Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Researchers launch plan to sequence 66,000 species in the United Kingdom. But that’s just a start

    red squirrel sitting on an old tree

    The red squirrel will be one of the 66,000 species to have its genome sequenced by the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

    BarbAnna/Getty Images

    LONDON—In the first attempt of its kind, researchers plan to sequence all known species of eukaryotic life—66,000 species of animals, plants, fungi, and protozoa—in a single country, the United Kingdom. The announcement was made here today at the official launch of an even grander $4.7 billion global effort, called the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), to sequence the genomes of all of Earth’s known 1.5 million species of eukaryotes within a decade.

    “We feel it is the next moonshot for biology,” says EBP project chair Harris Lewin, a genomicist at the University of California, Davis. Researchers say the genomes will provide multiple benefits, including new insights into the evolution, assisting in biodiversity conservation, and benefiting agriculture and medicine.

    In terms of genomes sequenced, the eukaryotes—the branch of complex life consisting of organisms with cells that have a nucleus inside a membrane—lag far behind the bacteria and archaea. Researchers have sequenced just about 3500 eukaryotic genomes, and only 100 at high quality. In 2015, EBP’s founders hatched the idea to massively expand these numbers. “This was an effort that bubbled up from scientists wanting to know more about how the world works,” says John Kress of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., a co-chair of the project’s working group.

  • ETH Zurich starts process to dismiss professor accused of bullying students

    ETH Zurich campus

    ETH Zurich

    © ETH Zurich/Gian Marco Castelberg

    ETH Zurich in Switzerland has set in motion a procedure to dismiss astronomy professor Marcella Carollo. The university announced the move today after receiving the results of an independent investigation into allegations that she bullied students. “The final report confirms this is a case of unacceptable behavior which we do not tolerate,” ETH President Lino Guzzella said in a statement

    The allegations came to light a year ago, when a Swiss newspaper reported Carollo had mistreated students over more than a decade and that the university had ignored complaints about her behavior. A few months earlier, the university had quietly dissolved the Institute for Astronomy where Carollo had worked. (Her husband, astronomer Simon Lilly, had been director of the institute for several years.) Carollo was on sabbatical for the second half of 2017, and she has not returned to her duties as a professor.

  • Hawaii Supreme Court rules in favor of giant telescope

    TMT complex

    Artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope

    TMT International Observatory

    The Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii has cleared the way for astronomers to build one of the world’s largest telescopes atop the Mauna Kea volcano. In a 4-1 ruling, the justices rejected an effort by groups representing native Hawaiians to block a 2017 decision by state regulators to issue a permit to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). But telescope backers will still need to decide whether to move forward with the project, which is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

    The ruling caps years of controversy and legal wrangling over the TMT. Some native Hawaiian groups objected to the project, saying it would mar a mountaintop they consider sacred. In 2015, protestors blocked roads to the site, preventing the start of construction. Legal action by opponents then forced state officials to reconsider a key permit for the project, but last year the telescope’s backers, which include the University of Hawaii (UH), again secured permission to move ahead. Today’s 73-page ruling upholds that decision.

    “We are excited to move forward in Hawaii and will continue to respect and follow state and county regulations, as we determine our next steps,” Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory Board of Governors, said in a statement.

  • In Iran, four conservation scientists face espionage charges that carry the death penalty

    a cheetah

    Iranian wildlife scientists using camera traps to study animals including the Asiatic cheetah have been accused of espionage, but some government officials have called the charges baseless.

    Charles Sharp (CC BY 4.0)

    Prosecutors in Iran have charged four conservationists with “sowing corruption on Earth”—a crime punishable by death.

    The environmentalists, who work with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Tehran, were arrested in January on suspicion of espionage. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards accused them of using camera traps—intended for monitoring rare Asiatic cheetahs and other wildlife—to eavesdrop on the nation’s ballistic missile program. Many observers view the detainees as pawns in a power struggle between the hardline Revolutionary Guards and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s relatively moderate administration, which in a review last spring determined that the spying accusation is baseless. But Rouhani’s allies have been powerless to secure the conservationists’ release.

    “The scientific community can do a lot by challenging the narrative that is being sold by [the Revolutionary Guards],” says Kaveh Madani, a water management expert at Imperial College London who served as Iran’s deputy vice president for the environment for several months before leaving the country in April after coming under escalating pressure from hardliners. “People trust the scientific community, and once they come with their counternarrative, the hardliners cannot sell their BS easily.”

  • Move over, Hubble: Discovery of expanding cosmos assigned to little-known Belgian astronomer-priest

    Georges Lemaître

    Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître proposed the idea of an expanding universe 2 years before Edwin Hubble’s work on receding galaxies.

    Bettmann/Getty Images

    Hubble’s Law, a cornerstone of cosmology that describes the expanding universe, should now be called the Hubble-Lemaître Law, following a vote by the members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the same organization that revoked Pluto’s status as a planet. The change is designed to redress the historical neglect of Georges Lemaître, a Belgian astronomer and priest who in 1927 discovered the expanding universe—which also suggests a big bang. Lemaître published his ideas 2 years before U.S. astronomer Edwin Hubble concluded that galaxies farther from the Milky Way recede faster.

    The final tally of the 4060 cast votes, announced today by IAU, was 78% in favor of the name change, 20% against, and 2% abstaining. But the vote was not without controversy, both in its execution and the historical facts it was based on. Helge Kragh, a historian of science at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, calls the background notes presented to IAU members “bad history.” Others argue it is not IAU’s job to rename physical laws. “It’s bad practice to retroactively change history,” says Matthias Steinmetz of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam, Germany. “It never works.”

    Piero Benvenuti of the University of Padua in Italy, who stepped down as IAU general secretary in August, proposed the change last year because, he says, “historically, it felt not right.” In 1927 Lemaître calculated a solution to Albert Einstein’s general relativity equations that indicated the universe could not be static but was instead expanding. He backed up that claim using previously published measurements to show a relationship between the distances of galaxies and their velocities, calculated from their Doppler shifts. However, he published his results in French, in an obscure Belgian journal, and so they went largely unnoticed.

  • Federal officials pause trial testing stem cells for heart disease

    Human heart

    The now-paused clinical trial has explored using stem cells to repair damage to the heart.

    SPL/Science Source

    In the wake of a call for retractions of dozens of papers from a high-profile Harvard University heart stem cell research lab, federal officials today announced they are pausing a clinical trial based on research in this field. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in Bethesda, Maryland, explained in a statement today that the pending retractions “have raised concerns about the scientific foundations of this trial.”

    The treatment has seemed safe in the 90 patients studied so far, said David Goff, director of NHLBI’s Division of Cardiovascular Sciences. Many labs contributed to the basic research supporting the study, called CONCERT-HF, he said, not just the Harvard group. However, NHLBI is pausing the trial to review it because “it’s the prudent thing to do,” he said.

    Lab studies by cardiologist Piero Anversa of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have suggested a certain type of stem cell in the heart called a c-kit+ cell could regenerate heart muscle in mice. If true, the cells could form the basis of a treatment for patients with heart failure. But several labs have reported they could not replicate some of Anversa’s studies. In 2014, Harvard and Brigham and Women’s revealed they had begun a scientific misconduct investigation of Anversa’s work. (Anversa, who lost a lawsuit claiming the investigation was mishandled, no longer works at Harvard.)

  • Dozens of scientists ran for U.S. Congress. With 2 weeks to go, 18 are still standing

    headshots of 18 scientists running for office

    A flood of candidates with scientific, technical, and health backgrounds decided to run this year for the U.S. House of Representatives. All but one is a Democrat, and many were reacting to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and the policies of the Republican majority in Congress. On the eve of the 6 November election, we look at those still in the race and those no longer on the ballot.

  • Recovery of famous treasures raises hopes of more finds in Brazilian museum’s ashes

    Hands holding a tray of skull fragments

    Luzia’s skull is in pieces because the glue that held it together melted under the heat, but the damage was less than expected.

    CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

    From the scorched rubble of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, scientists have recovered one of the museum’s most prized possessions: the skull of Luzia, believed to be one of the oldest sets of human remains in the Americas. Researchers recovered it last week from inside the metal case and metal cabinet where it was kept—broken and scarred, but in good enough shape to be reconstructed. “It was like a member of the family coming back to us,” says archaeologist Claudia Carvalho, who is overseeing recovery efforts at the museum.

    A famous meteorite called Angra dos Reis, dating back 4.5 billion years to the beginning of the solar system, was also recovered from a metal cabinet.

    The two finds offer scientists a glimmer of hope that more treasures may be recovered from the remains of the museum, which was almost entirely destroyed by a fire on 2 September. A complete damage assessment and recovery operation is expected to begin next year, after the structural integrity of the building is secured. Scientists are allowed inside only briefly now, to accompany the construction teams that are reinforcing the walls and federal police offices who are still investigating the cause of the fire.

  • Kathleen Williams wants Montana voters to help her restore civility and science

    Kathleen Williams

    Kathleen Williams

    Williams for Montana

    ScienceInsider’s coverage of the 2018 U.S. elections has featured profiles of several candidates with scientific backgrounds running for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as stories about the challenges those candidates have faced on the campaign trail. Today’s story looks at Kathleen Williams, the Democratic nominee for Montana’s at-large seat in Congress.

    Kathleen Williams went back to school to gain more control over her budding career in water resources management. A quarter-century later, she’s putting her career plans in the hands of Montana voters.

    A former state legislator, Williams is trying to defeat first-term Republican Greg Gianforte and claim his at-large seat in the House. But unlike many Democratic candidates for Congress, her campaign is not rooted in attacks on President Donald Trump, who won the state by 20 points in 2016. Instead, Williams, who has a master’s degree in recreation resources with a focus on water, offers herself as someone who uses facts to make decisions and who can reach across the political aisle to strike a deal.

  • Climate change prompts a rethink of Everglades management

    Black mangroves in the Everglades

    Rising sea levels threaten the diverse ecology of the Everglades.

    Scott Leslie/Minden Pictures

    Efforts to restore the rich ecology of the Florida Everglades have so far focused on fighting damage from pollutant runoff and reestablishing the natural flow of water. But now, an expert panel is calling for federal and state agencies to reassess their plans in light of threats from climate change and sea-level rise. A congressionally mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, released on 16 October, asks the managers of the 18-year-old Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) to conduct a “midcourse assessment.” The new evaluation should account for likely conditions in the wetlands in “2050 and beyond” and model how existing restoration projects would fare under various sea-level rise scenarios.

    “I use the analogy of a hockey player,” says environmental economist William Boggess at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who is chair of the panel behind the new report. “Maybe we should be skating to where the puck is going to be rather than where it is right now.”

    The Everglades watershed once included more than 1 million hectares of wetlands, sawgrass plains, and tree islands across southern Florida, but agriculture and human settlement have shrunk that habitat by half. Phosphorus from agricultural runoff has killed sawgrass that thrives in the Everglades’ naturally low-phosphorus conditions. In its place, dense cattail habitats have sprung up, choking off water access for animals and birds. Eighty plant and animal species in the larger region are now threatened or endangered.

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