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  • Census Bureau needs outside help to save the 2020 census from political meddling, experts say

    Wilbur Ross speaks into a microphone

    Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said a shortened schedule won’t affect the quality of the 2020 census, but experts disagree.

    AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

    To counter what they see as unprecedented political interference in one of the world’s most respected statistical agencies, prominent statisticians are urging the U.S. Census Bureau to be much more transparent about how it is now processing the billions of bits of information it has collected from a truncated 2020 census.

    A series of actions by President Donald Trump’s administration has jeopardized the agency’s ability to deliver an accurate count of the U.S. population later this year, a task force of the American Statistical Association (ASA) concludes in a report released this week. So, to maintain public trust in this year’s census, the task force recommends the agency invite an independent group of researchers to pore over the data. The team would then issue a public report on whether the Census Bureau has met its goal of “counting everyone once, and only once, and in the right place.”

    “We are doing our best to support the Census Bureau because they have been put in a very difficult situation,” says ASA President Rob Santos, who co-chaired the task force. “They don’t have full control of their operations.”

  • Answer: covfefe? Play Science’s election 2020 crossword puzzle!

    image of empty custom Science crossword puzzle

    Does mixing science and politics make you cross? Sorry, because here’s the first ever News from Science crossword puzzle, as part of our Election 2020 special issue. May people of all political persuasions unite to solve it. The interactive version below can reveal letters or words if you need help. Consensus is 29 Down may be the toughest but here's a story that offers some more help. (And here's a printable PDF of the puzzle for the old-fashioned method)

  • Department of Energy picks two advanced nuclear reactors for demonstration projects

    Cutaway of Natrium reactor

    TerraPower’s Natrium reactor would use molten sodium to cool its core (blue). Molten salt circulating from (red) and to (orange) the reactor would ferry heat away.

    TerraPower

    Hoping to revive the moribund U.S. nuclear power industry, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced this week it will help build two radically new nuclear reactors within 7 years. Funded by DOE’s new Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, the designs include exotic features such as cooling by sodium or helium instead of water in a bid to be safer and more economical than conventional power reactors.

    DOE officials “were trying to do something new and push the technology forward but also to stay within that 7-year time frame,” says Ashley Finan, a nuclear engineer and director of the National Reactor Innovation Center at Idaho National Laboratory who was not involved in the choice. “I think these two [designs] were judged to be ready for demonstration.”

    DOE will split the total cost of building each plant with private industry. Each project receives $80 million this year and could receive a total of between $400 million and $4 billion in funding over the next 5 to 7 years. The agency also intends to make additional, smaller awards this year for less mature ideas, Finan says. A committee of experts whose roster has not been published selected from several designs, she says.

  • In New York, chemist Nancy Goroff is battling a Trump loyalist for a seat in Congress

    Nancy Goroff in front of a whiteboard

    Nancy Goroff

    Goroff Campaign

    Her opponent calls her a “radical professor.” But Nancy Goroff says her scientific expertise is exactly what Congress needs to deal effectively with climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a host of other issues.

    A physical organic chemist and longtime faculty member at Stony Brook University, Goroff will face off in November against Representative Lee Zeldin (R–NY), a lawyer seeking his fourth term. If she wins, Goroff would become the first female Ph.D. scientist to serve in Congress.

    Running in a Long Island district that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after twice backing Barack Obama for president, the first-time candidate is touting her scientific credentials.

  • Remdesivir and interferon fall flat in WHO’s megastudy of COVID-19 treatments

    two healthcare workers swab two patients for a nasal covid test

    Patients get tested for COVID-19 in India, one of 30 countries that took part in the Solidarity trial.

    AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    One of the world’s biggest trials of COVID-19 therapies released its long-awaited interim results yesterday—and they’re a letdown. None of the four treatments in the Solidarity trial, which enrolled more than 11,000 patients in 400 hospitals around the globe, increased survival—not even the much-touted antiviral drug remdesivir. Scientists at the World Health Organization (WHO) released the data as a preprint on medRxiv last night, ahead of its planned publication in The New England Journal of Medicine.

    Yet scientists praised the unprecedented study itself and the fact that it helped bring clarity about four existing, ”repurposed” treatments that each held some promise against COVID-19. “It’s disappointing that none of the four have come out and shown a difference in mortality, but it does show why you need big trials,” says Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust. “We would love to have a drug that works, but it’s better to know if a drug works or not than not to know and continue to use it,” says WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan.

  • New PLOS pricing test could signal end of scientists paying to publish free papers

    a hand holds a red pen over a scientific article

    PLOS will offer institutions a sliding scale of fees to publish in its selective journals, based on their past publishing volume.

    spinka/iStock

    PLOS, the nonprofit publisher that in 2003 pioneered the open-access business model of charging authors to publish scientific articles so they are immediately free to all, this week rolled out an alternative model that could herald the end of the author-pays era. One of the new options shifts the cost of publishing open-access (OA) articles in its two most selective journals to institutions, charging them a fixed annual fee; any researcher at that institution could then publish in the PLOS journals at no additional charge.

    The new PLOS plan includes other features novel in scientific publishing, and it joins other emerging OA financing models that also do away with fees paid by authors. Together, the developments suggest the days of researchers directly paying journals to make their papers free—a system that has made PLOS one of the largest OA publishers—may be numbered, says Sara Rouhi, director of strategic partnerships at PLOS.

    The 3-year pilot at PLOS will test the new model with the selective journals PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. It aims to “demonstrate that highly selective open access journal publishing can cover its costs without charging high [article-processing fees (APCs)] or indeed any APCs” and “to equitably distribute cost amongst institutions that publish most in those two journals,” PLOS said in a statement.

  • Act now, wait for perfect evidence later, says ‘high priestess’ of U.K. COVID-19 masking campaign

    Illustration of Trisha Greenhalgh

    “As scientists, our goal must be to cut through the rubbish,” says Trisha Greenhalgh of the University of Oxford.

    KATTY HUERTAS

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    In May, when several prominent U.K. scientists pushed back against a Royal Society report recommending face masks to help control the spread of COVID-19, Trisha Greenhalgh was furious. The scientists argued there was insufficient support in the scientific literature for the efficacy of masks, and the U.K. government, following their lead, declined to mandate masks for the general public.

    “The search for perfect evidence may be the enemy of good policy,” Greenhalgh, a physician and expert in health care delivery at the University of Oxford, fumed in the Boston Review. “As with parachutes for jumping out of airplanes, it is time to act without waiting for randomized controlled trial evidence.”

  • ‘A fraud on the nation’: critics blast Indian government’s promotion of traditional medicine for COVID-19

    a health care worker hands out a small bottle of medicine to two patients

    Government health workers hand out Ayurvedic medicine to people who are getting tested for COVID-19 in Gurugram, a city in northern India, in May.

    Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

    Reporting for this story was supported by a journalism grant from the Thakur Family Foundation, which has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this report.

    The Indian health ministry has begun to recommend traditional remedies to tackle the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, dismaying many Indian doctors and scientists. On 6 October, health minister Harsh Vardhan released recommendations for preventing COVID-19 and treating mild cases based on Ayurveda, India’s millenniaold system of herbal medicine, triggering sharp criticism from the Indian Medical Association (IMA), a group of more than one-quarter of a million modern medicine practitioners.

    In a press release, IMA demanded Vardhan produce evidence of the treatments’ efficacy; if he’s unable to do so, the association wrote, Vardhan is “inflicting a fraud on the nation and gullible patients by calling placebos as drugs.” Recommending any drug without evidence for a deadly disease that has claimed more than 100,000 Indian lives is “a dangerous trend,” adds C. S. Pramesh, a thoracic surgeon and the director of Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Centre. The government has no shortage of studies to point to, but Pramesh and others dismiss them as unconvincing.

  • Early approval of a COVID-19 vaccine could stymie the hunt for better ones

    a worker picks up a vial from a production line in a factory

    The United States, China, and other countries are ramping up production of experimental COVID-19 vaccines—a Beijing production line for one is shown here—but a limited supply of the first one with proven efficacy will likely still complicate the ethics of testing the other candidates.

    WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Success in the push to find a COVID-19 vaccine at record-breaking speed could hand the world a new problem. The first vaccine to cross the finish line might be only marginally effective, yet it could become the enemy of the good—or even the great—candidates in the wings by disrupting ongoing studies.

    In all likelihood, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or other regulators will issue the first COVID-19 vaccine approval or emergency use authorization (EUA) for one vaccine while many other candidates have clinical trials still underway or in the planning. At that point, ongoing studies of any vaccine—including that first one—could become unethical because half the participants would get a placebo, at a time a vaccine with established efficacy will be available. “It’s a very vexing issue,” says Christine Grady, who heads the bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center, which organized a “grand rounds” webinar on the challenges last week.

  • ‘Very disappointed.’ Trump’s science adviser has left U.S. researchers wanting more

    Kelvin Droegemeier in his office hallway

    Kelvin Droegemeier arrived at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in January 2019.

    Stephen Voss

    For most U.S. researchers, President Donald Trump’s decision to wait 18 months before nominating meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) confirmed their belief that his administration had little regard for the value of science in setting policy. But they applauded the July 2018 selection of a career academic and university administrator, and they hoped Droegemeier’s genial manner and reputation as a team player might produce some small victories for the research community.

    But 2 years later, in the runup to the November election, those cheers have been replaced by private handwringing. Observers say there is scant evidence that Droegemeier, who also holds the unofficial title of the president’s science adviser, has tried to mitigate any of the administration’s most controversial policies relating to science and innovation. The list includes its chaotic approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, rolling back a slew of environmental regulations, restricting immigration, and proposing deep cuts in the budgets of most federal research agencies.

    Even small victories have so far proved elusive. Droegemeier promised to streamline and improve how the federal government manages academic research. But an interagency panel he created shortly after taking office—the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE)—has yet to announce consensus on any of several pressing issues.

    Droegemeier declined to be interviewed or answer questions from Science about his 20 months on the job. However, in a brief email he touted the administration’s accomplishments and asserted that “President Trump values research and the great work of scientists.”

    His meager track record has led some colleagues to wonder why he decided to leave the University of Oklahoma, where he was vice president for research and a longtime faculty member, to serve Trump. “For me, the question for Kelvin is: ‘Why did you think that being science adviser to President Trump was a good idea?’” says Arden Bement, a former director of two federal science agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology—under former President George W. Bush.

    A belated arrival

    Droegemeier’s nomination was greeted with sighs of relief.

    “It could have been a lot worse,” says one policy specialist, referring to rumors that the White House was vetting candidates far outside the scientific mainstream. “He was at the top of our list,” says another university lobbyist. (Science spoke to more than a dozen experts for this story, all of whom requested anonymity out of concern that their comments might hinder future interactions with the administration.)

    Research advocates liked that Droegemeier was a product—and staunch defender—of a system of federal support for academic research created at the end of World War II that had helped make the United States the unquestioned global leader in science and technology. He was also a familiar face, having spent 12 years on the National Science Board, which oversees NSF.

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