Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • EPA science advisers want chance to comment on controversial transparency plan

    Portrait of Scott Pruitt

    Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Don’t do anything until we get a chance to weigh in.

    The 44-member Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt not to revise or finalize a controversial proposed rule on data transparency until it can analyze it and offer comments.

    “[T]he precise design of the proposed rule appears to have been developed without a public process for soliciting input specifically from the scientific community,” states the 28 June letter signed by SAB Chair Michael Honeycutt, who directs the Toxicology Division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Austin. 

  • Prominent geneticist out at UC Irvine after harassment finding

    Francisco J. Ayala

    Francisco Ayala

    Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

    The eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has offered his resignation to the University of California, Irvine (UCI) , effective 1 July, the university announced yesterday. The move comes on the heels of an investigation of alleged sexual harassment by Ayala that began last November and included complaints from four women  – two professors, an assistant dean, and one graduate student—in the School of Biological Sciences. The biological sciences building was, until this week, named after its benefactor—Ayala.

    “Given the number and breadth of the substantiated allegations, along with the power differentials at play, I believe that keeping Professor Ayala’s name in a position of honor would be wrong,” UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman wrote in announcing that Ayala is resigning without emeritus status, will “abstain” from future campus activities, and will have his name removed from both the biological sciences building and UCI’s science library.

    Gillman said the university had interviewed more than 60 witnesses during its probe of the allegations. “While reporting misconduct is always difficult, the actions of these women were particularly courageous because their reports involved one of the most prominent members of our faculty,” Gillman wrote.

  • U.S. lawmakers want NIH and CDC foundations to say more about donors

    Illustration of people putting money into IV bag
    ImageZoo/Alamy Stock Photo

    A key congressional spending panel has fired a shot across the bow of two federally chartered medical foundations, warning that the way they disclose information about donors may not pass muster. It’s the latest controversy involving the traditionally low-profile foundations, which over the past quarter-century have funneled nearly $2 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for research, clinical trials, training, and educational programs.  

    Congress created the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and the CDC Foundation in the early 1990s to raise private funds to support federal biomedical and health research. It hoped to encourage transparency and prevent potential conflicts of interest by specifying in the law that the foundations had to report “the source and amount of all gifts” they receive, as well as any restrictions on how the donations could be used. But last week, legislators on the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH and CDC expressed concern that the foundations may not be following those disclosure rules, which are spelled out in the Public Health Service Act (PHSA). (The FNIH provision is here, the CDC Foundation provision is here.)

    A report accompanying a 2019 spending bill moving through Congress reminds the foundations to abide by the PHSA when writing their annual reports (here and here). The lawmakers also say it’s not OK to hide the identity of donors who have attached strings to their gift by labeling them as “anonymous.”

  • Major donor nixes effort to combat tuberculosis crisis in North Korea

    North Korean workers using an x-ray

    Workers prepare to use an aging x-ray machine in a pediatric tuberculosis clinic in Pyongyang.

    Richard Stone

    A fuse is about to be lit on an infectious disease powderkeg in northeast Asia. On 30 June, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will pull the plug on its grants to North Korea, which has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis (TB) in the world. The pullout leaves the isolated nation with about 1 year to line up a new source of medicines and diagnostics to combat a deepening TB crisis.

    The Global Fund’s decision to sever ties to North Korea perplexes some humanitarian workers and medical researchers who operate there. “We have not gotten any clarity on why they are doing this,” says Kwonjune Seung, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and medical director of the Eugene Bell Foundation, a nonprofit in Andrews, South Carolina, that has supported TB clinics in North Korea since 2007. “I would hope it was something extremely egregious,” for the Global Fund “to take such a drastic step.” Some, however, see the move as a negotiating ploy and predict that the organization will be back in North Korea before TB supplies run out.

    Since 2010, the Global Fund, a public-private partnership based in Geneva, Switzerland, has spent more than $100 million on TB and malaria control in North Korea through grants managed by two international organizations with offices in Pyongyang—the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF—as well as North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health (MPH). “It has been the biggest outside investment ever in public health in North Korea,” says Kee Park, a neurosurgeon at Harvard Medical School in Boston who leads biannual exchanges with North Korean health care specialists.

  • Science candidates: High-tech smarts aren’t enough for defeated Obama aide

    Candidate Brian Forde

    Brian Forde brought a background in technology to his run for Congress.

    Forde for Congress

    For many first-time congressional candidates with science and technology backgrounds, fundraising can be a major obstacle. Not to Brian Forde, who was once a  senior technology adviser to former-President Barack Obama. Forde managed to outpace his Democrat rivals by raising some $1.5 million for his southern California House race, including more than $300,000 in contributions via cryptocurrencies.

    But on 5 June Forde received only 6% of the vote, leaving him a distant fourth in the open, top-two primary to represent California’s 45th congressional district in Orange County. Democrat Katie Porter, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), edged out fellow UCI law professor Dave Min for the right to challenge incumbent Republican Mimi Walters in the November general election.

    The 38-year-old Democrat stands by his message that Congress needs more technologists to do its job. Exhibit A, he says, are all the legislators who struggled to keep up with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he testified this spring. But the knowledge gained from a tech career that gave him the chance to brief Obama on the emerging world of cryptocurrencies—and then to create a digital currency initiative within the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge—wasn’t nearly enough to win a seat in Congress. Political smarts are even more important, he acknowledges.

    Forde spoke with ScienceInsider both before and after his defeat, offering some advice to scientists weighing their own bids for elective office and reflecting on his own campaign.

  • Senators question nominees for DOE's science and clean-energy research wings

    Department of energy building
    JSquish/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA

    It’s summer in Washington, D.C., and the irony is in full flower. Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a confirmation hearing for the White House’s nominees to head various parts of the Department of Energy (DOE), including Christopher Fall, who would lead DOE’s $6.26 billion Office of Science, and Daniel Simmons, who would lead DOE's $2.32 billion applied research program in energy efficiency and renewable energy (EERE). Democratic committee members fretted that, ironically, Simmons had previously been a vice president at a think tank that called for eliminating EERE. Perhaps more ironically, EERE could cease to exist in a reorganization of the federal government proposed by the White House last week.

    The committee also put questions to Teri Donaldson, the nominee to be DOE's inspector general, and Karen Evans, the nominee for the new position of DOE's assistant secretary of cybersecurity, energy security, and emergency response.

    Fall, the nominee for director of the Office of Science, earned a doctorate in neuroscience but has spent the past 8 years in Washington, D.C., working in science policy, starting at the Office of Naval Research. During that time, he spent 3 years at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is currently acting head of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a $353 million agency whose goal is to help quickly translate ideas from DOE’s basic research into budding technologies. “ARPA-E might be the coolest job I've ever had,” Fall told the committee.

  • Firm that tallies controversial journal impact scores moves to provide more context

    journal covers

    The company that calculates journal impact factors wants to give users more information about the controversial metric.

    B. Douthitt/Science

    Stung by years of criticism that its journal impact factors have distorted scholarly publishing, the private firm Clarivate Analytics based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this week rolled out an updated version of its Journal Citation Reports database that it says provides context useful to understanding journals’ characteristics and audiences.

    Impact factors—which represent the number of citations to a journal's articles divided by the number of articles published during a 2-year period—are widely used in academe as a yardstick of a journal’s prestige and reach. But the metric has plenty of critics. The rap includes worries that editors can too easily boost their journal’s ranking through a variety of strategies, and that impact factors are misleading—a few highly cited papers can drive much of a journal’s overall impact factor.

    Although Clarivate—which has offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and China—continues to publish journal impact factors in its Journal Citation Review (JCR) database, the latest version, released 26 June, contains supplementary information that addresses some of this criticism. Most prominently, the page showing a journal’s impact factor now includes a distribution curve displaying the total number of articles and other items published in a journal versus the number of times each item was cited. The median number of citations for all of the journal’s research articles and review articles is also identified on the curve.

  • NASA’s Webb telescope delayed to 2021

    James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield

    Tests created small tears in the thin fabric of the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield.

    NASA/Chris Gunn

    Yet again, NASA is delaying the launch of its flagship astrophysics mission, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), to 30 March 2021—the third schedule slip in less than a year. An independent review of the project concluded that there was excessive optimism in the launch schedule and suggested the delay, one of 32 recommendations to improve the project’s chances of success. NASA also revealed that the development cost of the telescope would rise from $8 billion to $8.8 billion, requiring it to be reauthorized by Congress, which set an $8 billion cap in 2011. (The total cost of JWST, including operations, is expected to be $9.66 billion.)

    NASA was responding to the report of an Independent Review Board (IRB), headed by agency veteran Thomas Young. The board’s report highlighted a series of human errors and embedded problems in the hardware as the main drivers of the delay. Young told a press briefing today that because of the mission’s “awesome scientific potential” it was worth pursuing it to completion. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate in Washington, D.C., says, “We have to get this right on the ground before we go into space.”

    Young says JWST’s hardware includes seven noteworthy firsts for which NASA had no heritage. But most of the problems that led to his recommended delay were avoidable, he says. Human errors in the testing and integration of the spacecraft and its sunshield were responsible for many of them, including the use of an incorrect solvent in fuel valves and faulty fasteners which keep the sunshield folded up during its trip into space. During acoustic testing some of those fasteners broke loose and it took months to find and remove the pieces from the spacecraft. These problems had “simple fixes,” Young said, but caused a delay of up to 1.5 years.

  • Japan’s new asteroid probe reaches its target after 3.2-billion-kilometer journey

    Asteroid Ryugu seen from a distance of around 22km

    Ryugu, pictured by a camera aboard Hayabusa 2 from a distance of about 22 kilometers.

    JAXA, University of Tokyo & collaborators

    SAGAMIHARA, JAPAN—After 3.5 years traveling 3.2 billion kilometers through space, Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft officially arrived at the asteroid it will land on later this year to pick up surface and subsurface soil and rock samples and—hopefully—return them to Earth for analysis. The findings are expected to shed light on the materials that existed in the early solar system and the formation and evolution of planets and their arrangement. They might provide evidence for the theory that asteroids and comets are one source of Earth’s water and its amino acids—the building blocks of life.

    The ground crew in Japan confirmed this morning that Hayabusa2, launched in December 2014, reached its home position 20 kilometers away from Ryugu, an asteroid in orbit between Earth and Mars. With the spacecraft now at its target, “I’m just really happy,” Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) in Sagamihara, told a packed press conference on the ISAS campus this afternoon.

    For the next 18 months, this second edition of Hayabusa, Japanese for peregrine falcon, will be maneuvering around the asteroid, while a suite of instruments map it; measure its mass, density, and gravity; determine its mineral and elemental composition; and scout out landing sites. The first of a series of touchdowns is scheduled for October. In addition to gathering surface soil samples, Hayabusa2 will release a German-French rover called MASCOT that will hop across the surface, using its four instruments to analyze soil samples in situ.

  • Macchiarini guilty of misconduct, but whistleblowers share blame, new Karolinska Institute verdict finds

    Ole Petter Ottersen, Vice-Chancellor at Karolinska Institutet from August 2017.

    Ole Petter Ottersen, president of the Karolinska Institute, acknowledges that how to judge the whistleblowers was “the major difficulty" for him.

    Erik Cronberg/Karolinska Institute (CC-BY-NC-ND)

    The Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm has finally, officially, found disgraced surgeon Paolo Macchiarini guilty of scientific misconduct. Macchiarini was widely hailed as a pioneer in regenerative medicine for his technique of implanting artificial tracheae seeded with a patient’s own stem cells into patients, but KI fired him in 2016 amid allegations of fraud and other types of misconduct.

    However, the verdict is a bitter pill for the four people who raised the alarm about Macchiarini’s fraud. In a report issued yesterday, KI President Ole Petter Ottersen finds one of them, Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, a surgeon and stem cell researcher at KI and Uppsala University in Sweden, guilty of misconduct as well, based on his involvement in a paper he and others co-authored with Macchiarini in The Lancet in 2011. And the report says two others are “blameworthy” for their roles in a 2013 paper in Biomaterials that describes data from a patient for whom there was no ethical approval in place.

    “This sends the message that whistleblowers in research will be punished. That’s a serious problem for research,” says cardiothoracic surgeon Oscar Simonson, one of the whistleblowers, who now works at Uppsala University Hospital. He and his colleagues “spent thousands of hours over 5 years” uncovering and documenting the problems with Macchiarini’s research and the papers in question. (The report says Simonson is “blameworthy,” but not responsible for misconduct for his role in the 2013 paper.) 

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