Max Planck will do away with stipends for young scientists that lacked many social benefits.

Max Planck Society

Max Planck will do away with stipends for young scientists that lacked many social benefits.

The Max Planck Society (MPG), Germany's flagship organization for basic research, will improve its support for junior scientists and do away with a stipend system used mostly for foreign Ph.D. students and postdocs that many had decried as unfair because it doesn't include basic social security benefits. The new scheme will cost the society up to €50 million annually.

The measure, officially announced yesterday (English version here), was welcomed by PhDnet, an organization of Ph.D. students at MPG that had been lobbying for change for over a decade. “This step brings young researchers one step closer to the living, social, and work contract standards of Germany,” writes PhDnet spokesman Prateek Mahalwar in an e-mail.

With a €1.6 billion annual budget and 83 institutes spanning the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, MPG employs more than 3400 Ph.D. researchers, 54% of whom are non-German nationals. About one-third of them have a so-called support contract, anchored in a collective wage agreement for Germany's civil servants, that offers many social and legal protections, including public health insurance and child benefits. The remaining two-thirds are on a stipend, which tends to offer more freedom in research and working conditions, but generally comes with less money and fewer benefits.

The distinction has triggered protests, especially because most German Ph.D. students have a contract, while most foreigners work for a stipend. PhDnet began sounding the alarm and lobbying for change in 2003, and in 2012, a group of young researchers launched a petition calling for fair pay. Although MPG has taken small steps to make the system fairer, the inequality became increasingly unacceptable, acknowledges Martin Stratmann, who became president of MPG last year.

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Fauci donning his protective suit.

NIH

Fauci donning his protective suit.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—As head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci wields a $4.4 billion research budget and has a punishing schedule. But the past 2 weeks, Fauci, 74, has reserved 2 hours on most days to put on a protective plastic suit and help treat a U.S. health care worker who became infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone.

"I now have a much, much more profound respect for the seriousness of this illness in some patients," says Fauci, who talked about his experiences at a filovirus meeting here yesterday. "Even when you have optimum facilities for replenishment of fluids and things like that, the disease itself is truly devastating."

A medical doctor who has headed NIAID for 30 years, Fauci has treated countless patients at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—of which NIAID is a part—in Bethesda, Maryland. "I do believe that one gets unique insights into disease when you actually physically interact with patients," he says. In the case of Ebola, Fauci says he also wanted to show his staff that he wouldn't ask them to do anything he wouldn't do himself; in addition, "it is very exciting and gratifying to participate in saving someone’s life," he says. Fauci also helped treat Dallas nurse Nina Pham, who was hospitalized at the Clinical Center for 8 days in October and visited President Barack Obama after she recovered.

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Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V sank on 10 October.

TAIWAN OCEAN RESEARCH INSTITUTE

Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V sank on 10 October.

The sinking of Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V last fall resulted from human error, the head of the country's Maritime and Port Bureau told local press this week. The 10 October accident claimed the lives of two researchers and rendered the dedicated marine research ship a total loss.

Barely a day into a cruise to study atmospheric pollution, Ocean Researcher V headed back to port because of bad weather. The ship drifted off course, struck two submerged reefs, and sank near the Penghu Islands, about 260 kilometers southwest of Taipei in the Taiwan Strait. Most of the 27 researchers and students and 18 crew were rescued. But Shih-Chieh Hsu, the cruise's chief scientist, and Yi-Chun Lin, an engineering assistant, drowned.

Wen-chung Chi, director-general of the Maritime and Port Bureau, said that a review of the ship's voyage data recorder and other evidence indicated that the crew should have been alerted that the ship had drifted off course. A comprehensive report on the accident is due to be released next week.

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Hoax-detecting software spots fake papers

Andrey Voskressenskiy/iStock

It all started as a prank in 2005. Three computer science Ph.D. students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn, and Dan Aguayo—created a program to generate nonsensical computer science research papers. The goal, says Stribling, now a software engineer in Palo Alto, California, was “to expose the lack of peer review at low-quality conferences that essentially scam researchers with publication and conference fees.”

The program—dubbed SCIgen—soon found users across the globe, and before long its automatically generated creations were being accepted by scientific conferences and published in purportedly peer-reviewed journals. But SCIgen may have finally met its match. Academic publisher Springer this week is releasing SciDetect, an open-source program to automatically detect automatically generated papers.

SCIgen uses a “context-free grammar” to create word salad that looks like reasonable text from a distance but is easily spotted as nonsense by a human reader. For example:

Cyberneticists agree that semantic modalities are an interesting new topic in the field of programming languages, and theorists concur. This is a direct result of the development of web browsers. After years of compelling research into access points, we confirm the visualization of kernels. Amphibious approaches are particularly theoretical when it comes to the refinement of massive multiplayer online role-playing games.

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An Ebola treatment unit in Guinea.

Samuel Hanryon/MSF

An Ebola treatment unit in Guinea.

The slowdown in the West African Ebola epidemic is welcome news and reason to be hopeful—but it’s also creating a new problem. With fewer new cases occurring, it is becoming more and more difficult to test vaccines and drugs. As a result, conflicts are looming over who can test Ebola drugs and vaccines in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

In Guinea, a large consortium that includes Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) vaccinated the first volunteers at risk of Ebola on Monday in a big trial of a vaccine produced by Merck and NewLink Genetics. But the team feels threatened because researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) are looking to move another vaccine study from Liberia, where the epidemic has come to a virtual standstill, to Guinea.

The U.S. move could jeopardize the Guinean trial, says John-Arne Røttingen of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, who chairs the study’s steering committee. "Can the two trials be going on in the same place? I don’t think so," says Marie-Paule Kieny, an assistant director-general at WHO. "There is a risk, if this is not done in an orderly way, that neither trial is conclusive in the end."

But Clifford Lane, head of clinical research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, which is part of NIH, says that Guinea, which reported 45 new patients last week, can accommodate both studies. "Guinea is basically as large as Sierra Leone and Liberia together," he says. "It would seem reasonable to at least explore the possibility."

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NASA'S Asteroid Redirect Mission would grab a boulder from an asteroid's surface, and then bring it back near Earth for astronauts to study.

NASA

NASA'S Asteroid Redirect Mission would grab a boulder from an asteroid's surface, and then bring it back near Earth for astronauts to study.

NASA has decided to pluck a small boulder off an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of Earth, rather than bag up an entire asteroid, agency officials in charge of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) announced today.

The $1.25 billion mission, which is planned to launch in December 2020, would send a robotic spacecraft for a rendezvous with an asteroid in 2022. After touching down on the asteroid’s surface, the spacecraft would snatch a boulder several meters across. The spacecraft would then orbit the asteroid for up to 400 days, testing out an idea for defending Earth from a catastrophic asteroid impact: using the spacecraft’s own gravitational field to subtly alter the asteroid’s orbit. Next, the spacecraft would bring the snatched rock back to Earth’s vicinity in 2025. Finally, as part of preparations for a possible mission to Mars, astronauts would visit and examine the rock for some 25 days, using the planned Orion spacecraft to make the trip.

The boulder-snatch concept is expected to cost $100 million more than the bagging concept, but it would be better for developing technologies that would have greater value for exploring Mars, explained Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator, during a teleconference today. Moreover, he says, whereas a bagging mission might get only one chance to snare its target, a boulder-snatching spacecraft will have a chance to survey the asteroid ahead of time before picking a target, and it could make several attempts at grabbing a boulder. “I’m going to have multiple targets when I get there, is what it boils down to,” he says. “That was the better value, in my opinion, for what we’re trying to do.”

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J-PARC aims to be fully operational again next month.

JAEA/KEK J-PARC CENTER

J-PARC aims to be fully operational again next month.

TOKYO—Idled after a radiation leak in May 2013, the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC) in Tokaimura took a step toward resuming full operations yesterday when the governor of Ibaraki Prefecture accepted a set of countermeasures aimed at preventing another accident. If the facility passes a final inspection by Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority, J-PARC could resume normal operations by the end of next month.

It has been a long slog. An independent investigative panel convened by J-PARC concluded that the accident resulted from a combination of equipment malfunction and human error. In J-PARC's Hadron Experimental Facility, a proton beam from a 50-GeV synchrotron strikes a target to produce a variety of secondary subatomic particles, including kaons, pions, and muons for use in experiments to determine their characteristics and interactions. On 23 May 2013, a malfunction sent a brief, unexpectedly high intensity beam at a gold target and vaporized radioactive material leaked into the experiment hall. Unaware of what had happened, researchers and staff inhaled contaminated air and also vented it outside the building. J-PARC took 34 hours to notify local and national authorities of the accident. All experiments were halted pending an investigation.

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President Barack Obama listens to a pitch by 14-year-old Nikhil Behari, who created a biometric security system that identifies unique users based on their typing styles. Behari says his system—on display at the 2015 White House Science Fair—is 98% accura

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Barack Obama listens to a pitch by 14-year-old Nikhil Behari, who created a biometric security system that identifies unique users based on their typing styles. Behari says his system—on display at the 2015 White House Science Fair—is 98% accurate.

Sixteen-year-old Sophia Sánchez-Maes is all about algae. The slimy green stuff is an attractive candidate for biofuel production, but Sánchez-Maes wondered why the biofuel startups near her hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico, weren’t having more success. “I’d heard all these stats about how awesome algae was and the potential, but I just wasn’t seeing it in my everyday life,” she says. “I kind of wanted to fix that.” After doing some digging, Sánchez-Maes found that the algae operations near Las Cruces were putting more energy into fuel production than they got out, so she set out to pioneer a new process that produces a positive energy yield.

The result earned Sánchez-Maes a coveted spot in Monday’s White House Science Fair, where more than 100 elementary, middle, and high school students shared their research with President Barack Obama and other government officials. “We’ve got to celebrate the winners of our science fairs as much as we celebrate the winners of football or basketball or other athletic competitions,” Obama said in a speech honoring the students. The young scientists and inventors studied topics that ranged from carbon dioxide–powered batteries to software that identifies breast cancer–causing genetic mutations to spine implants for young scoliosis patients.

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A worker inside the Large Hadron Collider tunnel in 2006.

Maximilien Brice/Claudia Marcelloni/CERN

A worker inside the Large Hadron Collider tunnel in 2006.

A tiny particle of metal dust is delaying the restart of the world's largest particle accelerator. Physicists at the European particle physics lab CERN on the French-Swiss border had hoped to begin circulating particles in Large Hadron Collider (LHC) this week, after 2 years of downtime to prepare the machine to run at higher energy. But an electrical short discovered over the weekend, apparently caused by a metal particle, has put a snag in those plans. Rectifying the issue could cause a delay of a few days to a few weeks, CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer told ScienceInsider today at an event in Washington, D.C.

"It's unfortunate, it's at the end, almost when we are ready to inject beam, but this is part of the process" says CERN’s director for accelerators, Frédérick Bordry.

Electrical shorts are not uncommon during the process of ramping up the LHC, but because the machine is already cooled down to its very low operating temperature, fixing the problem is now more difficult. If the machine must be warmed up to fix the problem, the work could drag out for weeks.

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European Commissioner Carlos Moedas (left) and Ukrainian education and science minister Serhii Myronovych Kvit exchange signatures in Kiev.

European Union

European Commissioner Carlos Moedas (left) and Ukrainian education and science minister Serhii Myronovych Kvit exchange signatures in Kiev.

BRUSSELS—Ukraine has earned privileged access to competitive research funds from the European Union, bringing its science closer to the Western bloc. Under a deal signed in Kiev on 20 March with the European Commission, Ukraine becomes an “associated country” to Horizon 2020, the European Union's €80 billion, 7-year research program. That means researchers and businesses in Ukraine may apply for any Horizon 2020 grant.

The commission has given Ukraine a sweet deal: It receives a 95% rebate on its association fee and a 1-year deferment to pay the first year's installment. The agreement is a testament to the European Union's will to build closer economic and political ties with its former Soviet neighbor, a process that has sped up after the conflict in Eastern Ukraine erupted last year. Researchers in the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia, are excluded from the agreement.

“Ukraine will now have access to the full spectrum of activities funded under Horizon 2020, helping spur its economy,” said E.U. research commissioner Carlos Moedas in a statement.

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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.

The University of Minnesota has halted patient enrollment in all psychiatric drug studies after a state report criticized the school’s handling of a suicide during a clinical trial in 2004. The report, released last Thursday by Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor, says the university’s reaction to both the death of 27-year-old Dan Markingson and subsequent calls for investigation have “seriously harmed” its credibility and reputation. The report also argues that the Markingson case “raises serious ethical issues and numerous conflicts of interest, which University leaders have been consistently unwilling to acknowledge.” Markingson had been enrolled in a trial for antipsychotic drugs while committed involuntarily to a university hospital. One of the trial leaders was his treating psychiatrist.

The university’s president, Eric Kaler, announced that his school would suspend enrollment in current and upcoming drug studies in the Department of Psychiatry until they could be reviewed by an outside institutional review board (IRB). The school’s IRB came under fire last month after a separate review suggested the panel was not examining trials as closely as it should be.

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Carlos Moedas

European Union (2015)

Carlos Moedas

LONDON—The head of the Horizon 2020 research budget tried today to blunt criticism of a plan to take €2.7 billion from the European Commission’s research budget and put it into an investment fund for economic recovery.

During a visit here, Carlos Moedas assured the Royal Society’s Paul Nurse and other scientific leaders that the idea would spur research as well as innovation.

“We are doing more and not less,” Moedas said he told Nurse during a visit to London today. “I'm extremely glad to reassure Sir Paul that the idea of the Juncker Plan will be to increase the firepower of Horizon 2020.”

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In girding for climate change, Great Barrier Reef plan falls short

Debra James/Shutterstock

The Australian government on Saturday unveiled a long-awaited plan to safeguard the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Scientists are unimpressed. It’s "a big disappointment," says Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, Australia. The plan, he says, “virtually ignores climate change."

For years, scientists have fretted about degradation of the reef. Although 344,400 square kilometers are protected as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, researchers reported in a 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the reef’s coral cover shrank by half between 1985 and 2012 because of storm damage, predation by crown-of-thorns starfish, and bleaching—the loss of the coral’s photosynthetic organisms when the water gets too warm. “Without intervention, the GBR may lose the biodiversity and ecological integrity for which it was listed as a World Heritage Area,” the team warned.

Heeding such alarms, last summer the World Heritage Committee warned that unless the Australian government produced a long-term action plan to protect the reef, it might list the GBR as "in danger," a step that could lead to the reef losing the World Heritage Site status it has held since 1981.

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Michigan judge asks PubPeer to turn over anonymous user information

orangesparrow/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The ongoing battle between PubPeer, a website that allows anonymous reviews of technical papers, and a researcher trying to unmask some of its users took a new turn yesterday when a county judge asked the site’s operators to hand over a piece of potentially identifying information.

Last fall, cancer researcher Fazlul Sarkar of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, filed a lawsuit against several anonymous posters on the site, claiming that their comments about apparent discrepancies in his papers constituted defamation and had caused him to lose a job offer from the University of Mississippi. He subpoenaed PubPeer for any information about the commenters, but lawyers representing the website filed a motion to quash the subpoena in December.

Earlier this month, Wayne County Circuit Judge Sheila Gibson mostly sided with PubPeer, but requested a separate hearing to discuss a comment from one user. It describes reporting discrepancies in Sarkar’s papers to Wayne State officials and receiving a response from the school’s secretary to the board of governors: "Thank you for your e-mail. … As you are aware, scientific misconduct investigations are by their nature confidential, and Wayne would not be able to comment on whether an inquiry into your allegations is under way … .”

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Critics say U.S. law has done a poor job of regulating the many chemicals that enter the market each year.

Horia Varlan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Critics say U.S. law has done a poor job of regulating the many chemicals that enter the market each year.

The latest effort to overhaul widely unpopular U.S. rules governing industrial chemicals got off to a feisty start in Congress this week, as the Senate began debating a bipartisan compromise bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The law—which hasn’t changed much in 40 years—has drawn persistent criticism from both industry and environmentalists for creating a bureaucratic morass. Congress has repeatedly struggled to find a fix acceptable to all parties, but some lawmakers are hoping that the new reform effort will finally bridge the gap.

“There has never been a bipartisan effort with this much potential,” said Senator Tom Udall (D–NM) at an 18 March Senate hearing on the new reform bill (S. 697), which has both Democratic and Republican backing. But Udall and his allies are drawing heavy fire from two top Senate Democrats, who argue that the bipartisan bill wouldn’t go far enough to protect health and have offered what they say is a better alternative. The bipartisan bill “is actually worse than the existing statute,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D–CA), a lead author of the alternative bill and top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Under TSCA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with assessing the potential health and environmental risks posed by thousands of substances used in industrial applications and consumer products, and then regulating them. But lawmakers and stakeholders across the spectrum agree that TSCA hasn’t worked; for a variety of reasons, EPA has reviewed just a tiny fraction of the substances already in commerce and has only rarely pulled an existing chemical from the market.

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A model of the human brain.

biologycorner/flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A model of the human brain.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) has listened to the critics, the reviewers, and the mediators. At a meeting in Paris, the board of directors of the €1 billion project yesterday approved a series of recommendations for reform, proposed by a mediation committee, which will change both HBP’s governance and its research program.

Critics of the troubled project welcome the move. “We are absolutely delighted that the board has adopted these recommendations,” says computational neuroscientist Peter Dayan of University College London, one of the hundreds of researchers who signed an open letter last year calling for a major reorganization of HBP. Dayan was a member of the mediation committee charged with finding a way out of the crisis after the publication of the letter.

That panel’s report—a summary of which was released on 10 March—roundly acknowledges that the critics were right. The committee “largely supports and emphasizes the critique voiced by parts of the scientific community regarding objectives, scientific approach, governance and management practices,” the report says.

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The waters around Pitcairn Island will become the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve.

MJ Patterson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The waters around the Pitcairn Islands will become the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve.

The United Kingdom plans to create the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in South Pacific waters surrounding the Pitcairn Islands—and they are counting on satellites to help police it. Yesterday’s announcement of the 834,334-square-kilometer reserve marks the latest move to create a mega–marine reserve, following similar moves by other nations.  

“This is a major development in marine conservation,” says Elliott Norse, chief scientist of the Marine Conservation Institute in Seattle, Washington. “Adding another really big, important, protected area to the world’s pathetically small list of big, imported protected areas—that’s a big thing.”

The announcement of the reserve, which will bar commercial fishing, mining, and other extractive uses, came in the U.K. government’s 2015 budget. It states that designation of the reserve “will be dependent upon reaching agreement with [nongovernmental organizations] on satellite monitoring” of reserve users, including fishing fleets, and on reaching deals with regional port authorities “to prevent landing of illegal catch.” The government also wants to identify “a practical naval method of enforcing” sea life protections “at a cost that can be accommodated within existing departmental expenditure limits.”

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Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne with the red budget box.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne with the red budget box.

One of the old traditions when the annual government budget is released in the United Kingdom is for the chancellor of the exchequer to carry his speech to the House of Commons in a red briefcase. This year’s budget, announced yesterday, contained few surprises for researchers—the core science budget is planned over 5 years—but did yield more than £240 million of additional funding and some details about previously announced commitments.

“It is great to see the chancellor putting additional money into innovation and recognizing the value of science,” says Naomi Weir, acting director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), an advocacy group in the United Kingdom, which remains concerned about the effects of inflation on the flat budget for core funding.

 The new money will be spent mostly on technology-related research, according to a statement from CaSE. Specifically:

  • £100 million for R&D on driverless car technology

  • £60 million for a new “Energy Research Accelerator”

  • £40 million for R&D on the Internet of Things

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

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

Defying a White House veto threat, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved two mostly Republican-backed bills that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses scientific data and advice in writing its regulations. The bills, closely related to two measures that came up but died in previous Congresses, now go to the Senate. White House officials have already said that they would advise President Barack Obama to veto the bills, which have drawn opposition from science and environmental groups, if they arrive on his desk in their present form.

Today, the House voted 241 to 175, mostly along party lines, to approve H.R. 1030, the EPA Secret Science Reform Act. It would bar EPA from issuing regulations that draw on data that have not been made public in a way that allows independent scientists to analyze it.

Yesterday, the House approved, on a 236 to 181 vote, H.R. 1029, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. It would change the membership and procedural requirements for the agency’s federally chartered advisory panels of scientists and economists.

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Scientific journal articles will become freely available, thanks to new policies at major U.S. science agencies.

Nationale Bank van Belgie - Banque nationale de Belgique/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Scientific journal articles will become freely available, thanks to new policies at major U.S. science agencies.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) today released a long-anticipated policy that will require its grantees to make their peer-reviewed research papers freely available within 12 months of publication in a journal. The agency is not creating its own public archive of full-text papers, but instead will send those searching for papers to publishers’ own websites.

Although that’s what most observers expected, it’s not what open-access advocates hoped for. “I’m disappointed,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a Washington, D.C.–based group which represents academic libraries. But scientific publishers who worry that full-text archives will harm journal revenues praised the plan. “This is a very good way to do things because it minimizes the cost to taxpayers without having to duplicate existing infrastructure,” says Frederick Dylla, CEO of the American Institute of Physics and a board member of a coalition of publishers that runs CHORUS (Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States), a system for providing links to papers on journal’s sites. (The coalition includes AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider.)

Despite some grumbling, today’s NSF announcement marks a milestone: It means that essentially all of the major U.S. federal science agencies now have a public-access policy. That reflects a push starting in the late 1990s by some scientists and activists to make the results of taxpayer-funded research freely available to the public. Since 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has required its grantees to submit their accepted manuscripts to its PubMed Central repository, which posts full-text manuscripts online within 12 months of publication. And in February 2013, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy ordered science agencies to come up with similar policies.

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Representative John Culberson (R–TX)

Office of Congressman John Culberson

Representative John Culberson (R–TX)

The new chair of a congressional spending panel that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA thinks those agencies should submit their budgets directly to the committee, without vetting by the White House. It’s the latest twist in the endless battle between Congress and the executive branch over how to set funding priorities, and comes from a legislator who says he’s just trying to give U.S. scientists what they need.  

Representative John Culberson (R–TX) believes that the current budget process, during which agency spending plans get folded into the president’s annual request to Congress after negotiations with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), prevents legislators from getting an accurate picture of the nation’s research priorities. “We want to avoid having politics shape those decisions,” Culberson told NSF Director France Córdova yesterday at a hearing on NSF’s 2016 budget request.

Of course, politics also rests at the core of Culberson’s suggestion. Legislators often pressure agency heads to talk about what they originally asked for, rather than what OMB eventually approved, in hopes that such inside information will give Congress an edge in its annual tug of war with the administration over spending.

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Fungi grown from soil samples will be searched for compounds that could treat cancer and infectious disease.

Robert Cichewicz

Fungi grown from soil samples will be searched for compounds that could treat cancer and infectious disease.

Thousands of citizen scientists around the country are getting their hands dirty collecting soil samples after the Internet bestowed a recent burst of attention on a soil sampling project. The crowdsourced project, which aims to find new drugs by cultivating fungi from soil samples, drew only moderate interest since it began in 2010. But it caught a lucky break on social media and has now exploded, surpassing researchers' wildest dreams in just a few days.

Since Friday morning, when a reddit user posted a link to the website of the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program, run by the Natural Products Discovery Group at the University of Oklahoma, the group has received more than 4000 requests for soil collection kits—a huge boost from the 500 samples they collected over the past year. Researchers watched the project go viral, spreading on social media and other websites. One enthusiastic reddit user wrote, "I'd love to see what's hiding in the dirt under these redwoods!"

"It's just incredible; this is exactly what we were hoping for. I wish I could say we were the architects of it, but it just happened, and it's awesome," says chemist Robert Cichewicz, lead scientist for the project.

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Scientists in Italy are protesting a move by politicians to outlaw the use of high-pressure blasts of air to map the sea floor. Backers of the ban say it is needed to protect marine mammals and other creatures that can be harmed by the noise created by so-called air guns. But opponents argue the measure—which includes jail terms of up to 3 years for violators—would damage research and energy prospecting efforts in Italian waters, and that there are less onerous ways to protect sea life.

Air guns, which are towed by ships, use compressed air to generate sound waves that reflect off seafloor rock formations. Differences in the reflections allow researchers to map seafloor geology, and such seismic surveys are often used to identify new sources of oil and gas, as well as earthquake-generating faults or magma chambers that could create volcanic eruptions. But the noise created by air guns has been implicated in disturbing marine environments, and even causing the deaths of some marine mammals. As a result, many nations require survey vessels to take steps to protect sea life, such as halting surveys if animals are seen nearby or forbidding measurements in particularly sensitive regions or during certain seasons.

No country has banned the technique outright, however, notes Elisabetta Erba, president of the Italian Geological Society in Rome. The Italian ban, which is part of an environmental protection bill, was proposed by two center-right senators and approved by Parliament’s upper house on a 114 to 103 vote on 3 March. The bill, which establishes a number of “eco crimes,” now awaits a vote in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

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 Feeling ignored by government, Canadian academics offer their own climate policy

RicLaf/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Under the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has become a tough and frustrating political environment for researchers trying to advance evidence-based policies to reduce emissions. The country has withdrawn from international climate pacts, muzzled government climate researchers, and put new regulatory efforts on the back burner. Now, one group of prominent Canadian academics is trying to change the dynamic by releasing its own set of climate policy recommendations for the nation.

“We believe that putting options on the table is long overdue in Canada,” write the 71 authors of the Sustainable Canada Dialogues report, released today. The authors, whose expertise ranges broadly across scientific, sociological, and political disciplines, were organized by Catherine Potvin, a climate and policy researcher at McGill University in Montreal. One goal, she says, is to encourage Canadians—and ultimately their government—to support “ambitious and thoughtful commitments to emission reductions” at a global negotiating conference set for Paris in December. The group is trying “to do whatever can be done to raise the level of ambition of Canada prior to the Paris conference,” Potvin tells ScienceInsider.

“Climate change is the most serious ‘symptom’ of non-sustainable development,” concludes the report, which offers a detailed policy road map for Canada to achieve 100% reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035. It calls for Canada to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and eliminate at least 80% of emissions by midcentury. Ten major recommendations include calls to impose a price on carbon emissions through a tax or pollution permit trading system, add more solar and wind power to Canada’s bountiful hydropower supplies, and eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels.

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Some polar bear populations are decreasing, a new analysis of Arctic mammals concludes.

Eric Regehr/USFWS

Some polar bear populations are decreasing, a new analysis of Arctic mammals concludes.

A first-ever effort to gauge the ecological status of all 11 species of marine mammals living in the Arctic reveals a mixed picture—and a lot of missing information. Researchers found that although some populations appear to be coping with climate change, others are in decline. Overall, however, scientists found that little information is available on most of the 78 known populations.

“Unless we fill critical data gaps, this is the information we have to base management decisions on for the foreseeable future—amid increasing development pressures,” says Kristin Laidre, the study’s lead author and a marine mammal biologist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center in Seattle.

Laidre’s team looked at what is known about marine mammal populations that play a key role in Arctic ecosystems and human communities, focusing on polar bears, beluga whales, narwhals, bowhead whales, walrus, and six different seal species. Many of these animals are fierce predators that sit atop the food web, but Laidre’s team found that they are also important subsistence resources: Arctic people hunt nearly 80% of the studied populations for food and other uses. “In modern times, there are few other places in the world where wild top predators support humans,” Laidre notes.

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