Congressional Republicans say bills are designed to make the process of writing EPA regulations, such as those covering drinking water, more transparent.

Daniel Parks/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Congressional Republicans say bills are designed to make the process of writing EPA regulations, such as those covering drinking water, more transparent.

The U.S. House of Representatives could vote as early as this week on two controversial, Republican-backed bills that would change how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses science and scientific advice to inform its policies. Many Democrats, scientific organizations, and environmental groups are pushing back, calling the bills thinly veiled attempts to weaken future regulations and favor industry.

The bills, introduced by a mostly Republican cast of sponsors in both the House and the Senate, would require that EPA use only publicly available, reproducible data in writing regulations and seek to remake the membership and procedures of the agency’s science advisory panels. Supporters, including industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the legislation would improve the transparency and soundness of how EPA uses science, making regulations less costly and more effective.

Opponents, however, are calling the bills wolves in sheep’s clothing. “I cannot support legislation that makes it easier for industry to implement their destructive playbook, because risking the health of the American people is not a game that I’m willing to play,” said Representative Paul Tonko (D–NY) at a 25 February committee meeting on the bills.

Both bills had been introduced in previous Congresses, and their revival was widely expected as part of Republicans’ continuing efforts to block key parts of President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda. Obama has threatened to veto the bills in the past, however, making their futures dim at best.

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The recession put the brakes on driving in Europe, a new environmental report finds, but car use remains popular.

Dirk-Jan Kraan/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The recession put the brakes on driving in Europe, a new environmental report finds, but car use remains popular.

The latest big-picture analysis of the state of the environment in Europe finds that although the continent is making progress in energy efficiency, it is falling short in protecting biodiversity and natural resources. In some areas, the financial recession led to improvements in trends, but the gains may be short-lived, the report warns.

Every 5 years since 1995, the European Environment Agency provides a broad assessment of status and trends. The refrain is familiar to Andrew Jordan, an environmental policy analyst at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. “They’ve continuously said the same thing: We’re not moving as rapidly toward sustainable development as we should.”

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Report takes the University of Minnesota to task for its efforts to protect human subjects.

Jason Moran/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Report takes the University of Minnesota to task for its efforts to protect human subjects.

A damning report on how the University of Minnesota (UM) protects volunteers in its clinical trials concludes that researchers inadequately reviewed research studies across the university and need more training to better protect the most vulnerable subjects. It also found that a “climate of fear” existed in the Department of Psychiatry, where concerns about clinical trials first surfaced.

The 97-page report, released 27 February, was prepared by a group of six experts appointed by the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs. It comes after years of complaints by some UM faculty members, led by bioethicist Carl Elliott. They charged that the school and its doctors failed to protect 27-year-old Dan Markingson, who died by suicide while enrolled in a psychiatric drug trial in 2004. They also expressed grave concerns about how Markingson’s death was investigated. (More on that case is here and here.)

Recently, Elliott’s crusade began having an impact. In December 2013, the UM Faculty Senate called for an independent review of current practices in clinical trials. The administration agreed to open its records to outsiders. Although the review did not look back at history, it nonetheless had plenty to say about how the university handles trials, which bring in millions of dollars from drug companies along with much prestige.

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An investigation into how a pathogen may have escaped from a laboratory has halted studies involving regulated bioagents at a Tulane University research facility.

Tulane Public Relations/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

An investigation into how a pathogen may have escaped from a laboratory has halted studies involving regulated bioagents at a Tulane University research facility.

The apparent escape from a high-security lab of a dangerous bacterium that led federal officials last month to suspend research on certain high-risk pathogens at Tulane University has left questions about an ongoing investigation of the incident and broader risks.

According to a lengthy 1 March news article in USA Today, two rhesus macaques at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, Louisiana, that fell ill in early November later tested positive for infection with Burkholderia pseudomallei, which is found naturally in soil and water in Southeast Asia and northern Australia. Center researchers had been working with rodents on a vaccine for the bacterium, which can cause a sometimes serious illness called melioidosis in animals and people. The two macaques, which later had to be euthanized, and two other rhesus macaques that tested positive for the bacterium may have been exposed while being treated at the center’s hospital.

Adding to concerns, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigator who visited the site in late January fell seriously ill a day later and tested positive for Burkholderia pseudomallei. It is not clear whether the investigator, who has since recovered, was infected at Tulane or earlier during travel abroad, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in February. The agency said it had suspended all studies at the center involving select agents, a list of dangerous viruses, bacteria, and toxins that are tightly regulated. That includes about 10 projects, USA Today reports.

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The human placenta is the focus of a new NIH initiative.

John Bavosi/Science Photo Library/Corbis

The human placenta is the focus of a new NIH initiative.

The Human Placenta Project, launched last year by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) despite uncertainty over how much money would back in the effort, has just received a whopping $41.5 million in 2015 to study the vital mass of tissue that sustains a developing fetus.

The placenta carries nutrients and oxygen to a fetus from its mother’s bloodstream and removes waste; problems with its performance may contribute to health concerns ranging from preterm birth to adult diabetes. Yet it is the least understood human organ, according to Alan Guttmacher, director of NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Last year, Science reported on a NICHD workshop where planning began for a Human Placenta Project that would aim to monitor the placenta during a woman’s pregnancy, using new imaging approaches, tests for fetal molecules shed into a mother’s blood, and other tools.

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Representative Bill Foster at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois last year.

Argonne National Laboratory

Representative Bill Foster at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois last year.

The U.S. House of Representative’s one-man physics caucus is joining its science committee—with the goal of restoring science to its rightful place in legislative discourse.

Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) holds a physics Ph.D. from Harvard University and spent 22 years as a particle accelerator designer at Fermilab, a Department of Energy national laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. When he arrived in the House in 2008, he was one of three members with a Ph.D. in physics. But the two others—representatives Vern Ehlers (R–MI) and Rush Holt (D–NJ)—have since retired, leaving Foster as the sole remaining member of that troika. (There are no doctoral-level physicists in the Senate.)

Foster didn’t join the House’s science committee as a rookie, instead focusing his legislative energies on reforming the nation’s tattered banking system after the 2008 financial meltdown. He also feared being pigeonholed as “the science guy.” But the world has changed, he tells ScienceInsider today in a phone interview after revealing he has been chosen to fill one of three Democratic vacancies on the science panel.

“Congress is now seized in gridlock, and that made the Financial Services Committee a smaller drain on my time and my staff’s time,” he explains. “And secondly, science has come under attack. Support for science, and even acknowledging that scientific thought is a useful way to operate our government, has come under increasing partisan attack. And the [House] science committee is one important platform to have that discussion about the proper role of science in government and in the economy.”

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Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Idaho National Laboratory last year.

Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Idaho National Laboratory last year.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz went committee-hopping this week, defending President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE) before two panels in the U.S. House of Representatives. And although some lawmakers worried that DOE’s request tilts too far toward applied research in its science programs, their grilling of Moniz on science was relatively light.

On Wednesday, Moniz appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and yesterday testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies. Representatives mostly peppered Moniz with questions that focused on hot-button energy issues—including DOE’s role in evaluating the controversial Keystone pipeline and efforts to promote nuclear power—but the department’s science programs also saw some time in the spotlight.

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What did Leonard Nimoy mean to you?

A.F. Archive/Alamy

Leonard Nimoy—poet, photographer, and Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock”died today at 83. The New York Times has the full story here. Though Nimoy wasn’t a scientist, he undoubtedly inspired generations of children to become one, thanks to his role as the U.S.S. Enterprise’s science officer. Nimoy also contributed to science-themed projects, such as the 1994 IMAX documentary Destiny in Space, which contained footage from nine Space Shuttle missions. We here at Science will feel his loss deeply. What did Leonard Nimoy mean to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Marc Kastner

Allegra Boverman

Marc Kastner

After 42 years of doing atomic physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and 16 years as an MIT administrator, Marc Kastner knows intimately both the value of basic research—and how to convince rich people to foster its growth at a premier research institution. Yesterday he announced he was leaving MIT for a job that will give him the chance to make the case on a national scale.

Kastner is the first president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a new effort by six foundations to boost private giving to basic science research, which is largely conducted at universities. The alliance has set itself the 5-year goal of boosting such giving by $1 billion a year—an estimated 50% jump over current levels, although Kastner admits that there are no good baseline numbers.

Philanthropy will never replace U.S. government support for basic research, Kastner says. But what he calls a “tilt” in federal support toward applied research over basic science has created a “desperation situation” for academic researchers that “in my view, is probably the worst since the Second World War.”

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The Ebola treatment center in Nzérékoré, Guinea, one of the trial sites.

Xavier Anglaret and Dadoua Sissoko/INSERM

The Ebola treatment center in Nzérékoré, Guinea, one of the trial sites.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—When French scientists presented the results from an Ebola drug trial at a press conference on Monday, they did so with plenty of caveats, but their message was hopeful: The drug, favipiravir, appeared to lower mortality in people with low and medium-high levels of virus in their blood, the researchers told journalists at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) here.

But when study leader Denis Malvy of the University of Bordeaux in France presented more details of the results at CROI, many colleagues were underwhelmed. Several scientists criticized the evidence as well as the design of the trial, which is ongoing at four clinics in Guinea. “It doesn’t tell us anything,” said epidemiologist Scott Hammer of Columbia University, who chairs the meeting.

In his presentation, Malvy focused on a group of 40 patients who began the trial with lower viral loads than 29 others who clearly did not benefit from favipiravir. As he explained on Monday, only six of those 40 patients died—half of what was expected based on similar patients treated at the same clinics over the past 3 months. What’s more, after 4 days of starting treatment on favipiravir, an influenza drug, 51% of these patients had such low levels of the virus in their blood that the standard test could no longer detect it. “There was a signal that monotherapy with favipiravir may decrease viral load,” Malvy said.

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Earth scientists Jean Bergeron of the University of Sherbrooke; Lauren Garofalo of the University of California, Berkeley; and Lev Horodyskyj of Arizona State University participate in a climate negotiation game in late 2014.

Kerry Klein

Earth scientists Jean Bergeron of the University of Sherbrooke; Lauren Garofalo of the University of California, Berkeley; and Lev Horodyskyj of Arizona State University participate in a climate negotiation game in late 2014.

“Welcome, delegates,” the U. N. official boomed to the international negotiators gathered to find a way to prevent catastrophic global warming. The delegates whispered and scribbled on pie charts as she spoke. One popped open an orange cream soda.

“What is the planet,” the woman concluded, “that you will leave to our collective future?”

It’s a question those in the room contemplate daily. But on this day, they knew the burden of decision didn’t really rest on their shoulders—because neither the U.N. official nor the negotiation was real.

It was World Climate, a game that simulates international climate negotiations. The U.N. official was biogeochemist Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the Climate Change Initiative at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. And she addressed not diplomats, but earth scientists, gathered late last year in San Francisco for a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The game, created in 2010 by the nonprofit Climate Interactive and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology System Dynamics Group, is to U.N. climate negotiations what Model UN is to the real thing: a chance for outsiders to get a glimpse of what it takes to hammer out a consensus on a thorny international issue. And the players’ collective goal is straightforward: Commit enough resources to prevent dangerous global warming by the year 2100. The benchmark is to prevent Earth from warming more than 2°C above preindustrial levels, or about 1.2°C. higher than today—the same as the goal set by the United Nations’ climate agency.

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Mice have become the world’s most used mammal in research.

Armin Rodler/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mice have become the world’s most used mammal in research.

The number of animals used by the top federally funded U.S. biomedical research institutions has risen 73% over 15 years, a “dramatic increase” driven mostly by more mice, concludes an animal rights group. They say researchers are not doing enough to reduce their use of mice, which are exempt from some federal animal protection laws.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which collected the data, says the analysis by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is “inappropriate.” The analysis was published online today in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Although the Animal Welfare Act requires that the U.S. Department of Agriculture track research labs’ use of cats, dogs, and nonhuman primates, smaller vertebrates—including mice, rats, fish, and birds bred for research—are exempt. To get a sense of the trends, PETA filed Freedom of Information Act requests for data from inventories that NIH-funded institutions must submit to NIH every 4 years to receive an “assurance” allowing them to do animal research.

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H5N1

Cynthia Goldsmith/Wikimedia Commons

H5N1

Last fall, in a startling move, the U.S. government announced that a handful of U.S.-funded studies on risky pathogens were so dangerous that researchers should halt the work until experts could review them. After weeks of quiet, that review now appears to be moving forward. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has chosen a private firm to conduct a formal risk assessment to help experts decide whether the halted studies, which generally focus on flu viruses, should ever be allowed to resume.

But two prominent scientists have written the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a federal advisory board that is helping guide the analysis, to complain that it is being rushed through in secret and that the board lacks the needed range of expertise.

The controversy goes back to the fall of 2011, when two labs announced that they had modified the deadly H5n1 avian influenza virus to make it spread more readily in mammals. Many researchers worried about the risks of a pandemic if the new virus escaped the lab, and flu scientists doing so-called gain-of-function (GOF) experiments agreed to a 1-year pause in these studies. But the studies then restarted, despite ongoing concerns from many scientists that the risks were unacceptable.

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Climate change is just one controversial issue that provokes differing views on the relevant science. Here, demonstrators in Washington, D.C., in 2013.

Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Climate change is just one controversial issue that provokes differing views on the relevant science. Here, demonstrators in Washington, D.C., in 2013.

The bad news is that everybody does it. The good news is that social scientists are making progress in understanding why people ignore solid scientific evidence in deciding what they think about all manner of science-based issues—including how those topics should be taught in schools and addressed by policymakers.

The U.S. research community has long lamented how often the public disregards—or distorts—scientific findings. Many media pundits point the finger at partisan politics, although they offer contrasting explanations: Liberals often assert that Republicans are simply antiscience, whereas conservatives often insist that Democrats tout scientific findings to justify giving government a larger and more intrusive role.

A leading social science journal, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, takes a deep dive into the debate by devoting its March issue (subscription required) to “The Politics of Science.” The issue, edited by political scientists Elizabeth Suhay of American University in Washington, D.C., and James Druckman of Northwestern University, includes some 15 articles that explore “the production, communication, and reception of scientific knowledge.” And nobody gets a free pass.

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Rajendra Pachauri in 2011.

Kris Krüg for PopTech/Flickr

Rajendra Pachauri in 2011.

The resignation of Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has focused new attention on the question of who will become the next head of the global body. Pachauri stepped down today amid allegations of sexual harassment by a female colleague, The Guardian reports. Pachauri, who had led the IPCC since 2002, had announced plans to step down this fall, The Daily Climate notes, after the group’s annual meeting in October. A new IPCC chair will be elected at that meeting by the panel’s 195 member nations, which nominate candidates.

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A mitochondrion.

Michael Taylor/Shutterstock

A mitochondrion.

The United Kingdom’s House of Lords has approved legislation to allow a new type of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would replace faulty DNA, preventing certain types of genetic diseases. The vote follows the House of Commons approval of the measure on 3 February, making the United Kingdom the first country to explicitly allow the procedure, which would combine DNA from two biological parents and an egg donor.

The technique will be allowed under fairly tight regulation: Researchers who wish to offer the service to couples still must apply for and receive a license from the country’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

The technique, called mitochondrial DNA replacement therapy, would allow women who have mutations in the DNA of their mitochondria, the organelles that provide chemical energy for cells, to have genetically related children who don’t carry the mutations. It is controversial, however, because it would modify the DNA of an embryo in a way that could be passed on to future generations.

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The study took place in an Ebola treatment center in Nzérékoré, Guinea.

Julien Rey/MSF

The study took place in an Ebola treatment center in Nzérékoré, Guinea.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—There’s a “slight hope” that it may help some people. That is the researchers’ sober assessment of an Ebola drug that made page one news earlier this month when it was touted as the first promising treatment for this deadly disease.

Those media reports relied on preliminary data on a trial of a new drug in Guinea that were leaked by a nongovernmental organization that was helping conduct the study, the researchers say. The New York Times broke the story on 4 February, and the same day, French President François Hollande issued a statement heralding the results as encouraging. “Healing is accelerated,” the statement read. Guinean officials announced they wanted to make the drug more widely available.

Yesterday was the first time the French team discussed their data publicly, speaking to the media at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) here.

In the opening press conference, the trial’s principal investigator, Denis Malvy of the University of Bordeaux, described the trial, called JIKI. Sixty-nine adults and adolescents took part in the study, from mid-December to mid-January. All participants received the drug, favipiravir, for up to 10 days. Their outcomes were compared with patients receiving standard care at the same clinics for the 3 months prior to the trial’s start. In all, 48% of the participants died, which is similar to the mortality rate in the historical control group. But when the researchers did a subset analysis of patients who entered the clinic with lower levels of Ebola virus in their blood, they found an increase in survival.

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Sivaranjan Uppala (center), a Ph.D. student from IISER Mohali, went on hunger strike last week to protest delays in research-stipend hikes for Indian postgraduate scholars.

Devendra Tiwari/Photos of Hike Research Fellowship

Sivaranjan Uppala (center), a Ph.D. student from IISER Mohali, went on hunger strike last week to protest delays in research-stipend hikes for Indian postgraduate scholars.

BANGALORE, INDIA—Indian postgraduate students have taken to the streets nationwide by the thousands over the past week to protest overdue hikes to government stipends. Unless demands are met soon, protest leaders promise to take more drastic action, such as a attempting a countrywide lab shutdown.

The protests began on 16 February, when Sivaranjan Uppala, a 29-year-old Ph.D. biomolecular imaging student at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, began a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar, an ancient astronomical observatory near New Delhi. Uppala was subsequently joined by masses of students from premier research institutions across the country—including the Indian Institutes of Technology; the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi; Jawaharlal Nehru University; and the Defence Research and Development Organisation—who marched, performed street plays, and boycotted labs. Then on 20 February, 200 students gathered outside India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in New Delhi. Several were arrested before human resources minister Smriti Irani pledged to take action on the stipends. Uppala then called off his hunger strike.

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The Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as The Castle, which houses administrative offices.

Zach Frailey/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as The Castle, which houses administrative offices.

The Smithsonian Institution has asked its independent Inspector General (IG) to investigate allegations that one of its researchers, aerospace engineer Willie Wei-Hock Soon, violated the conflict-of-interest policies of several journals by failing to disclose financial support from a large energy company in his technical papers.

“The Smithsonian is greatly concerned about the allegations surrounding Dr. Willie Soon’s failure to disclose funding sources for his climate change research,” the Smithsonian, which is based in Washington, D.C., said in a statement released late Sunday. “The Smithsonian is taking immediate action to address the issue: Acting Secretary Albert Horvath has asked the Smithsonian Inspector General to review the matter. Horvath will also lead a full review of Smithsonian ethics and disclosure policies governing the conduct of sponsored research to ensure they meet the highest standards.”

The statement also notes that the Smithsonian “does not support Dr. Soon’s conclusions on climate change.”

The moves come after two environmental advocacy groups released documents this past weekend that raised questions about whether Soon had fully disclosed his funding from the Southern Co., a major energy concern, in nine technical papers published in seven journals.

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Industry support for some climate scientists has prompted controversy.

Billy Wilson/Flickr

Industry support for some climate scientists has prompted controversy.

In 2008, a small technical journal received a paper on climate science that required some special attention. The sole author was Willie Wei-Hock Soon, an aerospace engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The study argued that changes in the sun’s radiation output played a major role in influencing shifts in Arctic air temperatures—a view at odds with mainstream climate science, which fingered atmospheric carbon dioxide as a bigger player.

Geographer Carol Harden, the editor of the journal, Physical Geography, was aware that Soon was a vociferous critic of the idea that humans were causing global warming and of proposals for the U.S. government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. So “I knew that paper was hot potato,” she told ScienceInsider.

Still, Physical Geography published the 40-page study in 2009 after peer reviewers gave a green light, and Harden persuaded Soon to “adjust some of the wording … and take out some pretty toxic language” involving climate research.  At the time, however, she didn’t inquire about Soon’s funding sources or potential conflicts of interest. The journal’s publisher had “no specific disclosure form that I know of,” she says. “It was pretty much the honor system.”

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Nature to let potential authors try a double-blind date

Ale Ventura/Alto Press/Colourbox

The marquee research journal Nature and almost all of its sister publications this week announced that they will offer authors the option of participating in double-blind peer review, where both submitters and referees remain anonymous. The practice, which is common among humanities journals, has long been debated in the sciences, and several journals have recently taken the plunge. Some observers, however, remain skeptical of the value of double-blind systems and note that other journals are heading toward greater transparency.

Traditionally, scientific journals have adhered to a single-blind system, in which authors don’t know the identity of those reviewing their paper. But that system has led to concerns that it may contribute to bias against some authors, including women, minorities, and those from less prestigious institutions. In the last decade, publishers have tried to address those concerns by introducing various tweaks to the reviewing process.

Nature Publishing Group (NPG) began testing the double-blind system with Nature Climate Change and Nature Geoscience in May 2013, after an author survey indicated significant interest in the model. “We’re here to serve the needs of the research community, and it’s become increasingly clear that they want to have the option … to choose double-blind peer review,” said Véronique Kiermer, director of author and reviewer services at NPG.

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Rapid test for Ebola now available

Val Altounian/Science

The World Health Organization (WHO) has approved the first rapid diagnostic test for Ebola. The test needs no electricity, requires just a few drops of blood from a finger prick, and can return results in 15 minutes. That will be a huge help to health workers in remote areas.

Current PCR-based tests require a blood sample taken by needle, secure transport of the blood to a properly equipped laboratory with trained staff, and at least several hours to return results. Depending on how far away a suspected case is from a testing laboratory, it can take more than a day to receive test results.

The new test, produced by Corgenix, a company in Broomfield, Colorado, uses antibodies to identify a specific Ebola virus protein. The list price will be about $15 per test, says Robert Garry, a hemorrhagic disease expert at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, who helped develop the test. But discounts will be available, he says, for bulk purchases and suppliers for use in Africa. 

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Some NSF grants that lawmakers want to look at explore ways to make computers safe from attack.

Mike Strasser/USMA PAO/Flickr

Some NSF grants that lawmakers want to look at explore ways to make computers safe from attack.

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) has drawn a lot of attention for publicly chastising the National Science Foundation (NSF) for funding research on, say, China’s milk supply or ancient Icelandic textiles. But in criticizing government-funded research on seemingly obscure topics, or in far-away countries, Smith was simply joining a long line of politicians who over the years have claimed to be protecting U.S. taxpayers by questioning how research agencies spend money.

But last week the chair of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives may have crossed into uncharted territory with his new list of 13 “questionable” NSF grants. The letter, sent to NSF on 10 February, means that Smith has now asked NSF for detailed information on more than 60 grants. Most relate to climate, environmental, and social science, but the new request appears to reflect a much more ambiguous filter: For the first time, it contains several awards in the physical sciences, including one that has led to patented software to detect whether a computer has been taken over by malicious software and another that explores a long-standing mathematical puzzle.

Scientists are scratching their heads and asking themselves how anyone could consider such research to be an example of wasteful government spending. “I can’t figure out which bucket this fell into: silly, obvious, or low priority,” says one university administrator whose institution is a recipient of one of the grants. “Ah, well, we’ll soldier on.”

Detecting malware

As chair of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, which oversees NSF and several other federal research agencies, Smith has spent the past 2 years demanding that NSF explain why it funded some research projects. He and NSF have reached a temporary agreement that allows his staff to review all relevant materials in a...Continue Reading »

Serhiy Kvit in 2014.

Ukraine Crisis Media Center

Serhiy Kvit in 2014.

In recent months, Serhiy Kvit, Ukraine’s education and science minister, has had the stressful task of overseeing the hurried relocation of 25 science-related institutions, including 11 universities, from separatist-controlled enclaves in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, or Donbas. The crisis, which began after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula last March, has overshadowed ambitious attempts that Kvit is helping orchestrate to reform Ukraine’s higher education and science. The latest move on this front is a draft science law promising sweeping changes, including a new competitive grants body similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation, that’s expected to be introduced into parliament in March or April.

A literary critic and journalist by training and former president of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Kvit, 49, has won high marks from reform-minded scientists since his appointment as minister in February 2014. On the sidelines of the AAAS meeting in San Jose, Kvit spoke with ScienceInsider about the strain of dealing with the crisis in Donbas and the challenges of reforming the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, which has been led since 1962 by 96-year-old metallurgist Boris Paton. This transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: The relocation of institutions from Donbas has been piecemeal: Many scientists and professors chose to remain in the separatist areas. Why?

A: We didn’t move whole universities, just motivated students and teachers. Some people thought that if they left their labs in Donbas, they would have no opportunity to continue to be researchers. For others, they did not want to leave their apartments or their relatives behind. Very few are on the side of the Russians and the terrorists.

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A new shot at reducing research red tape

Ashley Fisher/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

No matter how much scientists complain about it, federal oversight of academic research isn’t going away. But could it be done better?

The chair of a new National Academies panel examining how the government keeps tabs on its $40-billion-a-year investment wants that oversight “to be sensible enough so that investigators have more time to do research.” That’s a reference to an often-cited 2005 survey in which faculty say that “administrative tasks”—such as complying with agency reporting requirements—take up 42% of the time they devote to federally supported research projects.

Speaking yesterday during a break at the panel’s first meeting in Washington, D.C., Larry Faulkner, president emeritus of the University of Texas (UT), Austin, told ScienceInsider that “it would be a mistake to think that the only purpose of this study is to lighten the regulatory burden on universities. Regulation is required, it’s justified, and it’s needed. What we’re trying to do is guide both government and higher education to find more efficient ways to address those needs.”

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