Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Crash-out Brexit looms larger for scientists after deal rejected

    U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s compromise Brexit deal was rejected by Parliament.

    Frank Augstein/AP Photo

    A historic defeat for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has raised the odds that the United Kingdom will crash out of the European Union in March, a prospect that scientists dread for its potential for disruption to research collaborations and the economy. On 15 January, Parliament roundly rejected May’s deal with the European Union, which lays out the terms for an orderly withdrawal. What happens next is unknown.

    “Yesterday’s unprecedented vote makes the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal even more likely,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society in London, in a statement. “A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for British science and innovation and I urge our elected representatives to put the interests of the country first and get a new plan to prevent this catastrophic outcome.”

    After a 2016 referendum, in which a majority of 51.9% voted to leave Europe, May invoked Article 50 of the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon. This action set 29 March as the date of departure. In November 2018, May’s negotiators reached an agreement with the European Union over the terms of the departure, spelling out the United Kingdom’s remaining financial obligations to the European Union and specifying a 2-year period to smooth the transition.

  • No pay. No retirement. No stink bugs by mail. The shutdown pain is spreading

    Furloughed from his work on rocket tests, NASA contractor Jack Lyons spends time in his workshop making props for marching bands.

    David Goldman/AP Photo

    No paychecks. No experiments. No reviews of grant applications. And no stink bugs by mail.

    The financial, empirical, and entomological consequences of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government for science multiplied this week, as it became the longest such closure in history. More than a half-dozen agencies that fund or conduct research, including NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have been partly paralyzed since 22 December 2018. And the fight between Congress and President Donald Trump over spending $5.7 billion on a border wall, which has shuttered about one-quarter of the federal government, shows no signs of being resolved.

    The impasse has already meant a lost paycheck for some 800,000 federal employees, as well as missed payments for thousands more contractors and academic researchers. Agencies have canceled dozens of meetings to review thousands of funding proposals, at one of the busiest times for federal grantmaking. Researchers inside and outside of government have postponed, restructured, or just given up entirely on planned studies.

  • European physicists unveil plans for a particle collider that would be longer than the Panama Canal

    An artist’s impression of a particle collision in CERN’s future collider


    European particle physicists today released a conceptual design for a successor to the world’s biggest atom smasher, the 27-kilometer-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which straddles the border between Switzerland and France. The report calls for an even bigger accelerator, that would be 100 kilometers in circumference, to study in detail the Higgs boson, the weird new particle that the LHC discovered to great fanfare in 2012. The new machine, known for the moment as the Future Circular Collider (FCC), would cost €9 billion. It would begin operations around 2040, after the LHC is scheduled to shut down, according to a statement issued by CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

    The LHC smashes protons into protons to generate the most energetic collisions currently possible. In contrast, the proposed FCC would smash electrons into their antimatter counterparts, positrons at energies 35 times lower than the LHC (but higher than any previous electron-positron collider). The electron-positron collisions would still be energetic enough to create Higgs bosons, but they would also be far cleaner and easier to analyze than the LHC’s collisions. That’s because protons are messy objects made of other particles called quarks and gluons. In contrast, electrons and positrons are, as far as physicists know, indivisible fundamental particles.

    The electron-positron collider would look for hints of physics beyond scientists’ prevailing standard model by searching for discrepancies between how the Higgs decays and standard model predictions. The FCC would also serve as a stepping stone to another future proton collider that could reach an energy seven times higher than the LHC, which might blast into existence new particles whose existence the electron-positron could only infer. The machine would cost an additional €15 billion and would fit into the FCC’s tunnel in the mid-2050s or later. The FCC would help make that ultimate machine more affordable by covering the €5 billion cost of the tunnel.

  • Groundbreaking deal makes large number of German studies free to public

    Davide Bonazzi/@SalzmanArt

    BERLIN—Three years ago, a group of German libraries, universities, and research institutes teamed up to force the three largest scientific publishers to offer an entirely new type of contract. In exchange for an annual lump sum, they wanted a nationwide agreement making papers by German authors free to read around the world, while giving researchers in Germany access to all of the publishers’ online content.

    Today, after almost 3 years of negotiations, the consortium, named Project DEAL, can finally claim a success: This morning, it signed a deal with Wiley, an academic publisher headquartered in Hoboken, New Jersey.

    Under the 3-year contract, scientists at more than 700 academic institutions will be able to access all of Wiley’s academic journals back to 1997 and to publish open access in all of Wiley’s journals. The annual fee will be based on the number of papers they publish in Wiley journals—about 10,000 in previous years, says one of the negotiators, physicist Gerard Meijer of the Fritz Haber Institute, a Max Planck Society institute here.

  • NEON ecological observatory in crisis again: Top scientist quits, Battelle fires advisory board and senior managers

    A NEON scientist outfits a tower in Virginia in 2015.

    Trevor Frost

    A half-billion-dollar ecological observatory being built by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is once again in turmoil, just as it moves from construction to operations.

    Sharon Collinge, chief scientist and principal investigator for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), resigned yesterday after the project’s contractor, Battelle Memorial Institute, fired two senior managers without her knowledge or consent. Within hours, Battelle had dissolved the 20-member committee of outside scientists advising the project, heading off what some advisory committee members say might have been a mass resignation in support of Collinge.

    Based in Boulder, Colorado, NEON is nearing completion as an 81-site facility designed to lead ecology into the era of big data. But it has had a troubled history. It was proposed nearly 20 years ago by then–NSF Director Rita Colwell, and many ecologists have long questioned its value. Construction finally began in 2012, but in 2015, NSF removed the contractor after ongoing management problems put the project well behind schedule and significantly overbudget.

  • Bipartisan bill on sexual harassment signals strong interest by Congress

    Robert Neubecker

    The new chairperson of and top Republican on the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives have teamed up to introduce legislation that would require federal research agencies to adopt a common policy on sexual harassment. The bipartisan bill signals that Congress may be ready to address an issue that has roiled the scientific community and generated calls to punish federally funded researchers found guilty of harassment.

    The legislation (H.R. 36) was introduced last week by Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the top Democrat on the science panel, and Frank Lucas (OK), the panel’s ranking Republican. It is identical to a bill that Johnson introduced in the fall of 2018. But that proposal was embraced only by Democrats, then in the minority, and it died when the 115th Congress ended.

    Democrats are now in charge of the House. And although Johnson can set the agenda for her committee, obtaining Lucas’s support suggests she hopes to do more than simply score political points. A bill backed by the panel’s two senior leaders stands a much better chance of moving through the House with the overwhelming support needed to win over the Republican-led Senate and, ultimately, President Donald Trump.

  • U.S. government shutdown starts to take a bite out of science

    Congress has refused to give President Donald Trump the funding he wants for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Mark Wilson/Getty Images

    *Update, 9 January, 1:30 p.m.: Shenandoah National Park today informed ecologist Jeff Atkins, featured below, that he will be allowed to enter the park for stream sampling despite the shutdown.

    Rattlesnakes, bears, hurricanes, and freezing weather haven’t stopped ecologist Jeff Atkins from taking weekly hikes into Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park for the past 8 years to collect water samples from remote streams. But Atkins is now facing an insurmountable obstacle: the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, in its third week.

    Park managers have barred Atkins from entering since 22 December 2018, when Congress and President Donald Trump failed to agree on a deal to fund about one-quarter of the federal government, including the National Park Service. That has shut down the sampling, part of a 40-year-old effort to monitor how the streams are recovering from the acid rain that poisoned them in past decades.

  • How much do graduate students benefit from studying abroad?

    Crystal Grant is spending a year in the Netherlands as part of her graduate program at Emory University in Atlanta.

    Bryan Meltz/Emory photo video

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) is rethinking how to provide U.S. graduate students with a chance to do science in another country. It also wants to know whether its current foreign travel programs are working.

    “We want graduate students to go where they need to go for the science,” says Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF’s international office, which is conducting a multipronged review of the agency’s investments in such programs. “But we need to figure out how to provide the right opportunities for them.”

    The issue is also the subject of a NSF-funded workshop this week. And NSF has resumed accepting applications from students in its flagship Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) program to carry out research in one of 18 countries. Last fall, GRF fellows seeking a Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) supplement were surprised to find out that NSF wasn’t accepting proposals.

  • Can a set of equations keep U.S. census data private?


    The U.S. Census Bureau is making waves among social scientists with what it calls a “sea change” in how it plans to safeguard the confidentiality of data it releases from the decennial census.

    The agency announced in September 2018 that it will apply a mathematical concept called differential privacy to its release of 2020 census data after conducting experiments that suggest current approaches can’t assure confidentiality. But critics of the new policy believe the Census Bureau is moving too quickly to fix a system that isn’t broken. They also fear the changes will degrade the quality of the information used by thousands of researchers, businesses, and government agencies.

    The move has implications that extend far beyond the research community. Proponents of differential privacy say a fierce, ongoing legal battle over plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census has only underscored the need to assure people that the government will protect their privacy.

  • U.S. Senate confirms Kelvin Droegemeier to lead White House science office

    Kelvin Droegemeier

    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The U.S. Senate confirmed Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) last night. But this morning, the meteorologist remains at home in Norman, Oklahoma, weathering a winter storm and hoping to learn more about his status from his political bosses.

    An emeritus professor and former vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, Droegemeier was nominated by President Donald Trump on 31 July 2018 to lead OSTP, which coordinates science policy across the federal government. A Senate panel approved Droegemeier over the summer, and his nomination was one of several that the full Senate took up in the waning hours of the 115th Congress. His appointment was approved by voice vote.

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