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5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
Vol. 342 ,
Researchers have been hot on the trail of the elusive Denisovans, a type of ancient human known only by their DNA and...
Thousands of scientists in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) are about to lose their jobs as a result of the...
Dyslexia, a learning disability that hinders reading, hasn't been associated with deficits in vision, hearing, or...
Exotic, elusive, and dangerous, snakes have fascinated humankind for millennia. They can be hard to find, yet their...
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the first two snake genomes, which represent two evolutionary extremes. The...
Snake venoms are remarkably complex mixtures that can stun or kill prey within minutes. But more and more researchers...
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
Since arriving on the island of Guam in the 1940s, the brown tree snake ( Boiga irregularis ) has extirpated native...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
- About Us
- Wednesday, June 17, 2009 - 5:43pm
WASHINGTON, D.C.--A blue-ribbon panel recommended today that the White House intervene in the management of a crucial satellite program that has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, citing an "extraordinarily low probability of success." The panel, which presented its findings at an oversight hearing held by the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, concluded that the continuity of weather data is "at extreme risk" and suggested that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) be put in charge.
The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is designed to replace two aging sets of satellites that the Department of Defense and NOAA each use for weather forecasts. NPOESS was also expected to significantly expand NOAA's ability to gather climate data. But the program has been delayed over and over, cost estimates have already doubled to nearly $14 billion, and the sensor capabilities have been scaled back.
While there have been technical gaffes, many problems stem from the management structure. The program is jointly headed by an executive committee with representatives from NASA—which is involved in technology development—NOAA and DOD. The committee has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and convened an independent review team in response, chaired by Thomas Young, a former head of contractor Martin Marietta and former head of Goddard Space Flight Center.
Young's report (pdf) notes that a key problem is the different priorities of DOD and NOAA. DOD doesn't want to increase its funding of NPOESS, because it feels that the scaled-back system will be good enough for its needs. But that won't do the job for NOAA's climate research and monitoring. "The tri-management structure has beenContinue Reading
- Wednesday, June 17, 2009 - 5:29pm
A 4-month effort to inventory the contents of freezers and refrigerators at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland, has turned up 9,220 vials of dangerous pathogens and toxins that were not listed in USAMRIID’s database.
USAMRIID officials announced at a press conference today that the institute has resumed all of its research activities, which were suspended in early February to enable a complete accounting of select agents at the premier biodefense lab. The institute has been under intense public scrutiny since last summer when the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s implicated former USAMRIID researcher Bruce Ivins in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.
The labs at USAMRIID house more than 70,000 vials of select agents and toxins, including samples of Ebola, anthrax, and other deadly germs. Officials decided to conduct a full inventory of the materials after researchers found four vials of Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis in a freezer that had never been entered into the institute’s electronic database, created in 2005. They turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The inventory showed that 13% of the vials at the institute were not in the database, which officials had been using to keep track of materials.
Most of the unlisted vials were materials left behind by researchers who had left the institute before 2005, Col. Mark Kortepeter, USAMRIID’s deputy commander, told reporters at today’s press conference. “The vast majority of these were working stocks that had accumulated over several decades,” he said, explaining that the initial inventory for the electronic database 4 years ago had focused on vials that were in active use. Kortepeter said it was very “unlikely” that any unlisted vials had been lost or stolen.
About half of the 9220 vials were destroyed after scientistsContinue Reading
- Wednesday, June 17, 2009 - 5:06pm
A flurry of news reports today claim that Brazilian researchers have found a "new" strain of the novel H1N1 virus, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this is inaccurate.
Brazilian researchers from the Adolfo Lutz Bacteriological Institute in São Paulo reported in a release today that they had found an H1N1 virus in a Brazilian man that differed from a California isolate in the hemagglutinin (HA) gene, which codes for a protein that plays a major role in the immune response against the virus. The release does not claim that the strain is “new,” and it has only three amino acid differences in HA from the California isolate. But so many media reports came out making this assertion that CDC issued a statement in its daily briefing. “The Brazil virus is actually identical to the consensus sequence of all viruses sequenced worldwide,” says the statement. “The media apparently misinterpreted the three amino acid difference as evidence of a ‘new’ strain. This is not correct.”Continue Reading
- Wednesday, June 17, 2009 - 2:34pm
The U.S. House of Representatives last night approved $7.65 billion in new money to respond to the swine flu pandemic. The money will go toward the purchase of vaccine, antiviral drugs, and other medical needs. Congress also stipulated that the funds be available for surveillance and to help assist international efforts. At least $350 million must be spent on “upgrading State and local capacity.”
Jeffrey Levi, a health policy specialist who heads the Washington, D.C.-based Trust for America’s Health, applauds Congress’s action. “This demonstrates a serious commitment on the part of the Administration and the Congress to ramp up our capacity to respond to the H1N1 pandemic,” Levi said.
Although the Office of Management and Budget had suggested that Congress set aside nearly $12 billion in contingency funds by dipping into money allocated to Project BioShield and the stimulus plan, Levi said the legislators made the right decision not to rely on what he called a “rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul” strategy. “Preparing for a pandemic shouldn't come at the expense of defending against other threats,” he said.
The Obama Administration so far has committed $1 billion to purchase vaccine against the novel H1N1 virus for 20 million Americans and the new cash may enable it to purchase more. “The Administration now has the flexibility to tap resources as needed as they make the science-based decisions to proceed or not with vaccine production,” Levi said.
The money is part of a $106 billion package of supplemental funds that mainly support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill later this week, and it’s expected to pass easily and then receive President Barack Obama’s signature.Continue Reading
- Tuesday, June 16, 2009 - 5:41pm
With the U.S. Congress set to take up climate change legislation next week, Obama Administration officials today joined with leading climate scientists to emphasize that global warming is real, it’s going to get worse, and that action is needed sooner rather than later.
The occasion was the release of a report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program titled Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. But the report goes beyond the usual litany of current and future U.S. impacts to argue that limiting the emission of greenhouse gases now would avoid a lot of damage down the road.
Administration officials only amplified that message. “Climate change is a reality,” the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren told an audience assembled next door to the White House. “It’s not just a problem for the future; we’re beginning to see the impacts in our daily lives. Decisions now will determine whether we get big changes or small ones. It’s not too late to act; if we take immediate action, we can avoid the most severe impacts … [We can] now move ahead smartly after many years of dithering and delay.”
The report spelled out what those impacts might be for the United States. The Southwest will suffer greater water supply problems than other regions. Warming could drive the maple syrup industry out of the Northeast and into Canada. Warming freshwater in the Northwest will eliminate cold-water fish in many streams and rivers. Sea levels could rise more than a meter by the end of the century, flooding large parts of Florida.
The scientific authors also spoke of the urgency that the report’s findings should inspire. “The observed climate changes we report are not opinions, they are facts,” said report co-chair Jerry M. Melillo,Continue Reading
- Tuesday, June 16, 2009 - 5:36pm
Imagine a global math class: U.S. students would receive a grade of C while the top nations—Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan—would earn a B. The grades come from a Washington, D.C., think tank that has reinterpreted the results of a well-known international math assessment to highlight how much U.S. students need to improve to be proficient. (No nation gets an A, which would require the average student to demonstrate an advanced level of understanding.)
"The race to the top starts with knowing where we stand and how high the bar is over which we need to jump," explains Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research in presenting a new report today on international benchmarks in mathematics. "We are shooting for a B," he added, which would meet the proficient standard on the National Assessment of Educational Progress used to measure the achievement levels of U.S. students.
Working with the most recent scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Phillips converted the study's categories of advanced, high, intermediate, and low into letter grades. U.S. fourth graders received a C+, while eighth graders slipped to a C. The top Asian nations earned B+ and B, and their scores did not decline from elementary to middle school. Within the United States, Massachusetts led the nation, with its 4th graders earning a B and its eighth graders a B-. No other state scored above a C+ in eighth grade math.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Tuesday, June 16, 2009 - 11:05am
Last November was crunch time for Europe’s ExoMars mission to the red planet when member governments of the European Space Agency (ESA) pinned back the project’s budget to €850 million. Now the axe has fallen: ESA officials at the Paris Airshow this week said that one of the main components of the mission—a static base station called Humboldt that would study Mars’ atmosphere and seismology—will be cut. This scaling back was necessary, said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, to keep the mission on schedule for launch in 2016 and on budget, and to avoid jeopardizing the key technology demonstrations of the mission: landing on Mars, roving across the surface, and drilling beneath it—none of which ESA has done before.
ExoMars was enthusiastically approved by ESA governments in 2005 and given a budget of €650 million. But as the mission developed and researchers got more ambitious, the projected cost snowballed to an estimated €1.2 billion. At a budget meeting last November, with Europe’s economy much less buoyant, ESA members ordered the agency to stick within €850 million and to seek international partners to share the cost. Negotiations are indeed underway between ESA and NASA to collaborate on this and future Mars missions. NASA may provide the launcher for ExoMars and the carrier spacecraft that will carry the ExoMars rover on its journey.
Despite this help, Humboldt will have to be sacrificed. This part of the mission was due to carry a seismometer to study Martian geophysics as well as weather and radiation sensors. ESA science chief David Southwood says this technology may be put to better use in a future network of stations spaced around the planet’s surface to study its atmosphere and interior.Continue Reading
- Monday, June 15, 2009 - 11:32am
TAIPEI—With sessions ranging from aquaculture to structural biology and from neuroscience to entrepreneurship, the 12th International Symposium of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America (SCBA) that kicked off here today is certainly eclectic. The unifying principle is life science and Chinese-ness.
Founded 25 years ago, the 3000-member SCBA is the largest professional society for Chinese bioscientists in the world. The group sprang up because "it's a part of Chinese culture to try to maintain an identity over and above joining the mainstream," says Kuan-Teh Jeang, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
SCBA’s initial mandate was to help Chinese scientists navigate the U.S. academic world. The society’s agenda then widened to include trying to surmount what Jeang, who is the SCBA president-elect, diplomatically calls "the political divisions among Chinese areas." As a non-governmental and non-political organization, SCBA has encouraged collaborations with and among scientists in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Part of this effort led SCBA to alternate its biannual conferences between North America and those Chinese regions. The meeting starting here today on the campus of Academia Sinica has attracted 1300 participants, including more than 400 from other Chinese regions and North America.
The group's influence runs deep. "Large numbers of American educated scientists are going back [to Chinese regions] and they are the driving force behind many of the progressive changes you see there," Jeang says. Joseph Li, a virologist at Utah State University, Logan, says SCBA and its members have contributed to getting the Chinese regions to pay greater attention to health and environmental issues and to introduce more rigorous grant review procedures. "In Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, [grant reviews] now follow the NIH process, but 10 yearsContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Friday, June 12, 2009 - 5:12pm
Ocean advocates have long called for a better coordinated and more sustainable approach to managing the nation's oceans and the Great Lakes as a way to help lessen pollution and other harmful impacts. Today, President Barack Obama took a step in that direction by creating an interagency committee to develop recommendations for such a policy in 90 days.Obama proclaimed:
... we are taking a more integrated and comprehensive approach to developing a national ocean policy ... This policy will incorporate ecosystem-based science and management and emphasize our public stewardship responsibilities.
This framework should be a comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based approach that addresses conservation, economic activity, user conflict, and sustainable use of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources.Continue Reading
- Friday, June 12, 2009 - 3:15pm
A Canadian research funding body has agreed to think about its decision to support a conference later this month on prospects for peace in the Middle East after the Canadian science minister complained that some of the participants may be biased against Israel. The minister, Gary Goodyear, is already in hot water with academics after evoking his religious beliefs in connection with his views about evolution, and yesterday the Canadian Association of University Teachers called for his resignation.
In January, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) gave $17,815 to York University in Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston to host a conference 22–25 June entitled "Israel/Palestine: Mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace." On 5 June, Goodyear asked the council to conduct a “second peer review” of the grant on the grounds that “several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.” In March, the minister infamously ducked an inquiry about his belief in evolution by saying: “I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.”
Yesterday the funding council took a small step toward mollifying one of its political masters by announcing that it is “looking into the matter in the context of its policies and procedures.” But SSHRC spokesperson Trevor Lynn noted that, "to my knowledge,” the council has never conducted a second peer review of an approved grant. SSHRC program guidelines state that minor changes to a conference, such as the addition of a topic or replacement of speakers, do not require the agency's approval, whereas organizers are expected to tell the council of any major alterations in the use of the grant, such as “changingContinue Reading
- Friday, June 12, 2009 - 12:22pm
The Department of Energy announced this morning that it is willing to spend $1 billion on a cutting‑edge power plant in Illinois called FutureGen if the plant's industrial partners pay for the rest. The plant, which some observers say could cost more than $2 billion, would convert coal into gas, burn it, then capture much of the resulting carbon dioxide and pump it into geologic reservoirs deep underground.
FutureGen was conceived during the Bush Administration. But DOE officials gradually soured on the deal as cost estimates rose, and last year then‑Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman canceled funding for it. However, the plant has powerful supporters, including Senator Dick Durbin (D–IL). President Barack Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, also supported the project when they represented Illinois in the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively.
DOE's statement says it will work with the private FutureGen Alliance to restart design work on FutureGen and draw up a budget. The agency "will make a decision either to move forward or to discontinue the project early in 2010." Government funding for the project would come from money approved as part of the recent stimulus package, which added $38 billion in one-time spending to DOE's current $24 billion budget.
The first DOE press release suggested that, in a move to control costs, the plant would aim to initially capture 60% of its carbon dioxide emissions, rather than 90%, as had been previously planned. Within a few minutes, however, the agency issued a revised release in which that sentence was deleted.Continue Reading
- Friday, June 12, 2009 - 11:53am
Novartis announced in a press statement today that it has made the first batch of vaccine against the A (H1N1) influenza virus causing the swine flu pandemic. The Swiss-based pharmaceutical company said that it had made 10 liters of vaccine that it will use in pre-clinical studies and maybe early clinical trials. The company uses cells to grow the virus for the vaccine and claims that this “shows significant time saving” over traditional production with eggs. Thirty governments have “made requests” to the company for vaccine ingredients. If all goes well, the company expects to receive regulatory approval of its vaccine in the fall.Continue Reading
- Friday, June 12, 2009 - 7:38am
Education officials, scientists, and politicians continue to buzz about last week's sudden demise of the U.K.'s Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and the shift of its remit to a newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Times Higher Education reports on a House of Lords debate on the changes, during which one politician asked the new department's head: "Does he agree that it is a shameful and retrograde development that further and higher education have been subsumed in this way, to be judged not worthy even of a single letter in the new departmental acronym?”
Meanwhile, a House of Commons committee tasked with overseeing science and technology at DIUS today released a quickly written report calling for a new, similar panel with oversight authority for the new department. In a statement, Phil Wills, the current committee chair, noted: “Despite all the reassurances we have heard from ministers about the importance of science and engineering in government planning and policy, yet again we face the reality that science could be lost in a black hole of this new, all-encompassing ‘super department’ of Business, Innovation and Skills. We urge the Government to create a science and technology select committee alongside the new Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to ensure the crucial work of science scrutiny across government is maintained."Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Thursday, June 11, 2009 - 4:31pm
The Senate today voted 79–17 to approve a landmark tobacco bill that President Barack Obama said he will sign once it is reconciled with a similar House of Representatives measure. The legislation will, for the first time, empower the Food and Drug Administration to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products, creating a new FDA Center for Tobacco Products within 90 days after enactment.
A government source tells ScienceInsider that FDA is planning to hire as many as 1000 new employees—including several hundred scientists—to staff the new tobacco products center. (The agency now has six centers for drug evaluation, food safety, devices, biologics, veterinary medicine, and toxicology.) A user fee paid by tobacco companies will finance the FDA expansion required by the law, including a scientific advisory panel on tobacco-related issues. The bill follows a 2007 report by the Institute of Medicine that urged Congress to give the FDA such regulatory authority.
The bill would not allow FDA to ban nicotine, but would give the agency the power to require changes in the yields of nicotine and other chemicals in tobacco products. It would ban misleading claims such as “light” and “low-tar” as well as require manufacturers to submit claims for "reduced risk" cigarettes to FDA for analysis. Detailed lists of cigarette ingredients will also be required.
Public health researchers who study tobacco risks say the law’s impact will depend on how FDA implements the new rules and structures its tobacco research. Gregory N. Connolly of the Harvard School of Public Health says FDA should focus on reducing tobacco use, rather than regulating the industry’s efforts to develop “safer” cigarettes.
In a statement, Obama said he plans to sign the legislation because it “will make history by giving the scientists and medical experts at the FDA the power to take sensibleContinue Reading
- Thursday, June 11, 2009 - 4:20pm
On 2 May, a pig farm in Alberta, Canada, made international news when officials revealed that the animals there carried that novel H1N1 virus causing the swine flu outbreak in humans—the first and still the only pigs known to be infected. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said it was "highly probable"that a Canadian who recently had traveled to Mexico and returned with flu-like symptoms had infected the pigs. At press conferences on 2 May and 7 May, Canadian officials explained that because the farmer did not buy pigs from other farms, the “contractor” who had gone to Mexico was the most likely source of the virus. That scenario ruled out the possibility that the pigs were infected before humans and may have held clues to the origin of the outbreak.
It turns out that the contractor, Adrian Blaak, was a carpenter who had worked on the farm for one day, 14 April, swapping out vents on a pig barn. Although Blaak was feeling ill that day, he had minimal direct contact with the pigs. The farmer first noticed illness in his pig herd on 24 April. Officials quickly suspected that Blaak was the source of the pig infection, but his symptoms had resolved by then, at which point it's typically difficult to find the virus. Nasopharyngeal swabs taken from him, as expected, were negative for the novel H1N1. At a 7 May press conference, Frank Plummer, who heads the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, a branch of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), said that they were going to test Blaak’s blood samples for antibodies to the novel H1N1 virus, which could confirm that he had been infected. Plummer also discussed other workers at the farm who had flu-like symptoms and were being testedContinue Reading
- Thursday, June 11, 2009 - 3:33pm
The inevitable has become official. Today, the World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan announced that she had raised the pandemic alert scale to 6, the highest level, to indicate that a pandemic caused by the A (H1N1) swine flu virus is now underway. "The scientific criteria have been met," Chan told journalists gathered at WHO's main meeting hall in Geneva, Switzerland, just after 6 p.m. local time. "The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic."
Agency officials all but acknowledged at a press briefing on Tuesday that the declaration was imminent, as they had in early May as well. WHO's official tally stood at 28,774 cases in 74 countries today, including 144 deaths.
Chan stressed that phase 6 indicates only geographical spread and does not denote an increase in severity. WHO characterizes the pandemic’s severity as "moderate," but Chan warned that the virus "can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, anytime.”
Yesterday, Chan spoke by teleconference with several WHO member countries about the spread of the A (H1N1) virus in their locales. Their input led her to seek advice from an Emergency Committee, as specified in International Health Regulations. “All member countries as well as the experts on the emergency committee reviewed the evidence and there was consensus, a unanimous decision, that we have indisputable evidence that we are at the beginning days of a global pandemic caused by a new H1N1 virus,” said Chan.
A major concern to WHO is that developing nations, already burdened with more disease and weaker health systems, might be disproportionately hit by the pandemic. Chan urged international solidarity to prevent this from happening. "This is a time when the world's countries …must come together," she said. "No country's people should be left behindContinue Reading
- Thursday, June 11, 2009 - 11:20am
For the past year, the U.S. biomedical research community has been rocked by a Senate probe revealing that several prominent researchers have failed to properly disclose hefty payments that they received from drug companies. The National Institutes of Health is now looking at tightening its rules for overseeing conflicts of interest involving NIH grants. Yesterday, two heavyweight academic groups weighed in on possible changes. They agree that researchers need to disclose more of their income, but reject some other proposals.
Right now, NIH grantees have to report to their institutions only financial interests (consulting fees or stock, for example) "affected by the research" that exceed $10,000 per year or 5% equity interest. That threshold is too high, says a letter to NIH from the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Association of American Universities. The groups say that investigators should report everything directly or indirectly related to their research to their institutions. For reporting to NIH, they'd like to see a lower "significant" threshold: $5000 or 0.1% equity for publicly traded companies.
The two groups also agree that NIH should collect more details from institutions on the conflicts they're managing. Under the current rules, institutions just have to tell NIH that a conflict exists for a particular grant.
However, the groups don't think NIH should set any kind of limit on financial conflicts, even for studies involving human subjects. Although AAMC and AAU have recommended to their members that significant conflicts should generally be prohibited in clinical research, they say institutions need flexibility. The letter says it's premature for NIH to require conflicts policies for institutions (as well as individuals) because schools are still working out how to craft institutional policies.
"Imposing over-zealous regulations could disrupt productive partnerships to the detriment ofContinue Reading
- Thursday, June 11, 2009 - 11:18am
This item was updated with a list of other countries with similar bans and a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The International AIDS Society (IAS), which stages the biannual international meeting that attract more than 20,000 attendees, says it is considering holding the 2012 gathering in Washington, D.C. But before it holds the conference anywhere in the United States, the federal government must change a law that bans HIV-infected people from entering the country.
IAS moved the 1992 conference from Boston to Amsterdam because the U.S. government instituted the ban; the conference has not been held in the country since. “This long-standing law, which is contrary to all scientific evidence and human rights principles, is one of the U.S.’s weakest spots in HIV policy,” said IAS president Julio Montaner in a statement.
The U.S. Congress repealed the law in July 2008, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services still has HIV on the list of communicable diseases that bar entry. The international AIDS conference was previously held in Washington, D.C., in 1987.
Eight other countries have a similar HIV immigration ban: Brunei, China, Oman, Qatar, South Korea, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
In a statement to ScienceInsider, HHS said it has submitted "a notice of proposed rule-making to implement this change" to the Office of Management and Budget for its review.Continue Reading
- Thursday, June 11, 2009 - 11:07am
The White House announced this week that it will nominate Warren (Pete) Miller, a long-time researcher and administrator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, as the Department of Energy's Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy.
Miller, 66, grew up in Chicago, where he attended all-black schools. (One of his classmates in elementary school was Emmett Till, who was murdered as a teenager while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955.) He joined ROTC, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and served in Vietnam. After resigning from the military, he earned a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from Northwestern University, then went to work at Los Alamos. He was elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1996.
Miller told ScienceInsider: "I certainly think we do need to get nuclear energy going again." He noted that the government has already offered loan guarantees to companies that are ready to build new nuclear power plants. "We'll just have to see" whether those incentives are sufficient, he said. On the controversial issue of reprocessing nuclear waste, Miller said that more R&D is needed to bring down the cost of the technology and reduce the risk of creating new stocks of bomb-ready nuclear materials.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Thursday, June 11, 2009 - 11:03am
Turns out the stimulus package may not be pure gravy for the National Science Foundation after all. On Tuesday the appropriations committee of the U.S. House of Representatives cut out the entire $100 million that the National Science Foundation had requested for its Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program next year, deciding that the $300 million in additional funding it received from the massive federal stimulus package approved in February should tide it over for another year.
The MRI program was seen as a good source of "shovel-ready" projects after NSF received $515 million in requests—five times the amount available—during the 2008 competition. NSF is planning two rounds of funding this year: one to tap the stimulus funding and one funded by the $100 million from NSF's regular 2009 appropriations. But a third round planned for early 2010 is now in limbo.
Also up in the air is NSF's plan to ramp up its Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. The 15-year-old program, which helps community colleges provide industry with a skilled work force, is one of the Obama Administration's education priorities, and NSF had requested a 24% boost, to $62 million, on the way to $100 million by 2013. Instead, the House spending panel cut the request by 57%, to $22 million, noting that the reduction was made "to support higher priority programs" within NSF.
That decision doesn't sit well with one senior panel member, Representative David Price (D–NC). Price, who may be the program's biggest supporter in Congress, argued during the committee markup that ATE "is the only program that engages with America’s community colleges." He also noted that it was created "to rectify a serious deficiency whereby NSF did nothing at the level of advanced technical education."
"This is only the start of a long process," says Phil Feagan,Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - 4:35pm
VIENNA—Researchers were scratching their heads earlier today at a meeting convened by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) over puzzling results from last month's nuclear test by North Korea. While the test produced a clearly recognizable seismic signal that was picked up by CTBTO's worldwide network of sensors, the organization's atmospheric detectors failed to pick up a whiff of the expected radionuclides in air. Even a deep underground test is usually expected to leak radionuclides, so their absence in this case caused quite a stir. Anders Ringbom of the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm says CTBTO's detectors for radioactive noble gases—a telltale signature of a nuclear test—can pick up a couple of hundred atoms from a cubic meter of air. On the lack of a signal, he said: "I was a little surprised, yes."
Some 400 scientists gathered here, CTBTO's home base, this week to discuss the results of a series of studies carried out by external researchers over the past year to test the capabilities of the system for detecting clandestine tests and to consider other scientific uses for the wealth of data collected. The system comprises 337 sensors across the globe looking for seismic signals, radionuclides, hydroacoustic signals in the oceans, and very low frequency infrasound in the air. Seismologists at the meeting say that the 25 May Korean test was an unmistakably man-made event and showed characteristics that make it almost certainly a nuclear rather than a chemical explosion. But the presence of radioactive xenon is considered the smoking gun for the nuclear nature of an explosion—and it wasn't detected.
It is possible to design a test to reduce the chances of radionuclides escaping into the air, for example, by carrying it out deep underground in particular types of rock. CTBTO chief Tibor Tóth says theContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - 3:12pm
An all-star cast of educational leaders gathered this morning to push for a comprehensive reform of U.S. science and math education. The occasion was the release of a report from an outside panel of experts funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The report, called the "Opportunity Equation," argues for not only improving how math and science are taught, but also for putting those subjects at the core of more sweeping changes that would allow the country to "do school differently."
The commission's work received a ringing endorsement in a cheerleading speech from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has echoed its call for "fewer, higher, clearer" state standards that lay out what students should learn. The report, described by a panel of commission members, also said that those common national standards, being drawn up by a voluntary coalition of 46 states, must be accompanied by better tests to measure student achievement, improved training for their teachers, and greater flexibility for schools to pursue innovative strategies. "I'm taking notes," said Representative George Miller (D–CA), who chairs the House of Representatives education panel responsible for reauthorizing the current federal law governing elementary and secondary education, known commonly as "No Child Left Behind."
Duncan and the panelists also cited several programs that are working effectively on a local or state level that need to be scaled up. And everybody agreed that "the time to act is now." As Duncan remarked, "money isn't everything. But it makes a difference. We've got $100 billion to work with, an unprecedented amount. And we'll never have a better chance to get it done."Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Tuesday, June 9, 2009 - 5:28pm
So can we call it a pandemic yet? Nope, the World Health Organization said today. Although the A (H1N1) virus has now spread to 76 countries and seems to be spreading briskly in Australia, the agency still has not moved its pandemic alert scale to 6, the highest level. But at a press conference (audio, page loads slowly) today, WHO's flu chief Keiji Fukuda said that the agency is now "really very close" to calling the epidemic a pandemic. It is still working to inform countries exactly what level 6 means and avoid unnecessary panic, he said.
Whether or not the spread of the swine flu virus constitutes a pandemic has been the subject of debate for many weeks. WHO's own definition requires that the virus shows sustained community spread in countries in at least two of its six regions—that is, another region apart from the Americas, where it originated. The virus's spread in Europe and Japan has led some to argue that criterion has already been met.
Now, continuing spread in Australia, where 1051 cases have been confirmed, would seem to end any remaining doubt. Among reporters, many of whom have followed WHO's briefings for 6 weeks, the impatience was palpable today. But once again, Fukuda artfully dodged questions about what exactly will make WHO pull the lever. He hinted, however, that it is now more a matter of communication strategy than anything else. WHO wants to avoid a "blossoming of anxiety" once it moves to level 6, Fukuda said. "One of the critical issues is that we do not want people to over-panic," he added.
- Tuesday, June 9, 2009 - 4:09pm
This chronology of the pandemic will be updated regularly as news breaks and past events come to light. And follow ScienceInsider’s full coverage on the swine flu outbreak here.
With Australia reporting more than 1000 confirmed cases, WHO's flu chief Keiji Fukuda says the agency is now "really very close" to calling the epidemic a pandemic. WHO is still working to inform countries exactly what phase 6 means and to avoid a "blossoming of anxiety" once a pandemic is declared. Fukuda also weighed in on what the virus—or the pandemic—should be called, admitting that the current name, influenza A (H1N1), is creating confusion.
Egypt becomes the first country in Africa to report a confirmed case of swine flu to WHO. Pan-African News Agency reports that six sub-Saharan countries have suspected cases. In all, says WHO, 73 countries to date have reported 25,288 confirmed cases and 139 deaths.
Trust for America’s Health, a D.C.-based advocacy group, issues “Pandemic Flu Preparedness: Lessons from the Frontlines.” The detailed critique praises U.S. federal, state, and local governments for having invested in pandemic planning, including the stockpiling of drugs and training public health officials to respond appropriately. But the report says public health departments are underfunded and “stretched too thin,” leading to delays in identifying and containing infections.
The 23-page report further warns that the country’s “current vaccine development and production capacity is severely lacking,” adding that “the country has not developed or adequately tested a system that will ensure that all Americans would be able to be inoculated in a short period of time.” WHO’s pandemic alert system, it says, has caused much confusion; the report also criticized some countries for instituting travel restrictions and bans on pork products.
- Tuesday, June 9, 2009 - 3:46pm
Details emerged this week on how the deluge of applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health's Challenge Grant competition could disrupt the normal grant cycle down the road, possibly doubling or tripling the number of grants submitted well into next year.
The agency has now received nearly 21,000 proposals for the Challenge awards, which are funded with the agency's $10.4 billion in stimulus money. That tops the 16,000 applications NIH normally receives in each of its regular three grant cycles per year. The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) has recruited 18,000 scientists to review Challenge proposals this summer and 2000 for other stimulus grants, in addition to the 8000 reviewers it will use for regular grants. NIH tried to put a positive spin on the numbers in a press release yesterday: "These are exciting times for biomedical research and NIH," gushed acting NIH Director Raynard Kington. But few scientists will be celebrating in a few months, as a mere 1%–2% of the Challenge grants will likely be funded.
Those who lose out won't have completely wasted their time, as they can resubmit their ideas as a regular R01 investigator-initiated grant. These proposals may face tough odds, too, however, CSR Director Antonio Scarpa told his advisory council yesterday.
The recycled Challenge proposals could bloat the number of R01 applications far above the normal 9000 or so per cycle, Scarpa said. His rough projections are that the biggest crunch will come in 2010 with a possible 30,000 applications to be reviewed in February and 25,000 in October (see graph). As a result, success rates for these grants,Continue Reading