June 2014 edition
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Should Congress judge research merit?

The Obama administration and the scientific community at large are expressing serious alarm at a House Republican bill that they argue would dramatically undermine way research is conducted in America.

Titled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014,” the bill would put a variety of new restrictions on how funds are doled out by the National Science Foundation. The goal, per its Republican supporters on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, would be to weed out projects whose cost can’t be justified or whose sociological purpose is not apparent.

For Democrats and advocates, however, the FIRST Act represents a dangerous injection of politics into science and a direct assault on the much-cherished peer-review process by which grants are awarded.

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News desk

Environmental groups strengthen their political operations

When the police arrested seven students at Washington University in St. Louis recently after a crowd of protesters sought to crash a board of trustees meeting, leaders of the environmental movement were thrilled. The students were demanding the resignation of one of the board’s members: Gregory H. Boyce, the chairman of Peabody Energy Corporation, the nation’s largest coal company and one of the most ardent corporate opponents of efforts to address global warming. They also represented the face of a new activism that the nation’s largest environmental groups are encouraging to revive a climate-change movement that seemed stalled not so long ago. Like their student confederates, the so-called big green groups are mounting their own climate-change campaign this spring, and… Read more

Do History of Science programs need more science?

The history of science has never had the easiest stories to tell. A field suspended between the two cultures, it’s been contested territory for as long as it has existed: rife with clattering jargon, methodological skirmishes, and ideological warfare. Although it entered academe as science’s explanatory sidekick, over the past few decades the history of science has emerged a full-fledged discipline, drawing practitioners mostly from the humanities. But this independence, and the field’s critical distance, has come at a cost, many in the discipline now say. By expanding its intellectual tent, the discipline has eroded its own authority and intellectual base, said Carsten J. Reinhardt, a science historian and president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a Philadelphia library and museum… Read more

The Next Frontier In The War On Science

The Obama administration and the scientific community at large are expressing serious alarm at a House Republican bill that they argue would dramatically undermine way research is conducted in America. Titled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014,” the bill would put a variety of new restrictions on how funds are doled out by the National Science Foundation. The goal, per its Republican supporters on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, would be to weed out projects whose cost can’t be justified or whose sociological purpose is not apparent. For Democrats and advocates, however, the FIRST Act represents a dangerous injection of politics into science and a direct assault on the much-cherished peer-review process… Read more

Identity Theft of the Scholarly Kind

Trust in the scholarly publishing community has been a hot topic recently. It was discussed at the recent STM Spring Conference, at the Council of Science Editors annual meeting, and in the Kitchen recently. In all three settings, it was clear that some believe there is a trust issue between researchers and publishers, others disagree, some aren’t sure. The entire peer review system is built on trust. Publishers trust that the authors actually did the work described in the paper. Authors trust that reviewers aren’t stealing their work out from under them. And authors trust that the publishers will perform all of the promised services in exchange for the right to resell the work. The erosion of trust, if this… Read more

Oklahoma joins W. Virginia in rejecting climate change curriculum

Another state has left its school board without a clear idea of what to do with recently formulated science standards. Following the lead of Wyoming, an Oklahoma House committee voted to reject the state school board’s adoption of new standards that were built on top of the Next Generation Science Standards. If adopted by the full legislature, the move will leave the state stuck using out-of-date standards that were recently given a failing grade in an independent analysis. The legislators’ reasons for objecting to the new standards aren’t clear, but an audio of the hearing at which the standards were rejected is available. In it, Tiffany Neill, the director of science education for the State Board of Education, describes the process by which… Read more

How El Niño Might Alter the Political Climate

El Niño is coming. Above-average sea surface temperatures have developed off the west coast of South America and seem poised to grow into a full-fledged El Niño event, in which unusually warm water temperatures spread across the equatorial East Pacific. Models indicate a 75 percent chance of El Niño this fall, which could bring devastating droughts to Australia or heavy rains to the southern United States. The debate over climate change, however, brings additional significance to this round of El Niño, which will probably increase global temperatures, perhaps to the highest levels ever. It could even inaugurate a new era of more rapid warming, offering vindication to maligned climate models and re-energizing climate activists who have struggled to break through… Read more

Why Do We Still Have Journals?

New technologies of communication should enable new ways of sharing and advancing knowledge. Newspapers have been radically transformed by the Internet revolution, adapting their format to continuous updating, color, video, and opportunities for feedback and debate by readers. Yet academic journals still bear the imprints of their origins, and most look little different today than they did 50 years ago. Perhaps the most interesting experiments have been in open access journals, such as those published by the nonprofit Public Library of Science (PLOS). Unlike traditional journals, which are typically funded by university library subscriptions that grant access to faculty and students, open access journals do not have a paywall. Instead, scholars pay to have their accepted articles posted online, making… Read more

Points of No Return

Recently two research teams, working independently and using different methods, reached an alarming conclusion: The West Antarctic ice sheet is doomed. The sheet’s slide into the ocean, and the resulting sharp rise in sea levels, will probably happen slowly. But it’s irreversible. Even if we took drastic action to limit global warming right now, this particular process of environmental change has reached a point of no return. Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — much of whose state is now fated to sink beneath the waves — weighed in on climate change. Some readers may recall that in 2012 Mr. Rubio, asked how old he believed the earth to be, replied “I’m not a scientist, man.” This time, however, he… Read more

Why Scientists Won’t Talk To The U.S. Government

That question was the focus of a forum held earlier this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. The lack of contact between scientists and policymakers “is the number one barrier to effective science communication,” said Abigail Abrash Walton, director of the Center for Academic Innovation. Scientists may sometimes lack confidence in engaging in the public policy process, she added. They may also be skeptical about whether their efforts will pay off in terms of real impacts or recognition by their colleagues and institutions. Others agreed with that assessment. Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships program, said that researchers may feel that time devoted to policy matters doesn’t count with… Read more

Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws

Competition in pursuit of experimental objectives has always been a part of the scientific enterprise, and it can have positive effects. However, hypercompetition for the resources and positions that are required to conduct science suppresses the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries. Now that the percentage of NIH grant applications that can be funded has fallen from around 30% into the low teens, biomedical scientists are spending far too much of their time writing and revising grant applications and far too little thinking about science and conducting experiments. The low success rates have induced conservative, short-term thinking in applicants, reviewers, and funders. The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with… Read more

Is it anti-intellectual to require “practicality” in STEM ed?

For better or worse, I spend a fair amount of time hanging out with graduate students in STEM fields, many from elite schools. All the worst things you might suspect about them are (at least partially) true: They’re neurotic, privileged, insecure, and narrowly focused on their academic lives. At the same time, though, the best things you might think about them are also generally true: They’re hardworking, intelligent, and passionate. They crack jokes whose punch lines require an in-depth knowledge of calculus. They use the acronym “PCR” in casual conversation, as though everybody knows what that means (“polymerase chain reaction,” in case you were wondering). This is not to imply that I am particularly cool: Nerdy graduate students are—much as… Read more

Correlating death and research spending (sort of)

Spurious Correlations is the virtual embodiment of a useful rhetorical cudgel: correlation does not equal causation. Sift through its data sets, and you’ll find all sorts of statistics that can be mapped onto each other — margarine consumption and the divorce rate, crude oil imports and number of train collision deaths, bee colony growth and the marriage rate. If you ever need to demonstrate that two things can appear connected purely by chance or some entirely separate factor, this is your site. If you need “news of the weird” fodder and are willing to play fast and loose with the facts, the charts are still technically accurate. The clever thing about Spurious Correlations is that it’s fairly transparent about how… Read more

National Academies issues new report on “convergence” (interdisciplinary and beyond)

Convergence is an approach to problem solving that integrates expertise from life sciences with physical, mathematical, and computational sciences, medicine, and engineering to form comprehensive synthetic frameworks that merge areas of knowledge from multiple fields to address specific challenges. Convergence builds on fundamental progress made within individual disciplines but represents a way of thinking about the process of research and the types of strategies that enable it as emerging scientific and societal challenges cut across disciplinary boundaries in these fields. The concept of convergence as represented in this report is thus meant to capture two dimensions: the convergence of the subsets of expertise necessary to address a set of research problems, and the formation of the web of partnerships involved… Read more

Universities seek to boost industry partnerships

When Matthew Shair discovered a protein involved in causing blood cancer — and a small molecule that might disrupt that protein — he saw the makings of a new drug. Facing years of costly work to prove its worth, Shair, a chemist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, did not seek funding from the usual sources, pharmaceutical companies and venture-capital firms. Instead, in 2012, he turned to a Harvard programme that supports preclinical research. It provided him with US$250,000 for preliminary studies in mice and human cells, to determine whether his drug justified under-going clinical trials. “It gave us the freedom to do the experiments the way we wanted to do them, rather than the way a company might think… Read more

2014 National Climate Assessment released

This National Climate Assessment collects, integrates, and assesses observations and research from around the country, helping us to see what is actually happening and understand what it means for our lives, our livelihoods, and our future. The report includes analyses of impacts on seven sectors – human health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests, and ecosystems – and the interactions among sectors at the national level. The report also assesses key impacts on all U.S. regions: Northeast, Southeast and Caribbean, Midwest, Great Plains, Southwest, Northwest, Alaska, Hawai’i and Pacific Islands, as well as the country’s coastal areas, oceans, and marine resources. Over recent decades, climate science has advanced significantly. Increased scrutiny has led to increased certainty that we are now seeing… Read more

Boosting knowledge transfer in the EU

Europe faces two existential challenges: (1) how to create sustainable growth given the vast overhang of public and private debt and (2) how to do this given the transformational impact of disruptive technologies (e.g. the impact of the newly emerging Key Enabling Technologies) on traditional models for business and public sector organizations (e.g. energy and health), banks, universities and public research organizations (PROs). Asia and North America face similar challenges. Evidence on knowledge transfer (KT) suggests there is still a gap when Europe is compared to the US, even though the Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO) profession has been maturing all over Europe. While Europe performs better than Japan, we see a rising level in China that will become a fierce… Read more

The ongoing challenge of networking research respositories

In October 1999 a group of people met in New Mexico to discuss ways in which the growing number of “eprint archives” could co-operate. Dubbed the Santa Fe Convention, the meeting was a response to a new trend: researchers had begun to create subject-based electronic archives so that they could share their research papers with one another over the Internet. Early examples were arXiv, CogPrints and RePEc. The thinking behind the meeting was that if these distributed archives were made interoperable they would not only be more useful to the communities that created them, but they could “contribute to the creation of a more effective scholarly communication mechanism.” With this end in mind it was decided to launch the Open… Read more

The economics of drug pricing

The decision by the drugmaker Gilead Science, Inc. to charge $84,000 for a 12-week course of its new hepatitis C drug Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) has churned up protest.  Members of Congress have called for company, based in Foster City, Calif., to justify the price.  Medicaid state programs and private insurers are holding off adding the drug to their formularies. Express Scripts, the largest pharmacy benefit management company in the country, has threatened to stop covering the drug as soon as an alternative comes on the market. “Gilead could have a great year this year and lose all ts market share a year from now,”  a company executive told Bloomberg News. About 3 million Americans are thought to be infected with the… Read more

Emerging best practices in dataset collection development

Secondary datasets are increasingly important to researchers as they attempt to answer questions, make predictions and test hypotheses in new and powerful ways. For libraries that strive to provide information to support research needs, these datasets can be considered a ‘new currency’ in collection development. There are many unique considerations in the collection and acquisition of datasets. Currently existing dataset collection development policies, guidelines and programs were gathered from web searches of academic library websites, calls to listservs and personal communications. A total of 18 policies, guidelines, or programs were identified and considered in this work. A literature review was conducted with a focus on the collection of commercially available datasets. The purpose of this overview was to get a… Read more

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