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5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
Vol. 342 ,
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
Since arriving on the island of Guam in the 1940s, the brown tree snake ( Boiga irregularis ) has extirpated native...
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...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
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- 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
- Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 3:15pm
In contrast to horrific reports from Timbuktu earlier this week, an important library of medieval texts is still standing, and many manuscripts are thought to have survived the hasty retreat of Islamic militants, researchers and journalists say.
Recent news from the city had sounded very bad for Africa's cultural heritage: Islamic fundamentalists, who fled as French and Malian troops retook this city in northern Mali after 9 months of occupation, had reportedly burned down the library of Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research—one of the continent's most important archives. The building, opened in 2009, is one of two facilities in Timbuktu run by the institute. Media reports suggested that thousands of medieval manuscripts had been turned into ashes.
Today, the picture looks considerably brighter, even as archaeologists and historians around the world scramble to get a better idea of what really happened. The library building is still standing, according to reports from journalists and researchers within the country, and many manuscripts either weren't burnt in the first place or were hidden away by archivists who had earlier fled to Mali's capital, Bamako.
"The information that the library was burnt is not correct," says Susana Molins-Lliteras, a historian at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and a researcher at the Cape Town-based Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, which helped construct the library building. The project put out a statement to that effect today, citing both journalistic reports and an Ahmed Baba Institute researcher currently in Bamako, who was able to make contact with his colleagues in Timbuktu. Most of the manuscripts were still housed in an older building on the other side of town, built in the 1970s, say Molins-Lliteras and other Western researchers who work inContinue Reading
- Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 1:50pm
TOKYO—Conventional wisdom held that the deep-seafloor was pretty much bereft of life at the time marine biologist J. Frederick Grassle rode the Alvin submersible to examine newly discovered hydrothermal vents near the Galapagos Islands in 1979. But "I was awestruck at the abundance and diversity of small animals of deep sea sediments," Grassle recalled in a greeting he recorded in accepting one of two Japan Prizes announced today.
Grassle, now at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, won for his pioneering studies of deep-sea biodiversity. The second prize goes to chemists Grant Willson, now of the University of Texas, Austin, and Jean Fréchet of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, for their work developing chemically amplified resists, photosensitive materials that have allowed semiconductor makers to shrink integrated circuits.
Grassle's work ultimately revealed that a diverse community of organisms thrives along deep-sea hydrothermal vents, feasting on organic matter produced by sulfur-oxidizing bacteria instead of photosynthesis. These chemosynthetic ecosystems are now recognized to be just as important to marine biodiversity as the organisms relying on photosynthesis. Grassle solidified his contributions to documenting marine biodiversity by helping launch the Census of Marine Life and the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, which is an essential tool in marine conservation efforts. "This data has proved crucial in preserving and utilizing ocean resources," said Hiroshi Komiyama, a chemical engineer and former president of University of Tokyo who chaired the prize selection committee.
Work done by Willson and Fréchet still underpins the processes producing the microprocessors and memory chips at the heart of everything from personal computers to mobile phones. The research is also, Willson says, an "unusually successful" example of university-industry cooperation. The pair did their original work at the IBM Research - AlmadenContinue Reading
- Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 12:35pm
TOKYO—When the Japanese government on 29 January approved a budget for the year beginning in April, at first glance scientists appeared to be the big losers. The Ministry of Education's S&T budget, which covers the lion's share of the nation's research spending, will decline 3.3%, to $13.2 billion.
A closer analysis suggests that scientists shouldn't complain too much. Accounting for roughly two-thirds of the drop at the Education Ministry is the transfer of nuclear safety research to a new regulatory agency. And the year-on-year budget comparison does not include research spending included in a stimulus package adopted earlier this month. Although the stimulus funds must be disbursed by the end of March, they will support research activity well into the next fiscal year. The Education Ministry makes that point in the budget documents now posted on its Web site in Japanese by noting amounts appropriated in the stimulus alongside relevant budget items. For example, funding for the use of large research facilities (whether the funding goes to users or the facilities is not clear)—including the SPring-8 synchrotron, the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex, and the K supercomputer—will drop by $42 million to $541 million year-on-year; but that drop is more than covered by $299 million in stimulus spending to support the use of those big machines.
The new budget showers money on a few fields. Support for a program aiming to speed the commercialization of regenerative medicine, including the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, will double to $99 million, after getting $141 million in the stimulus. A program to support drug discovery will see a nearly ninefold increase in support, to $47 million, even after getting $15 million in the stimulus. Other winners include:Next generation energy technologies, nearly triplingContinue Reading
- Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 5:15pm
Xu Liangying, Chinese historian of science, dissident, and translator of Albert Einstein's collected works, died of apparent organ failure on 28 January in Beijing. He was 92.
Xu's improbable journey from diehard Communist to rebel scientist began in 1942, after he earned a B.S. in physics from Zhejiang University. That year, the young idealist declined an assistant lectureship at Zhejiang University to pursue a passion for civic activism: He led student movements in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, and joined the Chinese Communist Party's underground movement in 1946. After the Communists came to power in 1949, the newly founded Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) recruited Xu to work as a censor for its publication at its Beijing headquarters.
Even though Xu wholeheartedly supported Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, Xu told an interviewer in 1999 that he couldn't understand why the party turned on its critics after inviting them to speak up during the so-called anti-rightist movement of 1957 to 58. Answering Mao's call of "letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend," Chinese intellectuals criticized and made suggestions to improve the party bureaucracy, only to have their "snake heads" cut off when Mao retaliated. Xu told the party that such action broke the faith of the people; he was branded a rightist, dismissed from his job, and banished to his ancestral village in Zhejiang to be reformed through labor. Xu worked as a peasant for more than 2 decades. In his spare time, he translated the collected works of Einstein into Chinese.
Deng Xiaoping's reforms offered Xu the chance to come in from the cold. In 1979, he joined the CAS Institute for the History of Natural Science in Beijing, where he solidified his reputation as China'sContinue Reading
- Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 11:35am
The Bulgarian science and education minister, Sergei Ignatov, was fired yesterday in response to a government report on corruption in hiring and grant-making procedures. The head of the Bulgarian National Science Fund (BNSF), Hristo Petrov, stepped down as well on Monday in response to the scandal. The departures are "a very good sign," says Emil Horozov, a mathematician at Sofia University and former head of BNSF, who led hundreds of scientists in protests against corruption in December.
Petrov submitted his resignation over the weekend after the government's probe uncovered widespread irregularities, according to Bulgarian media reports, and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov accepted it on Monday. A few hours later, Borissov asked Ignatov to resign, and he complied.
Borissov and his deputy prime minister, Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, met with Horozov and other scientists on Monday to discuss the results of the investigation, which confirmed long-running accusations that the ministry had hired people lacking the required qualifications and that the grant review process was riddled with corruption.
The problem is not only with ministry staff members, Horozov says, but also with the laws governing the ministry. "It would be good to see honest people" in the two positions, he says. "But what we need is a new legal framework. The law is especially designed to enable those in charge to steal money." Horozov says that Djankov agreed in their meeting yesterday that the laws should be revised.
Horozov was appointed head of BNSF in January 2010. Shortly after taking the position, he criticized the fund's policies and established a commission to investigate corrupt funding practices. He submitted his report to Ignatov in November 2010; after no action was taken, he resigned in February 2011 and published a summaryContinue Reading
- Monday, January 28, 2013 - 5:45pm
The biomedical research community will lose one of its longtime champions with the upcoming retirement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). On Saturday, Harkin announced that he would not seek a sixth term in November 2014, ending a 40-year congressional career.
Harkin, 73, is currently chair of the Senate panel that sets funding levels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also chairs the committee that oversees federal policies in health, education, and labor. Harkin teamed up with his then-Republican counterpart, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, to win a doubling of the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003. He and Specter also led an effort to include $10.4 billion for NIH in the 2009 stimulus package.
"Harkin obviously has been a consistent and great champion for the NIH and for medical research. So his decision not to run again is a huge loss," says Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. "For years, he and Specter essentially traded the championship back and forth. They both cared very deeply about NIH and made sure it was a priority regardless of the funding picture," adds Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative analyst for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Together with Specter, Harkin also sponsored legislation in the 2000s that would have expanded federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells. In 1992, he helped create a research program for breast cancer at the Department of Defense, doubling research funding for the disease.
Harkin was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, and won a Senate seat in 1984. Not everything Harkin did pleased scientists, however. In the 1990s, Harkin pushed Congress to create an NIH office for alternative medicine, citing hisContinue Reading
- Monday, January 28, 2013 - 5:35pm
Call it two out of three. A U.S.-based team announced today that it had successfully retrieved its first samples of sediment and water from the Whillans Ice Stream, a water body sealed nearly a kilometer below the Antarctic ice. The team is the second of three research groups this season to achieve its goal of retrieving samples from some of the continent's mysterious buried waters.
It's been a busy research season on the polar continent, with three separate groups attempting to bring back evidence of living organisms from lakes that sit deep beneath the ice. In December, a British Antarctic Survey team seeking to penetrate subglacial Lake Ellsworth was forced to pull the plug on its mission due to technical problems. Earlier this month, a Russian team nabbed its first sample from subglacial Lake Vostok.
Now, the U.S. team is ending the season on a high note. Unlike Lake Vostok and Lake Ellsworth, the Whillans Ice Stream has remained in constant contact with the Southern Ocean, flushing out every few years. The interdisciplinary project is looking for subglacial microbial life, and also studying the continent's climate history and ice sheet dynamics. The samples of sediment and basal ice from beneath the water are expected to help scientists understand whether subglacial lakes act to stabilize or destabilize the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The field team successfully completed an overland traverse of more than 1000 kilometers to the Whillans site on 13 January and began hot-water drilling last week. Today, after drilling through 800 meters of ice, the researchers successfully collected their samples.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Monday, January 28, 2013 - 5:30pm
A federal appeals court on Friday struck down a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate requiring millions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol be blended into gasoline by petroleum refineries. The ruling is seen as a partial victory for the American Petroleum Institute (API), which challenged the mandate arguing that EPA was requiring refiners to use a fuel that was not commercially available or face fines. However, the ruling largely left intact the rest of the renewable fuel standard (RFS), which calls for slowly ratcheting up the volume of ethanol and "advanced biofuels" blended into U.S. transportation fuels.
RFS, originally launched in 2005 and expanded in 2007, has a goal of blending 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels into U.S. transportation fuels by 2022. The rule was seen as a way to reduce U.S. reliance on petroleum imports, as well as to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. On the way toward reaching the RFS goal, EPA has been steadily upping its requirements for different fuels, including cellulosic ethanol, which is made from agricultural waste and other types of woody debris known as "lignocellulosic biomass." But because the cellulosic ethanol remains more expensive than ethanol made from corn or sugar, companies have been slow to build commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants needed to sell the advanced biofuel.
Between 2010 and 2012, EPA projected that cellulosic ethanol producers would generate a total of 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol. So they required refiners to blend those 20 million gallons into gasoline and diesel. But the projections proved inaccurate and ethanol producers made only negligible amounts of the cellulosic fuel. EPA gave refiners a way out, allowing them to buy credits to offset the cellulosic requirements. API cried foul and argued that this amounted to a tax on refiners.Continue Reading
- Monday, January 28, 2013 - 4:30pm
BETHESDA, MARYLAND—A panel of scientists has recommended shutting the last U.S. grand atom smasher, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, to make room in a tight budget for other projects funded by the Department of Energy (DOE).
Closing RHIC would be a disaster for the U.S. nuclear physics community, says Robert Tribble, a nuclear physicist at Texas A&M University, College Station, who chaired the committee that suggested doing exactly that in a report today to DOE's Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC). "I don't think there are winners and losers here," he says. "We're all losers if this comes to pass." NSAC is expected to approve the report tomorrow, and DOE has usually followed such recommendations from its advisory panels.
The report comes in response to a budget crunch within DOE's nuclear physics program. The program runs two major facilities, and physicists hope to build a third. But those projects would require significant growth in the annual budget for nuclear physics, now $547 million. Instead, the DOE science budget is more likely to shrink than to grow, warns its director, William Brinkman.
The Tribble committee weighed the relative importance of three very different facilities. RHIC uses twin accelerators to smash heavy nuclei together to produce fleeting puffs of a weird type of matter called quark gluon plasma that filled the newborn universe. In contrast, DOE's other existing major nuclear physics rig, the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, fires electrons into protons and neutrons to study their inner workings. In addition, physicists plan to build a $615 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University in East Lansing that would generate myriad exoticContinue Reading
- Monday, January 28, 2013 - 3:20pm
Johns Hopkins University intends to hire 50 scientists over the next 5 years to fill endowed chairs funded through a $250 million gift from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The program is the largest component of a $350 million donation announced Saturday, with $100 million earmarked for undergraduate scholarships. The university said Bloomberg, who received an undergraduate engineering degree in 1964 from the Baltimore, Maryland, school before building a media empire that has made him a multibillionaire, has made gifts totaling $1.1 billion.
The Bloomberg Distinguished Professors will tackle such interdisciplinary challenges as clean water, individualized health care, urban revitalization, and the science of learning. "These professors will be the focal points for efforts to tackle complex problems from multiple disciplinary perspectives," said Dennis O'Shea, executive director of media relations. He said Hopkins President Ronald Daniels and interim provost Jonathan Bagger "will be looking for forward thinkers who are comfortable thinking outside out of silos and working across disciplinary lines. Each will have appointments in at least two divisions or departments across the university."
The first professors will be hired this spring, according to O'Shea, and will be chosen at a rate of 10 per year. No more than 20% will be current faculty members, he noted, and all will teach as well as conduct research.Continue Reading
- Monday, January 28, 2013 - 12:20pm
Taiwanese businessman Samuel Yin has endowed a new science prize that not only gives bigger cash awards than the Nobel Prizes, but supports research as well. Individuals or institutions that have demonstrated what judges deem to be the most creative and influential research will receive about $1.36 million in each of four fields; an additional $341,000 will support recipient-proposed plans for research and talent development in related fields for 5 years. The combined $1.7 million tops the Nobel Prize, which for 2012 was about $1.2 million.
Announced at a press conference today in Taipei, the Tang Prize, named after China's Tang Dynasty, which Yin admires as a golden age for Chinese civilization, will be awarded biennially for work in sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology, and rule of law.
Yin, who is endowing the Tang Prize Foundation with about $102 million, hopes "the prize will encourage more research that is beneficial to the world and humankind, promote Chinese culture, and make the world a better place," according to a press release. Yin made a fortune in real estate, finance, and retail investments, and is worth about $3 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Academia Sinica, which oversees Taiwan's premier research labs, will be responsible for the nomination and selection process. The first prize announcement is slated for July 2014.
The Tang Prize lengthens the list of rich science prizes funded by Asian philanthropists. Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong media mogul, in 2002 established the Shaw Prize, which annually confers $1 million for work in astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences. Three other major science prizes in Japan hand out about $550,000 to each winner annually:
Kyoto Prize. Launched in 1984 by Kazuo Inamori, founder of specialtyContinue Reading
- Sunday, January 27, 2013 - 6:29pm
The wreckage of a Twin Otter aircraft that had gone missing in the Antarctic has been found—and there is no hope that any of the three Canadian crew members are still alive.
The plane, which was to have been used as part of Italy’s polar research program, crashed on 23 January but bad weather prevented rescuers from reaching it. At about 6:15 GMT on Saturday, two helicopter crews finally surveyed the crash site from the air and discovered that the aircraft wreckage is on a very steep slope at a height of 3900 meters. It lies close to the summit of Mount Elizabeth in the Queen Alexandra mountain range, some 700 kilometers from both the South Pole and McMurdo Station, a U.S. research center.
The plane "appears to have made a direct impact that was not survivable," the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), which has led the search, said in a statement on its Web site yesterday. Why the plane crashed is still unclear. "It has been [a] difficult operation in challenging conditions but we remained hopeful of a positive result," said RCCNZ search coordinator Tracy Brickles. "Our thoughts are now with the families of the crewmen."
The Unified Incident Command, a joint unit of the United States Antarctic Program and Antarctica New Zealand, is now planning a mission to recover the bodies, RCCNZ said today, "which is expected to be a difficult undertaking due to the remote and difficult access to the site of the crash."
*Correction 11:20 a.m., 28 January: The spelling of RCCNZ search coordinator Tracy Brickles's name has been corrected.Continue Reading
- Friday, January 25, 2013 - 1:15pm
Virtually all books about evolution—along with more than 100 other titles from other fields—have apparently disappeared in recent months from the selection of popular science books for sale by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the country's main science funding agency. The missing books have prompted the latest skirmish in the long-running conflict between the government and parts of the country's academic community. But TÜBİTAK has denied censoring the books, saying that they are unavailable because of copyright issues.
Through its popular science book program, TÜBİTAK translates a range of science books into Turkish and sells them to the public, both directly and through bookstores. It used to offer more than 450 titles, including more than a dozen books about evolution such as Darwin and the Beagle by Alan Moorehead, The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and James Watson's The Double Helix. A list of books offered until recently (in Turkish) is available on an outdated but still accessible version of TÜBİTAK's Web site. On the current Web site, the books are no longer listed.
Relations between the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkey's academic establishment have been rocky since Erdoğan's party won a large majority in parliament a decade ago. Academics have decried what they say is government meddling in the organization and oversight of both TÜBİTAK and the Turkish Academy of Sciences, which led to one-third of the academy members resigning and forming a new independent Science Academy. Some prominent academics have also been arrested. Evolution has been a flash point before, when TÜBİTAK delayed an article about Darwin in one of its publications. (The article was published after public outcry.) ThereContinue Reading
- Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 12:30pm
Health officials in Egypt and the world are scrambling to prevent an outbreak of polio after poliovirus from Pakistan was discovered in sewage samples collected at two sites in Cairo in December.
Genetic analysis just completed has linked the Egyptian viruses to one that was last seen in Pakistan in September 2012. How it got to Cairo remains unclear, but the genetic evidence suggests that the virus made the long journey sometime in the past 3 months. Egypt has been polio-free since 2004.
So far, no polio cases have been found in Cairo, and there is no evidence that the virus has established itself and begun to circulate widely. But it's a real risk, says Bruce Aylward, who runs the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) from the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland.
"The last thing anyone wants is for Eqypt to be reinfected," Aylward says. That's why the country and the international agencies that advise it are treating the positive samples as a fullblown outbreak, "We are being very, very aggressive," Aylward says.
The importation of the virus into Egypt is another setback for the global program, which has finally been making significant progress in the past 2 years, with polio cornered in just three endemic countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. (India has now gone 2 years without a single case of polio.) Of the three, Pakistan was doing especially well in knocking out the virus, but the program there has recently been disrupted by the targeted assassination of nine polio workers in December and early January. Those killings, widely condemned, have stoked fears the virus will regain strength in Pakistan and then reinfect polio-free countries. "This is proof positive of long-distance importation from Pakistan,Continue Reading
- Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 12:05pm
ROME—A propeller-driven aircraft flown as part of Italy's polar research program is believed to have crashed in a remote and mountainous part of Antarctica while en route from the South Pole to a research station some 1500 kilometers away on the continent's coast. According to the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, which manages the logistics of Italy's Antarctic research program, the plane was carrying two pilots and a mechanic, all three of them Canadians. Their fate is unknown. No scientists were on board.
The Twin Otter aircraft was being transferred from the U.S. Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole to the Mario Zucchelli base in the Terra Nova Bay so that it could be used to support Italy's scientific program, which covers research in geology, biology, and physics of the atmosphere. At about 10:00 GMT yesterday, the plane's emergency transmitter sounded. This beacon, which can be located to within just a few tens of meters, shows the plane to be stranded in the northern end of the Queen Alexandra Range of mountains, about 750 kilometers from the South Pole. The aircraft is owned and operated by Canadian company Kenn Borek Air Ltd.
Once the beacon had sounded, a U.S. LC-130 aircraft was sent to the crash site, but it was unable to establish radio contact with the Twin Otter, while a thick layer of low-lying clouds prevented those onboard from seeing the plane. Later, a DC-3 aircraft spent hours circling above the crash site, but it also came away empty-handed.
Michael Flyger, a spokesman for the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand in Wellington, which is responsible for search and rescue operations in that part of Antarctica, told ScienceInsider that it is not known whether any of theContinue Reading
- Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 11:25am
International proposals to study graphene and the human brain have won the biggest funding contest the European Union has ever hosted. The European Commission will officially announce the winners, each of which stands to receive up to a billion euros, at a press conference on Monday morning in Brussels. "This was the hardest scientific competition Europe has ever seen and we congratulate the winners," says Dirk Helbing, coordinator of FuturICT, one of the losing projects.
Six projects made it into the last round of the Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship Initiatives, but last week, the European Commission confirmed to ScienceInsider that only four projects were still in the running. Today, members of two of these projects, Guardian Angels for a Smarter Life and FuturICT, confirmed in interviews with ScienceInsider that they are not among the winners. That leaves a project on graphene, a material made of carbon atoms arranged in a single layer, and the Human Brain Project, which aims to recreate the human brain in a computer, as the winners.
According to the Flagship plan, the two winning teams will receive €108 million together for the first 2.5 years. Because universities and industrial partners have to contribute money as well, that translates to more than €70 million in funding per project. "Typically, a researcher costs about €100,000 a year in Europe, so this translates into 700 person-years," says Jari Kinaret of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, who coordinates the graphene project. "That is substantial funding." After this start-up phase, funding for the two projects is supposed to go up to €100 million each per year.
Graphene is a relatively new material that is interesting to scientists because it conducts both light and electricity. The projectContinue Reading
- Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 1:00pm
Almost a year after they announced it, leading influenza researchers are ending a voluntary moratorium on certain types of controversial experiments involving the H5N1 avian influenza virus.
In a letter published online today by Science and Nature, 40 researchers declare that the studies should restart now that scientists, government officials, and the public have had time to debate the need for the research and impose new safety measures. "[T]he aims of the voluntary moratorium have been met in some countries and are close to being met in others," they write, and researchers "have a public-health responsibility to resume this important work."
The move essentially ends the H5N1 controversy, which began in late 2011 when two research teams showed how to reengineer the virus, which normally infects birds, so that it could move between mammals. The discoveries touched off an intense global debate over whether journals should publish the results, which some critics feared could be used by terrorists to spark a deadly human pandemic. It also prompted discussion of whether scientists should be doing such "gain-of-function" studies at all. The results were ultimately published in Science and Nature, but the controversy prompted governments in the United States and elsewhere to impose greater oversight on H5N1 research.
Today's letter comes as little surprise to those who have been following the controversy. The moratorium, which was announced on 20 January 2012 in a letter signed by 39 leading H5N1 researchers, was originally expected to last just 60 days. But researchers extended it indefinitely in March 2012, as the debate intensified. Late last year, however, many of those who agreed to the pause began to push for lifting the moratorium as the United States and other nations finalized new schemesContinue Reading
- Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 10:15am
The Council of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany has decided to start a formal investigation into whether Annette Schavan, Germany's minister of science and education, should lose her Ph.D.
"The faculty of philosophy has to review whether the doctorate was rightly awarded at the time", the dean of the faculty, Bruno Bleckmann wrote in a statement after a meeting yesterday of the 15-member council, which includes professors, staff members, and students. He emphasized that the council has reached no decision on whether her degree would be revoked.
Schavan has been accused of plagiarizing parts of her 1980 dissertation in education studies. "In the next weeks the members of the council will look closely at the documents of the doctoral commission and the statement of the person concerned," Bleckmann said.
Schavan, seen as a close ally of Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, has denied any allegations of deliberate wrongdoing. However, should Schavan lose her degree, observers predict that she would be forced to resign.
Allegations of wrongdoing first surfaced in May 2012, when a blogger using the name "Robert Schmidt" sent a fax to media outlets announcing he had found more than 50 instances of plagiarism in the 351 pages in Schavan's dissertation, entitled, "Person and Conscience-Studies on conditions, need and requirements of today's consciences." The University of Düsseldorf opened an investigation and in October a report by Stefan Rohrbacher, professor of Jewish studies, concluded that many passages in the dissertation showed "the characteristics of a plagiaristic approach." The university's doctoral commission recommended formal proceedings to revoke Schavan's Ph.D.
In March 2011 Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned as Germany's minister of defense after the University of Bayreuth concluded that he had copied whole newspaper articles inContinue Reading