Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Rising costs hamper mega–neutron beam facility

    aerial of European Spallation Source construction site

    The European Spallation Source, under construction in Lund, Sweden, may not reach its design power of 5 megawatts.

    Perry Nordeng/ESS

    The world’s most powerful source of neutron beams will be less than half as powerful as planned when the facility begins scientific experiments in 2023. The European Spallation Source (ESS), under construction in Lund, Sweden, was designed to reach 5 megawatts (MW), but ballooning costs means that it will only achieve 2 MW in 6 years’ time—a reduced level that will likely limit the range of scientific studies it can carry out.

    Although the ESS council, the project’s main decision-making body, is considering plans that would boost power to 5 MW by 2025, some scientists fear that the facility will remain stuck at 2 MW for good. “There are some people with persuasive voices who say you don’t need 5 MW,” says Colin Carlile, a physicist at Uppsala University in Sweden and former ESS director. “But theirs are siren voices. It would be tragic if that happens.”

    Like x-rays, beams of neutrons are a way for scientists to explore the atomic structure of materials. But where x-rays scatter off the cloud of electrons surrounding an atom, neutrons scatter off atomic nuclei. That capability helps scientists, for example, to locate hydrogen, which, with only one electron, is a more elusive target for x-rays. Neutron beams can also differentiate between nuclei of different isotopes. And, because neutrons carry a spin, they can reveal the magnetic properties of the material in question. 

  • With unusual candor, Senate appropriators ‘reject’ cuts to energy research

    Senate wing of the United States Capitol building


    Many observers hoped Senate budgetmakers would oppose cuts to the Department of Energy's (DOE's) basic and applied research programs proposed by the White House in May. But they may not have expected them to be quite so blunt about it. The detailed report that accompanies the Senate version of the so-called energy and water bill, which funds DOE, contains several passages in which Senate appropriators express their objections to cuts in unusually frank language.

    For example, in its budget request for fiscal year 2018, which begins 1 October, the White House seeks to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the 8-year-old agency that aims to quickly transform the best ideas from basic research into budding energy technologies. House of Representatives appropriators have voted to go along with that elimination, but Senate appropriators are having none of it. "The Committee definitively rejects this short-sighted proposal," the report says. Instead, Senate appropriators would increase ARPA-E's budget by 8% to $330 million. Their report expressly forbids DOE from using money to shut down ARPA-E.

    Similarly, within DOE's Office of Science, the White House has called for cutting spending on biological and environmental research (BER) by 43% to $349 million. But the Senate appropriations committee "rejects the short-sighted reductions proposed in the budget request." Instead, Senate budgetmakers would boost BER research by 3% to $630 million. Senate appropriators also would give DOE's applied research in its Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy $1.937 billion, a 7% cut from last year, but far above the $636 million proposed by the White House.

  • Swaziland makes major strides against its AIDS epidemic

    hand holding antiretroviral tablets

    The rate of new HIV/AIDS infections has plummeted in hard-hit Swaziland, showing the power of treatment as prevention. 


    PARIS—New data from Swaziland, a tiny country in southern Africa, provide some of the most convincing evidence yet that aggressively ramping up treatment for HIV/AIDS works on a population level to cut the rate of new infections. The kingdom has had one of the worst HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world, but since 2011, its massive scale-up of testing and treatment has slashed the rate of new infections by 44%.

    Several studies have firmly established that when antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) are taken consistently they drive the level of HIV in the blood down below the level of detection on standard tests. In response, the risk of an infected person transmitting the virus plummets. This led to the concept of so-called treatment as prevention, and mathematical models suggest that if 73% of a population suppresses their virus, new infection rates will nose-dive and epidemics can sputter out. But many questions remain about this theory, especially after a report last year showed that Botswana had come close to hitting this target without seeing much impact on its rate of new infections..

    New data presented here at the International AIDS Society’s (IAS’s) international conference show Swaziland, a landlocked country of 1.45 million people that’s bordered by South Africa and Mozambique, has made “remarkable progress,” said Velephi Okello from the country’s Ministry of Health in Mbabane. As Okello explained, a survey in 2011 showed that 32% of the Swazi population between the ages of 18 and 49 was living with HIV—the highest prevalence of any country in the world. At the time, only 72,402 of those people were receiving ARV treatment. Only 34.8% of the infected population had suppressed the virus. The rate of new infection, or incidence, was 2.5% per year. 

  • Money, politics, and abandoned homes: Why the 2020 Census might be in jeopardy

    A man at a computer looking at a residential map

    Census planners are using digital geographic information systems to help cut the costs of the 2020 count.

    U.S. Census Bureau

    John Thompson took the reins of the U.S. Census Bureau in August 2013 with orders from Congress to dramatically lower the projected cost of the 2020 decennial census. His response was an ambitious plan to modernize procedures that would also shave $5.2 billion off a projected $17.8 billion price tag. If successful, Thompson’s plan meant that the 2020 count would come close to matching the $12.3 billion cost of the 2010 census.

    Four years later, those projected cost savings appear to be in serious jeopardy. Annual budgets have fallen far short of what’s needed to fully implement Thompson’s plan, and internal costs have risen.

    Hanging in the balance is the fate of the census itself, the nation’s largest civilian exercise, which is required by the U.S. Constitution. Thompson is also gone, and his 30 June departure has only added to the uncertainty at the government’s oldest and largest statistical agency.

  • Trump EPA eyes former Obama energy official to lead climate science face-off

    Steve Koonin sits at a desk, gesturing with his hands.

    Steven Koonin in 2011.

    Matthew Wisniewski/Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is considering a former official in President Barack Obama’s Energy Department to lead the agency's debate on mainstream climate science, according to a former leader of the Trump administration's EPA transition effort.

    Steve Koonin, a physicist and director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, is being eyed to lead EPA's "red team, blue team" review of climate science, said Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a Trump transition leader.

  • Excavation starts for U.S. particle physicists’ next giant experiment

    Ross Headframe building

    The Homestake gold mine, which produced ore from 1876 until 2002, was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America.

    Matthew Kapust

    Today, physicists and politicians gathered at a former mine in South Dakota to break ground for the United States’s next great particle physics experiment. Known as the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF), the experiment will fire a beam of elusive particles called neutrinos from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, to a gargantuan particle detector 1300 kilometers away in an abandoned gold mine in Lead, South Dakota.

    To build the modular detector, workers have to carve out massive caverns 1480 meters underground, haul out stone that weighs as much as a dozen aircraft carries, and truck in millions of liters of frigid liquid argon. This afternoon officials gathered deep underground to turn the first few shovels of stone.

    “We couldn’t be more excited to be actually starting construction,” says Mike Headley, head of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority in Lead. “We’re absolutely thrilled that [the project] is moving forward and about what it’s going to do for the U.S. scientifically,” says Headley, who is also director of the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), the small laboratory the state started at Homestake in 2006 with a $70 million donation from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford.

  • French funding agency president resigns amidst tensions

    French flag

    Nathan Hughes Hamilton/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Michael Matlosz, president and CEO of the French National Research Agency (ANR) in Paris, resigned today following months of controversy over how the agency handles grant proposal evaluations.

    Arnaud Torres, who currently oversees ANR programs that support research clusters, will be the agency’s interim head.

    Matlosz, a U.S.-born chemical engineer, presented his letter of resignation earlier this week after agreeing that the agency needs “a new impetus,” according to an 18 July statement from France’s research ministry, which oversees ANR. 

  • Plans for a research powerhouse in the Andes begin to unravel

    Yachay Tech campus

    Ecuador's Yachay Tech University is beset by turmoil.

    ANDES/Micaela Ayala V

    Paola Ayala knew it was a gamble to dial down her physics research at the University of Vienna in May 2015 and spend most of her time at Yachay Tech University, a nascent institution in rural northern Ecuador backed with an estimated $1 billion in government funding. But the allure of the grand experiment to create a world-class research university in the Andes was overpowering. Ayala, the first Ecuadorian woman to get a Ph.D. in physics, was eager to return home as the school’s new dean of physical sciences and nanotechnology. “I wanted to help change my country,” she says.

    Ayala’s run in Ecuador didn’t last long. Last month, Yachay Tech fired her and five other scientists in leadership positions, including Chancellor Catherine Rigsby, a geologist recruited from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Ecuador’s struggling economy may have played some role; the university in a 22 June statement said that the terminations were part of an austerity plan meant to trim $2 million in expenses. But the ousted academics say they are victims of shifting national priorities and a personality conflict with Yachay Tech’s new rector, the university’s top position.

    The acrimonious dispute comes at what everybody involved agrees is a moment of truth for Yachay Tech. Ecuador’s former president, Rafael Correa, launched the institution in 2013 as part of a bid to transform the nation’s economy from one reliant on exports of oil and other commodities to one that generates its own innovations. The government began erecting a sprawling campus in Yachay, a new science city 3 hours north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, in Urcuquí province, and the nascent venture wooed overseas faculty with competitive salaries.

  • North Korea travel ban would hit Pyongyang University hard

    PUST Chancellor Chan-Mo Park

    Chan-Mo Park

    Emily Petersen

    2017 has been a tough year for North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). The university, founded by a Korean-American and one of the isolated nation’s top schools, was sucked into a political maelstrom this spring when the government arrested two Korean-Americans affiliated with the university. And now it’s facing a potentially devastating blow: The U.S. Department of State next week plans to impose a ban on travel by any U.S. passport holder to North Korea, effective next month. PUST President Yu-Taik Chon and some 40 PUST faculty and lecturers are U.S. citizens.

    State Department guidance notes that it is “establishing a process” for U.S. citizens to apply for a limited validity passport and “special validation” to travel to North Korea for “certain purposes,” including humanitarian work. In the meantime, it urges all U.S. citizens to depart North Korea and cancel any imminent travel.

    The ban could leave PUST administrators scrambling to find replacement faculty for the upcoming fall term. And it would compound the university’s woes. On 22 April, authorities detained Sang-duk (Tony) Kim, who had spent several weeks teaching accounting at PUST, over “criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn” the North Korean government. Barely 2 weeks later, Hak-song Kim, who managed an experimental farm for PUST, was arrested; he was accused of unspecified “hostile acts.” A U.S. State Department envoy who visited the hostages last month, and a third Korean-American detainee not connected with PUST, found them to be in good health. According to sources, the PUST-affiliated detainees told the official that they are being held in isolation, individually, in a hotel and that their main daily activity is writing confessions to their alleged crimes. (The State Department notes that the detainees are exempted from the travel prohibition.) 

  • Salk Institute hit with discrimination lawsuit by third female scientist

    Salk with clouds behind

    A third gender discrimination lawsuit has been filed against the Salk Institute.

    Rex Boggs (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    Following two gender discrimination lawsuits filed last week, a third senior female professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has similarly sued the storied independent institute in San Diego, California.

    Beverly Emerson, 65, a molecular biologist who has worked at Salk since 1986, filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages on 18 July in California Superior Court in San Diego. In it, she alleges that she and two other senior female professors at Salk, despite their accomplishments and accolades, have endured slower promotion rates, lower pay, and underfunding of their labs relative to their male colleagues. As in the suits filed by Salk professors Katherine Jones and Vicki Lundblad, Emerson also alleges that all three women have been shut out of opportunities for lucrative grants and denied leadership opportunities within Salk, a “hostile environment in which they are undermined, disrespected, disparaged, and treated unequally.”

    “What is worse,” Emerson alleges, Salk administration and board of trustees, including former President William Brody and current President Elizabeth Blackburn, a biology Nobel laureate, “have known about this discrimination, yet done absolutely nothing to stop it or right the wrongs perpetrated against its … talented and decorated female Full Professors.”

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