ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

  • Methane in drinking water unrelated to fracking, study suggests

    A fracking well in in Pennsylvania that extracts gas from the Marcellus Shale.

    A fracking well in in Pennsylvania that extracts gas from the Marcellus Shale.

    © Noah Addis/Corbis

    Fracking doesn’t appear to be allowing methane to seriously contaminate drinking water in Pennsylvania, a new study finds—contrary to some earlier, much publicized research that suggested a stronger link. But the lead authors of the two bodies of research are sparring over the validity of the new results.

    The new study of 11,309 drinking water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania concludes that background levels of methane in the water are unrelated to the location of hundreds of oil and gas wells that tap hydraulically fractured, or fracked, rock formations. The finding suggests that fracking operations are not significantly contributing to the leakage of methane from deep rock formations, where oil and gas are extracted, up to the shallower aquifers where well water is drawn.

    The result also calls into question prominent studies in 2011 and 2013 that did find a correlation in a nearby part of Pennsylvania. There, wells closer to fracking sites had higher levels of methane. Those studies, however, were based on just 60 and 141 domestic well samples, respectively.

  • Updated: Editor quits journal over pay-for-expedited peer-review offer

    With a tweet yesterday, an editor of Scientific Reports, one of Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG’s) open-access journals, has resigned in a very public protest of NPG’s recent decision to allow authors to pay money to expedite peer review of their submitted papers. “My objections are that it sets up a two-tiered system and instead of the best science being published in a timely fashion it will further shift the balance to well-funded labs and groups,” Mark Maslin, a biogeographer at University College London, tells ScienceInsider. “Academic Publishing is going through a revolution and we should expect some bumps along the way. This was just one that I felt I could not accept.”

    The flap shines a light on a fledgling industry where several companies are now making millions of dollars by privatizing peer review. This niche is being exploited because journal peer review is usually a slow process. After all, it is typically an anonymous, volunteer effort for which scientists receive nothing more than thanks from journal editors and the good feeling of contributing to the scientific community. But for a price at some journals, authors now have the option of fast-tracking their submitted papers through an accelerated peer-review process.

  • U.K. government scientists hit with media restrictions

    The U.K. government wants scientists at the Met Office and other government institutes to ask permission before giving interviews.

    The U.K. government wants scientists at the Met Office and other government institutes to ask permission before giving interviews.

    Met Office

    Advocates for science communication in the United Kingdom have expressed “deep concern” about a change to the Civil Service Code for public workers, including researchers at government agencies. The three-sentence addition, put into place on 16 March, requires that all contact with media be approved in advance by the minister in charge of the relevant agency.

    The Science Media Centre (SMC) in London and two other organizations fear that the policy change will hinder communication of science by preventing government scientists from responding to journalists quickly enough to meet their deadlines. "They're already a bit quiet," says SMC Director Fiona Fox. “If this makes them more quiet, that’s a bad thing.” Similar restrictions on media contact in Canada have led to delays in granting interviews with scientists and omission of Canadian research from media stories.

  • Physicists narrow in on electrical short in Large Hadron Collider

    A short in an electrical connection to one of the LHC’s superconducting magnets has been pinpointed to the magnet's diode box, indicated above.

    A short in an electrical connection to one of the LHC’s superconducting magnets has been pinpointed to the magnet's diode box, indicated above.

    Arjan Verweij/CERN

    Officials at the European particle physics lab, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, still don't know how long it will take to fix an electrical short in the world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but engineers have now homed in on the fault.

    As ScienceInsider reported earlier this week, the short has delayed the restart of the LHC, which was expected this week, after 2 years of downtime for repairs. During preparatory tests of the LHC's systems on 21 March, a short developed in an electrical connection to one of the 1232 superconducting dipole magnets—each measuring 15 meters in length and weighing 35 tonnes—that steer particles around the LHC's 27-kilometer ring. Researchers suspect that a wayward fragment of metal has caused the problem, and using standard electrical diagnostics, engineers have located the metal scrap to within 10 centimeters, according to a statement on the CERN website.

  • Max Planck Society unveils €50 million support plan for young scientists

    Max Planck will do away with stipends for young scientists that lacked many social benefits.

    Max Planck will do away with stipends for young scientists that lacked many social benefits.

    Max Planck Society

    The Max Planck Society (MPG), Germany's flagship organization for basic research, will improve its support for junior scientists and do away with a stipend system used mostly for foreign Ph.D. students and postdocs that many had decried as unfair because it doesn't include basic social security benefits. The new scheme will cost the society up to €50 million annually.

    The measure, officially announced yesterday (English version here), was welcomed by PhDnet, an organization of Ph.D. students at MPG that had been lobbying for change for over a decade. “This step brings young researchers one step closer to the living, social, and work contract standards of Germany,” writes PhDnet spokesman Prateek Mahalwar in an e-mail.

    With a €1.6 billion annual budget and 83 institutes spanning the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, MPG employs more than 3400 Ph.D. researchers, 54% of whom are non-German nationals. About one-third of them have a so-called support contract, anchored in a collective wage agreement for Germany's civil servants, that offers many social and legal protections, including public health insurance and child benefits. The remaining two-thirds are on a stipend, which tends to offer more freedom in research and working conditions, but generally comes with less money and fewer benefits.

    The distinction has triggered protests, especially because most German Ph.D. students have a contract, while most foreigners work for a stipend. PhDnet began sounding the alarm and lobbying for change in 2003, and in 2012, a group of young researchers launched a petition calling for fair pay. Although MPG has taken small steps to make the system fairer, the inequality became increasingly unacceptable, acknowledges Martin Stratmann, who became president of MPG last year.

  • Why NIH's Anthony Fauci is treating Ebola patients himself

    Fauci donning his protective suit.

    Fauci donning his protective suit.

    NIH

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—As head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci wields a $4.4 billion research budget and has a punishing schedule. But the past 2 weeks, Fauci, 74, has reserved 2 hours on most days to put on a protective plastic suit and help treat a U.S. health care worker who became infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone.

    "I now have a much, much more profound respect for the seriousness of this illness in some patients," says Fauci, who talked about his experiences at a filovirus meeting here yesterday. "Even when you have optimum facilities for replenishment of fluids and things like that, the disease itself is truly devastating."

    A medical doctor who has headed NIAID for 30 years, Fauci has treated countless patients at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—of which NIAID is a part—in Bethesda, Maryland. "I do believe that one gets unique insights into disease when you actually physically interact with patients," he says. In the case of Ebola, Fauci says he also wanted to show his staff that he wouldn't ask them to do anything he wouldn't do himself; in addition, "it is very exciting and gratifying to participate in saving someone’s life," he says. Fauci also helped treat Dallas nurse Nina Pham, who was hospitalized at the Clinical Center for 8 days in October and visited President Barack Obama after she recovered.

  • Human error led to sinking of Taiwanese research vessel

    Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V sank on 10 October.

    Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V sank on 10 October.

    TAIWAN OCEAN RESEARCH INSTITUTE

    The sinking of Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V last fall resulted from human error, the head of the country's Maritime and Port Bureau told local press this week. The 10 October accident claimed the lives of two researchers and rendered the dedicated marine research ship a total loss.

    Barely a day into a cruise to study atmospheric pollution, Ocean Researcher V headed back to port because of bad weather. The ship drifted off course, struck two submerged reefs, and sank near the Penghu Islands, about 260 kilometers southwest of Taipei in the Taiwan Strait. Most of the 27 researchers and students and 18 crew were rescued. But Shih-Chieh Hsu, the cruise's chief scientist, and Yi-Chun Lin, an engineering assistant, drowned.

    Wen-chung Chi, director-general of the Maritime and Port Bureau, said that a review of the ship's voyage data recorder and other evidence indicated that the crew should have been alerted that the ship had drifted off course. A comprehensive report on the accident is due to be released next week.

  • Hoax-detecting software spots fake papers

    Hoax-detecting software spots fake papers

    Andrey Voskressenskiy/iStock

    It all started as a prank in 2005. Three computer science Ph.D. students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn, and Dan Aguayo—created a program to generate nonsensical computer science research papers. The goal, says Stribling, now a software engineer in Palo Alto, California, was “to expose the lack of peer review at low-quality conferences that essentially scam researchers with publication and conference fees.”

    The program—dubbed SCIgen—soon found users across the globe, and before long its automatically generated creations were being accepted by scientific conferences and published in purportedly peer-reviewed journals. But SCIgen may have finally met its match. Academic publisher Springer this week is releasing SciDetect, an open-source program to automatically detect automatically generated papers.

    SCIgen uses a “context-free grammar” to create word salad that looks like reasonable text from a distance but is easily spotted as nonsense by a human reader. For example:

    Cyberneticists agree that semantic modalities are an interesting new topic in the field of programming languages, and theorists concur. This is a direct result of the development of web browsers. After years of compelling research into access points, we confirm the visualization of kernels. Amphibious approaches are particularly theoretical when it comes to the refinement of massive multiplayer online role-playing games.

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