Winners and losers emerge in UK funding shake-up

Government’s ‘global challenges’ fund hoovers up extra cash for developing-world problems, cutting grants elsewhere.

Funds dedicated for research on developing-world problems will eat into the core science grants of the United Kingdom’s research councils over the next five years, documents released by the councils show.

After enduring years of flat funding, scientists had celebrated in November as the government committed to increasing science spending, rather than delivering the cut many had feared was imminent.

But although the science budget – which in 2016 will be £4.7 billion (US$7.1 billion) – will rise in line with inflation, some of it will be diverted into government-defined research programmes. The remaining portion – the ‘responsive-mode’ allocation that the research councils hand out on the basis of competitive applications from scientists – will not rise. Read more in Nature.

Data sharing: Access all areas

Advocates say that open science will be good for innovation. One neuroscience institute plans to put that to the test.

In the cut-throat world of early-stage clinical development, where aggressive defence of data and intellectual property is thought to be key to amassing profits, one academic institute is opting out.

Over the next five years, McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (the Neuro) in Canada will conduct a radical experiment in open science. It will make all results, data and publications from its research free to access, will require collaborators to do the same, and, perhaps most surprisingly, will not pursue patents on any of its discoveries. Read more in Nature.

Nature Outlook: Batteries

Batteries have the potential to transform the way we use energy, to make electric cars mainstream and to allow renewable energy sources, which tend to be intermittent, to be integrated into the power grid. Today’s best batteries are reaching their limits, but researchers are experimenting with new chemistries and designs. Read more in this Nature Outlook that I edited.

Drug development: The treasure chest

Pharmaceutical research into the chemicals found in cannabis has so far supplied only one licensed medicine. But scientists think there could be hundreds more.

The annual meeting of the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) is a highly unusual scientific conference. It has been closed to all media since its inception 25 years ago, lending an air of mystery to the gathering of researchers who study the unique chemicals found in cannabis.

In a relaxation of the organization’s long-standing policy, ICRS permitted Nature reporters to attend this year’s conference, which was hosted by Acadia University in the tiny Canadian town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia. The tight-knit group of researchers are bound together by onerous government restrictions on their subject, and by their sufferance of lingering suspicions from other scientists that they are a bunch of hippies trying to get an illicit drug legalized.

“The status of cannabis as an illegal substance makes it difficult for some people to take it seriously,” concedes Mark Ware, a pain specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who focuses on the analgesic properties of cannabis. Read more in Nature.

Outlook: Addiction

Addiction is a chronic disease that can destroy the lives of individuals and their families. Researchers are teasing apart the complex neural, genetic and behavioural factors that drive people to lose the ability to resist damaging substances, and are looking for ways to treat, reverse or even prevent addictions. Read more in this special Outlook supplement I edited for Nature.

Researchers track eye movements to sway moral decisions

Altering the timing of a decision on the basis of gaze manipulates choices.

People asked to choose between two written moral statements tend to glance more often towards the option they favour, experimental psychologists say. More surprisingly, the scientists also claim it’s possible to influence a moral choice: asking for an immediate decision as soon as someone happens to gaze at one statement primes them to choose that option.

It’s well known that people tend to look more towards the option they are going to choose when they are choosing food from a menu, says Philip Pärnamets, a cognitive scientist from Lund University in Sweden. He wanted to see if that applied to moral reasoning as well. “Moral decisions have long been considered separately from general decision-making,” he says. “I wanted to integrate them.” Read more in Nature.

Fungi borrowed bacterial gene again and again

Multiple independent gene transfers gave fungi ability to colonize plant roots.

A single gene from bacteria has been donated to fungi on at least 15 occasions. The discovery shows that an evolutionary shortcut once thought to be restricted to bacteria is surprisingly common in more complex, eukaryotic life.

Bacteria frequently trade genes back and forth with their neighbours, gaining abilities and traits that enable them to adapt quickly to new environments. More complex organisms, by contrast, generally have to make do with the slow process of gene duplication and mutation. Read more in Nature.

Outlook: Stroke

Stroke is the second most common cause of death worldwide, yet it can often be prevented. Each year, some 17 million people worldwide will have a stroke and almost 6 million of them will die. Research seeks to guide rehabilitation, to help maintain brain function after a stroke, and to develop treatments to repair the physical damage caused by the condition. Read more in this Nature Outlook I edited.

Women and minorities still face uphill struggle in UK science

Campaign group suggests ‘quick wins’ to begin levelling the playing field.

Even with the government’s attempts to increase the representation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in science and mathematics, progress in the United Kingdom has remained too slow, according to a report published today by a UK non-profit organization.

“Looking back over the past five or six years, there has been lots of effort directed at increasing diversity, but not the huge step-change people were hoping for,” says Sarah Main, director of Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) in London, which released the report. Read more in Nature.