ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Deadly plague epidemic rages in Madagascar

    Crowded street market in Antananarivo, Madagascar, where there is a bubonic plague outbreak.

    A  pneumonic plague outbreak has hit Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital city, shown here in 2010.

    Rafael Medina/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    An epidemic of the deadliest form of plague, pneumonic, has hit major cities and towns in Madagascar and is spreading fast. As of 7 October, the Madagascar Health Ministry reported that 343 people had been infected and 42 died, and numbers are rising rapidly.

    A massive response is underway, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is on high alert. This poor island nation is regularly hit by plague outbreaks, but they are typically the relatively less dangerous bubonic form, transmitted from rats to humans by fleas, and occur largely in remote areas. Bubonic plague killed an estimated 60% of Europe’s population during the Black Death in the 14th century.

    What’s particularly alarming now is that pneumonic plague is easily transmitted person to person by coughing, and the outbreak has reached relatively densely populated urban areas, including the capital, Antananarivo, commonly known as Tana. Left untreated with antibiotics, pneumonic plague is 100% fatal. (Both forms are caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis; pneumonic plague develops when a person with bubonic plague is not treated, and the infection spreads to the lungs.)  

  • Publishers take ResearchGate to court, alleging massive copyright infringement

    Judge's gavel on a desk.

    Joe Gratz/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

    Scholarly publishing giants Elsevier and the American Chemical Society (ACS) have filed a lawsuit in Germany against ResearchGate, a popular academic networking site, alleging copyright infringement on a mass scale. The move comes after a larger group of publishers became dissatisfied with ResearchGate’s response to a request to alter its article-sharing practices.

    ResearchGate, a for-profit firm based in Berlin that was founded in 2008, is one of the largest social networking sites aimed at the academic community. It claims more than 13 million users, who can use their personal pages to upload and share a wide range of material, including published papers, book chapters, and meeting presentations. Science funders and investors have put substantial funds into the firm; it has raised more than $87 million from the Wellcome Trust charity, Goldman Sachs, and Bill Gates personally.

    In recent years, journal publishers have become increasingly concerned about the millions of copyrighted papers—usually accessible only behind subscription paywalls—that are being shared by ResearchGate users. And on 15 September, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers wrote to ResearchGate on behalf of more than 140 publishers, expressing concerns about its article-sharing policies. Specifically, the organization proposed that ResearchGate implement a “seamless and easy” automated system that would help the site’s users determine whether an article was protected by copyright and could be legally shared publicly or privately. The association asked for a response by 22 September, noting that its members could follow-up individually or collectively if ResearchGate failed to agree to its proposal. (AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider, is a member of the association.) 

  • Uganda removes key hurdle to GM crops

    two men with a bicycle carrying bananas

    Hauling bananas to market in Kisoro, Uganda.

    ANDREY GUDKOV/Alamy Stock Photo

    KAMPALA—Biotech researchers here are celebrating the long-awaited passage of a bill this week that clears the way for large-scale field tests and commercial release of genetically modified (GM) crops. Uganda, with several engineered varieties waiting in the wings, is expected to join a handful of other African nations moving quickly to bring homegrown GM foods to the market.

    Introduced in parliament in 2013, Uganda’s National Biosafety Act lays out a framework for regulating biotechnology, including the creation of a national scientific committee to oversee GM research. Critics argued that the legislation would threaten food security by ceding control of commercial seeds to foreign companies. They also claimed that GM foods would not be palatable, and that the engineered genes might escape into the environment and taint native varieties. Seeking to tamp down concerns, Uganda’s science minister Elioda Tumwesigye said at a press briefing here today that the government would safeguard indigenous crops by banking their seeds. “We may need them in the future as a standing point as we go on modifying,” he said.

    Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has in the past expressed support for the bill, is expected to sign it into law within a month. “It is a great, great achievement,” says Erostus Nsubuga, a biotechnology entrepreneur working on GM bananas at Agro-Genetic Technologies, a company in Buloba, Uganda.

  • Does your state get its fair share of federal research dollars?

    U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D–IL)

    Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) wants to change how federal research agencies decide which states are “have nots” when it comes to funding.

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

    The only physicist in Congress has introduced a bill (H.R. 3763) that could rekindle a debate over how to deal with geographic disparities in the allocation of federal research funding.

    Last month, Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) proposed changing the formula that the National Science Foundation (NSF) uses for the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). It’s the flagship program for a half-billion-dollar-a-year federal effort to help states and U.S. territories whose scientists receive relatively little federal support.

    The long-running EPSCoR programs—four other major nondefense research agencies have their own versions—set aside money for which researchers in “have not” states can compete. A state’s eligibility is based on the amount of research funding it receives. NSF, for example, deems a state eligible if it receives no more than 0.75% of the agency’s overall annual research budget (some $6 billion in 2016); other agencies have slightly different formulas (see below). Overall, roughly half the states in the nation and several U.S. territories are eligible under the various rules. 

  • Migrating researchers are cited the most, study finds

    Image of suitcase

    Karen Cox/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    Researchers who are on the move are cited on average 40% more than those who aren’t, according to an analysis published in Nature on 4 October.

    The study analyzed 14 million scholarly papers published between 2008 and 2015 by nearly 16 million individual authors. They found about 4%—more than 595,000 scholars—to be “mobile,” meaning they had affiliations with academic institutions in more than one nation between 2008 and 2015. Of these, roughly 73% are what the authors label “travelers”—those who retain a footing at their original institution while gaining additional international affiliations. The remaining 27%, who the authors call “migrants,” become detached from the institution in their original country after moving.

    Migrants are the most highly cited, the study finds, even after the authors accounted for productivity, which is the number of papers a given researcher publishes. And, overall, mobile scholars are cited more than their colleagues who don’t move, but the extent depends on where you are in the world. Eastern European researchers see a hike of nearly 173% in citations when they are mobile, the study notes, whereas North Americans only experience a boost of about 11%. 

  • Ripples in space: U.S. trio wins physics Nobel for discovery of gravitational waves

    red light tracks outside the LIGO facility

    In this time-exposure shot of one of LIGO’s interferometer arms in Livingston, Louisiana, the red lights symbolize gravitational waves. 

    Joe McNally

    Two years ago, physicists detected for the first time the infinitesimal ripples in space itself set off when two black holes whirled into each other. The observation of such gravitational waves fulfilled a century-old prediction from Albert Einstein and opened up a whole new way to explore the heavens. Today, three leaders of the massive experiment that made the discovery received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

    Rainer Weiss, 85, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and Kip Thorne, 77, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena hatched plans for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in 1984. Barry Barish, 81, a Caltech particle physicist, later guided the construction of the twin LIGO observatories in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. Weiss will receive one half of the $1.1 million prize, and Thorne and Barish the other half. LIGO's third founder, Ronald Drever, died in Edinburgh on 7 March at age 85. (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.)

    Other physicists rate the discovery of gravitational waves among the most important ever in physics. “It's revolutionary,” says Abraham Loeb, a theorist at Harvard University. It's very rare that we open a completely new window on the universe.”

  • Grass-fed cows won’t save the climate, report finds

    Cows in a field

    Livestock is responsible for an estimated 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions.

    CLARKANDCOMPANY/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

    If you thought eating only “grass-fed” hamburgers could absolve you from climate change guilt, think again. There’s a lack of evidence that livestock (such as cattle, sheep, and goats) dining on grassland has a lower carbon footprint than that fed on grains, as some environmentalists and “pro-pastoralists” claim, according to a new report by an international group of researchers led by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), based at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

    “Switching to grass-fed beef and dairy does not solve the climate problem—only a reduction in consumption of livestock products will do that,” says one of the report’s authors, Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom.

    Livestock is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions, researchers estimate. The animals emit gases such as nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane in amounts that have significantly changed our atmosphere. And the impact is growing. As more people worldwide are lifted out of poverty, many more can afford to eat meat regularly; global demand for animal products, now 14 grams per person per day, is expected to more than double by 2050.

  • Filling the pipeline for computer science teachers

    teachers in a computer science training

    A workshop to help train computer science teachers.

    Anne Todd Leftwich

    It’s not easy to teach a subject in which you have no training. But Kristen Haubold, a computer science teacher at James Whitcomb Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana, was up for the challenge.

    Haubold arrived at Riley 5 years ago as a math teacher after graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington. A year later, Indiana began developing a new computer science requirement for elementary and high school students, and Haubold signed up for the course that the state was offering. She also began looking around for resources to create a curriculum that would meet the new standard, which Indiana officials finalized earlier this year.

    The course, Computer Science Principles, debuted in 2014. This fall she’s added a second course: Computer Science A. But Haubold remains the only computer science teacher in the 18,000-student district.

  • Updated: Why would a university pay a scientist found guilty of misconduct to leave?

    university of georgia

    Josh Hallett/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

    *Update, 2 October, 11:30 a.m.: The U.S. government’s watchdog office on scientific misconduct in biomedical research has concluded that Azza El-Remessy, a former tenured associate professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, inappropriately altered data in five images from three papers. The finding of misconduct was issued by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) on 29 September, RetractionWatch reported today.

    ORI determined that El-Remessy had “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly used the same Western blot bands to represent different experimental results” in three papers—a 2005 paper in the Journal of Cell Science, a 2013 paper in PLOS ONE, and a 2007 paper in The FASEB JournalThe Journal of Cell Science and The FASEB Journal papers have been retracted. The PLOS ONE paper, which has been cited nine times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ sWeb of Science, has not yet been corrected or retracted.

    Here is our original story from 31 July:

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