Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Not unexpectedly, a new drug-resistant ‘superbug’ pops up in the United States

    Not unexpectedly, a new drug-resistant ‘superbug’ pops up in the United States

    E. coli bacteria growing in a dish.

    VeeDunn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    For years, public health experts have warned us that deadly bacteria are developing resistance to all our available antibiotics. This week, researchers reported the first known U.S. case of an Escherichia coli infection resistant to colistin, a harsh drug seen as a last resort to knock out stubborn infections. The finding, described in the American Society for Microbiology journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, is no big surprise to researchers tracking the rise of resistant bacteria. The resistance gene, known as mcr-1, was discovered in E. coli in China last year, and has since cropped up in Europe.

    As the United States crosses the same ominous milestone, research to understand resistance and develop new drugs is surging ahead. As Science reported earlier this month, evolutionary biologists have recently revisited old dogma about how best to prescribe antibiotics—revealing that trusted strategies such as using a high dose may not actually help prevent resistance.

  • Top French scientists slam surprise budget cut

    Top French scientists slam surprise budget cut

    Quantum physicist Serge Haroche, a 2012 Nobel Prize winner, condemns the cuts in an interview with French news channel iTELE.


    Scientists in France are up in arms after the government unexpectedly tabled a plan to cut €256 million from the country's research funds for this year. On Monday, seven Nobel laureates and a Fields medalist took to the pages of French broadsheet Le Monde to call on the government to reverse the decision. The cuts will “brutally destroy” France's research activities, the signatories warn in an open letter.

    The presidents of the scientific councils of five national organizations, including the National Center for Scientific Research and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, also expressed their indignation in a joint statement on Tuesday. But the French government says the measure is primarily a bookkeeping maneuver that won't have any practical impact on research activities.

  • U.S. should stick with troubled ITER fusion project, secretary of energy recommends


    The ITER fusion reactor under construction in France in April 2016.

    The ITER Organization

    The United States should continue for at least 2 more years its participation in ITER, the gigantic—and massively over budget—international fusion experiment under construction in southern France. That is the much anticipated—but not surprising—recommendation of a report from the Department of Energy (DOE) that congressional budgetmakers ordered last December and that was delivered to Capitol Hill this week.

    But there's a catch: To keep going, DOE says, the U.S. ITER effort will need significantly more money—at least $230 million in 2018, or $105 million more than DOE has requested for it in fiscal year 2017, which begins 1 October. And the report doesn't say whether the Unites States should continue in ITER if, as seems likely, Congress doesn’t agree to provide that extra money.

    "It's a punt and everybody expected a punt," a Senate staffer who works for the Republican majority tells ScienceInsider. "But in this budget climate tough decisions need to be made. They certainly didn't make the decision."

  • Q&A: Web billionaire describes his plan to shoot for the stars

    Breakthrough Starshot lasers

    Breakthrough Starshot will require lasers many times more powerful than any existing today.

    Breakthrough Initiatives

    Last month, Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner announced plans to send thousands of tiny spacecraft to visit Alpha Centauri, the closest star system at 4.4 light-years from Earth. Dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, the mission aims to take close-up images and collect data from any potentially habitable planets there. In order to cover the vast distance—41 trillion kilometers—in a reasonable time, the proposed spacecraft will each weigh less than a gram. Once in space, they will unfurl lightweight sails to catch laser beams shot from Earth, accelerating to one-fifth the speed of light under light pressure. Launch could be 30 years off, and the trip to Alpha Centauri would take a further 2 decades.

    Milner, who also supports the multimillion-dollar Breakthrough Prizes and Breakthrough Listen, a search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, has committed $100 million to this venture. But Breakthrough Starshot has polarized opinion: Some are enthused by its ambition, whereas others say it is costly and unnecessary, isn’t feasible, or is downright dangerous. Milner spoke with Science by phone about the challenges facing the project and how he answers his critics. His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Biotech company will sponsor historic high school science competition

    The 2016 Intel Science Talent Search awards gala.

    The 2016 Intel Science Talent Search awards gala

    Thanks to a personal connection, one of the most successful biotechnology companies in the United States is apparently the new title sponsor of the Science Talent Search (STS), the prestigious high school science competitions run by the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) in Washington, D.C. New York-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. will invest $100 million over the next 10 years to become the third such sponsor in STS’s nearly 75-year-long history, according to several media outlets. Adding to the evidence, an application to trademark the name “Regeneron Science Talent Search” has been filed in the United States.

  • Jeremy Berg named Science editor-in-chief

    Jeremy Berg

    Jeremy Berg

    Wendie Berg

    Jeremy Berg, a biochemist and administrator at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) in Pennsylvania, will become the next editor-in-chief of Science magazine on 1 July. A former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) who has a longstanding interest in science policy, Berg will succeed Marcia McNutt, who is stepping down to become president of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The board of AAAS, which publishes Science, announced Berg’s appointment today. AAAS immediate past-president, Gerald Fink, who led the search committee, praised Berg as a “terrific choice.” Berg’s “broad scientific perspective and passionate advocacy for basic research, combined with his interest in scientific policy, makes him a superb spokesperson for the scientific community,” said Fink, a geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    Berg says his wide-ranging interests drew him to the editor-in-chief position, which also includes oversight of the other journals in the Science family. “I’m very passionate about science communications broadly defined, from scientific results through policy, and to the scientific community but also the public. When this position became available, it struck me as ideal,” he says.

  • Astronomers ink deal to build record telescope

    Astronomers ink deal to build record telescope

    The European Extremely Large Telescope will be built in northern Chile.

    ESO/L. Calçada/ACe Consortium

    Astronomers today signed an unprecedented contract to build the world’s largest ground-based optical and infrared telescope. In a ceremony at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, Germany, ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw inked the record deal—worth €400 million—with three Italian engineering firms. They will build the structure that will hold the huge 39-meter mirror of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), as well as the domed building that will enclose it. (Watch a video about the new telescope design.)

    The agreement “gives ESO the opportunity to be the first in the era of giant telescopes,” De Zeeuw told an online press conference. The light-collecting area of the E-ELT is greater than that of all ground-based optical research telescopes currently in operation, and it will produce images 15 times as sharp as the Hubble Space Telescope. Roberto Tamai, E-ELT program manager, said the telescope will provide “a transformational step in our understanding of the universe.”

    Ground-based astronomy is in the throes of a giant leap forward from today’s roughly 10-meter-wide scopes to much bigger instruments. In addition to E-ELT, two other behemoths are under construction: the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) at Mauna Kea in Hawaii (although the TMT is currently stalled because of local opposition).

  • With Brazil in political crisis, science and the environment are on the chopping block


    An amendment proposed in Brazil may soon make it impossible to challenge the construction of hydroelectric dams, like this one on the Madeira River.

    Pulsar Images/Alamy Stock Photo

    In the midst of Brazil’s political turmoil, pro-development forces are moving ahead on a constitutional amendment that could speed approval for dams, highways, mines, and other megaprojects. The measure has alarmed scientists, environmentalists, and indigenous rights advocates, who fear it would gut the country’s environmental licensing process. It is just one of a series of actions that has the scientific community on edge after Dilma Rousseff was removed as president on 12 May. Rousseff faces an impeachment trial for illegally borrowing money from state banks to cover budget deficits.

    The new interim government, led by former Vice President Michel Temer, has set out to trim government spending and boost business. Days after taking power, it merged the science ministry with the communications ministry, leaving researchers fearing for what’s left of their already diminished budgets. Meanwhile, powerful political players are attempting to remove roadblocks to development. “We are very worried about these actions that represent the demoting of science and innovation in the country,” says Luiz Davidovich, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

  • Spent fuel fire on U.S. soil could dwarf impact of Fukushima

    nuclear power plant in Peach Bottom, PA

    Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station

    Stan Honda/ Getty Images

    A fire from spent fuel stored at a U.S. nuclear power plant could have catastrophic consequences, according to new simulations of such an event.

    A major fire “could dwarf the horrific consequences of the Fukushima accident,” says Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “We’re talking about trillion-dollar consequences,” says Frank von Hippel, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University, who teamed with Princeton’s Michael Schoeppner on the modeling exercise.

    The revelations come on the heels of a report last week from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the aftermath of the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan. The report details how a spent fuel fire at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that was crippled by the twin disasters could have released far more radioactivity into the environment.

  • Sweden expels Russian research plane amid spying concerns

    Russia’s M-55 Geophysica was originally designed as a high-flying reconnaissance aircraft.

    Russia’s M-55 Geophysica was originally designed as a high-flying reconnaissance aircraft.

    Alex Beltyukov-RuSpotters Team/Wikimedia Commons

    Worried that Russia might use a rented research plane to spy on planned military exercises, the Swedish military last month ordered the Russian-owned aircraft to leave the country—complicating a planned international science mission to study the Indian monsoon.

    The high-flying, single-seat aircraft—known as the M-55 Geophysica—is a retired 1980s spy plane, and has a long record of conducting aviation tests and atmospheric research flights. A science team funded by the European Union is renting the aircraft, now operated by a private firm, to fly data collection flights over the Indian subcontinent this summer to study the monsoon. The flights are part of the StratoClim project to study atmospheric chemistry and physical interactions in the troposphere and stratosphere, and ultimately to improve climate models.

    To get ready for the study, the E.U. team needed to install a suite of new and older instruments aboard the plane and run test flights. “For this campaign, we developed several very delicate and sensitive new instruments to measure components, mostly sulfur gases, that are important,” says StratoClim campaign leader Fred Stroh of the Institute for Energy and Climate Research in Jülich, Germany. Because the M-55 has just a single pilot (who wears something like a spacesuit for the 4-hour flights), the tests were designed to make sure the new instruments functioned as intended at high, cold altitudes. And northern Sweden is ideal for such testing, he adds. It has a research-oriented airport in Kiruna, Sweden, and “very quiet airspace,” particularly in comparison to Germany, where runways are busier and often involve long wait times for research craft, which have a lower priority for access.

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