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  • Seven from 2017: ScienceInsider’s look back at hot stories of the year


    The March for Science drew more than a million demonstrators to Washington, D.C. (above), and some 600 other cities this year.

    Amaury Laporte/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    What a busy year for ScienceInsider. Hurricanes, fires, and floods. Researchers misbehaving, politicians squabbling, institutions battling over patents that could be worth billions of dollars. The research community produced plenty of news beyond show-stopping science such as new discoveries about the cosmos and how the slimy hagfish ties itself up in knots. And we tried to keep you up to date, publishing more than 1200 stories this year on policy, politics, personalities, and trends.

    Looking back, many storylines stand out. But in the interest of brevity (and fitting on your phone screen), ScienceInsider offers its seven from 2017: a selection of seven of our most important, interesting, or widely read stories and topics of the year.

  • UPDATED: In an unusual move, organizers postpone India's major annual science conference

    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking from behind a podium.

    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

    Office of the President of Mexico/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    In an unprecedented move, organizers of the annual Indian Science Congress have postponed the prestigious event just days before it was supposed to begin. The move apparently reflects concerns that students at the university hosting the congress would stage protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was scheduled to open the event.

    More than 10,000 scientists were expected to attend the 105th congress, a 5-day gathering at Osmania University in Hyderabad in southern India. But just 12 days before its 3 January 2018 start, organizers announced they had “indefinitely postponed” the event and that a “further course of action" will be announced. On 28 December, organizers said the meeting would be held at the Manipur University in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, a state that has never hosted the event. The exact new date of the congress has not been determined, but it is likely to be held in March 2018.

    The decision to postpone the Congress was “due to certain issues [on] the campus,” the Indian Science Congress Association in Kolkata said in a statement.The group pushed back, however, on reports that organizers were worried that students opposed to the Modi government’s policies would try to disrupt the proceedings, stating that the “postponement has no relation to the … Prime Minister’s visit to the event.” 

  • Little holiday cheer for U.S. science agencies as Congress extends spending freeze

    US Capitol at night
    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A last-minute decision by Congress to extend a current freeze on federal spending will keep the U.S. government open for another month. Lawmakers yesterday passed a continuing resolution (CR) that orders agencies to continue spending at 2017 levels through 19 January 2018 while Congress tries to settle on final budget numbers for the 2018 fiscal year, which began on 1 October.

    That’s the big story.

    But the passage of the CR—which allows legislators to scamper home for the holidays—also means that several research agencies must put on hold their hopes for a happier new year.

  • Nobel laureate will step down from leading embattled Salk Institute

    Elizabeth Blackburn in Salk courtyard

    Elizabeth Blackburn will step down as president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies next summer.

    Salk Institute

    Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist who took over just 2 years ago as president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, today announced her intent to retire next summer. The unexpected news comes as Salk faces gender discrimination lawsuits from three veteran female scientists and Blackburn herself has been challenged for not moving quickly enough to change what one plaintiff’s suit called an “old boys club” at the renowned research institute.

    In a statement released by Salk, Blackburn said: “Being named to lead the Salk Institute unquestionably has been an honor of my life and this decision did not come without a great deal of thought. At this stage in my career and life, I’ve concluded that my energies will be best devoted to wider issues of science policy and ethics—issues in which I have had a deep and longstanding interest—and spent advocating for measures I feel are critical to supporting ongoing scientific research and discovery worldwide.”

    Carol Greider, a biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Blackburn for their discovery of telomeres and telomerase, commented in an email to Science: “I am encouraged to hear Liz is stepping aside from her position as President of the Salk. Liz had long been a champion of women in science. However, in recent weeks with the lawsuit at the Salk, it has been hard to hear this voice from Liz. … I welcome Liz’s desire to turn her energies to policy in the future.”

  • What were the most discussed studies of 2017?

    keyboard with social media platform logos
    Animated Heaven/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

    Limiting the amount of fat you eat may not, it turns out, reduce your risk of heart disease and death.

    That’s the conclusion of the “most discussed” scientific article last year, according to Altmetric, a London-based company that publishes the top 100 papers of the year. As The Times Higher Education explains, Altmetric ranks the publications based on their online popularity.

  • New NCI director expects big data to revolutionize cancer research, care

    headshot of Ned Sharpless

    Ned Sharpless

    Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute

    Cancer researchers were nervous early this year about who President Donald Trump would choose to replace Harold Varmus as director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). But in June their fears of an unconventional candidate proved unfounded when he tapped Norman “Ned” Sharpless. Sharpless, 51, who was then director of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill, checked all the right boxes for the community: He is a physician-scientist who treats patients, he has started two biotech companies, and he runs a basic research lab focused on p16—a protein important to cell division and aging.

    Sharpless, who started work in October, takes over for Doug Lowy, the acting director since Varmus left in March 2015. Sharpless has spent the last 2 months absorbing information about the $5.7 billion institute. He has talked to all six former living NCI directors, for example, as well as NCI grantees and intramural staff.

    Talking this week with ScienceInsider, Sharpless declined to lay out specific plans. But he mentioned three areas that are important to him: big data, basic research, and translating discoveries into devices and treatments. He’s also been thinking of ways to bolster the careers of young investigators, a perennial issue for NCI’s parent agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

  • U.S. energy department reshuffles science’s place within sprawling agency

    Paul Dabbar, undersecretary of science

    Paul Dabbar is the Department of Energy’s new undersecretary for science.

    Simon Edelman/Department of Energy/Flickr

    As part of a major reorganization of the sprawling, $31 billion Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C., U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has separated responsibility for the department's science and energy components. Some DOE watchers—including Perry's immediate predecessor, Ernest Moniz—warn that the change is likely to weaken science’s status within DOE and undermine the department's mission. However, history suggests that science’s place within the DOE bureaucracy may matter less in determining its fate than senior leadership’s commitment to research.

    In a 15 December statement, Perry said the changes would help the 40-year-old department carry out its broad mission. “This new structure will support American energy dominance, enhance our energy and national security, and improve outcomes in environmental management while ensuring DOE remains the leader in scientific innovation,” he explained.

    Most significantly, Perry changed the roles of DOE's three undersecretaries, who report to him and his deputy, Dan Brouillette. The new alignment means DOE will have three undersecretaries—for science, energy, and nuclear security. Moniz had established a single undersecretary for both energy and science in hopes of improving the synergy between the two sectors. In doing so, Moniz was tweaking a format mandated by Congress during the presidency of George W. Bush that was intended to elevate science within the DOE hierarchy.

  • Congressional watchdog agency to study social cost of carbon

    Centralina Power Plant

    U.S. regulators use a measure called the social cost of carbon to put a price tag on the damage caused by emitters, such as this power plant in Washington state.

    Kid Clutch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    An independent government watchdog has agreed to examine how the Trump administration uses the social cost of carbon, the metric used to calculate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) led a group earlier this month of seven Democratic senators asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine states' and other countries' use of the social cost of carbon, a calculation being used to repeal President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan.

  • U.S. should support ITER fusion project, says expert panel

    Aerial view of cranes and half finished buildings at the ITER site in France in late 2017.

    The ITER fusion project under construction in late 2017.

    ITER Organization

    Originally published by E&E News

    The United States is lagging far behind the world on fusion research and shouldn't abandon a major international project opposed by key senators, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warned today.

    Pulling money for the project would isolate U.S. scientists, give other countries an advantage and require the U.S. to redraw its fusion program at a time funding is limited, the National Academies report says.

  • NASA picks missions to Titan and a comet as finalists for billion-dollar mission

    Dragonfly dual-quadcopter lander

    The Dragonfly quad-copter would explore riverlike channels on Saturn’s moon Titan, thought to be carved by methane.


    NASA has selected two missions to further explore past targets—Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko—as the final candidates for its next billion-dollar robotic spacecraft, the agency announced today. The candidates for the next New Frontiers mission, chosen from a field of 12, will now have until January 2019 to refine their pitches to the agency, with a launch planned by 2025.

    The first, Dragonfly, would send a semiautonomous quad-copter to fly between sites on the surface of Titan, which features an Earth-like landscape of rivers and lakes filled with liquid methane. The second candidate, Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR), would capture and return to Earth a sample from the nucleus of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko—a comet previously explored by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft.

    Rather than selecting three final candidates, as it has in the past, NASA opted for a head-to-head competition. "I selected these mission concepts based on their outstanding and visionary science," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate in Washington, D.C., said in a teleconference announcing the finalists. "I didn't start with a number in mind."

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