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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Japan Ordered to Stop Scientific Whaling

    A minke whale and her 1-year-old calf are dragged aboard a Japanese vessel. The image was taken and released by the Australian government, which disputes that Japan is whaling for scientific purposes.

    Is this science? A minke whale and her 1-year-old calf are dragged aboard a Japanese vessel. The image was taken and released by the Australian government, which disputes that Japan is whaling for scientific purposes.

    Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia

    Japan has to stop capturing and killing whales under its whaling program in the Antarctic, called JARPA II, the International Court of Justice has said.

    In a judgment issued in The Hague in the Netherlands today, the U.N. court has ordered Japan to revoke existing permits to catch whales for scientific purposes and to stop granting such permits in the future. The ruling is a victory for Australia, which filed court proceedings against Japan's whaling in 2010, arguing that it breached international obligations.

    In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling, allowing the taking and killing of whales for research purposes only. Scientific catch limits are set by each country on a yearly basis, submitted to a review by IWC's scientific committee.

    Antiwhaling critics say that Japanese whale research is a fig leaf for commercial hunting, as whale meat can be sold to cover research costs. Japan counters that its whale meat sale is not profitable and that it needs to take and kill whales to study the animals and their potential as a food source.

    The court said that JARPA II activities can “broadly be characterized as scientific research,” but found several “shortcomings” with the program's details—saying in particular that Japan had not paid enough attention to nonlethal methods. “The evidence does not establish that the programme’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives,” the court said. Therefore, “the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not 'for purposes of scientific research,' ” the judges added.

  • Major Climate Report Describes a Changing World, Striving to Adapt

    Ready to adapt? New report focuses on efforts to adapt to challenges posed by climate change, such as coastal flooding caused by rising seas. Here, waves batter the coast in Scotland in 2011.

    Ready to adapt? New report focuses on efforts to adapt to challenges posed by climate change, such as coastal flooding caused by rising seas. Here, waves batter the coast in Scotland in 2011.

    Wikimedia Commons

    Earth's changing climate is already having an impact on ecosystems, agriculture, coastal infrastructure, and a host of other human and natural systems. And a host of serious risks await as global warming intensifies, although nascent efforts are under way to adapt and prepare for a hotter, more uncompromising planet. Those are the takeaway messages of a major new report released 31 March by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international group of scientists convened by the United Nations to report on the science and policy implications of a changing climate every 7 years or so.

    “Climate change has altered systems from the equator to the poles, from the ocean to the mountains," ecologist Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Palo Alto, California, told reporters earlier today from Yokohama, Japan, where hundreds of the report’s authors and government representatives negotiated the final wording of the 44-page summary of the mammoth document.

    Field is a lead author on today’s so-called assessment report, which surveys the voluminous literature published since 2005 on climate impacts and possible adaptation strategies. Titled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, it is the second of three volumes put out by the IPCC. The first, with focus on the physical changes related to climate change, appeared last September. The third, on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, will be published next month.

  • Continued Rise in Autism Diagnoses Puzzles Researchers, Galvanizes Advocates

    Rising tide. New U.S. report shows autism diagnosis has grown by 30% between 2008 and 2010.

    Rising tide. New U.S. report shows autism diagnosis has grown by 30% between 2008 and 2010.

    Autism Speaks

    Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised eyebrows, and concern among current and prospective parents, with a report documenting that the rate of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis in the United States jumped 30% between 2008 and 2010, from one in 88 to one in 68 children. CDC officials don’t know, however, whether the startling increase is due to skyrocketing rates of the disorder or more sensitive screening, or a combination of both. (Forbes gives a nice rundown of the many reasons for this uncertainty).

    The number of diagnoses “have been steadily climbing” from one in 150 since the CDC’s national surveillance system was put into place in 2000, “so I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised” by the new data, says Sarah Spence, a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. About half of the children diagnosed with ASD in the new report had normal or above-average intelligence, compared with a third of children 10 years ago, suggesting that a significant proportion of the new cases are due to more sensitive diagnostic measures rather than increased incidence, she says. Still, “I think all of us in the field are a little frightened by the numbers.”

  • At House Science Panel Hearing, Sarcasm Rules

    Representative Eric Swalwell (D–CA)

    Representative Eric Swalwell (D–CA)

    U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology/Democrats

    It was supposed to be a chance for legislators to discuss the Obama administration’s 2015 federal budget with presidential science adviser John Holdren.

    But sarcasm and political trash-talking overrode serious debate at Wednesday’s hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Even in a Congress noted for its polarization and lack of comity, members of the panel seemed more interested in name-calling than numbers. As a result, the 2-hour hearing was more evidence of how entrenched and extreme views are dramatically remaking what was once one of the most rational forums in Congress for discussing science policy.

    Several members, for example, appeared to be trying to mock rather than engage Holdren on climate change. “I may want to get your cellphone number, Dr. Holdren,” said Representative Randy Weber (R–TX), “because, if we go through another few cycles of global warming and cooling, I may need to ask you when I should buy my long coat on sale.”

  • Scientists Call on Spain to Ban Vulture-Killing Drug

    Griffon vultures

    Griffon vultures

    Bruno Barthemy-Vulture Conservation Foundation

    The Spanish government should rescind approval of a veterinary drug that threatens Europe’s largest population of wild vultures, researchers argue in a letter published online yesterday in Conservation Biology. The drug, diclofenac, is commonly used to treat pain in livestock. It has already caused the decline of nearly 99% of India’s vultures, which ingested the drug while feeding on carcasses. It has also triggered an ecological chain reaction there, resulting in, among other impacts, record numbers of rabies cases.

    “[I]t is undeniable that European vulture populations could be seriously affected by the ingestion of diclofenac, and its use has become a matter of great concern for ecologists, politicians, and conservationists,” write the five scientists, who represent agriculture, ecology, and biology departments at universities in both Spain and Switzerland. Although European grazing and sanitation practices are substantially different from those used in India, potentially reducing the drug’s threat to scavenging birds, the researchers remain concerned about its potential impact in Spain, which is home to an estimated 95% of Europe’s wild vultures.

    The drug was approved by the Spanish Agency for Medicines and Health Products (AEMPS) in March 2013. It is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug currently approved in many countries for both human and veterinary use. It reduces pain and inflammation caused by a variety of conditions, such as arthritis, kidney stones, and endometriosis. It is the active ingredient in more than 100 trade named medications, some of which are available over the counter. In veterinary application, diclofenac is most often used to treat joint pain and swelling.

  • To Discover Gravitational Waves, Someone's Got to Keep the Antarctic Telescope Cold

    Steffen Richter

    Steffen Richter

    Steffen Richter

    When researchers announced last week that they had detected gravitational waves from an instant after the big bang, team members doffed their hats to electrical engineer Steffen Richter, who has wintered at the South Pole for the past 3 years to help operate the telescope that made it all possible, known as BICEP. Richter, 42, has spent several additional winters at the South Pole starting in 1997, when he first traveled there to work on another instrument, AMANDA, which laid the groundwork for the IceCube neutrino detection experiment. He shared his experience working at the bottom of the world in a conversation with ScienceInsider. His remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Q: What do you remember of your first trip to the South Pole?

    S.R.: It was very exciting. We had a really small crew over the winter—just 28 people. I remember getting all these medical tests before I could begin working. Being there is the closest thing there is to being an astronaut.

  • Panel Launches Study of Precollege Role for NIH

    Looking ahead. Cardiologist Clyde Yancy at a meeting earlier this week of a panel he leads that is examining the role of the National Institutes of Health in precollege education.

    Looking ahead. Cardiologist Clyde Yancy at a meeting earlier this week of a panel he leads that is examining the role of the National Institutes of Health in precollege education.

    National Institutes of Health

    The deck may be stacked against his panel in terms of its narrow focus and limited resources available. But Clyde Yancy thinks he still has a few cards to play in tackling the politically sensitive question of whether the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should wade into the swirling waters of precollege science education.

    Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University’s medical school and a former president of the American Heart Association, is leading a new NIH-sponsored study into how the agency might improve the pool of talent going into biomedical research. The panel’s relatively fuzzy charge from NIH Director Francis Collins is to “optimize NIH’s precollege programs” so that they “both align with the NIH mission and ensure a continued pipeline of biomedical science students and professionals.” So the first job of the panel, a working group of a permanent advisory body made up of NIH institute directors and prominent outsiders, will be to identify the connection between precollege activities and strengthening the pipeline and then define NIH’s role in both spheres.

  • German University Tells Elsevier 'No Deal'

    In the stacks. The library at the University of Konstanz, which is balking at journal prices charged by publisher Elsevier.

    In the stacks. The library at the University of Konstanz, which is balking at journal prices charged by publisher Elsevier.

    University of Konstanz

    In the latest skirmish between academia and publishers over the costs of academic journals, the University of Konstanz in Germany has broken off negotiations over a new licensing agreement with the scientific publisher Elsevier. The publisher’s prices are too high, said university Rector Ulrich Rüdiger in a statement, and the institution “will no longer keep up with this aggressive pricing policy and will not support such an approach.”

    Journals offered by the Dutch publishing giant, which sells more than 2500 titles, were covered by what was the university’s most expensive license by far, says Julia Wandt, the university’s head of communications and marketing. Negotiations had been ongoing since October, she says.

    The average Elsevier journal license cost 3400 euros ($4693) per year, three times as high as licenses offered by the second-priciest publisher, the university said in a statement. Wandt says Elsevier’s prices had increased more than 30% in the last 5 years.

  • Organic Farming Overhaul in Europe May Boost Research

    Growing appetite. Demand for organic products is soaring in Europe.

    Growing appetite. Demand for organic products is soaring in Europe.

    European Commission

    BRUSSELS—The European Commission has proposed to revamp Europe-wide regulations to improve the prospects of its booming organic farming sector. The commission says its plan will boost research into organic farming—from pest and disease management to techniques for organic seed production and the coexistence of organic farming with nonorganic agriculture.

    The reform will help farmers catch up with soaring consumer demand for organic food, said Dacian Cioloş, Europe's agriculture commissioner, during the plan’s presentation here yesterday. The European Union's market for organic products has increased fourfold in the last decade, reaching €20.9 billion in 2012, while the bloc's organic farmland has only doubled in the same period.

    The commission's proposal includes draft legislation to harmonize and tighten rules across the bloc as well as a nonbinding action plan, which lists policy intentions and practical steps to prepare the shift to a revamped legal regime.

    Under this plan, the commission says it will organize a conference next year to identify research and innovation priorities for food producers. Its outcomes will be used to define research topics under Horizon 2020, the European Union's 7-year research funding program.

  • Peter Littlewood Takes Helm at Argonne National Laboratory

    Peter Littlewood

    Peter Littlewood

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Peter Littlewood, a theoretical condensed matter physicist who cut his teeth at the famed Bell Labs in New Jersey, has been named the new director of Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, effective 1 April. One of 10 national labs run by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, Argonne has an annual budget of $722 million and a staff of 3350. Littlewood replaces Eric Isaacs, also a Bell Labs veteran, who is stepping down to become the provost of the University of Chicago, which runs Argonne for DOE.

    "Peter is a guy with a good sense of what science is worth doing, so I think he'll be working at the hands-on level to direct things," says William Brinkman, a theorist who worked at Bell Labs for many years and served as director of the Office of Science from 2009 to 2013. Although Argonne is mainly an experimental lab and Littlewood is a theorist, he will have no trouble keeping up with what's going on, Brinkman predicts. At Bell Labs, Littlewood worked closely with experimentalists, Brinkman says, and being a theorist "probably gives him the ability to pull back a little and see the bigger picture."

    Littlewood already knows plenty about administration in general and Argonne in particular. Since 2011, he has been the lab's associate director for physical sciences and engineering. Prior to that, he served for 6 years as director of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, the same university from which he received his doctorate in 1980. Littlewood worked at Bell Labs from 1980 to 1997, eventually heading the lab's theory division.

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