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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Climate scientist requesting federal investigation feels heat from House Republicans

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    NASA/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A scientist who helped organize a call for a federal investigation of the fossil fuel industry—for allegedly orchestrating a cover-up of climate change dangers—has himself become the target of a congressional probe.

    Last week, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the science panel of the House of Representatives, announced plans to investigate a nonprofit research group led by climate scientist Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He is the lead signer of a letter to White House officials that urges the use of an antiracketeering law to crack down on energy firms that have funded efforts to raise doubts about climate science.

    In a 1 October letter, Smith asked Shukla, who is director of the independent Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) in Rockville, Maryland, to preserve all of the “email, electronic documents, and data” that the institute has created since 2009. Smith’s panel soon may be asking for those documents, the letter suggests.

  • Updated: Nobel Prize honors drugs that fight roundworms, malaria

    William Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura, and Youyou Tu

    William Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura, and Youyou Tu

    Three scientists have been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for decades-old findings that led to “revolutionary treatments” for devastasting diseases in the developing world. William Campbell of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and Satoshi Ōmura of Kitasato University in Tokyo share half of the prize for discovering avermectin, a drug to kill roundworms that cause blindness and deformities. The other half of the prize goes to Youyou Tu of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing, who discovered and refined artemisinin, which has proved highly effective against severe cases of malaria.

    “The global impact of the discovery and the impact on mankind is immeasurable,” Hans Forssberg, a neuroscientist and member of the Nobel Assembly, which selects the winners, said today at a press conference announcing the award. 

    “It is extremely rewarding to know that people from the development community have been recognized for work that really helps people,” says David Molyneux, who heads the neglected tropical diseases program at the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool, U.K. Molyneux estimates that ivermectin, a derivative of avermectin, has been given more than a billion times, preventing more than 500,000 cases of blindness.

  • U.S. government rejected dozens of risky pathogen studies in past few years

    Proposed studies of Burkholderia mallei (above) were among those rejected by the federal office that oversees U.S. research on select agents.

    Proposed studies of Burkholderia mallei (above) were among those rejected by the federal office that oversees U.S. research on select agents.

    CDC/ Dr. Todd Parker, Audra Marsh/Wikimedia Commons

    A new analysis might offer some comfort to those worried that U.S. studies of dangerous pathogens are proliferating unchecked. Federal officials report that over 8 years, they rejected two-thirds of proposals for some 90 studies that fall into a category of studies considered so risky to public health that they require special review. But one onlooker, although praising the results, says the definition of restricted studies should be expanded to include controversial influenza experiments not now covered by the rules.

    The report, published online on 8 September in the journal Health Security, summarizes reviews conducted by an office within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. That office, CDC’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT), oversees the use and handling of certain viruses, bacteria, and toxins that appear on a government list of “select agents” that could potentially be used as bioweapons. In 2005, in the wake of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, the federal government began requiring DSAT to review two types of select agent studies.

    One category involves making a select agent resistant to drugs or chemicals. Researchers sometimes intentionally create this resistance in order to select out clones of bacteria that carry a desired trait. (Those not carrying the desired trait are killed by the treatment, removing them from the study population.) 

  • Q&A: Iran’s top science official strives for a Silicon Valley spirit

    Sorena Sattari

    Sorena Sattari

    Courtesy of the Vice-Presidency for Science and Technology of Iran

    NEW YORK CITY—During his 2 years in office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has filled his cabinet with Ph.D.-trained technocrats. One of the youngest is Sorena Sattari, the vice president for science and technology. A mechanical engineer by training, Sattari, 43, has been a forceful proponent of yoking science more tightly to the economy and says he would like to imbue Iran with an “entrepreneurial spirit.” His Innovation and Prosperity Fund has handed out $600 million in low-interest loans to 1650 technology startups and to other firms seeking to branch out in new directions.

    He has not turned his back on basic research, however. He cites as “a point of pride” for his country the $30 million Iranian National Observatory, a world-class, 3.4-meter optical telescope that is expected to see first light in 4 or 5 years. Backers credit him with helping get the long-delayed project back on track earlier this year (Science, 4 September, p. 1042). Sattari spoke with Science last week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • New Mexico says no to wolves, creating quandary for federal officials

    The Mexican wolf

    The Mexican wolf

    Jim Clark/USFWS

    A new political battle is brewing over Mexican wolves, a species that was hunted and poisoned to extinction in the U.S. Southwest, but reintroduced to the wild by the federal government in 1998. Earlier this week, the New Mexico Game  Commission upheld an earlier decision denying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) permits to release Mexican wolves onto federal land in southwestern New Mexico. According to FWS and independent scientists, such releases are critical for diversifying the gene pool of the increasingly inbred wolf population.

    State officials have said they are unwilling to approve new releases until FWS updates its recovery plan for the wolf, which was written in 1982. Concerned about impacts to ranchers and elk hunters, they’ve pressed FWS for the total number of wolves it aims to restore to the landscape in the long-term. But the agency doesn’t have that number yet, and though it is updating the recovery plan, the process is likely to take at least 2 years. 

  • This machine produces the largest humanmade waves in the world

    The new facility is 300 meters long and boasts waves as high as 4.5 meters.

    The new facility is 300 meters long and boasts waves as high as 4.5 meters.

    John Verbruggen

    DELFT, THE NETHERLANDS—Dutch scientists are making waves—big ones. A new experimental facility at Deltares, a research institute here, has begun producing the largest humanmade waves in the world. Like kids building sandcastles below the tideline on the beach, scientists will let the walls of water crash on dikes of different designs and other structures—sometimes until they're destroyed.

  • More than $100 million in new BRAIN funds

    Shaping up. In a highly anticipated report, the mysterious BRAIN Initiative begins to take form.

    NIH

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—As part of President Barack Obama’s high-profile initiative to study the brain, the Kavli Foundation and several university partners today announced $100 million in new funding for neuroscience research, including three new institutes at universities in Maryland, New York, and California. Each of the institutes will receive a $20 million endowment, provided equally by their universities and the foundation, along with start-up funding to pursue projects in areas such as brain plasticity and tool development.

    The new funding, geared at providing stable support for high-risk, interdisciplinary research, exceeds the original commitment of $40 million that the Kavli Foundation made to the national Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, when it was first launched by President Obama in 2013. The funds are also unrestricted, allowing each institute to determine which projects to pursue. “That’s the most precious money any scientist can have,” Robert Conn, president and CEO of The Kavli Foundation, noted at a meeting today on Capitol Hill. Neuroscientist Loren Frank, who will serve as co-director at the new institute at the University of California, San Francisco, says the funds will allow his lab to explore fundamental questions such as how the brain can maintain its function despite constant change, and to form interdisciplinary partnerships with labs such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

  • New U.S. ozone standard won’t please greens or industry

    Smog in Los Angeles, California.

    Smog in Los Angeles, California.

    Metro Library and Archive/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    After years of controversy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today tightened its national limits on ground-level ozone pollution, a main contributor to smog. But it has picked a level that the agency's own science advisers have said might not fully protect health and the environment.

    EPA will lower the standard from the current 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70 ppb, a move that agency officials say will deliver health benefits (in the form of avoided maladies such as asthma attacks, premature deaths, and sick days) that outstrip the costs by a factor of two to four. The move will disappoint industry groups that had waged an expensive and intense campaign to keep the standard at 75 ppb.

    And it will also disappoint environmental advocates, who have argued that even EPA’s own technical advisers had said in 2014 that scientific evidence would support a tighter standard. "For a standard that’s supposed to protect health with an 'adequate safety margin,' we don’t think that’s been done here with that many lives sacrificed and that many asthma attacks allowed," John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells ScienceInsider.

  • Predatory publishers earned $75 million last year, study finds

    Predatory publishers earned $75 million last year, study finds

    Ram Joshi/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Need to get your research published? Don't want to be hassled by peer review or editorial quality control? You are in luck: There are thousands of scientific journals waiting to publish it right away, for a fee.

    A new study finds that the fake journal business is booming—and puts some hard numbers on this murky academic underworld. Last year alone, so-called predatory publishers took in about $75 million and published nearly half a million articles, researchers report today online in BMC Medicine.

    "It took more than half a year to finish the data collection," says Cenyu Shen of the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, who conducted the survey with fellow information systems scientist Bo-Christer Björk. With some help from undergrad students, the team combed through hundreds of discredited academic journal websites to gather basic data.

  • Venus and a bizarre metal asteroid are leading destinations for low-cost NASA missions

    The ultra-dense asteroid Psyche is thought to be made almost entirely of iron and nickel metal. It could be the remnant core of a planetesimal that was stripped of its mantle (artist's impression).

    Corby Waste/JPL

    Venus is back on NASA’s agenda. Today, NASA winnowed down the contenders for the agency’s next low-cost planetary science mission. Five finalists were announced from among 27 proposals in Discovery, a competitive mission line with a $500 million cost cap, and two of them are missions to Venus, not visited by a NASA spacecraft since 1994. The other three finalists would study asteroids.

    “It sends a very positive message that it’s time to go back to Venus,” says Lori Glaze, a planetary scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the leader of one of the two Venus mission proposals.

    Typically, NASA picks just three finalists in its Discovery competitions, which take place every few years. But this time the agency may choose two winners instead of the usual one, says Michael New, Discovery program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The two winners’ development and launch would be staggered. “It depends on what our budgets in the out years look like,” he says. “Based on what we’ve seen to date, it looks like we’ll be able to do two.” Each of the five finalists will now get up to $3 million to pursue a more detailed proposal for the final selection about a year from now.

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