Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Expat virologist takes to YouTube to challenge 'pseudoscience' behind Egyptian devices

    Islam Hussein

    Islam Hussein

    Islam Hussein

    Earlier this year, the Engineering Authority of Egypt's military announced a hand-held instrument that could detect a variety of viral infections without even touching a person, and another device that clears a patient's blood of viruses. Widespread treatment of Egyptian patients with both devices was scheduled to begin today, but military officials said on Saturday that they were delaying the rollout for another 6 months.

    That decision comes after months of controversy. According to government officials, the treatments will not only wipe out AIDS and hepatitis at home—Egypt has the highest prevalence of hepatitis C in the world—but will also make a fortune as foreign patients flock to the country. Whereas the Western scientific community has ridiculed the devices as pseudoscience, Egyptian academics have been largely silent. The country's military regime has been handing down harsh criminal punishments for its critics, including journalists. But one expat Egyptian scientist, Islam Hussein, has created videos, one of which has garnered more than 100,000 views on YouTube—a large number considering they are 80-minute PowerPoint presentations in Arabic explaining the devices' scientific problems. Like most of Egypt's top scientific talent, Hussein, 36, left his country. After a virology Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, he settled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, in the United States, where he researches avian influenza. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Expanding tropics will play greater global role, report predicts

    Tropical nations are expected to hold 50% of the world’s population by 2050, up from 40% now.

    Tropical nations are expected to hold 50% of the world’s population by 2050, up from 40% now.


    By 2050, half of the world’s population will reside in the tropics—the relatively warm belt that girdles the globe—according to State of the Tropics, a hefty report released today. Rapid population growth, coupled with economic growth, means that the region’s influence will grow in coming decades, the authors of the 500-page tome predict. At the same time, tropical conditions are expanding poleward as a result of climate change, but at a slower rate than previously believed.

    “The tropical population is expected to exceed that of the rest of the world in the late 2030s, confirming just how crucial the Tropics are to the world’s future,” said Sandra Harding, project convener and vice chancellor of Australia’s James Cook University, in a statement. “We must rethink the world’s priorities on aid, development, research and education.”

    The result of a 3-year collaboration between 12 prominent tropical research institutions, State of the Tropics grew out of an effort to acknowledge the region as an environmental and geopolitical entity in its own right. Geographers define the tropics as the belt that is centered on Earth’s equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn (each 23.5° of latitude off the equator). Although tropical regions vary considerably, they are “typically warm and experience little seasonal change in daily temperatures.” These geographic and environmental commonalities play a key part of shaping human societies in the region, which is currently home to about 40% of the world’s population, the authors add.

  • Europe plans to launch giant x-ray space telescope

    Athena project

    The European Space Agency (ESA) announced today that it has chosen an instrument that will scan the universe for x-ray emissions from massive black holes and other celestial objects as its next large space science mission. The Advanced Telescope for High-Energy Astrophysics (Athena), scheduled for launch in 2028, would be the largest x-ray space telescope ever built. ESA’s large missions typically cost about €1 billion.

    “Athena will revolutionize our view of black holes and cosmic structures filled with million degree gas. We really need this to build a holistic picture of the observable Universe,” said Paul Nandra, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and lead investigator of the Athena proposal, in a statement. Researchers will use the telescope to study the growth of supermassive black holes and how they affect the galaxies around them and to map the universe’s hot gas.

  • Chemical weapons watchdog chief celebrates Syrian disarmament

    Ahmet Üzümcü

    Anne Marie Lykkegaard/ESOF2014

    COPENHAGEN—Ten months after news of a horrific chemical attack in Ghouta, near Damascus, shocked the world, the last 8% of Syria's known chemical arsenal left the country on Monday. The shipment was a high point in an international mission launched in October 2013 to destroy the country's stockpile, and a victory for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). But more needs to be done to make the world free of chemical weapons, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said at a meeting here on Wednesday—and he called on scientists to do their part in reaching that goal.

    Under huge international pressure, the Syrian government agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a 1997 international disarmament treaty, in October 2013. The deal helped stave off U.S. military action after the Ghouta attack, which killed an estimated 1400 men, women, and children.

  • Sugar helps fuel bitter nutrition debate in U.S., U.K.

    Cane sugar, in various processed forms.

    Cane sugar, in various processed forms.

    Romain Behar/Wikimedia

    Efforts are under way to convince both American and British consumers to eat healthier foods—and today, government-led proposals on both sides of the Atlantic are, predictably, generating much debate.

    In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today held a public meeting to discuss draft changes it proposed in February to its Nutrition Facts label, the cliff notes summarizing the amount of fats, protein, carbohydrates, sugars, and more found in food and beverages. FDA hasn’t overhauled the food label since 1993. Since then, obesity rates, eating patterns, and our understanding of various nutrients have changed substantially. “The evidence requires a rethinking,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. That’s the one point upon which everyone seems to agree—but reaching consensus looks unlikely. FDA has received more than 4000 comments on its draft proposal and recently extended the comment period to early August.

    Like other nutritional advocates, Jacobson, who spoke at today’s meeting in downtown Washington, D.C., embraces FDA’s suggestion to include so-called added sugars—sugars that are added to foods—to labels. “Added sugars exert deleterious health effects beyond empty calories,” agreed Frank Hu, who studies nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston and who also spoke. There’s “compelling evidence,” he argued, that they contribute to obesity and diabetes as well as to other health problems. One question, though, was whether simply listing the amount of added sugars, as FDA proposes, is sufficient. Jacobson wants the agency to include the amount as a percentage of a recommended daily dose—after all, consumers are unlikely to deduce whether 1 gram, 5 grams, or 15 grams are problematic unless they’re provided context. FDA says it lacks a scientific basis for setting such a limit.

  • Australian scientists take to the streets to protest job cuts

    Australian scientists take to the streets to protest job cuts

    CSIRO Staff Association

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Abandoning their usual reserve, nearly 1000 scientists across the country downed instruments and grabbed placards this week to protest pending job losses at the nation’s leading research organization, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). “Scientists are not known for rushing to the barricades,” says Anthony Keenan of the CSIRO Staff Association, who adds that while staff members are concerned about job cuts at CSIRO, they are “dismayed” at the government’s short-sighted approach to science.  

    Job cuts at CSIRO are the direct result of the government’s decision last month to slash AU$115 million, or 16%, from the organization’s budget over 4 years. As many as 420 staff members, mostly scientists, could be out of work by June 2015, according to a memo circulated to staff members on 14 May by CSIRO chief Megan Clark. According to the Staff Association, the losses are “unprecedented.” Currently, CSIRO has 5500 positions. The pending cuts could leave the agency with 1000 fewer staff members than last year, and up to 2500 fewer than it had in the 1990s. The conservative government, elected last September, has also chosen not to appoint a science minister, the first time since the portfolio was created in 1931.

  • How to win £10 million with your research

    Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. The new Longitude Prize aims to tackle resistance and other problems with antibiotics.

    Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. The new Longitude Prize aims to tackle resistance and other problems with antibiotics.

    CDC/Janice Carr/Deepak Mandhalapu, M.H.S.

    Solving one of the key medical problems of our time could earn you £10 million—and you've got 5 years to do it. The 2014 Longitude Prize, a new British award aimed at stimulating innovation, will go to whomever can "create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time."

    The challenge was selected by the British public in a vote from six candidate themes, previously chosen by a panel led by astronomer Martin Rees. The results of the monthlong vote were announced yesterday on the BBC's One Show (video here); the other five candidates were research challenges concerning dementia, paralysis, water, food, and flight.

  • U.K. researchers call for more teacher power to improve education

    U.K. students learn about mathematical thinking by playing with a Hoberman sphere.

    U.K. students learn about mathematical thinking by playing with a Hoberman sphere.

    The Royal Society

    A new report from the Royal Society on improving U.K. science and mathematics education contains a lengthy wish list: Upper-level students should take a lot more science and math; more college graduates with science degrees should go into teaching; current teachers should continually upgrade their skills and have a larger voice in the educational process; and the government should de-emphasize the high-stakes tests used to measure student achievement. But the authors of the report, released today, also realize that wishes don’t always come true.

    “There will be pushback from the politicians because we are asking them to relinquish some of their meddling powers,” says Julia Higgins, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Imperial College London and former foreign secretary of the society. “Education is a political football. So we’re saying we need a Manhattan Project, a man on the moon, or something that will get the political parties to stop batting the thing back and forth. And they won’t like that. But we are doing our best to talk to them, and we have hopes.”

    The report, called a “vision” for 2030, includes a timetable with short- and long-range goals. It comes out just as England is implementing a law that extends compulsory education from age 16 to 18. The change creates an opportunity to raise what the report labels the “low levels of post-16 participation in science and mathematics” by encouraging students to continue their studies even if they are not planning to major in those subjects at college or attend university at all. Right now, post-16 students take only three or four courses, known as A-levels, so a high proportion will study no science or mathematics. Only 30% of all students take one or more A-levels in those subjects.

  • UNESCO rejects Australia's bid to shrink Tasmanian World Heritage Site

    Part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

    Part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.


    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—It took less than 10 minutes for a U.N. panel to unanimously reject Australia’s controversial bid to remove 74,039 hectares of wildlands in Tasmania from a designated World Heritage Site. To the delight of scientists and conservationists, not one delegate at this week’s meeting in Doha backed the proposal, submitted last January by Australia’s conservative government.

    Delegates from Germany, Colombia, and Portugal spoke against Australia’s bid prior to the 24 June vote of the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Portugal’s delegate said the justifications for delisting were “feeble” and would set an “unacceptable precedent. … If this committee cares for conservation … we cannot accept this requested delisting.”

    Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, said he was “disappointed” by the decision. Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, said: “Australia accepts and will consider the decision of the World Heritage Committee.”

    The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was expanded in 2013 under Australia’s previous Labor government. The Abbott government, however, asked to delist part of the site as part of a “minor boundary modification,” arguing that the area was “degraded,” “logged,” or part of a plantation. As a result, “these areas detract from the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and its overall integrity,” the government’s request argued.

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