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This Week in Science 2018–02–25


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/02/25

“It is commonly said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In 1633, Galileo was tried and convicted for his support of the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. This theory, which Galileo came to support as a result of his scientific observation of the movements of the planets and moons in our solar system, contradicted the doctrine of the day, which said that humanity, and by extension the Earth, stood at the centre of the universe. After being found guilty, Galileo was placed under house arrest until his death in 1642.

Thankfully, our attitudes towards science and scientists are a little bit more enlightened in 2018. Just as we stopped burning witches, sacrificing animals and killing heretics, so too did we stop persecuting scientists for reporting facts about the natural world. Indeed, most people nowadays believe science is a force for good, which makes many aspects of our lives easier and more pleasant. However, we would be wise to learn the lessons from how science was misused in the past, lest we inadvertently end up repeating them.

Policymakers in particular should be careful to heed these lessons. Too often, scientific evidence is ignored or distorted by politicians for electoral purposes, and a lack of transparency allows lawmakers to use unscientific methods to bring about a politically favoured result. In the EU, this problem is epitomised by the Comitology process. Comitology is the mechanism for passing secondary EU legislation, an outdated and opaque procedure that has been badly abused by unscientific lawmakers in the past year, and, if left unchecked, will seriously undermine the status of science in the EU for years to come.”


“It’s the bane of workplace productivity: interruptions.

Sophie Leroy thinks we can get better at managing interruptions. She’s an assistant professor at the University of Washington Bothell, School of Business, where she studies attention.

Sophie Leroy is an assistant professor at the University of Washington (Courtesy of Sophie Leroy)

Interruptions affect productivity because of something called “attention residue.” When we’re interrupted in the middle of a task, we don’t immediately shift our full focus. Part of our attention is still on the task we left behind. “Sometimes we don’t even realize that we’re checking out,” Leroy said.

Deadline pressure makes attention residue worse. “That feeling of time compression is going to make it more difficult to let go.””


“There’s public science in every single new drug. That was the surprising answer to a U.S. senator’s question about how government-funded research is benefitting citizens. But it took a year to come up with the numbers.

It all started last June when Bentley University professor Fred Ledley and his colleagues in Massachusetts were watching a senate budget hearing that was considering cutting the budget of the National Institutes of Health, the major medical science funding agency in the U.S.

When NIH director Francis Collins was asked how publicly-funded science was leading to new drugs, he couldn’t give a detailed answer. That’s when Ledley realized there was a data gap. Ledley also knew that with modern data mining tools his team could finally answer that question.”


“It’s the end of an era at the European Commission’s research department: The most powerful civil servant in Brussels’s science policy circles, Director-General for Research and Innovation Robert-Jan Smits, is leaving his post. Smits has been named an adviser at the European Political Strategy Centre, the commission’s in-house think tank (where his exact mission is “still to be determined”); he will be succeeded by France’s Jean-Eric Paquet, now deputy secretary-general of the commission, on 1 April.

Smits will be remembered as an advocate for larger science budgets and as one of the architects of Horizon 2020 — the European Union’s 7-year, €80 billion funding program for research and innovation, which started in 2014. He was also a staunch supporter of the European Research Council (ERC), the European Union’s beloved funding agency for basic research, which started giving out grants in 2007 and had a €1.8 billion budget last year. Smits has both a genuine interest in science and a deep knowledge of the commission’s workings, says former ERC President Helga Nowotny. He “knew how to put both at the service of European research and the scientific community,” and “will be missed,” she adds.

Directors-general are civil servants who run the departments that carry out EU policies and are less visible than the 28 commissioners — one per member state and per policy area. But Smits, a charismatic, well-liked bureaucrat with a steely handshake and a knack for networking, became an influential player of his own.”


“Policymakers in the United States are pushing to give the public more power to influence what educators teach students. Last week, Florida’s legislature started considering two related bills that, if enacted, would let residents recommend which instructional materials teachers in their school district use in their classrooms.

The bills build on a law enacted in June 2017, which enables any Florida resident to challenge the textbooks and other educational tools used in their district as being biased or inaccurate. In the five months after the state’s governor approved the law, residents filed at least seven complaints, including two that challenge the teaching of evolution and human-driven climate change, according to the Associated Press.

But the bills approved this month by the education committees in the state’s Senate and House of Representatives go a step further, because they would allow the public to review educational materials used in class and to suggest alternatives. “They would make it easier for creationists, climate-change deniers and — who knows — flat-Earthers to pester their local school boards about their hobbyhorses,” says Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California. The final decision on whether to follow the recommendations still rests with the school boards.”


“With the second phase of Brexit negotiations approaching, scientists in the United Kingdom are urging their government to clarify its position on funding agreements and migration of research talent after the country separates from the European Union in March 2019. At a “Brexit Summit”held today by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, researchers said uncertainty about post-Brexit access to EU grants and immigration opportunities are already causing problems. “A cliff edge is happening now,” said Alastair Buchan, the head of Brexit strategy at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “We are at the risk of sudden loss of talent.”

Meanwhile, the Wellcome Trust in London released a report yesterday calling for the United Kingdom to pay to participate in future Framework Programs, the main source of competitive grants from the European Union, as an “associated country,” like Norway and Switzerland; in return, the country should also retain a voice in setting framework strategies even after it leaves the European Union. “If the U.K. were to accept this report, it would be a reasonable place to start negotiations,” says Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of EuroScience, a research advocacy organization in Strasbourg, France.

One of researchers’ top fears about Brexit — that it will diminish their country’s historic allure for researchers from abroad — is already coming true. Michael Arthur, president of University College London (UCL), told the committee today that in the past, 30% of the applicants for a UCL research fellowship were usually from other EU countries; this year none was, “something that really quite shocked me,” Arthur said. As for academic positions at UCL, the proportion of EU applicants from outside the United Kingdom fell from 25% in 2015–16 to 20% in 2016–17.”


“The technology that drives science forward is forever accelerating, but the same can’t be said for science communication. The basic process still holds many vestiges from its early days — that is the 17th century.

Some scientists are pressing to change that critical part of the scientific enterprise.

Here’s what they’re confronting: When researchers studying the biology of disease make a discovery, it typically takes nine months for them to get their results published in a journal.

One reason for that delay is it goes through a process of peer review that is both necessary and antiquated. The fate of that paper rests on just two or three scientists who have been asked to review it and decide whether it’s worthy of being published.”



In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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