officials described numerous steps their agencies have taken in the past 18 months to protect the integrity of their grantsmaking process, perhaps most notably the letters NIH has sent to more than 70 institutions warning that some of their faculty members may have violated NIH rules by failing to disclose foreign affiliations.

  • NSF unwittingly hired a professor guilty of bullying, highlighting the ‘pass the harasser’ problem

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    The #MeToo movement has focused attention on an ugly tradition in higher education: having faculty members found guilty of bullying or sexual harassment move to a new job without their new employer being aware of their past conduct. The practice of “passing the harasser” is abetted by privacy and labor laws that limit how much prospective employers can be told about a job applicant.

    In a bid to penetrate that veil of silence, two major research universities in the University of California (UC) system have launched pilot programs that require certain faculty candidates to agree to waive some privacy protections. But an incident in which the National Science Foundation (NSF) unwittingly hired a tenured faculty member who had been found guilty of abusive behavior suggests research institutions still have a long way to go before passing the harasser fades into history.

    Punishment, then silence

  • Ballot initiative takes shape to give California stem cell agency a second life

    Robert Klein

    Robert Klein is finalizing a ballot initiative that asks California voters to re-fund the state’s stem cell agency.

    MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

    As California’s stem cell research agency runs through the last of its $3 billion in state funding, a delicate negotiation is underway between its leadership and the man developing the 2020 ballot initiative to keep it alive.

    Robert Klein, the real estate investment banker behind the 2004 ballot initiative that created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in Oakland, last month submitted a new proposal to the California attorney general’s office that would allocate another $5.5 billion in proceeds from state bond sales to the agency. At a meeting today of CIRM’s board, Klein, who heads the advocacy group Americans for Cures in Palo Alto, California, explained and defended aspects of the new proposal that have drawn some criticism.

    “Most of us are individually very supportive of this upcoming initiative,” George Blumenthal, chancellor of the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, said at the meeting. “We don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

  • Move by journals to ‘seamless’ off-campus access raises privacy concerns

    a hand using a computer mouse

    Readers logging in remotely to journal websites complain it’s often confusing and time-consuming.

    PeopleImages/IStock.com

    For a scientist working on their university’s campus, accessing a paywalled journal article is painless and invisible, if their institution subscribes. The article automatically appears because the publisher recognizes that the request came from the university’s internet address.

    But many researchers gripe that the minute they step off campus and try to access the same article—through a home internet provider, a coffee shop’s WiFi, or a cellphone—they often face a frustrating experience. Even though many universities allow remote users to gain access by logging in through an online portal, many articles don’t clearly flag that possibility, and following the steps can be cumbersome.

    This week, one major publisher—the Nature family of journals—launched an effort to make things easier for off-campus readers. It became the first to offer a consistent, streamlined method of access, through a standard button displayed prominently atop articles in its 150 journals. And more publishers, including Springer Nature, Nature’s parent, are expected to roll out the feature over the next year through an international consortium.

  • EPA’s ‘secret science’ plan is back, and critics say it’s worse

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    Critics are blasting a revised Trump administration plan to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broad power to ignore research results when setting public health rules if officials decide the underlying data are not adequately accessible to the public.

    The draft document, a version of which was leaked to The New York Times this week, supplements a 2018 data transparency proposal from EPA that was harshly criticized by scientific, environmental, and patient groups, prompting the agency to say it would issue a revision. Although EPA said in a 12 November statement that the leaked document is not the final version it sent earlier this month to the White House for review, the agency did not dispute its core substance.

    The proposed supplement “is even worse than we thought it would be,” says Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. “We didn’t think [the transparency proposal] could get any worse, but we were wrong.”

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