Chris Henden/Flickr

One geoengineering concept aims to make clouds whiter, in order to reflect more sunlight.

Three projects funded by the British government since 2010 to study the deliberate tinkering with the planet to counteract climate change, known as geoengineering, are soon to end. Today scientists presenting at the Royal Society in London announced some of their findings, took stock of some of their setbacks and laid out the way forward.

 “It’s been a roller coaster, for sure,” volcanologist Matthew Watson of the University of Bristol told ScienceInsider by telephone after the event. Watson led the SPICE project, which focused on sun-blocking technologies, like the oft-discussed spreading of sulfate aerosol particles in the stratosphere. Among the findings of his effort, he says, were that certain particles, including titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide, may harm the ozone layer as much as 100 times less than sulfates. The team also studied materials to use to build hoses to deliver geoengineering chemicals to high altitudes. (“At the pressures and temperatures we’re talking about, it turns out Kevlar would melt,” says Watson.)

A second project, called the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals, assessed a variety of geoengineering techniques including sun-blocking. Their published work included papers on the challenges facing approaches to whiten clouds to reflect sunlight, and how linguistic framing impacts public perception of geoengineering. And a third project, dubbed Climate Geoengineering Governance, focused on governance, law and ethics, conducting a series of reports and workshops on the topic.

The scientists who conducted the work say they did more than write papers on the controversial topic – they forged new bonds between scientists. “We created a new breed of interdisciplinary researchers,” says climate scientist Piers Foster of the University of Leeds. He led the integrated assessment effort, which “bought together climate scientists, social scientists and control engineers.”

The projects certainly had their share of...Continue Reading »

MERS coronavirus particle

NIAID

MERS coronavirus particle

The U.S. government needs to move quickly to clarify and grant urgent exceptions to a recently announced moratorium on funding for potentially risky research involving certain viruses. Those are two of the main points made by a statement approved today by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which advises the government on life science research that can be used for good or evil.

Today’s statement—which is still being finalized—is in part a response to a host of questions and concerns about the moratorium that researchers voiced at an NSABB meeting last month that focused on the so-called pause, which federal officials announced on 17 October. The pause, which has affected 18 research projects at 14 institutions, halts new federal funding for so-called gain-of-function (GOF) studies that make a pathogen more transmissible in mammals or more pathogenic. It applies to GOF work on any influenza strain and two coronaviruses, MERS and SARS. The idea is to provide a year for experts to work out a U.S. government-wide policy for reviewing GOF studies.

Many researchers have been confused by exactly which viruses, and which experiments, are covered by the policy, said Dennis Dixon, a researcher at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) who is leading efforts to implement the policy, during an NSABB teleconference today. But he said his agency—which funds all the research so far affected by the pause—has been working with researchers to clarify matters.

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The Charles Darwin Foundation is still in need of funds.

Charles Darwin Foundation

The Charles Darwin Foundation is still in need of funds.

Last week, a 50-year-old conservation organization dedicated to preserving the Ecuadorian Galápagos Islands that Charles Darwin made famous looked like it was on its last legs. This week, the future appears only a little less gloomy. The Ecuadorian government has offered a clear endorsement of the Charles Darwin Foundation, and negotiations to reopen a revenue-producing souvenir store continue. Yet the government has not promised to provide the money the foundation needs to make it through the end of 2014.

According to a statement issued by the foundation after its General Assembly met yesterday, the Ecuadorian government, and in particular the director of the Galápagos National Park, called the foundation “essential” and said it wanted to strengthen ties with the organization, which facilitates visits by foreign researchers to the islands. The government and the Charles Darwin Foundation agreed to form a working group to work out plans for 2016 and beyond. 

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President Barack Obama delivers his immigration speech.

The White House

President Barack Obama delivers his immigration speech.

President Barack Obama’s big speech last night on immigration policy included several nuggets of interest to the research community—including moves that will make it easier for foreign students studying at U.S. universities to gain a temporary work permit, and for Chinese and Indian researchers who already have U.S. work permits to change jobs and apply for permanent residency.

But to the disappointment of the high-tech industry, Obama stopped short of using his executive power to address what they say is a chronic shortage of permits for highly-skilled foreign workers. That step, White House officials say, would require Congress to pass legislation that has been bottled up in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the meantime, Obama followed through on a threat to take unilateral administrative steps because Congress hasn’t acted. The big news was a series of policy changes to enable some 4 million undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation, at least for the remaining 2 years of the administration. But Obama also announced policies, to be finalized over the next 4 months, which he said will “make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed.”Continue Reading »

Mark Rosekind

National Transportation Safety Board

Mark Rosekind

Mark Rosekind, a psychologist whose research into fatigue in pilots helped shape modern air travel, has been named to a post that would cost many people sleep. Earlier this week, President Barack Obama nominated him to head the embattled National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency has been battered by a series of high-profile failures to quickly catch and fix lethal flaws in car ignition switches and air bags.

Rosekind’s work as a scientist focused on the toll exhaustion takes on human performance in high-stakes situations, including flying airplanes, driving big rigs, and performing surgery. He’s best known for leading research into fatigue among airline pilots in the early 1990s at NASA’s Ames Research Center. He oversaw experiments that wired commercial pilots to portable brain activity detectors (electroencephalographs), then tracked them during flights between the United States and Asia. The studies found that tired pilots suffered repeated “microsleeps” while flying, taking a toll on their performance. It also showed the benefits of brief naps, which became dubbed “NASA naps,” and in-flight sleeping berths. The napping protocol was adopted in much of the world, but not the United States. The beds are now standard on many long-distance flights.

“These studies were pioneering because he was really one of the first scientists to actually record pilot brain activity during long-haul flights,” David Dinges, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine who was involved in the research, told ScienceInsider.

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A gravedigger at the cemetery of the Ebola treatment unit in Suakoko District in Bong County.

K. Kupferschmidt/SCIENCE

A gravedigger at the cemetery of the Ebola treatment unit in Suakoko District in Bong County.

MONROVIA—When Kevin De Cock flew home from this city of 1 million in August, he was leaving behind an apocalyptic scene. More than 100 people were coming down with Ebola daily. Patients were dying outside of treatment units filled to capacity, and bodies lay rotting in the streets. Some mathematical models projected that Liberia would face thousands of new cases weekly by December. "There was really no way of knowing how much worse this might get,” says De Cock, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

But when he returned to Monrovia on 9 November, the situation was very different. The grim projections had been wrong. Although the Ebola epidemic is still growing in Sierra Leone, and Guinea's numbers are swinging up and down, Liberia is now reporting only about 20 new patients a day. Treatment units have hundreds of empty beds, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has lifted the state of emergency put in place in August. Now the country faces new challenges: rebuilding a shattered health care system, tamping down local outbreaks, and looking for ways to drive the number of new cases to zero.

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Adbar/Wikimedia Commons

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Breaking new ground for the open-access movement, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of global health research, plans to require that the researchers it funds publish only in immediate open-access journals.

The policy doesn’t kick in until January 2017; until then, grantees can publish in subscription-based journals as long as their paper is freely available within 12 months. But after that, the journal must be open access, meaning papers are free for anyone to read immediately upon publication. Articles must also be published with a license that allows anyone to freely reuse and distribute the material. And the underlying data must be freely available.

The immediate access requirement goes further than policies of other major biomedical research funders in the United States and Europe. Most encourage their researchers to publish in immediate open-access journals, but allow delayed access after an embargo of 6 to 12 months. (Most subscription-based journals, including Science, allow authors to comply with those policies.) The Gates Foundation will also pay the author fees charged by many open-access journals.

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The Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels is one of the institutes under BELSPO's umbrella.

KBR

The Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels is one of the institutes under BELSPO's umbrella.

BRUSSELS—Pretty much everything in this tiny country of 11 million is divided along the language border between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and Wallonia, the predominantly French-speaking southern part—including science policy. Now, the Belgian government wants to ax one of the few agencies that still straddle the divide, the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO). The plan has triggered protests from Belgian researchers who worry that the move will harm collaboration across the language frontier and endanger internationally renowned research projects.

In the past decades, science responsibilities have already been devolved from Belgium's federal government to authorities in Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels, the bilingual capital. Together, regional and community governments now manage about three-quarters of the nation’s science funds. BELSPO is in charge of 10 federal museums and science institutes, including the Royal Observatory of Belgium and the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium; it also manages Belgium's contribution to the European Space Agency, worth about €200 million per year.

Last month, the coalition government pledged to scrap BELSPO and integrate its functions “elsewhere,” and to carry out an audit of science funding channels. “In mid-2015, the government will rationalize current funding channels in a bid to make net savings,” says the government plan, issued on 10 October.

In a petition launched last week, scientists urged the government to reverse the decision, saying it would push the country “below the threshold of scientific … poverty.” (The plea now has about 9000 signatures—and counting.) “The government is planning to destroy the existing structures, but we don't really know what will replace them,” says marine biogeochemist Frank Dehairs, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel—one of the scientists who launched the petition.

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House Republicans are pushing changes that would make it harder for EPA to draft pollution regulations, critics say.

JT/TheEnvironmentalBlog.org/Flickr

House Republicans are pushing changes that would make it harder for EPA to draft pollution regulations, critics say.

Over objections from the White House and many science and environmental groups, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives this week approved two bills that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtains and uses scientific data and advice. The bills aren’t likely to become law this year, but they are fueling an intense political battle that is likely to resurface when the new Congress convenes in January.

Proponents of the bills, which the House passed almost entirely with GOP votes, say they would increase transparency in how EPA uses data to justify its regulations and result in better, more balanced scientific advice for the agency. “EPA has an extensive track record of twisting the science to justify their actions,” and so reform is needed, said Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), head of the House science committee, in a statement supporting one of the bills.

But opponents say the legislation would do more harm than good. “These bills are the culmination of one of the most anti-science and anti-health campaigns I’ve witnessed in my 22 years as a member of Congress,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), top Democrat on the House science committee, in a statement.

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Bernard Bigot opened the French exhibit at the International Atomic Energy Agency's General Conference in Vienna on 23 September.

IAEA Imagebank

Bernard Bigot opened the French exhibit at the International Atomic Energy Agency's General Conference in Vienna on 23 September.

Yesterday, the ITER fusion project announced that Bernard Bigot, chair of France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, has been appointed its third director-general. Bigot, 64, is trained in physics and chemistry and has held senior positions in government, industry, and academia.

When he takes over from Osamu Motojima sometime next year, Bigot will find an organization under enormous pressure. Construction of the giant tokamak reactor is in full swing at the site in Cadarache, France, and components are being churned out by factories of all the ITER partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. But the cost of construction has ballooned and will likely go much higher than the current official estimate of €13 billion, while the scheduled completion date has slipped repeatedly. To compound its troubles, earlier this year a management review blasted the project’s leadership, management, and governance.

Earlier today, Bigot spoke briefly with ScienceInsider between meetings. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Aerial view of the Charles Darwin Foundation's research station in the Galápagos.

Charles Darwin Foundation

Aerial view of the Charles Darwin Foundation's research station in the Galápagos.

A 50-year-old conservation organization dedicated to preserving the biodiversity hotspot that inspired Charles Darwin is about to fall off a financial cliff and could close before the end of the year.

The Charles Darwin Foundation, based in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, has helped control goats, blackberries, and other invasive species while working to restore populations of endangered species, notably giant tortoises and mangrove finches. It also helps review applications to the Galápagos National Park from researchers and handles logistics for the approved projects.

Over the decades, however, it has struggled to make ends meet, and on Monday its general assembly may decide to shut its doors for lack of funding. “Our donors are generous when it comes to science but not in maintaining the institution,” explains Dennis Geist, a volcanologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow and chair of the foundation’s board of directors. “It has been in a precarious financial position for many, many years,” adds board member Judy Diamond, an ethologist and science educator of the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

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Representative Tom Cole (R–OK)

National Congress of American Indians/Flickr

Representative Tom Cole (R–OK)

Two spending panels in the U.S. House of Representatives that hold sway over large chunks of federal research spending will have new chairs when the 114th Congress convenes in January.

For biomedical researchers, the big news is the selection today of Representative Tom Cole (R–OK) to chair the appropriations subcommittee that funds the National Institutes of Health. Cole replaces Representative Jack Kingston (R–GA), who is retiring after losing a bid earlier this year for his party’s nomination for a U.S. Senate seat.

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Bernard Bigot speaks at a conference in Russia last year.

Dean Calma/IAEA

Bernard Bigot speaks at a conference in Russia last year.

ITER, the €13 billion international fusion reactor under construction in France, has chosen Bernard Bigot, chair of France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), as its next director-general. Bigot will replace Osamu Motojima and will begin his 5-year term next June.

Bigot, 64, studied physics and chemistry and defines himself as a nuclear expert. He has held senior positions in government, academia, and industry and was appointed as head of CEA in 2009. With a staff of more than 16,000, CEA is a technology research organization and is responsible for maintaining France’s nuclear deterrent.

Despite such strong experience, taking on leadership of ITER is not an enviable position. The project is an enormous undertaking involving seven international partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States—with components being manufactured in hundreds of plants all across the globe. The project is years behind schedule and hugely over budget. Motojima, the second ITER director-general, was heavily criticized in an external management review completed earlier this year.

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A proposed rule would require sponsors of research trials, such as this one studying Alzheimer’s disease, to publicly report a summary of results even if they don’t result in an approved product.

Donna Peck/National Center for Advancing Translational Science/Flickr

A proposed rule would require sponsors of research trials, such as this one studying Alzheimer’s disease, to publicly report a summary of results even if they don’t result in an approved product.

The amount of clinical data that drug companies must share with the public could soon vastly expand under a U.S. regulation proposed today. Trial sponsors would need to report summary results for drugs and devices that are never approved—and not just for products that reach the market—under the proposal.

The goal of the plan, released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is to ensure that summary results for drugs that fail in trials, or are dropped for other reasons, still make it into a public database: ClinicalTrials.gov. Sharing these results should not only be useful for researchers, but also “helps fulfill society’s ethical responsibility” to people who volunteer for trials, said National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins during a press teleconference. “We owe to our patients, to our participants in these trials, the explanation of what happened.” Sharing the data may also help researchers avoid duplicating failed trials, officials say.

Launched at Congress’s request in 2000, NIH’s ClinicalTrials.gov now contains registration data for more than 178,000 trials; all sponsors of trials regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are supposed to register. As a result of a 2007 law, within 1 year of the completion of a trial, drug companies must also submit summary results that include information such as the number of participants, their age and gender, outcomes, and adverse events. These results have been submitted for more than 15,000 trials.

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In Zambia, a sign encourages people to get HIV tests.

John Rawlinson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In Zambia, a sign encourages people to get HIV tests.

Although no vaccine against HIV exists, advances in prevention and treatment have led to a growing conviction among researchers, public health officials, and politicians that the HIV/AIDS epidemic can be brought to a halt with existing tools. Fast-Track: ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, a report released yesterday by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), spells out how this ambitious aim could be achieved. “HIV infections may not disappear in the foreseeable future, but the AIDS epidemic can be ended as a global health threat,” the report asserts.

Fast-Track updates UNAIDS estimates about the epidemic today. Some 35 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2013, 2.1 million new infections occurred during that year, and AIDS-related deaths totaled 1.5 million. These were slight drops from 2012 and are mainly the result of a big jump in the number of people in low- and middle-income countries receiving antiretroviral treatment, which went from 9.7 million in 2012 to 13.6 million by June 2014. (Treatment both saves lives and makes infected people less likely to transmit the virus.) “It’s amazing the acceleration that happened,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé told ScienceInsider. “In 3 years we’re doing what we used to do in 20 years.”

But the report notes that if treatment and prevention efforts remain at 2013 levels, the epidemic will continue to grow and an estimated 41.5 million people will be living with HIV in 2030. Fast-Track sets the “visionary goal” of cutting that number to 29.3 million, which would avert some 28 million infections.

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Nations at the World Parks Congress pledged new protections for marine areas, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

GreenMPs/Flickr

Nations at the World Parks Congress pledged new protections for marine areas, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) concluded its once-a-decade World Parks Congress today in Sydney, Australia, trumpeting a list of more than 70 conservation commitments announced by countries around the world. "There has been a willingness to move beyond words to action," said IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre during the closing ceremony.

Among the pledges:  

  • Bangladesh promised to create the country’s first marine protected area.

  • Gabon announced it would create new marine protected areas covering 23% of its territorial waters.

  • Madagascar announced plans to triple its marine protected areas.

  • Panama pledged to restore 1 million hectares of degraded lands within protected areas.      

  • The Elion Foundation and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification announced forming a public-private partnership that will plant 1.3 billion trees along the historic Silk Road as part of efforts to reduce land degradation.

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China is by far the largest source of international students coming to the United States.

Open Doors 2014/Institute of International Education

China is by far the largest source of international students coming to the United States.

Two new reports document the continued growth in the overall number of students coming to the United States from other countries. Those pursuing undergraduate degrees in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields make up 45% of the undergraduate total, and their share of the graduate pool is even larger. But within that broad picture are some surprising trends involving China and India, the two countries that supply the largest number of students (see graphic, above).

One is that the flow of Chinese students into U.S. graduate programs is plateauing at the same time their pursuit of U.S. undergraduate degrees is soaring. Another is the recent spike in graduate students from India occurring despite a continuing small presence of Indian students at the undergraduate level.

In August, ScienceInsider wrote about a report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) on the most recent acceptance rates for foreign students at U.S. graduate programs. Last week the report was updated to reflect this fall’s actual first-time enrollment figures. And yesterday the Institute of International Education (IIE) issued its annual Open Doors report, which covers both undergraduate and graduate students from elsewhere enrolling in the United States as well as U.S. students studying abroad.

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The harpoon vessel Yushin Maru captures a whale in 2008. Japan plans to resume whaling in the Antarctic region in 2015.

Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia

The harpoon vessel Yushin Maru captures a whale in 2008. Japan plans to resume whaling in the Antarctic region in 2015.

TOKYO—Japan today unveiled its widely anticipated new whaling research program for the Antarctic. The plan sets a target of capturing 333 minke whales annually as part of a 12-year-long research effort "to achieve conservation of [Antarctic marine ecosystem] resources while pursuing their sustainable utilization and to understand and predict the effects of factors such as climate change."

The New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean replaces a similar project halted by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague last March. That program, known as JARPA II, called for taking 850 minkes, 50 humpbacks, and 50 fin whales annually, though in recent years actual captures fell far below those targets because of interference by antiwhaling activists.

Conservation organizations immediately denounced the new plan. "Even though the new research plan announced today emphasizes the addition of non-lethal research, the previous survey’s main objective of continuing whaling is not changed in any way," Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan wrote in a Japanese press release. "It is widely understood that this project uses large amounts of tax monies to protect the interests of the whaling industry." 

The draft, which will now be presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), is open to revision. "We are willing to improve the research plan in response to comments and suggestions," says Joji Morishita, Japan's commissioner to the IWC. Japan plans to resume research whaling during the 2015 to 2016 austral summer. The IWC has no legal authority to block the resumption of research whaling, and it's not clear if any country will take the matter back to the ICJ. International criticism may be the only option to stop research whaling, Sato told ScienceInsider.

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Adam Fagen/Flickr

Rush Holt

Rush Holt, a physicist, educator, and eight-term Democratic member of Congress, has been named the new CEO of AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider). He will succeed Alan Leshner, a neuroscientist who is stepping down this winter after leading AAAS since 2001.

Holt, 66, has represented a New Jersey district since 1999, but in February announced he would not seek another term. Although not known for sponsoring legislation, Holt has earned kudos from both Republican and Democrat colleagues for being an effective, behind-the-scenes advocate for additional funding for research and science education. He was part of an unofficial, bipartisan “physics caucus” in Congress that, at its peak, totaled three members who held physics Ph.D.s.

Holt has a long political pedigree. His father was a U.S. senator from West Virginia in the 1930s, and his mother was West Virginia’s secretary of state. He was elected to Congress in 1998 after spending a decade at the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. A former physics teacher at Swarthmore College, he credits the long-running AAAS Science and Technology Fellowship program, which allowed him to spend a year on Capitol Hill, for piquing his interest in politics.

“I will continue to work on trying to bring more scientific thinking to public policy and to American society in general,” he told ScienceInsider after announcing his retirement from Congress. “Those are ongoing interests of mine. I think it’s important to maintain freedom of inquiry and to make sure that we have support not just for research but also for scientific communication.”

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Inquiry will examine APA's role in torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and other U.S. military bases.

U.S. Department of Defense photo by Kathleen T. Rhem, American Forces Press Service

Inquiry will examine APA's role in torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and other U.S. military bases.

The American Psychological Association (APA) last week named a former federal prosecutor to lead an investigation into its role in supporting the U.S. government’s interrogation of suspected terrorists.

A new book by reporter James Risen of The New York Times alleges that APA, the largest U.S. professional association of psychologists, bent its ethical guidelines to give psychologists permission to conduct such interrogations at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere. The motivation, according to Risen, was to stay in the good graces of U.S. intelligence and defense officials. APA has denied the allegations and says that it worked closely with the CIA and the Pentagon "to ensure that national security policies were well-informed by empirical science."

David Hoffman, a lawyer with the Chicago, Illinois, law firm Sidley Austin LLP, says that APA has promised him its complete cooperation. “We will follow the evidence where it leads us," he told ScienceInsider. He added that his full report, "without modification," will be made public in March 2015.

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NIAID sent out 18 letters asking institutions to halt certain virology studies.

Screenshot of NIAID letter

Like many influenza virologists, John Steel of Emory University in Atlanta often uses a feeble lab strain of influenza in his studies of how seasonal flu spreads. “It’s a nasty virus if you’re a mouse” but doesn’t sicken humans, Steel says of this 80-year-old lab strain, known as PR8. But last month, under orders from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Steel told his two staff members working with PR8 to put their experiments on hold and find other things to do while NIH decides whether the work falls under a temporary ban on risky virus experiments.

“Our feeling is that the likelihood [of harm from studies with the PR8 strain] is exceedingly slim,” says Walter Orenstein, who oversees Emory’s NIH-funded influenza research center. “But it’s something for the NIH to decide.”

Last month in an unusual step, the U.S. government announced a “pause” in federal funding for virology studies that involve tweaking influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses in ways that could make them more transmissible or pathogenic in mammals. The government encouraged everyone conducting such gain-of-function (GOF) projects to voluntarily pause while experts spend a year hashing out the risks and benefits of the studies and developing a policy for when to allow them.

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An early picture from Philae shows comet material and one of the lander's three feet.

ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

An early picture from Philae shows comet material and one of the lander's three feet.

DARMSTADT, GERMANY—All things come to an end, and with the Philae comet lander, it appears to be coming all too soon. On Thursday, mission leaders had been extremely cautious—wary of using moving parts for fear of upsetting the precarious position of the three-legged robot, which is wedged in and tipped up on its side, in the shadow of a wall of material. But by Friday morning, that precaution had given way to a headlong rush for the European Space Agency (ESA), which just 2 days earlier was celebrating the historic success of the Rosetta mission. Scientists were trying to gather data from all 11 lander instruments before the 60-hour battery expired. The wan 1.5 hours per day of light that strikes the solar panels is not enough to recharge its batteries in a significant way.

So overnight, an x-ray instrument was lowered to the comet, and a hollow rod meant to measure thermal and mechanical properties was hammered into the surface. On Friday morning, the team was uploading commands to drill into the subsurface, in order to feed a sample to two evolved gas experiments—the most complicated and energy-intensive experiments on the lander. During a radio pass planned for Friday night—probably one of the last exchanges of the mission—there was talk of rotating the solar panels into a more favorable position, or even doing something more radical, like hopping with the lander's springy legs and hoping for the best. “We are coming now to the end so we are taking more and more risks,” says Paolo Ferri, the head of mission operations at ESA’s command center here.

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New supercomputers would outpace the current U.S. champion, the Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

New supercomputers would outpace the current U.S. champion, the Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced today two major efforts to push supercomputing power well beyond where it is today. DOE will spend $325 million on two extreme-scale computers to be built at national labs in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Livermore, California. The agency will spend another $100 million on FastForward 2, a program designed to improve software and applications that will run on the new machines. Though the specifications for the new machines are still in flux, they’re expected to run at top speeds of between 100 and 300 petaflops. (Each petaflop is equal to 1015 floating-point operations per second.) That’s considered a key milestone toward the goal of creating the first exascale (1018 flops) supercomputer, the next major landmark in high-performance computing.

“It’s great,” says Jack Dongarra, a supercomputing expert at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “[These machines] are one step away from exascale. This is the jumping point to get there,” Dongarra says. It also suggests that if the current pace of improvement in high-performance computing continues, the first exascale machine could come online somewhere around 2022 to 2023, Dongarra says.   

The Oak Ridge supercomputer, called Summit, will be open to the scientific community and is expected to run at up to 300 petaflops. Sierra, the Livermore machine, is expected to top out somewhere around 200 petaflops and will be used by the National Nuclear Security Administration to test the safety and security of U.S. nuclear weapons. Both the Summit and Sierra machines are expected to be delivered in 2017 and become operational in 2018.

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A lot is riding on this question from the American Community Survey.

U.S. Census Bureau

A lot is riding on this question from the American Community Survey.

A proposal to drop a question about college education from a large annual government survey would make it a lot harder for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to track trends in the U.S. scientific workforce. Social scientists hope to persuade the Obama administration to reject the idea, which stems in part from criticism of the survey by some members of Congress.

Each year, the Census Bureau uses the American Community Survey (ACS) to collect housing and demographic information from some 3.5 million people. The ACS debuted in 2005 as a way to keep track of national trends that occur between the decennial census, a tally of every household in the country. Many federal agencies and private firms use the ACS data to track trends and plan programs. NSF, for example, uses the question that has been proposed for elimination—which asks respondents to identify their college major—to create a sampling pool for a more detailed survey that illuminates trends in the science and engineering workforce.

But some members of Congress dislike the ACS. They believe the government has no business asking Americans about the number of flush toilets in their homes or when they leave for work in the morning, or even how much they earn. Some legislators have gone even further, arguing that the 72-question ACS should be drastically shortened or even eliminated because it’s an unnecessary burden on the public.

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Anne Glover during a visit to the European Southern Observatory in Paranal, Chile, last year.

ESO

Anne Glover during a visit to the European Southern Observatory in Paranal, Chile, last year.

BRUSSELS—Statements of dismay poured in today after Anne Glover, the first chief scientific adviser (CSA) to the European Commission, confirmed that her post had “ceased to exist” on 31 October, along with the previous administration's mandate.

The London-based Science Media Centre relayed a series of comments coming mostly from the United Kingdom—which, unlike most other European countries, has a long tradition of having science advisers in government. Researchers and science policy leaders called the decision to let Glover's post expire “an enormous blow,” a “deep disappointment,” or a “backward step.” “Everyone—Europeans and the rest of the world alike—will rightly see this decision as the European Commission downgrading both the practical and the symbolic value of science in Europe,” said Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association.

Meanwhile, the commission is sticking to its message that President Jean-Claude Juncker, who took office on 1 November, values independent scientific advice for policymaking and has just not decided yet how that role will be filled in his administration.

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