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US news roundup: 20-26 November


This week: NIST appointee slammed, Puerto Rico telescope decommissioned and pharma industry commits to diversity

In depth: University and college associations have asked the United States’ president-elect, Joe Biden, to prioritise undoing damage they say was done to US higher education by the policies of his predecessor in the presidency, Donald Trump.

Full story: Universities and colleges post wish list for Biden presidency


Here is the rest of the US news this week…

NIST appointment provokes condemnation

Leaders of the House Committee On Science, Space and Technology have slammed the appointment of a senior official to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who they allege has expressed white supremacist views. The appointment of Jason Richwine as deputy undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology is a “scandal” and “suggests a deep disrespect for the mission of NIST and an abdication of your responsibility to the public”, said Eddie Bernice Johnson and Haley Stevens in an excoriating letter to US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross. Johnson and Stevens claim Richwine has published arguments on race, such as the intellectual inferiority of Latinos and other ethnic groups to white Americans, which “are plainly disqualifying from federal service”. The Department of Commerce declined to comment, while Richwine did not respond to a request for comment.

Spending up at government R&D centres

Federally funded R&D centres increased their spending by more than 5 per cent in 2019 after adjusting for inflation, the largest increase for a decade. Total spending across 42 centres was nearly $23 billion, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics reported, with the Department of Energy spending more than twice as much as any other department—a total of $11.4bn. Other big spenders included the Department of Defense ($5bn), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ($2.9bn) and the Department of Health and Human Services ($1bn).

Curtains for Arecibo telescope 

The National Science Foundation will decommission the 305-metre diameter telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, following the failure of two cables in August and November. An engineering review found the telescope was in danger of a catastrophic failure and could not be repaired safely, which made the decision to decommission it “necessary, although unfortunate”, according to NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Frank Lucas from the House science committee said they were “saddened” by the loss and encouraged NSF to continue supporting education and outreach in Puerto Rico.

Pharma industry commits to diversity

The US pharmaceutical trade association PhRMA has published four principles on achieving diversity in clinical trials aimed at addressing systemic issues that deter minority communities from participating. The principles include acknowledging historical wrongs, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in which Black men were severely misled and not offered effective treatments. Richard Moscicki, executive vice-president for science and regulatory advocacy at PhRMA, said that “by committing to enhancing diversity in clinical trial populations, we can better reflect the patients that will use the new therapy or medicine being studied”.

Student support funds tracked

The Department of Education has released an online portal tracking how financial support made available for students through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (Cares) Act has been spent. Nearly $14 billion in grants has been awarded to over 5,000 higher education institutes, of which $9 billion had been spent up to the end of September. Education secretary Betsy DeVos said she appreciated the “clear efforts” by higher education institutions “to make sure their students received the resources meant for them”.