ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • E.U. research chief candidate passes first test

    At his 3-hour hearing in the European Parliament, Moedas spoke in Portuguese and English, with a bit of French and Spanish thrown in.

    At his 3-hour hearing in the European Parliament, Moedas spoke in Portuguese and English, with a bit of French and Spanish thrown in.

    European Commission

    BRUSSELS—Carlos Moedas, the commissioner-designate for research, has won over European parliamentarians in a public hearing here today. A former secretary of state in Portugal with no research policy background, Moedas came across as competent and well-prepared—but the plans he presented for his possible 5-year term remain vague, observers say.

    Moedas, an engineer with an MBA from Harvard University, has experience in water management, real estate, and investment banking. He is best known in Portugal for overseeing the country's bailout program, negotiated with the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) after the economic crisis.

    However, he seems to have immersed himself in his new subject in the 2 weeks since his appointment was announced. Today, before members of Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), Moedas displayed a good understanding of science policy trends and of Horizon 2020, the bloc's 7-year, €80 billion research funding program, which started this year.

  • Just how big is Google Scholar? Ummm …

    broken thoughts/Flickr

    When it comes to searching for scientific literature, Google Scholar has become a  go-to resource for a growing number of researchers. The powerful academic search engine seems to comb through every academic study in existence. But figuring out exactly how many papers are covered by Google Scholar isn’t easy, recent research shows—in part because of the company’s secretive, tightlipped nature. And some scholars warn the service may be inflating citation counts, although that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

    Figuring out how many documents are indexed in traditional bibliographic databases, such as Thomson Reuters’s Web of Science and Elsevier’s Scopus, is a piece of cake—a simple query is all it takes. Microsoft Academic Search is similarly transparent. Google Scholar, however, offers no such tools to bibliometric researchers, and the Web search giant has declined to publish the information.

    To come up with a tally, bibliometricist Enrique Orduña-Malea of the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain and his colleagues used four different methods to estimate Google Scholar’s total number of documents. Although each method has distinct limitations, all but one yield similar results, the researchers report in a study posted to the arXiv preprint server earlier this year and updated this month. The number: 160 million indexed documents (plus or minus 10%), including journal articles, books, case law, and patents.

  • Ebola vaccine tests needlessly delayed, researchers claim

    The Ebola virus

    The Ebola virus

    CDC/Dr. Frederick A. Murphy/Wikimedia Commons

    Stephan Becker is tired of waiting. The virologist at the University of Marburg in Germany is part of a consortium of scientists that is ready to do a safety trial of one of the candidate vaccines for Ebola. But the vaccine doses he's supposed to test on 20 German volunteers are still in Canada. Negotiations with the U.S. company that holds the license for commercialization of the vaccine—which contains a gene for the Ebola surface protein stitched into a livestock pathogen known as vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV)—have needlessly delayed the start of the trial, Becker and several other scientists tell Science. "It’s making me mad, that we are sitting here and could be doing something, but things are not moving forward,” Becker says.

    Today and tomorrow, Ebola scientists and representatives from companies and regulatory bodies are meeting at the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss how to speed up clinical development of vaccines, a process that normally takes years. More and more public health specialists believe that vaccines will have an important role to play in stopping the catastrophic outbreak in West Africa, which has so far caused at least 6553 cases and more than 3000 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. (Those are the reported numbers; the real toll is known to be much higher.)

  • Australia's 2013 heat waves linked to human-caused climate change, studies conclude

    Australia sweltered in a heat wave this January.

    Australia sweltered in a heat wave this January.

    Government of Australia

    Australia has suffered through two back-to-back sweltering summers, with a record-setting heat wave sweeping across the country at the end of 2013 and into 2014. Now, five separate studies published today conclude that the blazing summer was linked to human-caused climate change.

    The papers are part of a larger report, Explaining Extreme Events of 2013 From a Climate Perspective, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS). It includes 22 separate studies focusing on 16 different extreme weather events that occurred last year. And while researchers concluded that human activity had increased the likelihood and severity of Australia’s heat wave, they reported that it was hard to see any direct link between climate change and other extreme events last year—including the last 2 years of California drought and Colorado’s extreme rains.

    The report highlights the value—and limitations—of “attribution research,” said Thomas Karl, the director of the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville, North Carolina, at a press conference today. Still a young science, attribution research seeks to strengthen understanding of the factors that contribute to extreme events. That, Karl said, is tricky because extreme events are “very complex,” and multiple factors—including precipitation, temperature, soil moisture, snowpack availability, and human land and water usage—all come into play. “It’s a new task scientists have taken on in the last few years,” he said. “It’s still in the early stages. We have learned that our ability is significantly different in some variables compared to others”—for example, the influence of climate on temperature changes is easier to trace than on precipitation.

  • Scientists kick off a Tour de France for jobs and funding

    Sciences en Marche started at the Pic du Midi observatory in the Pyrenees this morning.

    Sciences en Marche started at the Pic du Midi observatory in the Pyrenees this morning.

    Rémi Cabanac

    French scientists today launched a 3-week relay race across the country by bike, foot, and even by kayak, aimed at pressuring the government to create more permanent jobs in science and better support universities and research centers. The race will culminate in a march to Paris on 17 October.

    Sciences en Marche, as it's called, kicked off this morning when 25 scientists left the Pic du Midi observatory in the Pyrenees for a 10-kilometer walk down the mountains, after which another group of scientists took over for a 48-kilometer bike ride to the Center of Atmospheric Research in Lannemezan. Over the next 3 weeks, hundreds of scientists are expected to cycle all the way to the capital in 50-kilometer stages. The race coincides with the Fête de la Science, an annual national science festival.

    So far, the government has given little indication that it will listen. On Wednesday, during a press conference to mark the beginning of the new academic year, the government announced a €45 million increase for public research and higher education in 2015, which Sciences en Marche spokesman Guillaume Bossis, a National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) biologist at the Institute of Molecular Genetics of Montpellier, dismisses as “totally ridiculous.”

    In a press conference the next day, French Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research Geneviève Fioraso made it clear that the government had no intention to go beyond that commitment, Libération reported. “The solution in a stable budget isn’t to create additional jobs,” Fioraso said during the press conference.

  • New Washington player joins push for NIH funding

    Patrick White

    Patrick White

    ACTforNIH

    Scores of patient groups, scientific societies, and university coalitions devote much of their time to lobbying the U.S. Congress for more funding for biomedical research and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This week another group, ACT for NIH: Advancing Cures Today, joined their ranks.

    The organization stands out for a few reasons: It was launched with largesse from a new face, New York City and Houston, Texas, real estate investor Jed Manocherian, whose time on the Board of Visitors of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston stoked his concern about NIH’s past decade of flat funding. Its all-star advisory board includes Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore and MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho. And it is headed by biomedical science lobbying veteran Patrick White, who has spent more than 2 decades working on Capitol Hill, in government, and for various research interest groups. Until 3 months ago, White was the top legislative aide to NIH Director Francis Collins.

    White discussed his organization’s plans with ScienceInsider. (The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity).

  • Will 'lazy' fish benefit most from new U.S. marine megareserve?

    A yellowmargin triggerfish patrols Palmyra Atoll, part of the expanded marine monument.

    A yellowmargin triggerfish patrols Palmyra Atoll, part of the expanded marine monument.

    Laura M. Beauregard/USFWS

    President Barack Obama has moved forward with a plan to vastly expand three remote U.S. reserves in the central Pacific Ocean into a massive national monument.

    In June, White House officials announced that they were considering expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM), which covers about 225,000 square kilometers. On Wednesday evening, the White House announced that Obama will sign a proclamation expanding the monument to about 1.27 million square kilometers. Obama is acting under authority granted by the Antiquities Act, which allows a president to create a national monument with the stroke of a pen, and without action by Congress.

    The total is somewhat smaller than a proposal to protect some 1.8 million square kilometers that the White House floated in June. Obama will extend fishing bans and other monument protections to include the entire U.S. exclusive economic zone around the islands of Jarvis, Johnson, and Wake (the zone extends to up to 200 nautical miles offshore). But the White House did not advance plans to greatly expand protections around the islands of Palmyra, Howland, and Baker, which are targeted by tuna fishing boats. Making that move would have allowed the new U.S. monument to bump up against another megareserve, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, and create the world's largest swath of ocean closed to fishing. Fishing groups had opposed closing the tuna fishing areas, saying it would have created economic hardship.

  • India eases into Mars orbit

    Artist's conception of the Mars Orbiter Mission

    Artist's conception of the Mars Orbiter Mission

    Nesnad/Wikimedia Commons

    BANGALORE, INDIA—Scientists here at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s mission control center erupted in thunderous applause this morning when a transmission from the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) confirmed that the probe had reached Mars. Also on hand was India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, a self-professed space buff. “Mars and MOM have been united,” he declared in a speech broadcast nationwide.

  • U.S. asks universities to flag risky pathogen experiments

    New rules will require researchers to consider whether their results could be misused.

    New rules will require researchers to consider whether their results could be misused.

    Florence Ivy/Flickr

    Academic scientists with federal funding who work with any of 15 dangerous microbes or toxins will soon have to flag specific studies that could potentially be used to cause harm and work with their institutions to reduce risks, according to new U.S. government rules released today.

    The long-awaited final rule is similar to a February 2013 draft and is “about what we expected,” says Carrie Wolinetz, a deputy director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities (AAU) in Washington, D.C., which represents more than 60 major research universities. Those schools see the rules as replicating other federal security and safety rules, Wolinetz says, but will adjust to them.

    But some observers have concerns, such as that the rules do not apply to other risky biological agents. In a conference call with reporters today, a White House official said the government is open to a “broader discussion” about whether it should expand the list of 15 regulated agents.

  • Abundant natural gas may do little to reduce U.S. emissions, study suggests

    A gas field in Wyoming.

    A gas field in Wyoming.

    Bruce Gordon/EcoFlight

    Natural gas is being touted as the climate-friendlier fuel that the United States can use to wean itself off coal, which releases twice the amount of carbon dioxide as natural gas when burned. But the surge of cheap natural gas may not do much to reduce long-term U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, a new study suggests, because it could delay the deployment of cleaner renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

    "If you have lots of cheap natural gas available, ultimately it's not fighting only against coal but renewables, too," says Steven Davis, an energy scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the study, published online today in Environmental Research Letters.

    For their analysis, the authors developed scenarios of what the future mix of energy sources might look like in the United States, based on factors including cost and technology availability. In part, they drew on forecasts of future U.S. natural gas supplies developed by 23 experts in academia, industry, and finance; the forecasts ran the gamut from bullish to bearish. The researchers next ran those numbers through an optimization model that produced a likely energy mix.

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