Trump Administration May Dismantle Scientific Paywalls

6:28 minutes

a simple logo of a lock that is unhooked
The open access logo. Credit: PLoS, via Wikimedia Commons

The federal government spends billions of dollars of your money every year funding scientific research. And yet, in many cases, when the results of that research are published, it can take a full year before the public can read those results for free. The Trump administration wants to change that, making all taxpayer-funded research available immediately, but publishing companies aren’t happy about it.

Ryan Mandelbaum, science reporter at Gizmodo, talks about that and other selected short subjects in science, including how the star Betelgeuse is evolving, why physicists super-cooled LEGO bricks, and an ancient Scottish monument that may have been built to attract bolts of lightning.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, as large portions of Australia burn, what are we prepared to do to slow climate change? Geoengineering sounds dramatic, but my guest researcher says it could help buy time. All that later, but first, the federal government spends billions of dollars of your money every year funding scientific research.

And yet, in many cases, when the results of that research are published, it can take a full year before the public can read those results for free. The Trump administration wants to change that and make all taxpayer funded research available immediately. But publishing companies aren’t happy about it. Joining me now with more of that is Ryan Mandelbaum, Science Reporter at Gizmodo here in New York. Welcome back.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Always good to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Happy New Year to you.


IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about this. President Obama began to open up access to taxpayer-funded research by making it free after a year behind a paywall, right?


IRA FLATOW: But President Trump wants to go even further with this.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So, yeah, it’s a rumor right now. They won’t comment on this pending decision. But it’s a rumor that the White House might actually make all federally funded research open access immediately afterwards. That’s exciting to me, somebody who needs to read a lot of this research. And it’s exciting, I’m sure, to those who have to spend a lot of money on papers, thousands of dollars for some journal subscriptions.

And obviously, as soon as these rumors came about, the publishing companies said, oh, no, you know, we can’t. This is our business model. There’s no way we could change things now. So it’s– let’s see what happens when they actually come out with the ultimate decision.

IRA FLATOW: So the decision has not come out yet.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, just a rumor. But it does remain to be seen whether– I mean, one of the people who I read about commenting on this said it’s weird that the Trump administration would want to do something like this. And, you know, the problem is that it is going to– scientists will have to eventually pay to put their research in open-access journals. So it’s unclear what the motives are here. But I personally would love to see more research open access, so I guess it could be a step in the right direction.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s go to your next story which is out in space with one of my favorite stars, Betelgeuse.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse.

IRA FLATOW: You can say it either way, right?


IRA FLATOW: Beetlejuice, beetle jews, whatever.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So it’s the top left star of Orion, and it’s been growing fainter. It went from being in the top 10 brightest stars in the sky. And it’s now, in the past couple of months, it’s gone out of the top 10 stars in the sky and keep brightest. And people are now wondering, is this star going to go supernova? And it’s definitely got people excited. Because if a star that close, about 650 light years away, went supernova, it would be very bright. We would see it brighter than the moon here.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so what is the hint that it would go supernova? What is the progression that happens?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, so, I mean, what happens with these very big massive stars is the fusion starts to run out, and they slowly begin to burn. They’re heavier and heavier elements until they collapse either into a neutron star or a black hole. Right now with Betelgeuse, the problem here is that it is a variable star already, so it’s unclear whether this dimming is just sort of what it does or if it’s actually going to go supernova. And it is expected maybe in an 100,000 years. So I wouldn’t really bet on it just yet.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, so you don’t think either of us are going to see that in our lifetime.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: No, no, but there’s another star that–

IRA FLATOW: Yeah? You know, Eta Carinae is one that people have said. It’s a star in the southern hemisphere. People can see it. We can’t. But that supposedly might be going supernova soon, so we’ll see.

IRA FLATOW: And there have been– there’s records of seeing a supernova in history, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. I know that Chinese astronomers and astronomers going back to 1,000 AD. There was another supernova back in the 1980s, but we’ll see. I mean, the next supernova is probably going to be a star you never heard of.

IRA FLATOW: Your next one is a real head-scratcher where physicists are actually learning how they might want to build quantum computers by super cooling LEGOS.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: [CHUCKLES] So just– quantum computer is the next sort of future computing technology. It will hopefully do some things that regular computers can’t do. And today’s quantum computers required cooling to near absolute zero. So LEGOs apparently have these great thermal properties where they don’t conduct heat very well.

And so if you put them in a quantum computer as maybe a structural component like a scaffold, they might not destroy that quantum computers quantumness. So they’re not going to put LEGOs in the quantum computer. What they’re going to maybe do is use this research to maybe try and find a 3D-printed alternative based on the same material a LEGO and the same sort of interlocking architecture.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Next up, you have a story about a monument in Scotland that may have been built to attract lightning bolts.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I saw this story. It was really cool, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Sure. So there is already a monument in Scotland called the Calanais Standing Stones. It’s kind of like Stonehenge-looking.


RYAN MANDELBAUM: But nearby, archaeologists uncovered another circle of rocks that seems to have a magnetic anomaly right in the middle that they think has come from, like, striking lightning bolts a bunch of times in the center of this rock circle.

IRA FLATOW: And that, of course, the striking would magnetize–


IRA FLATOW: –the rock.


IRA FLATOW: So it’s not a magnetic rock that’s attracting the lightning. It’s just the lightning– it’s because the rock is magnetized, they say lightning must’ve struck it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. I don’t think that they knew they were– I don’t think they were building like a lightning rod. I think what they thought they either was happening is lightning was striking this location a lot, so they built a monument around it and yeah.

IRA FLATOW: That is cool. Now, I know that lastly, that you are an avid birder.


IRA FLATOW: And this holiday season, you’ve been all over, the annual Christmas Bird Count all over. Tell us where you’ve been, what you’ve seen.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, so I actually did four Christmas Bird counts in four days, mainly was in the northern Minnesota, eastern North Dakota area. In Grand Forks, North Dakota, my team actually– we got some birds that nobody else did. We saw American tree sparrow, which it’s a little too cold for them there, so we got very lucky with that one.

Pileated woodpecker, which common in a lot of the rest of the country, we were the only group who saw one. And then I think that the best animal I saw during my Christmas Bird counts is I saw almost nothing in Itasca, which is the Mississippi headwater, but I saw a wolf, like a gray wolf walking on the frozen ice.


RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, so that was not a bird. But it was pretty awesome to be able to take part and help out in all these counts where a lot of people don’t really– it’s too cold. It’s very cold.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s always awesome to have you, Ryan.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Great to be around. Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Ryan Mandelbaum, Science Reporter for Gizmodo here in New York.

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