Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Bullying allegations lead to firing of prominent ancient DNA expert

    Alan Cooper posing for a photo

    Alan Cooper

    Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

    Prominent evolutionary biologist Alan Cooper has been fired as director of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), the university announced today. Cooper’s ouster followed multiple allegations of bullying, which led the university to launch a probe and suspend him in August. The university said in a statement that it terminated Cooper “for reasons of serious misconduct.”

    Cooper rejects the charge of bullying. “I’ve occasionally been too blunt in my language and actions, and regret this—but it was never bullying,” he told Nature in this article published today. In an investigation published in August, Nature interviewed nine current and former co-workers of Cooper’s; four alleged that he bullied them and four more said they saw him bullying colleagues.

  • Relocated island wolves outlasting mainland wolves in new Isle Royale home

    a wolf walks along a trail

    The September release of a male wolf from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on Isle Royale. The wolf population now numbers 15, with seven females and eight males.

    NPS/Phyllis Green

    Island life isn’t for everyone, nor, it seems, for every wolf.

    One year into a federal effort to restock the wolf population in Isle Royale National Park in Michigan’s Lake Superior, a pack of eight relocated from a nearby island appears to be thriving, while four of 11 wolves brought from the mainland have died. Another wolf voluntarily departed last winter, returning to Minnesota over an ice bridge.

    The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) today released news of the most recent wolf deaths, and the emerging pattern is clear: Wolves relocated as a pack from Canada’s Michipicoten Island Provincial Park have so far been more successful on Isle Royale than wolves brought individually from either mainland Minnesota, Michigan, or Canada’s Ontario province.  The Michipicoten wolves’ provenance as a bonded group was likely crucial to the fact they have all survived so far in the new environment, says wildlife ecologist Rolf Peterson from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, who has studied Isle Royale wolves since 1971. “That’s about the only explanation I can think of,” to account for the difference in the wolves’ fates.

  • 2020 U.S. spending bill restricts some animal research, pushes for lab animal retirement

    Rhesus monkeys inside cage

    Research monkeys

    Richard T. Nowitz/Science Source

    Federal research agencies will be under increased pressure to reduce their use of monkeys, dogs, and cats when President Donald Trump signs the final 2020 U.S. spending bill this week. Language pushed by animal advocacy groups will require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore alternatives to the use of nonhuman primates, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to come up with a detailed plan for the reduction and retirement of its monkeys, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to reduce or eliminate its use of cats, dogs, and monkeys within the next 5 years.

    “This is the first time in history, to our knowledge, that Congress has set hard deadlines for the elimination and reduction of experiments on dogs, cats, and primates,” says Justin Goodman, vice president of the White Coat Waste Project, a Washington, D.C.–based group that worked with lawmakers to introduce the language. “The science has been there, the public sentiment has been there, and now there’s the political will to make these things happen.”

    Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C., is concerned, however. “There is some language that could set a dangerous precedent for deciding how research in the U.S. should be conducted in the future,” he says. “This kind of language should raise serious questions and concerns about the role Congress plays in research.”

  • Trump to nominate Arizona State computer scientist to lead the National Science Foundation

    Panchanathan, recent nomination to Director for the National Science Foundation, speaking during theArizona Solar Summit IV at Skysong.

    Sethuraman Panchanathan

    Arizona State University

    President Donald Trump has chosen a 58-year-old, Indian-born computing engineer and university administrator to be the next director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    Trump today announced his intention to nominate Sethuraman Panchanathan to succeed France Córdova, whose 6-year term ends in spring 2020. Panchanathan, who uses the nickname “Panch,” is executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Arizona State University in Tempe. He is also a member of the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body.

    “The impending formal nomination of Dr. Panchanathan is a win for science in the Trump Administration and a win for America,” said Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a statement. “I’d like to thank the outgoing NSF Director, Dr. France Córdova, for her tireless service in a variety of scientific leadership roles at home and abroad. Dr. Córdova has been an exceptional leader and will be leaving NSF in capable and effective hands.”

  • 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.

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