ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Star-mapping mission shows Milky Way to be larger than thought

    A star-studded map of the sky showing never-before-seen stars

    A new sky map from Gaia reveals 400 million stars that have never been seen before.

    ESA/Gaia/DPAC

    The Milky Way has been mapped in greater detail than ever before. And a first quick look indicates that our home galaxy is larger in extent than scientists had thought before, says Gisella Clementini, an astronomer at the Astronomical Observatory of Bologna in Italy.

    Today, at the European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid, the European Space Agency (ESA) released the first data from its €750 million Gaia star-mapping mission. The new catalog contains sky positions for 1.1 billion stars, 400 million of which have never been seen before. For many stars, the positional accuracy is 300 microarcseconds—the width of a human hair, seen from a distance of 30 kilometers—positions that will help astronomers better determine the 3D layout of the galaxy. “This is far better than anything we’ve ever had before,” says project scientist Timo Prusti of ESA’s science and technology center ESTEC in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. “It’s a milestone.”

  • Lasker prizes recognize oxygen discovery, hepatitis C treatment, and a lifetime of DNA research

    Bruce Alberts

    Bruce Alberts won the 2016 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.

    Christopher Reiger

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced its annual awards today, honoring research into how humans adapt to available oxygen, how the hepatitis C virus (HCV) replicates, and how cells copy DNA. Often referred to as “America’s Nobels,” the prizes highlight scientific work that helps diagnose and treat human disease. Winning a Lasker is sometimes a precursor to winning a Nobel Prize.

    For its basic research award, the foundation picked the work of biomedical researchers William Kaelin Jr. of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Peter Ratcliffe of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. The researchers dug into the complexities of a seemingly basic life function—breathing. More specifically, how a genetic transcription factor called hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) helps our bodies adapt to low-oxygen environments, and how modifying that factor could help treat anemia and cancers.

    “You can think of HIF as being the conductor for a symphony,” Kaelin says in a Lasker Foundation interview. HIF regulates genes that dictate how the human body responds to a lack of oxygen, he said, but it can also affect genes that determine whether a cell divides and how that cell can affect neighboring cells. Therapies could seek to increase or decrease the amount of HIF to deliver more oxygen to anemic cells or suppress cancerous growth.

  • Clinton and Trump stay true to form in talking about science

    Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

    Donald Trump (R) and Hillary Clinton (D)

    Michael Vadon; Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

    Ask Donald Trump (R) about climate change, and he’ll talk about “limited financial resources” and suggest that eradicating malaria and increasing global food production may be higher priorities for his administration. Ask Hillary Clinton (D) the same question, and she’ll spell out the key elements of her $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge aimed at making the United States a “clean energy superpower.”

    The candidates have spoken on science, thanks to ScienceDebate.org, a coalition determined to tease out the science-related policy positions of those vying to be the next U.S. president. And the candidates have done so in ways that are consistent with how they won their party’s nomination and what they are saying on the campaign trail. For Clinton, that means a raft of new initiatives based on detailed arguments. Trump’s answers reflect his skepticism of the federal government’s ability to solve problems and his reticence to explain what lies beneath his sweeping generalizations.

    The coalition’s name derives from its initial push in 2008 for presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to hold a debate devoted to science. That never materialized, but the group didn’t fold its tent. In the past month Trump, Clinton, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein submitted answers to 20 questions crafted and posed by the coalition. Of the major candidates, only Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party did not respond.

  • Debate signals cloudy outlook for Chinese supercollider

    Yang Chen-ning

    Yang Chen-ning does not believe that a Chinese supercollider will deliver enough bang for the billions of bucks it will cost to build.

    Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

    BEIJING—An éminence grise in particle physics, Nobel laureate Chen Ning Yang, has come out strongly against plans to build the world’s largest particle accelerator in China. His comments come at a critical time for the Circular Electron Positron Collider (CEPC), one contender to succeed the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. Debate is now intensifying over whether the CEPC’s science questions are compelling enough to justify the estimated $6 billion price tag, 70% of which China would bear with as-yet unidentified partners covering the rest.

    Leading the charge for the CEPC is the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS’s) Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) here. For 30 years, the institute has operated the Beijing Electron Position Collider (BECP), a small machine that put China on the map in high-energy physics. With the BECP set to shut down in 2022, researchers here for the past decade have been mulling a successor. In September 2012, 2 months after the LHC announced the discovery of the Higgs particle, IHEP proposed the CEPC and an even more ambitious upgrade down the road. However, its request for about $120 million over 5 years for conceptual design work on the CEPC failed to win approval earlier this year from China’s National Development and Reform Commission; instead, the project received some $5 million for preliminary study.

    On 4 September, Yang, in an article posted on the social media platform WeChat, says that China should not build a supercollider now. He is concerned about the huge cost and says the money would be better spent on pressing societal needs. In addition, he does not believe the science justifies the cost: The LHC confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, he notes, but it has not discovered new particles or inconsistencies in the standard model of particle physics. The prospect of an even bigger collider succeeding where the LHC has failed is “a guess on top of a guess,” he writes. Yang argues that high-energy physicists should eschew big accelerator projects for now and start blazing trails in new experimental and theoretical approaches.

  • NASA moves to rejoin sped-up gravitational wave mission

    An artist's drawing of LISA measuring gravitational waves in space

    LISA, on the drawing boards for decades, may now launch earlier than 2034.

    Albert Einstein Institute/Milde Marketing/exozet; GW simulation: NASA/C. Henze

    Earlier this year, scientists announced the detection of gravitational waves—Einstein’s ripples in spacetime—for the first time on Earth. Those ripples are now reverberating through NASA, nudging the agency to mend fences with the European Space Agency (ESA) and rejoin an ambitious mission, called the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna (LISA), to study gravitational waves from space.

    This week, at the 11th LISA symposium in Zürich, Switzerland, a NASA official said he was ready to rejoin the LISA mission, which the agency left in 2011. Meanwhile, ESA says it is trying to move the launch of the mission up several years from 2034. “This is a very important meeting,” says David Shoemaker, a gravitational wave physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “It feels like a turning point.”

    Plans for LISA date back more than 2 decades. Three separate spacecraft, flying millions of kilometers apart from each other at the vertices of a giant triangle, would precisely measure their mutual separations using sensitive lasers, and thus be capable of detecting low-frequency ripples in spacetime. The objects causing these low-frequency ripples—such as orbiting supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies—would be different from the higher frequency ripples, emitted by collisions of much smaller black holes, that have so far been detected on Earth.

  • Who is getting left behind in the internet revolution?

    Internet sign

    Richard Pope/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The internet is often hailed as a liberating technology. No matter who you are or what kind of country you live in, your voice can be amplified online and heard around the world. But that assumes that people can get on the internet in the first place. Research has shown that poverty and remoteness can prevent people from getting online, but a new study out today also shows that just belonging to a politically marginalized group can translate to poorer access. The study, published online today in Science, provides the first global map of the people being left behind by the internet revolution.

    Mapping the internet is hard. Although it is true that every computer with a connection has a real-world location, no one actually knows where they all are. Rather than being organized top-down, the world's computers are connected to each other by a bushy, redundant network of servers. Each country builds and maintains its own infrastructure for connecting citizens to the wider internet. The decision to expand and maintain the infrastructure in one region and not another is up to those in power. And therein lies the problem: Ethnic and religious minorities who are excluded from their country's political process may also be systematically excluded from the global internet.

    Internet exclusion data

    The new study began as an examination of protest movements and how they depend on internet connectivity, says lead author Nils Weidmann, a political scientist at the University of Konstanz in Germany. "I have fine-grained protest data, but no fine-grained estimates for internet penetration." So he struck up a collaboration with computer scientists at the science and technology university ETH Zurich in Switzerland who were working on a solution to exactly this problem. Their method worked so well that he realized it could be used to map the internet access gap across the world.

  • France most skeptical country about vaccine safety

    Vaccine confidence map

    Credits: (Map) J. You/Science; (Data) Heidi Larson et al., EBioMedicine

    The French had less confidence in the safety of vaccines than the residents of 66 other countries recently surveyed by researchers.

    A team lead by anthropologist Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine conducted what it contends is “the largest survey on confidence in immunization to date,” interviewing more than 65,000 people. As the researchers report online in EBioMedicine today, 41% of respondents in France disagreed with the assertion that vaccines are safe. On average, just 12% of respondents in other nations disagreed with this statement.

    “I didn’t expect France to be as negative as it was,” says Larson, who runs The Vaccine Confidence Project, a nonprofit that monitors public concerns about immunization. At the other end of the scale, only 0.2% of the respondents in Bangladesh had similar safety misgivings.

  • Workshop on ethics of monkey research earns cheers and boos

    Rhesus macaques

    Rhesus macaques used in anxiety studies at an NIH lab.

    Richard T. Nowitz/Science Source

    Depending on whom you ask, yesterday’s U.S. government workshop on the state of nonhuman primate research was either a raging success or a complete fiasco. The event, held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, brought together dozens of scientists, veterinarians, and bioethicists to discuss how research on monkeys and related animals is contributing to human medicine and to review the welfare policies that surround this work. But observers differed widely on whether it accomplished what Congress had in mind when it told NIH to hold the event.

    “It was a great showcase of the importance nonhuman primates have played and continue to play in human health,” says Anne Deschamps, a senior science policy analyst at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, one of several scientific organizations that signed onto a white paper released in advance of the meeting that promoted the use of these animals in biomedical research. She contends that research on these animals has been critical for our understanding of HIV and the human brain.

    But the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), whose lobbying efforts led to the workshop, says the meeting was supposed to determine whether monkeys and their relatives belong in laboratories in the first place. “It was an infomercial for the use of monkeys in experiments,” says PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo in Norfolk, Virginia. “It was a wasted opportunity.”

  • Did a Swedish researcher eat the first CRISPR meal ever served?

    Pasta dish with cabbage engineered with CRISPR-Cas9

    A Swedish scientist included cabbage engineered with CRISPR-Cas9 in this pasta dish.

    Stefan Jansson/Umeå University

    In what Swedish plant scientist Stefan Jansson declares “maybe” a historic event, he cultivated, grew, and ate a plant that had its genome edited with CRISPR-Cas9. Umeå University, where Jansson studies how trees know it’s autumn and how proteins allow plants to harvest light, released a 5 September press release about his meal, a pasta dish that included 300 grams of cabbage he grew from seeds that had been genetically modified with CRISPR-Cas9. The revolutionary technology vastly simplifies the editing of genes, and has triggered many debates about whether its plant products should be considered a genetically modified organism (GMO) and subject to regulation.

    As noted by Science Daily and other media outlets, Jansson enjoyed the lunch with Gustaf Klarin, host of a Radio Sweden gardening show, which broadcast it earlier this week (in Swedish). “To our delight—and to some extent to my surprise—the meal turned out really nice,” Jannson wrote in a blog entry on 16 August, the actual day that history might have been made. “Both of us ate with great relish. Gustaf even thought the cabbage was the best tasting vegetable on the plate. And I agreed.”

  • India’s first transgenic food crop edges toward approval

    Mustard growing

    Mustard is grown widely in India. A genetically modified variety would greatly boost yields.

    Abhijit Kar Gupta/Flickr

    NEW DELHI—India has moved a big step closer toward embracing its first genetically modified (GM) food crop. In a safety review released yesterday, the environment ministry finds that GM mustard “does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings and animals.”

    Backers feel vindicated. “The biosafety study that has been carried out is as thorough as it can be, and now ideology should not overwhelm scientific evidence,” says Deepak Pental, a plant geneticist at the University of Delhi here who developed the GM variety. Critics are unswayed. “The conclusions are based on inadequate experimentation,” says Pushpa M. Bhargava, a plant molecular biologist and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India. Bhargava acknowledged that he had not fully read the report before ScienceInsider went to press.

    India in 2004 introduced GM cotton, which now comprises more than 90% of all cotton cultivated in the country. But it has been leery of allowing widespread cultivation of GM food crops. In 2010, the environment ministry put on hold the commercial planting of GM brinjal, an eggplant variety, equipped with a bacterial gene that thwarts insect pests. The moratorium continues and is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon.

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