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Daily News Update

 

Highlights

 

Minister backs data ethics body

Matt Hancock, minister of state for digital, has agreed that “strong governance” is needed for data technologies, following a call from the British Academy and the Royal Society to set up an independent ethics body.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 29 June, Hancock backed the idea of setting up a body that advises the government on ethical issues relating to data management and the use of data-enabled technologies.

His comments followed the publication of a report, Data Management and Use: Governance in the 21st century, on the same day by the British Academy and the Royal Society. The report argues that the current framework governing the use of data cannot keep pace with technological advances. The institutions have called for an independent body to safeguard public confidence in the use of data and improve the way data technologies are used in healthcare, business innovation and other areas.

Hancock's comments imply that the UK government agrees. He confirmed that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has set out a proposal for a data use and ethics commission, and said that it was "really positive" that the Royal Society and British Academy had proposed a new body.

Some of the institutions' greatest concerns are over consent and anonymity. One question they want addressed is how data gathered through daily online interactions can be used to improve services and public security without compromising an individual’s privacy. Another issue is the use of complex terms and conditions that consumers are often asked to agree to when signing up to a service, which may not cover how their use of that service changes over time.

The Royal Statistical Society has also welcomed the recommendation for an ethics body. In a press release on 29 June, it said it had been telling policymakers that to capitalise on data, the government must clearly communicate its value and put adequate safeguards in place for its use. 

Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said: “We are really pleased the British Academy and the Royal Society have added their voice to ours in recommending a new body be created to properly consider the issues around data ethics. Evolving data technology provides society with immense opportunities but it is essential that the public are assured that their data is being used appropriately.”

 

UK > Politics

 

Osborne made professor of economics

George Osborne has been appointed honorary professor of economics at the University of Manchester.

Osborne, who is a long-time friend of Nancy Rothwell, the vice-chancellor of the university, will give lectures and masterclasses and conduct informal visits, the university announced on 29 June. 

The former chancellor, who is editor of the Evening Standard, will take up his sixth job in July.

In the announcement, the university said Osborne continued to be committed to the Northern Powerhouse, part of the government’s industrial strategy to boost the economy in the north of the UK.

Osbourne said: “I am bowled over by this honour. The University of Manchester was at the centre of so many things I tried to achieve as chancellor, from the promotion of new science to the building of the links between this country and countries like China. It is also one of the jewels in the crown of the Northern Powerhouse.

“I remain completely committed to that idea that together the different communities in the north can work together so that the whole is greater than the parts—and I believe more strongly than I ever did that the entire county, including our capital, would benefit from a stronger north.”

 

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UK > Research Councils

 

Research England recruits first council

UK Research and Innovation is seeking up to ten members for the first council of Research England.

"This is an exciting opportunity ... to help shape the strategic direction" of higher education in England and support the transition process through to the establishment of Research England on 1 April 2018, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced on 28 June.

Research England has the job of creating a knowledge exchange system and enabling research in England to thrive. It will also be responsible for allocating grant funding of more than £1.9 billion between 2017 and 2018.

In partnership with the UK higher education funding bodies, it will develop the Research Excellence Framework. Other duties include overseeing the sustainability of the Higher Education research base in England and managing the £900 million UK Research Partnership Investment Fund.

Applicants with experience in the fields of higher education (senior leadership), business, industry, the public sector or third sector are encouraged.

One applicant will also be appointed as a senior independent member.

The closing date for applications is 24 July.

 

UK > Charities & Societies

 

Charities rally against Scotland’s dementia strategy

Alzheimer’s Research UK has urged the Scottish government to increase research funding following the launch of a national dementia strategy.

In Scotland’s National Dementia Strategy 2017-2020, published on 28 June, the government pledged to support clinical and non-clinical dementia research in Scotland, for example by helping to build connections to UK-wide research institutes and by showcasing examples of dementia research.

The strategy, Scotland’s third, also says the government will continue to support the collaborative efforts of the Scottish Dementia Research Consortium to pool the country's resources and skills, using this platform to stimulate investment and research into the disease in Scotland.

However, charities have argued that the strategy doesn’t set out a clear plan on how the government will reach its goals.

In a press release on 28 June, Matthew Norton, Alzheimer's Research UK's director of policy, said that the number of people in Scotland dying from dementia had soared over the last year.

“If we are to stand a chance of bringing this number down, reducing the cost of dementia to society and stopping the heartache caused by the condition, then we must invest in research—it is our only long-term solution,” he said.  

Norton has called for the Scottish government to reveal the details of its plan to invest in dementia research.

Meanwhile, other Scottish charities are concerned that the government isn’t doing enough to flag up the links between health and dementia to the public. 

Julie Breslin, head of programme for Addaction’s Drink Wise, Age Well project, said: “Evidence has proved that regular excessive drinking can increase the risk of the most common forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

“With over 25 per cent of the adult Scottish population exceeding recommended weekly alcohol guidelines, it is imperative that this link is made clear to the public so they can make informed choices to reduce their dementia risk," she said.

The report also referenced a commitment made in the NHS Health Scotland report, Dementia and Equality—Meeting the challenge in Scotland 2016, which said further research was needed to determine the most effective way to raise understanding and awareness of dementia among the population.

 

Nuffield ramps up R&D spend

The Nuffield Foundation has set aside an additional £20 million to fund R&D projects up until 2022, increasing its funding pot to £70m.

According to its strategy report, published on 29 June, the foundation will focus on research in three areas: education, welfare and social justice. 

Priority will be given to research that spans the three areas, such as the impact of digital technologies on people’s lives, social inclusion, social geography, chronic illness, and the effect of physical and mental disability.

The report sets out four strategic goals. The first is to use research to identify pressing questions in education, welfare and social justice. The second is to fund research on the impact of digital technologies on society so that policies can be based on empirical findings. 

Third, it plans to expand its student programmes, particularly for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Among them are Nuffield Research Placements that enable students to develop science and social science skills.

And finally, it will act as a convening space to increase the reach of its research portfolio. 

In 2018, the foundation plans to open applications to its Strategic Fund, which provides more than £500,000 for major, long-term projects. 

Tim Gardam, chief executive of the Nuffield Foundation, said: “At a time when public trust in evidence is increasingly called into question, we have a responsibility to demonstrate how the research we fund is relevant to people’s daily experiences.”

 

UK > Careers

 

Parliamentary science office seeks new head

The House of Commons is recruiting a science or research leader to head the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

POST is the UK parliament’s in-house source of independent scientific advice and works with the House of Commons Library, the House of Lords Library and select committee staff.

Interested candidates should have a “compelling vision” for the possible impact of science and academic research in parliament. Additionally, a background in managing research personnel is sought.

Interested candidates can apply via the House of Commons website.

The closing date for applications is 16 July.

 

USA > Congress

 

Lawmakers push agency heads over budget requests

Two top administration officials faced tough crowds on Capitol Hill at hearings about President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018.

The Department of Energy’s Rick Perry and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health testified at separate Senate hearings.

Perry was tasked with explaining a 17 percent cut to the budget of the DOE’s office of science, taking it to just under $4.5 billion.

“I don’t envy you, you’ve been sent to defend the indefensible,” Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, told him at a 22 June hearing of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the DOE

Perry said the budget was not finished in his eyes. “We have some work to do on this budget, I know that,” he told the committee.

Senators also criticized the administration’s plan to eliminate the ARPA-E grant program, designed to fund high-risk, high-reward energy technology research. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, who is chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the NIH, flatly said the Senate would not cancel the program. 

Alexander suggested that the Senate’s budget for DOE would start at 2017 levels, and may even include increases for science research. Congress has kept those essentially flat since 2016.

Senators hit similar themes in a hearing with the Collins. “I fundamentally disagree with the proposed funding reduction for NIH,” said Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who is chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the biomedical research agency’s budget.

The White House has proposed cutting the NIH’s budget by $7.5bn, more than 20 percent.

Collins, who enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, was recently reappointed to the NIH’s top job, making him a rare holdover from former President Barack Obama’s administration.

He was diplomatic in his testimony, being careful not to criticize the White House’s budget request. Instead, he spent the bulk of spent his time describing successful NIH research programs before briefly mentioning some of the cuts the administration would like to see.

“We have never witnessed a time of greater promise for advances in medicine than right now. Your support has been critical, and will continue to be,” Collins told the senators.

 

USA > Federal Agencies

 

DoE finds money for oil and gas research

The Department of Energy has unearthed $20 million in new grants for technology to extract fossil fuels.

The funding, from the DOE’s office of fossil energy, will support three areas. Research demonstrating technology to access unconventional oil and gas reserves, which includes hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, will be allocated $15 million.

Another $3m will fund research on how to find those fossil fuels better.

The final $2m will go to research on preventing leaks and spills on offshore oil rigs, in particular by better predicting hazards such as earthquakes.

“This oil and gas research funding opportunity underscores the department’s commitment to developing all of the nation’s energy resources,” said Doug Hollett, the acting head of the DOE’s fossil energy office.

President Donald Trump has touted what he describes as the dominance of US energy this week, including energy technology. The Trump administration has emphasized extracting and exporting fossil fuels, and called for a reduction of environmental regulations.

 

USA > Societies

 

Scientific societies ask Trump to protect advisory boards

More than a dozen leading science organizations have warned President Donald Trump not to let politics infect science advisory boards at federal agencies.

“The selection, removal or replacement of advisory committee members or the disbanding of advisory committees based on criteria extraneous either to the science and technology issues that the agency addresses, or the representation of stakeholder interests, compromises the integrity of the process of receiving scientific advice,” the groups said.

The EPA recently fired nine members of its board of scientific counselors, then told many more that their terms would not be renewed when they end in August. Counselors have historically served two terms.

The Trump administration defended the effort as part of a broader attempt to clear out officials appointed by former President Barack Obama.

Fourteen scientific societies signed the letter to the president, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Statistical Society and the Oceanography Society.

The letter apparently comes in response to events at the Environmental Protection Agency, whose head Scott Pruitt removed climate data and other information from the agency’s website in April.

The letter alludes to that as well. “It is vital that government agencies provide, maintain and secure access to scientifically accurate information,” the letter says.

 

USA > White House

 

Uncertainty looms as Trump travel ban resurrected

The United States Supreme Court is to consider the legality of President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from several countries where the majority of the population is Muslim, however it can be used to block some people from entering the US in the meantime.

In January Trump introduced bans on travelers and refugees from Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. He said the government needed a pause while it reviewed and strengthened immigration and border-control policies.

Federal courts struck down the original plan, saying that it was based on unconstitutional discrimination against Muslims, and then did the same to a revised version that was meant to address that issue.

The White House appealed against the decision, taking the case to the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments in the autumn. In a 6-3 decision to take the case, justices said the administration could implement the ban, although they made exceptions for travelers with a ‘bona fide’ connection to a person or organization in the US.

It will be up to immigration officials to decide who qualifies. Lawyers will likely spend the next weeks and months trying to determine what exactly the wording means, and challenging the administration’s decisions in court.

The court’s ruling specifically mentions students who have been admitted to American universities and employees of US companies as travelers who should be exempt from the ban. States and universities that fought the different travel bans argued that they would unfairly affect students and researchers.

New York University said in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that it did not expect any of its faculty or students from affected countries—about 130 in all—would now be prevented from entering the US, according to Nature. People with family in the US would also be permitted to enter.

“Today's Supreme Court decision is welcome news for colleges and universities,” said the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in a statement.

Beyond that, there is less certainty.

“Right now, we’re back into a wait-and-see pattern,” immigration lawyer Brendan Delaney told Nature. He said he would be reluctant to make plans to travel to the US if he was a research scientist.

Even though it appears to be good news in the short term, Howard Garrison, director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology said Trump’s ban could still hurt American science.

“People are making decisions about where to spend years of their lives. This is not a one-off decision like a trip to Disney world. People are thinking about where to launch their career, where to continue their career,” he said, according to The Scientist.

 

World > Americas

 

South American nations to draw closer on Zika

Researchers in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay want to deepen their cooperation to be prepared for a potential second wave of the Zika virus, a symposium has heard.

Scientists meeting in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, on 26 June agreed that better collaboration between the three countries would make Zika research more resilient. This is particularly important to protect the field from dips in funding, the event heard, in case one of the three partners experiences economic volatility.

“[Zika researchers in] Argentina and Brazil can achieve economic independence through the development of bilateral cooperation,” said Claudio Valverde, the director of cooperation at the Argentinean-Brazilian Center for Biotechnology (Cabbio).

The event, which focused on the long-term future of research around Zika, included biomedical researchers from Uruguay, where Zika fever is rare. But Fernando Araripe, the director of Cabbio, said that keeping the whole region up to date on Zika was important because nobody knew if, where and when the virus might return.

“It’s like a time bomb that can explode at any moment,” he said. “Our countries have to be prepared.”

Zika fever emerged in Uganda in 1947 in monkeys, and was identified in humans in 1952. It spread across to South America where it became an epidemic In 2015-16. The virus causes a light fever and joint pain in adults, but has been linked with causing microcephaly, a form of brain damage, in foetuses when affecting pregnant women.

At the meeting, Araripe praised Brazilian scientists for responding quickly to the outbreak. He said that the Brazilian funding for Zika research includes 65 million real ($20m) for partnerships and cooperation.

The conference heard that South American nations should ensure they have Zika experts at hand, which can be deployed quickly to address any future outbreak. By drawing Brazil’s neighbours into a network of existing scientific expertise, a system of scientific exchange could be established that benefits all participants, the attendants agreed.  

 

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