Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Updated: Are old secrets behind Lockheed's new fusion machine?

    The defense firm Lockheed Martin sent tech geeks into a frenzy yesterday when it revealed a few scant details of a “compact fusion reactor” (CFR) that a small team has been working on at the company’s secretive Skunk Works in Palmdale, California. The company says that its innovative method for confining the superhot ionized gas, or plasma, necessary for fusion means that it can make a working reactor 1/10 the size of current efforts, such as the international ITER fusion project under construction in France.

    Being able to build such a small and presumably cheap reactor would be world-changing—ITER will cost at least $20 billion to build and will only prove the principle, not generate any electricity. But with little real information, no one is prepared to say that Lockheed’s approach is going to spark a revolution. “You can’t conclude anything from this,” says Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Abingdon, U.K. “If it wasn’t Lockheed Martin, you’d say it was probably a bunch of crazies.”

    The Lockheed team predicts that it will take 5 years to prove the concept for the new reactor. After that, they estimate it would take another 5 years to build a prototype that would produce 100 megawatts (MW) of electricity—enough for a small city—and fit on the back of a truck. A Web page with video on the Lockheed site even talks of powering ships and aircraft with a CFR.

    Lockheed statements reveal little about the nature of the reactor. Aviation Week yesterday carried the most detailed account having interviewed the team leader, Thomas McGuire.

  • Issues continue to dog the testing of Ebola drugs and vaccines

    The Ebola virus

    The Ebola virus

    Val Altounian/Science

    At a U.S. congressional hearing today that examined the country’s public health response to Ebola, an official from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it’s working to develop “a flexible and innovative protocol” to evaluate experimental treatments for the disease. The fact that no such common protocol already exists speaks to the complex practical and ethical issues that surround the use of untested drugs and vaccines in the midst of explosive spread of a virus that kills more than half the people it infects.

    Given the epidemic’s unprecedented scale, a panel of bioethicists and infectious disease specialists convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) in August unanimously decided that it was ethical to use unproven treatments and preventions against this deadly disease. The panel also said there was a “moral obligation” to gather and share scientifically relevant data about whether these products were safe and effective. But it did not suggest how this should happen, and as the FDA official’s testimony indicated, new views are still emerging while others are being refined.

    Over the past few months, subsequent WHO consultations and opinion pieces by prominent public health experts and ethicists have spelled out detailed visions of how to proceed with testing of experimental Ebola medicines. The issues, both practical and ethical, are starkly different for drugs and vaccines. Unproven drugs go to the sick, who are fighting for their lives and often have few options, whereas experimental vaccines are tested in healthy people—most will be first-line workers—in an effort to protect them from the deadly virus. “Ethical arguments are not the same for all levels of risk,” noted 17 prominent researchers and ethicists from 11 countries in an editorial about Ebola drug testing published online on 10 October in The Lancet.

  • One more question, Dr. Frieden: Eleven things we'd like to know about the new Ebola case

    CDC Director Thomas Frieden today said the second health care worker to become infected in Dallas "should not have traveled on a commercial airline."

    CDC Director Thomas Frieden today said the second health care worker to become infected in Dallas "should not have traveled on a commercial airline."

    A second health care worker at Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas has tested positive for the Ebola virus. Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that its investigations “increasingly suggest” that she and a colleague diagnosed with Ebola on 14 October were at highest risk of infection between 28 and 30 September, when Thomas Eric Duncan had been admitted to the hospital but had yet to receive confirmation that he was infected.

    “These two health care workers both worked on those days, and both had extensive contact with the patient when the patient had extensive production of body fluids because of vomiting and diarrhea,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden at a press conference today.

    The second health care worker flew from Cleveland, Ohio, to Dallas on 13 October, the day before she developed symptoms, leading CDC to try to contact the 132 passengers and the crew on that flight. (The woman had an "elevated" temperature of 99.5°F, or 37.5°C; that's below the threshold for a fever, which is at 100.4°F, or 38.0°C.) Frieden said the woman, whose job he did not specify, “should not have traveled on a commercial airline” but stressed she did not vomit and was not bleeding during the trip. “The level of risk of people around her would be extremely low,” he said.

  • U.S. fusion plan draws blistering critique

    A mock-up of the ITER fusion reactor.

    A mock-up of the ITER fusion reactor.

    IAEA Imagebank/Flickr

    Many U.S. fusion scientists are blasting a report that seeks to map out a 10-year strategic plan for their field, calling it “flawed,” “unsatisfactory,” and the product of a rushed process rife with potential conflicts of interest. One result: Last week, most members of a 23-person government advisory panel had to recuse themselves from voting on the report as a result of potential conflicts.

    “The whole process was unsatisfactory,” says Martin Greenwald of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Plasma Science and Fusion Center in Cambridge.

    Achieving fusion—nuclear reactions that have the potential to produce copious, clean energy—requires heating hydrogen fuel to more than 100 million degrees Celsius, causing it to become an ionized gas or plasma. Huge and expensive reactors are needed to contain the superhot plasma long enough for reactions to start. The largest current fusion effort is the ITER tokamak, a machine under construction in France with support from the United States and international partners. But no fusion reactor has yet produced more energy than it consumes.

  • Australia's new innovation agenda leaves little room for science

    An open-pit uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. Australia's mining sector will benefit under the new Industry Growth Centres Initiative.

    An open-pit uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. Australia's mining sector will benefit under the new Industry Growth Centres Initiative.

    Alberto Otero García/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia’s scientific leaders are cautiously hopeful that the government’s new innovation policy marks a more positive stance on research.

     “Science is the center of industry policy under the Abbott government,” Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane—who has responsibility for science—told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio after the release Tuesday of its Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda.

    The 132-page report sets out four goals to foster innovation, including a better business environment, a more skilled labor force, and improved infrastructure. But science is mentioned in only two of the six initiatives to be implemented over the next 18 months. Macfarlane says the Industry Growth Centres Initiative will see the government invest AU$188.5 million over 4 years to establish “corporate entities” in five areas where Australia has what he calls a “natural advantage.” Three reflect the country’s traditional strengths in mining, energy resources, and agribusiness, while advanced manufacturing and medical technology represent areas in which the government hopes to stimulate growth.

    The government also plans to spend an additional AU$12 million in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. As part of this initiative, the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, which is 17 years old, will be replaced with a Commonwealth Science Council (CSC) chaired by the prime minister.

  • Uprising: Less prestigious journals publishing greater share of high-impact papers

    Uprising: Less prestigious journals publishing greater share of high-impact papers


    The world of academic publishing is an oligarchy. Not only are the vast majority of highly cited papers authored by an elite 1% of scientists, but a small group of elite journals also get the lion's share of citations and media attention. But this rarified world is becoming more egalitarian, according to a study released 9 October by the team that develops Google Scholar, the free literature search engine now used by virtually every scientist in the world. The study is the strongest evidence yet that the dominance of the elite journals is eroding, thanks in part to how much easier it has become for scientists to find and cite obscure but relevant papers.

    As recently as the 1990s, most scientists found each other's work by cracking open a journal that their university subscribed to and reading the articles in print. But even with speed-reading, humans just can't read fast enough to explore more than a tiny portion of the more than 1 million academic papers published every year. The digitization of journals has allowed computers to do the searching for us.

    To mark their 10th anniversary next month, the Google Scholar team is taking a short break from building and maintaining their scholarly search engine. "We wanted to take a look back and see how things have changed," says Anurag Acharya, a computer scientist who co-founded the project at Google in 2004.

  • Copycat papers flag continuing headache in China

    Each of the eight panels reproduced here is Figure 1 of different meta-analyses published by different groups of authors. The aesthetics are strikingly similar, and in seven cases the font type is the same. The figures are not strictly identical; for inst

    Each of the eight panels reproduced here is Figure 1 of different meta-analyses published by different groups of authors. The aesthetics are strikingly similar, and in seven cases the font type is the same. The figures are not strictly identical; for inst

    Courtesy of Guillaume Filion and Lucas Carey

    SHANGHAI, CHINA—Two computational biologists searching for trends in journals indexed in the search engine PubMed stumbled across signs that China’s paper-selling companies remain active, 1 year after Science published a detailed undercover investigation describing a highly sophisticated and lucrative industry.

    Guillaume Filion of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Lucas Carey from Pompeu Fabra University, both in Barcelona, downloaded all PubMed records for papers published between January 2012 and this past April. Combing over the abstracts for those 2 million papers using a big data technique called natural language processing, they isolated terms that spiked in use in 2014.

    They hoped to find “new topics about to detonate,” Filion says. Not surprisingly, they found an uptick in papers mentioning cutting-edge topics like CRISPR, a gene-editing technique that was named a runner-up for Science’s 2013 Breakthrough of the Year, and lncRNA, or long non-coding RNA, an unusually long form of RNA that is now a hot topic in genomics. 

    But alongside those more predictable trends, one term stuck out: a little-known database run by the Research Council for Complementary Medicine in London called CISCOM, or the Centralised Information Service for Complementary Medicine. Until 2013, the scholars note, the term “CISCOM” appeared in only two to three papers per year. In February, the database began cropping up once a week.

  • Chinese animal cloner charged with misuse of funds

    Chinese anticorruption officials have confirmed that a prominent animal cloning researcher is under arrest for improper use of research funds. Li Ning, a professor at China Agricultural University and a member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), was previously reported to have been under investigation.

    The announcement of Li’s arrest was buried in a lengthy bulletin published on 10 October on the website of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). The bulletin summarized problems discovered by an inspection team sent in by the Chinese Communist Party’s disciplinary arm. According to MOST, Li was one of seven scientists from five universities who misused funds totaling 25 million yuan (about $4 million). The ministry did not give details on their alleged malfeasance; all had received funding from major research projects administered by MOST.

    Two of the scientists have already received long prison sentences. Chen Yingxu, a prominent water researcher with Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, was convicted of embezzling $1.54 million of grant money and sentenced to 10 years in prison after his trial in January. Chen headed a research program under MOST’s “water pollution control and treatment” project. The other is Song Maoqiang, formerly executive dean of software engineering at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. Song was tried in February, convicted of embezzlement of $110,000 in research funds, and sentenced to 10.5 years in prison. Song’s funding came from MOST’s “key electronic devices, high-end chips and fundamental software development” project. Three researchers funded under the “major drug discovery” project are also in custody, and one other researcher, a colleague of Song’s, has not been charged.

  • Updated: Big business regulation theory yields economics Nobel Prize

    Jean Tirole

    Jean Tirole

    International Monetary Fund/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The 2014 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel goes to Jean Tirole, a French economist, for his work studying industries dominated by a few large, powerful firms.

    “The prize is about market power and regulation,” said Tore Ellingsen, chair of the prize committee, in a video interview after the announcement in Stockholm today. “What sort of regulations and competition policy do you want in place so that large and mighty firms will act in society's best interest?”

    Until the 1980s, regulation researchers sought simple rules that could apply to every industry and dealt essentially with two extreme situations: single monopolies or perfect competition. On the contrary, Tirole's research focuses on oligopolies—markets that are dominated by a few companies—and embraces their complexity and peculiarities, says Reinhilde Veugelers, an economics professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium and senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. He also provided tools to deal with so-called asymmetric information, when public authorities have less information than the firms they are trying to regulate.

  • Ebola infection in Dallas nurse underscores critical need for proper training

    Health care workers scheduled to fight Ebola in West Africa receive training at an old military base in Anniston, Alabama.

    Health care workers scheduled to fight Ebola in West Africa receive training at an old military base in Anniston, Alabama.

    Nahid Bhadelia

    A nurse in Dallas who was treating the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States has become infected with the virus herself even though she was wearing protective gear. “At some point, there was a breach in protocol,” said Tom Frieden, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at a press conference this morning.

    The nurse, who Frieden said had “extensive contact” with the patient, was wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). The patient, Thomas Eric Duncan from Liberia, died 8 October. Frieden noted that Duncan had respiratory intubation and kidney dialysis as “a desperate measure to try to save his life,” which he suggested may have been linked to the transmission. “Both of those procedures may spread contaminated materials and are considered high-risk procedures,” he said.

    Frieden said CDC will “undertake a thorough investigation to understand how this may have happened and we will ramp up infection control to do whatever we can to minimize the risk that there would be any future infections.”

    The case has similarities to that of a nurse infected in a Spanish hospital after taking care of a priest who had contracted the disease in Sierra Leone, and both raise questions about the training procedures that hospital staff receive before they come into contact with Ebola patients. “There’s a need to enhance the training and protocol to make sure the protocols are followed,” Frieden said today, and although all U.S. hospitals need to know how to diagnose Ebola infection, it may be safer to provide care at designated facilities that have received more extensive training, he said. “That’s something we'll absolutely be looking at.”

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