Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Space oddity: Group claims to have created nation in space


    The new space nation of Asgardia is planning to launch a satellite next year to protect Earth from space junk, asteroids, and solar storms.


    Welcome to Asgardia! Today, an international group of researchers, engineers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs announced the creation of a nation in space, named after the city of the skies ruled over by Odin in Norse mythology.

    Although Asgardia does not yet have any land, it is attracting citizens. Anyone can sign up on the nation’s website. (Your ScienceInsider reporter is citizen No. 19.)

    The idea behind the initiative, organizers say, is to create a new legal framework for the peaceful exploitation of space free of the control of Earth-bound nations (governance by Norse deities being preferable, obviously). The nation-building effort is led by Igor Ashurbeyli, a Russian space scientist and engineer who in 2013 founded the Aerospace International Research Center (AIRC) in Vienna, known mostly for publishing the space journal Room. Ashurbeyli told a press conference in Paris today: “The scientific and technological component of the project can be explained in just three words—peace, access, and protection.”

  • As Hawaii deliberates, giant telescope considers new home

    TMT complex

    Artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

    Courtesy TMT International Observatory

    If you are going to spend more than a billion dollars building one of the world's biggest telescopes, you'll want to put it in a place with the best possible view of the stars. But in the case of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), an instrument that promises unprecedented images of everything from the most distant galaxies to nearby exoplanets, builders may have to settle for second best.

    Next week, the fierce legal and cultural battle that has engulfed efforts to build the TMT on Mauna Kea, a 4207-meter-high peak in Hawaii, will reignite as state officials open a pivotal hearing on whether to allow construction. The peak is rated as the best observing site in the Northern Hemisphere, but for Native Hawaiians it is sacred land, and many residents oppose the project. "The risk [to the project] is by no means small," says project manager Gary Sanders of the TMT International Observatory in Pasadena, California, and "the cost of delay is significant." So the project is also hedging its bets by considering alternative sites.

    The TMT is one of three giant telescopes expected to dominate ground-based optical astronomy beginning in the next decade. The European Extremely Large Telescope (with a 39-meter mirror) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (24.5 meters) are already under construction, both in Chile. The TMT was also supposed to be underway by now, having won a construction permit from Hawaiian officials in 2011 after a long approval process. But the project ground to a halt after Native Hawaiian protesters disrupted a 2014 groundbreaking ceremony and later blocked workers from reaching the site. Then in December 2015, native activists won a ruling from Hawaii's supreme court that invalidated the TMT's building permit because of procedural violations. The court ordered the state's Board of Land and Natural Resources to reopen hearings designed to give the public a voice in the decision.

  • We need to learn a lot more about what’s stressing whales, study emphasizes

    A humpback whale diving

    A humpback whale dives.


    Human-produced noise in the ocean is likely harming marine mammals in numerous unknown ways, according to a comprehensive new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. That’s because there are insufficient data to determine how the ill effects of noise created by ships, sonar signals, and other activities interact with other threats, including pollution, climate change, and the loss of prey due to fishing. The report, which was sponsored by several government agencies and released on 7 October, provides a new framework for researchers to begin exploring these cumulative impacts.

    “There’s a growing recognition that interactions between stressors on marine mammals can’t right now be accurately assessed," said Peter Tyack, a marine mammal biologist at the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom, in a webinar on the report. Tyack also chaired the committee that prepared the study, "Approaches to Understanding the Cumulative Effects of Stressors on Marine Mammals."

    Killer whales, for instance, are known to swim away from areas where they have encountered sonar signals of about 142 decibels, a sound level lower than currently allowed by the U.S. Navy for its ships, Tyack said, referring to a 2014 study in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America that determined the mammals’ likely response. But scientists don’t yet know how other marine mammals might respond. They also don’t know whether or how other factors, such as encountering an oil spill or colliding with a ship, would—or would not—compound the cetaceans’ response to these sounds; or how or whether such combined stressors matter to the animals’ long-term health and overall population.

  • Russia suspends nuclear R&D pact with United States

    Polish plutonium

    Even as Russia suspends nuclear R&D cooperation with the United States, joint efforts to remove highly enriched uranium from Poland (pictured) and other countries appear to be staying on track.

    U.S. NNSA

    Even during the Cold War things were never this bad, U.S. officials say. On 5 October, the Russian government suspended an agreement with the United States on nuclear R&D cooperation and terminated another on retooling Russian research reactors to no longer run on weapons-grade uranium fuel. The suspensions are largely symbolic, but have nonetheless plunged relations between the world’s most formidable nuclear powers to a new low and driven a new wedge between nuclear science communities that had forged close ties in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse a quarter-century ago.

    In announcing the suspension of the R&D agreement, the Russian government framed it as a “countermeasure” to U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. The collapse of Syrian peace talks and sharp U.S. criticism of Russia’s involvement in the bombing of Aleppo, Syria, appear to have precipitated Russia’s delayed retaliation, sources say. Russia also pulled out of another agreement with the United States on 3 October in which the two countries were working to eliminate 34 tons of plutonium stockpiled in both countries—enough for about 17,000 bombs.

    “We were really sorry to see the Russians do this,” says an official with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C., who agreed to speak with Science on background. As the nations with the two biggest nuclear arsenals by far, “the United States and Russia have a special responsibility to work together,” adds Andrew Bieniawski, vice president for material security and minimization at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that promotes nonproliferation.

  • ESO finds gender bias in awarding telescope time

    Very Large Telescope at the Cerro Paranal observing site in Chile’s Atacama Desert

    A study has found gender bias in the allocation of time to European Southern Observatory telescopes like the Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal in Chile.

    Iztok Boncina/ESO

    Astronomers wanting time on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO's) telescopes are less likely to get it if they’re women, an internal ESO study has found. Male-led proposals were selected 22.2% of the time, whereas female principal investigators won time only 16% of the time, according to the study, which was published on the preprint server arXiv this week. This discrepancy can be explained partly by the abundance of men at more senior career levels in astronomy, says study author Ferdinando Patat, an astronomer and head of ESO’s observing programs in Garching, Germany. Professional astronomers tended to be more successful in getting time than postdoctoral fellows and students, and men outnumbered women among the professional astronomer applicants by about four to one.

    However, the review process cannot be cleared of unequal gender treatment, he says. When he accounted for the career level of the proposer, the gap in success rate shrank, but not completely: The success rate for men was 22.1%, comparable with the raw data, whereas women's success rate inched up to 19.3%.

    Patat found other gender influences. When examining how the reviewers graded the proposals, he found that both male and female reviewers tended to rank proposals from female applicants more poorly, and the effect was worse for male reviewers. Female reviewers gave top ranks to 28% of proposals from women and 29.4% of proposals from men, whereas male reviewers handed out top ranks to 23.5% of proposals from women and 27.1% of proposals from men. The reviewers see proposals from all career levels, Patat points out, so there seems to be some gender-dependent influences in the review process.

  • U.S. and U.K. plan ‘Thwaites invasion’ in Antarctica

    Frozen icebergs

    Frozen icebergs near Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica.

    NASA/Jim Yungel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    STERLING, VIRGINIA—If there's one universal question that scientists working on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet hear from their friends and families, it's this: "How fast is the sea going to rise?"

    The ice sheet is one of the biggest wild cards in sea-level projections for the next century, its durable uncertainty complicating efforts to adapt to human-driven climate change. Once thought stable for centuries, it has become clear from satellite and airplane observations that parts of the sheet are thinning and could become unstable. But when that might happen is uncertain, with estimates ranging from as soon as the next few decades to the next few centuries.

    In a bid to refine these estimates, this month the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the United Kingdom's Natural Environment Research Council will announce a project to support coordinated fieldwork on the Thwaites Glacier, the emerging epicenter of potential melt on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Although NSF declined to disclose exact figures, the initiative will likely provide tens of millions of dollars for Antarctic research over 5 years, including spending on infrastructure.

  • Clinical trial setback ignored in paper on success story of NIH bench-to-bedside center

    NIH Clinical Center

    The National Institutes of Health Clinical Center.

    National Institutes of Health

    When Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), proposed a new translational medicine center at NIH 5 years ago, he met with plenty of skepticism. Former Merck & Co. CEO Roy Vagelos told a congressional committee that the idea that the $600 million NIH effort could surmount drug development problems that industry has failed to solve was like believing “in fairies.”

    So Chris Austin, the Collins protégé who has run the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) in Bethesda, Maryland, since soon after its launch, has been under plenty of pressure to produce success stories. And NCATS has had some, such as the discovery that an existing antihistamine, chlorcyclizine, blocks the ability of the hepatitis C virus to infect cells. Through a brute-force chemical screen in the midst of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, NCATS researchers also identified 53 compounds that block that virus from entering cells.

  • Europe pushes Paris climate deal over the top

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


    A global treaty to curb climate change is poised to officially come to life, with enough countries joining the agreement this week to cross a key threshold.

    On Wednesday, the European Union and seven of its member states officially signed onto the climate accord, first reached in Paris this past November. The move came a day after the European Parliament voted in favor of ratifying the Paris pact. That vote paved the way for EU member states to do the same, and several of them, including Germany and France, adopted the agreement today.

    The European backing means the Paris agreement will have been adopted by more than 55 nations totaling more than 55% of greenhouse gas emissions—the level required for it to take effect. Although 195 countries endorsed the sweeping agreement in Paris, each country then needed to go through its national process of approving the deal and then officially tell the United Nations they would abide by it. That’s what is happening now.

  • Dramatic twists could upend patent battle over CRISPR genome-editing method

    DNA strand being cut with scissors

    A new patent claim and legal maneuvering have enlivened the fight over who controls rights to CRISPR, a genome-editing method.

    Mopic/Alamy Stock Photo

    The 9-month-old patent battle over CRISPR, a novel genome-editing tool that could have immense commercial value, has taken two surprising twists. Last week, attorneys for the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the research organizations vying for CRISPR rights, submitted motions that could let it win even if it loses. And yesterday, a new player in the drama, a French biopharmaceutical company called Cellectis, may have made the whole fight moot, revealing it has just been issued patents that it says broadly cover genome-editing methods, including CRISPR. 

    The Broad Institute, a marriage between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, holds 13 CRISPR patents that are under fire from the University of California (UC) and two co-petitioners. This past January, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) said it would review the patent claims in what’s known as an interference proceeding. That has triggered an epic legal battle over CRISPR intellectual property (IP) that centers on the Broad Institute’s issued patents and a patent application from UC that’s still under review.

    On 28 September the Broad Institute asked patent office officials to separate four of its issued patents from the case. The Broad Institute’s move could be a “huge development” if patent officials rule in its favor, says Jacob Sherkow, a patent specialist who works at New York Law School in New York City and has closely monitored the case. “Prior to this, it was my impression that this was an all or nothing affair: Whoever was going to win would control the most important aspects of the CRISPR patent landscape,” Sherkow says. But if the Broad Institute wins its request to separate the four patents from the larger case, he says “there may be a way for both sides to walk away with a little IP in their pockets.”

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