MSF's Joanne Liu sharply criticized the international response to Ebola today.

UN Web TV

MSF's Joanne Liu sharply criticized the international response to Ebola today.

A new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is unrelated to the 6-month-old epidemic in West Africa, a genetic analysis has confirmed. Although the virus belongs to the same species, Ebola-Zaire, the strain is genetically so different that it "is definitely not a dissemination of the outbreak in West Africa,” says virologist Eric Leroy of the International Centre for Medical Research of Franceville, the World Health Organization collaborating center in Gabon that is characterizing the DRC virus.

Meanwhile, WHO and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) today issued fresh and even more urgent calls for immediate, massive international action to contain the West African outbreak, which is spiraling out of control. At a United Nations briefing today, MSF's Joanne Liu painted a particularly desperate picture of the situation on the ground.

"Ebola treatment centers are reduced to places where people go to die alone, where little more than palliative care is offered," Liu said. "It is impossible to keep up with the sheer number of infected people pouring into facilities. In Sierra Leone, infectious bodies are rotting in the streets. Rather than building new Ebola care centers in Liberia, we are forced to build crematoria."

At the same briefing, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan raised her fist and called for "Action, action, action!"

Continue Reading »

Ian Chubb in 2009

Lizette Kabré/University of Copenhagen/Wikimedia

Ian Chubb in 2009

Offering a glimmer of hope for Australia’s embattled scientific community, the nation’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, outlined a national science strategy at a press conference in Canberra today. Among a raft of recommendations, his report calls for creating an Australian Innovation Board to identify priorities that would receive earmarked funding, adding to the rolls of science teachers, adopting a long-term R&D plan, and using science as a tool in Australian diplomacy.

Australian science has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months. In September 2013, Prime Minister Tony Abbott abolished the science ministry, handing much of the science portfolio to industry minister Ian MacFarlane. And coping with an AU$115 million budget cut to its 2014 to 2015 budget, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation  revealed in May that it would shutter eight research facilities.

Continue Reading »

JAXA

An artist's impression of Hayabusa as it circled the asteroid Itokawa.

TOKYO—The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced on Friday that it is asking Science to withdraw one of the 2006 papers that resulted from the Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission because of an error in the data analysis. The retraction won't affect scientists' understanding of the asteroid, however, because other papers have confirmed the study's key conclusions.

The Japanese-led team published a collection of seven papers in a special issue of Science on 2 June 2006 based on observations by four instruments as the Hayabusa spacecraft circled asteroid Itokawa in the fall of 2005. The craft later touched down to grab samples. The paper being retracted,  by Tatsuaki Okada and colleagues, presents an analysis of x-ray spectra to determine the elements on the asteroid's surface. The authors concluded "that Itokawa has a composition consistent with that of ordinary chondrites." Chondrites are a type of stony asteroid.

For various reasons, the authors felt they could not rely on the calibration of the instrument done on Earth before the spacecraft was launched. To compensate, they started by assuming they would see the characteristic x-ray spectra of magnesium and silicon, elements known to be present on ordinary chondrites. They then used what they took to be the spectra of those elements to interpret the instrument's raw data. In effect, the authors jumped to a conclusion and then based their analysis on what they expected to observe. (Explanatory materials, in Japanese, are here.)

Continue Reading »

Ecologists hope to save the endangered nilgiri tahr of the Western Ghats.

Muneef Hameed/Flickr

Ecologists hope to save the endangered Nilgiri tahr of the Western Ghats.

BANGALORE, INDIA—A long-running battle over conservation and development in India has taken a new turn. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests disclosed on 27 August that it had shelved a report calling for aggressive measures to preserve the ecology of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing a large swath of southwestern India that’s home to at least 500 endemic species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Instead, the government has adopted another set of recommendations that some ecologists say will do too little to safeguard the region’s biodiversity.

Biodiversity in the Western Ghats has been under siege for decades. A 1997 study in Current Science found that the region lost about 40% of its forest cover between 1927 and 1990 to agricultural fields, coffee and tea plantations, and hydroelectric reservoirs. Habitat fragmentation has put endemic birds such as the Nilgiri wood pigeon and white-bellied shortwing and mammals such as the Nilgiri tahr, Malabar civet, and lion-tailed macaque on endangered lists.

Continue Reading »

If spread continues at the current rate, a model by Alessandro Vespignani and colleagues projects close to 10,000 Ebola infections by 24 September. (The shaded area provides the projection's variability range.)

A. Vespignani

If spread continues at the current rate, a model by Alessandro Vespignani and colleagues projects close to 10,000 Ebola infections by 24 September. (The shaded area provides the projection's variability range.)

Alessandro Vespignani hopes that his latest work will turn out to be wrong. In July, the physicist from Northeastern University in Boston started modeling how the deadly Ebola virus may spread in West Africa. Extrapolating existing trends, the number of the sick and dying mounts rapidly from the current toll—more than 3000 cases and 1500 deaths—to about 10,000 cases by 24 September, and hundreds of thousands in the months after that. “The numbers are really scary,” he says—although he stresses that the model assumes control efforts aren't stepped up. "We all hope to see this NOT happening," Vespigani writes in an e-mail.

Vespignani is not the only one trying to predict how the unprecedented outbreak will progress. Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the number of cases could ultimately exceed 20,000. And scientists across the world are scrambling to create computer models that accurately describe the spread of the deadly virus. Not all of them look quite as bleak as Vespignani's. But the modelers all agree that current efforts to control the epidemic are not enough to stop the deadly pathogen in its tracks.

Computer models “are incredibly helpful” in curbing an outbreak, says infectious disease researcher Jeremy Farrar, who heads the Wellcome Trust research charity in London. They can help agencies such as WHO predict the medical supplies and personnel they will need—and can indicate which interventions will best stem the outbreak. Mathematical epidemiologist Christian Althaus of the University of Bern, who is also building Ebola models, says both WHO and Samaritan's Purse, a relief organization fighting Ebola, have contacted him to learn about his projections.

But the modelers are hampered by the paucity of data on the current outbreak and lack of knowledge about how Ebola spreads. Funerals of Ebola victims are known to spread...Continue Reading »

Bare-throated bellbirds (Procnias nudicollis) benefit from intact forests.

Pedro Develey

Bare-throated bellbirds (Procnias nudicollis) benefit from intact forests.

Saving biodiversity is a noble goal, but how much will it cost? And where should the money be spent? These are difficult questions for policymakers. An innovative analysis, published in this week’s issue of Science, lays out a plan for Brazil’s diverse and endangered Atlantic Forest.

“The most important message is that restoration can be targeted in a way that minimizes costs and has a greater likelihood of delivering lasting environmental benefits,” says Toby Gardner, an ecologist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, who was not involved in the new research.

South America’s Atlantic rainforest is a good case study for the challenges of conservation policy. With a great variety of environmental conditions, life has evolved into incredible diversity. But farming, ranching, and urban development have destroyed much of the forest. Less than 8% remains of its original 1.43 million square kilometers that spanned Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Over the years, conservationists have made mostly small-scale attempts to restore the forest.

Continue Reading »

Stronger earthquakes associated with last night's eruption shown in yellow and orange.

Icelandic Meteorological Office

Stronger earthquakes associated with last night's eruption shown in yellow and orange.

Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano has had a short eruption that sent steam into the air, but officials have lifted air flight restrictions now that the activity has stopped, Reuters is reporting.

An eruption that began at about midnight local time in a fissure in a lava field ended about 4 hours later, government officials said in a statement. Iceland’s weather office initially raised the aviation alert status to red, which imposes certain flight restrictions in the area. It returned the status to orange, however, after no extensive ash was observed. Flights in the area are now allowed.

Continue Reading »

Erica Ollmann Saphire at Scripps event showing a model of the Ebola surface protein (white) with three ZMapp antibodies attached.

Melissa Jacobs/The Scripps Research Institute

Erica Ollmann Saphire at Scripps event showing a model of the Ebola surface protein (white) with three ZMapp antibodies attached.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—This past Wednesday, at a discussion titled “Stopping the Deadly Ebola Outbreak” held at the Scripps Research Institute here, a local TV reporter repeatedly prodded one of the star panelists, Kevin Whaley, the CEO of Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego.

After Whaley explained that he had no idea whether ZMapp, his company’s now famous experimental antibody cocktail used to treat Ebola victims, really worked, the journalist continued to press. “From what you’ve seen in your research—and what your heart says—what do you say?”

The audience of 100 people or so broke into nervous giggles.

“I’m not willing to speculate on that,” Whaley replied.

Continue Reading »

Lobed coral

NOAA Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

Lobed coral

Ocean acidification, warming waters, and disease could lead 20 species of Caribbean and Pacific corals to be at risk for extinction by 2100. That argument formed the basis for a decision Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to add them to the list of threatened corals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).   

"I don’t think we can make any decision anymore about ESA listings without taking into account the reality that the planet is warming, that the ocean is changing, and will continue to change," said Russell Brainard, NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division chief, in explaining the agency’s action. Two coral species are already listed as threatened, a less protective category than endangered. The agency must now decide how to reduce the stress of those changes on coral species, some of which have declined by 90%.            

In 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) asked NOAA to list 83 species under the federal law, arguing that each one had declined by at least 30% in 30 years. In 2012, NOAA proposed listing 66 of those petitioned corals as threatened and moving the two species already on the list, the Caribbean elkhorn and staghorn corals (Acropora palmata and Acropora cervicornis), to the most protective category of endangered. NOAA fisheries administrator David Bernhart told reporters yesterday that new information about the abundance of each coral species, their location, and how they respond to threats like pollution and ocean warming led to fewer listings than had been anticipated.

Continue Reading »

The White House wants federally funded labs to tighten biosafety.

Greg Knobloch/CDC

The White House wants federally funded labs to tighten biosafety.

The White House is asking federally funded labs studying infectious agents to take “immediate action” to inventory samples and review safety and security procedures in the wake of several high-profile accidents earlier this year.

The directive, a memo sent to federal agencies on 19 August but only posted online today, allays fears in the academic community that nongovernment microbiologists might be ordered to stop work for 24 hours and conduct an inventory. Although the memo from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) uses the term “stand-down,” it says explicitly that the review should not disrupt ongoing work. And none of the steps are mandatory for extramural labs with federal funding. 

The memo is a response to “three recent U.S. biosafety and biosecurity incidents” that have been widely publicized: the mistaken shipment of live anthrax samples by a biodefense lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta; the discovery of 60-year-old vials of smallpox on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in suburban Maryland; and the accidental contamination at CDC of benign poultry flu samples with the deadly H5N1 bird flu. CDC has already announced sweeping changes to improve safety, and the OSTP memo aims to “maximize the positive effect of lessons learned” across the U.S. government.

Continue Reading »

Excerpt from legal brief filed in case.

U.S. Courts

Excerpt from legal brief filed in case.

Three scientists yesterday lost their bid to prevent burial of two 9000-year-old human skeletons claimed by the Kumeyaay people of southern California. The 9th circuit federal court in San Francisco ruled against university professors who filed suit in 2012 to halt the repatriation in order to analyze the ancient bones. But the professors aren’t giving up yet and may appeal.

The skeletons, which the researchers say are scientifically valuable because of their antiquity, were discovered in 1976 near the swimming pool of the chancellor’s residence at the University of California, San Diego. After a protracted legal battle, the university agreed in 2012 to return the skeletons to the nearby Kumeyaay tribe, which claimed them. The three researchers—Timothy White, Robert Bettinger, and Margaret Schoeninger, all professors in the University of California system—then sued the university to halt the repatriation, arguing that the bones were not associated with the tribe and therefore were not subject to a federal law requiring that human remains be repatriated to their descendants. The scientists maintained that the Kumeyaay only arrived in the region a few thousand years ago and that the skeletons could provide important data on the origins of people in the New World.

Continue Reading »

The Ebola virus

CDC/Dr. Frederick A. Murphy/Wikimedia Commons

The Ebola virus

In response to the “devastating outbreak” of Ebola in West Africa, U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins has announced “extraordinary measures to accelerate the pace of vaccine clinical trials.”

At a teleconference this morning, Collins and Anthony Fauci, head of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), described several human studies of different Ebola vaccines that will begin over the next few months. None of these clinical trials will determine whether the vaccines work. Instead, the goal will be to assess whether they are safe and stimulate immune responses. Several Ebola vaccines have been tested in humans but none have moved forward to large-scale efficacy studies.

Continue Reading »

The five co-authors of a Science study who contracted Ebola and died.

Credits: (left to right) Mambu Momoh; Simbirie Jalloh; Pardis Sabeti (2); Mike DuBose

The five co-authors of a Science study who contracted Ebola and died.

The ongoing Ebola virus disease outbreak is taking an appalling toll on health workers in West Africa. More than 240 have been infected and more than 120 have died. At Kenema Government Hospital (KGH) in Sierra Leone, where the country’s first case was diagnosed, more than 2 dozen nurses, doctors, and support staff have died of Ebola. KGH is where many of the samples were collected for a paper published online today in Science that analyzes the genetics of the virus responsible for the disease. Highlighting the danger to those caring for infected people, five of the paper’s co-authors—all experienced members of the hospital’s Lassa fever team—died of Ebola before its publication. (A sixth co-author, uninfected, also recently died as well.)

Continue Reading »

Health workers take blood samples for Ebola virus testing at a hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, in June.

REUTERS/Tommy Trenchard

Health workers take blood samples for Ebola virus testing at a hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, in June.

The Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa is still picking up speed, according to new case and fatality numbers from the World Health Organization (WHO) today. More than 3069 cases have been reported, and at least 1552 had died as of 26 August—but the real numbers may be two to four times higher, the agency says. WHO now says that the outbreak will likely continue for at least 6 to 9 more months, and as many as 20,000 people could ultimately be infected. A “road map” for bringing the situation under control estimates the cost at $490 million. That includes, for example, nearly 8000 personnel in Liberia alone to staff isolation and treatment centers, trace contacts, safely bury the dead, and coordinate logistics. The budget estimate includes $6 million for safe burials of up to 13,500 victims.

More than 40% of the total cases have been identified in the last 3 weeks, WHO says—a clear sign that the epidemic is gathering speed instead of declining. In Liberia, where Ebola is spreading in densely populated Monrovia, there are at least 694 cases, an increase of 296 since the last report from 20 August. There are also new cases in Nigeria, where a traveler from Liberia infected medical personnel and other contacts. The new cases are connected to a diplomat who eluded official surveillance and traveled to Port Harcourt, where he sought medical treatment. The diplomat recovered, but the doctor who treated him died, and 70 contacts of the patient and the doctor are now under surveillance. So far at least 17 people have been infected in Nigeria, six of whom have died.

Continue Reading »

The Thirty Meter Telescope is one science project that does well in Japan’s new budget request.

TMT Observatory Corporation

The Thirty Meter Telescope is one science project that does well in Japan’s new budget request.

TOKYO—Japan's ministry of education gave the country's researchers something to cheer about today, announcing it was asking for a healthy 18% increase, to $11.1 billion, for science and technology spending in its proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

"At least part of the increase is due to [Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's] administration's support for innovation," says Yoshiaki Ando, an official with the ministry's research promotion bureau.

The requested increase in spending goes virtually across the board. But in line with the innovation mantra, the proposal calls for a 53% increase, to $494 million, for a collection of new and continuing programs intended to help turn laboratory discoveries into new products and industries. 

Continue Reading »

The Aedes aegypti mosquito (shown), which is not found in Japan, is dengue's principal vector.

James Gathany/Wikimedia Commons

The Aedes aegypti mosquito (shown), which is not found in Japan, is dengue's principal vector.

TOKYO—After reporting the country's first domestically acquired case of dengue fever in nearly 70 years yesterday, Japan's health ministry today confirmed finding two more patients. The initial patient, a girl in her teens, had a sudden onset of high fever on 20 August and was hospitalized in Saitama City, near Tokyo. Hospital staff, suspecting dengue, on 26 August sent blood samples to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, which confirmed the diagnosis.

An epidemiological investigation turned up two more patients. All three are students at the same school in Tokyo and are members of a dance group that regularly practices in a city park, leading the ministry to conclude that students were infected in the park.

Continue Reading »

CDC

Anthrax bacteria

In the wake of several high-profile laboratory safety incidents involving smallpox, anthrax, and dangerous flu strains, the U.S. government will ask federally funded laboratories to inventory pathogens and review safety practices. But officials will not ask labs to suspend research for any specific period of time, or focus only on studies involving "high-consequence" pathogens, a source familiar with the matter tells ScienceInsider.

Earlier today, a memo distributed by groups that represent research universities reported that White House officials would call for a 24-hour pause in government-funded research involving the most dangerous agents. The memo was based on conversations between officials from the university groups and officials within the Obama administration, the memo said.

But some of the memo is incorrect, the source says. The request, which will come from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Security Council, will not use the word “suspend,” the source says. In addition, it will cover studies involving any kind of pathogen, not just the most dangerous agents. It will ask for an inventory and scrutiny of safety practices. The idea, the source says, is to provide flexibility and acknowledge that researchers know best how to address biosafety issues within their labs.

Continue Reading »

Anthrax bacteria

CDC

Anthrax bacteria

In the wake of several high-profile laboratory safety incidents involving smallpox, anthrax, and dangerous flu strains, the U.S. government is planning to ask federally funded laboratories to pause all work involving “high-consequence” pathogens for 24 hours in order to inventory stocks, according to groups that represent research universities. (Update, 27 August: This is partly incorrect, a source familiar with the matter informed ScienceInsider after this story had been posted; click here for an update.)

“Essentially, what the government will request is a short term on the order of 24 hours suspension of research involving high-consequence pathogens in order to allow institutional lab personnel to take stock of what pathogens they have stored in freezers, cold rooms, etc.,” reads a memo distributed to universities today and signed by Carol Blum of the Council on Governmental Relations (COGR) in Washington, D.C.

Also, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that September will be “National Biosafety Stewardship Month.”

The stand-down directive is expected to come soon from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the memo states, and be delivered to labs through funding agencies. The exact language of the OSTP memo is not yet known. Several agencies, including the Department of Veteran Affairs, appear to have already begun the process. 

Continue Reading »

Bushmeat can spread the Ebola virus.

Wikiseal/Wikimedia Commons

Bushmeat can spread the Ebola virus.

International aid organizations, already stretched to the limit by the biggest Ebola outbreak on record, are facing a second, probably unrelated cluster of cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). DRC’s Ministry of Health yesterday notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the outbreak in the north of the country. It said 13 of the 24 people suspected to have contracted Ebola have died.

“At this time, it is believed that the outbreak in DRC is unrelated to the ongoing outbreak in West Africa,” says a WHO statement issued today. None of the patients had traveled to the regions in West Africa where Ebola is now spreading or had contact with persons from those regions. Early results from a lab in DRC also indicate that the disease was not caused by Ebola-Zaire, the virus species causing the outbreak in West Africa. Since December, Ebola-Zaire has sickened at least 2615 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria and killed 1427 them. It is the biggest Ebola outbreak on record.

While that outbreak is the first in that region, the new outbreak in DRC comes in a region more used to dealing with the virus. “This is the country that has the most experience of dealing with the virus and that gives me some hope,” says Stephan Günther, a virologist at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, who is currently working in a mobile lab in Nigeria. DRC (formerly Zaire) has seen seven outbreaks including the first one on record in 1976.

Continue Reading »

RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori announced plans to restructure the institute at the center of a stem cell controversy.

Dennis Normile/Science

RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori announced plans to restructure the institute at the center of a stem cell controversy.

TOKYO—A team of researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, reported today that they have been unable to reproduce a simple method of creating stem cells that was reported in two Nature papers by CDB scientists earlier this year. "But these are just interim results, not a final conclusion,” said Shinichi Aizawa, a RIKEN developmental biologist, at a press conference.

RIKEN, which operates a network of nationally funded research institutes, also announced today that CDB will be downsized, renamed, and relaunched in November under new management. 

In two papers, published online in Nature on 29 January, CDB's Haruko Obokata and others reported that simply subjecting mature mouse cells to a mild acid bath could produce stem cells, which are capable of developing into all the cell types in a body. Stem cells are likely to be at the heart of a wide range of future medical treatments. The stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) method, as the researchers named it, was far simpler than all other known methods of creating stem cells. Co-authors of the paper include researchers at CDB, at other institutions in Japan, and at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

Continue Reading »

Nicarnica Aviation successfully tested its airborne ash detection system (inset), mounted on an Airbus A340 airplane, last October. The sensor identified silicate particles in volcanic ash released over France’s Bay of Biscay from 60 kilometers away, enou

Nicarnica Aviation/P. Masclet

Nicarnica Aviation successfully tested its airborne ash detection system (inset), mounted on an Airbus A340 airplane, last October. The sensor identified silicate particles in volcanic ash released over France’s Bay of Biscay from 60 kilometers away, enough to give pilots 7 to 10 minutes of warning.

Iceland's Bárðarbunga volcano, buried under the giant Vatnajökull glacier, has been holding scientists in suspense over the last 2 weeks, producing frequent seismic rumbles but no signs yet of an actual eruption. But scientists at the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) in Reykjavík are now seasoned by back-to-back eruptions at Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Grímsvötn in 2011 that produced large ash clouds and caused costly air traffic snarls. IMO is leading a European Union–funded effort called FUTUREVOLC to build a comprehensive database of local volcanic data and develop new tools—including new seismic stations, water chemistry samplers, and ground- and airplane-based ash detectors. Meanwhile, Bárðarbunga continues to rumble, and scientists are standing by.

For more, see the full story in this week's issue of Science.Continue Reading »

Existing energy infrastructure, such as this coal-fired power plant in Texas, will be emitting greenhouse gases for decades to come.

Wikimedia

Existing energy infrastructure, such as this coal-fired power plant in Texas, will be emitting greenhouse gases for decades to come.

When it comes to thinking about greenhouse gases, scientists and policymakers often focus on annual carbon emissions. They are missing a more important fundamental measure, however, a new study argues. Tracking how much energy infrastructure we’ve already built and tallying the emissions it is likely to produce—so-called committed emissions—is a better way to illuminate the global climate challenge, a research team writes today in Environmental Research Letters.

By their tally, committed emissions—the carbon emissions expected if existing energy infrastructure, such as coal-fired power plants, runs for its forecasted lifetime—have nearly tripled since 1980. In that year, the study says, carbon emissions from new and existing power infrastructure were 107 billion tons. In 2012, the total rose to 307 billion tons, assuming existing plants keep running for a 40-year lifetime. China has played a dominant role in the growth: That nation’s infrastructure accounted for a whopping 42% of global committed emissions as of 2012.

The paper's first author, energy scientist Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine, co-authored an earlier paper in 2010 that quantified the committed emissions from infrastructure that existed in a single previous year, 2009. The new analysis, built off data from existing commercial and government databases, shows how committed emissions have shifted as nations have added new infrastructure and retired old facilities.

Continue Reading »

The world is complicated: Diagram illustrating ecological linkages in a coral reef ecosystem.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The world is complicated: Diagram illustrating ecological linkages in a coral reef ecosystem.

Ecologists are testing more and more hypotheses, but their studies are explaining less of the world. That’s the striking conclusion of a new study that analyzes 8 decades of research papers. What exactly is driving these trends isn’t clear, but researchers fear it could undermine confidence in ecological research.

Since it gained momentum as a formal field of study in the 1800s, ecology has focused on understanding interactions among organisms and their environments. Ecologists have made major contributions to shaping modern views of how the natural world works, from documenting competition and cooperation in nature to clarifying the valuable services that ecosystems can provide to humans, such as purifying water or buffering storms and floods. As in many sciences, however, the field has become less descriptive and more quantitative as it matured.

The idea for the new study came during a lab retreat by graduate students at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Many felt frustrated. When students submitted research papers to journals, they were always asked by reviewers to provide more P values, a measure of statistical confidence that a result is not due to chance.  “Our supervisors said, ‘It wasn’t always like this,’ ” recalls ecologist Etienne Low-Décarie, who is now at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. 

Continue Reading »

Earthquakes near the volcano since 16 August (more recent in red).

Icelandic Meteorological Organization

Earthquakes near the volcano since 16 August (more recent in red).

After a week of rumbling, Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano began erupting yesterday, say scientists at the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) in Reykjavik—although the eruption remained entirely under the thick ice covering the volcano. Bárðarbunga is located beneath the giant Vatnajökull glacier in the center of the island; this particular eruption is occurring under a northern offshoot, the Dyngjujökull glacier. Although no magma or ash reached the surface, IMO raised the country’s aviation code from orange to red, indicating that an eruption is imminent or in progress.

Continue Reading »

Science group asks U.S. energy secretary to intervene in case of fired Los Alamos researcher

A science advocacy group is calling on Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to get involved in the case of political scientist James Doyle, who was fired by the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) after publishing a scholarly article questioning the value of nuclear weapons.

LANL officials have said that Doyle’s departure had nothing to do with the article and a subsequent procedural dispute that resulted in the lab retroactively classifying the paper, but was the result of budget reductions. But in a letter sent to Moniz yesterday, Charles Ferguson, the president of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, D.C., expresses skepticism. “Although the Lab may deny it, it is hard to see this turn of events as anything but tacit retaliation against Doyle for his outspokenness and his embrace of what may be a dissenting view on national nuclear policy,” Ferguson writes.

Continue Reading »