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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Mekong megadrought erodes food security

    Drought is hammering Vietnam's agriculture, including crops like rambutan seen here being transported in the Mekong delta.

    Drought is hammering Vietnam's agriculture, including crops like rambutan seen here being transported in the Mekong delta.

    Thomas Schoch/Creative Commons

    The worst drought ever recorded in Vietnam is stoking fears of a food security crisis. In a meeting with government officials next week, researchers with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)’s Asia regional office in Hanoi will unveil maps showing how water scarcity and climate change may imperil key crops—rice, cassava, maize, coffee, and cashew nuts—across the country. 

    "The severity of this year's drought will have a profound impact on Mekong delta agricultural production,” says Brian Eyler, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

    As of mid-March, nearly a million people in central and southern Vietnam lack access to fresh drinking water, according to a recent United Nations report. And supplies of rice, the main staple crop, are in jeopardy. Saltwater intrusion in the Mekong delta has destroyed at least 159,000 hectares of paddy rice so far, with a further 500,000 hectares at risk before the onset of the summer monsoon. The Vietnam government has approved $23.3 million in emergency funds to compensate hard-hit farmers and provide water tanks and other critical provisions. Meanwhile, the Vietnam Red Cross Society has been mobilized to provide assistance in provinces where local health clinics are struggling to deliver essential services due to insufficient freshwater.

  • ‘Hubble repairman’ to retire from NASA’s top science spot

    NASA’s John Grunsfeld at an Earth Day event in Washington, D.C., in 2015

    NASA’s John Grunsfeld at an Earth Day event in Washington, D.C., in 2015

    NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

    NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and astronaut who worked on three repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, will retire from his position as head of the science mission directorate on 30 April, the agency announced today.

    Grunsfeld served for many years as an astronaut within NASA’s human spaceflight division, and flew on five shuttle missions. Since 2012, he led NASA’s science division, where he became an advocate for marrying the agency’s human and robotic exploration divisions.

    It was not his first time at headquarters. In 2004, he was chief scientist—an advisory role to the administrator—and he was put in the difficult position of having to defend a decision to cancel Hubble’s final servicing mission (which ended up going ahead in 2009). After a stint at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, Grunsfeld was called back to headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 2012, following the departure of Associate Administrator Ed Weiler.

  • China takes microgravity work to new heights

    China's Shijian-10, the second of four scientific space missions, carries a collection of microgravity experiments.

    China's Shijian-10, the second of four scientific space missions, carries a collection of microgravity experiments.

    NSSC

    China's space science ambitions mark a new milestone today with the launch of a microgravity research satellite set for 2 a.m. Wednesday morning Beijing time. The Shijian-10 (SJ-10) spacecraft carries 20 experiments covering fluid physics, materials science, and the effects of radiation and microgravity on various biological systems.

    The mission deepens China's international cooperation in space, carrying an experiment jointly developed with the European Space Agency (ESA). "We have been sharing scientific data and sharing results" with China, says Antonio Verga, an ESA microgravity researcher in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. In particular, ESA scientists worked with Chinese colleagues on the Geospace Double Star Exploration Program, though the mission's two satellites were developed and launched by China's National Space Science Center (NSSC). SJ-10 "is the first cooperative mission in which ESA is actually flying a piece of hardware on a Chinese mission," Verga says.

    The SJ-10 spacecraft will be launched on a Long March 2D rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern Gansu province. After 12 days in orbit, a re-entry capsule will return most samples to Earth, landing in Inner Mongolia. The short time frame is typical for space microgravity missions, Verga says. Experiments on the orbiter will continue for three more days, running on batteries for power.

  • Angolan yellow fever outbreak highlights dangerous vaccine shortage

    The Angola military administers yellow fever vaccine at the Quilometro 30 market in Luanda in February.

    The Angola military administers yellow fever vaccine at the Quilometro 30 market in Luanda in February.

    © JOOST DE RAEYMAEKER/epa/Corbis

    The three people dressed in baby blue plastic suits and goggles form a human conveyor belt for chicken embryos. The first takes a tray of eggs that were injected with a yellow fever vaccine virus, then left to incubate for 4 days, and cuts the top off each egg. The second tweezes the embryos out of the eggs and deposits them in a large bottle. The last person adds some liquid, then blends the embryos into a rich, red broth that contains millions of weakened virus particles.

    The end result of this procedure, repeated dozens of times every week at the Pasteur Institute of Dakar, is a highly effective vaccine that offers lifelong protection against yellow fever. But the 80-year-old process is decidedly low-tech and hard to scale up—and that's become a problem, because a big yellow fever outbreak that started in December 2015 in Luanda, Angola's capital, has emptied the world's strategic reserves of the vaccine.

    The Pasteur Institute, which makes about 10 million doses a year, is one of only four facilities around the world producing yellow fever shots, joining two government-run plants in Russia and Brazil and French vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur. Their combined output has long fallen short of the world's needs, and the Angola outbreak has worsened the shortfall. Another major outbreak—for instance in Asia, where yellow fever has never gained a foothold—could be impossible to control, says Jack Woodall, a retired virologist in London, formerly of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. “I hate being alarmist," says Woodall, who's also a moderator at the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, an online alert system for disease outbreaks. "But this is something I’m really panicking about.”

  • Scientific advisers tapped to guide Biden’s cancer moonshot

    Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.

    Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.

    Marc Nozell/Flicker (CC BY 2.0)

    The National Cancer Institute (NCI) today named a blue ribbon panel of scientists and other experts to help guide Vice President Joe Biden’s ambitious $1 billion moonshot to cure cancer.

    Announced during President Barack Obama’s January State of the Union Address, the moonshot project will aim to double progress against cancer in the next 5 years and break down silos that prevent researchers from working together. NCI is spending $195 million on the effort this year and Obama has requested another $680 million for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for next year.

    The 28-member blue ribbon panel, a working group of the NCI’s National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB), will have three co-chairs: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge cancer biologist Tyler Jacks, who is chair of NCAB; Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, cancer immunologist Elizabeth Jaffee; and NCI acting deputy director Dinah Singer. The other panelists include cancer center directors, researchers in tumor genomics and cancer immunotherapy, patient advocates, and industry leaders, including Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO of NantWorks, who recently launched his own cancer moonshot to test immunotherapy drugs.

  • Killer bat fungus jumps to West Coast

    White-nose syndrome, seen in this bat in Maine, has crossed the Rockies.

    White-nose syndrome, seen in this bat in Maine, has crossed the Rockies.

    Jonathan Mays, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

    A lethal fungus devastating U.S. bat populations in the East and Midwest has crossed the Continental Divide for the first time, unexpectedly popping up in Washington—approximately 2000 kilometers farther west than previously seen.

    The discovery of white-nose syndrome in a single, sickly little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) found in mid-March by hikers at the edge of the Cascade Mountains, 50 kilometers east of Seattle, Washington, is confirmation of what scientists considered the inevitable spread of the disease across the continent. “This is a nightmare scenario come true,” says Jeremy Coleman, an ecologist and head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s white-nose syndrome program in Hadley, Massachusetts. “This is the news we have been bracing for and warning about going back for the last 8 years.”

    But the syndrome’s appearance in the far northwest corner of the country, announced Thursday by state and federal wildlife agencies, came as a surprise. In recent years, it had only reached as far west as Minnesota and Nebraska, after an orderly march across the continent from its start in upstate New York.

  • Groups protest House demands for names of fetal tissue researchers

    House of Representatives

    Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), head of the House’s investigative panel on fetal tissue.

    Gage Skidmore

    A special investigative panel in the U.S. House of Representatives this week intensified its probe into the use of fetal tissue in biomedical research with a dozen new subpoenas aimed at researchers and abortion providers. This second round of inquiries, two of them directed to individual faculty members at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, deepens concerns among some education groups and scientists that personal information revealed in the investigation could make researchers the target of extremist violence.

    The House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, launched last October and led by Representative Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), grew out of Republican backlash over undercover videos released last summer by the Center for Medical Progress, an antiabortion group that accused the organization Planned Parenthood of illegally profiting from the sale of tissue from abortions. The panel sent out more than 30 information requests to universities, companies, and abortion clinics before issuing three formal subpoenas in February to the abortion provider Southwestern Women’s Options (SWO), the tissue procurement company StemExpress, and UNM, whose health sciences center includes labs that work with fetal tissue from abortions performed by SWO. The request included “the identity, by name, of persons who participated in each study” involving fetal tissue, as well as those who transferred tissue to the university.

  • Japan's damaged x-ray satellite: Space scientists looking for clues

    Space

    Mission controllers are still trying to get in contact with the Hitomi spacecraft.

    Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

    At a press conference in Tokyo today, officials of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said that because of the difficulty of gathering information from the wayward Hitomi x-ray observatory they couldn't say how long it might take to figure out what has gone wrong. A joint JAXA-NASA mission, Hitomi was launched 17 February and was still undergoing commissioning when normal communications were lost on 26 March. Originally called ASTRO-H, Hitomi carries a suite of instruments designed to detect x-rays and gamma rays emanating from black holes, swirling gases in galaxy clusters, and supernova remnants. 

    Ground stations have intermittently picked up signals apparently from the spacecraft on four occasions, raising hopes that the main body of the craft might be intact. But the last of those glimpses of life was on 29 March. Ground visual and radar observations indicate that the craft has split into at least two pieces and is likely spinning. "At the moment, there is no evidence of a collision with space debris," said Saku Tsuneta, director general of JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Sagamihara near Tokyo.

  • Update: Vacationing Turkish scholar arrested after her return

    The flag of Turkey.

    The flag of Turkey.

    alexeyklyukin/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    *Update: Turkish media are reporting today that Meral Camcı was arrested upon returning to Istanbul after a vacation in France. According to reports, she turned herself in willingly. Science's pre-arrest interview with Camcı, published 22 March, appears below. 

    The simmering war between Turkish academics and their increasingly repressive government came to a boil last week with arrests and an escape. It began in January with the firing of dozens of academics, many of them scientists, from Turkey’s universities. All had signed an online petition by a group calling itself Academics for Peace that is critical of the government’s treatment of the Kurdish minority group. The firings sparked protests and statements from scientific organizations, including the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, calling on the government to respect freedom of speech.

    The standoff held until 13 March, when Kurdish separatists set off a car bomb in the capital, killing 37 people. The next day Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced that the definition of “terrorism” should be expanded to include all who provide support in the form of “propaganda” and specifically called out academics.

    Within hours of the president’s speech, police arrived at the homes of four Turkish researchers. Three are now imprisoned; Turkish academics fear that many more arrests will follow. But Meral Camcı, a literary scholar who had been dismissed from her faculty position at Yeni Yüzyıl University in Istanbul, had gone to France on vacation just days before.

  • French scientist accused of perjury for allegedly concealing industry payments

    Michel Aubier discussed the risks of air pollution in a talk show on television station France 5 on 1 March.

    Michel Aubier discussed the risks of air pollution in a talk show on television station France 5 on 1 March.

    France 5

    A prominent pneumologist is in the crosshairs of the French Senate because he apparently didn't disclose his paid work for an oil company during a Senate inquiry into the costs of air pollution. Michel Aubier, an asthma specialist at the Hôpital Bichat-Claude Bernard in Paris, could face prison time and a hefty fine if his alleged perjury goes to court.

    Aubier, who is also a member of a research team at France's National Institute of Health and Medical Resrach (INSERM), told a Senate committee of inquiry that the link between air pollution—including diesel particles—and lung cancer is tenuous and controversial. Aubier, who was under oath, also told the committee that he had “no links of interests with economic actors” involved in this issue.

    But earlier this month, newspapers Libération and Le Canard enchaîné revealed that the petrol firm Total pays Aubier as a medical adviser—€50,000 to €60,000 per year since the late 1990s, according to an article by broadsheet Le Monde on 18 March.

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