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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
- Tuesday, May 19, 2009 - 6:08am
Today's Independent, among others, has a nice account of a contentious academic debate among the United Kingdom's geographers, which has culminated in a vote by Royal Geographical Society members to not support large-scale scientific expeditions.
Michael McCarthy writes:
More than 300 fellows and members of the Royal Geographical Society crowded into a lecture theatre at the society's elegant Kensington headquarters, to argue over a controversial call for the RGS to resume the big scientific expeditions for which it was once a byword, and which have now been abandoned.
But after a passionate two-hour debate behind closed doors, which involved some of Britain's leading explorers, including the Arctic adventurer Pen Hadow and the pioneer of rainforest studies Robin Hanbury-Tenison, the motion was defeated.
The argument had been seen as a fight for the soul of the RGS, between those who felt that large-scale exploration should still be its true purpose, and those who felt that times had changed, and it should now be an essentially academic institution.
More than 4000 of the society's 10,000-plus members cast a ballot, and the motion to restore major expeditions was defeated 61.3% to 38.7%.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Monday, May 18, 2009 - 3:13pm
The phasing system for pandemic influenza needs fixing, representatives of several countries told Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), at the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, today.
On 29 April, WHO announced a phase 5 alert about the swine flu outbreak, one level short of a full-scale pandemic. But the alert has yet to move to phase 6 because WHO says no country outside of North America has experienced spread of the new H1N1 virus in a community. Critics have noted that this phasing system does not take into account the severity of the disease, and that the definitions of “community spread” are not clear. At a “high-level consultation,” representatives from member countries said they wanted a more “nuanced” system, WHO spokesperson Thomas Abraham told ScienceInsider, that took severity of disease and other factors into account.
Although Slyvie Briand of WHO’s influenza program said at a 13 May press conference that a “severity index” for flu "is not very helpful," a committee there has been looking carefully at the possibility of creating one for the past year, says Abraham.
As of this morning Geneva time, WHO said 39 countries had reported 8480 confirmed cases of swine flu. The United States now has 5123 confirmed cases, more than 200 of which have been hospitalized. Anne Schuchat, interim deputy director for science and public health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press conference this morning that the virus is still spreading rapidly in the country. “The H1N1 is not going away, despite what you may have heard,” she said.Continue Reading
- Monday, May 18, 2009 - 3:10pm
Former astronaut Charles Bolden is expected to be named the next administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as early as today, according to press reports over the weekend. A veteran of four space shuttle missions in the 1980s and '90s, Bolden retired as a major general in the Marine Corps in 2004. He has since worked as a lobbyist for the aerospace community. If nominated and confirmed, Bolden will be the first African American to lead NASA. He is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama for an interview today. Stay tuned.Continue Reading
- Monday, May 18, 2009 - 8:58am
The number of confirmed influenza A (H1N1) cases in Japan exploded over the weekend, going from an officially reported four—all in returning vacationers—on 16 May to 129 as of 18 May. The 125 new cases are all among high-school students in Osaka and Kobe, two neighboring cities in western Japan. None of these cases has yet been linked to a returning traveler. Japanese media, citing their own surveys of local health offices, are reporting 135 confirmed cases as of late afternoon on 18 May. Despite the surge, the World Health Organization (WHO) hasn’t yet raised its pandemic alert level to indicate that a global pandemic is under way. "What we're seeing now is not the trigger for phase 6," says Peter Cordingley, spokesperson for WHO's Western Pacific Regional Office in Manila.
The spread of a novel H1N1 in North America led WHO on 29 April to raise its pandemic alert to phase 5, which indicates human-to-human spread in at least two countries in one WHO region. Phase 6, the highest level, is characterized by such community-level outbreaks in two WHO regions. Cordingley says that although the agency is aware of reports of additional cases in Japan—WHO expects the official numbers to rise—"the bulk of the cases are associated with schools, and we don't see evidence of sustained transmission in local communities."
Others think that this line has already been crossed. "Without sustained community transmission, you cannot have 100 cases," says Hitoshi Oshitani, a public health specialist at Tohoku University in Sendai.
Spain and the United Kingdom also report more than 100 cases of the new H1N1, but they accumulated more slowly than did the cases in Japan. Although the new Japan cases are concentrated among high schoolers, Oshitani says, reports are surfacing of infections among family members of the studentsContinue Reading
- Saturday, May 16, 2009 - 3:57pm
A team of European researchers has analyzed the outbreak of the novel H1N1 virus in Mexico and calculates twice as much spread per infected person as an earlier report in ScienceExpress. The new study, published in Eurosurveillance, concludes that each infected person infects between 2.2 and 3.1 others, a “reproduction ratio” in keeping with those of other pandemic influenza viruses. The earlier paper in ScienceExpress, which factored in the likelihood that there was much underreporting in the official case numbers, calculated a reproduction ratio of only 1.4 to 1.6.Continue Reading
- Friday, May 15, 2009 - 6:33pm
It’s hard to keep a hot fossil under wraps. A public relations firm issued a breathless press release yesterday about “A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING,” to be announced Tuesday at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. But news of the discovery—a 47-million-year-old fossil primate—has leaked out already.
An article in The Wall Street Journal this morning quoted paleontologist Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who described the potential significance of the “spectacular” complete skeleton of a young female primate that was discovered 2 years ago near Frankfurt, Germany. Gingerich proposed that this fossil may be the earliest anthropoid—or the common ancestor of all later monkeys, apes, and humans.
Gingerich tells ScienceInsider that his interview with The Wall Street Journal was off the record until the press conference Tuesday. He and other researchers on the team are now refusing to talk to any reporters about the paper, which will be published by the Public Library of Science also on Tuesday. “We can’t say anything,” says paleontologist Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum in Norway, where the skeleton is kept.
Gingerich also gave an interview to the Daily Mail of London, which ran a story about the fossil last Sunday. The story describes the fossil, named Darwinius masillae, and a documentary about it by David Attenborough for the BBC and The History Channel. The PLoS paper had been leaked to the Daily Mail, Hurum says.
Tuesday’s press conference will be attended by the mayor of New York City as well as Ellen Futter, president of AMNH, which opens a major exhibit on mammals tomorrow.
How is the news being anticipated in the scientific community? “I honestly think this isContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Friday, May 15, 2009 - 6:10pm
This odd exchange took place at today’s press conference with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
David Brown, The Washington Post: There’s a report that there is yet another new H1N1 virus that has been found in the states of Durango, Zacatecas, and Jalisco that is distinct from both this swine H1N1 and the seasonal Brisbane H1N1. Have you heard of this and can you tell us anything about this?
Daniel Jernigan, CDC’s deputy director of influenza division: We’ve heard of some reports about that, but I’ve not had any direct information about the specifics of that case. There’s ongoing dialog between us and the folks that are in Mexico, and as we know more about that, we’ll be able to let people know.
ScienceInsider is investigating but has yet to learn anything substantive. It was aired in a public venue, though, and likely will receive media attention, regardless of whether it turns out to be false.
Update (6:44EDT, 15 May): “We heard a rumor but think it may be a misinterpretation of some lab data by a non-lab person,” Nancy Cox, head of CDC’s influenza division, tells ScienceInsider. “We are following up.”
Update #2 (9:57pm EDT, 15 May): “There is no scientific evidence, up to date, that we have a different A (H1N1) virus other than human seasonal or swine-origin H1N1,” Celia Alpuche, head of the main lab in Mexico that does influenza testing, tells ScienceInsider. “We have seen influenza seasonal strains circulating even more than swine-origin A (H1N1) virus, in particular in areas in Mexico such as Durango, Jalisco, and Zacatecas. We started the subtyping of these strains and we are finding mostly A (H3) seasonal and also A (H1) seasonal.” Alpuche, who heads the Instituto de Diagnóstico y Referencia Epidemiológicos (InDRE) in MexicoContinue Reading
- Friday, May 15, 2009 - 5:44pm
Paul Farmer, a Harvard physician and co-founder of the international health organization Partners In Health, is reportedly mulling an offer from the Obama Administration to play a leading role in U.S. global health work. "Paul is very interested" in considering how a move on his part would affect Partners in Health and other players, said Elana Hayasaka, a spokesperson for Partners In Health, in an e-mail. Rumors are that the job involves overseeing all foreign health aid.Continue Reading
- Friday, May 15, 2009 - 2:59pm
Four European countries have ordered a vaccine tailor-made for the new H1N1 influenza strain by GlaxoSmithKline. In a press release issued today, the company said it has yet to receive a “seed stock” from the World Health Organization to manufacture the vaccine and that upon receipt of the stock it will require 4 to 6 months to produce the vaccine. This means the vaccine may not be ready until well into the flu season next fall. The four countries that have placed orders are the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and Finland.Continue Reading
- Friday, May 15, 2009 - 10:27am
President Barack Obama today named New York City’s health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden, as the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—a post that has been vacant since the departure of former director Julie Gerberding in January.
A graduate of Columbia University’s medical school and its Mailman School of Public Health, Frieden worked for the CDC for a dozen years, first on tuberculosis control in New York and later on loan to the World Health Organization in India, focusing on TB control there.
During his 7 years as New York’s health commissioner, Frieden has earned a reputation as an innovative advocate of stern public health initiatives, including tobacco control, mandatory HIV testing, reducing artificial trans fats in restaurant meals, restrictions on salt content, and his recent call, in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, for a steep excise tax on sugared sodas. President Obama called Frieden “an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies” who also “has been at the forefront in the fight against heart disease, cancer, and obesity.”
Frieden’s appointment comes at a time when CDC is still recovering from years of controversy related to political pressures and a major reorganization ordered by Gerberding. In the past month, the Atlanta-based agency has also been under tremendous pressure in dealing with the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak.
Although Frieden had been on the short list of potential CDC directors since January, a dark-horse competitor in recent weeks was the agency’s acting director, Richard Besser, who has been praised for his calm handling of the flu outbreak. When Frieden takes office in June, Besser will return to his former position as head of CDC’s terrorism preparedness and emergency response office. On Friday, Besser described Frieden as “a consummate innovator” in publicContinue Reading
- Friday, May 15, 2009 - 6:10am
TOKYO—A Japanese consortium’s plans to build the world's fastest supercomputer suffered a setback on 14 May when two private companies involved announced they are withdrawing to cut costs.
The Next-Generation Supercomputer is a 7-year, $1 billion national project funded by the Ministry of Education. Development is being spearheaded by RIKEN, Japan’s network of national labs, with support from several universities and private companies. The supercomputer would be housed at RIKEN’s campus in Kobe and is intended to support both academic and industrial research. The companies that pulled out, NEC and Hitachi, have been working together on the design of processors for the computer. Their withdrawal may require revisions to the computer's configuration, which could affect software being developed by other consortium members, says Tadashi Watanabe, a supercomputing expert heading the project for RIKEN. Scientists are writing code that would simulate galaxy formation, model Earth's climate, and aid in drug discovery and earthquake-resistant building design, among other things.
The departure of NEC and Hitachi "was a surprise," says Watanabe. "Some rewriting [of software] may be needed, but how much will depend on changes to the configuration, and we're now studying how to minimize impact on the software. We're doing everything we can to keep to the schedule" of completing the project in 2012.
The supercomputer is being designed to reach computing speeds of 10 petaflops (10 quadrillion floating point operations per second). When the project was announced in 2005, Japanese computer scientists had hoped it would reign for a time as the world's fastest supercomputer. Even if it is completed as scheduled, the Next-Generation Supercomputer would soon be eclipsed by a 20-petaflops supercomputer that IBM is developing for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and which is also slated for delivery in 2012. (Here's a list of the Continue Reading
- Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 5:49pm
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is planning to institute new security requirements for the shipping of pathogens. The move could make some courier companies stop accepting shipments of pathogen samples for delivery, which in turn could hurt collaborations between research labs and impede responses to public health emergencies such as swine flu.
To ship infectious disease agents within the United States, as well as between the U.S. and an overseas destination, senders have to obtain a permit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and encase the shipment in special packaging to prevent leakage. TSA officials want to beef up the security of these deliveries by requiring packages to be tracked at all times and mandating background checks for all employees of the courier company who might have access to the packages.
TSA floated these measures in June last year in the form of voluntary guidelines for highway couriers. Officials are now converting these guidelines into regulations, Bud Hunt of TSA’s Highway and Motor Carrier Programs Office said this morning at a public meeting of an interagency working group on biosecurity.
Tracking packages throughout their journeys would be too expensive, Patrick Oppenheimer, senior manager for safety programs at FedEx Express, said at the meeting. That and other measures, such as requiring two drivers for vehicles transporting pathogen shipments, could force FedEx Express to consider, “Is this a type of business we can actually stay in?” Oppenheimer said.Continue Reading
- Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 5:07pm
The husband of a pregnant woman in Texas who died from swine flu last week has made the opening legal moves in what could become a $1 billion civil suit for wrongful death against a U.S. hog producer that raised pigs in Mexico, which he alleges may be involved with the outbreak. (The petition was first reported by The Brownsville Herald.)
On 11 May, Steven Trunnell, a paramedic, filed a petition in the District Court of Cameron County, Texas, that seeks to depose representatives from Smithfield Foods, a Virginia-based company that owns 50% of Granjas Carroll de Mexico, a large hog operation in the state of Veracruz. Trunnell’s wife, Judy, a special education teacher who was 8 months pregnant, was hospitalized because of swine flu on 19 April and died from infection with the novel H1N1 virus on 5 May, according to the petition. The healthy baby was delivered by cesarean section before the mother died. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on 12 May published a dispatch in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report about H1N1 in pregnancy that describes her case in detail. If discovery finds evidence to justify the wrongful-death claim, the petition states that Trunnell will amend his pleading and seek to hold Smithfield Foods liable for as much $1 billion in damages.
Granjas Carroll has received intense media attention for several weeks because a boy who lived in La Gloria, a town near the hog farm, had one of the earliest confirmed cases of swine flu in Mexico. The petition claims that “it is likely that the creation and spread of this lethal strain of swine flu may have been caused, in part, by historically unsanitary conditions which Smithfield Foods knowingly caused to occur in Mexico in connection with the operationContinue Reading
- Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 4:12pm
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to begin building three major new scientific facilities: a research ship, a solar telescope, and a network of ocean observatories. NSF Director Arden Bement Jr. announced today that the funds come from NSF's $3 billion pot of stimulus money, adding that the $400 million investment will not only create jobs but also save taxpayers money by allowing NSF to avoid further delays that are likely to drive up costs.
"We've been working on this for 10 years, and it's like a dream come true," says Terry Whitledge of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who's principal investigator for the Alaska Region Research Vessel. NSF hopes that this year's allocation of $148 million will be enough to build the 75-meter-long ship, which, although not an icebreaker, will have an extra-thick steel hull to clear its path through icy waters. But uncertainty over the cost of materials, labor, and the price of oil could still boost that price by 20% or more, Whitledge warns. He expects as many as a dozen U.S. shipyards to bid on the project, which will take 2 to 3 years to complete once a contract is awarded this fall.
The Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) is getting $106 million this year to begin building its network of sensors to measure physical, chemical, geological, and biological variables in the ocean. The money would be a down payment on three deep-sea buoys, five regional electro-optical cabled networks on the sea floor, and coastal observatories. Bement said that additional funding would be needed for the cyberinfrastructure to link these components. NSF is requesting $14 million for OOI in its 2010 budget to continue construction.
The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) will get $146 million this year so astronomers can begin construction of theContinue Reading
- Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 3:53pm
A Canadian researcher is in U.S. custody after attempting to smuggle 22 vials of biological materials into the United States. Konan Michel Yao was arrested at the border between North Dakota and the Canadian province of Manitoba on 5 May, according to this AFP story.
Yao worked until recently at Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory, doing research on vaccines for Ebola and HIV. He told U.S. border guards that he was carrying the vials to his new job at the National Institutes of Health. Although the materials in his possession were not infectious, and authorities don't believe it was a case of attempted terrorism, the case is likely to add to concerns about the security of labs that house dangerous pathogens. Yao could face smuggling charges. Continue Reading
- Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 2:18pm
"WORLD RENOWNED SCIENTISTS REVEAL A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING," blares a media alert that crossed ScienceInsider's desk today. The notice announces a 19 May press conference at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others, will speak. They will "unveil a major historic scientific find" that will "address a long-standing scientific puzzle." The announcement is tied to an upcoming special on the History Channel, the notice says. ScienceInsider is waiting with bated breath.
Update: The "find that will change everything" is a 47-million-year-old fossil found in Germany of a primate that could be the common ancestor of modern apes, monkeys, and humans.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 11:56am
The 26 May deadline for commenting on the National Institutes of Health's draft guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research is fast approaching, and scientists are fretting that NIH's rules for informed consent will disqualify many existing cell lines. Patrick Taylor, deputy general counsel at Children's Hospital Boston, in a commentary published online today in Cell Stem Cell, argues in general that new rules should not be applied retroactively to science, because it is always evolving.
Here’s part of Taylor's take on the proposed stem cell guidelines:
Prospectively applied, the proposed NIH rules as they stand would present a challenge to the field. But retroactively applied, the draft regulations would create a tectonic shift: previously, only certain old lines were fundable, and now—conceivably—only certain new lines will be, and there will continue to be no federal funding available for research using cells created ethically since 2001. Important research will need to be repeated, and assays and data rebuilt. As currently outlined, it’s as if the last 8 years of cell line creation and ethical self-regulation have just vanished, to be replaced by a new funding structure that does not give weight to the existing science, ethics, self-regulation, donor intentions, or diverse cell lines.
Like other proposed federal rules, the draft guidelines appeared in the Federal Register—a daily compendium of notices from federal agencies. Its most devoted readers tend to be Washington, D.C., policy-wonk types who follow it for their respective interest groups or agencies. Scientific societies usually comment on proposals that affect their membership.
But individual scientists aren’t participating enough, according to an article, also appearing today, in the journal Cell (subscription required). Science writer Amy Maxmen lists recent Federal Register requests for comment involving transgenic organisms, gene patents, and stem cells. It's easy toContinue Reading
- Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 9:37am
Janez Potocnik, the European Union's (E.U.'s) commissioner for research, said at a meeting in Prague last week that the 12 nations that have joined the E.U. since 2004 are not winning a fair slice of the research pie. He said said that a new progress report for the E.U.'s seventh Framework Program (FP7), which will distribute €50 billion to researchers between 2007 and 2013, revealed a mixed picture of application success between new and old members: 21.8% of applications for FP7 funding from old members were successful, compared to 17.9% of those from newer members, most of which are in central and eastern Europe.
It's not a clear-cut picture, however. "The overall success rate of the Czech Republic in the first 2 years of FP7 is close to the E.U. 27 average and higher than that of Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece," Potocnik said. He also noted that for the 12 new E.U. members, poor funding at home means that on average, researchers in these states get more money from the E.U. than they do from their own governments.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 5:10pm
A retired plant virologist from Australia has caused an international ruckus by proposing that a vaccine-manufacturing accident may have created the virus driving the current swine flu outbreak. Many leading influenza researchers immediately dismissed the theory out of hand or flat-out refused to speak about it. “Oh, come on, forget about this,” said virologist Peter Palese of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. But influenza scientists at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—who similarly have deep skepticism about the thesis—have been forced to examine the evidence and publicly discuss what to many is a far-fetched idea.
Adrian Gibbs, who worked at the Australian National University in Canberra for 39 years before hanging up his lab coat in 2005, came up with this hypothesis, and although his specialty is potato viruses, he’s no stranger to flu genetics or controversy: He earlier published studies in Science and Nature questioning the supposed bird origin of the strain behind the 1918 influenza epidemic.
As Gibbs explained to ScienceInsider, the latest outbreak led him to scour the public databases and compare the genes of the recently discovered A (H1N1) virus—which is a mix of swine, avian, and human influenzas—with its closest ancestors. He confirmed, as others have reported, that six of the eight genes appear to have come from North America and two others came from Eurasia, which suggested to him that there were two parental viruses that had “reassorted” (fluspeak for combined).
Gibbs, who still lives in Canberra, then took this seemingly innocuous insight into a realm that made the eyes of influenza experts go wide. Gibbs says he discovered thatContinue Reading
- Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 12:16pm
Two advocacy groups joined with cancer patients and doctors yesterday to launch a sweeping attack on human gene patents. They filed a lawsuit arguing that those for breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, controlled by the diagnostic company Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City, Utah, are illegal. Among other things, the plaintiffs claim that these patents violate the right to free speech because they prevent patients who take Myriad's test from getting a second opinion.
If successful—and it is a long shot—the case could undercut many gene patents.
This challenge arose from complaints made initially by breast cancer patients who objected to Myriad’s monopoly control over the testing and interpretation of risks associated with these cancer genes. The litigation is being carried forward by the Public Patent Foundation, headed by Daniel Ravicher, a patent attorney at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, and the American Civil Liberties Union. They filed their complaint yesterday in federal court in New York against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and others. One of many researchers lending support to the cause is genome scientist and Nobelist John Sulston of the University of Manchester, U.K., who warns that “gene patents can have a chilling impact on research, obstruct the development of new genetic tests, and interfere with medical care.”Continue Reading
- Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 12:14pm
Australia’s government plans to boost investment in science and innovation by about 25%, surprising a scientific community bracing itself for savage cuts amid the global economic downturn. The increase, announced in the federal budget released on Tuesday, takes the outlay for science and innovation from U.S. $5.3 billion (A $6.9 billion) in the current 2008–09 budget to U.S. $6.6 billion (A $8.6 billion) in the 2009–10 financial year. (The Australian financial year runs from 1 July.)
The rise comes despite a big drop in government revenue as the global financial crisis deepens. Scientists and science policy experts in Australia attribute the unexpected fillip in part to the completion of reviews of the national innovation system and universities commissioned by the Australian Labor Party government soon after it came to power in late 2007. The government agreed to adopt many of the recommendations of the reviews, and some of the new money will be directed toward those goals.
Many credit the hard-nosed and politically astute Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr with the surge in funding. “Paradoxically, in times of crisis, there are often more opportunities for fundamental reform, which have been grasped by the Australian government,” said Ken Baldwin, president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies.
Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science, said the 25% budget increase was “substantial at a time of restraint." He continued, "It indicates that the government has finally recognized the importance of science and technology. ... It [the budget] really goes out of its way to start repairing the consequences of a decade of neglect. Although some of the funding might not flow through for a few years, the framework is there.” However, Lambeck is worried about a focus on “material infrastructure,” i.e., facilities and equipment ratherContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 12:04pm
In the wake of a 1976 swine flu outbreak that began and ended with soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, virologist Nancy Cox was a postdoc at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Today, Cox heads CDC’s influenza division, which has put her at the vortex of the response to the current H1N1 swine flu outbreak. She is also helping to draw up research plans to better understand how this particular swine flu virus has managed to transmit so well in humans and what it does to the human body.
Cox has been at the storm’s center in more ways than one: On 23 April, the day she learned that the unique H1N1 first found in the United States and identified by CDC was also spreading in Mexico, lightning struck her house and all but burned it to the ground. Still, on Mother's Day, 10 May, Cox spoke with ScienceInsider at length about the studies under way at CDC. She explained how scientists there are probing autopsy tissue, immune systems of people who received the swine flu vaccine in 1976, older cases of swine influenza infecting humans, and how currently infected people handle the infection. CDC researchers are also trying to develop improved diagnostics for this influenza A (H1N1) and to assess the potential value of seasonal vaccination against this strain more carefully, as well as the virus's ability to dodge antiviral drugs. Cox says the propensity of a given influenza virus to combine with its relatives and create a new strain altogether—this one is a “triple reassortant” of human, pig, and bird—may have a silver lining, as it could pickContinue Reading
- Tuesday, May 12, 2009 - 5:24pm
For years inflation has been slowly eroding the U.S. Geological Survey's budget. Now USGS is getting some relief. The Obama Administration is requesting a 5.2% raise for 2010, which would bring the agency's budget to $1.1 billion.
All of the increase would go toward research rather than fixed costs such as salary increases or building maintenance. Combine that $54 million bump with $144 million in the recent stimulus bill—mainly for upgrading stream gages and improving monitoring of earthquake faults and volcanoes—and the agency has almost $200 million in new funds to invest in science. “It’s unprecedented in the history of the survey,” says Carla Burzyk, director of USGS’s Office of Budget and Performance.
Even though there aren’t any new programs being proposed, the mood is pretty upbeat compared with past years. “I don’t have to talk about any major decreases in the budget,” Burzyk says. “We are very happy to be cresting over the waves.”Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Tuesday, May 12, 2009 - 5:12pm
The Spirit rover has bogged down on Mars, a development that could end its long-running mission of exploration. NASA announced late yesterday that Spirit had dug its wheels deep into the fluffy remains of an ancient volcanic steam vent. Ironically, such salty, flour-like deposits are among Spirit’s greatest discoveries in its 5 years of roaming Gusev Crater.
Both Spirit and its sister machine—Opportunity, on the other side of the planet—have encountered some tough roving before, but this time Spirit seems to be in a real pickle. The soft soil entrapping Spirit “is very insidious stuff,” says Mars rover principal investigator Steven Squyres of Cornell University. “You cannot detect it without stumbling into it.”
Getting Spirit out is going to be “tough with a 5-wheel rover,” says Squyres. Spirit has been dragging one dead wheel in the dirt for 3 years now, but it’s worse than that, according to rover project manager John Callas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Spirit’s wheels are practically buried in the soft soil (see the two tracks in this image), its left-middle wheel has stalled, and “the rover’s belly may be sitting on a small mound of rocks.” That would tend to take the rover’s weight off the wheels, which need the weight to get traction. “Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” Callas concludes.
Spirit may yet escape, but its predicament raises the specter of shutting down a still-capable vehicle. “We really have not developed a ‘do not resuscitate’ list” of circumstances mandating ending a mission, says Mars exploration lead scientist Michael Meyer of NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. If Spirit cannot be moved, for example, all concerned would review theContinue Reading
- Tuesday, May 12, 2009 - 5:05pm
As yet another day goes by with the World Health Organization (WHO) not declaring that the swine flu outbreak is a full-scale pandemic, more questions are surfacing about why this novel H1N1 has not spread as easily in European and Asian communities as it has in the United States, Mexico, and perhaps Canada. At press conferences held today by WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), officials suggested that the virus had spread widely in the Americas before it was detected, making containment near impossible. Europe and Asia, by contrast, had a heads-up, and countries have closely monitored travelers returning from North America, putting many infected people and their close contacts on antiviral drugs, as well as forcing some patients to remain in isolation.
Both WHO and CDC stress that the daily case counts they have been providing have many limitations, as they tend to pick up the most severe cases first. CDC added that it is now more interested in trends than specific case counts. But numbers are still being tallied, and as of today, WHO reported that there were more than 5200 confirmed cases in 30 countries, nearly 90% of which were in Mexico and the United States.
Nikki Shindo, who heads the clinical team at the WHO Global Influenza Programme, said each country responds according to its own plan and resources. “European countries, which are mainly importing the cases, have been using antivirals very aggressively,” says Shindo. “Maybe in Asia, because of the experience with SARS and avian H5N1 infection, they would like to stick to a higher level of security and preparedness and prevention with regard to this outbreak of H1N1.” In North America, Shindo noted, treatment with antiviral drugs is largely reserved for severe cases and people who are atContinue Reading