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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Nepal earthquake may herald more Himalayan temblors

    Nepal earthquake may herald more Himalayan temblors

    Krish Dulal

    The powerful earthquake that devastated Nepal late in the morning on 25 April, causing at least 3200 deaths, could be a fuse that ignites other powerful quakes in a region of the Himalayas that had been seismically quiet for centuries, experts say.

    The 7.9-magnitude earthquake was long overdue: The fault segment that ruptured hadn’t seen an earthquake since 1344 C.E., according to Laurent Bollinger, a geologist from the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. This temblor originated 15 kilometers underground, where the Indian plate slides under southern Tibet at a rate of about 20 millimeters per year along the Main Himalayan Thrust fault. The plates snag against each other, building up pressure until the crustal rock gives out. The locked plates under Nepal have been close to the breaking point for centuries, says Vinod Gaur, a geophysicist at Bangalore’s CSIR Fourth Paradigm Institute who co-authored a Science article in 2001 warning of the possibility of highly destructive earthquakes in the Himalayas.

    The Kathmandu temblor seems to have released a portion of the strain building up in the central seismic gap (CSG), a 600-kilometer-long region south of Nepal straddling a major fault that has been eerily quiet for at least 500 years. While the CSG’s earthquake history is disputed—some geologists say a large quake in 1505 C.E. ruptured the gap, while others argue that the 1505 quake wasn’t large enough to do so—specialists concur that the CSG is overdue for a megaquake measuring greater than magnitude 8.

  • Chinese paper on embryo engineering splits scientific community

    A human embryo that has begun to implant in the uterus.

    A human embryo that has begun to implant in the uterus.

    Yorgos Nikas. Wellcome Images via Wellcome Images/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The announcement that a Chinese team had altered the genetics of a human embryo for the first time has ignited a firestorm of controversy around the world and renewed recent calls for a moratorium on any attempt to establish a pregnancy with such an engineered embryo. But it has also underscored that although scientists are united in their opposition to any clinical application of such embryo manipulation, they are split on the value of basic research that involves genetically modifying human embryos.

    In China itself, where the precedent-setting research is big news and some in the public have expressed concern on the Internet about the embryo experiments, "most scientists are more positive," says Guo-Qiang Chen, a microbiologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "My personal opinion is that as long as they can control the consequences they should continue this work.”

    That view is echoed by many outside of China as well. “I personally would defend the fundamental scientific value of research into gene editing” in human embryos, in part to explore the risks of any potential clinical use, George Daley, a stem cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, tells Science.

  • U.S. House panel would slash Department of Energy's applied research

    Among other things, House appropriators would zero out SUNPATH III, a $25.5 million program to help develop the manufacturing of photovoltaic solar cells in the United States.

    Among other things, House appropriators would zero out SUNPATH III, a $25.5 million program to help develop the manufacturing of photovoltaic solar cells in the United States.

    DOE/Flickr

    Republican budgetmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives signaled their support for basic research and their reluctance to invest federal dollars in applied research today in their markup of a bill that would set the budget for the Department of Energy (DOE) next year. The bill has already drawn a veiled veto threat from the White House, however, in part because of the cuts it would make to DOE's applied research programs.

    The House Committee on Appropriations' version of the so-called energy and water bill for fiscal year 2016, which begins 1 October, would boost spending by 0.6% for DOE's basic research arm, the Office of Science, to $5.10 billion. It would maintain the current budget of $280 million for DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which strives to translate the most promising ideas from basic research into budding technologies. The Obama administration has requested a 5.3% increase for the Office of Science and a 16% hike for ARPA-E.

    The split between the White House and House Republicans is much larger with respect to DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program. The House bill would cut its current budget by 13.8%, to $1.66 billion, while the Obama administration wants a 41.5% boost, to $2.72 billion.

  • Smith makes small concession in markup of COMPETES bill

    Chair Representative Lamar Smith (right) and ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson at a 2013 hearing of the science committee.

    Chair Representative Lamar Smith (right) and ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson at a 2013 hearing of the science committee.

    U.S. House of Representatives science committee

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) took a small, tactical step back today from his assault on the policies of the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Smith hasn’t abandoned his 2-year strategy of pushing NSF in directions that the U.S. scientific community doesn’t want it to go. And in marking up his America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806) before the science committee that he chairs, he made it clear that he’s calling the shots.

    (The rest of this story is based on the first few hours of today’s markup of the bill, which covers NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the science programs at the Department of Energy, and federal science education policy. The markup continued well into the afternoon; see the update below on the final bill's approval.)

    The committee spent most of the morning rejecting a slew of Democratic amendments aimed at reversing proposed cuts to research programs and removing language seen as an attack on NSF’s vaunted peer-review process. Smith’s big concession was to drop language in the bill about how NSF builds and manages large scientific facilities that NSF officials say is unreasonable, unnecessary, and in places even contradictory.

    In particular, the language would have required NSF to “correct” any problems identified by an independent audit of projected costs before starting construction. It would also require NSF to apply rules on how project contingency funds can be spent that are at odds with existing federal policies. That language could seriously delay new projects and drive up costs, according to agency officials, who say they conveyed their concerns to the committee after the bill was unveiled last week.

  • Canadian research councils get a rain check from Harper government

    Finance Minister Joe Oliver shows off his new shoes on the eve of the budget announcement—buying "budget shoes" is an annual tradition for Canadian finance ministers.

    Finance Minister Joe Oliver shows off his new shoes on the eve of the budget announcement—buying "budget shoes" is an annual tradition for Canadian finance ministers.

    Finance Canada

    Call them deferred olive branches.

    In the run-up to a national election later this year, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has been dispensing peace offerings to those who have become aggrieved by the conservatives since they first took office in 2006. The recipients include veterans, seniors, families with children, and all other manner of voting bloc. Now, Canadian researchers, who in recent years have generally vilified Harper as being antiscience and anti-intellectual, have joined the queue. But they will have to wait a while longer to begin enjoying their peace offerings.

    Yesterday, Finance Minister Joe Oliver unveiled a 2015 to 2016 financial blueprint in which honoring a commitment to balance the budget takes precedence over immediate goodies for science. The deferred list includes a new, $1.08 billion competition by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation for research infrastructure grants to begin 3 years down the road, as well as modest funding toward buying a 15% to 20% stake in the colossal Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to be built in a dormant Hawaii volcano by 2024.

  • Contentious markup expected today as House science panel takes up COMPETES bill

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) has never hidden his desire to reshape federal research policy—
often over the objections of much of the scientific 
community—since he became chair of the House of Representatives science committee 2 years ago. Last week, he introduced legislation that lays out those plans in unprecedented detail, and the reaction was predictable. Although academic leaders say that some parts of the new, 189-page bill are better than previous versions, they believe it would seriously damage the U.S. research enterprise.

    The bill not only sets out funding levels for several research agencies that in some cases depart sharply from those the Obama administration requested for 2016; it would also reshape key policies and priorities guiding those agencies. In particular, researchers complain that the bill (H.R. 1806), called the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, would:

  • FDA takes new look at homeopathy

    The 200-year-old practice of homeopathy is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States.

    The 200-year-old practice of homeopathy is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States.

    Jonathan Wilson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    This week, officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a 15-hour foray far outside the scientific mainstream. In a 2-day hearing, the agency invited public input on how it should regulate homeopathy—a traditional healing practice that has been called into question by numerous scientific studies. For now, homeopathic remedies, sold largely over the counter, are classified as drugs that can be marketed without FDA approval in the United States. But the agency may be ready to rethink its policy.

    “We’ve had tremendous growth in the market and also some emerging safety and quality concerns,” Cynthia Schnedar, director of the Office of Compliance at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, told ScienceInsider. “In light of that, we thought it was time to take another look.”

    The 200-year-old practice of homeopathy—estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States—is based on two controversial principles: First, a substance that causes a specific symptom in a healthy person can relieve the same symptom in a sick person if consumed at a very low dose. Second, repeatedly diluting a substance actually makes treatment more potent, even if no detectable molecules of the original substance remain.

  • Australian researchers plan slowdown to protest stalled contract negotiations

    Relations between Australian scientists and the government haven’t improved since last year’s protest over spending cuts.

    Relations between Australian scientists and the government haven’t improved since last year’s protest over spending cuts.

    CSIRO Staff Association

    The Australian government and a big part of its research workforce are headed for a showdown. Barring a breakthrough in negotiations over a new employment agreement at a meeting on 29 April, staff at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) could start skipping meetings with managers and ignoring their phone messages, refusing to fill in time sheets, and working strictly to specified hours. These industrial actions could escalate to strikes.

    "These are not workers who go on strike at the drop of a hat; it takes a lot to get them into a situation where they feel they need to take action," says Anthony Keenan, a spokesman for the CSIRO Staff Association, which is affiliated with the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

    In response to a query from ScienceInsider, CSIRO spokesman Huw Morgan wrote in an e-mail: "We’re aware of the comments regarding industrial action by the CPSU. Our objective remains to develop an agreement that supports our future strategy, reflects the commitment of our staff and maintains our position as an attractive employer."

  • Updated: Judge’s ruling grants legal right to research chimps

    Captive chimp.

    Update, 21 April: Science has learned that the court order referred to in this story has been amended. The words “writ of habeas corpus” have been struck out, suggesting that the court has made no decision on whether Hercules and Leo—two research chimpanzees at Stony Brook University in New York—deserve to be treated as legal persons. The Nonhuman Rights Project has responded to the amendment, stating, “This case is one of a trio of cases that the Nonhuman Rights Project has brought in an attempt to free chimpanzees imprisoned within the State of New York through an ‘Article 70-Habeas Corpus’ proceeding.  These cases are novel and this is the first time that an Order to Show Cause has issued. We are grateful for an opportunity to litigate the issue of the freedom of the chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, at the ordered May hearing.” Stony Brook has also issued a statement about the case: “The University does not comment on the specifics of litigation, and awaits the court's full consideration on this matter.” 

    Update, 22 April: The court hearing has been moved back from 6 May to 27 May. At that time, the judge will hear legal arguments regarding whether Hercules and Leo should remain at Stony Brook. 

    In a decision that seems to recognize chimpanzees as legal persons for the first time, a New York judge today granted a pair of Stony Brook University lab animals the right to have their day in court. The ruling marks the first time in U.S. history that an animal has been covered by a writ of habeas corpus, which typically allows human prisoners to challenge their detention. The judicial action could force the university, which is believed to be holding the chimps, to release the primates, and could sway additional judges to do the same with other research animals.

    “This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals,” says Natalie Prosin, the executive director of the animal rights organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), that filed the case. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”

    Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a noted opponent of personhood for animals, cautions against reading too much into the ruling, however. “The judge may merely want more information to make a decision on the legal personhood claim, and may have ordered a hearing simply as a vehicle for hearing out both parties in more depth,” he writes in an e-mail to Science. “It would be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has not yet heard the other side’s arguments.”

  • Some humpback whales may lose endangered status

    A humpback whale breaches off shore in late March.

    A humpback whale breaches off shore in late March.

    NOAA

    The U.S. government proposed removing most of the world’s humpback whale populations from the federal endangered species list today, saying that many of the marine mammals have recovered in the 45 years since they were first listed. “We’re happy to announce a conservation success story,” said Donna Wieting, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, in a telephone press conference today. She explained that efforts to bring the species back from the brink of extinction worked.

    “This is good news for whales and whale conservation and should be cause for celebration, not a reason to run screaming from the room,” says Patrick Ramage, whale program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It shows that when we take appropriate steps to protect whales, they can recover.”

    The proposal will reclassify the world’s humpback populations—the most iconic of whale species—into 14 distinct segments based on scientists’ recommendations. If the proposal is approved (which is expected to happen next year), only two of these populations will remain on the endangered list; another two will be considered threatened. The threatened populations—the Central American and the Western North Pacific humpbacks—enter U.S. waters during their migrations. But the two that will keep their endangered status—Arabian Sea and Cape Verde Islands—do not.

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