Rice terraces in China

Tine Steiss/Wikimedia

Rice terraces in China

China’s Ministry of Agriculture has decided not to renew biosafety certificates that allowed research groups to grow genetically modified (GM) rice and corn. The permits, to grow two varieties of GM rice and one transgenic corn strain, expired on 17 August. The reasoning behind the move is not clear, and it has raised questions about the future of related research in China.

The ministry, with much fanfare, had approved the GM rice certificates in August 2009. The permits enabled a group at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan to produce two varieties of rice carrying a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria that provides pest resistance. At the same time, the ministry approved production of a corn strain developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Biotechnology Research Institute in Beijing. Researchers had altered the corn so that kernels contain phytase, a livestock feed additive that boosts absorption of phosphorus, which enhances growth. All of the certificates were valid for 5 years.

Since the certificates were issued, however, public skepticism about the benefits of GM crops has grown in China. Some scientists conducting GM plant research have been attacked when giving public lectures.

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Rahul Telang

Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University

Rahul Telang

How do consumers react after learning that an online bank account has been hacked? Do they take their business elsewhere? Do they limit their online activities to reduce their exposure to such invasions?

Those were some of the questions that intrigued Rahul Telang, a professor of information systems and management at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who studies the economics of information security. With data breaches an increasingly common problem, he suspected the behavior of hacked consumers could be having a significant impact on global commerce. But Telang didn’t have enough preliminary data to win a grant to study the issue from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which last year funded only 22% of the nearly 50,000 proposals it received.

Fortunately for Telang, NSF offers a funding mechanism that supports the type of exploratory research he wanted to conduct. And this spring Telang received $200,000 to analyze how customers of one major financial institution actually responded to real data breaches. (The firm agreed to share a vast amount of anonymized data with the researcher.)

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Sunset through Earth's atmosphere, as seen from space.

NASA/Wikimedia

Sunset through Earth's atmosphere, as seen from space.

The first ever international public conference on geoengineering, the deliberate tinkering with Earth's atmosphere, is under way in Berlin. Researchers there are considering a call for stringent controls on future field experiments aimed at finding ways to curb climate change. Geoengineering ideas have included pumping particulates into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and installing mirrors in space.

A draft “Berlin Declaration” distributed this week at the meeting calls on:

“governments, research funding organizations and scientific and professional bodies to withhold approval or endorsement of any experimental work on such techniques without the establishment of an open and transparent review process.”

Meeting participants are now debating the statement, the full text of which is here. One scientist, geochemist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology in Palo Alto, California, told Motherboard's Brian Merchant that such language could stifle research. "How do you define 'experimental work on such techniques'?" Caldeira said. “I think it will end up doing more harm than good."

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Aedes albopictus is one of two mosquito species that transmit chikungunya virus, recently reported in the United States.

CDC/James Gathany

Aedes albopictus is one of two mosquito species that transmit chikungunya virus, recently reported in the United States.

The research branch of the U.S. Department of Defense wants to know when and where the next outbreak of the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus will occur, and it’s offering $150,000 for the best new approach. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) today announced its first health-related challenge, which asks scientific teams to forecast over 6 months how the debilitating disease might spread in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Why is the Defense Department taking a special interest in chikungunya? For starters, “it’s a really bad infection,” says Matthew Hepburn, a program manager in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, who will run the challenge. The virus causes high fever, joint and muscle pain, headache, nausea, fatigue, and rash. It’s very rarely fatal, but the painful swelling of joints can be disabling and sometimes persists for months. With U.S. military deployed worldwide, “we have a strong interest in … trying to prevent our soldiers from being infected,” he says.

But recently, the threat has gotten much closer to home. Once considered a disease of developing countries in African and Asia, chikungunya got a burst of scientific attention when it popped up on the French island of La Reunion in 2007. Then last December, it reached the island of St. Martin, and has now caused hundreds of thousands of cases in the Caribbean. The first four locally acquired cases in the United States were reported in Florida last month. Currently, there is no vaccine available.

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A young man from an isolated Amazonian tribe clutches a bundle of used clothing, a possible source of disease transmission, during initial contact with local villagers and Brazilian officials in July.

© FUNAI

A young man from an isolated Amazonian tribe clutches a bundle of used clothing, a possible source of disease transmission, during initial contact with local villagers and Brazilian officials in July.

In a remote frontier post in the Brazilian Amazon, a group of 24 isolated tribespeople made contact sometime in August with representatives from Brazil’s Indian affairs department (FUNAI)—the second group to do so in less than 8 weeks. According to Survival International, a nongovernmental organization that advocates on behalf of tribal people, the newly contacted group consists of men, women, and children and likely fled from violent attacks in Peru. This has yet to be confirmed by FUNAI, which is releasing few details about this latest contact.

In a press conference in Portuguese this week, however, Maria Augusta Assirati, FUNAI’s president, announced that her department is now investigating reports of lethal attacks on tribal people by outsiders in Peru. The attacks may have prompted isolated groups to flee eastward into Brazil. “We cannot confirm that,” Assirati said. “We are doing an investigation, with the support of the Peruvian government, to see what the pressures are and where they are.”

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The Ebola virus

CDC

The Ebola virus

As the Ebola outbreaks rages on in West Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO), desperate for a way to help infected people, is reconsidering a potential Ebola treatment tried as far back as 1976, after the first documented outbreak of the deadly viral disease: using the blood of people who have recovered from an infection to treat those still fighting the virus. “Convalescent serum is high on our list of potential therapies and has been used in other outbreaks (eg in China during SARS),” WHO said in a written statement to ScienceInsider. “There is a long history of its use, so lots of experience of what needs to be done, what norms and standards need to be met.”

There are not yet official plans to administer convalescent serum to ill people, but WHO said it will assess if the treatment approach was “safe and feasible” and was already working with officials in Ebola-affected areas to strengthen the blood-banking systems there. These moves come as researchers debate the mixed results of past uses of convalescent serum. “The jury is still out” on the approach, says Daniel Bausch, an Ebola expert at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nonetheless, he and others believe the therapy should be explored. “I feel we have a moral imperative to push forward with all the scientifically plausible modalities,” Bausch says.

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A worker at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory harvests avian flu viruses for sharing with other laboratories in 2013.

CDC/James Gathany

A worker at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory harvests avian flu viruses for sharing with other laboratories in 2013.

A federal scientist may have accidentally contaminated a relatively benign avian influenza strain with the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus in part because he or she was overworked and rushing to make a lab meeting, according to an internal report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In the March incident, CDC sent a sample of low-pathogenicity H9N2 bird flu virus that a lab had unknowingly contaminated with H5N1 to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lab, which discovered the mistake when test chickens died. CDC Director Thomas Frieden first disclosed the incident in July at a press conference about other lab accidents. Frieden was especially troubled, he said, because the H5N1 incident was not reported to top CDC leaders for 6 weeks.

According to the 16-page report released today, the H9N2 sample probably became contaminated with H5N1 on 17 January when an experienced researcher did not follow proper decontamination or other protocols between inoculating cell cultures with the H9N2 flu strain and H5N1 using the same biosafety cabinet. The worker was “being rushed to attend a laboratory meeting at noon” and was also under a “heavy workload” as his or her team hurried to generate data for a February vaccine meeting at the World Health Organization, the report says.

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James Doyle (right) in 2012 at a nuclear policy conference at the University of California, San Diego, sponsored by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. With Doyle are Miles Pomper (left) and Duyeon Kim.

Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

James Doyle (right) in 2012 at a nuclear policy conference at the University of California, San Diego, sponsored by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. With Doyle are Miles Pomper (left) and Duyeon Kim.

Political scientist James Doyle had spent almost 2 decades working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) on nonproliferation and nuclear security issues when he decided to write a scholarly article questioning the dogma of nuclear deterrence. Suspecting that his bosses at the Department of Energy (DOE) weapons lab in New Mexico might not agree with his analysis, Doyle researched and wrote the article in his free time and included a disclaimer saying the views were his own. And just to be safe, he got a lab colleague steeped in classification reviews to vet the article before he submitted it to a journal.

The 27-page article—“Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?”—was published in the February-March 2013 issue of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy. And that’s when Doyle’s professional life was suddenly turned upside down.

Within days of publication, congressional staff asked lab officials whether the article contained classified information. A week later, the head of the lab’s classification office decided that it did—a decision later backed by DOE. Doyle soon lost his top-level security clearance, and he says he became persona non grata among his co-workers after accusing lab officials of retaliation and impinging on his intellectual freedom. Those complaints were dismissed, and last week, after 17 years at the weapons lab, Doyle was laid off—the only victim within his 50-person group of what lab officials told him was a reduction in force due to budget cuts.

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The Z pulsed power facility, or Z machine, at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories

The Z pulsed power facility, or Z machine, at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

ARPA-E, the U.S. government agency for funding innovative energy technologies, is preparing to launch a program to support alternative approaches to fusion energy that have the potential to steal a march on existing mainstream projects. The news will come as a relief to some fusion researchers at government labs, who had their funding cut completely in this fiscal year because of the ballooning cost of the U.S. contribution to the international ITER fusion reactor project in France. And it will offer an opportunity to a small number of privately funded fusion efforts that are proposing alternatives to traditional tokamaks and laser fusion approaches.

On 11 August, ARPA-E gave advanced warning of the new funding stream, called Accelerating Low-cost Plasma Heating and Assembly (ALPHA), so that researchers would have time to form into teams to bid for funding. The funding opportunity will be formally announced later this month or in September. Programs at ARPA-E, a part of the Department of Energy (DOE), typically have budgets of about $30 million and award 3-year grants of roughly $3 million each.

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Slide from the Google Science "presentation"

Science journalists around the world received an anonymous e-mail tip yesterday, describing a meeting in Berlin between some academics and Google’s staff there. An attached slideshow presentation, provided at the meeting, described a secret project called "Google Science," a new scientific publishing platform that combines Google Docs, Google Scholar, and YouTube. Scientists will be able to not only publish their research for free, but then the papers and data would also be open access forever. Sound too good to be true? It is, Wired.co.uk reports (in great detail). Or as one Google software engineer succinctly told Science, "Um no. That's a prank."

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The Ebola virus

Thomas W. Geisbert

The Ebola virus

Behind the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa lies a species with an incredible power to overtake its host. Zaire ebolavirus and the family of filoviruses to which it belongs owe their virulence to mechanisms that first disarm the immune response and then dismantle the vascular system. The virus progresses so quickly that researchers have struggled to tease out the precise sequence of events, particularly in the midst of an outbreak. Much is still unknown, including the role of some of the seven proteins that the virus’s RNA makes by hijacking the machinery of host cells and the type of immune response necessary to defeat the virus before it spreads throughout the body. But researchers can test how the live virus attacks different cells in culture and can observe the disease’s progression in nonhuman primates—a nearly identical model to humans.

Here are some of the basic things we understand about how Ebola and humans interact.

What does Ebola do to the immune system?

Once the virus enters the body, it targets several types of immune cells that represent the first line of defense against invasion. It infects dendritic cells, which normally display signals of an infection on their surfaces to activate T lymphocytes—the white blood cells that could destroy other infected cells before the virus replicates further. With defective dendritic cells failing to give the right signal, the T cells don’t respond to infection, and neither do the antibodies that depend on them for activation. The virus can start replicating immediately and very quickly.

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The Fields prize medal

Fields Prize

The Fields prize medal

For the first time in its 78-year history, a female mathematician has won the Fields Medal, the discipline’s most prestigious prize. Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, joined the list of 52 previous winners, along with three other recipients of the prize this year: Artur Avila of the Institute of Mathematics of Jussieu in Paris, Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University, and Martin Hairer of the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. In all, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) gave out eight prizes in opening ceremonies at its quadrennial International Congress of Mathematicians on 13 August in Seoul.

"This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," Mirzakhani told Bjorn Carey of the Stanford Report. "I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."

Mirzakhani has polished off numerous problems related to Riemann surfaces and their associated "moduli" spaces. Named for the 19th century mathematician Bernhard Riemann, who propelled geometry into realms of abstraction, Riemann surfaces are complex doughnuts and pretzels characterized topologically according to the number of "handles" they possess. Moduli spaces govern the ways in which one Riemann surface can be deformed to look like another. The geometry of these higher dimensional spaces in some sense controls the geometric properties of the underlying Riemann surfaces. 

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Two nurses in 1976 standing in front of a woman, who was treated for Ebola disease, and later died at Ngaliema Hospital, in Kinshasa.

CDC/Dr. Lyle Conrad

Two nurses in 1976 standing in front of a woman, who was treated for Ebola disease, and later died at Ngaliema Hospital, in Kinshasa.

Peter Piot, currently director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has become one of the world’s most respected epidemiologists because of his work on the viruses that cause AIDS and Ebola. In the first excerpt from his 2012 memoir No Time to Lose, Piot recalled identifying a new virus behind a deadly outbreak in Zaire in 1976—the debut of Ebola virus. In this second excerpt, he and colleagues go into Zaire’s hot zone and, with the help of nuns who had survived, make a tragic discovery about how the virus had spread among pregnant women.

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Wolverine

Wikimedia

Wolverine

Wolverines are not threatened by climate change and don’t need protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced yesterday. After more than a year of analysis, the agency is citing scientific uncertainty in withdrawing its controversial proposal to list the snow-dwelling carnivores as threatened. But some conservation scientists are concerned that the agency’s reversal sets a precedent that will restrict using models of future climate in listing decisions.

Wolverine listing isn’t about whether USFWS believes that climate is changing, said the agency’s director, Dan Ashe, during a teleconference with reporters. The question is how well scientists can predict fine-scale warming impacts on the snow caves wolverines use to rear their young. “We know too little about the ecology of wolverines, and the climate models that we have available to us today don’t provide the specificity of information about the potential effect of climate changes on the specific type of habitat that wolverines seem to prefer to use for denning,” he said. “So we can’t make a reasonable prediction that wolverines will be likely endangered in the foreseeable future.”

USFWS did not have those concerns in February 2013 when it first proposed protecting wolverines (Gulo gulo luscus) as threatened under the ESA. Populations of the predator were hit hard by trapping and poisoning in the early 20th century but have rebounded somewhat in recent decades. Researchers estimate approximately 300 “mountain devils” now live in the continental United States, found mostly in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. But modeling studies suggest that the persistent spring snowpack wolverines use for denning will decline 31% by 2045 and 63% by 2085.

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Sharks, such as this great white, make for good TV.

Wikimedia

Sharks, such as this great white, make for good TV.

There’s little question that television viewers look forward to the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” programming about the toothy creatures—this week’s opening lineup drew nearly 4 million viewers, a record for the 27-year-old fin frenzy.

Specialists in shark behavior, however, aren’t as thrilled. They say that although Shark Week promotes public interest in sharks, the programs often misrepresent what scientists know about the animals and how they study them. Researchers also worry that Shark Week sends mixed messages that may hurt conservation efforts.

On the positive side, says Yannis Papastamatiou, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, “it is quite possible that Shark Week deserves some credit” for “a big change in public opinion over the last 15 years” that has made sharks less alien and threatening to many people. But a downside, he adds, is that the documentaries often exaggerate researchers’ knowledge of shark behavior. The result: The public comes away believing that scientists know much more about sharks than they actually do.

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A health official checks the temperature of an airport worker in Lagos, Nigeria.

AP PHOTO/SUNDAY ALAMBA, FILE

A health official checks the temperature of an airport worker in Lagos, Nigeria.

An ethical panel convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) broke new ground today when it said that using experimental, unapproved drugs or vaccines in the current Ebola outbreak is ethical—assuming a set of criteria is met. There is a big problem, however: None of the experimental therapies and vaccines appears to be available in quantities large enough to treat the thousands in need. One of the issues that needs to be debated is how to fairly distribute the scant resources, the panel said in a statement.

That's why another debate is brewing among some scientists and public health officials: What about trying existing drugs that have been approved for other diseases but that might benefit Ebola patients as well?

Several researchers have floated proposals for trying such drugs. One idea—to try using statins and other widely used, cheap medicines—created a "firestorm" this past weekend after a draft op-ed piece discussing the plan (which was submitted to The New York Times today) was circulated to some 80 researchers worldwide, says Thomas Geisbert, an Ebola researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Geisbert is squarely opposed to the idea, because he says there isn't enough evidence that the drugs would do any good. "I am very, very concerned about this," he says.

But David Fedson, a retired pharma executive living in France who drafted the article together with Steven Opal of Brown University, says there is enough reason to believe that statins and some other used drugs such as ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers can save lives and should be tried. Fedson says almost 30 scientists, including very prominent ones, have agreed to co-sign the article.

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The sportfishing record for the critically endangered goliath grouper (above) is 308.4 kilograms, set in 1961.

LASZLO ILYES/Wikimedia

The sportfishing record for the critically endangered goliath grouper (above) is 308.4 kilograms, set in 1961.

An international angling group should stop awarding weight-based world records for fish species threatened with extinction, researchers argue in a new study. The awards encourage the killing of the heaviest, most fecund fish, the scientists say, and should be replaced by conservation-friendlier records based on length.

Since 1939, the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) of Dania Beach, Florida, has been a leading record-keeper for recreational anglers, certifying who has caught the biggest fish. Today, it maintains records for some 1200 species.

In their study, published online before print in Marine Policy, the researchers found that 85 of those species are listed as either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. That’s a concern, the authors say, because although commercial fishers are sometimes barred from killing endangered species, recreational anglers often can. The researchers are particularly worried about the impact of trophy fishing, because removing the largest individuals can have a disproportionate impact on a population.

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Nelson Sewankambo

R. Stone/Science

Nelson Sewankambo

On 1 August, a Ugandan court struck down a draconian antigay law that had drawn condemnation from Western countries. The legislation, signed into law on 24 February by Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, mandates prison terms of up to 14 years for homosexual acts and life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” such as sexual acts with a minor. The court invalidated the law on a technicality, citing Parliament’s passage of the legislation without a legal quorum the previous December.

In the days before Museveni signed the bill, the Uganda National Academy of Sciences (UNAS) avoided being drawn into the controversy by declining a request from the government to conduct a rushed review of the scientific evidence about the causes of homosexuality. Instead, it will team up with the Academy of Science of South Africa for an in-depth study expected to be completed next year, says UNAS President Nelson Sewankambo.

In justifying his support for the law earlier this year, Museveni cited the findings of a Health Ministry panel tasked with preparing the cursory literature review that UNAS declined to tackle. The rapid effort—the panel had less than 2 weeks to produce its report—concluded that “there is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality,” that homosexuality is not a disease nor abnormal, and that being gay can be influenced by environmental factors such as culture and peer pressure. In a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on 18 February, Museveni stated that the panel’s “unanimous conclusion was that homosexuality, contrary to my earlier thinking, was behavioural and not genetic.”

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The Ebola virus

CDC

The Ebola virus

An ethics panel at the World Health Organization (WHO) has given a green light to treating Ebola patients with experimental drugs for the deadly virus. There had been “unanimous agreement among the experts that in the special circumstances of this Ebola outbreak it is ethical to offer unregistered treatments,” said Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of WHO, at a press conference today in Geneva, Switzerland.

“It is important that the committee affirmed the morality of compassionate use,” writes Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University in New York City, in an e-mail. “But there are huge ethical issues that still remain unaddressed and unanswered regarding experimental interventions.” Caplan is not a member of the WHO panel.

The 12-member panel had convened by telephone on Monday, as the largest Ebola outbreak on record rages on in West Africa. The virus has already sickened 1848 people and killed 1013 of them in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, according to the latest numbers released by WHO. There are no vaccines or treatments against Ebola on the market. But researchers are developing several drugs, most of them backed by funding from the U.S. government and fueled by worries of bioterrorism.

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The 1976 Ebola outbreak investigation team, including Peter Piot (second from left), arriving in Yambuku.

Joel Bremen

The 1976 Ebola outbreak investigation team, including Peter Piot (second from left), arriving in Yambuku.

Peter Piot grew up in Belgium dreaming of exotic adventures and helping the poor. He saw medicine as the passport to both goals. But at one point in his medical education, Piot recalls in his 2012 memoir No Time to Lose, a professor offered a bit of advice:

“There’s no future in infectious diseases,” he stated flatly, in a tone that bore no argument. “They’ve all been solved.” But I wanted to go to Africa. I wanted to help save the world. And it seemed to me that infectious disease might be just the ticket and full of unresolved scientific questions. So I ignored him.

Piot would become one of the world’s most respected epidemiologists because of his work on the viruses that cause AIDS and Ebola—he is a former under secretary-general of the United Nations, former president of the International AIDS Society, and now director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. In part one of this edited excerpt from his memoir, Piot describes how he and colleagues, with what now seem crude and risky methods, became co-discoverers of the deadly virus now on the rampage again.

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Ian Macfarlane

Queensland Media Club

Ian Macfarlane

A senior minister’s suggestion that the Australian government may consider tying science funding for universities to the number of patents they generate is drawing a sharp reaction from the nation’s academic research community and some opposition politicians.

“I think tying grants to patents is simply the wrong way to go,” Les Field, the secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science and a deputy vice chancellor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told reporter David Mark of “The World Today,” a radio program produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

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Genetically incorrect? Nearly 140 experts say Wade's views on race lack scientific support.

(Nicholas Wade) Creative Commons

Genetically incorrect? Nearly 140 experts say Wade's views on race lack scientific support.

A best-seller by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade about recent human evolution and its potential effects on human cultures has drawn critical reviews since its spring publication. Now, nearly 140 senior human population geneticists around the world, many of whose work was cited in the book, have signed a letter to The New York Times Book Review stating that Wade has misinterpreted their work. The letter criticizes “Wade’s misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies,” and is slated to appear in the 10 August issue of the Book Review. It’s available online today.

The book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, contends that human races are a biological reality and that recent human evolution has led to racial differences in economic and social behavior.  In the book, Wade suggests that such genetic differences may help explain why some people live in tribal societies and some in advanced civilizations, why African-Americans are allegedly more violent than whites, and why the Chinese may be good at business.

The book has received some blistering reviews from both scientists and science writers, including one by David Dobbs in The New York Times Book Review, and some scientists weighed in with blogs as well. Now, geneticists have crafted a joint response, concluding that “there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.” The list of signatories reads like a who’s who of researchers in the field and includes such well-known geneticists as Evan Eichler of the University of Washington, Seattle; David Goldstein of Duke University; and Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona.

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WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda at a press conference in Geneva this morning.

WHO

WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda at a press conference in Geneva this morning.

With cases rapidly mounting in four West African countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) today declared the Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a designation that allows the agency to issue recommendations for travel restrictions but also sends a strong message that more resources need to be mobilized to bring the viral disease under control.

"The outbreak is moving faster than we can control it," said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, this morning. Chan said the declaration of a PHEIC serves as "an urgent call for international solidarity." The affected countries don't have the resources to battle the disease alone, and neither does her agency. With three major humanitarian crises on its hands—in Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic—as well as three important disease outbreaks—Ebola, the H7N9 influenza virus, and MERS—WHO is "extremely stretched," she said. So are organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, which do much of the control work on the ground.

This is only the third time the health agency has issued a PHEIC declaration since the new International Health Regulations (IHR), a global agreement on the control of diseases, were adopted in 2005. The previous two instances were in 2009, for the H1N1 influenza pandemic, and in May for the resurgence of polio.

The WHO declaration is “an alarm call that will hopefully stimulate the richer countries to provide more money and personnel," says Preben Aavitsland, a Norwegian epidemiologist who helped draft the IHR. But Aavitsland says that alarm should have gone out earlier. "In my view it should have happened months ago, when the infection spread to other countries than Guinea," he says.

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The Ebola virus.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Ebola virus.

"Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away," The Onion reported on 30 July. As so often before, the satirical story turned out to be prophetic. Until last week, there appeared to be little hope that any experimental drugs or vaccines might be used in the worst Ebola outbreak ever, which according to the latest statistics from the World Health organization (WHO) has already sickened 1711 people and killed 932 in four West African countries. But the cases of two U.S. Ebola patients who were treated with an experimental antibody cocktail have suddenly upset that international consensus.

Just a few weeks ago, WHO said that using any of the experimental drugs or vaccines in the pipeline simply wasn't in the cards, because none of them have been through a phase I clinical study, the type of trial in which medical products are tested on healthy volunteers to study their toxicity. "Using an experimental vaccine on human beings in the middle of an outbreak in this case would not be ethical, feasible, or wise," a WHO representative e-mailed Science on 16 July.

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Off the dissection menu: the Western Ghats bullfrog.

Flickr/Ajith U (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Off the dissection menu: the Western Ghats bullfrog.

BANGALORE, INDIA—A long campaign to persuade Indian authorities to bar dissections in university classes has achieved a major victory. The University Grants Commission (UGC), a governmental body that sets standards for university education in India, has banned the dissection of animals in zoology and life science university courses. Some educators decry the decision, arguing that classrooms aren’t prepared to offer alternatives to dissections.

The animal rights advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been calling for a ban for several years, arguing that computer models and simulations can effectively replace dissection. In 2011, UGC issued guidelines that exempted students from performing dissections in undergraduate classes and allowed students in postgraduate courses to opt out. In March, the Medical Council of India imposed a ban on animal dissection in undergraduate medical courses as well and is considering extending the ban to postgraduate courses.

Most zoology students do not use the knowledge gained from dissections after they graduate, argues Chaitanya Koduri, science policy adviser to PETA India. “When you don’t need to use animals in the first place, why kill them?” According to Koduri, several frog species have become endangered in the past 40 years because zoology students across India have collected them in large numbers for experiments. Dissection indeed is a major pressure on frog populations, says N. A. Aravind, an ecologist who studies mollusks at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment here. He cites the Indian bullfrog, which was slaughtered for its meat and also used widely in dissections until 1991, when it was listed as an endangered species under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. Although illegal hunting continues, the frog’s populations appear to have stabilized.

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