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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • What if every scientist and engineer in the U.S. marched? How many would that be?

    A group of demonstrators who support science in Boston in February 2017.

    Demonstrators rally for science near the AAAS annual meeting in Boston in February.

    Lindzi Wessel

    As Saturday’s March for Science approaches, many are wondering: Just how many marchers will show up?

    ScienceInsider’s crystal ball isn’t good enough to make that forecast (and local weather conditions are likely to play a big role in determining turnouts).

    But with some help from statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation’s 2016 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators, we have been mulling another puzzle: If every scientist and engineer in the United States shows up at the U.S. marches, how many bodies would that be?

    Turns out there are a few ways you can answer that question (and the following numbers are for 2013, the most recent year for which data are available). For example:

  • Earth Optimism Summit will provide contrast to marchers’ angst

    giant panda

    The successful effort to rebuild Giant Panda populations will be among the encouraging stories shared at the Earth Optimism Summit.

    Soren Wolf/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    There will be more than a little angst on display in Washington, D.C., over the next week. Science marchers will rally Saturday to express their concerns about perceived attacks on evidence and research, and climate marchers worried about U.S. policy are set to jam the streets of the nation’s capital 7 days later.

    But there’s also some optimism on tap over the next 3 days: The first Earth Optimism Summit kicks off today at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, just blocks from where the marchers will be gathering. It will feature some 240 talks on what is working in conservation, energy efficiency, innovation, and other fields.

    “There is a lot of attention being focused on the science march but it isn't all anger out there,” says coral biologist Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., a leader of the event, which was planned long before the science march materialized earlier this year. “We organized this because it was clear that bad news gets most of the oxygen and we wanted to share successes to inspire others.” 

  • New report halves the number of people infected with hepatitis C worldwide

    Cut-away molecular model of a hepatitis C virus

    An estimated 71 million people are living with the hepatitis C virus, not 130 million to 150 million, as previously believed.

    Ramon Andrade/Science Source

    A new World Health Organization (WHO) report chops the estimated number of people around the world living with the liver-damaging hepatitis C virus (HCV) in half—but the drop has nothing to do with the recent advent of powerful drugs that cure the disease for most everyone.

    WHO’s Global Hepatitis Report estimates that 71 million people in 2015 were living with HCV, down from an earlier estimate of 130 million to 150 million. As the report explains, the dramatic drop occurred primarily because of tests that measured HCV’s genetic material, RNA, in people. Previous epidemiological surveys tested whether people had antibodies against the virus, which is less precise.

    The report estimates that 257 million people are infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV), a number very close to previous estimates. Although HBV and HCV are unrelated, they both persist for decades, often without a person’s knowledge, and both can ultimately cause cirrhosis or liver cancer. Together, the viruses killed 1.34 million people in 2015, which the report notes is comparable to deaths from tuberculosis and higher than those from HIV/AIDS. 

  • Meet the 30-somethings behind the March for Science

    Caroline Weinberg

    Caroline Weinberg

    Nguyen Nguyen

    Caroline Weinberg has become pretty adept at navigating the crowded streets of New York City while staring at her phone. These days, it’s not unusual for Weinberg—one of the three leaders of the national March for Science (M4S)—to receive hundreds of emails and messages from M4S partners and more than 70 M4S volunteer leads every day. When planning an international march over just 3 months, even an hour can be too long to let an important note linger. So after a recent morning spending time speaking with ScienceInsider, Weinberg’s eyes were glued to her smartphone screen as she weaved her way along teeming sidewalks.

    “Responding to emails, it turns out, is the most important skill when running a global movement,” she jokes.

    It was happenstance that Weinberg, who describes herself as “not a big social media user,” ended up helping lead a march conceived in flurry of online messages this past January. It was social media that first connected Weinberg with her now M4S co-chairs, Jonathan Berman, a postdoctoral fellow researching hypertension at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio; and Valorie Aquino, an anthropology Ph.D. student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And it has been social media that has fueled the organization of more than 400 marches around the globe, which kick off Friday night Eastern Standard Time in New Zealand. (ScienceInsider will be providing live rolling coverage of the marches from Friday night EST through Saturday night.)

  • For Congress, March for Science is a Democratic event

    committee talking to astronauts

    The House of Representatives science committee talks with astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 2014.

    NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

    Organizers of the March for Science have deliberately avoided reaching out to U.S. elected officials, saying that they want the rallies to be apolitical. As a result, few members of Congress will be participating in Saturday’s main event in Washington, D.C., and at hundreds of satellite marches across the country.

    And those who do will be Democrats. Republican legislators appear to be ignoring the chance to speak up for science.

    “I’d be surprised if any Republicans participate,” says Representative Jerry McNerney (D–CA), the only member of the U.S. House of Representatives with a Ph.D. in mathematics, who will be speaking at the San Francisco, California, march. “They may feel that they are on the receiving end of the protest.”

  • Power struggle erupts at Utah cancer institute over director’s firing

    Former Vice President Joe Biden and Mary Beckerle

    Mary Beckerle (right) meets with former Vice President Joe Biden during his visit to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in February 2016 as part of the cancer moonshot initiative.

    Adam Finkle for Huntsman Cancer Institute

    The abrupt dismissal of the head of a Utah cancer center is causing backlash from its faculty—and its major philanthropic funder—in a struggle over the center’s autonomy from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. And nearly 2000 researchers have signed a petition calling on the university to reverse its decision.   

    For 11 years, prominent cell biologist Mary Beckerle has headed the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), which is based at the university but receives its funding largely from philanthropic donations, revenue from its cancer hospital, state funding, and grants from the National institutes of Health. In an email to some clinical staff on Monday, university President David Pershing and Vivian Lee, senior vice president for health sciences, announced that Beckerle would step down “effective today,” but would “remain on faculty as a distinguished professor in biology.” Beckerle, who has not responded to Science’s request for comment, told The Salt Lake Tribune that she had learned of her dismissal in an email less than an hour earlier.

    Details have been scant from the university, which also did not respond to a comment request. But Beckerle’s colleagues contend that the move amounts to a hostile takeover by the university aimed at capturing the cancer clinic’s revenue, and other prominent scientists are rallying unquestioningly around her.

  • Faith groups backing march see an ally in science

    starry sky above a church

    Luca Baggio/Creative Commons

    On Saturday, thousands of Chicagoans are expected to hit the pavement on South Columbus Drive in support of one of the hundreds of rallies being held under the auspices of the March for Science. In the crowd will be Brian Sauder, who grew up in a deeply religious Anabaptist community in rural Tazewell County in Illinois, where he passed time fishing and hunting. Now a minister in Chicago, Sauder is just one of many faith leaders who are planning to join the march, and see little conflict between faith and science.

    “Our goal is to get people of faith from across Chicago to march for science,” Sauder told ScienceInsider. “We want to show that people of faith do take science seriously and that this perception that there is a deep divide is indeed not true.”

    Hoping for an outdoors career in fisheries or wildlife management, Sauder studied environmental science at the University of Illinois in Champaign as an undergraduate. But as he began to understand the science of climate change, he noted that people living in developing countries, who make the smallest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, are likely to suffer the most drastic consequences of planetary warming. “I started thinking,” he says, “that if my faith calls me to care for the least of those among me, how does the science that I am learning integrate with my faith?”

  • Two wolves survive in world’s longest running predator-prey study

    the only two wolves remaining on  Isle Royale

    Isle Royale’s two remaining wolves aren’t likely to breed, given their close relatedness and the female’s aggressive display. 

    Rolf O. Peterson

    For 2 years in a row, a pair of wolves has managed to survive on Isle Royale, Michigan, the last of their kind on the wilderness island. Researchers continue to track the wolves and their moose prey, in the last installments of the world’s longest running predator-prey study.  They report today that although the wolves hunt successfully, they are too few to affect the moose population. Aquatic as well as terrestrial vegetation is taking a hit as moose numbers climb, according to the study’s 59th annual report.

    After Canadian wolves colonized the island in 1949, the wolf population peaked at 50 in 1980, and as recently as a decade ago, 30 wolves prowled the island, a U.S. National Park. The island’s now-famous predator-prey study has tracked how wolf and moose numbers have risen and fallen in tandem over the decades, and left their mark on the island’s ecology. 

    In contrast to last year’s winter study, when wolf tracks were the only evidence of the predators, wildlife ecologist Rolf Peterson spotted both wolves sitting on lake ice on the January afternoon he arrived on the island.  Weeks later, Peterson and co-investigator John Vucetich, both of Michigan Technological University in Houghton, found the wolves feeding on a freshly-killed moose calf. “We were very lucky,” Peterson says. “There was no mystery left in terms of the wolf population,” or what they were eating.

  • Q&A: The U.S. Department of Justice scrapped independent forensics panel, but the scientific questions ‘are not going away’

    Close-up of stamping fingerprints

    MAEK123/iStockphoto

    Arturo Casadevall has zero training in forensic science—the techniques used in law enforcement and the courtroom to link individuals to crimes. For most of his career, the microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, paid the discipline little attention, but he did notice the field-shaking 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which found that many forensic techniques, from fingerprint comparisons to bloodstain pattern analysis, lacked a firm scientific footing. “I remember reading [NAS] about this and I said, ‘Oh my God, I thought fingerprints had been validated,’” he remembers.

    He would soon play a direct role in the field’s reform, as one of a handful of basic researchers invited to serve alongside lawyers, judges, and forensic practitioners on a panel, created by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to advise DOJ on how to respond to the NAS report’s concerns. Since its founding in 2013, the panel has published 43 documents and made 20 official recommendations to the attorney general, including a call for the universal accreditation of forensic practitioners and for the phasing out of the meaningless phrase “reasonable scientific certainty” that is common in courtrooms.

    Last week, Casadevall and five other scientific members of the commission wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and acting National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Kent Rochford asking them to renew the group’s charter, set to run out 23 April. Instead, Sessions and DOJ announced on Monday that the charter would be allowed to expire, and he requested proposals for a new advisory committee or an office within DOJ that would advance forensic science—a move many fear will exclude mainstream scientific views from future policy decisions. 

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