A rare court hearing later this month—the first in 6 years involving a research-related animal facility—could strip the license of one of U.S. scientists’ only suppliers of chinchillas because of animal welfare violations. The docile South American rodents, which have ears similar to humans, are a key model for hearing studies.
At a hearing that opens on 26 July, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lawyers will argue that Daniel Moulton, proprietor of Moulton Chinchilla Ranch (MCR) in rural Minnesota, is a willful violator of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which the agency is charged with enforcing. “This is a landmark case,” says Russ Mead, an animal law attorney at Lewis & Clark Law School. “The government only goes to [this kind of hearing] as the last resort.”
The USDA complaint that prompted the hearing alleges that Moulton’s facility, which holds about 750 animals, is filthy and fly-infested, with exposed nails and sharp wire points protruding inside cages, undiscovered dead animals, and scores of sick and unhealthy chinchillas that do not receive adequate veterinary care. The complaint cites evidence from 3 years of USDA inspections ending in 2017, which noted chinchillas with weeping wounds and sores, untreated abscesses, and crusted, discharging eyes. Since 2014 USDA has cited Moulton 112 times for alleged AWA violations, most recently after an inspection in May.
The iconic but elderly Hubble Space Telescope appears to have been resurrected again after a shutdown of more than a month following a computer glitch. Science has learned that following a switch from the operating payload control computer to a backup device over the past 24 hours, Hubble’s operators have re-established communications with all the telescope’s instruments and plan to return them to normal operations today.
“Hubble is back!” Tom Brown, head of the Hubble mission office, emailed to staff at the Space Telescope Science Institute at 5:56 a.m. “I am excited to watch Hubble get back to exploring the universe.”
The problems started on 13 June when the payload computer that controls the science instruments and monitors their health spotted an error in communications with the instruments and put them into safe mode. Hubble’s operators initially thought a memory module was at fault but switching to one of three backup modules produced the same error. Various other devices were investigated and ruled out as the problem when the error persisted.
Iran is forging ahead with plans to manufacture a sophisticated uranium fuel for a research reactor in Tehran. The government’s announcement last week, which specialists said was not wholly unexpected, represents a further breach of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and comes at a critical point in negotiations to reboot the pact before Iran’s hardline president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, assumes power on 8 August.
“Iran is pursuing a strategy of brinkmanship,” says Andrea Stricker, a nonproliferation analyst at the nonprofit Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It is using civil-use justifications as a pretext to brazenly advance its nuclear weapons–related knowledge.” Iran says the reactor will be used to produce medical isotopes.
The Trump administration in 2018 pulled out of the agreement, which restrained Iran’s nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions. President Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the pact, but Iran remains at odds with the United States and other signatories, including China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Iran ratcheted up the pressure last week, announcing it will follow through on a long-standing aim of making uranium silicide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). Iran would irradiate uranium silicide pellets in the reactor to produce medical isotopes, primarily molybdenum-99. Mo-99 decays into technetium-99m, which is commonly used in diagnostic procedures for cancer and heart disease.
The global pandemic has turned a spotlight on clinical trials, which test thousands of drugs and therapies each year. In Europe, however, the enthusiasm for trials is not matched with a zeal for reporting the results to the public. A total of 3846 European trials—nearly 28% of 13,874 completed trials in the EU Clinical Trials Register (EUCTR) on 1 July—had not posted their results on the register, according to the latest data from the EU Trials Tracker, set up by U.K. researchers in 2018 to expose lax reporting. Public research hospitals and universities, not drugmakers, are responsible for the vast majority of the lapses, which appear to violate European rules that require sponsors to post their results within 1 year of a trial’s conclusion.
“It is scandalous not to disclose the data, however disappointing, to the patient participants, to taxpayers in the case of public funding, and to everyone else involved,” says Florian Naudet, a metaresearcher at the University of Rennes hospital in France. Naudet says undisclosed results can lead to wasted efforts and missed signs of drugs’ potential harms.
But Europe is getting more serious about enforcing the reporting requirements. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has stepped up reminders to trial leaders, and a new trial registry is set to come online in January 2022, when national regulators will also gain more power to enforce the rules. The shifts dovetail with signs of change in the United States, where many trial sponsors are also remiss: In April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the first time cited a violation of a widely flouted U.S. public reporting law. Till Bruckner, founder of TranspariMED, a U.K.-based advocacy campaign to improve reporting, is hopeful that, soon, he won’t have to chide trial leaders so much. “I’m sick and tired of doing regulators’ jobs.”
Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
Sixteen pandemic months have felt disorienting and arduous—but along the arc of human history, COVID-19 marks just another inflection point. Epidemics have punctuated humanity’s timeline for centuries, sowing panic and killing millions, whether the culprit was plague, smallpox, or influenza. And when infections abate, their imprints on society can remain, some short-lived and some enduring.
In a series of news articles over the coming months, Science will consider how a new normal is emerging in the scientific world. Of course, COVID-19 is still with us, especially outside the minority of countries now enjoying the fruits of widespread vaccination. Still, as the pandemic enters a different phase, we ask how research may be changing, how scientists are navigating these waters, and in what directions they are choosing to sail.
Given the availability of more money, spending panels in the U.S. House of Representatives are proposing funding levels that approach the large increases that President Joe Biden has requested next year for several federal research agencies.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) would get hefty increases of 15% and 13%, respectively, in bills taken up today by two House appropriations subcommittees, the first step in the process of setting annual funding levels. NASA science programs would rise by 10% to nearly $8 billion, and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE) would grow by 4% to $7.32 billion. Core research programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology would grow by nearly 20%, to $938 million.
Relieved of an annual spending cap that has been in effect for the past decade, the House Committee on Appropriations has 8% more to allocate for all discretionary programs—some $1.5 trillion—for the 2022 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. And the science agencies appear to be benefiting from that largesse. The final numbers won’t be known for several months, however, and must be reconciled with a parallel budget process not yet underway in the Senate.
A battle is brewing in the U.S. Congress over a little-known program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that provides money to states that fare poorly in the agency’s funding competitions.
Last month the Senate approved legislation that would devote 20% of NSF’s overall budget to the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which serves 25 states and the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If enacted, it would immediately boost EPSCoR’s spending 10-fold, to some $2 billion per year. But many research advocates are wary of expanding EPSCoR so dramatically. They favor a bill passed last month by the House of Representatives that proposes a different way to increase the geographic diversity of NSF’s funding.
Both bills seek to address a long-standing issue for NSF, which awards its research dollars on a competitive basis. Although that process is seen as an excellent way to choose the best proposals, it has led to a staggering geographic imbalance. The top five states—California, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Maryland—garner nearly 40% of the total, whereas the bottom five—Vermont, West Virginia, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming—together receive less than 1%.
For Sepehr Arbabi, the ceremony last week to inaugurate the Iranian National Observatory (INO) on a mountaintop in central Iran should have been a proud moment. The astrophysicist spent 13 years surmounting obstacles to help put the world-class optical telescope on a sound technical footing, including obtaining its primary mirror from Germany. “I felt this was like my baby, my child,” says Arbabi, who left the project 5 years ago and is now at the University of Würzburg.
But Arbabi and some colleagues fear that opaque project management and a shift in the nation’s political leadership pose threats to the $30 million INO—the biggest science project Iran has undertaken. “It feels like your child is drowning in front of you and you can’t help,” Arbabi says. Others say Iranian astronomers should get a chance to review changes in the telescope’s design and how it may affect scientific objectives, as well as clarify who will have access to the telescope.
Many agree the inauguration was “untimely,” as the Astronomical Society of Iran (ASI) declared in a statement. That’s because the INO has not yet installed two key pieces of the telescope: its 3.4-meter primary mirror and its adaptor-rotator, a sensor-packed component that tracks stars and sharpens images. Astronomers cannot begin the monthslong process of commissioning and calibrating the telescope until those elements are in place, meaning first light is unlikely to happen until 2023 at the earliest.
Members of the National Science, Technology, and Security Roundtable—formed last year to promote discussions among federal officials, academic leaders, and national security experts—complained that presentations from a trio of major research agencies lacked the baseline data needed to determine the scope of the problem and what the research community can do to minimize risks.
“I hope you can sense our frustration,” Maria Zuber, a co-chair of the roundtable and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said at the end of a 2-hour online session. “It’s impossible for us to gain an understanding of the challenge we face with the information we are being given.”
Yesterday’s meeting, the third hosted by the roundtable, featured presentations from officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the parent agency of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who investigate all manner of waste, fraud, and abuse of federal funds. Their workloads have risen sharply in the past few years, they told the panel. And they said the rise has been driven by investigations of U.S. scientists alleged to have failed to disclose their ties to China’s foreign talent recruitment programs.
For example, NSF’s Inspector General Allison Lerner said allegations of foreign influence now make up more than 50% of the office’s overall portfolio. That compares with 7% in 2017, she said, before NSF took on its first case. Her 16-person investigations staff feels “overwhelmed,” she added. But Lerner repeatedly declined to say how many investigations her office is now conducting or how many involve foreign influence and emphasized that “our work remains invisible” until the U.S. government announces it has filed criminal or civil charges against an individual.
Her analysis didn’t satisfy roundtable co-chair John Gannon, a former senior government intelligence official. “Fifty percent of what?” he asked Lerner. “Is it a few bad apples or a major trend?”
Gannon had a similar response to a presentation by DOE’s head of investigations, Lewe Sessions. Sessions said his office has 35 active cases involving grantees who allegedly have undisclosed ties to foreign talent programs, including 24 researchers at U.S. universities. That represents a 200% increase “over previous years,” he noted. But Sessions couldn’t provide a more specific timeframe for the rise or characterize what share of his office’s total workload is taken up by such cases.
“What’s the overall population” of researchers involved? Gannon asked Sessions. “Without a baseline, I can’t grasp the scale of the problem.”
In an attempt to demonstrate the seriousness of the threat, Lerner offered an anonymous case study involving an undisclosed agreement between an NSF grantee and an institution affiliated with the Chinese government. The agreement, in Mandarin, contained provisions requiring the scientist to hire certain individuals, set targets for the number of publications and patents stemming from the research, and even described what topics should be pursued.
That agreement was news to NSF, she said, and represented deviations from accepted research practices that invalidated the terms of a grant that NSF had given the researcher. Lerner said the example demonstrated the need for university officials to track down and read such contracts signed by faculty members to ensure they don’t violate university or federal policies regarding conflicts of time commitments and ethical behavior.
But roundtable member Edward Bruce Held, a retired CIA agent and former head of DOE’s nuclear weapons labs, had a more basic question that went unanswered: “Is there any reason to believe that this contract is the norm?... I understand that such language is unacceptable, but does the [Chinese government] do this for a lot of people, or a just a few?”
The lack of baseline data also makes it hard for scientists to know whether recent steps taken to address the issue—such as having funding agencies clarify disclosure rules for scientists and universities and spend more time vetting international collaborations—are paying off, says Zuber, a planetary scientist and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “Federal agencies and universities have been raising their game, but are we seeing any benefit?” Zuber asked. “If we want our faculty to do extra things and it’s not helping, then we have some serious explaining to do to our colleagues.”
Zuber noted that panel members understood that the investigators were “constrained” in how much information that they could release. “But we’re not going away,” she said. “We’ll keep asking these questions.”
More than half of Dutch scientists regularly engage in questionable research practices, such as hiding flaws in their research design or selectively citing literature, according to a new study. And one in 12 admitted to committing a more serious form of research misconduct within the past 3 years: the fabrication or falsification of research results.
This rate of 8% for outright fraud was more than double that reported in previous studies. Organizers of the Dutch National Survey on Research Integrity, the largest of its kind to date, took special precautions to guarantee the anonymity of respondents for these sensitive questions, says Gowri Gopalakrishna, the survey’s leader and an epidemiologist at Amsterdam University Medical Center (AUMC). “That method increases the honesty of the answers,” she says. “So we have good reason to believe that our outcome is closer to reality than that of previous studies.” The survey team published results on 6 July in two preprint articles, which also examine factors that contribute to research misconduct, on MetaArxiv.
When the survey began last year, organizers invited more than 60,000 researchers to take part—those working across all fields of research, both science and the humanities, at some 22 Dutch universities and research centers. However, many institutions refused to cooperate for fear of negative publicity, and responses fell short of expectations: Only about 6800 completed surveys were received. Still, that’s more responses than any previous research integrity survey, and the response rate at the participating universities was 21%—in line with previous surveys.