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  • Hot News: Fusion Researchers Recommend ITER Design Tweaks

    Got it covered. Researchers are recommending that this key part of ITER, an exhaust system known as the divertor that must withstand high temperatures, be coated with tungsten instead of carbon.

    Got it covered. Researchers are recommending that this key part of ITER, an exhaust system known as the divertor that must withstand high temperatures, be coated with tungsten instead of carbon.

    ITER Organization

    Scientific advisers to the ITER fusion reactor project have recommended several key changes to its design that could increase technical risks—but also smooth the path to producing excess energy. The recommendations, made last week by ITER’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee (STAC), will have to be approved by the full ITER council in November. But if approved, as expected, “the chance of surprises later is reduced,” says Alberto Loarte, head of ITER’s confinement and modeling section. “The risk will pay off.”

    ITER, being built in France by an international collaboration, aims to show that nuclear fusion, the reaction that powers the sun, can be controlled on earth to produce energy. But reaching that goal involves heating hydrogen gas to more than 150 million°C so that hydrogen nuclei slam together with enough force to fuse. To do this, researchers are building a huge doughnut-shaped container called a tokamak to confine the ionized gas—or plasma—using enormously strong magnetic fields. ITER’s goal is to coax the plasma to produce 500 megawatts (MW) of heat, 10 times the 50 MW of power required to heat the plasma; this multiplying effect is known as a gain of 10.

    The most significant change decided at the STAC meeting concerns a structure at the base of the tokamak vessel called the divertor. Its main function is to remove the helium that is the “exhaust” gas of the fusion reaction. The divertor is the only part of the vessel where the superhot plasma actually touches a solid surface, so it has to be able to absorb huge quantities of heat, as much as 10 MW per square meter of surface.

  • U.S. Shutdown Fallout Continues as Agencies Reschedule Grant Panels

    U.S. Shutdown Fallout Continues as Agencies Reschedule Grant Panels

    National Science Foundation/National Institutes of Health

    Research agencies are spelling out how the 16-day U.S. government shutdown has affected grantmaking efforts—and how they will try to catch up. The reshuffling could mean delays of 4 months or more for some applicants and a lot more work for some reviewers. And at least one academic researcher worries that the disruption could be career-ending.

    At the National Science Foundation (NSF), the shutdown forced the cancellation of 98 review panels involving 811 scientists, acting NSF Director Cora Marrett told reporters during a teleconference today.  “They will all have to be rescheduled,” she said, but the agency isn’t yet ready to provide details. 

    At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), officials canceled more than 200 peer-review meetings involving thousands of scientists and more than 11,000 applications. Because the shutdown fell smack in the middle of one of the agency’s thrice-a-year review periods, many peer-review panels will now meet early next year.

  • First New Dengue Virus Type in 50 Years

    First New Dengue Virus Type in 50 Years

    Spreader. An Aedes aegypti mosquito, a major carrier of the Dengue fever virus.

    Centers for Disease Prevention and Control

    BANGKOK—Scientists have discovered a new type of the virus that causes a centuries-old pestilence, dengue. The surprising find, announced at a major dengue conference here today, is bound to complicate efforts to develop a vaccine against a tropical disease that is becoming a more pervasive global menace. But it could shed light on where the pathogen came from and whether it is evolving into a greater threat. The finding “may change the way we think about dengue virus evolution and emergence," says Duane Gubler, a dengue expert at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore.

    There is no vaccine or drug against dengue, which is spread by mosquitoes and causes fever and sometimes excruciating joint pain and muscle aches. Patients typically recover on their own, though severe cases need medical support. Occasionally, the illness progresses to dengue hemorrhagic fever, a potentially fatal complication in which blood leaks through vessel walls. A dengue infection confers lifetime immunity to that particular type. But subsequent infection with a second type increases the likelihood of serious illness. With that in mind, vaccine developers have strived to protect against all four types simultaneously.

    That may have gotten more challenging. By chance, researchers screening dengue viral samples found a virus collected during an outbreak in Malaysia's Sarawak state in 2007 that they suspected was different from the four original serotypes. They sequenced the virus and found that it is phylogenetically distinct from the other four types. Experiments found that monkey antibodies produced against the new type differ significantly from those resulting from the previously known dengue viruses. "We discovered and characterized a new dengue serotype," announced Nikos Vasilakis, a virologist at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, here today at the Third International Conference on Dengue and Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever

  • Despite End of U.S. Shutdown, Antarctic Research Projects Still Getting Canceled

    Landlocked. Ecologist Stacy Kim, here diving in Antarctica in 2011, has been told her 2013 field season at McMurdo Station will have to be delayed until next year because of the U.S. government shutdown.

    Landlocked. Ecologist Stacy Kim, here diving in Antarctica in 2011, has been told her 2013 field season at McMurdo Station will have to be delayed until next year because of the U.S. government shutdown.

    Credit: Adam Marsh/US Antarctic Program

    Wait until next year.

    That’s what the National Science Foundation (NSF) has told benthic ecologist Stacy Kim, who later this month was expecting to assemble her 13-member research team in Antarctica to study its intricate food web. Although the U.S. Antarctic program that NSF runs is back in business, fears that the 16-day U.S. government shutdown would squeeze out research on the frozen continent have become reality for some scientists.

    The bad news for Kim came this past Friday morning, only 24 hours after her program manager and the rest of the NSF staff had returned to work. “He said my project was unsupportable because the resources won’t be available in time,” says Kim, a researcher at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in northern California, a part of the California state universities. “So the project is being delayed until next year.”

    Kim has an NSF grant to study how the foraging habits of the continent’s top predators—Adélie penguins and minke and killer whales—affect distribution of their prey, mainly krill and silverfish. The project is based at a field camp set up on the sea ice outside McMurdo Station, the biggest of the three U.S. Antarctic outposts. It includes a remotely operated submersible equipped with environmental sensors as well as divers. This year, her second and final field season of the 4.5-year grant, Kim had also arranged a one-time only collaboration with scientists at nearby Italian, New Zealand, and Australian bases to expand the geographic scope of her project.

  • Spain Saves Science Agency From Immediate Bankruptcy, but Strains Continue

    Solvent. An emergency infusion of cash is keeping the Spanish National Research Council, headquartered in Madrid, afloat.

    Solvent. An emergency infusion of cash is keeping the Spanish National Research Council, headquartered in Madrid, afloat.

    Wikimedia

    The Spanish government today agreed to give the nation’s flagship research agency a €70 million ($96 million) cash injection to save it from imminent bankruptcy. Scientists are welcoming the news, but say it solves just one of the problems facing Spain’s national science system, and probably only temporarily.

    The funding announcement puts an end to months of uncertainty regarding the immediate future of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). CSIC is Spain’s largest research organization, employing some 6000 researchers in more than 120 institutes that span all disciplines, from biology and materials science to the humanities. The agency began running into trouble in 2009, when its funding streams started declining much faster than expenditures, largely as a result of successive across-the-board funding cuts made by the former and current Spanish governments. At the end of June, CSIC received an extra €25 million ($34 million) from the government as part of an €104 million ($142 million) emergency package for research. Two weeks later, however, CSIC President Emilio Lora-Tamayo warned of an impending "cataclysm." Without a further cash injection of €75 million ($103 million), he said, CSIC would go into bankruptcy by the end of the year.

    In July, Lora-Tamayo ordered the directors and managers of the CSIC institutes to severely slow spending and revealed that he had used the funds from research group accounts to keep the agency afloat without researchers knowing. The measures spread chaos and uncertainty among CSIC researchers; many saw their projects or travel plans grind to a halt.

  • Manifesto Urges Breaking Down Europe's Scientific Borders

    Scientists without borders? A 2014 deadline for the ERA will be missed, a European Commission report acknowledged last month.

    European Commission

    BRUSSELS—For more than a decade, Europe’s politicians and research leaders have talked about the need to make it easier for scientists to work with their colleagues across borders and relocate within the European Union. But despite the talk, the concept of a “free market for research” hasn’t advanced much.

    Now, two members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have proposed taking legally binding measures to force E.U. countries to take the idea seriously. But their proposal, presented here at a meeting on 16 October, has elicited lukewarm responses from universities and research funders.

    The suggestion comes from two Italian MEPs from different political sides: Luigi Berlinguer, a democrat and former science minister in his country, and Amalia Sartori, the conservative chairwoman of the Parliament's research committee. In their manifesto, titled A Maastricht for Research, Berlinguer and Sartori say the time has come to “speed up” the advent of the so-called European Research Area (ERA) through E.U. directives and even a “constitutional commitment.” (E.U. directives are used to align national laws by a set deadline, leaving member states free to decide how they meet shared E.U. goals.)

    The document's title refers to the landmark Maastricht treaty, signed in 1992, which created a single European market ensuring the free movement of goods, capital, people, and services. Eight years later, the idea to create the “fifth freedom” emerged—the free circulation of researchers, scientific knowledge, and technology. By 2014, ERA would make the European Union's research policies more coherent and enable scientists to move from Athens to Paris as easily as U.S. scientists relocate from Boston to San Diego.

  • NIH Scrambles to Catch Up After U.S. Shutdown

    Senate panel wants NIH researchers to have a bit more funding.

    Keeping busy. Senate panel wants NIH researchers to have a bit more funding.

    Rhoda Baer/National Eye Institute

    Grants staff members at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who came back to work yesterday after the 16-day government shutdown ended will now need to catch up on a backlog of research proposals and canceled peer-review meetings. Exactly how all this will play out isn’t yet clear, and angst is rising in the blogosphere about how researchers seeking new funding for their projects will be affected.

    Yesterday, NIH extramural research chief Sally Rockey announced on her blog that NIH was back in business and added a warning:

  • NSF Asks Scientists to Give It Time to Regroup After Shutdown

    Jump-start. Employees of the National Science Foundation will be gathering today to discuss how best to restart grantmaking efforts.

    National Science Foundation

    No advisory committee meetings for the rest of the year. No review panels until November. And don’t call us just yet.

    That’s the guidance to the research community from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which reopened yesterday after the 16-day government shutdown. A memo from NSF acting Director Cora Marrett (also see below) outlines a series of steps that the $7-billion-a-year agency will be taking to get back to business over the next several weeks.

    “It will take time and extra effort to work through the backlog of activities,” Marrett writes. “It’s important for us … to focus on re-establishing core functions, such as receiving, reviewing and awarding/declining proposals, as well as oversight and management of existing awards.”

    NSF is urging scientists not to contact their program officers until the agency has had time to catch up on the backlog generated by the shutdown and resume normal operations. To that end, Marrett’s memo asks staffers to “pre-emptively communicate expectations” with the research community and “refrain from responding to PI calls and emails.”

    To ease the immediate crunch, Marrett has directed staff members to postpone all panel reviews “through the end of October” and to cancel meetings of the various advisory committees that offer regular input to the agency’s research directorates and major programs until 2014. Staffers have also been asked to postpone travel, including site visits, “for at least one week, if possible.”

    NSF is holding town meetings this morning to give staffers at its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters a chance to comment on what Marrett calls NSF’s “recovery plans.”

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