Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Q&A: The physicist who has become a go-to climate adviser for dozens of poor nations

    Bill Hare at a conference in Sydney, Australia, in 2013.

    Bill Hare at a conference in Sydney, Australia, in 2013.

    Greg McNevin/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Bill Hare, a physicist and climate scientist, has become a scientific adviser for some of the nations on the front lines of climate change—poor countries with limited resources to adapt. His Berlin-based nonprofit, Climate Analytics, was established in 2008, with funding from the German government, to help provide scientific and technical advice about climate change to the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries.

    Previously the climate policy director for Greenpeace International, he has attended all 21 annual meetings of the Conference of Parties—the global climate change summits begun after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In Paris, he is working with a number of poor and developing countries, including the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries Group. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Q&A: After elections, Argentina stays the course on science

    Argentina science minister Lino Barañao.

    Argentina science minister Lino Barañao.

    Ministry of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation

    When Argentina President-Elect Mauricio Macri and his new cabinet are sworn in on 10 December, there will be one familiar face: science minister Lino Barañao. In a move unheard of in Argentinian politics, a cabinet member is staying on in a new administration—and it’s a scientist blazing that trail.

    A chemist whose team in 2002 was the first in Latin America to clone a calf, Barañao, 61, is the only science minister Argentina has ever known. He attained the post in 2007, when former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner upgraded Argentina’s science council to a ministry. In his first 8 years on the job, Barañao oversaw a period of bumper growth: Scientists’ salaries rose fivefold and the country’s science budget shot up 10-fold. He also poured money into a program to lure back expatriate Argentinian scientists. “In the past, scientists who came back had to wait up to a year to find a position. Now, we give them money for a lab and equipment and they can start working within 2 months after they return,” Barañao says. And on his watch, the government added 190,000 square meters of lab space—after going 30 years without building a single new lab, he says. 

  • Hawaii's high court blocks construction of giant telescope

    An artist's conception of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

    TMT Collaborative

    Native Hawaiian groups seeking to block construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop the state's Mauna Kea volcano have won a major court victory. Hawaii’s Supreme Court today ruled that a state planning board acted improperly in 2011 in granting a permit for TMT construction before it completed a hearing on objections to the permit.

    “Quite simply, the [state Board of Land and Natural Resources] put the cart before before the horse when it issued the permit before the request for a contested case hearing was resolved and the hearing was held,” Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald wrote in a 2 December opinion. “Accordingly, the permit cannot stand.”

  • Got just a single observation? New journal will publish it

    Petri dish
    Credit: Bill Dickinson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    About 8 years ago, when he was a postdoctoral researcher, cell biologist Lawrence Rajendran was applying for a job when a colleague predicted that, if he could get two papers he had co-authored published by Science, “you’re sure to get the position.”

    As it turned out, the colleague was right. The journal accepted both papers and Rajendran, 40, who grew up poor in rural India, got the job. He now heads a laboratory at the University of Zürich in Switzerland and has won awards for his research on Alzheimer’s disease.

    But the colleague’s comment long troubled him, Rajendran says, because he felt it overemphasized “the label on my papers” from a prestigious journal. His concerns about scientific publishing grew as he studied several flawed papers that had been yanked from high-profile journals. Certain figures from those retracted manuscripts were subsequently published elsewhere, he discovered.

  • In symbolic move, Congress votes to gut Obama climate plans

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol at night.

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol at night.

    BKL/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Congress has voted, largely along party lines, to block a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda. The votes are largely symbolic, however, because Obama plans to veto the bills. Still, Congressional Republicans, and a few Democrats, say they want to send a message to global leaders who are meeting this week to negotiate a new climate agreement that the majority of U.S. lawmakers may not agree with any deal.

    The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved two measures that would block the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) first-ever limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing and new power plants. The votes came 2 weeks after the Senate approved the same two measures, S.J. Res. 23 and S.J. Res. 24.

    “The message could not be more clear that Republicans and Democrats in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House do not support the president’s climate agenda and the international community should take note,” Senator James Inhofe (R–OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

  • Indigenous people could be key to storing carbon in tropical forests, new report concludes

    Tropical forests, such as this swath of Amazon rainforest, near Manaus, Brazil, store vast quantities of carbon

    Tropical forests, such as this swath of Amazon rainforest, near Manaus, Brazil, store vast quantities of carbon

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

    More than one-fifth of the carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests lies in territories belonging to or claimed by indigenous groups, concludes an analysis released this week at the climate talks in Paris. The result highlights the importance of enlisting indigenous landowners in efforts to curb climate change, say the report’s authors, who include both scientists and indigenous leaders.

    Researchers have long known that tropical forests sequester, or store, vast amounts of carbon; recent estimates have put the total at between 225 and 250 billion tons. Tropical trees also absorb between 2 and 3 billion tons of carbon per year, offsetting about one-quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions (although current deforestation releases nearly as much). With those numbers in mind, climate negotiators over the past decade have proposed schemes that would fight climate change by paying tropical nations to preserve standing forests or plant new ones.

    But exactly who owns and lives in the forests that might be involved in such schemes hasn’t been clear. Although satellites can help researchers map where forests are storing carbon, “what those maps don’t show is where the indigenous people are exactly,” says Cándido Mezúa, a spokesperson for the Nicaragua-based Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests and co-author of the report.

  • Spanish plan for a funding agency gets lukewarm reception

    A row of telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.

    A row of telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.

    Bob Tubbs/wikimedia commons

    BARCELONA, SPAIN—The Spanish government has finally made good on its promise to create a national science funding agency. On Friday, it announced the launch of the State Research Agency, which could start disbursing grants as early as 2017.

    The agency doesn't come with new money—instead it will usurp existing research budgets—but it will guarantee more stability in the funding stream and “more agile, flexible, and autonomous” management procedures, the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, which oversees Spanish science, wrote in its announcement.

    Scientists are cautiously optimistic, but many have questions. Few operational details have been provided so far, and there are doubts about the scientific independence of the agency’s management. Some researchers also wonder about the future of the agency if the ruling People’s Party (PP) loses the parliamentary elections, slated for 20 December.

  • Japan to resume whaling in defiance of international court ruling

    Minke whale

    Minke whale

    Len2040/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    Less than 2 years after the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands ruled that Japan must stop killing whales, Japan has announced that it will relaunch its program to hunt minke whales in the Antarctic, BBC reports.

    Japan joined an international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, but continued with “scientific” whaling programs that it claimed were exempt from the agreement. Antiwhaling groups and countries have argued that the programs aren’t actually carried out for research purposes, and in 2014 the international court agreed. Japan put its programs on hold when the ruling came down, and now it has reduced the number of minke whales it plans to kill each year from 1000 to 333.

  • Optimism at Canada’s annual science policy summit, but also doubts

    Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

    Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

    Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

    OTTAWA—Scientists and policy experts gathered here last week for Canada’s premier science policy conference. It was the first since a new Liberal government took power, replacing a Conservative government that had drawn fierce complaints from many scientists as a result of its moves to muzzle government scientists, shut down science advisory mechanisms, and shuffle spending priorities. And although many participants expressed relief over the election results, they also voiced a list of research deficiencies and needs that seemed so long it took on almost liturgical tones.

    Speakers decried decimated science policy advisory mechanisms and politicians’ efforts to disregard evidence and sanitize documents. And they highlighted other problems. Stagnant research budgets. Muzzled government researchers. Excessive bureaucratic control. National labs converted into toolboxes for industry. Incentive systems that reward commercialization over discovery. Scientific R&D tax credits, loan programs and targeted research initiatives that yielded little industrial benefit, or were primarily aimed at again bailing out aerospace giant Bombardier.

    Odd, then, that Canada’s latest Nobel laureate, physicist Art McDonald, had a rosier view. Canadian science is actually quite robust, particularly basic research conducted within academia, he told ScienceInsider during an interview at the 7th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), held here from 25 to 27 November.

  • As Paris talks open, meet a geoscientist who has attended every major climate negotiation

    Jonathan Pershing last year at a meeting at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

    Dennis Schroeder / NREL

    As the world today kicks off the 21st, and perhaps biggest, meeting of nations who have joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Jonathan Pershing is aiming to keep his perfect attendance record.

    Pershing, a Ph.D. geologist turned climate diplomacy wonk, has attended every past conference of the parties (COP) to the framework agreement. Now, he’s attending the Paris meeting, known as COP-21, as a top technical advisor on energy matters to the U.S. delegation.

    After earning a doctorate in geology and geophysics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in 1990, Pershing landed a fellowship at the U.S. State Department. He then climbed the ranks to serve as one of the top U.S. negotiators at several world climate meetings between 2009 and 2012. At other times, he has attended the conferences representing the International Energy Agency and the nonprofit World Resources Institute.

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