Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Technical elements of Iran deal put the brakes on nuclear breakout

    A once-secret nuclear facility deep under a mountain near Iran’s holy city of Qom is slated to become one of the world’s most unusual international research centers. A plutonium-producing reactor will be reengineered and downsized. And enough enriched uranium to make several atomic bombs will be removed or diluted. These and other technical elements of the action plan on Iran’s nuclear program announced yesterday seek a delicate balance: preventing Iran from building an atomic arsenal while allowing it to retain significant nuclear R&D.

    A final agreement, in which Iran will dismantle parts of its nuclear program and accept international inspections in return for the lifting of international sanctions, isn’t due until the end of June. But the technical fixes announced yesterday have raised hopes that negotiators will be able to reach a final agreement. “It’s great that they persevered, with all the opposition,” says Frank von Hippel, a physicist and arms control expert at Princeton University.

    The goal of the United States and its negotiating partners is to slow Iran’s “breakout time”—the timescale of a crash effort to porduce enough weapons-grade fissle material for one bomb—from an estimated 2 to 3 months to at least a year. One major bone of contention has been the Arak heavy water reactor. Iranian officials say the chief aim of the 40-megawatt fission reactor, under construction in the central province of Markazi, is to make radioisotopes for medicine. But simply running the reactor on its natural uranium fuel would yield about 10 kilograms of plutonium a year, enough for one or two atomic bombs. To greatly reduce the amount of plutonium generated in Arak’s spent fuel, von Hippel and others had proposed changing the fuel to low-enriched uranium (LEU), which would greatly curtail plutonium production.

  • Bane of sheep and goat farmers targeted for eradication

    Vets vaccinate a young goat in Congo against ovine rinderpest.

    Vets vaccinate a young goat in Congo against ovine rinderpest.

    © FAO/Xavier Farhay

    Animal health specialists meeting in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, yesterday agreed to try to rid the world of peste des petits ruminants (PPR), a viral disease devastating goat and sheep flocks throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Control efforts have fallen short. The time has come for a "bolder next step," said José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, at the meeting FAO organized with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to kick off a global eradication program.

    Also called ovine rinderpest, PPR kills up to 90% of the animals it infects within days. The virus has spread rapidly over the past 15 years and is now present in 70 countries, putting 80% of the world's more than 2 billion goat and sheep at risk. FAO estimates that the disease causes more than $2 billion in losses annually and is an economic disaster for the small herders and poor rural households that depend on the animals for milk, meat, wool, and leather both for their own use and for trade.

    The eradication plan envisions a staged approach. The assessment phase requires determining the numbers and locations of flocks most at risk and building veterinary capabilities. Then control efforts relying on voluntary vaccination will hopefully lead to an endgame in which authorities might enforce vaccination. The final step would be for countries to verify that there have been no PPR cases within their borders for at least 24 months. FAO and OIE believe they will need $4 billion to $7 billion over the next 15 years to accomplish their goal.

  • Need cash? Publish your paper in the MalariaWorld Journal

    The most important malaria vector, Anopheles gambiae.

    The most important malaria vector, Anopheles gambiae.

    AFPMB/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Most open-access (OA) journals make money by making authors pay an article processing charge to publish a paper. A small online malaria journal based in the Netherlands wants to turn that situation on its head. It is promising to pay authors €150 for every article it publishes from now on. The idea behind the move—possible thanks to a Dutch funding agency—is not only to lure authors to the journal, but also to drive home the message that academic publishing is way too expensive, says the journal's editor, Bart Knols.

    The upstart journal—which has so far published only 57 papers—is part of MalariaWorld, a website and networking tool that has some 8500 registered users in 140 countries. Two experts review papers submitted to the journal, Knols says; if they disagree, the journal’s editors decide whether to publish. The plan is to reward every published paper; if there are multiple authors they will need to split the €150.

    Whereas traditional journals make money by charging for subscriptions, OA journals make their papers available for free; to generate revenue, most ask their authors to pay “author fees” or “article processing fees” instead. Even in the OA world, “at the end of the day it is all about money," Knols complained in a recent piece. He singled out Malaria Journal, an OA journal published by London-based BioMed Central that charges €1720 per published paper.

  • U.S. takes possible first step toward regulating nanochemicals

    Nanocubes, which researchers have explored as a possible way to store hydrogen for energy.

    Nanocubes, which researchers have explored as a possible way to store hydrogen for energy.


    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is ratcheting up its scrutiny of nanoscale chemicals amid concerns that they could pose unique environmental and health risks. Late last month, the agency proposed requiring companies to submit data on industrial nanomaterials that they already make and sell. Observers say EPA’s move could be a prelude to tighter federal regulation of nanomaterials, which have begun to show up in consumer products.

    For years, EPA has grappled with whether and how to use the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the nation’s leading chemical regulation law, to handle nanomaterials. TSCA is silent on nanoproducts, generally defined as materials composed of structures between 1 and 100 billionths of a meter. But many environmental groups worry that they potentially carry unknown risks by virtue of their size. Other observers, however, have argued that size alone shouldn’t trigger new regulation and that existing rules are adequate to deal with the new products.

    EPA’s 25 March proposal actually walks back an earlier version—now scrapped—that would have let the agency more easily clamp down on any new uses of nanomaterials. Still, the weaker version being proposed now represents the first time EPA would use its powers under TSCA to request information specifically on nanomaterials. (The proposal comes as Congress is debating revamping TSCA, which has drawn extensive criticism.)

  • Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, hospital join forces to develop cancer drugs

    Sculpture depicting ribosomes at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

    Credit: Catrijn vanden Westhende/Flickr

    The famed Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island, New York, a bastion of basic biomedical research, is making a major foray into more applied drug development. Today the lab and North Shore-LIJ Health System, a local hospital system, announced a new alliance and a more than $120 million investment aimed at moving basic cancer discoveries into the clinic.

    The alliance does not mean that CSHL is moving away from basic research, says Bruce Stillman, CSHL CEO and President. “Our discovery science has placed us as one of the leading research institutions in the world,” and “I want to keep it at that level,” he says. But the lab also wants to turn those discoveries into drugs. It found an “ideal marriage” with North Shore-LIJ, which has 16,000 new cancer patients each year in the New York City area and wanted to expand its academic clinical research, he says. “This will provide a substantial amount of funding to do the translational cancer research that we have been doing on a shoestring budget,” Stillman says.

    The not-for profit CSHL, which turns 125 this year, has a $145 million budget and 600 researchers and technical staff who study cancer, neuroscience, plant biology, and quantitative biology. The lab has long had a National Cancer Institute–designated Cancer Center where work using genomics, RNAi screens, and mouse models has yielded important cancer drug targets. But until now the lab has relied largely on pharmaceutical companies to develop those findings into treatments. “This will take it to a different level” with the alliance’s researchers validating targets, developing protocols, and conducting early stage clinical trials, Stillman says.

  • A geoscientist’s take on new U.S. fracking rules

    Mark Zoback in 2010

    Mark Zoback in 2010

    National Academy of Sciences/Flickr

    New federal rules aimed at making a controversial oil and gas drilling technique safer and more transparent reflect numerous suggestions from technical experts, says a geoscientist involved in the process.

    Late last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior released new regulations governing the use of hydraulic fracturing techniques, better known as fracking, by oil and gas companies drilling on federal and tribal lands. The rules—updated for the first time in 30 years—apply to 283 million hectares of public land and 23 million hectares of American Indian land. About 90% of new or planned wells on federal land use fracking, officials estimate. Overall, wells on federal and tribal lands produce less than 25% of the country’s oil and gas.

    The rules go beyond many, but not all, state regulations by requiring drillers to provide regulators with details about a well’s geological setting and to disclose the substances they inject into the well in order to fracture deep layers of rock (although companies can still request that trade secrets remain private). In a bid to protect ground water and surface waters, the rules also ask companies to explain how they will drill, case and seal the wells properly to prevent leaks (a process known as cementing), and handle wastewater that is pumped back to the surface.

    Those ideas were among the many recommendations made in 2011 by a high-level advisory panel created by then–Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to examine whether the United States could develop its natural gas resources while protecting public health and the environment. One member of the panel was Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University in California. Zoback recently spoke with ScienceInsider about the background and implications of the new rules. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • New RIKEN chief pledges to restore public faith in Japanese lab system

    TOKYO—On his first day on the job as the new president of RIKEN, Japan's network of national labs, Hiroshi Matsumoto pledged to follow through on his predecessor's plans for addressing shortcomings that created an environment for research misconduct. "We need to instill high standards of research ethics among individual scientists," he said.

    Meeting reporters this evening, Matsumoto briefly outlined other initial priorities, saying he will visit all the widely scattered sites under the RIKEN banner to listen to researchers' concerns and gather information firsthand. At an institutional level, a challenge he faces will be taking advantage of RIKEN's new status as a national research and development institute, which promises more flexibility in managing operations, including the ability to recruit world-class researchers with competitive compensation and support.

  • Tiny beetles don’t cause big fires, study finds, raising policy questions

    A forest fire in Colorado in 2012.

    A forest fire in Colorado in 2012.

    U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jesica Geffre

    Vast armies of tiny, tree-killing insects called bark beetles have eaten their way through millions of hectares of pine forest in the western United States since the mid-1990s, leaving the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and other states riddled with dead trees. But contrary to popular belief, say the authors of a new study, the beetles aren’t to blame for the record-breaking extent of the wildfires that have torched the region’s forests in recent years.

    The study, published online on 23 March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to take a large-scale look at how beetles are affecting the acreage burned across the western United States. Its findings are consistent with earlier research looking at smaller regions and are likely to fuel an ongoing debate over the wisdom of relatively expensive federal efforts to cull insect-damaged trees from western forests, in part to reduce fire risk.

    “We examined [an] assumption that’s been made in a lot of policy and management discussions,” says co-author Tom Veblen, a forest and fire ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “That, as a result of tree-kill by bark beetles, there should be an increase in the aggregate area burned in the western U.S.”

  • Short circuit in Large Hadron Collider is fixed

    Engineers Aline Piguiet and Markus Albert take x-ray images to pinpoint the cause of a short circuit in the Large Hadron Collider.

    Engineers Aline Piguiet and Markus Albert take x-ray images to pinpoint the cause of a short circuit in the Large Hadron Collider.

    Maximilien Brice/CERN

    Efforts to fix a short circuit in the world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), have been successful, according to officials at the European particle physics lab, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland.

    Engineers detected the short on 21 March as they prepared to restart the LHC—the 27-kilometer-long collider that in 2012 discovered the Higgs boson—after 2 years of repairs. That short was apparently caused by a wayward bit of metal inside the "diode box" in one of the superconducting dipole magnets that steer particles as they hurtle around the LHC. Now, engineers have succeeded in burning off the piece of metal by injecting 400 amps of current into the shorted circuit, to blow it a bit like you'd blow a fuse.

    "The progress is good. … The short has disappeared. We are back into what we would call more routine test phase now," says Paul Collier, head of the beams department at CERN.

  • Controversial fertility treatments focus on eggs’ power plants

    Mitochondrial therapies may help infertile couples produce human embryos (left) by in vitro fertilization.

    Mitochondrial therapies may help infertile couples produce human embryos (left) by in vitro fertilization.

    © Zephyr/Science Source

    Derived from bacteria, mitochondria are our cells’ energy-producing powerhouses. Now, a Massachusetts company is convinced that these microscopic cylinders are also key to conceiving a baby, and it has persuaded several groups of physicians outside the United States to test that controversial premise in women with fertility problems. More than 10 women are pregnant via the firm’s proprietary in vitro fertilization (IVF) method, which adds a bolus of a woman’s own mitochondria to her mature egg.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has erected roadblocks in front of a fertility specialist and a stem cell biologist who want to clinically test the mitochondrial hypothesis in the United States. The duo would like to harness a different IVF strategy: swapping out a woman’s mitochondria by transferring chromosomes from her egg into an egg from another woman. The technique, called mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), was just legalized in the United Kingdom to prevent rare genetic diseases. But even before that, the two researchers applied for permission to use it in women who are struggling to conceive. FDA said it needs far more data before allowing the work to proceed.

    A central question for both IVF strategies is whether faulty or aging mitochondria actually drive infertility, and whether correcting that problem restores eggs to health. OvaScience, the Cambridge-based biotech firm, says the results it presented at a meeting in San Francisco last week answer that. In one small cohort of women with fertility issues, the company achieved a pregnancy rate of 35%. “We are so excited,” says Michelle Dipp, OvaScience’s CEO.

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