Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

  • U.S. Releases Controversial New Stream Protection Rules

    New rules would give greater protection to ephemeral waterways, such as this creek in Missouri.

    Protected? New rules would give greater protection to ephemeral waterways, such as this creek in Missouri.


    Small headwater streams, small wetlands, and ephemeral water bodies would get greater protection under a proposed rule unveiled today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps). The move, designed to clarify rules under the federal Clean Water Act, has been expected for months and was backed by a report released this past December by EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB). The public now has about 3 months to comment on the rule, which is drawing opposition from agricultural groups and others.

    “We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a statement.

    The rule will “better protect our aquatic resources, by strengthening the consistency, predictability, and transparency of our jurisdictional determinations,” added Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy.

    The rule attempts to clear up confusion created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that complicated efforts to regulate development in and around smaller streams and wetlands, particularly those that dry up for part of the year. EPA estimates that about 60% of U.S. stream segments flow seasonally or only after rain. But even such temporary water bodies can have a major impact on the health of downstream waters, EPA’s science board found, and agency officials argue that justifies their inclusion under Clean Water Act protections, which some agency critics have argued apply only to larger, more permanent water bodies.

  • Scientist Live-Blogs His Lab’s Attempts to Generate New Type of Stem Cells

    In the latest twist in the story of STAP cells, a new kind of stem cell described in two Nature papers in January, a scientist is live-blogging his latest attempt to generate the cells. The papers described how subjecting cells from newborn mice to a mildly acidic solution turned them into pluripotent stem cells, the sought-after cells that can become all the body’s cell types. The researchers called the process “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency,” or STAP. Kenneth Ka-Ho Lee, a stem cell researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has already tried once to make the cells, following the methods published in Nature in January. That attempt failed, which Lee documented publicly on the website ResearchGate. The lack of success mirrors other reports from scientists around the world in the weeks since the papers were published, despite a more detailed set of methods posted by some of the authors on 5 March.

    Observers have also found problems with some of the images in the papers, which has triggered an investigation by RIKEN, the Japanese research organization that employs several of the papers’ authors. The image problems have also prompted at least one of the authors to suggest that the papers should be retracted until the images and data can be verified.

  • Scientists Fix Errors in Controversial Paper About Saturated Fats

    Going nuts. Critics have panned a paper that questions whether unsaturated fats, common in nuts, are healthier than saturated ones.

    Going nuts. Critics have panned a paper that questions whether unsaturated fats, common in nuts, are healthier than saturated ones.

    Wikimedia Commons/Sage Ross

    When a paper published on 17 March questioned whether fats from fish or vegetable oils are healthier than those in meat or butter, it quickly made headlines around the world; after all, the study seemed to debunk a cornerstone of many dietary guidelines. But a new version of the publication had to be posted shortly after it appeared on the website of the Annals of Internal Medicine to correct several errors. And although the study's first author stands by the conclusions, a number of scientists are criticizing the paper and even calling on the authors to retract it.

    "They have done a huge amount of damage," says Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "I think a retraction with similar press promotion should be considered."

    Health officials have long argued that so-called saturated fatty acids, which are found in butter, meat, chocolate, and cheese, increase the risk of heart disease, and that people should instead eat more unsaturated fatty acids, the type that dominates in fish, nuts, or vegetable oils.

    In the new study, a meta-analysis, scientists from Europe and the United States pooled 72 individual studies to gauge how different fats influence the risk of a heart attack or other cardiac events, such as angina. These included trials in which participants were randomly assigned to different diets, as well as observational studies in which participants' intake of fatty acids was determined by asking them about their diet or by measuring the fatty acids circulating in the bloodstream.

  • Russia's Science Reform Czar on U.S. Sanctions List

    Andrei Fursenko

    Andrei Fursenko

    A.Savin/Wikimedia Commons

    As part of the U.S. government’s attempt to inflict a cost on Russia for annexing the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, the Treasury Department yesterday slapped sanctions on 16 Russian government officials, freezing their assets and making it a crime for U.S. citizens to engage in financial transactions with them. The official overseeing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reform Russian science made the list.

  • Director of German-Spanish Observatory Resigns Over Funding, Strategy

    José María Quintana, director of the German-Spanish Astronomical Center at Calar Alto (CAHA) near Almería, Spain, has resigned from his post, arguing that a budget plan being imposed by the observatory’s funders is too harsh. His resignation will be effective late next month.

    The budget dates back to an operating plan signed in May 2013 by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Germany’s Max Planck Society (MPG), which jointly operate the observatory. That agreement guaranteed an operating budget of €1.6 million per year until 2018, when MPG will cede its role in the observatory. Quintana came out of retirement in June 2013 to direct the observatory. He says that at the first executive meeting, he told the vice president of CSIC that operating the observatory on the proposed budget was impossible. An earlier 2010 operating plan envisioned annual budgets of about €4 million.

    Spanish media reports say that since Quintana’s resignation, the observatory's interim managers have already fired cooking and cleaning staff and restricted the operation of one telescope by 10 days a month.

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