Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

  • Disease modelers project a rapidly rising toll from Ebola

    If spread continues at the current rate, a model by Alessandro Vespignani and colleagues projects close to 10,000 Ebola infections by 24 September. (The shaded area provides the projection's variability range.)

    If spread continues at the current rate, a model by Alessandro Vespignani and colleagues projects close to 10,000 Ebola infections by 24 September. (The shaded area provides the projection's variability range.)

    A. Vespignani

    Alessandro Vespignani hopes that his latest work will turn out to be wrong. In July, the physicist from Northeastern University in Boston started modeling how the deadly Ebola virus may spread in West Africa. Extrapolating existing trends, the number of the sick and dying mounts rapidly from the current toll—more than 3000 cases and 1500 deaths—to about 10,000 cases by 24 September, and hundreds of thousands in the months after that. “The numbers are really scary,” he says—although he stresses that the model assumes control efforts aren't stepped up. "We all hope to see this NOT happening," Vespigani writes in an e-mail.

    Vespignani is not the only one trying to predict how the unprecedented outbreak will progress. Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the number of cases could ultimately exceed 20,000. And scientists across the world are scrambling to create computer models that accurately describe the spread of the deadly virus. Not all of them look quite as bleak as Vespignani's. But the modelers all agree that current efforts to control the epidemic are not enough to stop the deadly pathogen in its tracks.

    Computer models “are incredibly helpful” in curbing an outbreak, says infectious disease researcher Jeremy Farrar, who heads the Wellcome Trust research charity in London. They can help agencies such as WHO predict the medical supplies and personnel they will need—and can indicate which interventions will best stem the outbreak. Mathematical epidemiologist Christian Althaus of the University of Bern, who is also building Ebola models, says both WHO and Samaritan's Purse, a relief organization fighting Ebola, have contacted him to learn about his projections.

    But the modelers are hampered by the paucity of data on the current outbreak and lack of knowledge about how Ebola spreads. Funerals of Ebola victims are known to spread the virus, for example—but how many people are infected that way is not known. “Before this we have never had that much Ebola, so the epidemiology was never well developed,” says Ira Longini, a biostatistician at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “We are caught with our pants down.”

  • An affordable price tag for saving Brazil's Atlantic rainforest

    Bare-throated bellbirds (Procnias nudicollis) benefit from intact forests.

    Bare-throated bellbirds (Procnias nudicollis) benefit from intact forests.

    Pedro Develey

    Saving biodiversity is a noble goal, but how much will it cost? And where should the money be spent? These are difficult questions for policymakers. An innovative analysis, published in this week’s issue of Science, lays out a plan for Brazil’s diverse and endangered Atlantic Forest.

    “The most important message is that restoration can be targeted in a way that minimizes costs and has a greater likelihood of delivering lasting environmental benefits,” says Toby Gardner, an ecologist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, who was not involved in the new research.

    South America’s Atlantic rainforest is a good case study for the challenges of conservation policy. With a great variety of environmental conditions, life has evolved into incredible diversity. But farming, ranching, and urban development have destroyed much of the forest. Less than 8% remains of its original 1.43 million square kilometers that spanned Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Over the years, conservationists have made mostly small-scale attempts to restore the forest.

  • Bárðarbunga briefly shows its fiery side

    Stronger earthquakes associated with last night's eruption shown in yellow and orange.

    Stronger earthquakes associated with last night's eruption shown in yellow and orange.

    Icelandic Meteorological Office

    Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano has had a short eruption that sent steam into the air, but officials have lifted air flight restrictions now that the activity has stopped, Reuters is reporting.

    An eruption that began at about midnight local time in a fissure in a lava field ended about 4 hours later, government officials said in a statement. Iceland’s weather office initially raised the aviation alert status to red, which imposes certain flight restrictions in the area. It returned the status to orange, however, after no extensive ash was observed. Flights in the area are now allowed.

  • Experimental Ebola drug saves monkeys, but will this translate to humans?

    Erica Ollmann Saphire at Scripps event showing a model of the Ebola surface protein (white) with three ZMapp antibodies attached.

    Erica Ollmann Saphire at Scripps event showing a model of the Ebola surface protein (white) with three ZMapp antibodies attached.

    Melissa Jacobs/The Scripps Research Institute

    SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—This past Wednesday, at a discussion titled “Stopping the Deadly Ebola Outbreak” held at the Scripps Research Institute here, a local TV reporter repeatedly prodded one of the star panelists, Kevin Whaley, the CEO of Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego.

    After Whaley explained that he had no idea whether ZMapp, his company’s now famous experimental antibody cocktail used to treat Ebola victims, really worked, the journalist continued to press. “From what you’ve seen in your research—and what your heart says—what do you say?”

    The audience of 100 people or so broke into nervous giggles.

    “I’m not willing to speculate on that,” Whaley replied.

  • U.S. agency says 20 coral species are threatened

    Lobed coral

    Lobed coral

    NOAA Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

    Ocean acidification, warming waters, and disease could lead 20 species of Caribbean and Pacific corals to be at risk for extinction by 2100. That argument formed the basis for a decision Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to add them to the list of threatened corals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).   

    "I don’t think we can make any decision anymore about ESA listings without taking into account the reality that the planet is warming, that the ocean is changing, and will continue to change," said Russell Brainard, NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division chief, in explaining the agency’s action. Two coral species are already listed as threatened, a less protective category than endangered. The agency must now decide how to reduce the stress of those changes on coral species, some of which have declined by 90%.            

    In 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) asked NOAA to list 83 species under the federal law, arguing that each one had declined by at least 30% in 30 years. In 2012, NOAA proposed listing 66 of those petitioned corals as threatened and moving the two species already on the list, the Caribbean elkhorn and staghorn corals (Acropora palmata and Acropora cervicornis), to the most protective category of endangered. David Bernhart, the protected resources chief for NOAA Fisheries' Southeast region, told reporters yesterday that new information about the abundance of each coral species, their location, and how they respond to threats like pollution and ocean warming led to fewer listings than had been anticipated.

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