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12 December 2013 1:00 pm ,
Vol. 342 ,
Stefan Behnisch has won awards for designing science labs and other buildings that are smart, sustainable, and...
The iconic 125-year-old Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton near San Jose, California, is facing the threat of closure...
Recent results from the Curiosity Mars rover have helped scientists formulate a plan for the next phase of its mission...
A new, remarkably powerful drug that cripples the hepatitis C virus (HCV) came to market last week, but it sells for $...
In pretoothbrush populations, gumlines would often be marred by a thick, visible crust of calcium phosphate, food...
Evolutionary biologists have long studied how the Mexican tetra, a drab fish that lives in rivers and creeks but has...
Victorian astronomers spent countless hours laboriously charting the positions of stars in the sky. Such sky mapping,...
In an ambitious project to study 1000 years of sickness and health, researchers are excavating the graveyard of the now...
- 12 December 2013 1:00 pm , Vol. 342 , #6164
- About Us
- Friday, March 15, 2013 - 5:40pm
Government-funded researchers are bracing for the pain caused by the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester that are now in effect. But today, President Barack Obama managed to turn the sensitive issue into a laugh line during a visit to the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
Obama traveled to the lab to tout his proposal to funnel some $2 billion in revenues from the government's offshore oil leasing program into energy research and technology development over the next 10 years. Shortly after beginning his remarks, Obama noticed that some of the Argonne employees who had crowded into a lab auditorium for his speech were still standing. "Everybody was standing and I thought Argonne—one of the effects of the sequester, you had to—(laughter)—get rid of chairs," Obama said to cheers and appreciative whistles. "That's good, I'm glad we've got some chairs."
Obama soon put a more serious spin on the potential damage that the sequester might do to federal research budgets, which are scheduled to face 5% reductions by the end of the fiscal year on 30 September unless Congress modifies the impact of a law that went into effect on 1 March. "[O]ne of the reasons I was opposed to these cuts is because they don't distinguish between wasteful programs and vital investments," Obama said. "They don't trim the fat; they cut into muscle and into bone—like research and development being done right here that not only gives a great place for young researchers to come and ply their trade, but also ends up creating all kinds of spinoffs that create good jobs and good wages."
Argonne spokesman Matthew Howard told reporters that, so far, the sequester has caused little hardship for the lab and its $794-millionContinue Reading
- Friday, March 15, 2013 - 11:50am
Threatened species of sharks, manta rays, elephants, and rhinoceroses will get some relief thanks to precedent-setting decisions taken at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that concluded yesterday in Bangkok.
Rising demand for shark fins, shark meat, and manta ray gills is on an unsustainable trajectory according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Earlier this week, a CITES committee approved what is called an Appendix II listing for five shark species and two species of rays, all of which are considered endangered or vulnerable by IUCN. Appendix II covers species that might face extinction if current trends continue, and CITES allows international trading of these species only if there are controls ensuring their survival in the wild. (An Appendix I listing—intended for species threatened with extinction—outlaws international commercial trading.)
"There has been an impasse for a number of years over whether or not CITES could further move into the listing of commercially valuable marine species that all the evidence suggests are being harvested unsustainably," says Simon Stuart, who chairs the IUCN's Species Survival Commission.
Those opposed to the changes argued that regional fisheries management organizations should address the threats to sharks and rays. But the stocks "have not been managed sustainably," Stuart says. He acknowledges that enforcement will be a challenge. He thinks that CITES should work in concert with regional organizations to manage the fisheries in a sustainable way based on scientific input.
Enforcement was the key issue in the decisions on ivory and rhinoContinue Reading
- Thursday, March 14, 2013 - 1:30pm
BEIJING—The Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) is leaning on a tobacco researcher to quit the prestigious body. The scientist so far has demurred. The issue emerged here this week on the sidelines of the political conventions, known as Liang Hui, at which Xi Jinping formally assumed China's presidency.
Xie Jianping, deputy director of the Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Institute, was elected to CAE in December 2011 for his contributions to the development of "low-tar" cigarettes. Soon after, prominent scientists and antitobacco activists assailed Xie's election and clamored for his ouster from the academy. On 10 March, CAE Executive Vice President Pan Yunhe told the Jinghua Times that Xie has refused to relinquish his academy title, a lifetime honor currently accorded to 764 Chinese scientists and about 40 foreign associates. "We've tried to persuade him to do so, but to no avail," Pan said. In a nod to critics, CAE announced last month that it has canceled the category of "tobacco science and engineering" for future applications for academy membership.
That's not good enough, Zhong Nanshan, a CAE academician and director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, told media covering Liang Hui. In a formal letter to CAE headquarters, he and two other CAE members demanded that the academy revoke Xie's title. "The issue makes me feel a loss of face. I'm very disappointed by CAE's attitude," Zhong said. Xie was not available for comment.Continue Reading
- Tuesday, March 12, 2013 - 4:40pm
The European Science Foundation (ESF) has temporarily shut off support for Spanish researchers because Spain's member organizations failed to pay their membership fees for the foundation. The move—which an ESF spokesperson says should be temporary—may hobble conferences and workshops seeking ESF funding.
Systems biologist Saúl Ares of the National Center for Biotechnology in Madrid reported the suspension last week on his blog. Together with Javier Buceta of the Barcelona Science Park, Ares applied to ESF for funds to organize an international workshop. But last week, ESF told the duo that it has suspended all support for Spanish activities from July 2013 onward—with the exception of one unnamed "high-profile" event in July—until Spain's two ESF member organizations pay their unpaid dues.
The laggards are the National Research Council (CSIC) and the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. The ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ScienceInsider. Eusebio Jiménez Arroyo, CSIC's adjunct vice-president for scientific programming and the council's liaison with ESF, tells ScienceInsider that CSIC was prepared to pay its share of the delayed dues—about €700,000—as soon as it receives the funds from the ministry. He says he hopes to resolve the issue by the end of the month.
ESF, which has a €52 million annual budget and member organizations in 29 countries, would not disclose the total amount owed by the two agencies or how many Spanish scientists are affected by the suspension. But Ares and Buceta are not the only ones; two other Spanish scientists tell Science Insider that they are missing out on ESF funding but, like Ares and Buceta, declined to comment in hopes that the problem will be ironed out. In a statement sent to ScienceInsider, ESF said it was in "constructive and on-going" negotiations withContinue Reading
- Monday, March 11, 2013 - 3:15pm
In 1984, as a graduate student at Brown University, Yang Wei took a course in materials science taught by a new assistant professor. Even though the professor, Subra Suresh, was 2 years younger than the student, he has since become a kind of a role model for Yang, who last month took the helm of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). Yang points to Suresh, who is about to step down as director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), as an example of an engineer who has successfully led a science funding agency. As China's equivalent to NSF, NSFC disbursed $2.8 billion last year through peer-reviewed grants and programs to support basic research, young talents, and facilities.
Yang received his Ph.D. at age 31 from Brown's School of Engineering. Like that of many of his generation, Yang's education was delayed by China's Cultural Revolution. In the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, Mao Zedong sent urban youth to the countryside to learn from farmers. Yang was 14 when he went to Yan'an, Mao's revolutionary base during the anti-Japanese war. "We spent our teenage years doing hard work and learning about real life," Yang says. He taught himself high school material while working on a farm near Yan'an, studied in an engineering college in Xi'an as a worker-farmer-soldier trainee, and was among the first to pursue a graduate degree in post-Mao China. "We had determination, we had dreams, and we knew how to achieve our dreams, step by step," Yang says.
In his first interview with the press since becoming NSFC president on 22 February, Yang talked to Science about plans to improve NSFC's grant management, strengthen academic integrity, and stamp out misconduct.
Q: During the 9 years under yourContinue Reading
- Monday, March 11, 2013 - 1:55pm
Cora Marrett will become acting director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) when Subra Suresh steps down on 22 March. And while the temporary elevation of the veteran NSF administrator, now deputy director, comes as no surprise, some former directors are urging the White House to think seriously of giving her the job for real.
Last month, Suresh surprised the scientific community by saying he was leaving NSF after 2.5 years to become president of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On Friday, he announced that Marrett would be holding the reins until the Senate confirms whoever is named to succeed him.
It's a familiar drill for Marrett, 70, a sociologist and longtime academic administrator. She kept the trains running between the departure of Arden Bement in May 2010 and Suresh's arrival in October, and she has held the deputy director's job since January 2009 (except for a 4-month hiatus in 2011). She previously ran NSF's education programs and, in the 1990s, she headed its social and behavioral sciences directorate.
Low-keyed and soft-spoken, Marrett is very familiar to Washington science insiders. And she gets very high marks from several former NSF directors. "They couldn't do any better than to nominate Cora," says John Slaughter, an engineer who led NSF in the early 1980s. "She's helped to define the agency's programs in several areas, and her background and approach to management are extremely important to the foundation."
Neal Lane, a physicist who headed NSF in the mid-1990s, calls her "smart, dependable, and organized. I'm very high on her." Noting her scientific background, Lane says, "maybe it's time for a social scientist to be NSF director."
Only one deputy, psychologist Richard Atkinson, has ascended to the top job in NSF's 62-yearContinue Reading
- Monday, March 11, 2013 - 1:40pm
Just days after Russian scientists announced that they had found a previously unidentified species of bacteria in Antarctica's subglacial Lake Vostok, the discovery has been called into question.
On 7 March, the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute's Sergei Bulat, who led the Russian team that drilled through 4 kilometers of ice to the surface of the lake last year, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that they had found a previously unidentified species of bacteria in lake samples collected during an expedition in January.
That they had found life at all was exciting and a reversal of the team's earlier stance from a decade ago that Vostok might be barren.
But on 9 March, the head of the genetics laboratory at the St. Petersburg Institute, Vladimir Korolyov, told Interfax that what the team had found was only contamination. "We found certain specimen, although not many, but all of them belonged to contaminants (microorganisms from the bore-hole kerosene, human bodies or the lab)," he said. "There was one strain of bacteria which we did not find in drilling liquid, but the bacteria could in principal use kerosene as an energy source. That is why we can't say that a previously-unknown bacteria was found."
Korolyov said that they would need to wait for pure water samples to determine what, if any, life might exist in Vostok—samples that the team hopes to have within the next year. "For now we'd rather not say something we will be unable to whitewash even with the crystal clear Vostok water."Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Friday, March 8, 2013 - 2:35pm
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investigating nearly 100 cases of suspected plagiarism drawn from a single year's worth of proposals funded by the agency.
The cases grow out of an internal examination by NSF's Office of Inspector General (IG) of every proposal that NSF funded in fiscal year 2011. James Kroll, head of administrative investigations within the IG's office, tells ScienceInsider that applying plagiarism software to NSF's entire portfolio of some 8000 awards made that year resulted in a "hit rate" of 1% to 1.5%. "My group is now swamped," he says about his staff of six investigators.
Plagiarism is one of three categories, along with fabrication and falsification, recognized as research misconduct by federal research agencies. (NSF labels the latter two categories "problematic data.") Last week, NSF IG Allison Lerner told a congressional panel that the number of "substantive allegations of misconduct associated with NSF proposals and awards … has more than tripled in the past 10 years, as has the number of findings of research misconduct." She said her office has issued 120 findings of research misconduct since 2003, and that "more than 80%" involved plagiarism.
By law, 73 federal agencies have an Inspector General -- an independent, internal watchdog. In 2005, the NSF IG conducted a pilot study of nearly 1000 pending proposals and found that roughly 2.5% contained "significant amounts of unattributed text," NSF code words for plagiarism. Subsequent smaller studies have largely replicated those findings, Kroll says.
Testifying before the House of Representatives science committee during a 28 February hearing on management challenges facing NSF and other science agencies under the committee's jurisdiction, Lerner said that "extrapolating across the 45,000 proposals NSF receives annually suggests 1300 proposals could contain plagiarism and 450 to 900 couldContinue Reading
- Friday, March 8, 2013 - 1:45pm
Senate Democrats are hoping to make it easier for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a handful of other federal science agencies to manage the impact of sequestration. And that's good news for researchers who depend on NSF funding.
The Senate's approach, to be spelled out on Monday, would still result in a 5% cut to each agency's budget. But NSF officials say it should give sufficient flexibility to honor funding commitments to current grantees, avoid furloughs, protect programs for young scientists, and continue work on large new facilities. Its terms are also likely to cause NSF to revise its guess earlier this year that the sequester would wipe out 1000 new grants; the actual loss will be much smaller.
The Senate bill is designed to avert a government shutdown, which would happen on 27 March if Congress does not extend a temporary spending measure that has frozen agency budgets at 2012 levels. The House of Representatives has already voted: On Wednesday it passed a bill that would fund agencies through the end of the 2013 fiscal year, on 30 September.
The House legislation includes $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts—the so-called sequester mandated by a 2011 law that went into effect on 1 March. Except for the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the bill is also considered a continuing resolution, a category that severely limits an agency's ability to transfer funds, begin a program, or terminate an existing activity.
Yesterday, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she planned to introduce a bill early next week that would modify the House measure while retaining its overall spending level. Her aim, she told reporters, was to provide funding "which goes to meetingContinue Reading
- Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 5:05pm
Antarctica's vast Lake Vostok contains life—including at least one form of life not found elsewhere on Earth, Russian scientists announced today. Preliminary analyses of water samples collected from the lake earlier this year revealed a species of bacteria not belonging to any known subkingdoms.
"We call it unidentified and 'unclassified' life," the team's leader, Sergei Bulat of the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti. The bacteria's DNA was less than 86% similar to known bacterial DNA, indicating that it was a new species, Bulat said.
The Russian team retrieved the samples in January, one year after successfully completing the 4000-meter drilling through ice to reach the lake's surface. To confirm the preliminary finding, the team plans to collect new samples of water from the lake during a return expedition, reportedly in May, although that's the middle of the Antarctic winter.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 3:25pm
Polar bears are a hot commodity. With demand from collectors in Russia and China on the rise, their skins often fetch $5000 at auction. The asking prices for mounted trophies are even higher. These dollar figures worry conservationists, who had hoped to convince an international convention to restrict trade in polar bear parts. But they lost today when delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Bangkok voted down the motion. "We are obviously disappointed," said David Hayes in statement. Hayes is deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which had proposed the heightened protection.
Polar bears are in danger of extinction because their habitat is melting. Summer sea ice has shrunk by 15% to 20% over the past 3 decades, and another half of what's left could vanish by the end of the century. Other threats include hunting, pollution, and collisions with ships. Roughly 800 polars bears are killed each year, most hunted for their meat. Over the last decade, skins and other body parts were exported primarily from Canada, where Inuit have annual quotas for their hunt. Scientists estimate that between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears remain in five countries: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States. Some populations are stable or increasing, but the total number is thought to be decreasing.
CITES offers several levels of protection. Polar bears are listed on Appendix II, which means that countries that export body parts must vouch that the animals were legally killed and that the deaths will not harm the survival of the species. Appendix I is stricter: It outlaws commercial trade in the species, while still allowing sport hunting under certain conditions. TheContinue Reading
- Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 12:15pm
Insights into the mysteries of the heart have earned Eric N. Olson the 2013 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology.
Olson studies the genetic signals that control muscle cell development—particularly cardiac muscle—at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He and his colleagues have shown that newborn mouse hearts can regenerate to a surprising degree in the first week after birth. They have also identified a number of proteins and microRNAs that promote regeneration in older mouse hearts.
The annual prize, first awarded in 1996 to honor Jonas Salk, recognizes "investigators whose research has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of birth defects." (Salk received support from the foundation to create his polio vaccine.) Heart defects are some of the most common birth defects, affecting about one out of every 125 children born in the United States.
The prize is well-deserved, says Didier Stainier, who studies heart development at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Bad Nauheim, Germany. Olson has made "outstanding contributions" to understanding heart development and disease, he says. Deepak Srivastava, who worked as a postdoc under Olson and now studies cardiac development and regeneration at the Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco, says Olson "has trained a whole legion of independent investigators who populate the field."
Outside the lab, Olson plays guitar and harmonica in a rock band called the Transactivators. One song, called "Mamas Don't Let Your Stem Cells Grow Up to Be Cowboys," is a tribute to the Annie and Willie Nelson Professorship in Stem Cell Research that he holds at UT Southwestern.
Olson will receive the $250,000 prize at an award ceremony in Washington, D.C., in May.Continue Reading
- Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 11:45am
The Italian Ministry of Economic Development, Infrastructure and Transport, the Ministry for Territorial Cohesion, the local government, and the mayor of Naples have agreed on a plan to make available €20 million for its reconstruction, according to an article in La Repubblica. The European Union also appears willing to look into the situation.
And government bodies aren't the only ones lending a hand. A crowdsourcing campaign by the social platform DeRev has received more than €8800 in pledges. And the online platform Cambiomerci is inviting professionals and companies to contribute their expertise or equipment to help the complex resume its activities as soon as possible.
The City of Science was home to a 12-year-old interactive science museum, which was almost completely destroyed in the blaze. The complex's educational and conference facilities and business incubator remain operational, the City of Science announced yesterday. The City of Science was widely held as a symbol that science could help transform an abandoned industrial site and rejuvenate a struggling city. The "Città della Scienza still represents a model of development … in an area in southern Italy where many dreams had already been shattered," writes Alessandra Zanazzi, a former employee of the City of Science who now works as a national project manager at the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.
"We will rebuild everything," Vittorio Silvestrini, a physicist who founded the City of Science and presides over the administration council of the Institute for the Diffusion and Valorization of the Scientific Culture Foundation that runs it, told La Repubblica Napoli. The construction of a museum for the human body, Corporea, was already under way but had to stop for 2 years due to theContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 5:45pm
Cancer researchers who have spent the last 7 years compiling a catalog of mutations in patients' tumors are now talking about what they should do next. This week, researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) unveiled a project on their wish list: a much broader survey of 10,000 tumors per cancer type that would aim to pin down very rare cancer genes.
Next year, NCI will wind up The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), a huge project piloted in 2006 that is systematically searching tumors for genetic changes involved in cancer. More than 150 cancer researchers have divvied up the work of sequencing about 500 tumor samples for each of some 20 cancer types (10,000 samples in total) at a cost of more than $375 million. TCGA has verified known cancer genes and found new genetic changes driving some cancers; although the project has been criticized as too costly, many researchers think it has been worthwhile.
So what next? On Monday at a meeting of NCI's Board of Scientific Advisors (BSA), NCI cancer geneticists Louis Staudt and Stephen Chanock sketched out one idea that emerged from a recent TCGA workshop (starts at 116:00 on video). Staudt explained that because tumors are often riddled with mutations that aren't involved in cancer, it is difficult to pick out those that matter. Even some known cancer genes for lung adenocarcinoma, one of the most intensively studied cancers, haven't popped out in cancer genome surveys. To find rare cancer genes, researchers need to sequence many more samples, he said.
Staudt then described what he called "The 10K Concept." The idea is to sequence 10,000 tumor samples for each of several common cancers, such as breast and prostate. This should be enough to find mutations thatContinue Reading
- Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 11:10am
A research grant sometimes can lead a scientist in a new direction. But a shift into politically sensitive territory can put the federal funding agency in hot water with Congress.
That's what happened yesterday to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at a hearing on how agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services are dealing with tight budgets. One legislator wanted to know why an NIH grantee's research on tobacco control delved into the origins of the Tea Party. Although conservative lawmakers often take issue with certain NIH grants, what was surprising was that Collins said he was troubled by it as well.
The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee on health and human services, labor, and education met to ask the directors of five agencies about ways to avoid duplicating research in a tight budget environment. Toward the end of the 2-hour hearing, Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) asked about a specific National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded study tracing Tea Party's origins to groups supported by tobacco companies (video around 1:51 here). "They allege that somehow the Tea Party had its origin in the 1980s with tobacco funding, which is pretty incredible," Harris said. "Because I mean, I'm a Tea Party guy. I was there when it was established in 2009. I know the origins. I find it incredible that NIH funding is funding this," Harris said, adding that the study reflects "a partisan political agenda."
"I, too, am quite troubled about this particular circumstance," Collins replied. He pointed out that the lead author, University of California, San Francisco, researcher Stanton Glantz, has been an NCI grantee for 14 years and is considered a leading researcher on tobacco control. The paper, which listed support from an NCIContinue Reading
- Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 8:38pm
The Città della Scienza (City of Science) complex in Naples, which was home to an interactive science museum, educational and conference facilities, and a business incubator, all went up in smoke last night.
A dense and dark column of smoke could be spotted from much of the city as the blaze occurred, according to the national press service ANSA. The fire, which took hours to extinguish, reduced the science museum to empty peripheral walls and ashes. Just one of the museum's buildings used to hold events survived. Altogether, the fire destroyed an area covering 10,000 to 12,000 square meters.
What remains of the Città della Scienza is located in a part of Naples called Bagnoli, a huge industrial site with breathtaking views of the sea that was abandoned by the Italian steel-producing company Italsider in the 1990s. Vittorio Silvestrini, a physicist at the Federico II University of Naples, and colleagues saw an opportunity to convert the area to a high-tech complex that would create jobs. The Città della Scienza was subsequently launched by the Institute for the Diffusion and Valorization of the Scientific Culture Foundation, which is led by Silvestrini, following an agreement with the Italian finance ministry and local authorities.
The interactive museum opened its doors in 2001; the education and conference centers and business incubator soon joined it. The museum was, according to ANSA, "considered one of the cultural jewels of Naples, as well as one of its main factors of tourist attraction, with an average of 350,000 visitors a year." The Città della Scienza employed some 160 people, many of whom are now worrying about their professional future.
Although the Web site of the Città della Scienza was down on 5 March, its Facebook page is askingContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 4:30pm
Want to compare the impact of smoking in Estonia and Argentina? A massive release of data today by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Seattle, allows that and thousands of other comparisons of health data from 187 countries over the past 2 decades.
In the latest update of the Global Burden of Disease, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study2010 study, the IHME researchers led by Christopher Murray provide a country-level analysis of the mortality and disability due to 291 diseases and injuries and 67 risk factors for 20 age groups around the world. The Web site has a rich set of visualization tools that allow visitors to explore the statistics for specific conditions, age groups, and time periods.
Murray says those tools are a crucial part of the project. "We have put huge effort into trying to make information accessible to a broad audience … to the people who should be engaged in the debates on health," he says. "There's a tremendous amount of rich detail for each country here. It will take time to sort through them. I hope it will trigger a wave of questions" about how to best tackle the world's health problems.Continue Reading
- Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 4:25pm
Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) is taking NASA to task for what he believes may be a violation of a law that he helped put on the books 2 years ago.
Wolf wants NASA to bar any Chinese citizens from attending a meeting next week of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), an international body whose membership includes several Chinese organizations. In a letter sent to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden yesterday, Wolf said he was concerned that Chinese officials were planning to attend a gathering of the CEOS Strategic Implementation Team being held at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, from 12 to 14 March. If those officials were to attend the meeting, Wolf noted in his letter, it would violate a provision in a 2011 law that prohibits NASA from hosting Chinese officials at any NASA facilities. According to that law, the only way the administration can get around this restriction is by certifying to the House of Representatives and Senate appropriations committees at least 14 days in advance of a visit that the visit poses no threat to national security.
"Because it is now less than 14 days before the commencement of the CEOS meeting and no such certification has been provided, the hosting of any Chinese visitors would be in clear violation of the law," Wolf says in his letter. "Accordingly, I expect any participation by official Chinese visitors will be promptly cancelled."
The provision that Wolf is referring to is language that he helped introduce into law as part of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act 2012. Wolf, a strong critic of China's policy toward Tibet and alleged human rights violations, has long expressed concern over what he sees as China's attempts to steal sensitiveContinue Reading
- Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 2:30pm
A group of psychologists are launching a project this week that they hope will make studies in their field radically more transparent and prompt other fields to open up as well. With a pledge of $5.25 million from private supporters, they have set up an outfit called the Center for Open Science. It is collaborating with an established journal, Perspectives on Psychological Science, to solicit work from authors who are willing to work completely in the open and have their studies replicated. Authors will be asked to first publish an experimental design and then, after a public vetting, collect data. Findings come in a separate publication. Authors would get credit for all steps in this process: experimental designs, peer review, delivering results, and replicating them.
In an ideal world, all research would be as transparent as this, argues Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The new venture is the brainchild of Nosek and his graduate student Jeffrey Spies. They say it grew naturally out of a quest by Nosek and others to test how much of psychological science is reproducible.
But the center's plans go far beyond psychology and replicability. For example, it will promote a publishing model that involves peer review at the earliest stage of research, and the critique of experimental designs would be transparent rather than anonymous. Perspectives is adding a special section to test the model.
Science Insider spoke with Nosek about the Center for Open Science and its goals. The conversation has been edited for brevity.
Q: What about the worry that all scientists have of getting scooped?
B.N.: There are two answers to this. The first is that registering a study actually prevents one fromContinue Reading
- Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 12:28pm
The automatic budget cuts known as sequestration could mean furloughs of up to a week for some 2000 employees at the only U.S. lab dedicated to particle physics. The cancellation of several research grant programs and delays in upgrades to major research facilities are also on the horizon, the head of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science told a congressional committee this morning.
"We face a unique and challenging time during this period of intense budget uncertainty," said DOE's William Brinkman in testimony presented to an appropriations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. "[T]here will be impacts to our programs, facilities and construction projects … but also the everyday lives of the researchers, institutions, and businesses we support."
Brinkman manages DOE's major basic research arm, which funnels some $4.8 billion annually to six science programs, including those that provide the lion's share of the money used to support the nation's fusion, particle physics, and materials science efforts. The automatic sequester that went into force on 1 March requires DOE to trim the Office of Science's overall spending by about 5%—or about $215 million—by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. The cuts will come out of a budget already frozen at 2012 levels, Brinkman noted, creating a "double punch."
The science office started pinching pennies many months ago to prepare for tight budgets, Brinkman said. Still, DOE officials began planning how to deal with sequestration just about a month ago, he told Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chair of the House subcommittee that oversees the Office of Science's budget.
"For a long time, we were told not to worry about this," Brinkman said.
"You should worry," replied Frelinghuysen, drawing chucklesContinue Reading
- Monday, March 4, 2013 - 6:45pm
He's back. Physicist Ernest Moniz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor with extensive Washington experience, is President Barack Obama's choice to be the next secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE).
Moniz served as DOE's undersecretary and a top White House science aide under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. If confirmed by the Senate, he would succeed Steven Chu, another academic physicist, who is leaving later this month for a faculty position at Stanford University.
"[T]he good news is that Ernie already knows his way around the Department of Energy," Obama said during this morning's announcement at the White House. "Most importantly, Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate."
Moniz was considered a long shot among Washington watchers just a few months ago behind several nonscientists with larger political footprints. And despite being targeted by opponents of nuclear power and fracking, Moniz is drawing generally good reviews from mainstream science and environmental groups. The agency's mission includes oversight of the nation's nuclear weapons complex, running facilities for basic researchers, and setting energy efficiency standards.
"Ernie's a good choice—he has a very broad knowledge of DOE's portfolio and he's also a person who understands politics," says physicist Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. "Even before he came to Washington he was a pretty savvy guy politically, and certainly the years he's spent in Washington have honed those skills. My guess is that he will navigate the treacherous congressional and political waters very well."
"As a theoretical physicist, … Dr. Moniz will help ensure that the nation's energy decisions are based on sound science,"Continue Reading
- Friday, March 1, 2013 - 5:53pm
It's a Lake Wobegon world when it comes to some big science facilities funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE): They're all pretty much above average, a DOE advisory board said today.
Lake Wobegon is the fictional town created by U.S. humorist Garrison Keillor "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
Today's ratings of more than a dozen existing and planned DOE facilities—including nanoscience centers, x-ray and ultraviolet light sources, and neutron scattering devices—carried a similar skew. The evaluations came from DOE's Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC), a 25-member panel that helps steer one of the six major research programs within the department's $5 billion Office of Science. It was responding to a request from DOE science chief William Brinkman, who late last year asked BESAC and the five other advisory panels to help out with an effort to develop a 10-year plan that will set spending priorities for new and existing research facilities.
In particular, Brinkman's letter asked each advisory panel to consider how the facilities in their program "contribute to world-leading science," and to place each into one of four categories: "absolutely central," "important," "lower priority," and "don't know enough yet." He also wanted them to work fast, setting a 22 March deadline for responses.
Today, BESAC took a big step toward meeting that target by approving its facilities ratings list, which had been developed by a subcommittee. The action came near the end of a 2-day meeting held in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Overall, the group rated seven of 13 existing BES facilities "absolutely central" for cutting-edge science. Four were rated "important." And just two received the black mark ofContinue Reading
- Friday, March 1, 2013 - 2:30pm
NEW DELHI—Indian scientists face major belt-tightening in the coming year. On 28 February, the Indian government sent to Parliament for approval about an $8 billion budget for science and technology in 2013, ending several years of substantial increases for S&T. The flat budget, reflecting the government's desire to reduce an almost $85 billion deficit, will equate to spending reductions with inflation running at about 5%. "Subcritical funding of science may not help the country in the long run," says physicist Krishan Lal, president of the Indian National Science Academy here.
Among the few highlights in the budget proposal is a new $50 million fund for projects aiming to lift people out of poverty. "We do not pay enough attention to science and technology for the common man," said India's finance minister P. Chidambaram when rolling out the budget this week. The National Innovation Council will manage the new fund; the kinds of projects it will support have not been revealed. But the fund's size will surely limit its impact, Lal says. "While the intent is correct, for a country of 1.2 billion people this is only a drop in the ocean."
Despite coping with a flat budget, agencies say they will proceed with planned major initiatives. India's maiden mission to Mars, for instance, will receive $41 million to keep it on track for an October launch. The unmanned spacecraft will look for signs of methane in the martian atmosphere; the organic compound could hint at the existence of microbial life on the Red Planet. The Indian Space Research Organisation will also launch the nation's first military satellite, for naval communications. And the Department of Atomic Energy this year intends to complete a 500-megawatt Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor in Kalpakkam, a test bed for the useContinue Reading
- Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 12:20pm
The Swiss government will create a permanently protected area on federal land for experiments with genetically modified (GM) crops. The goal is to enable researchers to run experimental trials without running the risk that the fields will be vandalized and to reduce costs associated with security.
In a paper published today in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, scientists from the Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon research station and the University of Zurich detail the plan, which was approved by the Swiss Parliament and officially announced on 7 February.
GM crops are controversial in Europe, and European law requires scientists to notify the public about the precise locations of the fields where they are running experiments. This has led to protests and sometimes vandalism at more than 100 European trials since 2010. One result is that the number of GM field experiments conducted in the European Union dropped from about 250 per year in the late 1990s to fewer than 50 in 2011, the researchers report. In Switzerland, researchers have submitted just six applications for field experiments with GM plants since the late 1990s; authorities rejected two in 1999 because "the social and environmental impacts compared to any possible economic benefits were clearly too high."
In a bid to make such experiments easier, the Swiss Federal Council approved spending €600,000 annually from 2014 to 2017 to create a protected field site of approximately three hectares at the Reckenholz research station, 10 kilometers north of Zurich. Researchers will initially use it to test GM wheat with resistance to powdery mildew, a fungal disease, but they could ultimately plant other crops such as potatoes.
The Reckenholz site is already being used for GM experiments and other types of research. In 2008, a group of more thanContinue Reading
- Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 9:43am
The World Health Organization (WHO) today released a report saying that the Fukushima nuclear disaster will cause no observable increases in cancer rates among residents of other countries and a very minimal increased risk of cancer among residents in the vicinity of the power plant. Workers who battled problems at the plant do face higher risks of some cancers.
The environmental group Greenpeace immediately condemned the report as being "a political statement to protect the nuclear industry." But at least one radiation health specialist believes the report overstates some of the risks.
WHO's assessment of the potential health effects is based on a May 2012 report that estimates the radiation exposure in different locations around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which released significant amounts of radioactive material after suffering multiple meltdowns and explosions in the aftermath of the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The WHO team of 13 experts estimated the increased lifetime risk of leukemia, thyroid cancer, and female breast cancer for people living in geographical locations ranging from the most affected areas adjacent to the power plant to distant parts of the rest of the world. Beyond areas near the plant, radiation doses were below the levels known to produce health effects, the report states. "Outside of the geographical areas most affected by radiation, even in locations within Fukushima prefecture, the predicted risks remain low and no observable increases in cancer above natural variation in baseline rates are anticipated," reads the executive summary. The report notes that in the two most affected areas of Fukushima, estimated doses in the first year ranged from 12 to 25 millisieverts (mSv).
"For leukaemia [sic], the lifetime risks are predicted to increase by up to around 7% over baseline cancerContinue Reading