Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Automated telescope to help identify fast radio bursts


    MeerLICHT will automatically point in the same direction as the MeerKAT radio array.

    Raymond Rutting

    A new Dutch telescope is set to help solve a nagging astrophysical mystery, by automatically scanning the southern skies alongside a giant array of radio dishes. MeerLICHT, a 65-centimeter optical telescope, is expected to help identify the sources of fast radio bursts (FRBs)—extremely brief, energetic flashes of radio waves from remote galaxies. In early April, after finishing tests at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, the telescope will be put in crates and shipped via cargo plane to the South African Astronomical Observatory near Sutherland. “We expect to be fully operational in July or August,” says MeerLICHT Project Manager Steven Bloemen.

    Astronomers estimate that every day, thousands of FRBs occur around the universe. They last for a fraction of a second and contain as much energy as the daily output of the sun. Yet only a few dozen have been detected so far, by chance, when large radio dishes happened to be pointing in the right direction. In one case, the FRB repeated, which meant other telescopes could make follow-up observations. One favored explanation is that FRBs come from dense, highly magnetized neutron stars in remote galaxies, but their true nature remains pretty much unknown.

    MeerLICHT (Dutch for “more light”) may uncover their identity by looking for optical counterparts—transient flashes of light that could help astronomers determine the location and energy of FRBs. MeerLICHT will automatically and continuously scan the same region of sky as the South African radio observatory MeerKAT, which is an array of dozens of 13-meter dishes some 250 kilometers north of Sutherland. “No one has tried this approach before,” Bloemen says.

  • Q&A: Moniz looks to get U.S. nuclear scientists more engaged with China and Russia

    Dr. Ernest Moniz

    Ernest Moniz

    Courtesy of NTI

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last week, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) announced that former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, 72, will lead the Washington, D.C.–based think tank starting on 1 June. The longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge physicist earned accolades for his diplomatic efforts in hammering out the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Science caught up with Moniz earlier today to discuss how he will address nuclear threats in his new role. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Q: NTI has sought to galvanize global support for a vision of a world without nuclear weapons—a vision embraced by U.S. administrations since World War II. At the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy conference last week, National Security Council Senior Director Christopher Ford indicated that the Trump administration is reviewing whether it will continue to support such a vision. Will you help NTI make a better case for it?

    A: I am among those who support the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and that was part of the Prague set of proposals that President Obama set forward [in 2009]. Certainly that vision is decades away [from], hopefully, being realized. What I think is really critical, what NTI has done as a do tank as opposed to a think tank, is advocating for and facilitating practical steps that can be taken in the near and medium term to reducing nuclear threats. Things like the Nuclear Security Index, catalyzing the establishment of a nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan, and more recently, initiating a dialogue with hospitals about reducing dirty bomb threats by replacing radioactive sources with x-ray sources.

  • U.S. National Academies panel endorses controversial human air pollution tests

    Los Angeles shrouded in smog in 1995.

    Los Angeles, California, shrouded in smog in 1995.

    Metro library and archive/Flickr

    Originally published by E&E News

    A panel of outside experts has broadly endorsed U.S. Enivronmetnal Protection Agency’s (EPA's) use of voluntary human testing in air pollution studies, saying in a new report that the controversial practice yields valuable data not obtainable through other means.

    Although health risks to participants can't be ruled out, the odds of long-term harm from the laboratory tests are "unlikely to be large enough to be of concern," according to the report, released today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. 

  • Europe says University of California deserves broad patent for CRISPR

    European Patent Office headquarters

    The European Patent Office (above) has granted the University of California a key patent.

    European Patent Office

    The European Patent Office (EPO) announced on 23 March its “intention to grant a patent” to the University of California (UC) for its broad-based claims about the genome-editing tool popularly known as CRISPR. UC, on behalf of several parties, has been in a pitched battle with the Broad Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts, over CRISPR patents, and the new decision marks a sharp departure from the position of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

    The UC team first reported how to use CRISPR in pieces of circular DNA called plasmids that can invade bacteria, but the Broad won a race to apply the method to human cells, which represents a potential billion-dollar marketplace for medicines. The Broad won the first U.S. patents on CRISPR by paying to have USPTO give them a fast review, but UC’s application is still under review and it filed a so-called “interference” claim against the Broad last year. After a prolonged legal battle, USPTO in February ruled that it wasn’t obvious that UC’s discovery would work in human and other eukaryotic cells, giving the Broad a distinct patent advantage.

    But now EPO apparently favors the UC argument that its discovery covers CRISPR use in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic systems. The Scientist first reported this news on 24 March.

  • Playing no Trump at AAAS policy forum

    France Córdova

    France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation.

    Mark F.Jones/

    The relationship between U.S. scientists and the Trump administration hit a new low today after organizers of a major annual science policy conference were unable to find anyone willing to discuss the president’s priorities.

    For weeks, the 42nd annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy put on by AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider) listed a 50-minute talk on “science and technology priorities of the new administration” in its online program. Past administrations have always made someone available to discuss its approach to research or innovation. But over the weekend that slot was quietly removed and the schedule reshuffled.

    The show went on. But there was nary a word spoken today in defense of the president’s recently released budget blueprint that would slash research spending both this year and in 2018. Instead, AAAS CEO Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey, reminded the assembled policy wonks that it is Congress, not the president, that has the final word on annual spending. And National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, a temporary holdover from the Obama administration, spoke optimistically of a pending appropriations bill that could give NIH as much as a $2 billion boost this year.

  • Trump recruits controversial Bush-era global health official

    Bill Steiger speaking at event

    Bill Steiger in January spoke at an event that offered the Trump administration advice about how to prepare for the next pandemic.

    Georgetown University

    William “Bill” Steiger, a global health official under former President George W. Bush who crossed swords with many scientists, is now advising President Donald Trump.

    Steiger is working at the U.S. Department of State on a so-called “beachhead team,” which helps agencies transition from the Obama to the Trump administration. Several sources tell ScienceInsider that Steiger attended the executive board meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, in January. Steiger did not respond to an email request for an interview.

    Steiger, who has a doctorate in Latin American history, directed the Office of Global Health Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during both terms of the Bush administration. During his tenure, he served as the U.S. representative to both the WHO executive board and the board of directors of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Both WHO and the Global Fund are now in the process of selecting new leaders.

  • NIH enables investigators to include draft preprints in grant proposals

    Shelves with scientific journals

    A new National Institutes of Health policy encourages researchers to include in their grant proposals preprints, which are early, unedited versions of papers that later appear in journals like these.


    Researchers should feel free to include preprints, or draft manuscripts that haven’t yet been gone through peer review, as part of their applications when they seek funding from the Bethesda, Maryland–based National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency announced today.

    “The NIH encourages investigators to use interim research products, such as preprints, to speed the dissemination and enhance the rigor of their work,” a notice says. They “can be cited anywhere other research products are cited” in a research proposal or progress report, it explains. Until now, preprints could only be listed in a certain part of a proposal, says Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research.

    The announcement is a victory for biomedical researchers who have been championing preprints as a way to share findings more quickly than waiting for a paper to go through formal peer review and appear in a journal. “This is huge!” tweeted Jessica Polka, director of ASAPbio, a nonprofit group pushing for the use preprints in life sciences.

  • Data check: NSF sends Congress a garbled message on misconduct numbers

    black and white bottles

    Bill Dickinson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    When a senior National Science Foundation (NSF) official told the House of Representatives science committee this month about a “significant rise in the number of substantive allegations” of research misconduct, her testimony set off alarm bells.

    Legislators from both parties were clearly disturbed by this trend, which had led to three dozen findings of misconduct a year, and asked what the Arlington, Virginia–based NSF was doing about it. Committee Republicans unhappy with NSF’s current system of awarding grants saw her words as further proof that Congress needs to keep a closer eye on the $7.5 billion agency.

    Well, it turns out there is no such trend, and the overall size of the problem had been greatly exaggerated. Within days of her appearance at a 9 March hearing to discuss NSF’s business practices, NSF Inspector General Allison Lerner admitted as much in a two-page memo to committee Democrats. But her flawed testimony could rekindle a long-simmering debate over the government’s approach to research misconduct.

  • Climate doubters gather, call for killing EPA's finding that carbon dioxide endangers public health

    Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station.

    Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station.


    Originally published by E&E News

    The most important message to send the Trump administration and Capitol Hill right now: The 2009 finding that carbon dioxide endangers public health "must go."

    Advisers to the Trump administration's transition team at U.S. EPA and other long-established climate contrarians repeated that mantra for the past 36 hours at the Heartland Institute's 12th annual International Conference on Climate Change.

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