Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Campus attacks by nationalists and police alarm India’s scientific community

    a young woman wearing bandages walks in front of a crowd

    Aishe Ghosh, the president of the students' union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, at a 9 January rally to protest an attack on the university by Hindu nationalists that left her with multiple injuries.

    REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

    Early in the evening on 5 January, more than 70 masked hoodlums armed with iron rods, stones, and sticks entered the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). They set upon teachers and students who were holding a peaceful political gathering, and marched into student hostels, terrorizing and injuring dozens. Panicked students posted videos on social media and called the police for help, which didn’t arrive.

    The attack on one of India’s most prestigious universities sent shock waves around the country and is the latest sign that the political forces tearing apart Indian society are also affecting the country’s academic community. Students at JNU, a liberal bastion, had been on strike for months against both a major hike in student fees and the government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), widely decried as discriminatory against Muslims. The attackers appeared to be Hindu nationalists. From the inaction of both campus security and the police, many concluded that the attackers acted with the consent of India’s Hindu nationalist government.

    For many academics, the rampage—which came on the heels of a brutal police response to several other university protests last month—felt like an attack on freedom of speech and democracy itself. “It looks like we are living in an era [of] textbook fascist methodology,” says Dinesh Abrol, a former chief scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and a spokesperson for the Delhi Science Forum, a nonprofit organization that promotes science. “The space for dissent, free thinking, and contrarian views has already shrunk,” says geographer Sucharita Sen, a professor of regional development at JNU who was hit on the head with a brick during the attack.

  • United Kingdom to embark on ‘agricultural revolution’ in break from EU farm subsidies

    a hiker rests on the side of a trail in the valley in Great Langdale

    U.K. farm subsidies will require efforts to support public goods, such as recreation.

    Peter Mulligan/Getty Images

    After the United Kingdom leaves the European Union at the end of the month, it will sever ties with Europe’s farm subsidy policies—and to many researchers, that is a good thing. This week, the U.K. government proposed radical changes to £3 billion a year in agricultural spending that will focus the money on benefits to climate, ecosystems, and the public. “It’s dramatic and utterly critical,” says Dieter Helm, an economist at the University of Oxford. “This is an agricultural revolution.”

    Under the bill, introduced to Parliament this week and expected to become law within a few months, farmers will be given subsidies not simply for cultivating land—the current EU system—but for delivering “public goods.” These include sequestering carbon in trees or soil, enhancing habitat with pollinator-friendly flowers, and improving public access to the countryside. To ease the transition, direct subsidies will be phased out over 7 years beginning in 2021, and the new payments for environmental services will be tested in pilot projects. “It certainly could have really positive benefits for the environment,” says Lynn Dicks, an animal ecologist at the University of Cambridge who studies wild pollinator conservation.

    After the destruction and starvation of World War II, European tariffs helped protect farmers from foreign competition and subsidies boosted their yields. “It was just about production, it didn’t matter what you did to the environment,” says Ian Bateman, an environmental economist at the University of Exeter. New lands were brought under the plow and hedgerows were ripped up, leading to erosion. Excessive fertilizer and pesticides polluted air and water. And the loss of habitat harmed pollinators and other wildlife. The cost of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) wasn’t just environmental: Up through the 1990s, the subsidies consumed 80% of the EU budget. Even today, the €59 billion CAP represents about 40% of EU public spending.

  • U.S. appeals court tosses children’s climate lawsuit

    Children protest climate change in Washington DC

    Levi Draheim, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, at a 2017 rally in Washington, D.C.


    Originally published by E&E News

    Judges for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “reluctantly” ruled in favor of the government in the kids’ climate case today, thwarting the young people’s historic legal fight while acknowledging the “increasingly rapid pace” of climate change.

    The arguments presented by the 21 young people in Juliana v. United States proved too heavy a lift for Circuit Judges Mary Murguia and Andrew Hurwitz, who found that the kids failed to establish standing to sue.

  • Senate bill would boost spending on Trump administration’s research priorities

    Advanced Manufacturing

    Increasing federal investment in advanced manufacturing, including robots that can assemble complex devices, is one goal of new Senate legislation.

    SCC Spartanburg Community College/Flickr

    For 3 years, President Donald Trump has proposed large cuts to fundamental research at several federal agencies, and few observers expect that to change when he submits his 2021 budget request to Congress next month. But this week, a bipartisan group of senators asked the Trump administration to pump up funding for a handful of technologies they believe will drive future U.S. economic growth. And the top White House technology officer thinks it’s a great idea.

    The chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Senator Roger Wicker (R–MS), and colleagues from both parties have proposed doubling federal spending by 2022 on research in artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science, two hot fields. Their bill, S. 3191, also wants the government to be spending $10 billion by 2025 on research in those fields and three others—advanced manufacturing, wireless communications, and synthetic biology—that together make up what the legislation labels “industries of the future.”

    That number pales in comparison to a 5-year, $100 billion investment proposed last fall by Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY), who leads the Senate Democrats. Still, it’s an impressive amount for a fiscally conservative legislator like Wicker to be seeking. And the ask is made easier by the administration’s quick endorsement.

  • Department of Energy moves carefully on assessing foreign research collaborations

    Chris Fall

    Chris Fall is responsible for applying new rules to the Department of Energy’s 10 national laboratories.

    Department of Energy

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has drawn up a list of technologies it may not want agency scientists to share with researchers from a handful of other countries. But that list has yet to be put to use, says Chris Fall, head of DOE’s Office of Science.

    Appearing yesterday before the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Fall shed new light on how the 10 DOE national laboratories he oversees are trying to prevent foreign governments from taking advantage of the traditionally open U.S. scientific enterprise. DOE officials have spoken publicly before about creating a “technology risk matrix” to shape interactions with four countries—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—deemed to pose a threat to U.S. national security. But they have been cagey about how—or even whether—that matrix is being used.

    It turns out that the tool is armed and ready for deployment, but DOE officials are weighing the potential impact on research before going live with it. For example, Fall says DOE doesn’t want to stunt U.S. innovation by simply banning all collaboration with China.

  • NSF rolls out huge makeover of science statistics

    Data from 2020 NSF report
    Graphic: X. Lui/Science; Data: 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators

    The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) cornucopia of statistics on the global scientific enterprise came out today—but with a twist that makes it more timely.

    In a world awash with on-demand data, NSF realized that its biennial report, titled Science and Engineering Indicators, was an anachronism. So instead of pushing out all 2000-plus pages at the same time, NSF last fall began to release chapters on science and math education, higher education, the technical workforce, and scientific publications. Four more chapters—reporting global spending patterns, academic research, trade and industry, knowledge transfer, and public attitudes—will follow in the next few months. Today’s release of a brief summary lets NSF satisfy a federal mandate to deliver a biennial report to Congress.

    Shortening the time to publication helps make the Indicators report more timely, even if some of the data it analyzes are 2 or 3 years old, says Arthur Lupia, who leads the NSF directorate that produces the report. Freeing up individual chapters will allow NSF to put out more specialized reports as warranted, adds Beethika Khan, who heads NSF’s in-house Indicators crew. The agency has also revamped its online interface to make it much easier for researchers and the public to explore the data, and it now provides quarterly updates of research activity at the state level.

  • NIH extends reporting mandate to more clinical trials, but obscures their policing

    Aerial view of the Clinical Center (Building 10), NIH Campus, Bethesda, MD

    The National Institutes of Health, whose clinical center is pictured above, expanded the requirement to register and post results from clinical trials but hasn’t made key details needed for evaluating its enforcement public.


    A Science investigation reported this week that many companies and medical research institutions fail to meet a long-standing legal mandate to disclose clinical trial results in a federal database. For certain trials, however, compliance is impossible to verify.

    In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a “final rule” to clarify enforcement. At the same time, NIH issued a separate policy, extending reporting requirements for its grantees and intramural scientists to a broader range of studies, including phase I safety trials, small feasibility studies, and behavioral research. On paper, the policy’s wider net suggests NIH planned aggressive enforcement. Some scientists even labeled it overkill—encompassing studies they didn’t consider clinical trials.

    In practice, just as NIH has failed to enforce the law for conventional clinical trials, the agency has postponed enforcement for the supplemental policy covering the broader set of experiments. It also has effectively hidden all compliance activity—if any occurs—from public view.

    The final rule adopted by FDA and NIH applies to trials whose results became due on on or after 18 January 2018. In contrast, the broader NIH policy only applies to those trials funded by grant proposals received 1 year earlier—on or after 18 January 2017—or started by NIH employees on or after that date. With the long lag times between proposal, funding approval, trial completion, and the 1-year grace period for posting results, few trials under this supplemental policy would be likely to face enforceable deadlines for several years.

  • Eight publishers to volunteer pricing info in pilot study

    Plan S conceptual illustration
    Davide Bonazzi/Salzman Art

    To help transition toward transparent open access (OA), eight journal publishers, including SpringerNature, PLOS, and Annual Reviews, will share anonymized pricing information with a limited group. This is part of a test of a transparency template proposed today in a report commissioned by cOAlition S, a group of funders leading a push for immediate OA to science publications. If the pilot is successful, funders may ask that publishers use a similar template to share data more widely.

    The template aims not to influence pricing, but to give funders and libraries information to decide what to pay for, says Alicia Wise, director of the consulting company Information Power who co-authored a report presenting the template. I would hope that by providing these data we can build trust and a better atmosphere,” she says.

    Many discussions about publishing prices and services have been emotive rather than constructive,” says Bernd Pulverer, head of scientific publications at EMBO Press, which will take part in the pilot with four of its five journals. Sharing information could encourage more pragmatic” discussions, he says. It is legitimate for the research community, funders, and taxpayers to be able to understand how taxpayer-supported research is being published,” he adds.

  • Brazil opens ‘spectacular’ Antarctic research base, but will it have the cash to fulfill its potential?

    Brazil’s Comandante Ferraz Research Station in Antarctica

    A new research station designed by Brazilian architecture company Estúdio 41 can accommodate 64 people.

    Estúdio 41

    S?O PAULO—Brazil will officially open its new scientific outpost in Antarctica this week, 8 years after a fire destroyed its original base there. The new, $100 million station is nearly twice the size of the old one and stands out for its sleek architectural design and hotel-style accommodations for up to 64 people, including scientists and military personnel. Seventeen laboratories will support research in a range of fields, from environmental microbiology to human physiology, paleontology, and climate change.

    An inauguration ceremony is scheduled for 14 January, with Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mour?o and several cabinet ministers in attendance.

    “It’s a first-class facility, really spectacular in many ways,” says Wim Degrave, a molecular biologist and biotechnology specialist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation who visited the station in November 2019. But many scientists worry that the Brazilian government—whose support for science has plummeted the past few years—may not make enough money available to use the facility to its full potential.

  • FDA and NIH let clinical trial sponsors keep results secret and break the law

    Conceptual illustration. People are walking around in lab coats and suits. Two are in line to put files in a file cabinet marked required. Two officials are sitting nearby, seemingly not paying attention

    For 20 years, the U.S. government has urged companies, universities, and other institutions that conduct clinical trials to record their results in a federal database, so doctors and patients can see whether new treatments are safe and effective. Few trial sponsors have consistently done so, even after a 2007 law made posting mandatory for many trials registered in the database. In 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried again, enacting a long-awaited “final rule” to clarify the law’s expectations and penalties for failing to disclose trial results. The rule took full effect 2 years ago, on 18 January 2018, giving trial sponsors ample time to comply. But a Science investigation shows that many still ignore the requirement, while federal officials do little or nothing to enforce the law.

    Science examined more than 4700 trials whose results should have been posted on the NIH website under the 2017 rule. Reporting rates by most large pharmaceutical companies and some universities have improved sharply, but performance by many other trial sponsors—including, ironically, NIH itself—was lackluster. Those sponsors, typically either the institution conducting a trial or its funder, must deposit results and other data within 1 year of completing a trial. But of 184 sponsor organizations with at least five trials due as of 25 September 2019, 30 companies, universities, or medical centers never met a single deadline. As of that date, those habitual violators had failed to report any results for 67% of their trials and averaged 268 days late for those and all trials that missed their deadlines. They included such eminent institutions as the Harvard University–affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, the University of Minnesota, and Baylor College of Medicine—all among the top 50 recipients of NIH grants in 2019.

    The violations cover trials in virtually all fields of medicine, and the missing or late results offer potentially vital information for the most desperate patients. For example, in one long-overdue trial, researchers compared the efficacy of different chemotherapy regimens in 200 patients with advanced lymphoma; another—nearly 2 years late—tests immunotherapy against conventional chemotherapy in about 600 people with late-stage lung cancer.

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