Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 'Brexit' would hit U.K. research hard, report says


    Economic studies, evolutionary biology, and nanotechnology are most at risk if the United Kingdom left the European Union.

    DSmith/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Leaving the European Union would cause a steep drop in research funding for scientists in the United Kingdom, according to a new study—and it's unclear whether the country can "buy its way back" into European funding schemes under favorable conditions.

    The United Kingdom is “significantly more dependent on E.U. funding than other countries such as Germany,” warns the study, published today by research software company Digital Science. “Our success in gaining European funding is masking serious deficiencies” in both government and business commitment to R&D investment, adds the report, entitled What is the real cost of Brexit for the UK’s research base?

    The United Kingdom is set to vote on whether to leave the European Union in a referendum next month, and there has been a sharp debate about the impact a departure would have on science. The new study provides fodder primarily for the anti-Brexit camp.

  • Medical complications cut Everest research expedition short

    Richard Parks undergoing tests on Island Peak in Nepal during his acclimatization period.

    Richard Parks undergoing tests on Island Peak in Nepal during his acclimatization period.

    Richard Parks

    Earlier this month, U.K. mountaineer Richard Parks prematurely abandoned his team’s expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal. He planned to ascend the peak without supplemental oxygen as part of Project Everest Cynllun, and take the highest-elevation blood sample and muscle biopsy ever collected. The project’s original goal was to examine the link between hypoxia and cognitive decline by examining human performance in low-oxygen environments, but its abrupt end has sparked questions of a different sort.

    The team had for several weeks been climbing smaller peaks to acclimatize to high altitude, and Parks was about to start his second rotation up the mountain: a 2-week stay above the Khumbu Icefall (5486 meters). Damian Bailey, a physiologist at the University of South Wales in the United Kingdom and the lead scientist on the project, decided to perform a blood test on Parks earlier than scheduled. When he drew the blood, he immediately knew something was wrong. “His blood was extraordinarily thick,” Bailey says. “It was actually clotting as I was taking a sample.”

    Testing revealed that Parks had exceptionally high levels of red blood cells and a high hematocrit, the percentage of the blood’s mass made up of red blood cells. On one hand, this was a clue to Parks’s ability to function in low-oxygen conditions: “His brain was actually getting more oxygen than it would get at sea level,” Bailey says, despite the thin alpine atmosphere containing half the amount of oxygen found at lower elevations. But such high cell densities also put him at increased risk of a stroke or a heart attack. For this reason, the team decided to end the expedition on 3 May despite Parks outwardly seeming in perfectly good health.

  • Once again, U.S. expert panel says genetically engineered crops are safe to eat

    U.S. panel releases consensus on genetically engineered crops

    Javler/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Almost 2 years ago, a group of 20 scientists began hashing out a consensus on the risks and benefits of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Since the launch of their study, sponsored by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the public debate around the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and whether to label them has continued to rage. But behind the scenes, some things have changed. Agricultural markets are now bracing for an explosion of new plants designed using the precise gene-editing technology CRISPR, and regulators in both the United States and the European Union are struggling with how to assess their safety.

    The panel’s report, released today, is a hefty literature review that tackles mainstay questions in the well-worn GMO debate. Are these plants safe to eat? How do they affect the environment? Do they drive herbicide-resistance in weeds or pesticide-resistance in insects? But it also weighs in on a more immediate conundrum for federal agencies: what to do with gene-edited plants that won’t always fit the technical definition of a regulated GE crop.

    The authors picked through hundreds of research papers to make generalizations about GE varieties already in commercial production: There is “reasonable evidence that animals were not harmed by eating food derived from GE crops,” and epidemiological data shows no increase in cancer or any other health problems as a result of these crops entering into our food supply. Pest-resistant crops that poison insects thanks to a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) generally allow farmers to use less pesticide. Farmers can manage the risk of those pests evolving resistance by using crops with high enough levels of the toxin and planting non-Bt “refuges” nearby. Crops designed to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, meanwhile, can lead to heavy reliance on the chemical, and spawn resistant weeds that “present a major agronomic problem.” The panel urges more research on strategies to delay weed resistance.

  • Your call and text records are far more revealing than you think

    Records of the calls and texts made by cellphone users, such as these commuters on the Tokyo subway, can reveal a lot.

    Records of the calls and texts made by cellphone users, such as these commuters on the Tokyo subway, can reveal a lot.

    Issyplante/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Metadata. It's an obscure data science term that was unknown to most people until 2013, when they learned that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is harvesting vast amounts of it from telephone calls. Government officials have downplayed the sensitivity of such data, but a crowdsourced study of phone metadata now finds that highly revealing information can be gleaned from a simple list of who called whom.

    NSA's intrusion into citizen's private lives may have roiled academics, but it has remained unclear what the spy agency was learning from phone metadata. A White House spokesperson reassured the public in 2013 that the metadata harvesting "does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls," leaving privacy intact. Ever since then, a trio of computer scientists from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California—Jonathan Mayer, Patrick Mutchler, and John Mitchell—has been harvesting phone metadata themselves to see what can be revealed.

    Unlike NSA, the researchers collected their data with consent from people who downloaded an app called MetaPhone. Once installed on a smart phone, it collects the phone numbers and timing of every call and text message made and received. More than 800 people downloaded the app and consented. If their privacy really is protected, then the records of their 1.2 million text messages and 250,000 calls should reveal little.

  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide soars past crucial milestone

    Measurements at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station in  Tasmania, Australia, indicate atmospheric carbon dioxide now exceeds 400  parts per million.

    Measurements at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station in Tasmania, Australia, indicate atmospheric carbon dioxide now exceeds 400 parts per million.


    Earth has passed an “unfortunate milestone,” read an email alert sent out last Saturday evening Australia time. “During the last 4 days, the CO2 [carbon dioxide] levels at Cape Grim have risen above 400 parts per million (ppm),” Paul Krummel, an atmospheric scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organisation (CSIRO) wrote to scientists.

    Although the measurement was expected, it is a clear warning that the level of atmospheric CO2 is entering dangerous territory, up from 280 ppm at the start of the industrial age around the year 1800. Scientists figure that the accumulation of greenhouse gases has pushed global temperatures up nearly 1.5°C since 1850. They estimate that 2°C of warming will occur at 450 ppm. Under the Paris agreement, reached at last December’s climate conference, 195 nations pledged to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to below 2°C above preindustrial levels.

    Because greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane are driving global warming, reaching what some call “400 Day” highlights the importance of sticking to the global commitment to reduce emissions. “Because we reached this threshold so early, we really need to reduce our emissions dramatically in order to reach the Paris agreement target of 2°C,” says Wenju Cai, a CSIRO climate modeler.

  • Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists

    Senator Flake’s erroneous claim that the National Science Foundation funded a cheerleader study also ignores how federal grants support future scientists.

    Senator Flake’s erroneous claim that the National Science Foundation funded a cheerleader study also ignores how federal grants support future scientists.

    Penn State/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Senator Jeff Flake (R–AZ) says that the National Science Foundation (NSF) frittered away $1.1 million on an academic study of cheerleaders. But about the only thing that’s actually true in that previous sentence is the senator’s name.

    This past Tuesday Flake released an 85-page report entitled Twenty Questions: Government studies that will leave you scratching your head. The report, which pokes fun at 20 studies funded by NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and other agencies, is the latest in a barrage of attacks from Republicans in Congress against individual federal grants.

    Flake hopes the report will bolster his argument that federal agencies need “to make better decisions about how science money is spent.” Speaking to reporters covering the Capitol Hill rollout of the report, Flake wondered aloud: “Explain why, when we need research done—when we need a vaccine for Ebola or Zika—why are we spending money on cheerleaders?”

  • Earth’s microbes get their own White House initiative

    These microbes live more than 2 kilometers below the sea floor off the coast of Japan.

    These microbes live more than 2 kilometers below the sea floor off the coast of Japan.

    Hiroyuki Imachi/JAMSTEC

    With its second term wrapping up, President Obama’s administration wants to fit at least one more high-profile “initiative” into its scientific legacy. Having launched efforts to map the human brain, fight drug-resistant bacteria, advance precision medicine, and cure cancer, the White House has now set its sights on the untold number of enigmatic microbes that define our environment and fill our bodies.

    The National Microbiome Initiative, rolled out in an event today by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), aims to fund cross-disciplinary projects that would help understand the function of individual microbes and map how they interact in communities—from those that may fend off disease in the human intestines, to those that help plants pull nutrients from soil, to those that capture and release carbon dioxide in the ocean.

    The initiative would allocate $121 million in federal money—from funding already appropriated and included in the president’s 2017 budget request—to microbiome-focused research grants at NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Private foundations, companies, and academic institutions have pledged another $400 million, including $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study the effects of the microbiome on malnutrition and ways to manipulate soil microbes to improve crops in sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Yes, Zika will soon spread in the United States. But it won’t be a disaster

    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest presented maps showing the danger of Zika this week.

    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest presented maps showing the danger of Zika this week.

    AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

    If history repeats itself, the U.S. media will make a whoop dee doo out of the first confirmed case of Zika virus transmission that takes place in the United States from a mosquito to a person. So far, such “autochthonous” transmission hasn't happened, but scientists believe it’s very likely to occur in the next few weeks. Given the attention that each imported case of Zika has triggered so far—see here and here and here and here and here—expect the U.S. media to go full-throttle.

    Politics will further increase the clamor: Just 2 days ago, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at his daily briefing pointed to a map that appears to show the virus blanketing half the continental United States by mid-summer. “The map behind me is a graphic illustration of the need for immediate congressional action,” said Earnest, urging Congress to heed President Barack Obama’s 3-month-old request to pump $1.9 billion in emergency aid to fight Zika.

    But researchers who have studied Zika and the mosquitoes that transmit it say that the country is currently in the calm before the calm. Damaging as Zika is to fetuses, they predict that autochthonous transmission will only affect a small swath of the country that stretches from Florida along the Gulf Coast to Texas. And the dynamics of mosquito-borne disease in the United States are so different from those in Latin America that the number of confirmed cases probably will be in the hundreds, if that, before autochthonous spread sputters out.

  • For cholesterol study volunteer, an unsettling discovery in a Science paper: herself

    Rita Woidislawsky

    Rita Woidislawsky has high HDL, and it might have a downside.

    J. Couzin-Frankel/Science

    When I first meet Rita Woidislawsky at La Colombe, her favorite coffee shop steps from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s upscale Rittenhouse Square, she’s effusive and bracingly direct—hugging patrons she knows, waving to baristas, and quickly finding the one table that’s about to free up. She’s dressed in workout clothes and delights in looking younger than her 68 years, with curly hair and an Israeli accent that’s lingered since she emigrated in her late teens.

    Hidden from view is what attracted world-renowned scientists to Woidislawsky, and why she and I are together now: her unusually elevated high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, and her decision about 5 years ago to join a research project that’s studying people like her. Like millions of volunteers who give blood and a few hours of their time to scientists, the project had barely registered on her radar over the past couple years. And then last month came a startling discovery.

  • NEON’s new CEO promises to ‘build a bridge’ to ecologists


    Rich Leonard (right) learns about how field technicians Lauren Egli and Matt Bitters identify beetle specimens from the Sterling, Colorado, field site.


    Richard Leonard is a corporate turnaround artist. And the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, is betting on him to turn around its troubled National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

    Leonard is the new CEO of NEON, a $433 million facility being built at dozens of sites around the United States. He’s spent his career with the Battelle Memorial Institute, the Columbus-based nonprofit organization that was selected this spring to finish construction and operate the observatory after NSF fired the original contractor.

    The 52-year-old chemical engineer has never worked on an NSF-funded project, and has no ties to the ecological community that will use NEON over the next 3 decades to collect and analyze vast amounts of data on climate change, land use, and biodiversity from 20 distinct biomes. But he has managed numerous defense-related programs for Battelle, which operates six national laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy.

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