Whooping cranes were on the agenda at hearing on politically driven science.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Whooping cranes were on the agenda at hearing on politically driven science.

Representative Louie Gohmert (R–TX) is worried that scientists employed by the U.S. government have been running roughshod over the rights of Americans in pursuit of their personal political goals. So this week Gohmert, the chair of the oversight and investigations subpanel of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee, held a hearing to explore “the consequences of politically driven science.” Notably absent, however, were any scientists, including those alleged to have gone astray.

“The purpose of this hearing is to hear from real people, mammals called human beings that have been harmed by the federal government,” Gohmert said in opening the 29 April hearing, which featured testimony from three Republican-called witnesses on alleged misdeeds by researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service (NPS).

Neither of those agencies, however, was present to respond. The lone witness called by the panel’s Democrats was science historian Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University, best known for her studies of how the tobacco and energy industries have attempted to sow doubt about health and climate research that poses a potential threat to their interests. Her take on the hearing: It “wasn’t really about the science at all,” but broader disagreements over environmental policy and the role of government.

Continue Reading »

When California Governor Jerry Brown announced earlier this week that he was ratcheting up his state's already ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target, he put his state in a familiar place: trying to set the regulatory pace for the rest of the nation, and even the world. And although some critics warn that California’s aggressive effort to cut emissions will harm its economy, Brown’s allies say there are plenty of data to suggest the state could cash in on curbing climate change.

California has a long history of pushing the envelope on environmental regulations. It created the world's first vehicle exhaust limits in the 1960s, the first appliance energy efficiency regulations in the 1970s, and the first low-carbon fuel standard 8 years ago. Now, the state—which boasts the world’s eighth largest economy—wants to lead efforts to keep global warming below 2°C.

Brown's executive order Wednesday builds on a landmark law that California enacted in 2006 to cut its greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, in part by creating its own cap-and-trade market. That law survived court challenges and a hard-fought, well-funded voter referendum to repeal it. Since implementation, the law has resulted in 100 million tons of greenhouse gas reductions (roughly equivalent to taking 20 million cars off the road), bringing the state halfway to its 2020 goal. Policy debates in California increasingly have been focusing on what comes after 2020.

Continue Reading »

NASA's earth science programs would take a hit under proposed legislation. Here, a dust plume streams from Egypt into the Red Sea.

NASA

NASA's earth science programs would take a hit under proposed legislation. Here, a dust plume streams from Egypt into the Red Sea.

An increasingly partisan confrontation over some of NASA’s research programs is getting testier. Yesterday, the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved, on a party-line vote, a Republican-backed bill that calls for deep cuts in spending on earth science. The move drew a sharp response from science groups, NASA leaders, and White House officials.

Even though the proposed NASA authorization bill would increase funding for planetary missions, it has gotten decidedly mixed reviews from interest groups, reports Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online. Smith writes that Thursday’s “rancorous markup of H.R. 2039, the NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017, was in sharp contrast to recent committee and subcommittee hearings on space topics as well as action on two prior NASA authorization bills for 2014 and 2015.”

The bill authorizes NASA to spend $1.45 billion for earth science in the 2016 fiscal year that begins 1 October, well below the $1.95 billion requested by the White House, reports Lee Roop of AL.com. “The committee authorizes $1.5 billion for planetary science in 2016 and 2017, up from the $1.36 billion the White House wanted next year.”

Continue Reading »

Tweet excerpting provocative review has drawn an extensive response.

Twitter

Tweet excerpting provocative review has drawn an extensive response.

The journal PLOS ONE announced today that it is has "removed" a reviewer whose remarks about a manuscript by two female researchers caused an uproar earlier this week. "[W]e have removed the referee from our reviewer database," wrote Damian Pattinson, PLOS ONE’s editorial director, in a Web posting.

The journal has also "formally removed the review from the record, and have sent the manuscript out to a new editor for re-review. We have also asked the Academic Editor who handled the manuscript to step down from the Editorial Board."

PLOS ONE is also considering ways to make the identity of a reviewer known to submitting authors, Pattinson wrote. "We are reviewing our processes to ensure that future authors are given a fair and unprejudiced review. As part of this, we are working on new features to make the review process more open and transparent, since evidence suggests that review is more constructive and civil when the reviewers’ identities are known to the authors (Walsh et al., 2000). This work has been ongoing for some months at PLOS ONE, and we will be announcing more details on these offerings soon."

Continue Reading »

Researchers are concerned about long-lived fluorinated compounds used in nonstick pans and other products.

Jean-Pierre/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Researchers are concerned about long-lived fluorinated compounds used in nonstick pans and other products.

More than 200 scientists from 38 countries spoke with one voice today, calling for curbs on the global production and use of a class of chemicals found in hundreds of grease- and water-resistant industrial and consumer products. To avoid long-term harm to the environment and human health, nations should act now to limit use of the toxic compounds, which can persist for long periods in the environment, the scientists conclude in a statement appearing in Environmental Health Perspectives. Industry groups, however, say currently used versions of the chemicals are safe.

The synthetic chemicals, called polyfluorinated and perfluorinated substances (PFASs), have unusually strong fluorine-carbon bonds that can resist heat and help materials repel water, oil, and stains. These special properties make fluorinated chemicals a key ingredient in a wide range of products, including nonstick cookware, cosmetics, microwave popcorn bags, waterproof outdoor gear, carpets, and firefighting foams. Because PFASs are nearly indestructible, they can persist in the environment for decades or more and are prone to accumulate in the tissues of wildlife and humans.

Researchers have found that two of the most-studied fluorochemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), can damage the liver and disrupt reproduction and development in wildlife and lab animals. Emerging epidemiological evidence suggests the compounds—which have been detected in nearly every person who has participated in national studies—can cause similar problems in humans.

Continue Reading »

An artist's conception of the TMT.

Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation via Wikimedia Commons

An artist's conception of the TMT.

Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA)—a state agency established to advocate for Native Hawaiians—voted Thursday to withdraw their support for construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano. The vote follows weeks of protests by Native Hawaiians who say the massive structure would desecrate one of their most holy places. The protests have shut down construction of the telescope, which would be the world’s largest optical telescope if completed.

The vote, which reverses a 2009 decision to endorse the project, strikes a powerful if symbolic blow against a project that, for many Native Hawaiians, has come to symbolize more than a century of assaults against their land, culture, and sovereignty.

“The magnitude of this issue is immense,” said OHA Trustee Dan Ahuna before the vote, adding: “Self-determination is right at our fingertips. We have the opportunity to send a strong message that it is no longer business as usual for Hawaiians.”

Continue Reading »

House lawmakers have developed extensive marketing materials for their draft bill.

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce

House lawmakers have developed extensive marketing materials for their draft bill.

A day after the much-heralded rollout of a new draft bill to accelerate biomedical innovation, lawmakers got some feedback from officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In a hearing held by the Health Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee, much of the buzz centered around a proposal to bump up NIH funding—a dramatic change from a previous version of the bill, known as the 21st Century Cures Act. The new draft recommends $10 billion in extra funding for NIH over 5 years.

The response from Kathy Hudson, NIH’s deputy director for science, outreach, and policy, was straightforward. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” she told the committee. “The research community is ecstatic.” She later added that the legislation may mark a transition “from a very dreary phase in biomedical research to a much brighter phase.”

Legislators also discussed the details of the $10 billion, which would be provided through a new NIH innovation fund for three purposes: support for “young emerging scientists,” precision medicine, and a third category still to be determined. Asked to speculate on what that third category should be, Hudson said one priority is simply funding more innovative research that the agency has been unable to fund with its current budget; another would be NIH’s role in the $110 million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Continue Reading »

The APA has come under fire over alleged role in torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and other U.S. military bases.

Wikimedia Commons

The APA has come under fire over alleged role in torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and other U.S. military bases.

Did the American Psychological Association (APA) collude with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to enable the torture of detainees in the War on Terror? The answer won't be known until June, when an independent investigation is due to conclude. But at least one thing was made clear today in a report from an independent group of psychologists based on e-mail exchanges between APA and CIA officials from 2003 to 2006: The world's largest professional organization for psychologists has maintained a surprisingly cozy relationship with the defense and intelligence community.

Last year, James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times, alleged in his book Pay Any Price that APA worked closely with CIA and the White House to provide ethical justification for involving psychologists in harsh interrogations of detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. In 2003, those interrogations were revealed to involve degrading treatment and, at times, unambiguous torture. Risen claimed that APA worked closely with officials from CIA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the White House to craft a 2005 report concluding that psychologists' involvement with CIA interrogations was ethical. And he asserted that APA incorporated language provided by CIA directly into its ethical code, providing professional cover for psychologists involved with interrogations.

Risen's evidence is a cache of 683 e-mails provided to him by several activists and psychologists critical of APA's involvement with the government. Until now, none of those e-mails were released publicly.

Continue Reading »

According to an analysis of Twitter data, social unrest like the riots and marches in Baltimore can be predicted ahead of time.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

According to an analysis of Twitter data, social unrest like the riots and marches in Baltimore can be predicted ahead of time.

The broken glass and burned wreckage are still being cleared in the wake of the riots that convulsed Baltimore's streets on 27 April. The final trigger of the unrest was the funeral of a 25-year-old African-American man who had died in police custody, but observers point to many other root causes, from income inequality to racial discrimination. But for a few researchers who are studying Baltimore's unrest, the question is not the ultimate causes of the riot but its mechanism: How do such riots self-organize and spread? One of those researchers, Dan Braha, a social scientist at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been collecting data from Twitter that spans the riot from buildup to aftermath, part of a larger study of social media and social unrest around the world.

Q: What can you learn about the Baltimore riots from social media?

A: The protesters are mostly teens who use social media routinely. The riots that started around 3:30 p.m.—ignited by messages on social media urging high school students to “purge”—spread within 3 hours around the city. It's interesting to see the pattern of spread, much like forest fires, spreading in clusters and locally. The riots, in my view, could easily spread also across other cities in the United States where racial tensions are high and are close to a tipping point.

Continue Reading »

John Holdren at a White House event earlier this year.

NASA/FLICKR (CC BY-NC 2.0)

John Holdren at a White House event earlier this year.

The president’s science adviser today criticized science policy legislation moving through the U.S. House of Representatives, hinting that his boss would veto the two bills if they ever reached his desk.

Speaking at the annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy sponsored by AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), John Holdren had harsh words for the America COMPETES Act approved last week by the House science committee. He also expressed concern about a bill being marked up today by the science committee to reauthorize NASA programs. It’s the first comment on either bill by the White House, which typically refrains from taking an official position on legislation until it is scheduled for a vote by the full House or Senate.

“In my personal opinion, the COMPETES bill as it now stands is bad for science, it’s bad for scientists and engineers, bad for the federal science agencies, and damaging to the world-leading U.S. scientific enterprise,” Holdren told the Washington, D.C., audience.Continue Reading »

An artist's impression shows the proposed extension to SKA's current building at Jodrell Bank.

University of Manchester

An artist's impression shows the proposed extension to SKA's current building at Jodrell Bank.

The partners planning to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be by far the world’s biggest radio telescope, have passed up the chance of headquartering the organization in the historic Castello Carrarese in the northern Italian city of Padua and will instead move into a new purpose-built HQ at Jodrell Bank near Manchester, U.K., SKA’s current interim home.

At a meeting at Jodrell Bank yesterday, the 11 partners—Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom—weighed up bids from the United Kingdom and Italy and came down in favor of the former. “Now we’ll begin formal negotiations with the United Kingdom to establish the headquarters at Jodrell Bank,” says SKA Director General Philip Diamond.

Italy was something of an underdog in the competition to host the SKA HQ, which began last year with an invitation to bid. Castello Carrarese was used as a prison for much of the 20th century and is now being renovated. Padua is also home to an observatory of Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics and a world-class university. Jodrell Bank is the site of Britain’s Lovell Telescope which, although built in 1957, remains the third largest steerable radio dish. The site is 30 kilometers from the university city of Manchester.

Continue Reading »

An ambitious effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to jump-start biomedical innovation took another step forward today with the release of a bipartisan draft bill. The so-called 21st Century Cures Act contains huge news for supporters of biomedical research: It recommends substantial budget increases for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including $10 billion in extra funding over 5 years. Other provisions aimed at speeding the drug approval process at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are mostly unchanged from an earlier version, but some incentives for drug developers have been removed.

Although the call for increased NIH funding is aspirational—the bill can only recommend funding levels, not require congressional appropriators to provide the cash—it is still “some of the best news for NIH funding since 2003,” says Patrick White, president of Act for NIH, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. (A big one-time budget increase as part of the 2009 to 2010 stimulus funding was another high point, he notes.)

United for Medical Research, a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of research, patient, and industry groups, commented that a $10 billion increase would “help put the NIH on a sustainable growth path and ensure the United States remains the world’s medical innovation leader.” Other provisions affecting NIH have drawn concern, however, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), based in Rockville, Maryland, calls the draft bill “a mixed bag.”

Continue Reading »

House approves EPA ‘secret science’ bills despite White House veto threat

Wally Gobetz/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Republicans in Congress appear to be headed for a showdown with the White House over controversial “secret science” legislation aimed at changing how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses scientific studies. A deeply divided Senate panel yesterday advanced a bill that would require EPA to craft its policies based only on public data available to outside experts. The House of Representatives has already passed a similar measure. But Democrats and science groups have harshly criticized the approach, and the White House has threatened a veto.

The House and Senate bills are the product of long-standing complaints—mostly from conservative lawmakers—that EPA relies too heavily on raw data that are not easily available to outsiders. Republicans on the House science committee, for instance, have been waging a long-running battle with EPA officials over the release of health data used to support air pollution regulations. The bill’s opponents, however, say the calls for transparency are aimed at blocking the agency from using certain types of confidential data, potentially delaying or imperiling new environmental regulations to industry’s gain.

Both perspectives got airtime during yesterday’s debate in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works over S. 544, the Secret Science Reform Act. It would require EPA to base all its rules, assessments, and guidance on data that is “transparent” and “reproducible.” The legislation, sponsored by Senator John Barrasso (R–WY), serves as a companion to a measure that the House approved last month mostly with GOP votes.

Continue Reading »

This question won’t be disappearing from the American Community Survey after a show of support from researchers.

U.S. Census Bureau

This question won’t be disappearing from the American Community Survey after a show of support from researchers.

The U.S. Census Bureau has decided not to drop questions from its annual American Community Survey (ACS) about marital history and what people studied in college after researchers complained about the pending loss of important data.

Last fall, the agency had proposed removing the questions in a bid to streamline the 72-question survey, begun in 2005 as a replacement for the so-called long form of the decennial census. The questions had scored low in a review that evaluated whether they were mandated by Congress, their cost, the burden to respondents, and their overall utility.

In a Federal Register notice posted today, the Census Bureau says it received 1361 comments urging it to retain three questions (#21, #22, and #23) relating to marital history and status and 625 comments asking it to preserve the question (#12) about a resident’s undergraduate college major. Demographers and social scientists say states already do a poor job of providing marriage data and that federal registries are “a disgrace.” The National Science Foundation had spent years lobbying for the Census Bureau to include the college-major question, arguing that it is essential for monitoring trends in the scientific workforce.

Continue Reading »

The journal that days ago published the first-ever paper on an attempt to genetically modify human embryos has come out in defense of its decision and rebuffed claims that the paper was not adequately peer reviewed.

The paper appeared online on 18 April in Protein & Cell, which is co-published by Springer and an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education. Junjiu Huang and colleagues at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou describe their efforts to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to alter a gene in abnormal human embryos. Their gene-editing effort was not very successful and introduced many unintentional mutations.

The paper has touched off a furor from scientists and others who have called for a moratorium on any efforts to establish a pregnancy with such a genetically modified embryo. Many have deemed Huang’s experiment unethical, and Huang himself has reportedly said that the paper was rejected by Science and Nature in part for ethical reasons.

Continue Reading »

Excerpt from a Census Bureau pamphlet explaining that U.S. law requires recipients to respond to the American Community Survey.

Census Bureau

Excerpt from a Census Bureau pamphlet explaining that U.S. law requires recipients to respond to the American Community Survey.

The U.S. Census Bureau is proud of the high response rate on its American Community Survey (ACS), an annual sampling of the U.S. population begun in 2005 to replace the long form of the decennial census.

But those results don’t come easily—or cheap. Despite a law requiring people to participate in the survey, only about half of the 295,000 households chosen each month actually complete the 72-question ACS on their own. For the rest, the agency takes a series of steps to badger or cajole them into completing the survey, including home visits. That extra effort eventually bumps up the response rate to an impressive 97%.

Such diligence by a federal agency would normally win praise from Congress. But several Republican legislators regard the survey, which provides policymakers and social scientists with an exquisitely detailed portrait of the country and is used to determine how to distribute half a trillion dollars in federal aid, as a form of harassment and an invasion of privacy.

Continue Reading »

New map highlights earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced, or human-caused, quakes.

USGS

New map highlights earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced, or human-caused, quakes.

The gentle landscape of southern Kansas doesn’t exactly shout “earthquake country.” Until recently, the notoriously flat state had just two of the seismic stations used for recording and locating earthquakes. Now, 21 are in place. They have been sorely needed. Since 2013, 192 earthquakes bigger than magnitude 2 have hit Harper and Sumner counties, on the border with Oklahoma, up from just two in the previous 35 years. “It feels like we’re on the front lines of this thing,” says Rex Buchanan, the state geologist for the Kansas Geological Survey in Lawrence.

Across the U.S. heartland, an oil and gas boom has driven a surge of small to moderate earthquakes. Scientists say that deep underground injection of wastewater from oil and gas operations is triggering the tremors by pushing critically stressed faults past the snapping point. On 23 April, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a report that, for the first time, accounts for these human-caused, or induced, earthquakes in a map of seismic hazards across the country. The new map highlights 17 areas in eight states with frequent induced earthquakes (see boxed areas on map). The probability of dangerous levels of ground shaking in some of these areas, such as the one that bleeds from central Oklahoma into southern Kansas, rivals that of California, the traditional earthquake king. “It was kind of a surprise,” says Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project in Golden, Colorado.

So far, most induced earthquakes have done no more than rattle windows. But a few have been big enough to damage buildings, and now USGS says that it can’t rule out the possibility of a magnitude-7 temblor, which would cause widespread damage.

Continue Reading »

Greek government raids research funds to pay public salaries

Trine Juel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Greek scientists are angry and incredulous at what they see as a double-pronged government attack on the country's research system: the confiscation of research funding to plug a hole in Greece's ever worsening finances, and a new reform of higher education that they say will make universities more politicized and less meritocratic.

The cash seizure was authorized in an emergency decree passed by Greece's Parliament in a heated and emotional session last week. The decree forces local government and other state bodies to transfer their cash reserves to the Bank of Greece in order to pay salaries and pensions of public-sector employees. As Science went to press, it remained unclear exactly how much money would be targeted and when it would be taken, but researchers expect the government to grab funds set aside to pay for overheads. These amount to as much as 20% of the value of grants and pay for utility bills and temporary staff as well as expenses that are not covered up front by research agencies.

Costas Fotakis, research minister in the government coalition led by the left-wing Syriza Party, describes the move as an "interim measure" that will place the money in accounts with high interest rates of 2.5% and return it later. "We do hope that a fair agreement in the ongoing negotiations for the Greek debt will be reached soon, by the end of June," he said in an e-mail. "Then this measure will be waived."

Continue Reading »

Nepal earthquake may herald more Himalayan temblors

Krish Dulal

The powerful earthquake that devastated Nepal late in the morning on 25 April, causing at least 3200 deaths, could be a fuse that ignites other powerful quakes in a region of the Himalayas that had been seismically quiet for centuries, experts say.

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake was long overdue: The fault segment that ruptured hadn’t seen an earthquake since 1344 C.E., according to Laurent Bollinger, a geologist from the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. This temblor originated 15 kilometers underground, where the Indian plate slides under southern Tibet at a rate of about 20 millimeters per year along the Main Himalayan Thrust fault. The plates snag against each other, building up pressure until the crustal rock gives out. The locked plates under Nepal have been close to the breaking point for centuries, says Vinod Gaur, a geophysicist at Bangalore’s CSIR Fourth Paradigm Institute who co-authored a Science article in 2001 warning of the possibility of highly destructive earthquakes in the Himalayas.

The Kathmandu temblor seems to have released a portion of the strain building up in the central seismic gap (CSG), a 600-kilometer-long region south of Nepal straddling a major fault that has been eerily quiet for at least 500 years. While the CSG’s earthquake history is disputed—some geologists say a large quake in 1505 C.E. ruptured the gap, while others argue that the 1505 quake wasn’t large enough to do so—specialists concur that the CSG is overdue for a megaquake measuring greater than magnitude 8.Continue Reading »

A human embryo that has begun to implant in the uterus.

Yorgos Nikas. Wellcome Images via Wellcome Images/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A human embryo that has begun to implant in the uterus.

The announcement that a Chinese team had altered the genetics of a human embryo for the first time has ignited a firestorm of controversy around the world and renewed recent calls for a moratorium on any attempt to establish a pregnancy with such an engineered embryo. But it has also underscored that although scientists are united in their opposition to any clinical application of such embryo manipulation, they are split on the value of basic research that involves genetically modifying human embryos.

In China itself, where the precedent-setting research is big news and some in the public have expressed concern on the Internet about the embryo experiments, "most scientists are more positive," says Guo-Qiang Chen, a microbiologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "My personal opinion is that as long as they can control the consequences they should continue this work.”

That view is echoed by many outside of China as well. “I personally would defend the fundamental scientific value of research into gene editing” in human embryos, in part to explore the risks of any potential clinical use, George Daley, a stem cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, tells Science.

Continue Reading »

Among other things, House appropriators would zero out SUNPATH III, a $25.5 million program to help develop the manufacturing of photovoltaic solar cells in the United States.

DOE/Flickr

Among other things, House appropriators would zero out SUNPATH III, a $25.5 million program to help develop the manufacturing of photovoltaic solar cells in the United States.

Republican budgetmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives signaled their support for basic research and their reluctance to invest federal dollars in applied research today in their markup of a bill that would set the budget for the Department of Energy (DOE) next year. The bill has already drawn a veiled veto threat from the White House, however, in part because of the cuts it would make to DOE's applied research programs.

The House Committee on Appropriations' version of the so-called energy and water bill for fiscal year 2016, which begins 1 October, would boost spending by 0.6% for DOE's basic research arm, the Office of Science, to $5.10 billion. It would maintain the current budget of $280 million for DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which strives to translate the most promising ideas from basic research into budding technologies. The Obama administration has requested a 5.3% increase for the Office of Science and a 16% hike for ARPA-E.

The split between the White House and House Republicans is much larger with respect to DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program. The House bill would cut its current budget by 13.8%, to $1.66 billion, while the Obama administration wants a 41.5% boost, to $2.72 billion.

Continue Reading »

Chair Representative Lamar Smith (right) and ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson at a 2013 hearing of the science committee.

U.S. House of Representatives science committee

Chair Representative Lamar Smith (right) and ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson at a 2013 hearing of the science committee.

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) took a small, tactical step back today from his assault on the policies of the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Smith hasn’t abandoned his 2-year strategy of pushing NSF in directions that the U.S. scientific community doesn’t want it to go. And in marking up his America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806) before the science committee that he chairs, he made it clear that he’s calling the shots.

(The rest of this story is based on the first few hours of today’s markup of the bill, which covers NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the science programs at the Department of Energy, and federal science education policy. The markup continued well into the afternoon; see the update below on the final bill's approval.)

The committee spent most of the morning rejecting a slew of Democratic amendments aimed at reversing proposed cuts to research programs and removing language seen as an attack on NSF’s vaunted peer-review process. Smith’s big concession was to drop language in the bill about how NSF builds and manages large scientific facilities that NSF officials say is unreasonable, unnecessary, and in places even contradictory.

In particular, the language would have required NSF to “correct” any problems identified by an independent audit of projected costs before starting construction. It would also require NSF to apply rules on how project contingency funds can be spent that are at odds with existing federal policies. That language could seriously delay new projects and drive up costs, according to agency officials, who say they conveyed their concerns to the committee after the bill was unveiled last week.

Continue Reading »

Finance Minister Joe Oliver shows off his new shoes on the eve of the budget announcement—buying "budget shoes" is an annual tradition for Canadian finance ministers.

Finance Canada

Finance Minister Joe Oliver shows off his new shoes on the eve of the budget announcement—buying "budget shoes" is an annual tradition for Canadian finance ministers.

Call them deferred olive branches.

In the run-up to a national election later this year, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has been dispensing peace offerings to those who have become aggrieved by the conservatives since they first took office in 2006. The recipients include veterans, seniors, families with children, and all other manner of voting bloc. Now, Canadian researchers, who in recent years have generally vilified Harper as being antiscience and anti-intellectual, have joined the queue. But they will have to wait a while longer to begin enjoying their peace offerings.

Yesterday, Finance Minister Joe Oliver unveiled a 2015 to 2016 financial blueprint in which honoring a commitment to balance the budget takes precedence over immediate goodies for science. The deferred list includes a new, $1.08 billion competition by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation for research infrastructure grants to begin 3 years down the road, as well as modest funding toward buying a 15% to 20% stake in the colossal Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to be built in a dormant Hawaii volcano by 2024.

Continue Reading »

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) has never hidden his desire to reshape federal research policy—
often over the objections of much of the scientific 
community—since he became chair of the House of Representatives science committee 2 years ago. Last week, he introduced legislation that lays out those plans in unprecedented detail, and the reaction was predictable. Although academic leaders say that some parts of the new, 189-page bill are better than previous versions, they believe it would seriously damage the U.S. research enterprise.

The bill not only sets out funding levels for several research agencies that in some cases depart sharply from those the Obama administration requested for 2016; it would also reshape key policies and priorities guiding those agencies. In particular, researchers complain that the bill (H.R. 1806), called the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, would:

Continue Reading »

The 200-year-old practice of homeopathy is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States.

Jonathan Wilson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The 200-year-old practice of homeopathy is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States.

This week, officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a 15-hour foray far outside the scientific mainstream. In a 2-day hearing, the agency invited public input on how it should regulate homeopathy—a traditional healing practice that has been called into question by numerous scientific studies. For now, homeopathic remedies, sold largely over the counter, are classified as drugs that can be marketed without FDA approval in the United States. But the agency may be ready to rethink its policy.

“We’ve had tremendous growth in the market and also some emerging safety and quality concerns,” Cynthia Schnedar, director of the Office of Compliance at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, told ScienceInsider. “In light of that, we thought it was time to take another look.”

The 200-year-old practice of homeopathy—estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States—is based on two controversial principles: First, a substance that causes a specific symptom in a healthy person can relieve the same symptom in a sick person if consumed at a very low dose. Second, repeatedly diluting a substance actually makes treatment more potent, even if no detectable molecules of the original substance remain.

Continue Reading »