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5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
Vol. 342 ,
An animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in three New York courts this week in an...
Researchers have been hot on the trail of the elusive Denisovans, a type of ancient human known only by their DNA and...
Thousands of scientists in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) are about to lose their jobs as a result of the...
Dyslexia, a learning disability that hinders reading, hasn't been associated with deficits in vision, hearing, or...
Exotic, elusive, and dangerous, snakes have fascinated humankind for millennia. They can be hard to find, yet their...
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the first two snake genomes, which represent two evolutionary extremes. The...
Snake venoms are remarkably complex mixtures that can stun or kill prey within minutes. But more and more researchers...
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
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- Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 5:30pm
The selection last week of Subra Suresh to be the next president of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) offers a glimpse into the process of recruiting a senior federal science official to a top academic position.
For starters, Subra Suresh becomes the latest National Science Foundation (NSF) director in the prime of his career to return to academia after serving less than half of his 6-year term (see our story this week in Science, and yes, they are all men). The $7 billion NSF is often used as a barometer of the country's commitment to basic research, and its funding of so many academic disciplines gives it arguably the broadest ties to the university community of any federal agency. So although Suresh's move is not surprising, the timing and his age (he took the NSF job in October 2010 at the age of 54) raise some intriguing questions:Do university trustees see running NSF as an important steppingstone to the top job at their institutions? Is it unseemly for universities to lure away federal officials after only a few years in the public posts? Does choosing a midcareer scientist to lead NSF foreshadow a short tenure as director?
The answer to the first question is a clear no, according to the two men who played a major role in bringing Suresh to CMU—Ray Lane, chair of CMU's board of trustees, and James Rohr, who led the board's search committee. Both say that Suresh's current job was not a major factor in his selection as the university's ninth president.
Suresh would have been eminently qualified to lead CMU had he remained as dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead of coming to NSF in October 2010, saysContinue Reading
- Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 2:10pm
Watching grass grow may be more exciting. But this month, U.S. university administrators are poring over hundreds of pages of proposed changes to the rules governing how the federal government manages the money it spends on academic research.
The exercise is worth their time because billions of government dollars are at stake. And although the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has embraced very few of the community's suggested changes, academic financial managers say they are pleased that the Obama administration is at least listening to their concerns and is open to further discussion.
On paper, the federal government is committed to reimbursing organizations for what they spend to support federal grant recipients. In 2010, for example, it was roughly $9 billion of the $37.5 billion that flowed from the government to some 700 universities.
This category, once called indirect costs and now labeled "facilities and administration," includes everything from the bureaucracy needed to submit a grant proposal to maintaining animal care facilities to operating giant telescopes. Each institution negotiates its own indirect cost recovery rate, following rules laid down by OMB. The rules have been around for decades but are tweaked periodically, sometimes in reaction to scandals involving the misuse of government funds and other times in the hope of simply saving money.
Campus officials have long complained that some of the rules, such as logging the time a scientist spends on a research project, are unnecessary or interfere with research. They say others, such as allowing an agency to set its own reimbursement rate for a particular program, force institutions to bear too much of the cost. And then there are "unfunded mandates"—administrative requirements that cost time and money for which universities are not reimbursed atContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 11:55am
The new executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has never taught science at the precollege level. Nor has David Evans carried out research on how to improve science teaching and learning.
But the 66-year-old physical oceanographer believes that a lifetime spent first doing, and then managing, science is valuable training for running an organization dedicated to helping its 60,000 members keep up with a rapidly changing field. For example, Evans notes that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) coming out this spring will require massive professional development for teachers in states that choose to adopt the voluntary national standards. At the same time, the proliferation of free online courses in all areas means that "people can get information in a variety of new ways."
Evans, who took the helm at NSTA last week, acknowledges that he's on a steep learning curve. But he already has a lot of experience coping with the shifting winds that can blow through science-savvy organizations.
He was undersecretary of science at the Smithsonian Institution during the tumultuous tenure of Lawrence Small, but resigned when Small was removed in 2007 after deciding that "I couldn't see a future for myself" at the venerable organization. He then became director of the Center for Sustainability at the consulting firm Noblis Inc. But last fall the company decided the center wasn't commercially viable, he says, and its decision to "break up the pieces" led him out to bow out.
As he pondered his next move, Evans heard from the interim NSTA executive director, Gerald Wheeler. Last spring, NSTA's leadership decided to part ways with Francis Eberle, who had headed the organization since 2008. They had coaxed Wheeler out of retirement, temporarily, by promising to find hisContinue Reading
- Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 11:45am
A group of international leaders and scientists has set up an independent Global Ocean Commission aimed at influencing U.N. efforts to preserve the high seas.
High seas are waters outside national jurisdictions, and are in part governed by the United Nation's 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has been approved by 165 nations and the European Union (but not the United States). The founders of the new commission, however, say the convention—which entered into force in 1994—is outdated when it comes to facing growing threats such as overfishing, climate change, and deep sea mining. "The high seas are owned by everyone but their governance and management are inadequate," José María Figueres, a former president of Costa Rica and a founding member of the new commission, told reporters in a teleconference.
The commission says it aims to provide advice to the United Nations on how to make improvements leading up to global talks on high seas biodiversity scheduled for early next year. The panel will look at an array of issues, including overfishing, biodiversity and habitat loss, compliance, and monitoring, as well as governance gaps.
The group will "sound a warning" that business as usual will lead to ecological degradation and economic loss, said David Miliband, one of the group's co-chairs and former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. It aims to come up with "practical solutions" by updating economic knowledge relevant to environmental issues, Miliband added. One model will be a 2006 report prepared by economist Nicholas Stern for the government of the United Kingdom on the economics of climate change.
Organizers say the commission will be based at Somerville College at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and will work with scientists fromContinue Reading
- Monday, February 11, 2013 - 8:18am
The news from last week's E.U. budget summit is decidedly mixed for scientists. On Friday, leaders of the European Union's 27 member states agreed for the first time to make cuts to the union's overall long-term budget. Leaders agreed to spend €960 billion for the 7 years from 2014 through 2020, a cut of 3.4% from the current spending period. In that light, the fact that the section of the budget called "competitiveness," which includes research spending, got a boost of roughly 37% doesn't look so bad.
But it's less than science lobbyists had been hoping—and arguing—for. The main science funding program, called Horizon 2020, would get €70.96 billion, according to calculations made over the weekend, says Michael Jennings, spokesperson for Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, commissioner for research, innovation, and science. The European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, had proposed €80 billion, which would be a 60% increase over the current funding program, called Framework 7.
Research leaders have been saying for months that €80 billion is the minimum needed to make Horizon 2020 work the way it is designed. Because Framework 7 budgets increased from year to year during the funding period, 2013 funding is roughly €11 billion. That means that €70 billion over 7 years would be a decrease from current spending. In addition, the plans for Horizon 2020 include a number of new programs and initiatives that Framework 7 doesn't fund, notes Paul Boyle, chief executive of the United Kingdom's Economic and Social Research Council and president of Science Europe, an organization of national science funding organizations. "Our feeling is that €80 billion is required to deliver on the ambitious and exciting proposal that the commission presented," he says. "Anything other than that is disappointing news from Science Europe's perspective."
- Saturday, February 9, 2013 - 11:45am
Four days after the University of Düsseldorf revoked her doctorate degree, Germany's minister of education and research Annette Schavan has resigned. At a press conference today with Schavan, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she had accepted Schavan's resignation "with a very heavy heart." Schavan said that although she will challenge the university's decision in court, "the office must not be dishonored." Merkel announced that she had appointed Johanna Wanka, minister for education and research in the state of Lower Saxony, to replace Schavan.
Schavan has faced allegations of plagiarism in her 1980 dissertation, first raised in May 2012 by an anonymous accuser who posted a series of questionable passages from the dissertation online. Schavan asked the University of Düsseldorf to investigate and in October a report from the professor tasked with the investigation was leaked to the press. It found roughly 60 passages in the 351-page dissertation that were paraphrased from sources without adequate citation. In January, a university committee decided to start the official process to revoke Schavan's degree. On 5 February the committee voted to do so. At the time Schavan was on an official visit in South Africa. She returned yesterday and offered Merkel her resignation last night.
Schavan has received high marks as research minister. In a statement this afternoon, the president of Germany's Helmholtz Society, Jurgen Mlynek, called her "an outstanding science politician" and said her resignation is "a great loss for education and research in Germany."
Peter Gruss, president of the Max Planck Society, in a statement to ScienceInsider, said he understood Schavan's decision to step down. "The circumstances that led to her resignation, however, leave many questions open—especially with regard to how we deal with people who received particular public attention based onContinue Reading
- Friday, February 8, 2013 - 1:45pm
A gunman or gunmen shot and killed as many as 11 people this morning at two health clinics in Kano state in northern Nigeria. The shootings follow close on the heels of the targeted assassination of nine polio workers and other aid workers in Pakistan in December and January. Several media outlets are reporting that the victims in Kano were polio vaccinators as well and have speculated that the terrorist group Boko Haram is involved.
Details are murky, and it is unclear who and how many people were killed, says Oliver Rosenbauer, spokesperson for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, at the World Health Organization (WHO), which is following the events closely.
The picture that has emerged so far is that at 9:30 this morning local time, one or several gunmen attacked two health clinics in rapid succession. No one has claimed responsibility.
The government of Kano is investigating and, as a precaution, it has halted any polio vaccination activities that might be under way. WHO has also pulled its polio staff members from the field and asked them to work from home.
Nigeria is one of three remaining countries, along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, where polio remains endemic. The government and the international agencies in the eradication initiative have intensified campaigns there in recent months to wipe out the virus. As part of those efforts, vaccinators go door to door delivering drops of oral polio vaccine to children. The most recent campaign in Kano ended on 5 February, but sometimes the polio workers continue "mop up" activities for several days.
"Our sympathy goes out to the victims and the families," says Rosenbauer, who calls the events "tragic" and "outrageous."Continue Reading
- Friday, February 8, 2013 - 12:40pm
Fittingly, perhaps, a former researcher with expertise in snowstorms is taking the reins of the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) just as a major blizzard bears down on New England. Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 24-year NWS veteran Louis W. Uccellini will replace former director John "Jack" Hayes, who retired in May 2012 amid a controversy over spending practices at the agency. Uccellini has led NWS's National Centers for Environmental Prediction since 1999, and "is known for coauthoring the widely acclaimed two-volume book, Northeast Snowstorms," a NOAA press release notes. Yesterday, Uccellini spoke to ScienceInsider about upcoming forecasting challenges and his hopes for the research community. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: What one bit of science would you like to see happen that could help improve weather forecasting?
L.U.: Just one? I'm only half-joking! I think in terms of numerical modeling, as an example, we're entering an era of interdisciplinary research and modeling. So it's not just the atmosphere anymore; we have to couple the atmosphere with an ocean prediction system, hydrology, with land models and with the cryosphere [ice surfaces]. So this interdisciplinary approach is broadening our associations and interactions with the science community in a very important way. And we have to depend on that increasing interaction to move our prediction capabilities forward.
Q: Is there any development in computer forecasting that would be particularly helpful to NWS?
L.U.: I think it's known that the European center has the best scores in their model forecasts beyond week one. We know that we need to run our models and our data assimilation systems at a higher resolution. We're in a process of transitioning our computing code to theContinue Reading
- Thursday, February 7, 2013 - 1:55pm
The European Union is inching closer to a radical overhaul of its fisheries policy, aiming to curb overfishing. In Strasbourg, France, yesterday, the European Parliament approved a plan to reform the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) by a 502-to-137 vote.
The plan aims to improve the much-criticized CFP, last reviewed in 2002, by capping catches at sustainable levels, banning discards of unwanted species, and making better use of scientific data for long-term planning. According to the European Commission, 68% of the European Union's stocks are overfished.
The vote—which is still just a step toward final adoption of the new policies—represents a "momentous shift" away from overfishing, the environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement. The World Wide Fund for Nature (called the World Wildlife Fund in the United States) praised the vote as a "truly exceptional" event. If fully adopted, the rules will allow fish stocks to "recover by 2020, enabling us to take 15 million tons more fish and create 37,000 new jobs," predicted Ulrike Rodust, a German member of the Parliament who was responsible for revising and offering a legislative proposal originally developed by the European Commission in July 2011.
Under the revamped rules, starting in 2015 regulators would set catch limits using a data-driven standard known as maximum sustainable yield (MSY). This means that fishermen would not be able to catch more than a fish stock can reproduce in a given year. Although MSY is commonly used in fisheries regulation in the United States, Europe has been slower to adopt it.
Europêche, a lobby group for European fishing companies, says that the 2015 target is too rigid, and it should be postponed to 2020.
But Michel Kaiser, a marine conservation ecologist at BangorContinue Reading
- Thursday, February 7, 2013 - 12:15pm
A review of the 200 or so human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines approved by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for federal funding has found a possible ethical problem: Some of the cell lines may have involved sperm or egg donors who didn't consent to having their material used in research. University oversight committees should be aware that these cell lines may not meet widely accepted standards, the authors say.
In July 2009, following an order from President Barack Obama, NIH issued guidelines laying out ethical standards that all hESC lines studied with NIH funding must meet. The cell lines must have been derived from surplus embryos donated by couples receiving fertility treatments, for example. But the guidelines don't discuss the possibility that some embryos made have been created using donor eggs or sperm, even though 2005 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) guidelines call for consent from gamete donors. Research administrators at the Rockefeller University in New York City became concerned about this gap last year after a survey suggested that U.S. in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics usually don't tell egg donors that their eggs could be used in research.
So Rockefeller's Amy Wilkerson and Kathaliya Wongsatittham and bioethicist Josephine Johnston of The Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, looked into the origins of the approved NIH hESC lines. They tracked down (from Web sites or direct requests) information on the sources of the gametes. For about half the lines (104 of 198), the embryo donors provided the egg and sperm, so there was no problem. In a few cases, gamete donors gave consent for research. For many other lines, the provider said that if donor gametes were involved, the donors would have consented to hESC studies or research in general.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 12:10pm
TOKYO—Japan's scientific whaling effort has cost taxpayers $378 million since 1987, even as demand for whale meat has shrunk and the research has proven of little value, according to a report released here on 5 February by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
A moratorium has suspended commercial whaling since 1986, but a clause in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) convention allows countries to hunt whales for research purposes. The meat can be sold to cover the cost of research, which in Japan is overseen by the Institute of Cetacean Research located here. Critics contend that scientific whale hunts by Japan and a few other countries are thinly disguised commercial whaling.
A quarter century of scientific whaling has shed little light on the creatures, said IFAW Japan Representative Naoko Funahashi at a press conference here to unveil the report. "There are very, very few findings which meet [scientific] aims," said Funahashi, a member of IWC's Scientific Committee. "Results from 'scientific whaling' are scant," agrees Leah Gerber, a marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, Tempe. She says she doesn't know of any marine researchers—apart from those involved with the research whaling programs of Japan, Norway, and Iceland -- who believe that scientific whaling produces valuable results.
A telephone receptionist at the Institute of Cetacean Research said the institute will not comment on the report and declined to pass the call to public relations or other officials. But other backers of the scientific whaling program insist it has value. Masayuki Komatsu, a former Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official who is now at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies here, says that if the research results are weak, it is because the number of whales takenContinue Reading
- Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 11:35am
ROME— Italian scientists are protesting health minister Renato Balduzzi's choice to lead the country's top biomedical research agency. Last month, Balduzzi nominated physician Fabrizio Oleari, director of the ministry's prevention department, as the next president of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) here. Some prominent researchers and legislators, however, contend that Oleari lacks the research pedigree traditionally required to guide ISS; they are campaigning vigorously against his elevation to the post. The final word now rests with Prime Minister Mario Monti, who must sign off on the appointment.
A research powerhouse specializing in cancer, vaccines, infectious and rare diseases, and environmental and public health, ISS employs 1500 scientists and operates on an annual budget of $240 million. The institute is no stranger to controversy. Outgoing president Enrico Garaci, who has served since 2001, has been attacked over his aversion to embryonic stem cell research and reluctance to fully embracing open, peer-reviewed research funding.
Oleari's selection follows a 6-month review during which an international committee shortlisted five candidates. The other four were:Paolo Vineis, an environmental epidemiologist at Imperial College London Giuseppe Ippolito, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Infectious Disease Lazzaro Spallanzani in Rome Ruggero De Maria, an oncologist at the Regina Elena National Cancer Institute in Rome Stefano Vella, a clinical pharmacologist at ISS
The inclusion of Oleari, a respected bureaucrat with limited research experience, left some observers bewildered. "I have no idea how Dr. Oleari was placed in the shortlist over candidates with a much stronger scientific background," says former ISS head Giuseppe Benagiano, a reproductive endocrinologist. A law approved last June by Italy's parliament spelled out that ISS presidents must be "equipped with high and recognized professionalism documented through the presentation of curriculaContinue Reading
- Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 5:40pm
How would sequestration affect U.S. science? If you're confused—and who isn't?—by the seemingly endless debate between Congress and the White House over how to reduce the federal deficit, here are a few points to keep in mind.
On 1 March, an $85-billion across-the-board cut in federal spending—the first step in a mandatory $1.2 trillion reduction over 10 years—will go into effect unless all sides agree to delay it or substitute something else. Indeed, when the Budget Control Act that created sequestration was enacted in August 2011, both sides expected to have an alternative in place by now.
That didn't happen. But after more than a year of shrill rhetoric, the first serious alternatives are beginning to emerge. (The cuts were actually supposed to kick in on 2 January, but on New Year's Day Congress gave itself a 2-month reprieve.)
Senate Democrats, who control that body, are busy working on a package that would lower spending and increase revenues. Their goal is to shrink the deficit without decimating domestic programs. President Barack Obama chimed in today with a similar prescription, urging Congress to adopt it as a temporary fix for the next few months.
In contrast, leaders of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives have little appetite for increasing government revenue. Instead, they are hoping to convert sequestration into a new, lower ceiling on overall discretionary spending for the remaining 7 months of the current fiscal year. If they succeed, the spending cap of $1.043 trillion for 2013 could drop by nearly $70 billion, to $974 billion.
In the meantime, what was once considered too onerous to be implemented now seems unavoidable. So what would sequestration mean to scientists who rely on federal research dollars?
- Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 4:50pm
The German minister for education and research finds herself this evening with no university degree. After a long-running investigation into accusations of plagiarism in Annette Schavan's 1980 Ph.D. dissertation, the University of Duesseldorf today revoked the German minister's doctoral degree (link in German). Because Schavan completed her Ph.D. on an accelerated program, she did not earn any other university degree.
Schavan will challenge the university's decision in court, according to her lawyer. She is on an official visit in South Africa and has not yet commented publicly on the decision. She has previously denied any deliberate wrongdoing, but has said the dissertation contains possible mistakes and oversights.
An anonymous blogger first posted accusations of plagiarism in Schavan's dissertation in May 2012. Schavan then asked the university to investigate. In October, a report by a professor who was asked to evaluate the case was leaked to the press. That report found roughly 60 pages in the 351-page dissertation that contained passages that were slightly reworded from sources without any citation indicating their source. Schavan's degree is in education studies. Her dissertation is titled, "Person and conscience-Studies on conditions, need and requirements of today's consciences." Last month, the university'd Council of the Faculty of Philosophy decided to launch the formal process of revoking the doctorate. After a 6-hour meeting today, the 15-member council voted 12 to 2 to invalidate her degree. One member abstained.
Schavan is a close confidant of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has offered Schavan support during the ongoing investigation. Schavan's lawyer released a statement saying "the decision was reached through a flawed process" and is on shaky legal ground. If Schavan loses the court case, however, she is expected to resign.Continue Reading
- Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 3:00pm
Subra Suresh, an engineer and materials scientist, told NSF staff members that he would be departing at the end of March and taking up his post at the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, institution on 1 July. He will have served less than half of a 6-year term that began in October 2010.
As has become standard practice for Obama appointees, Suresh announced his departure in a lengthy letter that lists his many accomplishments. He has paid particular attention to expanding NSF's international footprint, integrating research and education across the foundation, and encouraging NSF-funded scientists to think harder about the commercial potential of their discoveries. He also promoted an approach, dubbed One NSF, that has tried to prod NSF's seven directorates and various program offices to cooperate in jointly funding proposals that span disciplines and tackle important societal problems.
NSF has traditionally received bipartisan support from Congress, which has translated into growing budgets despite the overall pressure to trim federal spending. It's also been one of three agencies targeted for major increases as part of a proposed 10-year doubling of federal support for the physical sciences, although Congress has whittled down the generous requests from the White House.
The 13th NSF director, Suresh's tenure is the shortest since Walter Massey's 2-year stint in the early 1990s. Cora Marrett, deputy NSF director and acting director for 6 months before Suresh arrived, is expected to be named acting director once again while the president seeks a replacement. His successor will need to be confirmed by the Senate, a process that is often lengthy but seldom contentious.Continue Reading
- Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 1:50pm
BARCELONA, SPAIN—The Spanish government has issued a new road map for science that sets high goals for the national research system, but researchers are disappointed that it has little new money to offer. Instead, the government hopes corporate funding will increase dramatically—which the scientific community says is not likely to happen.
The new Spanish Strategy of Science, Technology, and Innovation, which was approved by the Council of Ministers on Friday, is ambitious. Taking 2010 as the starting point, the government pledges to almost double the representation of Ph.D.-holders among the population age 25 to 34 by 2020 and increase research employment from 11.8% to 16%; raise to 10% the share of publicly-funded Spanish papers ranked among the top 5% of the most cited publications globally; increase Spain's share of European Union research funds, including a 90% increase in the number of so-called Starting Grants from the European Research Council; boost the number of patent applications by 50%; and raise the national percentage of innovative companies from 18.6% to 25%.
To achieve these goals, the government also approved a battery of new measures on Friday. They include supporting scientific talent, in particular making it easier to find jobs in both the academic and private research system, promoting interdisciplinary and collaborative research, giving elite groups and institutions dedicated funding, and improving the governance of universities and national research centers. The government also aligned its research priorities with the seven focus areas identified in Horizon 2020, the European Commission's research funding plan for 2014-2020.
The road map, which is part of a government package aiming to boost Spain's economy and competitiveness, also seeks to remedy one of the greatest ills of Spanish science: its lack of innovation.
But researchers are disappointed byContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 1:40pm
In January, Australia had it all: drought, fires, tropical cyclones, tornadoes, floods, and record-breaking heat. "It's been the most challenging month in the 27 years I've been a climatologist," says Neil Plummer, assistant director of the Climate Information Service at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne.
Now, politicians will see how the astounding weather is affecting the political climate. Science, business, and other groups are weighing in on an Australian Senate effort to assess the country's readiness for extreme weather. "We want to see a more structured and strategic response to national disasters," says a spokesperson for Senator Christine Milne, the Australian Greens Party leader who pushed for the study, known as an inquiry.
There's little question the inquiry is getting more attention after last month's disasters. Several cities reached historic highs for heat, and January's average mean temperature (29.68°C) surpassed records set more than 80 years ago, in January 1932. Meanwhile, Queensland farmers estimate they've lost crops and livestock worth AUS$100 million to floods. And Queensland Premier Campbell Newman estimates economic losses from cyclone Oswald and associated tornadoes at AUS$2.4 billion. "Sadly, I think that figure will rise," he told reporters last week.
Extreme weather is nothing new in Australia, Plummer says, but the severity and spatial extent of the January heat wave were unprecedented. And "projections suggest these trends will continue," he adds.
That is why in November 2012, Milne pushed for the inquiry by the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, which has received 125 submissions to date.
Scientific groups are well represented. Among those making comments are Australia's Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic SocietyContinue Reading
- Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 11:45am
A new experimental facility to detect a hypothetical particle that many physicists think probably doesn't exist could be up and running at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, within 3 years, assuming that the lab's member states approve spending roughly $110 million to build it.
The sterile neutrino, if it exists, would be an obscure variety of an already otherworldly subatomic particle. Ordinary neutrinos, which have no charge and almost no mass, come in three varieties: electron, muon, and tau. They are very hard to detect because their interaction with ordinary matter is extremely feeble, but over the years physicists have detected enough of them to observe that as they travel through space they can "oscillate" from one flavour to another.
This oscillation phenomenon, which means that neutrinos cannot be entirely massless, has been confirmed by many different experiments. But one such experiment produced results at odds with the rest. That was the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector (LSND) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which in data acquired between 1993 and 1998 showed muon antineutrinos to be oscillating into electron antineutrinos far more readily than expected.
The Los Alamos researchers suggested that sterile neutrinos might explain the anomaly by providing an invisible missing link. The idea is that the muon antineutrinos oscillate into sterile antineutrinos—which cannot be detected directly—and that these in turn oscillate into electron antineutrinos. Because the ease with which one neutrino oscillates into another is related to the difference in those particles' masses, a suitably heavy sterile neutrino could explain the greater than expected number of electron antineutrinos. Plus, if they were discovered, sterile neutrinos might account for a significant fraction of dark matter in the universe.
The idea has proved controversial, however, becauseContinue Reading
- Monday, February 4, 2013 - 2:05pm
Scientists have resolved a technical problem with the giant superconducting magnets of the ITER fusion reactor that threatened the project's scheduled completion in 2020.
After tests showed that the approved design for superconducting cables was showing signs of degradation too soon, samples from a U.S. manufacturer with a different design fared better. But Japan, the ITER partner responsible for manufacturing the cable, went its own way and has developed a cheaper alternative that seems to tick all the boxes. "It's totally stable. I'm convinced the problem is fully solved," says ITER technical director Rem Haange.
ITER, an international project under construction in France, aims to show it is possible to generate power by fusing hydrogen isotopes together, as happens in the sun and stars. The hydrogen fuel, in the form of a plasma, must be heated to about 150 million°C. Controlling it in that state requires huge and powerful superconducting electromagnets.
The conductor that has been causing problems is for the central solenoid, a 13.5-meter-high stack of six coils in the center of the reactor. The central solenoid acts like the primary of a giant transformer, creating a magnetic field of 13 tesla which induces a 15-million-amp current of plasma around the doughnut-shaped reactor, known as a tokamak. To produce such a field, the solenoid needs 43 kilometers of superconducting cable, made of a compound of niobium and tin (Nb3Sn).
Manufacturing the brittle compound is complex. The niobium and tin must be wound together in separate filaments, and once the coil is wound into its final shape it is heated to get the niobium and tin to react into the superconducting compound. Copper is also included as a safety measure in case the Nb3Sn suddenly loses its superconducting properties and theContinue Reading
- Monday, February 4, 2013 - 1:05pm
The president of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Stefan Vodenicharov, has been nominated as the country's new minister of education and research. Former minister Sergei Ignatov was ousted last week after a government investigation found irregularities in how research funds were distributed. Bulgarian scientists had been protesting for months against what they said was widespread corruption at the ministry, especially regarding grantmaking at the Bulgarian National Science Fund (BNSF).
Vodenicharov, a metallurgical engineer, was elected as the academy's president in December. Before that, he was director of the academy's Institute of Metal Science, Equipment and Technologies in Sofia.
Nikolai Denkov, a chemical engineer at Sofia University who participated in the protests, says he is cautiously optimistic about the nomination. Vodenicharov has experience as an administrator in the academy, Denkov says. However, whoever takes over the ministry will have a difficult job and not much time. Elections are expected this summer, and it is unclear whether the minority government led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov will remain in power.
More important, Denkov says, is that the parliament passes proposed revisions to the laws governing research funding. Good practices are not written into the current legislation, and they are also lacking "in the mentality of the people" at the ministry, he says.
The first task of the minister will be to try to repair the damage at BNSF. "Its credibility and capacity have been totally destroyed," Denkov says. "I hope the new minister uses the time to get work there going again."
The Bulgarian parliament is expected to vote on Vodenicharov's nomination on 6 February.Continue Reading
- Friday, February 1, 2013 - 6:10pm
As many as three new coastal research vessels are slated to join the United States' oceanographic research fleet—and Oregon State University will take the lead in designing and building them, OSU President Edward Ray announced yesterday. The National Science Foundation (NSF) will give OSU an initial $3 million to coordinate the concept design; the total expected cost will be $290 million, assuming the U.S. Congress comes up with the money for the new ships.
The vessels are part of a long-term plan to replace some of the vessels in the rapidly aging U.S. scientific fleet. Now, that fleet consists of 20 ships, down from 28 in 2004, and one-half of the remaining vessels are more than 30 years old. In 2002, the consortium of academic institutions and national laboratories that coordinates the ships' schedules, known as the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), drafted a plan to renew the fleet. It called for building10 new ships by 2020—but plans for many of those have yet to materialize.
So yesterday's announcement is good news, not just for OSU but also for the fleet in general, says Clare Reimers, an oceanographer at OSU who helped draft the university's successful proposal. Reimers is also the current chair of the UNOLS Fleet Improvement Committee. The last time that NSF funded a three-ship build was in the 1970s. OSU's proposal calls for building the new vessels over 10 years. Each will be about 53 meters long and fall into UNOLS' "Regional Class," meaning they are some of the smaller ships in the fleet and will be used for scientific missions near the coasts, exploring such issues as ocean acidification, hypoxia, and harmful algal blooms. Each ship will have a state-of-the-art propulsion system that allows for dynamic positioning—holding the ship inContinue Reading
- Friday, February 1, 2013 - 1:50pm
Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced today he will leave his post once President Barack Obama names a successor. "I would like to return to an academic life of teaching and research," Chu wrote in a lengthy letter to employees at the Department of Energy (DOE), adding that he will stay on the job at least through the end of this month.
One of Obama's first Cabinet appointments, Chu has devoted 4 years to extensive—and at times controversial—efforts to emphasize applied research aimed at developing new energy technologies that could reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels. He faced harsh criticism from Republicans in Congress for approving a government loan-guarantee for Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that later failed, potentially costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
In his letter, Chu ignores such controversies in listing his accomplishments. For example, "[t]he Department has made significant progress in breaking down the walls between our basic science and applied science programs," he writes. One beneficiary of that demolition, he writes, was DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), which Congress created in 2007 "to swing for game-changing home runs that can fundamentally transform energy technologies." Chu became the first energy secretary to secure funding for ARPA-E, which he had championed before coming to Washington. He "never dreamed that I would be asked to take the concept to reality," he writes.
Some of Chu's plans for DOE's basic science programs, however, have run into trouble. Despite a commitment from Obama and a 2010 law that promised to double spending on studies in fundamental physics, Congress failed to appropriate the necessary funds. The field is now facing painful choices about which DOE facilities in can continue to operate.
Chu will enter the recordContinue Reading
- Friday, February 1, 2013 - 12:00pm
Researchers have a new set of allies in the campaign to stave off possible cuts to the European Union's research budget. On 30 January, the European Research Council (ERC), which funds top basic research, issued a joint letter with the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), a group that includes several dozen chief executives of Europe's largest companies. The letter calls for European leaders to approve the proposed €80 billion budget for Horizon 2020, the research funding program slated to run from 2014 through 2020.
"Europe's future can only be built on its brains," says the letter, which was cosigned by ERT chair Leif Johansson, chairman of the board at telecommunications giant Ericsson. "Any reduction in the funding to support excellent research will result in Europe having limited means to attract outstanding talent in a highly competitive global market."
European heads of state will meet in Brussels on 7 and 8 February to attempt, again, to hammer out a budget deal for the European Union's next 7-year budget period. Disagreements over possible cuts to the European Commission's €1 trillion overall spending proposal scuttled several attempts last year to reach a deal. Several countries, most prominently the United Kingdom, have called for cutting as much as €200 billion from the commission's proposals. Other member states are demanding more spending on agriculture subsidies and the cohesion funds that benefit Europe's poorer regions. That combination has squeezed the research budget in some proposed compromises, with Horizon 2020 getting €70 billion or even less.
Tim Hunt, a member of ERC's scientific council and a 2001 Nobel laureate, helped organize an October letter signed by several dozen Nobel laureates supporting full funding of Horizon 2020. He attended the Davos World Economic Forum withContinue Reading
- Friday, February 1, 2013 - 12:01am
A new analysis challenges a troubling 2011 study that suggested that black researchers encounter racial bias when they seek funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The report finds that African Americans do just as well as whites at similar institutions who have an equivalent research record.
In the 2011 study published in Science, economist Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and co-workers probed years of confidential NIH grants data. They found that black scientists' chances of winning a grant for their research idea were a startling 10 percentage points lower than for white scientists even after controlling for their institution, research training, and publication record. NIH Director Francis Collins was shaken by the results; one possible explanation was that peer reviewers might have an unconscious bias against African Americans, he said.
Collins and his advisers came up with an action plan. Last December, NIH announced a $500 million, 10-year program aimed at boosting the number of young minority scientists and improving mentoring for minority researchers. To reduce the potential for racial bias, NIH also plans a pilot project that will test peer review of research proposals that have been made anonymous.
Questions have persisted, however, about the Ginther study (see letters here). Now, another research group has examined the possible role of racial bias at NIH by comparing head-to-head the productivity and funding of black and white medical researchers at the same institutions.
Biomedical engineer Ge Wang of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg and co-authors at several institutes randomly selected 40 black faculty members and 80 white faculty members at the top-ranked 92 U.S. medical schools. They developed an algorithm for assessing a scientist's productivity that tookContinue Reading
- Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 4:00pm
The European Commission has proposed a 2-year ban on certain pesticides in a bid to protect bee health. The move follows reports earlier this month from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that three pesticides routinely used by farmers pose an "acute risk" to essential honey bees.
The commission wants to ban the use of three "neonicotinoid" compounds—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam—for 2 years on four crops that are attractive to bees: maize, cotton, sunflower, and rapeseed. Maize seeds planted in 2013 would be exempted. "We'd be giving member states 2 years to see if [the ban] works, and then we'll see if European legislation needs to be reviewed," a spokesman for health commissioner Tonio Borg told reporters today.
But this period may be "a bit short" to observe a decrease in bee toxicity, says Antonio Gómez Pajuelo, a biologist and owner of beekeeping consulting company Consultores Apícolas in Castellón, Spain. Because neonicotinoids persist in the soil for 2 years, a ban of the same length may appear to have no beneficial effect on bee populations, Gómez says. Toxicity could indeed decrease after 3 or 4 neonicotinoid-free years, he adds.
The ball is now in the court of the European Union's member states. The Dutch government put the topic on the agenda of a meeting of agriculture ministers on 28 January in Brussels, arguing that the European Union should take harmonized action following EFSA's findings, instead of each country acting on their own. France, Germany, and Italy have already restricted certain neonicotinoid uses, whereas Slovenia has banned them completely.
But four governments sounded a note of caution at the Brussels meeting, a source close to the European Union's Council of Ministers says. Spain and Denmark said EFSA's analysis should beContinue Reading