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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • A stronger voice for U.K. science—but at what cost?

    Bill calling for change

    Some observers say UK Research and Innovation should be made responsible for the management of large facilities, such as the Diamond Light Source synchrotron.

    A.P.S. (UK)/Alamy Stock Photo

    LONDON—Who would be the most effective advocate for scientists at a time of desperate uncertainty over future budgets and the United Kingdom’s pending exit from the European Union? To Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute here, the answer is clear: a preeminent scientist who would oversee £6 billion in research funding. A bill now before Parliament would create this position by combining the bulk of government science spending into a new organization called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It’s a controversial proposal, so the Science Media Centre (SMC) gathered proponents and critics for a press briefing here this morning to lay out their cases.

    The Higher Education and Research Bill, which was introduced in May, would make the biggest changes to the university sector in decades, creating an Office for Students that would regulate universities and remove their royal charters, which have been seen as a guarantor of their independence from government interference. As for research, the changes largely follow recommendations from a review of the funding councils, undertaken last year by Nurse. The bill creates UKRI as a body over the seven existing research councils, which collectively distribute about £3 billion a year in funding. UKRI would also absorb parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which hands out another £3 billion in block grants to English universities. In addition, UKRI would take in Innovate UK, which has invested £1.8 billion in business since 2007 to stimulate innovation. As with universities, the bill would remove the royal charters for the research councils, making it easier for government to change, dissolve, or create funding councils.

    Opinions are divided about the bill. In July, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) brought together more than 40 organizations to examine the bill. Most participants thought the bill should be improved rather than ditched. Last week, however, an editorial in Nature strongly opposed the bill and called on scientists to join the debate. “If its proposals become law, the government will upend globally accepted norms that protect independence and self-determination in science and higher education. If scientists and their representative organizations don’t want that to happen, they need to speak up—and do it now.”

  • New global tuberculosis numbers paint troubling picture

    A public health worker checks a child for tuberculosis

    A public health worker checks to see whether a child in Pakistan has been vaccinated against tuberculosis.

    CDC Global/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Tuberculosis (TB) in 2015 sickened an estimated 10.4 million people around the world, a jump of 500,000 from 2014, and killed 1.4 million—more than HIV. But the apparently alarming rise mainly reflects improved surveillance in India, which accounts for 24% of the world’s cases, says an annual tuberculosis report released this week by the World Health Organization (WHO). The report also emphasizes that the world has made scant progress against multidrug-resistant TB, and that it doesn’t spend enough on diagnosis and treatment for this curable disease.

    Mario Raviglione, head of the TB program at WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, says India long has been “a major problem” because it has 400 million people living in poverty. The poor often share rooms—easing the spread of the disease—and have little access to health care. Poorer people in India also sometimes depend on alternative treatments like Ayurvedic medicine that keep them away from proven cures—and official reporting of disease. One of the reasons for the increased detection in India, Raviglione says, is that nongovernmental organizations are linking traditional caregivers to “the proper system” that does evidence-based detection and treatment.

    Six nations—India, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and South Africa—account for 60% of the total TB cases in the world. “The rate of progress in these countries will have a major influence on whether or not” public health experts reach 2020 goals for fighting the disease, the report states. Those milestones include reducing the number of new cases and deaths in 2015 by 20% and 35%, respectively.

  • Bob Dylan, the songwriter scientists love to quote, just won a Nobel Prize

    Musician Bob Dylan playing the guitar in 2010.

    Bob Dylan in 2010.

    kata rokkar/Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

    One of scientists’ favorite singer-songwriters has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Bob Dylan, whose lyrics have been quoted, paraphrased, or cited in hundreds of papers and letters in the biomedical research literature alone, was awarded the prize today for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

    Even for researchers born decades after the 75-year-old musician, Dylan’s lines seem to stay forever young. A 2015 analysis published in The BMJ found 727 potential references to Dylan songs in a search of the Medline biomedical journals database; the authors ultimately concluded that 213 of the references could be “classified as unequivocally citing Dylan.” The earliest article the authors identified appeared in 1970 in The Journal of Practical Nursing. The title? “The Times They Are a-Changin’”—a line the study found to be the single most commonly used Dylan lyric, appearing in dozens of article titles.

  • Spy agencies team up with National Academies

    Soldier stands in front of memorial

    Better use of social science might have improved local intelligence before a 1983 bombing in Lebanon that killed the 241 service members listed on this memorial.

    AP Photos/Bob Jordan

    In an unprecedented move, U.S. intelligence agencies are teaming up with the nation's most prestigious scientific body in a bid to make better use of findings from the country's leading social and behavioral scientists.

    The partnership between the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine aims to build bridges between communities that historically have either ignored one another or butted heads. The effort includes the creation of a permanent Intelligence Community Studies Board at the academies, which will meet for the first time next week, as well as a first-ever study of how social and behavioral science research might strengthen national security.

    David Honey, ODNI director of science and technology under Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, says he hopes that the new partnership will help the intelligence community improve how it collects and analyzes information. He and others are eager for help picking out useful and relevant research, as well as grasping where there is a lack of good science. Understanding "the limitations of our knowledge," says Robert Fein, a national security psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the new intelligence board, "will help to protect us against armies of snake oil salesmen."

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

    Asgardia

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

    AIRC/Asgardia.space

    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.

    Cmpir/Flickr

    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.

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