ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Unless nations act, air pollution deaths will double by 2050, study concludes

    Agriculture is forecast to be a major source of deadly air pollution.

    Agriculture is forecast to be a major source of deadly air pollution.

    Adrian Byrne/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The annual death toll from outdoor air pollution could double to 6.6 million globally by 2050 without new antipollution measures, a new study suggests. But policymakers seeking to reduce the death toll will need to clamp down on a wide array of potentially hard to control pollution sources—including household furnaces and agricultural activities—that are expected to play a growing role, researchers report today in Nature.

    The study marks a solid step toward clarifying exactly how major sources of air pollution contribute to premature death around the world, says Aaron Cohen, an epidemiologist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Boston, who wasn’t involved in the study. That information will prove useful to policymakers, he suggests.

    Existing estimates have been hampered by gaps in air pollution data, particularly in the developing world, and a lack of knowledge about how specific air pollution sources contribute to the risk of disease and death. 

  • Congress asks NSF to explain glitches in NEON project under construction

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    NEON Inc.

    Firing the CEO is a time-honored step designed to improve the performance of a slumping company. It doesn’t always work. But as wags like to point out, it’s a lot easier to do that than to fire all the employees.

    Last week, the board of directors for the National Ecological Observatory Network, Inc. (NEON) took that route by pushing out NEON CEO Russell Lea and launching a search for his successor. It’s the board’s first public reaction to last month’s decision by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to reduce the scope of the $434 million network now under construction at dozens of sites across the country. NSF made the drastic move, which included eliminating sites and lopping off instruments, in hopes of keeping the troubled project on schedule and within budget.

    On Friday, a congressional panel will grill NEON and NSF officials on whether the observatory can still achieve its goals of measuring climate change, land use trends, and invasive species for decades on a continental scale once construction is completed in 2017 and all the data are flowing.

  • Cities in U.S., China announce deep carbon cuts

    Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says the "heavy hitters" are coming out with the latest U.S.-China plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says the "heavy hitters" are coming out with the latest U.S.-China plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    twitter.com/LAMayorsOffice

    At a U.S.-China joint summit on climate change yesterday in Los Angeles, California, leaders from Beijing to Boston signed on to a raft of commitments meant to accelerate the pace of reductions promised at a summit last November. “This is a big deal,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told The Guardian newspaper. “It is the heavy hitters. It is the biggest emitters.” Seattle, Washington, pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050, whereas California, New York state, and nearly a dozen other U.S. municipalities declared that they would cut emissions 80% or more by then (though all from different baselines). Building on China’s national commitment to cap its greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030, 11 Chinese cities—including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Beijing—pledged to hit peak carbon emissions by or before 2030.

  • Cardiologist nominated to be next FDA chief

    Cardiologist nominated to be next FDA chief
    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration/FLICKR

    President Barack Obama has nominated a veteran heart researcher who has run numerous large clinical trials to be the next head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Robert Califf, currently FDA’s deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco, was a top administrator and researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for more than 30 years before coming to FDA earlier this year. If confirmed by the Senate, Califf would succeed Margaret Hamburg, who stepped down this past March.

    Califf, 63, “has long been considered a likely candidate for the top FDA job,” Brady Dennis reports in The Washington Post. “He has led scores of pivotal clinical trials, been among the nation's most cited medical authors and for years served on various FDA advisory committees.”

    Reaction to the 15 September White House announcement has been positive. “Great news!,” tweeted Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

  • U.S. drops fraud case against Chinese-American physicist

    U.S. drops fraud case against Chinese-American physicist
    Xi Xiaoxing

    Federal prosecutors filed a motion Friday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to drop a case against a Temple University physicist accused of helping Chinese organizations illegally obtain U.S. technology. The government’s case against Xiaoxing Xi had rested on a “misunderstanding” of the technology involved and the nature of scientific collaborations, according to Xi’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg.

    In a 14 May indictment, the government alleged that Xi, a well-known expert on thin-film materials, schemed to pass information about a device known as a Pocket Heater—a proprietary U.S. technology used to make magnesium diboride superconducting thin films—to Chinese entities in order to help them become leaders in the field of superconductivity. Federal investigators obtained Xi’s email exchanges with colleagues in China, and cited four messages in charging Xi with four counts of wire fraud. In June, Xi pleaded not guilty to the charges.

    The email exchanges concern “routine academic collaboration,” says Zeidenberg, a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm Arent Fox LLP. And the technologies discussed, he says, “were not restricted in any way.” In one email, Xi offered to help build a world-class oxide thin-film lab at a Chinese university; the exchanges, Zeidenberg says, had nothing to do with either the Pocket Heater or MgB2 thin films. Xi says he bought the heater to test variations of his own method for making MgB2 thin films at his lab here, and the Pocket Heater was one of the devices tested. Contrary to the indictment’s claim that the Pocket Heater “revolutionized the field of superconducting magnesium diboride thin film growth,” the device is only a modified version of an earlier invention by a German scientist, Xi says.

  • DOE releases new energy technology report

    Buildings, such as these in Chicago, account for about three-quarters of electricity use in the United States.

    Buildings, such as these in Chicago, account for about three-quarters of electricity use in the United States.

    Justin Brown/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The 400-plus page Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR) released yesterday by the Department of Energy (DOE) is “far better than any sleeping pill,” Michael Knotek, DOE’s deputy under secretary for science and energy, quipped yesterday following the document’s public release at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider). “It will stun you to sleep, and you can use it for years for that purpose.”

    But an all-star lineup of President Barack Obama’s administration’s science leaders, including Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and White House science adviser John Holdren, applauded the giant tome for distilling the views of more than 700 energy experts on promising research areas. They identified “enormous, underappreciated, and underexploited” opportunities to conserve energy and increase supply in six sectors of the U.S. energy system, Knotek said, including the electric grid, buildings, and transportation. At present, “there are countless sources of inertia” that cause more than half of the country’s energy to be wasted, Knotek added.

    DOE released its first QTR report, commissioned by then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, in 2011. Among other recommendations, it found that DOE should devote its greatest R&D efforts to electric vehicles and modernizing the electric grid. The new report, which is three times as long, “goes beyond the first in scope and depth,” said the current secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz, at the event. It analyzes all forms of energy supply and use in the United States at a much deeper and more comprehensive level, he said.

  • Research on gene editing in embryos is justified, group says

    A human embryo at 3 days.

    A human embryo at 3 days.

    Wikimedia Commons

    Genetic editing of human embryos “has tremendous value” to help solve important scientific questions, and should proceed despite potential worries about use of the technique in the clinic, an influential bioethics group said today in a statement. The Hinxton Group, which includes members from eight countries, called for more public discussion and careful policies to govern research using gene editing in embryos, but concluded that the insights such research could provide into early human development and disease was ethically justifiable.

    New techniques that allow researchers to precisely edit genes in living cells have become powerful tools for biologists. They have raised old questions, however, about the ethics of genetically altering humans in ways that could be passed on to future generations. In April, Chinese scientists published the first paper describing the use of a genome editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos. Their attempts were not particularly successful, producing the desired gene change in only four of 54 embryos that survived. The technique also introduced new, unintended mutations. But the work sparked controversy among scientists, and some criticism of the journal that published it

  • Proposed fetal tissue ban raises alarm for Wisconsin researchers

    Accusations that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue sale have sparked calls to end federal funding for the group, and broader state efforts to limit the use of tissue from abortions.

    Accusations that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue sale have sparked calls to end federal funding for the group, and broader state efforts to limit the use of tissue from abortions.

    American Life League/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A Wisconsin bill that would limit the research use of fetal tissue from abortions is gaining momentum, over the protest of scientists who say the measure would stifle progress in disease research. The bill, approved today by a committee in the state assembly and expected to win the support of the full assembly this fall, is the first in what many predict will be a series of battles waged at the state level against the distribution and use of fetal tissue.

    The momentum behind the bill comes in part from hidden-camera footage released this summer showing a Planned Parenthood official discussing how the organization fulfills research requests for tissue from aborted fetuses. The videos sparked accusations that Planned Parenthood was illegally profiting from these procedures, and Republican legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have called for the withdrawal of its federal funding. Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue, though it allows providers of donated tissue to charge recipients for processing and shipping costs.

    Lawmakers in several states, including Wisconsin, Illinois, and California, have already introduced bills intended to limit the exchange of fetal tissue, either by revoking funding for clinics that supply it, excluding such tissue from laws governing organ donation, or criminalizing its use in research.

  • Intel to end sponsorship of Science Talent Search

    The first place winners of the 2015 Intel Science Talent Search first place winners each took home $150,000. Left to right: Noah Golowich, Andrew Jin, and Michael Winer.

    The first place winners of the 2015 Intel Science Talent Search first place winners each took home $150,000. Left to right: Noah Golowich, Andrew Jin, and Michael Winer.

    Chris Ayers/Intel

    The Intel Science Talent Search, one of the nation’s most prestigious competitions for science-savvy high school students in the United States, is losing its title sponsor, The New York Times (NYT) reports. Intel has announced that it will no longer sponsor the program, and the nonprofit that runs the competition, the Society for Science & the Public in Washington, D.C., is looking for a new sponsor to pick up the $6 million annual tab starting in 2017

    The program, meant to “inspire innovators of tomorrow,” targets science, math, engineering, and technology students in their last year of high school. It has drawn in thousands of hopeful applicants since it began in 1942. Many of the winners (who receive prize money ranging from $35,000 to $150,000) have excelled as university professors, award winning scientists, and even Nobel laureates.

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