Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Swedish court blocks new home for Nobel Foundation

    architect model of the new Nobel Center building

    The proposed Nobel Center (center) would host the award ceremony for the Nobel Prizes.

    © David Chipperfield Architects

    A Swedish court has blocked construction of a controversial new Nobel Center planned for central Stockholm’s waterfront.

    The eight-story, brass-clad structure is expected to serve as a hub for the Nobel Foundation’s activities, including the annual December award ceremonies for the world’s most prestigious science prizes. But critics have argued that the 1.2 billion Swedish krona ($140 million) center will destroy the historical character of the waterfront, and on 23 May, the Land and Environment Court in Stockholm agreed.

    The center would house the offices of the Nobel Foundation, an auditorium for the award ceremony (now held in Stockholm’s concert hall), the Nobel Museum, and also provide space for exhibitions, educational programs, and a restaurant. Construction was originally scheduled to begin in 2017. But the winning design by the Berlin office of David Chipperfield Architects has been controversial since it was unveiled in 2014. The plans were scaled back in 2015 and revised again in 2016, but critics say the building is still too big and clashes with the historic harbor buildings that would surround it. They also object to tearing down or moving the current buildings at the site, a customs house built in 1876 and several wooden harbor warehouses.

  • Italy’s new prime minister defended discredited stem cell therapy

    Giuseppe Conte

    Giuseppe Conte speaks at a meeting of the Five Star Movement on 1 March in Rome.

    Silvia Lore/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP Images

    The electoral victory of two populist parties in March had Italian scientists worried that a new era of antiscientific policies might be around the corner—and yesterday’s appointment of Giuseppe Conte as the country’s new prime minister is making some even more nervous. Conte, a civil law professor at the University of Florence in Italy with no previous political experience, helped a family win the right to try a discredited stem cell treatment that caused a major uproar in Italy 5 years ago. There are also questions about his academic credentials.

    After weeks of negotiations, Italian President Sergio Mattarella gave Conte a mandate last night to form a new coalition government between the antiestablishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-immigration Lega Nord (Northern League) party.

    In 2013, Conte acted as the lawyer for the family of Sofia de Barros, a 4-year-old girl suffering from metachromatic leukodystrophy, an incurable disease of the nervous system. She had undergone a stem cell treatment provided by the Stamina Foundation that never had been proved to work and that most scientists regarded as a scam. The therapy, provided under “compassionate use” rules, was discontinued after an investigation, but De Barros’s parents wanted it to continue; Conte won the case, sparking an 18-month dispute that eventually led the Italian Parliament to order a €3 million clinical trial of the therapy, which the government later called off at the recommendation of a panel of experts. Stamina Founder Davide Vannoni was convicted of criminal conspiracy after plea bargaining in 2015 and is now under investigation again.

  • Cooling failure threatens NOAA’s newest weather satellite

    illustration of GOES-17

    A cooling problem on GOES-17, NOAA’s newest weather satellite, is imperiling the agency’s future weather forecasts.


    A balky cooling system in the chill of space is throwing the future of the United States’s most recent multibillion-dollar weather satellite, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-17 (GOES-17), in doubt, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported today. Technicians are now scrambling to understand the problem, which first arose several weeks ago on the satellite’s primary instrument.

    Launched on 1 March, GOES-17 is NOAA’s second next-generation geostationary weather satellite, the second of a four-part, $11 billion program. Following 6 months of evaluation, the satellite was set to monitor the western half of the United States, much as its sibling, GOES-16, launched in 2016, now surveys the country’s eastern half. To do so, GOES-17 would use a 16-channel camera, called the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), that is capable of capturing wind height, rain, and clouds in fine detail.

    To capture 13 of these channels, namely the infrared and near-infrared bands, the ABI must be kept cool at –213°C—no small feat thanks to the rapid heating and cooling it experiences from its daily exposure to the sun. And right now, for half the day, with a peak around midnight Eastern Standard Time, the cooling system is simply not reaching those temperatures. “We’re treating this very seriously,” said Joe Pica, director of the office of observations for NOAA’s National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Maryland. “We’re trying to understand the anomaly and trying to find ways to start the engines of the cooling system to function properly.” GOES-16 has an identical camera but its cooling system has so far operated flawlessly.

  • ‘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.”

  • Defeated but unbowed: Two Pennsylvania scientists regroup after primary loss

    Molly Sheehan

    Molly Sheehan on the campaign trail before last week’s primary.


    Two young scientists are picking up the pieces after Pennsylvania voters shattered their dreams of winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But neither is planning to walk away from politics.

    On 15 May, biophysicist Molly Sheehan and epidemiologist Eric Ding fell short in their first bids for elective office. Sheehan, 32, finished fourth in a 10-person free-for-all in the fifth congressional district in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ding, 35, placed third in a four-person race in the 10th congressional district in and around Harrisburg, the state capital.

    It’s too early for a proper postmortem. “We’re still poring over the election data,” Ding says. But each candidate was willing to talk about the process of going from being a scientist to a public figure—and what lies ahead.

  • 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.

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