Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • At Associated Press, no more climate skeptics or deniers

    U.S. should fund climate engineering research, report concludes


    Doubting or rejecting the science on climate change no longer makes someone a “skeptic” or “denier” in the views of a leading news organization. The Associated Press (AP) announced yesterday that it’s instructing its journalists to use the terms “doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science” in their stories. The organization also said it now discourages the use of the terms “skeptics” and “deniers.”

    The news organization, which operates hundreds of bureaus around the world and serves thousands of media outlets, is adding new text to its widely used AP Stylebook under its entry on global warming, said AP spokesman Paul Colford. The new text will say: “To describe those who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces, use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science. Avoid use of skeptics or deniers.” Colford told ScienceInsider in an email that this change comes on top of a separate expansion of the global warming entry in the 2015 Stylebook.

  • Hunt for gravitational waves resumes

    Physicists completely gutted and rebuilt LIGO's massive interferometer in Livingston, Louisiana, and its twin in Hanford, Washington.

    Physicists completely gutted and rebuilt LIGO's massive interferometer in Livingston, Louisiana, and its twin in Hanford, Washington.


    The quest for the sexiest signal in physics—ripples in space and time called gravitational waves emanating from stellar sources—is once again underway. This past weekend, physicists working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) began their first observing run since they rebuilt their instrument in Livingston, Louisiana (shown in this video), and its twin in Hanford, Washington. Advanced LIGO is already three times as sensitive as the original LIGO, researchers say. Even so, there's only a small chance that it will spot anything in this first 3-month data-collection run. The real news may be that, in spite of all its complexity, Advanced LIGO has kept up with an observing schedule researchers laid out for it in 2013.

    "Progress is coming faster than we expected," says Gabriela González, a physicist at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, and spokeswoman for the more than 900 scientists in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. "We have a sensitivity that's at the higher end of what we expected at this point."

    Each LIGO instrument, or interferometer, looks for stretching of space and time, or spacetime, by using laser light to compare the lengths of an interferometer’s two 4-kilometer-long arms, which are set at a right angle. Researchers aim to compare the lengths of the arms to a precision of 10-19 meters—a billionth the width of an atom. To do that, they must damp out myriad vibrations caused by seismic waves, human activity, and other sources. LIGO physicists' benchmark source would be a pair of neutron stars spiraling into each other. The original incarnation of LIGO, which cost $360 million and ran from 2002 to 2010, reached a sensitivity high enough to detect such a source if it was up to about 65 million light-years away. Advanced LIGO should eventually be able to detect such sources out to 650 million light-years, increasing the volume of space probed by a factor of 1000.

  • Coke discloses support for health studies

    Coke discloses support for health studies

    Mike Mozart/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The Coca-Cola Company yesterday revealed some details about its controversial role as a supporter of obesity research. A list published on the company’s website details more than $118 million in funding to various health-related projects and organizations since 2010, including nearly $22 million dedicated to research.

    The disclosure comes amid accusations that the company has enlisted prominent health researchers to help downplay the role of sugary drinks in the obesity crisis. Public health advocates have long questioned whether support from food and beverage companies might bias the results of nutrition research. (A 2013 study found that among systematic review papers, those whose authors reported funding from the food industry were less likely to find a link between sugar-sweetened drink consumption and obesity.) But the debate flared last month when The New York Times reported that a $1.5 million gift from Coke had helped create a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), led by researchers at multiple universities.

    The organization seemed to advance the message that exercise was a key and underappreciated factor driving obesity. The Times cites a video—since removed from the company’s website—in which GEBN’s vice president, University of South Carolina, Columbia, exercise scientist Steven Blair, claims the media has wrongly emphasized overeating and unhealthy diet in obesity coverage.

  • New U.S. board proposed to tackle regulatory burden on research universities

    New U.S. board proposed to tackle regulatory burden on research universities

    Christian Schnettelker ( (CC BY 2.0)

    The best way to ease the regulatory burden on U.S. academic researchers is to create another layer of bureaucracy. That surprising conclusion is the top recommendation in a report out today by a National Academies committee that Congress asked to examine the current regulatory jungle confronting universities that receive federal research dollars.

    The committee, chaired by former University of Texas President Larry Faulkner, believes that the government’s “ever-growing requirements are diminishing the effectiveness of the nation’s research investment.” It asks Congress to set up a quasi-governmental entity, which it calls the Research Policy Board (RPB), as a mechanism to come up with better ways of overseeing the U.S. research enterprise. Managed by a new associate director within the White House science office, the board would work closely with the Office of Management and Budget, which must vet all proposed regulations from federal agencies. But the board’s funding would come from research institutions, giving it a degree of independence not enjoyed by a government agency.

    “The committee thinks that an effective forum would in the end save more money than it would cost,” Faulkner says. But another committee member, Barbara Bierer of Harvard Medical School was less sanguine. “The cost [of the new board] would have to be balanced by the savings achieved by the changes we are trying to achieve, and that is difficult to calculate.”

  • Europe should launch satellite to monitor faint glow of plants, panel says

    FLEX would detect a reddish fluorescence from crops in fields as small as 300 meters across.

    FLEX would detect a reddish fluorescence from crops in fields as small as 300 meters across.


    An advisory panel has recommended that the European Space Agency (ESA) launch a satellite that would measure the faint fluorescent glow of plants, ScienceInsider has learned.

    The Fluorescence Explorer, or FLEX, was endorsed as ESA’s next Earth Explorers mission by the agency’s Earth Science Advisory Committee, following a user consultation meeting held last week in Krakow, Poland.

    Volker Liebig, the director of ESA’s Earth observation programs, notified the FLEX team of the decision on 18 September, along with team members from CarbonSat, the other mission up for consideration in the Earth Explorer 8 competition. Formal selection of either the FLEX or CarbonSat mission will be made in November by ESA’s Earth Observation Programme Board, but the board has always followed the recommendations of the scientific advisory committee.

  • Australia gets a new science minister

    Christopher Pyne

    Credit: Policy Exchange/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia has a new science minister. Christopher Pyne, a lawyer and veteran politician who has been serving as the conservative government’s education minister, was sworn in to his new post today as part of a reshuffle by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

    Many Australian researchers say they hope Pyne’s appointment will mark a turn in policy under Turnbull, who ousted former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on 15 September after an internal party uprising. The hard-charging Abbott had drawn fierce criticism from many in Australia’s scientific community as a result of his moves to make deep cuts in nonbiomedical research budgets, and to weaken climate and environmental protection policies.

    “After the weirdness of Abbott and the obtuse ideology of the hard right, we all hope for a better day,” says Peter Doherty, an immunologist at the University of Melbourne and Nobel laureate who criticized the last government. Nothing is certain, he adds. “But as of now, [the new government] should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

  • NEON contractor hanging by a thread, NSF tells Congress

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    NEON Inc.

    Scrambling to rescue a unique but troubled environmental facility under construction, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has warned a nonprofit organization that it has until 1 December to get its act together or face being replaced as contractor on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

    This past Friday the head of NSF’s biology directorate told a congressional panel that NSF has set that deadline for NEON Inc., the Boulder, Colorado–based group overseeing the multisite project aimed at monitoring long-term environmental change across the United States. NEON is trying to stave off a projected $80 million deficit and logistical problems that have already pushed back its originally scheduled completion next fall by more than a year. Last month NSF shrunk the $434 million project, eliminating 15 sites, several planned sensors, and a novel aquatic experiment. And 2 weeks ago NEON Inc. fired its CEO in an attempt to show that it was serious about turning things around.

  • U.K. researcher applies for permission to edit embryo genomes

    A developing human embryo.

    The study's use of CRISPR/Cas9 on human embryos is a "justified technical approach," HFEA says.

    Duncan Hull/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    A researcher in London has applied to the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for a license to edit the genes of human embryos. Several techniques developed in recent years allow researchers to easily and accurately add, delete, or modify genes in cells. This has stirred debate about using genome editing in ways that would pass the changes on to future generations. The application filed with HFEA would involve only embryos in the lab, however, not any intended to lead to a birth. Many scientists say such lab experiments are crucial to understanding more about early human development, which could lead to new approaches to help infertile couples.

    The applicant, Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, investigates the genes that are active at the earliest stages of human development, before it implants in the womb. Work with embryonic stem cells from mice and humans has suggested that some of the key genes active in this preimplantation period are different in humans and in mice. Niakan hopes to use genome editing to tweak some of the key genes thought to be involved and study the effects they have on human development.

    She has applied for a license from HFEA, which regulates the use of human embryos in the United Kingdom. The agency confirmed that it had received an application involving genome editing and said it would be evaluated under the agency’s standard rules. The experiments could be allowed under U.K. law.

  • Scripps hooks duo to lead major biomedical institute

    Peter Schultz (left) and Steve Kay like to fish together. Now, they've teamed up to run the Scripps Research Institute.

    Peter Schultz (left) and Steve Kay like to fish together. Now, they've teamed up to run the Scripps Research Institute.

    Steve Kay

    A pair of old fishing buddies is now steering the ship at the Scripps Research Institute, one of the world’s largest private basic biomedical research institutes. Today, Steve Kay, formerly the dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles was announced as Scripps’s president, whereas Peter Schultz, currently a Scripps chemist and director of the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr) in San Diego, was named CEO. Kay will be in charge of day-to-day operations, whereas Schultz will lay out Scripps's long-term strategic plan.

    The announcement likely brings to a close a contentious chapter at Scripps, which has campuses in San Diego, California, and Jupiter, Florida. Just over a year ago, Scripps faculty led a revolt against the institute’s former leadership amid financial troubles and merger discussions with USC. The appointments also portend a new push aimed at marrying the institute’s historical strength in basic biomedical research with translational medicine designed to turn research leads into novel treatments.

    “It’s a very exciting move,” says Peter Kim, formerly the head of the Merck Research Laboratories and now a biochemist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. In addition to running Calibr, Schultz previously led the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF), and has been a founder of eight startups involved in using robotics and other high throughput technologies to advance biomedicine and materials science. Before joining USC, Kay also worked with Schultz at Scripps and GNF. Together the pair has raised well over $1 billion in backing from pharma companies, foundations, and private donations in their recent positions.

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