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

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

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

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China’s antigraft campaign has ensnared a leading animal cloning researcher, according to Chinese news reports. The well-respected financial news magazine Caijing says that Li Ning, an animal breeding specialist at China Agricultural University (CAU), is under investigation for allegedly transferring research funds to companies in which he holds majority shares; he has not been seen in public since early July, the report says.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping launched an anticorruption campaign at the end of 2012, he vowed to catch both “tigers and flies,” meaning officials at all strata of the nation’s leadership. The biggest catch so far is China’s former internal security czar Zhou Yongkang. Li, who was elected to the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2007 at age 45, is the first academician targeted in the campaign.

Li is a principal investigator on 18 major research projects in China, including the country’s well-funded transgenic project, according to CAU’s website. He is the director of CAU’s national key lab for agricultural biotechnology and leads teams in big animal cloning, stem cell research, and genetic engineering. Li’s bio also boasts of being a partner in the PigBioDiv2 project, a European Union–China collaboration under the European Union’s Fifth Framework Programme that aimed to assess diversity of pig breeds. According to Leif Andersson, an animal geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, Li provided tissue samples of Chinese domestic pigs to the project, which ended several years ago.

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Reza Faraji-Dana

Office of the President of Islamic Republic of Iran

Reza Faraji-Dana

A monthslong effort to breathe new life into Iranian universities is at a crossroads after the ouster on Wednesday of the nation’s reformist science minister, Reza Faraji-Dana. “His downfall is a sad day for science in Iran,” says a scientist at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran who asked to remain anonymous because of the uncertain political climate. “His heart was in the right place, and he was nudging universities in the right direction,” she says.

Under Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, university leaders had steadily curtailed academic freedom by squelching debate on any topic deemed anathema or sensitive to the conservative establishment, purging liberal-minded administrators, and limiting the possibilities for researchers to travel or collaborate with colleagues overseas. Strengthening the higher education system has been a consistent theme of Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in August 2013.

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Jo Runjajic with an interactive exhibit on Australia's census.

Questacon, courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics

Jo Runjajic with an interactive exhibit on Australia's census.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Jo Runjajic’s job at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is to improve the country’s next census in 2016. For any country, a better head count would result in better data for the public institutions, private businesses, and researchers that rely on the information. But those improvements won’t happen, she believes, until governments abandon their traditional way of thinking about how to collect data and adapt to today’s digital realities.

“We need to think first about the respondents, rather than what is easiest for us,” said Runjajic, assistant director of census operations at ABS, in a talk here at a recent international conference on census methods sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau. The U.S. agency is hoping to use digital platforms in 2020 to collect the data and also reduce the number of fieldworkers needed to track down those who fail to fill out the census questionnaire the first time around. But Runjajic thinks that governments around the world will need to become more agile and tech-savvy if they hope to lower costs and achieve a more accurate census.

In a follow-up conversation after returning to Canberra, Runjajic explained what she meant. The biggest expense in conducting a census is tracking down those who have ignored the government’s first invitation to fill out a census questionnaire. So increasing the pool of self-responders can save a ton of money.

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Students from China's Harbin Engineering University compete in an international robotic submarine competition in San Diego, California, in 2011. The flow of Chinese students to U.S. universities has slowed in recent years.

U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

Students from China's Harbin Engineering University compete in an international robotic submarine competition in San Diego, California, in 2011.

Is it finally happening?

For years, U.S. university administrators have worried that China’s massive investment in higher education would eventually mean fewer Chinese students seeking to earn advanced science and engineering degrees at their institutions. A new survey from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) hints that the time may be approaching: For the second straight year, graduate applications from Chinese students are essentially flat. So is the number of acceptances, the first time that has happened in nearly a decade.

China is the biggest single source of foreign applicants to U.S. graduate programs, composing roughly one-third of the total, so any changes in their behavior could have a potentially huge impact. And their presence is quite large: Chinese students submitted nearly 300,000 applications this year to the 285 universities that responded to the latest CGS survey and received nearly 72,000 offers of admission. (The survey’s respondents confer roughly two-thirds of all U.S. graduate degrees and represent 82 of the 100 largest graduate-degree awarding institutions.)

A second striking finding is that the number of Indian students applying to graduate programs at U.S. universities has skyrocketed for the second straight year. (India represents the second largest source of foreign applications, supplying roughly 18% of the total.) The survey found that graduate applications from Indian students soared by 33% this year, after a jump of 22% in 2013. In contrast, 1% fewer Chinese students sought to enroll, compounding a 3% drop in 2013. Offers of admissions followed a similar pattern, increasing by 25% over last year for Indian students and holding steady for Chinese students.   

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Amanda Curtis

Courtesy of Amanda Curtis

Amanda Curtis

Amanda Curtis drew up a life plan in college that included studying biology in preparation for “spending time in the lab, working on a cure for cancer.” She envisioned that her research would be interrupted by stints in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, its U.S. counterpart.

Idealistic? Sure. But at 18, the Montana native saw that career path as a way to meld her love of science with her desire to improve the world.

Then life happened. Curtis did indeed graduate with a biology degree from Montana Tech, a branch of the University of Montana in Butte. But she began to rearrange her game plan after her future husband “asked me if I would consider working on a community scale rather than on a global scale.” That knocked out the PeaceCorps and AmeriCorps. A summer internship taking water samples at a plant in Butte that her father had helped build “made me realize I did not want to spend my life in the lab,” she says. Instead, Curtis chose the classroom, and for the past decade she has taught secondary school math and science in Butte and nearby Helena, the state capital.

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Rice terraces in China

Tine Steiss/Wikimedia

Rice terraces in China

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

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

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

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Rahul Telang

Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University

Rahul Telang

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

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

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

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

NASA/Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

CDC/James Gathany

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

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

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

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

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

© FUNAI

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

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

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

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The Ebola virus

CDC

The Ebola virus

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

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

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

CDC/James Gathany

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

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

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

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

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

Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

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

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

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

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

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

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories

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

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

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

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Slide from the Google Science "presentation"

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

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The Ebola virus

Thomas W. Geisbert

The Ebola virus

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

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

What does Ebola do to the immune system?

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

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The Fields prize medal

Fields Prize

The Fields prize medal

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

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

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

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

CDC/Dr. Lyle Conrad

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

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

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Wolverine

Wikimedia

Wolverine

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

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

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

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

Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

AP PHOTO/SUNDAY ALAMBA, FILE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LASZLO ILYES/Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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Nelson Sewankambo

R. Stone/Science

Nelson Sewankambo

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

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

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

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The Ebola virus

CDC

The Ebola virus

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

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

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

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