Those closely following President Joe Biden’s plan to create a huge agency to fund cutting-edge, transformative health projects welcomed the release this week of new details about the ambitious proposal. But for some research advocates, worries remain that the new agency won’t be significantly different from the rest of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where it would be housed.
The proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) “will need to be audacious, nimble, and have unique authorities,” says Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research. “It’s an incredible opportunity, but at the moment there are many unknowns that will need to be discussed and debated in the near future.”
First proposed by Biden early this year, ARPA-H would be modeled after the similarly named Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has a reputation for accelerating the development of breakthrough technologies for the military. DARPA’s funding approach depends less on traditional peer review of ideas and more on hard-charging program managers empowered to award contracts that can be abruptly canceled if researchers don’t meet desired milestones. DARPA has been lauded for, among other things, helping develop the internet and radar-evading stealth technologies. Biden and others believe a similar model of placing informed bets on high-risk, but potentially high-payoff ideas could also produce biomedical advances.
The $6 trillion request calls for sweeping investments in infrastructure and social welfare programs in the 2022 fiscal year that begins 1 October. It also includes a 9% increase, or $13.5 billion, in total federal spending on R&D, bringing the total to $171 billion. Spending on basic research would rise by 10%, or $4.4 billion, to $47.4 billion, whereas applied research would get a 14% bump ($6.3 billion) to $51.1 billion.
The budget “proposes historic increases in funding for foundational R&D across a range of scientific agencies,” Biden said in a statement, including what he asserts is “the biggest increase in non-defense research and development spending on record.”
President Joe Biden today released a proposed 2022 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) that calls for a new technology directorate as part of a 20% overall increase for the agency, to $10.2 billion. But hours before in Congress, a group of Republican lawmakers temporarily blocked a bipartisan bill championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) that would have added the Senate’s backing to the idea.
Biden’s $6 trillion spending plan for all government agencies includes $1.2 billion in 2022 to help NSF move research more quickly into the marketplace. Charged with that goal, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan wants to give the agency a seventh research directorate, to be called Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP), and has proposed it be given an initial budget of $865 million in 2022.
Unlike NSF’s existing directorates, which have divisions focused on individual disciplines, TIP would be organized around activities aimed at getting more bang for NSF’s research and training bucks. For example, some $200 million would be invested in new regional innovation accelerators, a mechanism for helping parts of the country with relatively little research infrastructure compete better against high-tech corridors like Silicon Valley. The new directorate would absorb some $350 million in existing NSF programs aimed at helping scientists become more entrepreneurial. TIP would also operate a $50 million office aimed at promoting partnerships with industry, government, and the nonprofit sector.
The U.S. Senate today confirmed mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Lander will also serve as President Joe Biden’s science adviser and hold a seat in Biden’s Cabinet.
Biden’s nomination of Lander, announced in January, drew mixed reactions from the research community. Many were pleased with the pick, saying Lander has the background and experience to be a savvy operator within the White House. Others, however, criticized the pick, noting that Lander had a history of conflict with other researchers and had been criticized for, among other things, downplaying the role of two female scientists in developing the CRISPR gene-editing tool, and for publicly toasting geneticist James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, despite Watson’s history of racist and misogynistic remarks. Some were disappointed that Biden selected a white man for the post and said he should have nominated a woman or person of color.
Swiss scientists are concerned they might lose access to European research funding after the country announced on 26 May it would not ratify a major new treaty with the European Union.
The treaty—called the Institutional Framework Agreement (IFA)—would have replaced many existing agreements between the EU and Switzerland on matters such as migration and trade. Negotiations about the deal broke down this week after 7 years because of disagreements over immigration, social security, and other topics.
Although science funding is not part of the IFA, Swiss researchers fear the political fallout could derail separate negotiations over Swiss access to Horizon Europe, the €95.5 billion EU research funding program that officially began this year. Switzerland, like a handful of other non-EU nations, has previously paid for full access to EU research programs as an “associate” member, but talks on joining the new program have not begun.
Last month, the Biden administration proposed boosting the budget for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research wing, the Office of Science, by 5.7% to $7.4 billion for fiscal year 2022. Members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology think the agency, the single largest U.S. funder of the physical sciences, needs a lot more. And tomorrow the panel will unveil a bipartisan bill that would authorize spending $8.7 billion next year—and nearly $11 billion by 2026.
“The Office of Science is receiving a $400 million increase from [current] levels, which would enable us to support all the of the key areas that the office covers, from quantum technology to biology,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told the committee today during testimony on the president’s overall 2022 request for research at the department. The proposed increase stands in stark contrast to budgets proposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump, which repeatedly sought—unsuccessfully—ؙto slash the Office of Science’s budget by as much as 19%.
However, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), who chairs the House science committee, questioned whether the proposed boost would be enough to enable the office to follow through on the programs and projects it has already begun—such as the U.S. contribution to ITER, the massive international fusion reactor under construction in southern France. The Office of Science is the main U.S. builder of large scientific machines such as atom smashers, x-ray synchrotrons, and neutron sources. DOE officials have built or begun the majority of large facilities that the Office of Science set out in 2003 as part of a 20-year plan for U.S. energy research.
More than 1000 researchers have signed an open letter in support of Elisabeth Bik, a scientific integrity consultant who is being accused of harassment and blackmail by a lawyer representing Didier Raoult, a controversial microbiologist at the Hospital Institute of Marseille (IHU) Mediterranean Infection in France. Last year, Raoult popularized the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Bik, who specializes in identifying manipulated images in scientific papers, has raised concerns about dozens of Raoult’s papers—including ethical, procedural, and methodological problems in a March 2020 paper reporting success in a small hydroxychloroquine trial.
The letter reflects a concern that “legitimate scientific criticism can be squelched by behaviors that go beyond scholarly debate,” says University of Virginia social scientist Brian Nosek, one of its authors. Threats like these are a “substantial threat to science as a social system,” adds Nosek, who has led a push for greater replicability in science.
Raoult’s lawyer told Science he filed a complaint against Bik with the French public prosecutor last month, although Bik has not been notified or charged. She says she has also faced months of harassment on Twitter—from one of Raoult’s colleagues, IHU structural biologist Eric Chabriere, and from anonymous accounts—as a result of her critiques of Raoult’s work. Most of the tweets question whether Bik is being paid by pharmaceutical companies and whether she profited from securities fraud at microbiome testing startup uBiome, where she worked from 2016 to 2018. Other tweets have attacked Bik’s appearance and threatened “justice” in “a real prison” in France. Most frightening, Bik says, has been the doxxing—publication of her home address by both Chabriere and anonymous accounts.
For the first time, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has expelled a member who had been found guilty of sexual harassment. NAS’s governing council has rescinded the membership of astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, the academy told its members in an email yesterday.
The email from NAS informed members that Marcy’s membership had been rescinded, effective 24 May, for violating its harassment policy. The NAS press office confirmed the academy’s action in an email to ScienceInsider, noting that the council’s vote met the required two-thirds majority.
Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
President Joe Biden today joined a growing chorus of voices calling, yet again, for a fuller, more transparent investigation into whether the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Biden outlined steps the United States would take to try to resolve the question, apparently even if China declines to allow a more thorough investigation of the scenario than a World Health Organization (WHO) team conducted earlier this year. The president’s move came as several top federal scientists testified at a Senate hearing this morning that the lab-leak hypothesis was a credible explanation for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, although less likely than a competing scenario in which the virus spilled over from wild or domesticated animals into people.
In a written statement, Biden said he has “asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days. … As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts.”
Sometimes a new presidential administration signals where it’s headed through whom it selects to lead a federal research agency. That appears to be the case with President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research wing, the Office of Science. Last month Biden tapped Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a soil scientist at the University of California (UC), Merced, to lead the office, which has a $7 billion annual budget and is best known for funding physics, running national laboratories, and building atom smashers and other scientific megamachines.
The nomination of Berhe, 46, suggests the office will increasingly emphasize research related to climate change, scientists say. Berhe currently studies how factors such as erosion, fire, and temperature affect whether soil soaks up carbon dioxide or releases more of it into the air. She was born and raised in Eritrea and, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, would be the first person of color to direct the office. (As usual for nominees awaiting confirmation, Berhe declined to be interviewed.)
Announced on 22 April, Berhe’s nomination delighted many environmental researchers. “She’s as star scientist as star scientists get,” says soil ecologist Bala Chaudhary of De- Paul University. Ecologist John Harte of UC Berkeley, who was Berhe’s doctoral adviser, hopes her nomination marks a shift in DOE science from esoteric conceptual problems to addressing the climate crisis. “There will be, I hope, more emphasis on science that relates to the sustainability of the human enterprise as opposed to the mere sustainability of a scientific endeavor,” he says.
Berhe has also long worked for greater diversity in the sciences, says geochemist Peggy O’Day of UC Merced. “She’s been a real leader, both on our campus as well as nationally and internationally, in advocating for people of color in science,” O’Day says. Last year, Berhe and Chaudhary published a paper in PLOS Computational Biology entitled, “Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab.”
But some physicists worry Berhe may have trouble guiding the often-fractious agency, citing her scant experience managing large organizations and her unusual scientific background for a position often held by physicists. According to her CV, Berhe has held one DOE grant for $200,000 and has served as interim associate dean of UC Merced’s graduate division.
As the nation’s single largest funder of the physical sciences, the Office of Science supports six research programs, including fusion energy sciences, high energy physics, and nuclear physics. Its basic energy sciences program funds chemistry, materials science, and condensed matter physics, and its advanced scientific computing program provides supercomputing for myriad studies. Biological and environmental research get 10.7% of its budget. The office owns 10 of DOE’s 17 national labs and builds big scientific facilities—the newest is a $730 million particle accelerator at Michigan State University.
The director’s job is to set priorities among the competing research programs and coordinate billion-dollar construction projects so that as one nears completion the next is ready to go, says Bill Madia, a nuclear physicist and former director of two national labs. “It’s one of the most important management jobs in science in the world,” he says. “You’re comparing priorities from bioenergy centers to neutrino experiments to exascale computers.”
Given that much of the office’s money goes to physics, Michael Lubell, a physicist at City College of New York and former head of public affairs for the American Physical Society, wonders how, as a biogeochemist, Berhe will approach those decisions. “There’s nothing in her background to suggest that she knows anything about fusion, or particle physics, or nuclear physics, or atomic physics,” he says.
Most past office directors have had a mixture of training in physics, experience running large organizations, and work history with DOE. But that background is not a prerequisite for success, says Raymond Orbach, a theoretical physicist and former chancellor of UC Irvine who directed the office from 2002 to 2009. Orbach won plaudits for, among other things, developing a 20-year to-do list of major projects that DOE has largely followed. But he notes that he, too, was a newcomer to DOE. “One never knows how someone with no prior formal government service (e.g. me) will turn out,” he wrote in an email. The office’s most recent director, Christopher Fall, has a doctorate in neuroscience and had prior management experience at DOE and the Office of Naval Research.
Some directors with traditional credentials have struggled with the job. William Brinkman, a theoretical physicist who led the office from 2009 to 2013 under former President Barack Obama, came to DOE with 14 years of experience as a director at the storied private Bell Labs. But the scholarly and cerebral Brinkman found it difficult to communicate with Congress, Lubell says. During one hearing, a legislator pressed Brinkman for a plan to deal with a particular issue. To lawmakers’ dismay, Lubell recalls, “Brinkman pointed to his head and said, ‘It’s in here.’”
No director has to do it all on her own, notes physicist Cherry Murray of the University of Arizona, who was director from 2015 to 2017. DOE has a corps of staffers who are “incredibly competent” and can help keep the agency humming, she says. “I’m not worried at all about physics research dropping by the wayside” under Berhe, she says. “That will continue, just as under me biology research continued.” Murray says she is curious to see where Berhe will head in setting policy.
If Berhe is confirmed, her success will largely rest with budgetmakers in Congress. For example, even though former President Donald Trump repeatedly tried to slash the office’s budget, Congress increased it by 31% over 4 years. That boost spared Fall from having to make unpopular cuts. If the budget keeps growing, Berhe may enjoy a long honeymoon with DOE-sponsored researchers.
Should budgets tighten, she could face the challenge of retaining the support of the community while picking winners and losers. Berhe has the leadership skills to meet that potential challenge, Harte says. “I would call her steadfast with good humor and an extraordinary thoughtfulness,” he says. “She will gather the respect of others because of her intense intelligence.”