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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • One of the most powerful science policy jobs in Brussels changes hands

    Robert-Jan Smits

    Robert-Jan Smits at a Horizon 2020 launch event in Rome in 2014. Desiging and negotiating the €80 billion program is his “biggest pride,” Smits says.

    Luigi Mistrulli/SIPA/AP Images

    It’s the end of an era at the European Commission’s research department: The most powerful civil servant in Brussels’s science policy circles, Director-General for Research and Innovation Robert-Jan Smits, is leaving his post. Smits has been named an adviser at the European Political Strategy Centre, the commission’s in-house think tank (where his exact mission is “still to be determined”); he will be succeeded by France’s Jean-Eric Paquet, now deputy secretary-general of the commission, on 1 April.

    Smits will be remembered as an advocate for larger science budgets and as one of the architects of Horizon 2020—the European Union’s 7-year, €80 billion funding program for research and innovation, which started in 2014. He was also a staunch supporter of the European Research Council (ERC), the European Union’s beloved funding agency for basic research, which started giving out grants in 2007 and had a €1.8 billion budget last year. Smits has both a genuine interest in science and a deep knowledge of the commission’s workings, says former ERC President Helga Nowotny. He “knew how to put both at the service of European research and the scientific community,” and “will be missed,” she adds.

    Directors-general are civil servants who run the departments that carry out EU policies and are less visible than the 28 commissioners—one per member state and per policy area. But Smits, a charismatic, well-liked bureaucrat with a steely handshake and a knack for networking, became an influential player of his own.

  • A successful cancer researcher confronts a new challenge: getting elected to Congress

    Jason Westin

    Jason Westin, who until recently ran clinical trials testing treatments for lymphoma, hopes to claim the Democratic nomination to challenge the veteran Republican incumbent, John Culberson (TX).

    Jason Westin campaign

    Starting this month, ScienceInsider will be following the 2018 U.S. elections, which have attracted unusual interest from the scientific community. Dozens of candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math are seeking election to Congress, and hundreds more are running for state and local offices. We will be profiling candidates and reporting on news from the campaign trail.

    This story is the first in a three-part series about three Texas candidates with scientific backgrounds who are running for the U.S. House of Representatives as Democrats. The primary is 6 March.

    As a clinical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, Jason Westin tries to help his patients cope with their deadly disease by being both honest and upbeat with them. He’s taking the same approach as a first-time candidate for the U.S. Congress: He accepts the long odds and steep learning curve, but he can also see a path to victory.

  • NASA planetary protection officer suggests loosening limits on exploring Mars for life

    Viking lander

    The twin Viking spacecraft landed on Mars in 1976. They were cleaned to a level required to explore habitable regions.

    NASA

    Is there life on the surface of Mars? The clock is ticking on scientists’ window to solve that long-standing question before astronauts—and the microbes that live on them—contaminate the planet. Today, at a meeting in Washington, D.C., of NASA’s planetary science advisory committee, the agency’s new planetary protection officer raised the possibility of opening up a few of the planet’s most promising regions to more aggressive exploration.

    Just a few weeks into the job, Lisa Pratt, formerly a geomicrobiologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, has signaled that she wants the office to be open to the notion that a degree of contamination might be necessary to explore several of the planet’s most habitable spots. Previously, the office has served as a watchdog to prevent the contamination of Mars and other planets with microbes from Earth, and vice versa. But now, time is pressing, given NASA’s long-term goals, Pratt says. “No matter what we do, the minute we’ve got humans in the area we’ve got a less pristine, less clean state,” Pratt said at the meeting. “Let’s hope we know before the humans get there, one way or the other, if there is an ecosystem at or near the surface.”

    Although no region of Mars is banned for exploration, international treaties set the allowable levels of microbial contamination on robotic spacecraft destined for other planetary environments. Some scientists say it is too costly to meet the sterilization requirements to explore the potentially warm and wet “special regions” on Mars that are most likely to harbor microbes. Only the 1970s Viking landers achieved the cleanliness necessary to explore a special region. A growing number of scientists have argued that the agency needs to rethink its plans, as Science reported last year.

  • Departures of USGS scientists highlight Trump era tensions surrounding data

    A sparkling blue river curves through the tundra of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve

    A request by political appointees for an early look at data on resources in Alaskas National Petroleum Reserve led to complaints from senior scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey.

    U.S. Bureau of Land Management/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    The protest departures of two top U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) officials put a spotlight on how the Interior Department employs scientific data and on the sometimes strained relations between political appointees and professional staff.

    Murray Hitzman and Larry Meinert, both holders of Stanford University doctorates in geology, left USGS in the wake of what they say was an improper request for energy information from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

  • Iconic Arecibo radio telescope saved by university consortium

    Arecibo

    The Arecibo radio telescope will soon be managed by a university consortium.

    GDA/AP Images

    A consortium led by the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando will take over management of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, home to one of the world’s largest radio telescopes, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, announced today. NSF has been looking for another body to take over the running of the iconic facility ever since a 2006 review suggested the agency ramp down its funding to free up money for newer projects.

    “We’re delighted that there are signatures on paper,” says Richard Green, director of NSF’s astronomical sciences division. “That’s a fabulous moment at the end of a long process.” NSF now spends $8 million a year to run Arecibo, with NASA pitching in another $3.6 million. Under the agreement signed today, by 1 October 2022, NSF’s contribution will shrink to $2 million per year, with the UCF consortium making up the difference. UCF will complete the takeover as operator on 1 April, although an agreement detailing the transfer of funds must still be finalized, says James Ulvestad, NSF’s chief officer for scientific facilities.

    UCF has teamed up with the Metropolitan University in San Juan and Yang Enterprises in Oviedo, Florida, a company that has NASA and U.S. Air Force contracts to operate and maintain facilities. Ray Lugo, head of UCF’s Florida Space Institute, says the consortium hopes to bring in new users to contribute toward costs. He says the U.S. Department of Defense may want to use Arecibo to test sensors, while space mining companies may want to scope out target asteroids. “We want to bring other customers to the table,” he says. The consortium also wants to expand the telescope’s scientific capabilities, in part by upgrading equipment as repairs are carried out in the wake of damage suffered during following Hurricane Maria.

  • The science candidates: races to watch in 2018

    Model of the capitol building in a beaker

    TENOLA PLAXICO

    The 2018 U.S. elections have attracted unusual interest from the scientific community—and some researchers have decided to throw their hats into the ring. This table provides thumbnail sketches of some the candidates and races that the research community is watching, arranged by the dates of their state primaries. It is an initial list and by no means complete (all the candidates listed so far are Democrats, for example). The table will be expanded and updated regularly throughout the political cycle, which ends with the general election on 6 November. Let us know if you think there are other candidates we should be following, and why they warrant the community’s attention. Email dmalakof@aaas.org.

  • Meet the scientists running to transform Congress in 2018

    Randy Wadkins

    Biochemist and congressional candidate Randy Wadkins meets voters in Columbus, Mississippi.

    TENOLA PLAXICO

    Last month, Randy Wadkins prepared for the spring semester at the University of Mississippi by reviewing his notes for the advanced chemistry course he has taught for many years. Then the professor of biochemistry, who grew up near the university's Oxford campus and received his Ph.D. there, forced himself to step outside his comfort zone: He flew to Washington, D.C., where he asked strangers for money.

    Wadkins is running for U.S. Congress, and his fundraiser took place in a neighborhood restaurant just a few kilometers from where he would like to be working come January 2019. Wadkins warmed up his small but enthusiastic audience with a story about picking peas as a child every Saturday on his grandparents' farm to supplement his family's meager pantry. It reflects his "I'm just an ordinary person like you" message to Democrats in Mississippi's first congressional district, who on 5 June will choose a standard bearer to oppose the Republican incumbent in November.

    The candidate voiced his anger about the state of U.S. politics with the young professionals, who shared his distaste for the policies of President Donald Trump and the Republican majority in Congress. A dysfunctional and hyperpartisan House of Representatives, he told them, might work better if more of its 435 members were scientists like himself. Then came his pitch: "I'm here to help make that happen, and the first step is by taking your money."

  • Croatia’s top judge sues national ethics panel after it finds him guilty of plagiarism

    the Constitutional Court of Croatia building

    The Constitutional Court in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital

    Alen Gurovic/Alamy Stock Photo

    One of Croatia’s top judges is hitting back at the country’s national research ethics panel after having been found guilty of plagiarism. Miroslav Šeparović, president of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia, announced last week that he has filed criminal complaints against all five members of the Committee on Ethics in Science and Higher Education (CESHE), after it concluded that Šeparović’s 2013 doctoral thesis about children’s rights in EU and Croatian law contained repeated instances of “incomplete and opaque citations” of other people’s work.

    Šeparović confirmed to Science that he is suing the CESHE members—as a private citizen, not in his capacity of a judge—for misusing their positions and overstepping their jurisdiction, which his own court limited last year. “I am not happy for having to sue, but I have had no alternative,” says Šeparović, who says he seeks to “protect my right to honor and reputation.” Šeparović says he filed the charges on 28 November 2017, days after CESHE ruled against him, and decided to make them public last week after the committee’s unpublished report leaked to the press. Šeparović’s legal team has also called on the CESHE members to resign immediately.

    Members of the committee say they have only heard about the case from the press so far. “It is crazy that some team of lawyers is asking for members of a national ethics body to resign just for doing their job, for which they have a parliamentary mandate,” says CESHE Chairman Ivica Vilibić, a researcher at the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries in Split, Croatia. Vilibić says he worries about ending up in prison—the charges carry a maximum sentence of 5 years—and says Šeparović’s suit is a dangerous new development in an ongoing effort to weaken or end the committee.

  • U.K. scientists increasingly anxious about Brexit confusion

    a conceptual illustration of a person walking away holding one of the stars on the EU flag

    The United Kingdom will leave the European Union in March 2019.

    iStock.com/aurielaki

    With the second phase of Brexit negotiations approaching, scientists in the United Kingdom are urging their government to clarify its position on funding agreements and migration of research talent after the country separates from the European Union in March 2019. At a “Brexit Summit” held today by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, researchers said uncertainty about post-Brexit access to EU grants and immigration opportunities are already causing problems. “A cliff edge is happening now,” said Alastair Buchan, the head of Brexit strategy at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “We are at the risk of sudden loss of talent.”

    Meanwhile, the Wellcome Trust in London released a report yesterday calling for the United Kingdom to pay to participate in future Framework Programs, the main source of competitive grants from the European Union, as an “associated country,” like Norway and Switzerland; in return, the country should also retain a voice in setting framework strategies even after it leaves the European Union. “If the U.K. were to accept this report, it would be a reasonable place to start negotiations,” says Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of EuroScience, a research advocacy organization in Strasbourg, France.

    One of researchers’ top fears about Brexit—that it will diminish their country’s historic allure for researchers from abroad—is already coming true. Michael Arthur, president of University College London (UCL), told the committee today that in the past, 30% of the applicants for a UCL research fellowship were usually from other EU countries; this year none was, “something that really quite shocked me,” Arthur said. As for academic positions at UCL, the proportion of EU applicants from outside the United Kingdom fell from 25% in 2015–16 to 20% in 2016–17. 

  • Half of Canada’s government scientists still feel muzzled

    protestors

    Protesters, one dressed as a scientist (right), posed during a 2013 demonstration against the muzzling of Canadian government employees in Ottawa. Federal government scientists described restrictions on their speech in a survey that year and another released today.

    REUTERS/Chris Wattie

    More than half of government scientists in Canada—53%—do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government eased restrictions on what they can say publicly, according to a survey released today by a union that represents more than 16,000 federal scientists.

    That union—the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) based in Ottawa—conducted the survey last summer, a little more than a year and a half into the Trudeau government. It followed up on a similar survey the union released in 2013 at the height of the controversy over the then-Conservative government’s reported muzzling of scientists by preventing media interviews and curtailing travel to scientific conferences. The new survey found the situation much improved—in 2013, 90% of scientists felt unable to speak about their work. But the union says more work needs to be done. “The work needs to be done at the department level,” where civil servants may have been slow to implement political directives, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said. ”We need a culture change that promotes what we have heard from ministers.”

    Trudeau campaigned on a promise to let scientists speak, and his government acted quickly to reverse restrictions from when Stephen Harper was prime minister. Within weeks of taking power, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains announced that government scientists were free to talk with the media and public about their work and without approval from managers. In December 2016, PIPSC secured a clause in a new contract guaranteeing that right.

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