- News Home
17 April 2014 12:48 pm ,
Vol. 344 ,
- 17 April 2014 12:48 pm , Vol. 344 , #6181
- About Us
- Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 2:00pm
Two years ago, a major survey revealed trouble in ecosystems of the United Kingdom (U.K.). A third of their functions—such as providing habitat for wild species and clean water for people—are declining. Now the same researchers show that protecting these ecosystem functions, and in particular outdoor recreation, significantly boosts the economic value of land. But putting those protections in place nationwide would be tricky.
The 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment was the most comprehensive attempt to describe the state of a country's ecological systems. Led by Ian Bateman of the University of East Anglia in London, and Georgina Mace of University College London, a team took data from this survey and created a computer model of the economic value of natural land-uses in Great Britain. They compared the economic impacts of maximizing agricultural production versus preserving land for recreation over the next 50 years, as well as the effect on the diversity of wild birds.
If agriculture is the top national priority and environmental regulations made more flexible than they are today, the annual revenue from the land increases by $1.4 billion over 2010. But if outdoor recreation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are made top goals, then the value of land increases by $29 billion a year. That more than covers the $1.5 billion cost of protecting land that is rich in biodiversity. "It costs money to save biodiversity, but it's not as much as you'd think," says Bateman. "That's pretty good news." The findings are published today in Science.
Stephen Polasky, an environmental economist at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, says that the new study improves the accuracy of this kind of economic analysis. "We are getting to the point where we're getting numbers that are roughly correct," heContinue Reading
- Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 5:58pm
The Fulbright Scholar Program is reaching out to U.S. scientists, especially those early in their careers, who want to conduct research in another country.
The program, begun in 1946 to promote "mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries of the world," is best known for supporting scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Only about a quarter of last year's cohort of 727 scholars worked in engineering, public health, clinical medicine, or core scientific fields; another 10% or so worked in economics and the various social sciences.
But U.S. officials are eager to tap scientists' expertise. "Given the increasingly global nature of so many of today's most pressing scientific research problems, we see Fulbright as a natural fit for the scientists seeking to tackle them," says Meghann Curtis of the U.S. State Department, which oversees the program.
Under the changes for the 2014-15 academic year, scientists within 5 years of their terminal doctoral degree will have a better chance of winning a Fulbright, and some slots will be reserved for early-career scholars. For example, the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health will support up to five postdocs who want to join ongoing public health research projects in "resource-limited settings" in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Peru, or Bangladesh. Belgium will offer one early-career grant to support work in cancer or translational research. Five postdoc-only grants will be available for work in India, one for Canada, two for Egypt, up to three for Hong Kong, and eight for Israel—all open to scholars in any field, including scientific fields.
Physical chemist Andrew Nieuwkoop, who received a junior research fellowship in 2012 to work as a postdoc at Leibniz-Institut für MolekulareContinue Reading
- Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 5:33pm
The Joint European Torus (JET), the world's largest fusion reactor, celebrated its 30th anniversary last week. But the birthday party was marked by growing debate over the future of the landmark machine, which uses powerful magnetic fields to contain a plasma of hydrogen isotopes so that they will fuse, releasing energy—a similar reaction to the one which powers the sun.
Initially designed in the 1970s, the doughnut-shaped tokamak reactor in Culham, United Kingdom, created its first plasma in June 1983. And at an anniversary colloquium on 25 June, researchers recalled JET's many triumphs, in particular its 1997 world record of the greatest power output achieved by any fusion reactor: 16.1 megawatts. But another hot topic was how long JET's career could continue, and whether it should be closed down in 2018 to concentrate effort and funding on its successor, the more powerful ITER fusion reactor now under construction in France.
JET has had a long and productive working life because its designers built in plenty of margin. In the 1990s, the interior of the tokamak was refitted with a structure known as a divertor to remove exhaust plasma and excess energy and allow for longer fusion pulses. In 2004, researchers and funders decided to keep JET running so that it could carry out preparatory experiments for ITER. Among all the world's tokamaks, JET is the most similar to ITER in terms of size, shape, and plasma conditions. It is also the only tokamak currently equipped to operate with a full fusion fuel made of an equal mixture of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. Tritium is radioactive, so requires specialist handling, and burning D-T fuel makes the reactor itself radioactive, so subsequent work inside the vessel is more complicated.
Between 2009 and 2011,Continue Reading
- Friday, June 28, 2013 - 5:25pm
MOSCOW—For months, Russia's science minister, Dmitry Livanov, has derided the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) for being ineffective and ripe for serious reform. At a press conference on 27 June, Livanov showed he means business, unveiling a draft law that would merge RAS with two other science academies, strip it of control of its real estate holdings, and abolish any distinction between full-fledged academicians and scientists of a lower rank, called corresponding members.
The move would radically transform the 289-year-old RAS less than a month after it elected a reform-minded physicist, Vladimir Fortov, as president. The science ministry has asked Russia's parliament to fast-track debate on the law, with passage expected in the next 2 weeks. To the chagrin of scientists who may have hoped to see the law derailed, it has backing from the country's top leaders. Speaking to the RIA Novosti news agency, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that the law is meant to help scientists concentrate. "It's important to allow the scholars to focus on science and research and spare them the irrelevant function of managing real estate," he said.
Instead, the draft law has had the opposite effect: Many scientists are too blinded by rage to focus on their work. The legislation is a "national tragedy," fumes Alexandr Spirin, an academician and former director of the Institute of Protein Research in Pushchino. "The academy will lose the independence it has enjoyed since the time of Peter the Great," the Russian czar who created RAS in 1724, he says.
Under the draft law, RAS would merge with two more specialized bodies, the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. The law would also establish an Agency for RAS Scientific Institutions that will manageContinue Reading
- Friday, June 28, 2013 - 4:50pm
Diederik Stapel, the former Tilburg University professor who fabricated dozens of research studies, has been spared a trial after reaching a settlement with Dutch prosecutors. He will do 120 hours of community service and forgo benefits from his former employer that would have been equivalent to 1.5 years of salary.
Stapel was a high-profile social psychologist whose career unraveled in 2011 when it was discovered that he had been fabricating data for more than a decade. The Dutch Public Prosecution Service and the Fiscal Information and Investigation Service began a criminal investigation against Stapel last year to determine if he had misused public funds.
Prosecutors concluded that Stapel hadn't defrauded the taxpayer. According to a statement announcing the settlement, investigators reached that conclusion because Stapel did use the grants he received for research, even though he manufactured the data. Much of the money from the grants was spent on salaries, the statement says. In coming to the settlement, officials took into consideration that Stapel had voluntarily returned his doctorate degree.
"I very much regret the mistakes I have made," Stapel tells ScienceInsider. "I am happy for my colleagues as well as for my family that with this settlement, a court case has been avoided."Continue Reading
- Thursday, June 27, 2013 - 7:00pm
The U.K. government is moving toward allowing a new type of in vitro fertilization that would enable patients with mitochondrial diseases to avoid passing the condition to their children. The technique is controversial, because it involves introducing new DNA into a human embryo. But a public consultation earlier this year found broad support for the technique.
The Department of Health announced today that it would draw up draft guidelines to allow fertility clinics to offer the technique. The proposed guidelines would be released for public comment later this year, and Parliament could vote on a final version next year.
Mitochondria are the cell's power generators, and they carry their own DNA, called mtDNA. Mutations in those genes cause mitochondrial diseases, which can affect various organs, including the heart, liver, eyes, and brain. Such diseases are passed from mother to child, because the egg provides most of an embryo's mtDNA. (Sperm have mitochondria, but most disintegrate after fertilization.)
The techniques in question transfer the nuclear DNA from the sperm and egg of the potential parents into a second egg, provided by a donor who has healthy mitochondria, from which the nuclear DNA has been removed. The technique is still under development and isn't yet considered ready to try in humans. But the potential is promising enough that the government has decided move forward, said Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies in a statement. "It's only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can," Davies said.Continue Reading
- Thursday, June 27, 2013 - 4:30pm
BRUSSELS—E.U. leaders have reached a last-minute agreement on the bloc's budget for the next 7 years, which would include €70.2 billion for its flagship research program, Horizon 2020. This is a 23% increase over the previous incarnation, known as Framework Programme 7, which started in 2007 and ends this year. Throughout months of political wrangling, research funding has been relatively protected from cuts—but the R&D budget will drop next year, before shooting up in 2015.
The budget figures, put forward in February, were subject to tense negotiations between the European Parliament and the member states. The deadlock was broken on 27 June, after top-level politicians—including the presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament—sat at the negotiating table.
Parliamentarians had requested a larger budget, including €100 billion for Horizon 2020, while the European Commission had initially proposed €80 billion. But with crisis-stricken E.U. countries tightening their belts, the Parliament accepted a smaller budget and pushed through other demands, including more flexible spending rules.
In this bargain, Horizon 2020 has been better protected than other spending areas. It is one of a few select programs that will be allowed to front-load money: This means that funding normally assigned to 2017, for instance, can be spent earlier to finance more research projects than initially planned in a given year. The overall funding pie remains the same, but €200 million can be pushed forward in 2014 and 2015 to fund research projects.
However, that figure is meager compared with Horizon 2020's draft budget for 2014, slated at €8.8 billion in current prices. This amount, announced by E.U. budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski on 26 June, is a 13.6% decrease compared with the final year of Framework Programme 7 in 2013. The budget for Horizon 2020 would then increase graduallyContinue Reading
- Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 7:00pm
If the House of Representatives gets its way, next year will see a reversal of trends within the six research programs funded by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, the single biggest supporter of the physical sciences in the United States. Programs that have languished over the course of the Obama administration, such as fusion and high-energy physics, would get bumped up, while the one program that has grown the most over the past decade—basic energy science—would receive a cut.
Passed by the House Committee on Appropriations today, the bill would cut the overall Office of Science budget by 0.2% to $4.653 billion, a whopping $500 million less than the White House requested in April. "It's a pretty dire budget," says William Madia of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. "There are some serious hits."
Although there have been ups and downs along the way, the trends over the past 4 years have been clear. The Obama administration favors research with immediate connections to energy problems and has set as its priorities research in advanced materials for energy applications, advanced biofuels, and high-performance computing. Accordingly, budgets have generally climbed for basic energy science, which supports materials science and related fields; biological and environmental research, which supports biofuels research; and advanced scientific computing research. In contrast, budgets for high-energy physics and fusion energy science have fallen significantly, and nuclear physics has realized a modest gain.
But in its version of the bill that would fund DOE for fiscal year 2014, which begins on 1 October, the Republican-controlled House would buck those trends. In spite of the tight budget ceiling, the fusion program would get an enormous boost of 32% to $506 million. That much of that increase would be used to reverse cuts to fusion experimentsContinue Reading
- Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 6:30pm
U.K. researchers are going to have live with a flat R&D budget over the next few years. But on a day when British finance minister George Osborne announced a series of painful belt-tightening budget measures, observers say that the outcome for science could have been worse.
"In a difficult Spending Round, at a time of great economic challenge, we congratulate [Osborne] on maintaining investment in science and research," said Ted Bianco, acting director of the Wellcome Trust, in a statement. Others were less optimistic. The flat R&D budget "adds real risk and difficulty," warns Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology.
In a 26 June speech in London, Osborne said that the 2015 and 2016 science budget will be set at £4.6 billion a year—a level it hasn't budged from since 2010. However, new money will be freed up for science infrastructure: a cool £1.1 billion a year until 2016 that nearly doubles the capital spending earmarked in the last spending review. The "huge investment" from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recognizes the enormous strength science brings to the modern economy, Osborne declared.
Handed lemons, the country's top scientists are courageously making lemonade. In light of steep cuts that other government agencies must absorb, a stable R&D budget "is excellent news for the whole science community and we look forward to hearing how the investment will be used to meet the needs of our world-leading research teams," said Peter Knight, president of The Institute of Physics in London, in a statement. Lesley Yellowlees, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, added that the investment is proof that the government has heeded the science community's calls for protecting research.
After the government's comprehensive spending review slashed science infrastructure spending by 25% in 2010,Continue Reading
- Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 6:00pm
As expected, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that the agency plans to retire all but 50 of its 360 research chimpanzees and phase out much of the research that it supports on these animals.
NIH Director Francis Collins, who called the decision a milestone, explained that "chimpanzees are our closest relatives" and "they deserve special respect." New scientific advances "have made it possible to replace experiments done in the past on chimps with other strategies, making it now possible to greatly reduce our support for research on these special animals."
The Humane Society of the United States, which supports phasing out all invasive research on chimpanzees, welcomed the decision. "This is an historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories—some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years," said society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle in a statement.
Today's decision stems from an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report in December 2011 that found that most research on chimps is unnecessary. The report said projects should continue only if they would advance public health; the work could not be done in humans or another animal model; and the chimpanzees were kept in an ethologically appropriate environment. Collins immediately accepted the recommendations, put a hold on new chimpanzee research grants, and asked a working group of his Council of Councils to advise him on how to carry out IOM's recommendations.
The working group concluded in January 2013 that many of NIH's 30 projects involving chimpanzee research or support should end. That includes six of nine invasive biomedical research projects, leaving only three studies involving immunology and infectious agents such as hepatitis C. Eight of 13 genomics and behavioral projects that don't involveContinue Reading
- Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 2:00pm
BRUSSELS— Negotiators from the European Union's three main institutions have struck an informal agreement on the content of the next E.U. research funding program, called Horizon 2020. In addition to clarifying the program's rules, the 25 June agreement will allow for new ways to fund research in small businesses and in underperforming member states.
The legal package has a few more hoops to jump through: It has to be formally endorsed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament plenary in the coming months. But the deal between negotiators from the European Commission, the Parliament, and member states has been praised as a landmark that will enable the timely rollout of the 7-year program—due to start in 2014 and potentially worth €70 billion over 7 years.
Thomas Estermann, head of unit at the European University Association, says that the tripartite deal is a "relief," as some universities feared that lengthier negotiations could delay the program. "It's important for our researchers that there is no gap" between the current program and the next, says Teresa Riera Madurell, a former academic from Spain and one of the lead negotiators for the European Parliament.
The agreement maintains the three-part structure and funding system proposed by the European Commission in November 2011, with small changes to the budget breakdown and some new elements.
One of the negotiation's main stumbling blocks was the funding model. The commission and the member states pushed for using a single flat rate for the reimbursement of indirect research costs. But the Parliament sided with universities and research organizations, which said that the flat rate could unfairly decrease their funding levels and asked for the possibility to claim the reimbursement of actual costs in full.
The Parliament eventually consented to using the singleContinue Reading
- Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 12:05pm
A Japan Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare panel has accepted a plan to carry out what would be the world's first clinical trials involving induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The acceptance paves the way for an official green light from the ministry, which could come in early July.
Researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe plan to generate replacement retinal pigment epithelial cells from iPS cells generated from patients suffering age-related macular degeneration. The research has been under way for several years and was widely reported at conferences.
Approval for clinical trials was expected to be routine. However, the health ministry panel cited safety concerns in putting off a decision in late May. Japanese media reported that the panel met again today and accepted additional data submitted by RIKEN. Formal approval will be up to the ministry. RIKEN could start recruiting patients sometime this year.Continue Reading
- Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 6:45pm
If the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) can't say how much it needs to spend on the gigantic international fusion project, ITER, it won't get to spend anything on it at all. That's the bottom line in a Senate version of a bill unveiled today that would set funding levels for DOE and the Army Corps of Engineers for fiscal year 2014, which begins on 1 October.
Otherwise, the news was pretty good for scientists. The Senate spending panel agreed to fund DOE's basic research wing and its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at the levels requested by the Obama administration.
Concern over the U.S. contribution to the ITER project in Cadarache, France, has been brewing for more than a year. In February 2012, DOE proposed a 1% cut in funding to its fusion energy science program, to $389 million. At the same time, however, DOE asked to ramp up spending on ITER from $105 million to $150 million, thus requiring a 16% cut funding for experiments at home. (Because Congress never passed the 2013 budget and the government is operating on a continuation of last year's budget, actual spending on ITER this year is roughly $120 million.) More recently, DOE raised legislators' hackles when its budget request for 2014 contained no actual projections of its total contribution to ITER and said only that DOE would hold spending to $225 million per year.
Turns out, DOE's word isn't good enough for senators. Instead, appropriators will zero out ITER spending until DOE comes up with reliable numbers, said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, at a hearing today. "We provide no funding for ITER until the department provides this committee with aContinue Reading
- Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 6:25pm
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) needs to take a stronger leadership role in managing a 7-year-old program designed to translate basic research into clinical therapies, according to a report released today by the U.S. National Academies' Institute of Medicine (IOM).
The program, called Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA), funds 61 centers at academic institutions around the United States. The IOM report says that those centers lack well-defined, measurable metrics to gauge their success and chances for renewal. As a result, some CTSAs try to do too much—and end up with mediocre results—when they should instead specialize in areas where they're strong and collaborate with other CTSAs to make up for their deficiencies.
"We saw when we studied the CTSAs that some of them are exceptional at certain things and that all are really trying to meet lots and lots of areas of expertise, and it became really impossible for them to do one thing well," says Sharon Terry, the report's vice chair and president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., health advocacy nonprofit Genetic Alliance. "We're basically recommending that, no, we don't ask all 61 to be good at everything. Instead, allow specialization … and share expertise."
Christopher Austin, director for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which administrates CTSA, said today that NIH may not be able to continue supporting 61 centers amid mounting budget pressures. "The program is going to have to be right-sized to fit the budget that we now have," he said.
The report calls for the creation of an NCATS-CTSA Steering Committee to set measurable metrics for success, manage a proposed "Innovations Fund" to spur collaboration both within and outside NIH, and direct collaboration between CTSAs. "The leadership will beContinue Reading
- Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 1:55pm
ISTANBUL—The rift is deepening between Turkey's academics and the conservative government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. University students and faculty members have played a large role in the national protests movement that began as an environmental sit-in on 28 May. The government has mounted an aggressive legal campaign against academics who have criticized its policies, arresting several prominent scientists, including a physicist who attempted suicide in jail on 14 June.
The relationship between Turkish academics and their government began to sour long before the current unrest. Some 120 members of the Turkish Academy of Sciences—all but 30—have resigned since the government seized control of the academy in late 2011 and began appointing party cadres as members. Turkish scientists have now founded an independent academy in opposition, called Bilim Akademisi—or simply, in English, The Science Academy. One of the founders of the new academy, Sabancı University astrophysicist Mehmet Ali Alpar, spoke with ScienceInsider. The interview has been edited for brevity.
Q: What is the new academy doing?
M.A.: We have been publishing declarations about academic freedom and honesty. And we have sent letters to international academies. We are in the process of being recognized internationally.
Q: How is life amid the protests?
M.A.: We have been shocked by the events. [Faculty members at] many different universities issued declarations and collected signatures against the police brutality. There is also an international protest collecting signatures on the Web. The academy is preparing a report about the current [political] developments from a social science point of view. There was a demonstration of university faculty on Taksim Square [in Istanbul]. I wasn't there myself.
Q: Why did you not take part in protests?
M.A.: IContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Monday, June 24, 2013 - 6:00pm
It may be dealing with the worst budget crunch in its history, but that is not stopping the National Cancer Institute (NCI) from doing new things. Today, NCI officials outlined a plan to bring together the agency's contract lab in Frederick, Maryland, and outside researchers to find ways to block a mutated protein that drives growth in one-third of all cancers but was thought impossible to "drug" until now.
The RAS project, as NCI is calling it, will not entail huge amounts of money—just $10 million that will be reprogrammed from other work at NCI's Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research. But it will attempt to draw in the hundreds of extramural researchers who now study this protein and its gene to work together in what NCI Director Harold Varmus calls a "megaproject." The goal: "Finally after 30 years of knowing how important RAS is in cancer, to actually produce some outcomes that are helpful to patients," said Varmus today at a joint meeting today of his National Cancer Advisory Board and Board of Scientific Advisors.
RAS, for rat sarcoma, is a family of genes whose proteins transmit signals that allow cells to grow and survive. RAS is mutated in about 33% of cancers, including 95% of pancreatic tumors. Drug companies had long ago given up on targeting RAS, however, because it doesn't have an obvious pocket, or binding site, that a drug could fit into to block its activity, says Frank McCormick, who recently stepped down as director of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco, to spend half his time directing NCI's RAS project.
Researchers have begun to find some weak spots in RAS, however, and NCI now thinks it is time for aContinue Reading
- Friday, June 21, 2013 - 4:40pm
The U.S. Department of Energy needs to improve how it runs a sprawling network of 17 national research laboratories, with less micromanagement and more ties to industry, according to a new report from an unusual coalition of think tanks.
"The sad truth is that the institutional management structures that govern the labs have not advanced far beyond the Cold War, and [are] outdated, inflexible, and weakly connected to the marketplace, inhibiting U.S. innovation when we need it most," argues the report, which was released this week by the politically conservative Heritage Foundation, the liberal Center for American Progress, and the centrist Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), all based in Washington, D.C.
Although the report echoes some long-standing calls for change, "what's surprising and new is that we were able to bridge the partisan and ideological divide, and get some agreement on how to make the labs more efficient and get more out of limited research dollars," says co-author Matthew Stepp of ITIF.
Spawned in the 1940s by the drive to build the first atomic bomb, DOE's national laboratories spend nearly $20 billion annually. Their broad portfolio of research ranges from nuclear weapons science and basic physics to better batteries and renewable energy technologies. The labs have never been seen as a model of stellar management, but complaints—from outsiders and insiders alike—of poor coordination, inefficient spending, and excessive bureaucracy have grown louder since the end of the Cold War. And although there have been several reform efforts over the past two decades, "[t]he labs have been largely running on autopilot for too long," the report's authors conclude. "A jolt to the system is needed now more than ever."
One jolt would be to name a single DOE undersecretary forContinue Reading
- Friday, June 21, 2013 - 1:50pm
Into the breach! Nigel Lockyer, will take over as director of the U.S. particle physics lab, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, the lab announced yesterday. Effective 3 September, Lockyer's appointment comes at a time of transition for Fermilab: Physicists there shut down their storied atom smasher, the Tevatron, in 2011 after it was superseded by Europe's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and they have struggled to get the go-ahead for their next megaproject, the proposed billion-dollar Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE).
"Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!" says Henry Frisch, a particle physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who worked with Lockyer on CDF, one of two massive particle detectors fed by the Tevatron. "It's a difficult time, and I have great confidence in Nigel, in his ability to work with difficult situations, in his common sense, and in his ability to get things done."
An American citizen who was born in Scotland and raised in Canada, Lockyer, 60, is now director of Canada's particle and nuclear physics lab, TRIUMF, in Vancouver. He made a name for himself when he and two colleagues led the effort at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, to measure the lifetime of the bottom quark, a heavy cousin of the down quark found in protons and neutrons. He has worked on experiments at Fermilab for more than 25 years and served a stint as spokesperson for the 600-member CDF team.
Times are tough at Fermilab, which employs roughly 1700 people. Its budget for this year is $366 million, down from $397 million in 2010. The lab has cut staff members in recent years. Most important, although Fermilab has a number of intermediate scale projects going on now, its future a decade down the roadContinue Reading
- Friday, June 21, 2013 - 1:20pm
Women who have beaten the odds to find themselves in the upper echelons of science face a further hurdle—visibility. Female scientists are less likely to sit on science advisory boards, receive awards, and give invited talks at conferences. However, a new study suggests that the reasons women appear less often on the podium are complicated.
Reporting in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Julia Schroeder of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and Hannah Dugdale of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom found that only 16% of invited speakers at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology Congress between 2001 and 2011 were women. The total—66 of 430 individuals—was half of what would be expected based on the number of senior female scientists in the life sciences.
The dearth of women is not because they aren't being invited. Instead, female scientists were twice as likely as their male counterparts to turn down an invitation to talk in slots reserved for presenting original and important work. At the same time, the number of female presenters of posters and uninvited talks was almost at parity with men.
Evolutionary biologist Trudy MacKay of North Carolina State University in Raleigh says that relatively short notice and a tight budget contributed to her decision to decline an invitation to talk at the congress in 2011. Women also turn down talks because they receive too many invitations each year and are anxious about balancing the demands of family and work, says Jeanine Olsen of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who headed one of Europe's Seventh Framework Programme's Gender Action Plans aimed at promoting gender awareness. Younger women also tend to do less self-promotion, Olsen adds.
Finding ways to address those issues isContinue Reading
- Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 2:00pm
deCODE Genetics, the company known for mining the DNA of Iceland's population to find links between genes and diseases, has hit a snag. As Science reports in this week's print issue, a national agency that oversees data privacy in Iceland has rejected a request from deCODE to allow it to apply computational methods to the country's genealogical records to estimate the genotypes of 280,000 Icelanders who have never agreed to take part in the company's research and link the data to hospital records.
Led by founder and CEO Kári Stefánsson, deCODE set out in 2006 to combine Iceland's extensive genealogical records with genetic data and also health records for all citizens to discover disease genes. After it failed to receive legal approval to use the health records without consent, deCODE instead built a research database using DNA and clinical data for more than 120,000 research volunteers. The company has published a slew of papers in top journals tying specific genetic mutations to risks of diseases, but has also weathered bankruptcy. Last December, Amgen purchased the company for $415 million.
The current dispute involves an approach in which geneticists calculate the odds of whether an individual carries a particular genetic variant without directly sequencing their DNA. Combining known and estimated genotypes for its research participants with genealogical data, deCODE is estimating what it calls in silico genotypes of close relatives of the research volunteers, essentially giving the company genotypes for all 320,000 Icelanders. The firm then uses these estimated genotypes for individuals as controls in its studies and also combines them with health records for patients who are part of a disease study in Iceland but whose DNA has not been sampled. deCODE has published six papers using the approach in the lastContinue Reading
- Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 12:40pm
TOKYO—Japanese scientists are proving a bit skeptical about the administration's new strategy for economic growth, which includes an emphasis on applied biomedical research. Even before it was officially released on 12 June, several life science-related academic societies raised questions about plans for a Japanese version of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) that would "strongly support the commercialization of innovative medical technologies."
In a joint 11 June statement (in Japanese here), the heads of more than 50 life science-related academic societies expressed interest in the concept of an NIH-like funding entity positioned over and above Japan's existing ministries; but they also voiced concerns that the details have not been thought through. The statement specifically makes three demands: that the government preserve the bottom-up approach of promoting basic research under which individual researchers pursue their interests; that it support the development of the next generation of researchers; and that it provide adequate funding to foster true innovation. Other societies issued similar statements.
At a press conference today, Akira Amari, minister for economic revitalization, sought to reassure the scientific community. "I would like to stress that we have no intention to try to tie down the people who are involved in very fundamental research," he said. He acknowledged that many academic researchers don't know if or when something they are working on will eventually lead to practical application. Basic, curiosity-driven research "is something that is very important to maintain," he said.
But he added that to establish the foundation for long-term economic growth, the administration feels that the government should show leadership in exploring "how to tie basic research to the practical research of industry." He said he has been told by scientists that they often reach a point where somethingContinue Reading
- Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 5:45pm
Thirty years ago, a race was under way to figure out how to efficiently get foreign genes into plants. In the winter of 1983, three teams presented breakthroughs at the same biochemistry conference in Miami, work that ultimately led to the biotech crops that now dominate commodity agriculture. Today, a member of each team was awarded a third of the $250,000 World Food Prize for their contributions to starting the era of agricultural biotechnology.
Working at the Ghent University Medical School in Belgium, Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell (who died in 2003) had been investigating the genetics of a plant disease called crown gall. They found that a ring of DNA, called a plasmid, in the microbe caused the gall, Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Once it became clear that the bacterium transferred part of its DNA into the genome of the plant, the next step was to use it to insert other genes.
Each of the awardees—Van Montagu, Robert Fraley of Monsanto, and Mary-Dell Chilton at the University of Washington—figured out how to use Agrobacterium to swap foreign genes into plants. Chilton also discovered how to "disarm" Agrobacterium so that it wouldn't cause the galls. Van Montagu subsequently started two biotech companies, Chilton was hired by what is now Syngenta, and Fraley worked his way up to become chief technology officer at Monsanto.
All three, according to the citation, "have contributed significantly to increasing the quantity and availability of food, and can play a critical role as we face the global challenges of the 21st century of producing more food, in a sustainable way, while confronting an increasingly volatile climate."Continue Reading
- Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 5:25pm
A prominent chemical engineer and opponent of political Islam in Turkey attempted suicide last Friday in Ankara's Sincan prison, according to people close to him. Kemal Gürüz, a former president of Turkish Council of Higher Education and of the research funding agency TÜBITAK, has been in prison for more than a year on what his supporters say are political charges.
Gürüz, 65, tried to cut the veins in his wrists with glass from a broken window on Friday evening, says Celal Şengör, a geologist at Istanbul Technical University and a friend of Gürüz. He was immediately taken to a hospital and is not in danger. Şengör, who is in contact with Gürüz's wife, says that the failed suicide attempt followed the liberation of tens of prisoners detained on similar charges; he says Gürüz despaired because he wasn't released as well.
Gürüz was arrested on 25 June 2012. A spokesperson of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies (IHRNASS) says that he has been indicted in the so-called Postmodern Coup Trial, an inquiry into the role of the military in the collapse of the first Islamist-led government in Turkey, in 1997. Gürüz denied all responsibility in a letter from jail in July 2012. According to Şengör, a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, he has never been heard in court.
As head of the Turkish Council of Higher Education between 1997 and 2003, Gürüz fiercely opposed Islamist influence in education; he also discharged a university rector named Beşir Atalay, who is now Turkey's deputy prime minister. Şengör believes that his detention is "revenge" by the current Islamist government for Gürüz's secular activism.
Gürüz had previously been jailed for a few days inContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 4:45pm
One year after President Barack Obama took office, the administration and Congress fought a pitched battle over NASA's strategic direction. Today, that battle was rekindled in a congressional hearing on a Republican proposal to realign NASA's priorities.
The primary bones of contention in 2010 were the administration's desire to cancel a 2004 strategy laid out by President George W. Bush to return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020 and begin heavily investing in the development of commercial space exploration. Under a compromise spelled out in a reauthorization of NASA programs passed in September 2010, the moon mission was cancelled and NASA received a green light for helping private companies develop commercial spacecraft.
That law expires later this year, and some lawmakers want the moon mission back on the table. They also want to torpedo a new mission in the president's 2014 budget request that would capture an asteroid and drag it into a lunar orbit.
"While the committee supports the administration's efforts to study Near Earth Objects, [the asteroid capture proposal] lacks in details, a justification or support from NASA's advisory bodies," said Representative Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chair of the space subcommittee, in his opening statement. "Because the mission appears to be a costly and complex distraction, this bill prohibits NASA from doing any work on the project and we will work with appropriators to ensure the agency complies with this directive."
There are other radical proposals contained in a draft NASA reauthorization bill discussed this morning at a hearing of the House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In addition to establishing a base on the moon from which to explore Mars, the bill's proponents want to downsize NASA's Earth Science portfolio to $1.2Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 4:05pm
The Smithsonian Institution has inched closer to setting up a worldwide network of monitoring sites in coastal environments. Today, it announced that J. Emmett Duffy will be the first director of its Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, which was launched in October 2012. But Duffy, a marine ecologist at the College of William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, has a long way to go to realize this goal.
Interested in making its mark in climate change research, the Smithsonian has decided to focus on marine science by incorporating five existing research sites—two in Panama, and one each in Florida, Belize, and Maryland—into a network that would take the same long-term physical and biological measurements on designated plots. In this way, researchers could develop a sense of how coastal environments and their biodiversity are changing through time and also be able to compare data among sites.
"The plan is to expand out these activities to a large number of sites, hopefully to 10 in the next several years," Duffy says. The effort aims to do for coastal ecosystems what the Smithsonian's Global Earth Observatories does for forests. That program involves 51 patches of forest around the world where researchers chart tree growth, abundance, and distribution in periodic surveys. Some forests have been monitored for 35 years.
The marine network got its start with a $10 million gift last fall. It made possible the hiring of Duffy, who is interested in large-scale ecology and has worked to have biodiversity considered in public policy and incorporated into education. In 2011, he won Japan's Kobe Award in Marine Biology for his work on social tropical shrimp. He has experience with developing and operating research networks, having led the formationContinue Reading