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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Scientists home in on landing site for the next Mars rover

    Jezero crater on Mars

    Jezero crater and its fossil river delta is a favored landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. 

    NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/BROWN UNIVERSITY

    After 3 days of intense debate, a nonbinding vote by planetary scientists meeting in Glendale, California, resulted in a virtual tie between several candidate landing sites for NASA’s next $2.5 billion Mars rover, due for launch in 2020.

    The straw poll is the culmination of years of scientific and engineering analysis of three NASA-approved sites: Jezero, a fossilized delta that spills into an impact crater; Northeast Syrtis, a stretch of ancient crust that may have been created by underground mineral springs; and Columbia Hills, a potential former hot springs previously visited by the Spirit rover. Earlier this year, the team added to the mix a fourth site, nearly identical in composition to Northeast Syrtis, called Midway, with the potential that a mission could visit Jezero and then Midway, or vice versa.

    All four sites were evaluated both for their suitability as the primary landing site and as an area for continued exploration following the rover’s first couple of years. In turn, each site was rated for the value of the science the rover could conduct itself, with its fleet of instruments, and the value of the samples that it will drill for return to Earth.

  • Climate change doubters are finalists for Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board

    two man speaking at a hearing

    John Christy (left) is among the candidates for the Environmental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board.

    MIKE THEILER/UPI/NEWSCOM

    Originally published by E&E News

    Finalists for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Science Advisory Board include researchers who reject mainstream climate science and who have fought against environmental regulations for years.

    Among them is an economist from the conservative Heritage Foundation whose work was cited by President Trump as a justification for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. Another downplays the dangers of air pollution. Several scientists are from energy companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., and the list includes a researcher who argues that more carbon dioxide is good for the planet.

  • Lauren Underwood runs on progressive values in seeking House seat

    Lauren Underwood dressed in scrubs talking with someone

    Lauren Underwood

    Underwood for Congress

    ScienceInsider’s coverage of the 2018 U.S. elections has featured profiles of several candidates with scientific backgrounds running for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as stories about the challenges those candidates have faced on the campaign trail. Today’s story looks at Lauren Underwood, the Democratic nominee in the 14th congressional district in Illinois.

    Democrat Lauren Underwood decided to run for the House after she says her Illinois congressman—and now political opponent—“broke his promise” to oppose any bill that would make it harder for people with preexisting conditions to get health insurance.

    “As a clinician, I take care of patients who rely on that coverage to afford their meds and procedures,” says Underwood, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in public health policy. “Also, as a child I was diagnosed with a heart condition [supraventricular tachycardia] that required me to go regularly to a pediatric cardiologist. So it’s personal, too.”

  • Ebola outbreak in Congo is not yet international emergency

    two workers putting medical waste into an incinerator

    Health workers caring for Ebola patients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s North Kivu province burn medical waste.

    JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images

    The deadly outbreak of Ebola that’s been stubbornly defying containment efforts in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for more than 2 months does not rise to what’s known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

    That’s the conclusion of an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) that has reviewed the outbreak.

    The PHEIC designation hinges on the risk of the virus jumping borders, whether the outbreak is “extraordinary,” and whether an international response is necessary, says the panel’s chair, epidemiologist Robert Steffen of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who spoke today at a press conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In theory, such a designation would help better coordinate and ramp up the response.

  • World’s biggest whooping crane breeding program winds down

    a whooping crane taking flight

    This young whooping crane was raised by white-suited humans at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.

    JONATHAN L. FIELY/USGS PATUXENT WILDLIFE RESEARCH CENTER

    Today, 33 whooping cranes were airlifted from Maryland to Louisiana, marking the beginning of the end of the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS's) 50-year effort to help save these endangered birds. Scientists at USGS's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, spearheaded the recovery of Grus americana, whose numbers had once dropped to fewer than 20 in the wild. To bring back the majestic 1.3-meter-tall birds, biologists developed innovative methods, including using puppets in the shape of crane heads to teach chicks to feed and to follow ultralight aircraft on migratory flights.

  • Outsider takes helm at Indian research giant

    headshot of Shekhar Mande

    Shekhar Mande

    Pallava Bagla

    Shekhar Mande, a structural biologist, took over yesterday as director-general of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), headquartered in New Delhi, which operates a network of 40 research labs around the country. Mande, 56, headed the National Centre for Cell Science in Pune, India, a government lab, the past 7 years; his own research has focused on understanding the structure of bacterial proteins, including those produced by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the pathogen that causes tuberculosis.

    Mande is the first outsider to take on the top job at CSIR since 1984. “CSIR is in urgent need of revitalization and only an outsider can bring in the new vigor needed to steer CSIR in a fast-changing India,” says Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, a systems biologist and president of the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bengaluru. He calls Mande a “distinguished researcher.”

    With a combined annual budget of about $1 billion, CSIR institutes carry out research on areas as diverse as oceans, roads, aerospace, and drugs. In 2015, the government ordered the organization to become self-financing, primarily through industry contracts, by this year, an objective it has not achieved. “The real challenge” for Indian R&D is getting private organizations and companies to invest in research to complement publicly funded science, Mande tells Science. “The two together have a great potential in transforming the Indian society.”

  • Life after a ballot loss

    Joe Biden taking a selfie with Phil Janowicz and others

    Phil Janowicz (back right) joins in on a selfie with former Vice President Joe Biden (center) during Biden’s recent campaign stop in southern California.

    Greg Bartlett

    ScienceInsider’s coverage of the 2018 U.S. elections has featured profiles of several candidates with scientific backgrounds running for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as stories about the challenges those candidates have faced on the campaign trail. This week, we will be profiling three more candidates appearing on the 6 November ballot. Today’s story looks at what those who lost in the primaries are doing now and what they have learned from their experience.

    Biochemist Molly Sheehan is finishing her postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania. Jason Westin has resumed running clinical trials and is seeing a full load of patients at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

    Physicist Elaine DiMasi is looking for a job that taps her 20 years of experience as a project manager at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Epidemiologist Eric Ding is planning to continue his public health advocacy while he’s a visiting scientist at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. And mathematician Mary Wilson continues to be pastor of her nondenominational church in Austin.

  • Indian scientist dies after Gandhi-style hunger strike to save the Ganges River

    a boy sitting in polluted water

    A boy searches for coins and gold in the polluted waters of the Ganges River in the city of Allahabad, India.

    Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

    One of India’s leading environmentalists paid the ultimate price last week in his efforts to protect and restore the Ganges River, also known as the Ganga. Guru Das Agrawal, a former professor of environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, died on 11 October following a 111-day fast that he hoped would compel India’s government to make good on its promise of cleaning up the Ganges.

    Agrawal, 86, was a former graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and served as the first head of India’s Central Pollution Control Board. He became a Hindu ascetic in 2011, dedicating himself completely to revivifying the dying Ganges and taking on the name of Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand.

    Environmentalists have long deplored the state of the Ganges. Numerous hydroelectricity projects on the river and its tributaries have blocked the free flow of water; villages and cities are withdrawing ever larger amounts of water while releasing huge amounts of sewage into the river.

  • Why scientists had trouble predicting Hurricane Michael’s rapid intensification

    residents step over a damaged road at the beach

    Hurricane Michael, whose rapid intensification proved difficult to forecast, made landfall on 10 October near Mexico Beach, Florida.

    Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

    Hurricane Michael roared into Mexico Beach, Florida, on 10 October as the strongest storm ever to strike the Florida Panhandle in terms of wind speed, and the third strongest to make landfall in the continental United States. The storm caused severe damage to several coastal communities, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Florida State University’s Panama City campus. Officials have attributed 18 deaths to the storm and dozens of people have been reported missing.

    Although National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasters were able to predict where and when Michael was likely to make landfall several days in advance, the storm’s rapid intensification—jumping from a Category 2 to just shy of a Category 5 in 24 hours—proved tougher to anticipate. NHC defines “rapid intensification” as a storm’s maximum sustained winds increasing by at least 56 kilometers per hour in 24 hours or less. Michael underwent at least three intensification periods on its 5-day march toward the coast.

    “Predicting a hurricane’s track is relatively straightforward because storms are propelled in one direction or another by the large-scale air currents in the atmosphere,” says Robert Rogers, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Florida. “We’ve gotten a much better handle on predicting those large-scale currents over the past 20 years.”

  • MIT to use $350 million gift to bolster computer sciences

    aerial view of MIT campus

    The campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge will soon be home to a new college of computer science, which will get its own building.

    dbimages/Alamy Stock Photo

    A $350 million gift from investment banker Stephen Schwarzman will allow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to “rewire” how it educates students in this foundational subject, school officials announced today.

    The money will help finance a new building that will house a college of computing named for its major donor. It will also allow MIT to cope with the rising demand for computer science courses from students majoring in any number of disciplines by paying for 50 new faculty members.

    “Roughly 40% of our current undergraduates are majoring in computer science or computer science and X,” says MIT Provost Martin Schmidt. With only 10% of the university’s 1000 faculty currently teaching computer science courses, Schmidt says, “having them teach 40% of the undergraduates has created a huge load imbalance.”

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