In a vote of 97-0, the U.S. Senate today confirmed Ernest Moniz as secretary of energy. A theoretical nuclear physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Moniz succeeds Steven Chu, the only other physicist to hold the post since the Department of Energy (DOE) was established in 1977. Moniz, 69, had previously served as undersecretary of energy from 1997 to 2001 and as associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1995 to 1997.
President Barack Obama nominated Moniz on 4 March. But despite receiving bipartisan support, Moniz had to wait 2 months for Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to lift a "hold" on his candidacy.
Graham was upset because the Obama administration's 2014 budget request called for a study of alternatives to the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, under construction at DOE's Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. The plant is supposed to convert plutonium from weapons into fuel for nuclear power plants, but the study triggered fears that DOE wanted to pull the plug on the project, whose cost has ballooned from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion. This week, Graham agreed to let the vote on Moniz go forward, although he warned that he might still hold up votes on lower level DOE appointments, according to a report in Environment & Energy Daily. Graham joined in on the unanimous approval for Moniz.
"My Senate colleagues recognize that Dr. Moniz is smart, he is savvy about how the Department of Energy operates because he has been there before, and he has a proven track record of collaboration, which is just what you need when you're leading the Department of Energy," said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, shortly after the vote.
Back at MIT, Robert Armstrong, a chemical engineer, will replace Moniz as director of the MIT Energy Initiative. Armstrong had been Moniz's deputy. That announcement came just minutes after the Senate vote.
More than 150 prominent scientists and 75 scientific groups from around the world today took a stand against using impact factors, a measure of how often a journal is cited, to gauge the quality of an individual's work. They say researchers should be judged by the content of their papers, not where the studies are published.
Journal impact factors, calculated by the company Thomson Reuters, were first developed in the 1950s to help libraries decide which journals to order. Yet, impact factors are now widely used to assess the performance of individuals and research institutions. The metric "has become an obsession" that "warp[s] the way that research is conducted, reported, and funded," said a group of scientists organized by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) in a press release. Particularly in China and India, they say, postdocs think that they should try to publish their work in only journals with high impact factors.
The problem, the scientists say, is that the impact factor is flawed. For example, it doesn't distinguish primary research from reviews; it can be skewed by a few highly cited papers; and it dissuades journals from publishing papers in fields such as ecology that are cited less often than, say, biomedical studies.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) today rebuffed a request from the chairman of the House of Representatives science committee to obtain reviewer comments on five social science research projects it is funding. The refusal is the latest twist in an increasingly edgy battle between the agency and Republicans in Congress over the agency's grants-making process and, in particular, its support for the social and behavioral sciences.
In a letter to Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), NSF defended the need to preserve the confidentiality of the peer-review process, according to sources with knowledge of the letter's contents. The letter explains how NSF's process works and that the independent reviewers recruited by the agency are promised anonymity in return for offering their candid comments on the quality of the proposal. After taking that hard line, however, acting NSF Director Cora Marrett proposed to brief the committee on how NSF selects from among some 40,000 research proposals that it receives each year. NSF also offered to provide general information on how the five grants satisfy NSF's mission to expand the frontiers of science.
In a statement, Smith tells ScienceInsider, "I am disappointed the NSF declined to provide Congress with additional information that would show why they are spending taxpayer dollars on specific research grants." A committee aide says that, earlier this year, NSF officials told the committee to submit a letter describing the information it was seeking and that today's NSF response "is at variance with that conversation."
One of the most successful missions in NASA history may be coming to an end. NASA officials announced this afternoon that the Kepler spacecraft, which has found more than 2700 planetary candidates outside the solar system, has lost the ability to point in a specified direction due to the malfunctioning of one of its reaction wheels. The spacecraft has been put into safe mode while engineers attempt to figure out how to resolve the malfunction.
Launched in 2009, the Kepler mission completed its 3.5-year planned run last year, winning plaudits from planetary scientists. The spacecraft monitors some 150,000 sunlike stars in search of transiting planets. In November 2012, the mission began an extension of an additional 3.5 years, and officials were hopeful that it would continue beaming back data until 2016.
That now looks uncertain following the failure of the second of its four reaction wheels, officials announced at a telecom this afternoon. One of the wheels failed last year, and the spacecraft needs three reaction wheels to be pointed precisely. Mission managers learned of the latest failure earlier this week.
A group of coronavirus experts has published its proposal to name a new, deadly virus after the Middle East, the region where it originates. In a short paper published online today by the Journal of Virology, the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG), along with several other scientists, recommends calling the pathogen Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-Cov).
As ScienceInsider reported last week, the group, part of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, hopes to end confusion about the name of the virus. It was initially called human coronavirus-EMC in a paper by its discoverer, Egyptian microbiologist Ali M. Zaki, and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in the Netherlands, enlisted by Zaki to help characterize the virus. Since then, a plethora of other names has been used. The paper's authors write:
The venerable Institut Pasteur is in turmoil over accusations by a government watchdog that it is misleading the donors that fund part of its research. In a scathing report published earlier this month, the Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS) says that the well-respected biomedical research organization massages figures to attract private donations and government funding, while it sits on a comfortable money cushion. Pasteur denies any wrongdoing, but the report could hurt its government funding as well as the trust of its donors.
Set up in 1887, the Institut Pasteur boasts an impressive track record of 10 Nobel Prize laureates. Today, it is a nonprofit research foundation focused on infectious diseases with a budget worth €243.6 million in 2011; IGAS says that includes about €60 million from the French government and €50 million in donations every year, including many small contributions from private citizens.
Pasteur tells its donors that donations and bequests make up a third of the institute's funding, while the actual figure is less than 20%, the report's authors write. They add that the institute "artificially" presents its balance sheet to funders as "structurally in the red" to appear vulnerable and dependent on external funding, including from France's research ministry.
NEW DELHI—In the United States, rotavirus is a public health nuisance, resulting in tens of thousands of hospitalizations for severe diarrhea in infants and young children each a year, but few deaths. In India, the virus is a public health menace: It claims more than 100,000 lives a year. A new vaccine could sharply reduce that death toll.
At a press conference here today, K. Vijayraghavan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, announced that a vaccine against the predominant rotavirus strain circulating in India had compiled an "excellent safety and efficacy profile" in phase III clinical trials. ROTAVAC, the first fruits of the Indo-U.S. Vaccine Action Program, is expected to be on the market in early 2014. But some experts caution that the vaccine will not be a panacea. "It is unlikely that a single Indian strain of the virus will provide immunity to children all over India, since there is so much genetic variation in the rotavirus," says Jacob Puliyel, a pediatrician at St. Stephen's Hospital in New Delhi.
Rotavirus spreads easily through contaminated food and water; some 20 million children in India are infected every year. The virus causes severe diarrhea, often accompanied by vomiting and fever; most deaths are from dehydration in children who are not given treatment or inadequately treated by India's frail health care system.
A new program to train more U.S. college students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is hardly a novelty. And nobody would be surprised to learn that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is involved.
But heads still turned last week when NSF held a glitzy Washington, D.C., press event to announce $10 million in grants to nine university-based projects designed to lower dropout rates among minorities, women, and low-income students in computer science and engineering. The twist is that the "Graduate 10K+" initiative is being funded not by taxpayers but by two high-tech companies: Intel and GE.
The new effort is part of a broader push by the Obama administration for the private sector to supplement federal activities on many fronts. Specifically, it's an outgrowth of a now-defunct task force created by President Barack Obama in 2011 to improve U.S. competitiveness. (The Graduate 10K+ name is a nod to the president's goal of producing 1 million more STEM graduates by 2020.)
In a unanimous decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court backed the agribusiness firm Monsanto on its soybean patents. The justices concluded that an Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, violated the company's intellectual property rights when he refused to pay royalties on unlabeled soybeans he bought that contained genes patented by the company.
The court ruled that Monsanto's patents cover not just genetically engineered seeds distributed by Monsanto and its agents, but also seeds circulating in the environment that contain Monsanto's genes.
Bowman never disputed Monsanto's patents—which apply to genes that make soybeans resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. But he claimed that the company's right to charge royalties had been "exhausted" because the unlabeled seeds he bought from a local dealer and planted were the progeny of plants grown from previously purchased Monsanto seed. As a result, Bowman argued that his seed purchases weren't covered by Monsanto's customary patent license. Although Bowman had signed a Monsanto license in previous years—and paid the extra required fees—he did not continue to do so. Instead, he bought "commodity beans," which are usually sold for feed or other products, from a local granary. He later sprayed glyphosate on his crop and saw that it flourished, indicating that the anonymous seeds contained Monsanto's genes. He said he had written to Monsanto seeking information on its patent license rules, but argued that he never got a clear answer. Instead, Monsanto took him to court for violating its license.
Speaking for the entire court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 13 May opinion: "The question in this case is whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission. We hold that he may not."
Russian researchers are up in arms over a government decree issued last month which turns the process of issuing research grants into a bureaucratic nightmare for international foundations. The decree introduces new regulations according to which any organization that wants to award grants to Russian researchers must obtain permission from the Ministry of Education and Science for every grant. "No self-respecting grant-giving agency would deal with Russia on such conditions," says Andrey Tsaturyan of Moscow State University's Mechanics Research Institute.
Under the new decree, organization's will have to apply to the ministry for every grant and complete a bulky set of forms that include the bank details of the organization and the would-be grantee, the subject of the research, the purpose of the support, and so on. If the project to be funded is not in line with the main priorities of basic research and R&D in Russia approved by the government, the ministry may decline the request and the organization will not be allowed to award the grants. Tsaturyan believes that most painfully, the new regulations will affect research in medical sciences and humanities as the physical sciences are now rarely funded by international foundations.
The new regulations have raised serious worries among the researchers. Evgeny Onishchenko of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences thinks the decree is an absurd and very dangerous example of bureaucratic zeal. "The fact that an application will be required for each specific grant will cause bureaucratic hurdles," he says. In his view, the demand that the research subject must fit in with officially approved research priorities is ridiculous. "The government should be happy that someone supports research that is not a government priority," he says.
The French Parliament is soon to debate a draft bill that would establish a new framework for the nation's higher education and research systems. Many scientists have already criticized the proposal for ignoring several funding and employment issues. Now, however, some researchers worry that those concerns—and the importance of English in science—are being eclipsed by a high-profile debate over provisions that would expand the use of English in French universities.
"I find this a little sad as a debate," says Joël Bockaert, a member of the French science academy who directs a biomedical research collaboration in Montpellier.
At the heart of the controversy is the bill's proposal to relax a 1994 provision that makes the use of French compulsory in higher education except in foreign language classes or in classes given by invited professors from abroad. The new law would add two more exceptions by allowing foreign languages to be used in classes that are offered either as part of an agreement with foreign institutions or that belong to a European program. The idea behind the measure is to help attract foreign students to France and to better prepare French students for a globalized world, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research explained in a document accompanying the new draft bill, which was presented by science minister Geneviève Fioraso on 20 March. Unless France makes such efforts to attract foreign students, Fioraso told Libération, "we will be left to having five people discussing Proust around a table."
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants has voted for a global ban of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a common flame retardant in insulation, textiles, and electronics. HBCD now joins two other such compounds on the convention's list of restricted chemicals.
Brominated flame retardants are very good at preventing plastics and textiles from catching fire. They also tend to persist in the environment and accumulate in biological tissue. Out of concern for possible human health effects, the convention in 2009 banned tetrabromodiphenyl ether and pentabromodiphenyl ether.
According to the convention's description of HBCD, the chemical is made in the United States, Europe, and Asia. In 2001, about half of the 16,500 tons on the market was used in Europe. By 2003, global demand had risen to nearly 22,000 tons.
Cassava is a major source of food in Africa, and it's under increasing threat from two devastating diseases. This week researchers and development organizations meeting in Bellagio, Italy, pledged to step up their efforts to prevent the spread of the diseases and safeguard the crop.
About 300 million people in Africa depend on cassava, a root that is ground into flour, used as starch, biofuel, and for brewed into beer. For a century, production across the continent has been hindered by outbreaks of cassava mosaic disease, which is caused by several viruses. Breeding of new varieties helped get this problem mostly under control, but in the last decade cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) has emerged as an even more serious concern. The virus can wipe out the root crop underground without a farmer noticing until harvest.
CBSD has been afflicting crops in east and central Africa. Now there are worrying signs it is moving west. Whiteflies, which spread the viruses, have been found east of the Congo, the world's third largest source of cassava. If the disease were to reach into Nigeria, Congo, and Ghana, which all grow a lot of cassava, "it would be a human disaster, an economical disaster, and would translate to a lot of instability," says Claude Fauquet of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia.
The National Science Foundation needs one more week to reply to a controversial request from the chairman of the House of Representatives science committee to explain why five social sciences grants were approved. And NSF wants its oversight body to weigh in first.
On 25 April, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) wrote to acting NSF Director Cora Marrett about his "concerns regarding some grants approved by the foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF's 'intellectual merit' guideline." Smith requested "access" to both the reviews from outside scientists and the analyses of the program officers who funded them.
Scientific leaders and senior House Democrats have condemned that request and related draft legislation that would alter NSF's grant-making process, viewing it as an unwarranted intrusion into NSF's vaunted peer review system. On Wednesday, three former NSF directors asked Smith to "rescind the April 25, 2013 letter and keep this draft bill from ever coming up for a vote or from being incorporated in other legislation."
Several former top officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the chairs of its oversight body yesterday wrote to Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) urging him to withdraw a bill proposing changes to grant-making at the agency.
In one of two 8 May letters to Smith, the former officials say that the draft legislation, entitled "The High-Quality Research Act," "will have a chilling and detrimental impact on the merit-based review process." Smith, who is chair of the House of Representatives science committee, has said that the legislation is intended to weed out projects not worthy of federal support. But the letter writers say that "rather than improving the quality of research, [the changes] would do just the opposite."
That letter is signed by three previous NSF directors—Neal Lane, Rita Colwell, and Arden Bement—and three past chairs of the National Science Board, NSF's presidentially appointed oversight body. The second letter, from 18 scientists who once headed individual research directorates at the agency, also argues that many of NSF's most spectacular successes would not have qualified for funding under the terms of the legislation.
A bipartisan group of Congressional lawmakers wants the United States to have a Science Laureate. Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) yesterday introduced legislation that would empower the president to select a "nationally renowned expert" who would "travel around the country to inspire future scientists," according to a statement released by Hirono's office.
"Like the Poet Laureate, the Science Laureate would be an unpaid, honorary post," according to the statement. The laureate would serve a 1- or 2-year term, and "would also be encouraged to continue their important scientific work." Nominees would be vetted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
"The U.S. Science Laureate will be a national role model who can encourage students to learn more about the sciences," Hirono said in the statement. "By elevating great American scientific communicators, we can empower students - especially girls and minorities - to get excited about science."
Submitting a paper to a new open access journal can be a risky venture: More and more companies are popping up with an offer to publish a report for a fee but deliver less than expected—sometimes they skip peer review or use editors who do no work—according to critics such as Jeffrey Beall, a University of Colorado, Denver, librarian who keeps a list of so-called predatory publishers. Now, the U.S. government has jumped in as an enforcer, warning one open access publisher to stop misusing the names of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the agency's employees in promotional material.
Open-access journals make articles available for free online and cover their costs by charging authors a fee. Although many open-access journals are respected, some have been accused of inviting researchers to serve as editors in name only or to submit papers that the journal publishes after little or no review, for a fee, according to recent news reports. One large open access outfit, the OMICS Publishing Group of Los Angeles and Hyderabad, India, which publishes approximately 250 journals, has also come under fire for holding conferences that advertise organizers or speakers who did not agree to be involved. (See reports by Beall and The New York Times.)
Ken Witwer, an HIV researcher at Johns Hopkins University, says he got burned last August when he presented his work at a nutrition conference sponsored by OMICS. Witwer attended partly in hopes of meeting biochemist Bruce Ames, inventor of the Ames mutagenicity test, identified in OMICS material as a speaker. Ames did not show up. Witwer says he later learned from Ames that he had never agreed to speak. In March, Witwer sent an e-mail to NIH urging it to pursue legal options against the company, which he alleged had also listed some NIH-funded scientists as editors without their knowledge. Because NIH-funded researchers sometimes use their NIH grant money to pay for conference registration and publication fees, the company indirectly receives federal funds, Witwer argued.
The new push by the House of Representatives science committee to change the grant-making process at the National Science Foundation (NSF) flows from members' unhappiness over a handful of grants awarded in the social sciences. And the goal is to screen out "questionable" grants.
That explanation comes from a committee aide who was authorized to discuss the draft bill after Science acceded to his request for anonymity. An article in the 10 May issue of Science describes the origins of the controversy regarding the draft written by the chair of the committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). It also examines his 25 April letter to NSF asking for more information about five recent grants and the current state of play on the issue.
In the 3 May interview, the aide described the intent behind the bill, entitled, "The High Quality Research Act." The aide also discussed its relationship to a broader legislative exercise, called reauthorization, of the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which sets policy and funding levels for NSF and several other federal research agencies. The scientific community has sharply criticized the legislation and is pushing for major revisions.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
Q: What's broken about peer review at NSF that the proposed legislation is trying to fix?
Aide: The concern is with a certain number of specific NSF grants that were awarded that have raised questions in the minds of policymakers about why these projects are being funded. That's not the peer-review system itself, and the intent of the legislation is not to change the peer-review system. It is the next step after, which is making the awards. It is an additional layer of accountability.
After weeks of worrying about how the mandatory across-the-board 2013 budget cuts known as the sequester would play out at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biomedical research community now has final figures. The bottom line is as grim as expected: The agency's overall budget will fall by $1.71 billion compared to 2012, to $29.15 billion, a cut of about 5%, according to an NIH notice today. That is essentially what NIH predicted as part of the 5.1% sequestration. (Including transfers to other agencies and other adjustments in the spending bill funding NIH in 2013, the total reduction is $1.71 billion or 5.5% compared to 2012.)
As a result, NIH expects to fund 8283 new and competing research grants this year, a drop of 703, according to this table. That number firms up the "hundreds fewer" awards that NIH officials warned of earlier this year. Including ongoing (already awarded) grants that are ending, the total number of research grants will drop by 1357 to 34,902 awards. The decline "reflects the fact that NIH's budget is being shrunk due to the new budget and political reality, which is bad news for researchers and the patients they are trying to help," says Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C.
NIH will try to keep the size of the average award consistent with 2012; it will not award inflationary increases for future years. The agency also expects to trim continuing grants. Grants that were cut up to 10% earlier this year because of budget uncertainty "may be partially restored," but probably not to the original commitment level, NIH's notice says.
Perched on the summit of a dormant volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla, the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) watches how stars, galaxies, and planets form. The result of a binational collaboration between the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Mexico's National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics (INAOE), the LMT saw first light in 2011 and is about to begin its first scientific observation season. ScienceInsider chatted with LMT Director David Hughes about millimeter-wavelength telescopes, Mexico's growing astronomy community, and his plans for the LMT's future. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What makes the LMT unique?
D.H.: If we talk only of single dish, steerable, millimeter-wavelength telescopes, then the LMT is the world's largest. Since its very conception, it's been designed to operate optimally at high millimeter frequencies or short millimeter wavelengths. And it's been constructed on the summit of the Sierra Negra, a 4600-meter-high volcano in central Mexico. The combination of the physical size, the optimal design for millimeter wavelengths, and the high altitude makes the LMT unique.
Q: What are the advantages of millimeter-wavelength astronomy?
D.H.: At millimeter wavelengths, we are sensitive to the coldest objects in the universe. And those are typically found in the most dense and obscured regions of the universe, and in particular the most dense and obscured regions of star formation. We're actually seeing the initial stages of structure formation in the universe, all the way back to the Big Bang. More locally, in our galaxy, we're able to see the formation of planets. So it's an opportunity to really study how the universe has evolved from shortly after the big bang to the observable universe we see around us today.