Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Japan's researchers face increased ethics oversight

    TOKYO—Scientists in Japan applying for government grants will soon be getting new mandatory reading material: a manual for promoting research integrity.

    The manual, to be released by the end of the year, is being developed by the country’s three major funding agencies and the Science Council of Japan, the nation’s largest organization of researchers.

    "This is not a response to the STAP problem," Makoto Asashima, executive director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), told ScienceInsider, referring to a still-unfolding scandal centered on a now-discredited method of creating stem cells that was announced in January. Speaking on the sidelines of a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)–JSPS collaborative workshop for research integrity, Asashima said that the society, the council, the ministry of education, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency recognized a need to fill a gap in research integrity training in Japan.

  • Dengue vaccine shows promise in Latin America

    The Aedes aegypti mosquito (shown) is dengue's principal vector.

    The Aedes aegypti mosquito (shown) is dengue's principal vector.


    What is likely to be the first dengue vaccine on the market has shown encouraging results in a clinical trial in Latin America, cutting disease incidence in recipients by 60.8%, its developer announced yesterday. The vaccine could be approved for use as early as next year; then, dengue-affected countries would face a tough decision in weighing whether the limited protection it confers will be worth the vaccine’s cost.

    Spread by mosquitoes, dengue is endemic throughout tropical and subtropical regions worldwide and is an especially heavy health care burden in Asia and the Americas. Because there are no drugs for dengue, each year an estimated 20,000 people die and another 500,000 require hospitalization. An initial infection with one of the four distinct dengue virus serotypes is typically mild. Infection with a second serotype often causes severe symptoms, which include a debilitating fever, joint and muscle aches, and internal bleeding. Dengue experts believed that to stave off complications of a second infection, a vaccine must provide balanced protection against all four serotypes—and that has proven difficult to achieve.

  • RIKEN to investigate STAP papers yet again

    RIKEN, Japan's network of national labs, today announced a new investigation into two papers reporting a sensational but now-discredited way of making stem cells. A brief announcement on RIKEN’s website states that the committee will look into issues concerning the papers and related cell lines that have emerged since a previous committee probing for research misconduct completed its work. The earlier committee found lead author Haruko Obokata, of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, guilty of research misconduct for fabrications and falsifications in the papers, published online in Nature on 29 January, which describe a strikingly simple way of deriving stem cells called STAP, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency. Nature retracted the papers on 2 July.

  • Angling group assails study calling for end to some world records

    Anglers have applied for few records for threatened fish, such as this goliath grouper, fishing group says.

    Anglers have applied for few records for threatened fish, such as this goliath grouper, fishing group says.


    A prominent angling group is complaining that there’s something fishy about a recent study calling for an end to awarding world records for endangered fish. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) of Dania Beach, Florida, the leading record-keeper for recreational anglers, says that the numbers don’t support a claim that record-keeping is encouraging people to kill the largest fish in threatened populations.

    IGFA maintains records, which are typically based on weight, for some 1200 species. Last month, researchers reported online in Marine Policy that 85 of those species are rated as either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. They called for IGFA to stop awarding weight-based records for those species, arguing the awards were creating an incentive to kill the largest fish, particularly egg-bearing females.

    IGFA disputes that claim and is rejecting the call to stop awarding records. Most (88%) of the species identified as threatened by the study were listed only within the past 20 years, according to a response written by IGFA Conservation Director Jason Schratwieser. And since those listings, he adds, IGFA reports anglers have submitted only 15 All-Tackle record applications for the threatened species. That small number of applications, Schratwieser writes, “does not support the hypothesis that IGFA All-Tackle records have a disproportionately negative impact on imperiled species as the authors suggest, but rather a disproportionately low impact.” (IGFA has submitted its response to Marine Policy for publication.)

  • Nigeria's Ebola outbreak spreads

    The Ebola virus

    The Ebola virus

    CDC/Dr. Frederick A. Murphy/Wikimedia Commons

    The hopes that Nigeria’s Ebola outbreak could be quickly stamped out have evaporated. The World Health Organization (WHO) this afternoon issued its first detailed report of the spread of the virus in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil hub. Last week, authorities announced that a doctor there had died of the disease, after secretly treating a diplomat who had been infected in Lagos by a traveler from Liberia.

    The doctor had close contact with family, friends, and health care workers during his illness, but he did not disclose his previous exposure to the virus. His infection wasn’t confirmed until 5 days after his death. Experts are now following hundreds of the doctor’s contacts, 60 of which had “high-risk or very high-risk exposure,” WHO says.

    The diplomat had been instructed to stay in Lagos in quarantine. Instead he flew to Port Harcourt, where he was treated—in a hotel room—by the doctor from 1 to 3 August. The diplomat survived and returned to Lagos, presenting himself again to health authorities, who confirmed he was no longer was infected. He did not tell them that he had sought treatment in Port Harcourt.

  • NASA extends seven planetary missions

    The Cassini mission, which took this image of Saturn, got high marks from a NASA review team.

    The Cassini mission, which took this image of Saturn, got high marks from a NASA review team.

    NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

    Everybody wins. NASA has somehow scraped enough money together to extend seven ongoing planetary science missions, based on a review of those missions by senior scientists, NASA officials revealed today at a meeting of a planetary science advisory committee.

    However, the review panel was critical of the Mars rover Curiosity—the newest and the second most expensive of the seven missions—and gave it the worst grade of the bunch. The panel was disappointed that the rover team was planning to drill and analyze just eight more samples during its extended mission. “The panel essentially said, ‘Drive less and do more science,’ ” says Bill Knopf, the lead program executive for planetary mission operations at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Based on the review panel’s findings, NASA has asked the Curiosity team to revise its science plan.

    NASA routinely reviews ongoing missions in all its divisions to assess their scientific effectiveness. Earlier this year, when the review process began, there were fears that two long-standing missions—the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Mars rover Opportunity—were at risk of being shut down. But everyone appears to have escaped the knife.

  • Congo outbreak of Ebola unrelated to escalating West African epidemic

    MSF's Joanne Liu sharply criticized the international response to Ebola today.

    MSF's Joanne Liu sharply criticized the international response to Ebola today.

    UN Web TV

    A new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is unrelated to the 6-month-old epidemic in West Africa, a genetic analysis has confirmed. Although the virus belongs to the same species, Ebola-Zaire, the strain is genetically so different that it "is definitely not a dissemination of the outbreak in West Africa,” says virologist Eric Leroy of the International Centre for Medical Research of Franceville, the World Health Organization (WHO) collaborating center in Gabon that is characterizing the DRC virus.

    Meanwhile, WHO and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) today issued fresh and even more urgent calls for immediate, massive international action to contain the West African outbreak, which is spiraling out of control. At a U.N. briefing today, MSF's Joanne Liu painted a particularly desperate picture of the situation on the ground.

    "Ebola treatment centers are reduced to places where people go to die alone, where little more than palliative care is offered," Liu said. "It is impossible to keep up with the sheer number of infected people pouring into facilities. In Sierra Leone, infectious bodies are rotting in the streets. Rather than building new Ebola care centers in Liberia, we are forced to build crematoria."

    At the same briefing, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan raised her fist and called for "Action, action, action!"

  • Australia's chief scientist unveils science strategy

    Ian Chubb in 2009

    Ian Chubb in 2009

    Lizette Kabré/University of Copenhagen/Wikimedia

    Offering a glimmer of hope for Australia’s embattled scientific community, the nation’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, outlined a national science strategy at a press conference in Canberra today. Among a raft of recommendations, his report calls for creating an Australian Innovation Board to identify priorities that would receive earmarked funding, adding to the rolls of science teachers, adopting a long-term R&D plan, and using science as a tool in Australian diplomacy.

    Australian science has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months. In September 2013, Prime Minister Tony Abbott abolished the science ministry, handing much of the science portfolio to Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane. And coping with an AU$115 million budget cut to its 2014 to 2015 budget, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation revealed in May that it would shutter eight research facilities.

  • Asteroid paper to be retracted because of faulty analysis

    An artist's impression of Hayabusa as it circled the asteroid Itokawa.

    An artist's impression of Hayabusa as it circled the asteroid Itokawa.


    TOKYO—The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced on Friday that it is asking Science to withdraw one of the 2006 papers that resulted from the Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission because of an error in the data analysis. The retraction won't affect scientists' understanding of the asteroid, however, because other papers have confirmed the study's key conclusions.

    The Japanese-led team published a collection of seven papers in a special issue of Science on 2 June 2006 based on observations by four instruments as the Hayabusa spacecraft circled asteroid Itokawa in the fall of 2005. The craft later touched down to grab samples. The paper being retracted, by Tatsuaki Okada and colleagues, presents an analysis of x-ray spectra to determine the elements on the asteroid's surface. The authors concluded "that Itokawa has a composition consistent with that of ordinary chondrites." Chondrites are a type of stony asteroid.

    For various reasons, the authors felt they could not rely on the calibration of the instrument done on Earth before the spacecraft was launched. To compensate, they started by assuming they would see the characteristic x-ray spectra of magnesium and silicon, elements known to be present on ordinary chondrites. They then used what they took to be the spectra of those elements to interpret the instrument's raw data. In effect, the authors jumped to a conclusion and then based their analysis on what they expected to observe. (Explanatory materials, in Japanese, are here.)

  • Indian ecologists decry decision on biodiversity hot spot

    Ecologists hope to save the endangered nilgiri tahr of the Western Ghats.

    Ecologists hope to save the endangered Nilgiri tahr of the Western Ghats.

    Muneef Hameed/Flickr

    BANGALORE, INDIA—A long-running battle over conservation and development in India has taken a new turn. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests disclosed on 27 August that it had shelved a report calling for aggressive measures to preserve the ecology of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing a large swath of southwestern India that’s home to at least 500 endemic species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Instead, the government has adopted another set of recommendations that some ecologists say will do too little to safeguard the region’s biodiversity.

    Biodiversity in the Western Ghats has been under siege for decades. A 1997 study in Current Science found that the region lost about 40% of its forest cover between 1927 and 1990 to agricultural fields, coffee and tea plantations, and hydroelectric reservoirs. Habitat fragmentation has put endemic birds such as the Nilgiri wood pigeon and white-bellied shortwing and mammals such as the Nilgiri tahr, Malabar civet, and lion-tailed macaque on endangered lists.

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