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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • New sensors promise better picture of world ocean health

    Argo floats, such as this one deployed from a French vessel, have produced valuable oceanographic data but new techniques are needed to track changes in the world's oceans.

    Argo floats, such as this one deployed from a French vessel, have produced valuable oceanographic data but new techniques are needed to track changes in the world's oceans.

    ARGO

    TOKYO–Marine scientists are developing new sensors they plan to deploy in a global monitoring system to better observe changes occurring in the world’s oceans. 

    “In some ways we know more about Mars than our own oceans yet they do govern everything from regional climate to economics,” said Karen Wiltshire of Helmholtz, Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. Wiltshire, chair of the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) presented the new observational strategy at a press conference here today ahead of the annual meeting of the partnership, which brings together 40 oceanographic institutions. The goal is to have the new global monitoring system in place by 2030.

  • Growing use of neurobiological evidence in criminal trials, new study finds

    U.S. courts are still getting a handle on how to use neurobiological evidence.

    U.S. courts are still getting a handle on how to use neurobiological evidence.

    carolo7/iStockphoto

    In 2008, in El Cajon, California, 30-year-old John Nicholas Gunther bludgeoned his mother to death with a metal pipe, and then stole $1378 in cash, her credit cards, a DVD/VCR player, and some prescription painkillers. At trial, Gunther admitted to the killing, but argued that his conviction should be reduced to second-degree murder because he had not acted with premeditation. A clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist testified that two previous head traumas—one the result of an assault, the other from a drug overdose—had damaged his brain’s frontal lobes, potentially reducing Gunther’s ability to plan the murder, and causing him to act impulsively. The jury didn’t buy Gunther’s defense, however; based on other evidence, such as the fact that Gunther had previously talked about killing his mother with friends, the court concluded that he was guilty of first-degree murder, and gave him a 25-years-to-life prison sentence.

    Gunther’s case represents a growing trend, a new analysis suggests. Between 2005 and 2012, more than 1585 U.S. published judicial opinions describe the use of neurobiological evidence by criminal defendants to shore up their defense, according to a study published last week in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences by legal scholar Nita Farahany of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues. In 2012 alone, for example, more than 250 opinions cited defendants’ arguments that their “brains made them do it”—more than double the number of similar claims made in 2007.

  • U.S. lawmaker’s plan to combat sexual harassment by scientists could get complicated

    Representative Jackie Speier (D–CA).

    Representative Jackie Speier (D–CA).

    Daniel Chee/The Skyline View/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    A trio of recent sexual harassment cases involving university scientists is drawing extensive attention from at least one lawmaker in Congress. In the wake of the cases, Representative Jackie Speier (D–CA) says she wants to strengthen a federal antidiscrimination law to help solve the problem. But it’s not clear how her proposed solution—still in the formative stage—would work, or whether it can be enacted into law.

    Speier spurred headlines last week when she took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to reveal the lurid details of an investigation into sexual harassment by astronomer Timothy Slater, then at the University of Arizona in Tucson, more than a decade ago.

  • Calling it ‘a waste of time,’ researchers call for end to scientific whaling reviews

    The whale-catching vessel <i>Yushin Maru</i> with a dead whale in 2008. Critics say Japan doesn’t listen to scientific advice on its research whaling program.

    The whale-catching vessel Yushin Maru with a dead whale in 2008. Critics say Japan doesn’t listen to scientific advice on its research whaling program.

    Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia

    Thirty-two scientists are calling for an end to the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC’s) current program for reviewing “scientific whaling” proposals.

    In a letter to the editor in today’s Nature, the researchers, who are members of IWC’s Scientific Committee, argue that IWC’s current review process “is a waste of time” and sorely in need of revision.

  • Flawed U.S. response to pig virus outbreaks highlights vulnerabilities, report finds

    The U.S. government's response to pig virus outbreaks is drawing criticism from a watchdog agency.

    The U.S. government's response to pig virus outbreaks is drawing criticism from a watchdog agency.

    thronypup/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is taking heat from Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog agency over the way it has responded to outbreaks of so-called emerging diseases in livestock. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report faults USDA for not doing enough to respond to and investigate viral outbreaks in pigs in 2013 and 2014, as well as not doing nearly enough afterward to prevent and reduce the impact of future outbreaks.

    In particular, GAO concluded that USDA erred by not requiring veterinarians and producers to report diseased animals, and by relying on voluntary reports instead. And it warns that new USDA policies aimed at avoiding similar problems in the future may prove difficult to implement. The report specifically refers to what USDA calls emerging diseases—economically damaging diseases that are either new to the United States or appear to be becoming more deadly or dangerous.

  • Money donated to stockpile leading Ebola vaccine

    Money donated to stockpile leading Ebola vaccine

    Source: USAMRIID

    A public-private partnership will pay Merck & Co. $5 million to stockpile 300,000 doses of an Ebola vaccine that appeared to work in a Guinea trial last year. ScienceInsider has learned that GAVI, a Geneva, Switzerland–based organization that primarily helps poor countries vaccinate their children, plans to announce the deal Wednesday morning at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

    In addition to making the vaccine available as of May 2016 to respond to emergencies, GAVI also wants its money to help the pharma company continue to develop the vaccine and submit it for licensing with regulatory agencies by the end of 2017. “I think it is good to reward companies for investing in this area, even if the amount is somewhat symbolic, and to get a commitment that they will move this forward,” said Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director general at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva.

  • Turkish academics pay price for speaking out on Kurds

    Tayyip Erdogan

    Tayyip Erdogan

    WITT/SIPA/Newscom

    Turkish academics who have openly criticized Turkey’s military crackdown on ethnic Kurdish communities are now feeling the wrath of their government. In recent days, the government arrested 33 academics. Although all have since been released, ScienceInsider has learned, 15 have been fired from their university posts. Today, Turkey’s Science Academy released a statement objecting to the government’s “wrong and disturbing” reaction in what is mushrooming into yet another crisis for the nation’s academic community.

    Human rights organizations as well as the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have criticized Turkey and called on it to respect freedom of speech. "This is a witch-hunt by the government," says Caghan Kizil, a Turkish neuroscientist based at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany. "It aims to silence the opposition with brutality and bullying." The U.S. National Academies "will continue to monitor the situation closely," says Martin Chalfie, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist who chairs the Academies’ Committee on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

  • Official statistics understate global fish catch, new estimate concludes

    Official statistics tend to understate catches by local fishers, a new study finds. Here, a  Somali man carries a sailfish to Mogadishu's fish market in 2013.

    Official statistics tend to understate catches by local fishers, a new study finds. Here, a Somali man carries a sailfish to Mogadishu's fish market in 2013.

    AMISON Public Information/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

    Commonly cited statistics have understated the size of the global seafood catch by about 30%, a new tally finds. The estimate, drawn in part from a painstaking effort to gather statistics on poorly documented subsistence, recreational, and illegal fisheries, suggests that the world catch has also declined more steeply since the 1990s than official figures indicate.

    Overall, fishers caught an estimated 109 million metric tons (mt) of fish in 2010, researchers report today in Nature Communications. That’s well above the 77 million mt that nations reported to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, which keeps global catch statistics.

  • What we know so far about the clinical trial disaster in France

    The university hospital in Rennes, France.

    The university hospital in Rennes, France.

    Electzik/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)

    One person is brain-dead and five more have been hospitalized after a phase I clinical trial in France went horribly wrong. At least three of the patients may suffer irreversible brain damage if they survive, a doctor treating them said today.

    The patients were previously healthy volunteers who participated in a study, conducted by Biotrial, a private company in the city of Rennes, to test the tolerability of a candidate drug. French officials haven't announced which drug, and it's not yet clear why many others who participated in the study since it began in July apparently haven’t experienced similarly severe side-effects.

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