Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Methane in drinking water unrelated to fracking, study suggests

    A fracking well in in Pennsylvania that extracts gas from the Marcellus Shale.

    A fracking well in in Pennsylvania that extracts gas from the Marcellus Shale.

    © Noah Addis/Corbis

    Fracking doesn’t appear to be allowing methane to seriously contaminate drinking water in Pennsylvania, a new study finds—contrary to some earlier, much publicized research that suggested a stronger link. But the lead authors of the two bodies of research are sparring over the validity of the new results.

    The new study of 11,309 drinking water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania concludes that background levels of methane in the water are unrelated to the location of hundreds of oil and gas wells that tap hydraulically fractured, or fracked, rock formations. The finding suggests that fracking operations are not significantly contributing to the leakage of methane from deep rock formations, where oil and gas are extracted, up to the shallower aquifers where well water is drawn.

    The result also calls into question prominent studies in 2011 and 2013 that did find a correlation in a nearby part of Pennsylvania. There, wells closer to fracking sites had higher levels of methane. Those studies, however, were based on just 60 and 141 domestic well samples, respectively.

  • Updated: Editor quits journal over pay-for-expedited peer-review offer

    With a tweet yesterday, an editor of Scientific Reports, one of Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG’s) open-access journals, has resigned in a very public protest of NPG’s recent decision to allow authors to pay money to expedite peer review of their submitted papers. “My objections are that it sets up a two-tiered system and instead of the best science being published in a timely fashion it will further shift the balance to well-funded labs and groups,” Mark Maslin, a biogeographer at University College London, tells ScienceInsider. “Academic Publishing is going through a revolution and we should expect some bumps along the way. This was just one that I felt I could not accept.”

    The flap shines a light on a fledgling industry where several companies are now making millions of dollars by privatizing peer review. This niche is being exploited because journal peer review is usually a slow process. After all, it is typically an anonymous, volunteer effort for which scientists receive nothing more than thanks from journal editors and the good feeling of contributing to the scientific community. But for a price at some journals, authors now have the option of fast-tracking their submitted papers through an accelerated peer-review process.

  • U.K. government scientists hit with media restrictions

    The U.K. government wants scientists at the Met Office and other government institutes to ask permission before giving interviews.

    The U.K. government wants scientists at the Met Office and other government institutes to ask permission before giving interviews.

    Met Office

    Advocates for science communication in the United Kingdom have expressed “deep concern” about a change to the Civil Service Code for public workers, including researchers at government agencies. The three-sentence addition, put into place on 16 March, requires that all contact with media be approved in advance by the minister in charge of the relevant agency.

    The Science Media Centre (SMC) in London and two other organizations fear that the policy change will hinder communication of science by preventing government scientists from responding to journalists quickly enough to meet their deadlines. "They're already a bit quiet," says SMC Director Fiona Fox. “If this makes them more quiet, that’s a bad thing.” Similar restrictions on media contact in Canada have led to delays in granting interviews with scientists and omission of Canadian research from media stories.

  • Physicists narrow in on electrical short in Large Hadron Collider

    A short in an electrical connection to one of the LHC’s superconducting magnets has been pinpointed to the magnet's diode box, indicated above.

    A short in an electrical connection to one of the LHC’s superconducting magnets has been pinpointed to the magnet's diode box, indicated above.

    Arjan Verweij/CERN

    Officials at the European particle physics lab, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, still don't know how long it will take to fix an electrical short in the world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but engineers have now homed in on the fault.

    As ScienceInsider reported earlier this week, the short has delayed the restart of the LHC, which was expected this week, after 2 years of downtime for repairs. During preparatory tests of the LHC's systems on 21 March, a short developed in an electrical connection to one of the 1232 superconducting dipole magnets—each measuring 15 meters in length and weighing 35 tonnes—that steer particles around the LHC's 27-kilometer ring. Researchers suspect that a wayward fragment of metal has caused the problem, and using standard electrical diagnostics, engineers have located the metal scrap to within 10 centimeters, according to a statement on the CERN website.

  • Max Planck Society unveils €50 million support plan for young scientists

    Max Planck will do away with stipends for young scientists that lacked many social benefits.

    Max Planck will do away with stipends for young scientists that lacked many social benefits.

    Max Planck Society

    The Max Planck Society (MPG), Germany's flagship organization for basic research, will improve its support for junior scientists and do away with a stipend system used mostly for foreign Ph.D. students and postdocs that many had decried as unfair because it doesn't include basic social security benefits. The new scheme will cost the society up to €50 million annually.

    The measure, officially announced yesterday (English version here), was welcomed by PhDnet, an organization of Ph.D. students at MPG that had been lobbying for change for over a decade. “This step brings young researchers one step closer to the living, social, and work contract standards of Germany,” writes PhDnet spokesman Prateek Mahalwar in an e-mail.

    With a €1.6 billion annual budget and 83 institutes spanning the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, MPG employs more than 3400 Ph.D. researchers, 54% of whom are non-German nationals. About one-third of them have a so-called support contract, anchored in a collective wage agreement for Germany's civil servants, that offers many social and legal protections, including public health insurance and child benefits. The remaining two-thirds are on a stipend, which tends to offer more freedom in research and working conditions, but generally comes with less money and fewer benefits.

    The distinction has triggered protests, especially because most German Ph.D. students have a contract, while most foreigners work for a stipend. PhDnet began sounding the alarm and lobbying for change in 2003, and in 2012, a group of young researchers launched a petition calling for fair pay. Although MPG has taken small steps to make the system fairer, the inequality became increasingly unacceptable, acknowledges Martin Stratmann, who became president of MPG last year.

  • Why NIH's Anthony Fauci is treating Ebola patients himself

    Fauci donning his protective suit.

    Fauci donning his protective suit.


    WASHINGTON, D.C.—As head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci wields a $4.4 billion research budget and has a punishing schedule. But the past 2 weeks, Fauci, 74, has reserved 2 hours on most days to put on a protective plastic suit and help treat a U.S. health care worker who became infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone.

    "I now have a much, much more profound respect for the seriousness of this illness in some patients," says Fauci, who talked about his experiences at a filovirus meeting here yesterday. "Even when you have optimum facilities for replenishment of fluids and things like that, the disease itself is truly devastating."

    A medical doctor who has headed NIAID for 30 years, Fauci has treated countless patients at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—of which NIAID is a part—in Bethesda, Maryland. "I do believe that one gets unique insights into disease when you actually physically interact with patients," he says. In the case of Ebola, Fauci says he also wanted to show his staff that he wouldn't ask them to do anything he wouldn't do himself; in addition, "it is very exciting and gratifying to participate in saving someone’s life," he says. Fauci also helped treat Dallas nurse Nina Pham, who was hospitalized at the Clinical Center for 8 days in October and visited President Barack Obama after she recovered.

  • Human error led to sinking of Taiwanese research vessel

    Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V sank on 10 October.

    Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V sank on 10 October.


    The sinking of Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V last fall resulted from human error, the head of the country's Maritime and Port Bureau told local press this week. The 10 October accident claimed the lives of two researchers and rendered the dedicated marine research ship a total loss.

    Barely a day into a cruise to study atmospheric pollution, Ocean Researcher V headed back to port because of bad weather. The ship drifted off course, struck two submerged reefs, and sank near the Penghu Islands, about 260 kilometers southwest of Taipei in the Taiwan Strait. Most of the 27 researchers and students and 18 crew were rescued. But Shih-Chieh Hsu, the cruise's chief scientist, and Yi-Chun Lin, an engineering assistant, drowned.

    Wen-chung Chi, director-general of the Maritime and Port Bureau, said that a review of the ship's voyage data recorder and other evidence indicated that the crew should have been alerted that the ship had drifted off course. A comprehensive report on the accident is due to be released next week.

  • Hoax-detecting software spots fake papers

    Hoax-detecting software spots fake papers

    Andrey Voskressenskiy/iStock

    It all started as a prank in 2005. Three computer science Ph.D. students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn, and Dan Aguayo—created a program to generate nonsensical computer science research papers. The goal, says Stribling, now a software engineer in Palo Alto, California, was “to expose the lack of peer review at low-quality conferences that essentially scam researchers with publication and conference fees.”

    The program—dubbed SCIgen—soon found users across the globe, and before long its automatically generated creations were being accepted by scientific conferences and published in purportedly peer-reviewed journals. But SCIgen may have finally met its match. Academic publisher Springer this week is releasing SciDetect, an open-source program to automatically detect automatically generated papers.

    SCIgen uses a “context-free grammar” to create word salad that looks like reasonable text from a distance but is easily spotted as nonsense by a human reader. For example:

    Cyberneticists agree that semantic modalities are an interesting new topic in the field of programming languages, and theorists concur. This is a direct result of the development of web browsers. After years of compelling research into access points, we confirm the visualization of kernels. Amphibious approaches are particularly theoretical when it comes to the refinement of massive multiplayer online role-playing games.

  • Scientists argue over access to remaining Ebola hotspots

    An Ebola treatment unit in Guinea.

    An Ebola treatment unit in Guinea.

    Samuel Hanryon/MSF

    The slowdown in the West African Ebola epidemic is welcome news and reason to be hopeful—but it’s also creating a new problem. With fewer new cases occurring, it is becoming more and more difficult to test vaccines and drugs. As a result, conflicts are looming over who can test Ebola drugs and vaccines in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

    In Guinea, a large consortium that includes Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) vaccinated the first volunteers at risk of Ebola on Monday in a big trial of a vaccine produced by Merck and NewLink Genetics. But the team feels threatened because researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) are looking to move another vaccine study from Liberia, where the epidemic has come to a virtual standstill, to Guinea.

    The U.S. move could jeopardize the Guinean trial, says John-Arne Røttingen of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, who chairs the study’s steering committee. "Can the two trials be going on in the same place? I don’t think so," says Marie-Paule Kieny, an assistant director-general at WHO. "There is a risk, if this is not done in an orderly way, that neither trial is conclusive in the end."

    But Clifford Lane, head of clinical research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, which is part of NIH, says that Guinea, which reported 45 new patients last week, can accommodate both studies. "Guinea is basically as large as Sierra Leone and Liberia together," he says. "It would seem reasonable to at least explore the possibility."

  • NASA opts for boulder-snatch concept in its asteroid redirect mission

    NASA'S Asteroid Redirect Mission would grab a boulder from an asteroid's surface, and then bring it back near Earth for astronauts to study.

    NASA'S Asteroid Redirect Mission would grab a boulder from an asteroid's surface, and then bring it back near Earth for astronauts to study.


    NASA has decided to pluck a small boulder off an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of Earth, rather than bag up an entire asteroid, agency officials in charge of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) announced today.

    The $1.25 billion mission, which is planned to launch in December 2020, would send a robotic spacecraft for a rendezvous with an asteroid in 2022. After touching down on the asteroid’s surface, the spacecraft would snatch a boulder several meters across. The spacecraft would then orbit the asteroid for up to 400 days, testing out an idea for defending Earth from a catastrophic asteroid impact: using the spacecraft’s own gravitational field to subtly alter the asteroid’s orbit. Next, the spacecraft would bring the snatched rock back to Earth’s vicinity in 2025. Finally, as part of preparations for a possible mission to Mars, astronauts would visit and examine the rock for some 25 days, using the planned Orion spacecraft to make the trip.

    The boulder-snatch concept is expected to cost $100 million more than the bagging concept, but it would be better for developing technologies that would have greater value for exploring Mars, explained Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator, during a teleconference today. Moreover, he says, whereas a bagging mission might get only one chance to snare its target, a boulder-snatching spacecraft will have a chance to survey the asteroid ahead of time before picking a target, and it could make several attempts at grabbing a boulder. “I’m going to have multiple targets when I get there, is what it boils down to,” he says. “That was the better value, in my opinion, for what we’re trying to do.”

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