Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • AstraZeneca partners its way to a genomic bounty

    AstraZeneca partners its way to a genomic bounty

    AstraZeneca will embed a research team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, U.K.

    Magnus Manske/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is joining forces with several heavy hitters in genetic sequencing to mine up to 2 million people’s genomes for new drug targets. The London-based company today launched an in-house genomics center that will swap data and samples with Human Longevity Inc. (HLI)—geneticist J. Craig Venter’s ambitious genomics startup—and will embed a research team in the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The company expects that whole genomes, combined with individual health data, will reveal rare genetic variants that influence disease and suggest new drug targets.

    Given that only about 100,000 people in the world have had their entire genomes sequenced to date, the new resource would be unprecedented, says geneticist Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, who is not involved in the partnership. Other pharma companies have made big investments in genomic data. Amgen’s 2012 takeover of deCODE Genetics’s 140,000-person volunteer database  was “somewhat of a precursor to this,” Topol says, but was limited to an Icelandic population and didn’t include whole genomes for every participant. “This is about finally getting some horsepower to get us to the big data, whole genome level,” he says.

  • New research ship highlight of otherwise flat NSF budget bill in Senate

    New research ship highlight of otherwise flat NSF budget bill in Senate

    U.S. senators want the National Science Foundation to build three, not just two, of the regional research vessels depicted in this schematic.

    Oregon State University

    Senate appropriators have made a third research vessel their top priority in the 2017 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    The full Senate appropriations committee today unanimously approved $7.509 billion for NSF, a $46 million boost over its current budget, as part of a $56 billion bill covering several science agencies and the departments of justice and commerce. Within the amount for NSF, legislators added $53 million to the agency’s large new facilities account to begin building three regional-class research vessels rather than the two NSF had requested. (Earlier this week, a spending subcommittee had approved the bill, but released few details.)

    NSF’s research and education accounts were held flat, at $6.033 billion and $880 million, respectively, as was the agency’s internal operating budget. President Barack Obama had requested $46 million more for research and $18 million for education. (NSF had also requested an additional $43 million to accommodate its move next year to a new building in northern Virginia.)

  • ITER leader faces tough questions, even from relatively supportive U.S. House panel


    ITER construction is ramping up, even as the United States mulls its commitment to the project.

    ITER Organization

    For Bernard Bigot, director-general of ITER, the gargantuan fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives was likely to be a relatively amicable event. After all, even as budgetmakers in the Senate have tried repeatedly to pull the United States out of the troubled project, House appropriators have supported it and have prevailed in budget negotiations. Nevertheless, yesterday, in a hearing held by the energy subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Bigot faced pointed questions from both Republican and Democratic representatives, suggesting some of them maybe losing patience with ITER.

    ITER aims to prove that a plasma of deuterium and tritium nuclei trapped in a magnetic field can produce more energy than it consumes as the nuclei fuse in a "burning plasma," a process that mimics the inner workings of the sun. But ITER is running far over budget and at least 10 years behind its original schedule.

  • New energy bill approved by U.S. Senate looks favorably on research

    New energy bill approved by U.S. Senate looks favorably on research

    Ron Cogswell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Federal energy research could get a financial shot in the arm under a bipartisan energy bill, passed by the U.S. Senate today on an 85 to 12 vote, which calls for hefty budget increases for science. But researchers shouldn’t start celebrating: Whether the money ever reaches laboratories will depend on a number of factors, including whether Congress and the White House can agree on a final version of the legislation, and whether the lawmakers who control the purse strings actually ante up the funding envisioned by the bill.

    The so-called authorizing legislation—the first major rewrite of federal energy law since 2007—sets policy and nonbinding funding levels for a broad array of government programs, including research efforts. It envisions funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, the nation’s major funder of the physical sciences, rising by 5% per year, to $7.13 billion in 2020 (up from $5.35 billion this year). DOE’s smaller Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which aims to commercialize high-risk energy technologies, would grow to $375 million in 2020 (up from $291 million this year).

    Those numbers are more generous than the figures included in a draft of the Senate bill introduced in January. That version included a 4% annual raise for the Office of Science, and a smaller boost for ARPA-E. But that changed thanks to two amendments—one from Senators Lamar Alexander (R–TN) and Richard Durbin (D–IL), and another offered by Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI).

  • Q&A: Six years after historic Deepwater Horizon spill, documentary examines the science

    Six years after historic Deepwater Horizon spill, documentary examines the science

    The Deepwater Horizon burns in 2010.

    US Coast Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Six years ago today, an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and unleashed the largest oil spill in U.S. history. It also launched a massive scramble by scientists to understand the extent and impacts of the spill. One researcher involved in that effort was fisheries biologist and marine ecologist Steven Murawski, who at the time of the spill was chief scientist of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Now, Murawski directs the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE) at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg—and he is one scientist featured in a new documentary, Dispatches From the Gulf, that examines the spill, the research effort, and what scientists have learned. The film, produced by Emmy award–winning filmmakers Marilyn and Hal Weiner as part of their Journey to Planet Earth television series, debuted today on YouTube.

    Both C-IMAGE and the filmmakers received funding from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, an independent science group established by a $500 million donation from BP, the oil giant that owned the well.

    Murawski is shown in the film with a team conducting a sediment and fish survey, a project the scientists nicknamed the mud and blood cruise. He talked with ScienceInsider about the ongoing science surrounding the historic spill. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Who’s the Michael Jordan of computer science? New tool ranks researchers' influence


    Sculpture of Michael Jordan—the basketball player—outside the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

    Karl David/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Last fall, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, Washington, launched a challenge to Google Scholar, PubMed, and other online search engines by unveiling a service called Semantic Scholar. The program, originally trained on 2 million papers from the field of computer science, was intended to provide a search engine, driven by artificial intelligence (AI), to actually understand—to a limited extent—the content of published literature. Its corpus has grown to 4 million papers. And today, the institute is adding a new capability to Semantic Scholar with an equally ambitious aim: measuring the influence that a scientist or organization has had on subsequent research.

    The tool, which focuses only on computer science for now but will expand to neuroscience by the fall and then to other subjects, can rank papers, authors, and institutions by a specific influence score. For instance, the tool finds that the most influential computer science is happening at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. No surprise there. But the most influential computer scientist? It's Michael I. Jordan of the University of California, Berkeley, a pioneer of AI that few outside of his field recognize. "He's known as the Michael Jordan of machine learning," quips Oren Etzioni, director of the Seattle-based Allen Institute that created Semantic Scholar. (Click here for a list of the top 50 authors, and here for a list of the top 50 domains.)

  • Survey confirms worst-ever coral bleaching at Great Barrier Reef

    Great Barrier Reef

    Coral bleaching in March at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

    XL Catlin Seaview Survey

    The devastation of coral at Australia's iconic Great Barrier Reef (GBR) "dwarfs previous bleaching events by a long mark," says Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville. Over the weekend, Hughes and colleagues completed the final of a series of aerial surveys crisscrossing the entire reef system. Bleaching is most severe, they confirmed, along the northernmost 1000 kilometers of the reef.

    Bleaching occurs when overly warm water leads corals to expel symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae. Without the colorful algae, which use photosynthesis to produce nutrients for themselves and their hosts, the corals turn white, or bleach. If the waters cool soon enough, algae return; if bleaching persists, the corals die. The world is in the midst of an unusually long El Niño, the climate phenomenon that warms water in the equatorial Pacific and affects global weather. The El Niño, abetted by global warming, has been pushing reefs worldwide into the danger zone.

    Survey confirms worst-ever coral bleaching at Great Barrier Reef


    The prolonged ocean warming has hit the GBR hard. Only 7% of the reef system has avoided coral bleaching entirely, according to a statement released today by Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Taskforce. The aerial survey found that middle stretches of the 2300-kilometer-long GBR system were, on the whole, moderately bleached. Only the southern reaches escaped with minimal damage, thanks to persistent cloud cover and rain in early March. The middle and southern sections will likely recover and regain color in coming months, says Hughes, who heads the taskforce. The northern section is in big trouble: Eighty percent of the reefs were severely bleached and in-water surveys have confirmed 50% mortality in some reefs, a percentage that could eventually exceed 90%.

  • U.S. Senate calls for building three, not two, new regional research vessels

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    Oregon State University

    Every cloud has a silver lining. Along with the news that a Senate spending subcommittee today approved a paltry $46 million budget increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF) for fiscal year 2017 came what appears to be a bright spot for ocean science. In February, the agency had requested funds to design and construct two new regional class research vessels (RCRVs). But instead, the panel has approved funding three such vessels. The three ships, the Senate panel noted, would allow each major coastal region of the United States—the East and West coasts, and the Gulf of Mexico—to have its own dedicated vessel.

    The promise of new ships has been a long-cherished hope for many ocean scientists. RCRVs are among the smaller vessels in the federal fleet, optimized for work in coastal waters, estuaries, and bays. The need for them became particularly apparent in 2010, when researchers sought to quickly reach the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico but found a dearth of available ships. Two of the three RCRVs in the fleet have since retired.

    NSF has sought for years to expand its existing fleet of these vessels, which would be funded through the agency’s large facilities construction account. In 2013, Oregon State University, Corvallis, got the nod and $3 million from NSF to coordinate the design for three vessels.

  • To fight global warming, Senate calls for study of making Earth reflect more light

    A U.S. Senate spending panel wants the Department of Energy to study ways of increasing the amount of sunlight reflected from Earth, in order to combat global warming.

    A U.S. Senate spending panel wants the Department of Energy to study ways of increasing the amount of sunlight reflected from Earth, in order to combat global warming.

    NASA/ISS Crew/Johnson Space Center

    Budgetmakers in the U.S. Senate want the Department of Energy (DOE) to study the possibility of making Earth reflect more sunlight into space to fight global warming. Earth's reflectivity is known as its albedo, and the request to study "albedo modification" comes in the details of a proposed spending bill passed by the Senate appropriations committee to fund DOE, the Army Corps of Engineers, and related agencies for fiscal year 2017, which begins 1 October. The bill does not specify how much money should be spent on the research.

    Critics argue that albedo modification and other "geoengineering" schemes are risky and would discourage nations from trying to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas that comes from the burning of fossil fuels and that is causing global warming by absorbing increasing amounts of energy from sunlight. Still, climate researchers say they should find out what its potential of albedo modification might be.

    "The recommendation is great," says Joyce Penner, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Albedo modification "is not a solution to global warming, it is only a way to avoid, perhaps, a tipping point in the climate." David Keith, an atmospheric physicist at Harvard University, says, "Ignorance is not a good basis for making decisions, so learning more about this is extremely valuable even if we find out that it will never work." Keith adds, however, that the few existing studies suggest albedo modification could help ameliorate some effects of global warming.

  • Senate spending panel leaves NSF flat, cuts NASA science

    U.S. House tees up controversial bill on NSF research

    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A Senate spending panel today approved a tiny budget increase next year for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and flat funding for NASA—and congratulated themselves for doing so given a cap on overall domestic discretionary spending across the government.

    NSF would receive $46 million above its current level of $7.46 billion. That 0.6% hike is well below the $500 million increase sought by the Obama administration. But some $400 million of that requested boost would have come from so-called mandatory spending, a mechanism that legislators have repeatedly said was a nonstarter. So the Senate panel is basically giving NSF half of what the president had requested in discretionary spending. Additional details are expected when the bill moves to the full Senate appropriations committee on Thursday.

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