Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • White House formally invites public comment on open-access policies

    the white house

    Originally published by E&E News

    The White House issued a notice Wednesday seeking comment on its effort to enhance public access to federally funded research. It's an old idea creating new controversy.

    White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director Kelvin Droegemeier is pushing back against publishers that in December said the administration was quietly pursuing an executive order to require immediate free distribution of taxpayer funded research (Greenwire, 17 December 2019).

  • NIH hosts nonhuman primate workshop amidst increased scrutiny of monkey research

    A female researcher holding a baby marmoset monkey in her gloved hands

    A scientist holds a baby marmoset, an increasingly in-demand animal in biomedical research.

    Sam Ogden/Science Source

    More than 3 years after it hosted a workshop on the science and ethics of biomedical studies on monkeys, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week convened another workshop on nonhuman primate research. And much like the previous event, the meeting is drawing sharply divergent reactions from biomedical and animal advocacy groups.

    “It was a very good look at the opportunities and challenges of doing this type of research,” says Alice Ra’anan, director of government relations and science policy at the American Physiological Society, a group that represents nearly 10,000 scientists, doctors, and veterinarians. It was “an excellent and robust discussion around fostering rigorous research in nonhuman primates,” adds Matthew Bailey, president of that National Association for Biomedical Research.

    But Emily Trunnell, a research associate at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights group, counters that the event was a wasted opportunity to talk about the ethics of using nonhuman primates in the first place. “It was just a bunch of scientists clamoring for more money and more monkeys.”

  • First deaths of cruise ship passengers fuel debate over Japan’s handling of quarantine

    A bus carrying U.S. citizens from the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship

    A bus carries U.S. citizens who had been aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship to a Tokyo airport on 17 February.

    Kyodo via AP Images

    --Two Japanese passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess have died from their COVID-19 infections, officials reported today, as the debate continued over a video alleging “chaotic conditions” on the ship. The infectious disease expert who posted the video, Kentaro Iwata of Kobe University, took it down early Thursday morning Japan time, saying it had served its purpose, including the release of additional epidemiological data about the ship.

    Iwata had posted his alarming video on Tuesday night after spending a few hours on the cruise liner, which is docked in the port in Yokohama, Japan. He alleged there was “no professional infection control person” aboard the ship and said, “Bureaucrats were in charge of everything.”

    During a press conference this morning from the Yokohama hotel room where he has quarantined himself, Iwata said he stands by his observations. But, he said, a trusted source told him significant improvements have been made to the separation of infection-free and potentially contaminated zones aboard the ship. In addition, Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) has posted epidemiological details on 531 passengers and crew confirmed positive for the COVID-19 virus, which Iwata thinks happened in response to the video. (Although he did not mention the lack of data in his video, Iwata said he urged the health ministry to release data 1 week ago.) “I thought the role of the YouTube post was over,” Iwata said. An NIID spokesperson directed questions about the data to Japan’s health ministry, where an official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

  • ‘A door of hell.’ War stories from past NSF leaders help agency mark 70th birthday

    former National Science Foundation directors gather for a panel at NSF’s 70th anniversary symposium

    National Science Foundation Director France Córdova (far left) hosted a 70th anniversary symposium that featured six former directors: (left to right) Subra Suresh, Arden Bement, Rita Colwell, Neal Lane, Walter Massey, and Richard Atkinson.

    National Science Foundation/Bill Petros Photography

    Anybody who has spent time in the upper echelons of the U.S. science bureaucracy has some war stories to tell. And that was certainly true of the six former directors of the National Science Foundation who gathered at the agency’s new headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this month to celebrate NSF’s 70th anniversary.

    At a 6 February roundtable during the 2-day symposium, each of the six offered a historical tidbit that spoke to the political intrigue that can surround even a low-profile agency like NSF, as well as the sometimes strained relationship the agency can have with its overseers in the White House and Congress.

    The storytelling session was moderated by NSF Director France Córdova, who is leaving NSF next month at the end of her 6-year term. It featured her predecessors, in chronological order: Richard Atkinson, Walter Massey, Neal Lane, Rita Colwell, Arden Bement, and Subra Suresh.

  • Scientist decries ‘completely chaotic’ conditions on cruise ship Japan quarantined after viral outbreak

    A port security officer closes a gate near the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship

    A port security officer at the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, Japan’s port. Passengers who tested negative for the coronavirus began to leave the cruise ship today.

    Eugene Hoshiko/AP

    A Japanese infectious disease specialist has harshly criticized the way Japan’s government has handled the COVID-19 crisis aboard a luxury cruise ship docked in Yokohama. Conditions on board the Diamond Princess were “violating all infection control principles” and “completely chaotic,” the scientist, Kentaro Iwata of Kobe University, said in a YouTube video posted on Tuesday evening.

    His claims are inflaming an already intense debate over Japan’s handling of the crisis. Scientists have also faulted the slow release of epidemiological data about the ship that could help control efforts elsewhere.

    Iwata released the 12-minute video (below), along with a version in Japanese, just hours before the official end to a quarantine that has kept some 3700 passengers and crew confined on the ship since 5 February in an effort to limit the entry of the virus into Japan.

  • Europe plans to strictly regulate high-risk AI technology blue Lincoln MKZ

    Self-driving cars are one of the high-risk artificial intelligence applications the European Union wants to regulate.

    The European Commission today unveiled its plan to strictly regulate artificial intelligence (AI), distinguishing itself from more freewheeling approaches to the technology in the United States and China.

    The commission will draft new laws—including a ban on “black box” AI systems that humans can’t interpret—to govern high-risk uses of the technology, such as in medical devices and self-driving cars. Although the regulations would be broader and stricter than any previous EU rules, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference today announcing the plan that the goal is to promote “trust, not fear.” The plan also includes measures to update the European Union’s 2018 AI strategy and pump billions into R&D over the next decade.

    The proposals are not final: Over the next 12 weeks, experts, lobby groups, and the public can weigh in on the plan before the work of drafting concrete laws begins in earnest. Any final regulation will need to be approved by the European Parliament and national governments, which is unlikely to happen this year.

  • Scientists ‘strongly condemn’ rumors and conspiracy theories about origin of coronavirus outbreak

    scanning electron microscope image showing SARS-CoV-2

    Posts on social media and even a scientific paper have suggested the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—seen here in orange, emerging from a cell—originated in a virology lab in Wuhan, China.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

    A group of 27 prominent public health scientists from outside China is pushing back against a steady stream of stories and even a scientific paper suggesting a laboratory in Wuhan, China, may be the origin of the outbreak of COVID-19. “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins,” the scientists, from nine countries, write in a statement published online by The Lancet yesterday.

    The letter does not criticize any specific assertions about the origin of the outbreak, but many posts on social media have singled out the Wuhan Institute of Virology for intense scrutiny because it has a laboratory at the highest security level—biosafety level 4—and its researchers study coronaviruses from bats, including the one that is closest to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Speculations have included the possibility that the virus was bioengineered in the lab or that a lab worker was infected while handling a bat and then transmitted the disease to others outside the lab. Researchers from the institute have insisted there is no link between the outbreak and their laboratory.

    “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” says The Lancet statement, which praises the work of Chinese health professionals as “remarkable” and encourages others to sign on as well.

  • ‘The disruption is enormous.’ Coronavirus epidemic snarls science worldwide

    A man passes by the statue of Mao Zedong at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, which has closed down.
    Getty Images

    Normal daily life has come to a virtual standstill in large parts of China as a result of the epidemic of COVID-19—and so has science. Universities across the country remain closed; access to labs is restricted, projects have been mothballed, fieldwork interrupted, and travel severely curtailed. But scientists elsewhere in the world are noticing an impact as well, as collaborations with China are on pause and scientific meetings for the next 5 months have been canceled or postponed.

    The damage to science pales compared with the human suffering; the total number of cases has risen to 71,429, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported today, almost 99% of them in China, and there have been 1775 deaths. Still, for individual researchers, the losses can be serious—and stressful. “Basically, everything has completely stopped,” says John Speakman, who runs an animal behavior lab at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) that has effectively been shut since the Lunar New Year on 25 January. “The disruption is enormous. The stress on the staff is really high.” But Speakman says he understands why the Chinese government took the measures. “It’s annoying, but I completely support what they have done,” he says.

    Disruptions are particularly acute in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, that are almost completely blocked off from the outside world. Sara Platto, a professor of animal behavior at Jianghan University, says faculty and students living on campus are confined to their apartments. Living off-campus, Platto can venture outside, but only once every 3 days. “I’m working more now than ever before the epidemic,” she says. Platto is a scientific consultant for colleagues in Beijing who are carrying out genetic analyses to determine the relationship of the virus that causes COVID-19—which was officially named SARS-CoV-2 last week—to another coronavirus isolated from a pangolin. She says she’s taking part in 13 chat groups aimed at keeping the research moving forward. But a paper she is writing has been delayed because she left her notes in her office before the epidemic and now can’t get back on campus.

  • Researchers finally get access to data on Facebook’s role in political discourse

    Early arrivals check their phones at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., February 3, 2020.

    Researchers want to know more about how misinformation spread by social media can affect election outcomes.

    REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    It took 20 months longer than planned, and a daunting statistical challenge remains. But Facebook is finally giving researchers access to a trove of data on how its users have shared information—and misinformation—on recent political events around the world.

    The data being made available today consist of 38 million URLs relating to civic discourse that were shared publicly on Facebook between January 2017 and July 2019. They reveal such details as whether users considered a linked site to be fake news or hate speech, and whether a link was clicked on or liked. Facebook is also providing demographic information—age, gender, and location—about the people who shared, clicked on, or liked those links, as well as their political affinities.

    In April 2018, Facebook announced that social scientists would soon have access to this shared-link data. But then its own data experts realized that making the data available could compromise the privacy of a significant portion of its 2 billion users. 

  • How Congress could reverse cuts in Trump’s budget request for NSF

    Graduate students Erzsebet Vincent (left) and Paul Klimov (now at Google) investigate quantum bits in semiconductors at the University of Chicago’s (UChicago) Institute for Molecular Engineering

    Students at the University of Chicago study quantum bits, key to the quantum information network that the National Science Foundation supports.

    David Awschalom, University of Chicago

    On its face, the proposed 2021 budget unveiled this week for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) looks like a disaster: An overall reduction of 6.5%, including a 7.8% cut in its research programs.

    But a closer look suggests outgoing NSF Director France Córdova has made it as easy as possible for Congress, the final arbiter of federal spending, to lessen the sting. She has crafted her last budget to appeal to both Democratic and Republican lawmakers—and left holes that those legislators will likely want to fill.

    Córdova steps down next month at the end of her 6-year term, so she won’t be around when the final decisions are made, probably after the November elections. But she’s staking her agency’s prospects on the bipartisan support NSF has traditionally enjoyed. Here’s how.

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