Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • ‘It’s a toxic place.’ How the online world of white nationalists distorts population genetics

    White Supremacists hold tiki-torches during a march in Charlottesville, Virginia

    White supremacists, such as these marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, gather in online forums to discuss population genetics research.

    Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    A little more than a year ago, Jedidiah Carlson was searching online for a 2008 paper in Nature analyzing hundreds of thousands of point mutations in various human population groups around the world. Heady stuff, but fascinating to the bioinformatics graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As he scanned the list of search results, an unusual one stood out: a link to a forum post on the website Stormfront, one of the internet’s oldest and most notorious hangouts for white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis.

    “Curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see what they had to say about this [paper],” Carlson says.

    Following the link, he found forum users involved in a rather in-depth discussion of the paper’s genetics and how these mutations supposedly shaped the emergence of different human races. There were a few problems, though. Somehow, many in the forum thought they were debating an entirely different 2008 Nature paper, leading to what Carlson calls “a convoluted mess.”

  • Surprise! House spending panel gives NSF far more money for telescope than it requested

    John Culberson

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX, right) confers with the staff director of the spending panel he chairs.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

    The chairman of an influential congressional spending panel believes accelerating big engineering projects can save the government money. And last week Representative John Culberson (R–TX) applied that principle to a $680 million telescope the National Science Foundation (NSF) is building in Chile—although neither project scientists nor NSF asked for the additional money for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).

    “I learned from the Katy Freeway project that you can speed up completion of big engineering projects by front-loading the funding,” Culberson says, referring to a major expansion of Interstate 10 west of Houston, Texas, a decade ago. “That helps you to lock in costs and speed up the overall construction timeline.”

    Culberson chairs the U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subpanel on commerce, justice, and science. Last week, the committee adopted a $62.5 billion spending bill for fiscal year 2019 that included NSF, NASA, and the science agencies within the Department of Commerce. To everyone’s surprise, Culberson nearly tripled the amount NSF had requested for the LSST as part of the bill’s overall 5% increase for the agency.

  • Rival giant telescopes join forces to seek U.S. funding

    GMT mold filled with chunks of glass

    A technician prepares chunks of glass prior to spin-casting one of the seven 8-meter mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope.

    Giant Magellan Telescope–GMTO Corporation

    Two U.S.-led giant telescope projects, rivals for nearly 2 decades, announced today that they have agreed to join forces. The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), a 25-meter telescope under construction in Chile, and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which backers hope to build atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, have not finished acquiring the necessary partners and money. They will now work together to win funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, which could help the projects catch up to a third giant telescope, the 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), due to begin operations in 2024. It is a historic peace accord to end a conflict that has divided funders and delayed both projects.

    “This division has set back U.S. astronomy a decade,” says Richard Ellis, an astronomer at University College London, and a former leader of the TMT effort. “Let’s turn the corner.” Patrick McCarthy, a GMT vice president in Pasadena, California, adds, “It’s time for these two projects to come together behind a single vision.”

    The partnership, approved by the GMT board this month and by the TMT board last month, commits the two projects to developing a joint plan that would allow astronomers from any institution to use the telescopes; under previous plans observing time was available only to researchers from nations or institutions that had provided funding. The projects are discussing awarding at least 25% of each telescope’s time to nonpartners through a competitive process to be administered by the National Center for Optical-Infrared Astronomy—an umbrella organization that will replace the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), based in Tucson, Arizona, sometime in fiscal year 2019. Telescope backers hope the public access plan will help persuade the federal government to pay for at least 25% of the total cost of the two facilities, which could total $1 billion. (Cost estimates for the GMT and the TMT are $1 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively, but astronomers expect both numbers to grow.) “There are many science projects that are $1 billion class projects,” says David Silva, NOAO’s director. “The investment that we would want is of a similar size.”

  • Trump to nominate Chris Fall, neuroscientist and policy veteran, to lead DOE science

    Flowering bushes around the Department of Energy's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    The Department of Energy’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    Department of Energy

    President Donald Trump announced today that he will nominate a senior official at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) technology commercialization program, and a former member of the White House staff under President Barack Obama, to lead the department’s $6 billion Office of Science. The office is the nation’s leading funder of the physical sciences, and supports a fleet of facilities used extensively by academic and commercial researchers.

    Fall, who earned a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is currently principal deputy director of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which helps transform promising research findings into commercial products.

    Prior to joining ARPA-E, Fall spent 6 years with the Office of Naval Research in a variety of roles, including a 3-year assignment to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) under Obama. At OSTP, he served as assistant director for defense programs and then as acting lead for the National Security and International Affairs Division, according to a White House statement. He was one of the few Obama-era OSTP officials to stay on well into the Trump administration.

  • Despite spread to port city, Congo Ebola outbreak isn’t an international emergency yet, WHO says

    Shoppers in crowded market in Mbandaka, DRC

    Screening for Ebola will be particularly difficult at ports in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo, a major city that has one confirmed case.

    BRYAN DENTON/The New York Times

    The Ebola outbreak underway in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is still too limited in scope to warrant a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a special status that would allow the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue far-reaching recommendations to stop it. That was the conclusion today of a high-level WHO advisory group.

    As of today, surveillance teams in the DRC have identified 45 suspected, probable, and confirmed cases of Ebola, including 25 deaths, in three areas of the country’s Équateur province. Of the 14 confirmed cases, the one that has raised the most intense concern is in Mbandaka, a heavily populated port city on the Congo River that connects people to neighboring countries.

    The International Health Regulations (IHRs), a WHO agreement on how to handle disease outbreaks, stipulate that a PHEIC be declared if there’s a “significant” risk of international spread. This outbreak doesn’t meet that condition yet, Robert Steffen, who heads the IHR Emergency Committee, announced today at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

  • That NASA climate science program Trump axed? House lawmakers just moved to restore it

    John Culberson at NASA satellite

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX, center) with NASA officials in 2015

    NASA SMAP/T. Wynne

    A U.S. House of Representatives spending panel voted today to restore a small NASA climate research program that President Donald Trump’s administration had quietly axed. (Click here to read our earlier coverage.)

    The House appropriations panel that oversees NASA unanimously approved an amendment to a 2019 spending bill that orders the space agency to set aside $10 million within its earth science budget for a “climate monitoring system” that studies “biogeochemical processes to better understand the major factors driving short and long term climate change.”

    That sounds almost identical to the work that NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS) was doing before the Trump administration targeted the program, which was getting about $10 million annually, for elimination this year. Critics of the move said it jeopardized numerous research projects and plans to verify the national emission cuts agreed to in the Paris climate accords.

  • Republican lawmaker: Rocks tumbling into ocean causing sea level rise

    Portrait of Representative Mo Brooks

    Repesentative Mo Brooks (R–AL)

    Wikimedia Commons

    Originally published by E&E News

    The Earth is not warming. The White Cliffs of Dover are tumbling into the sea and causing sea levels to rise. Global warming is helping grow the Antarctic ice sheet.

    Those are some of the skeptical assertions echoed by Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee yesterday. The lawmakers at times embraced research that questions mainstream climate science during a hearing on how technology can be used to address global warming.

  • Exclusive: The would-be U.S. census director assails critics of citizenship question

    Tom Brunell

    Tom Brunell

    University of Texas in Dallas

    President Donald Trump’s first choice to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau strongly endorses the administration’s controversial decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

    Speaking publicly for the first time, Thomas Brunell, a professor of political science at the University of Texas in Dallas, tells ScienceInsider that critics—including the six previous Census Bureau directors—have exaggerated the potential problems that could arise from including the question. Brunell, who earlier this year withdrew from consideration for the deputy director’s post at the Census Bureau, also believes that the nation’s largest statistical agency has a duty to carry out the political agenda of its White House bosses.

    “I’m agnostic on whether [the citizenship question] is needed,” Brunell says. “I think the critical point is that the administration wants to put it on there. They have made a political decision. And they have every right to do that, because they won the election.” In March, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross approved a request from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for such a question; the department says it needs the data to enforce voting rights laws.

  • In Germany, controversial law gives Bavarian police new power to use DNA

    crowd protesting in Bavaria, Germany

    An estimated 30,000 people demonstrated in Munich, Germany, last week to protest a new Bavarian law giving police new powers.

    Michael Dalder/REUTERS

    Police in the German state of Bavaria will have new powers to use forensic DNA profiling after a controversial law passed today in the Landtag, the state parliament in Munich. The law is the first in Germany that allows authorities to use DNA to help determine the physical characteristics, such as eye color, of an unknown culprit.

    The new DNA rules are part of a broader law which has drawn criticism of the wide surveillance powers it gives the state’s police to investigate people they deem an “imminent danger,” people who haven’t necessarily committed any crimes but might be planning to do so.

    Today’s move was prompted, in part, by the rape and murder of a medical student in Freiburg, Germany, in late 2016. An asylum seeker, originally from Afghanistan, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. But some authorities complained that they could have narrowed their search more quickly if they had been able to use trace DNA to predict what the suspect would look like. Existing federal and state laws allow investigators to use DNA only to look for an exact match between crime scene evidence and a potential culprit, either in a database of known criminals or from a suspect.

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