Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Sweden expels Russian research plane amid spying concerns

    Russia’s M-55 Geophysica was originally designed as a high-flying reconnaissance aircraft.

    Russia’s M-55 Geophysica was originally designed as a high-flying reconnaissance aircraft.

    Alex Beltyukov-RuSpotters Team/Wikimedia Commons

    Worried that Russia might use a rented research plane to spy on planned military exercises, the Swedish military last month ordered the Russian-owned aircraft to leave the country—complicating a planned international science mission to study the Indian monsoon.

    The high-flying, single-seat aircraft—known as the M-55 Geophysica—is a retired 1980s spy plane, and has a long record of conducting aviation tests and atmospheric research flights. A science team funded by the European Union is renting the aircraft, now operated by a private firm, to fly data collection flights over the Indian subcontinent this summer to study the monsoon. The flights are part of the StratoClim project to study atmospheric chemistry and physical interactions in the troposphere and stratosphere, and ultimately to improve climate models.

    To get ready for the study, the E.U. team needed to install a suite of new and older instruments aboard the plane and run test flights. “For this campaign, we developed several very delicate and sensitive new instruments to measure components, mostly sulfur gases, that are important,” says StratoClim campaign leader Fred Stroh of the Institute for Energy and Climate Research in Jülich, Germany. Because the M-55 has just a single pilot (who wears something like a spacesuit for the 4-hour flights), the tests were designed to make sure the new instruments functioned as intended at high, cold altitudes. And northern Sweden is ideal for such testing, he adds. It has a research-oriented airport in Kiruna, Sweden, and “very quiet airspace,” particularly in comparison to Germany, where runways are busier and often involve long wait times for research craft, which have a lower priority for access.

  • Billionaire technologist accuses NASA asteroid mission of bad statistics

    A prominent technologist is calling into question estimates of asteroid sizes made by a NASA space telescope.

    A prominent technologist is calling into question estimates of asteroid sizes made by a NASA space telescope.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech (CC BY-NC)

    Nathan Myhrvold—ex–Microsoft billionaire, patent accumulator, dinosaur geek, and noted molecular gastronomist—has a new obsession: asteroids. The CEO of Bellevue, Washington–based Intellectual Ventures says that scientists using a prominent NASA space telescope have made fundamental mistakes in their assessment of the size of more than 157,000 asteroids they have observed.

    In a paper posted to the e-print repository on 22 May, Myhrvold takes aim at the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), a space telescope launched in 2009, and a follow-on mission, NEOWISE, which together are responsible for the discovery of more asteroids than any other observatory. Yet Myhrvold says that the WISE and NEOWISE teams’ papers are riddled with statistical missteps. “None of their results can be replicated,” he tells ScienceInsider. “I found one irregularity after another.”

    In a 2011 paper, the WISE and NEOWISE teams claim to determine the diameter of asteroids with an accuracy of better than 10%. But Myhrvold says they made mistakes, such as ignoring the margin of error introduced when extrapolating from a small sample size to an entire population. They also neglected to include Kirchhoff’s law of thermal radiation in their thermal models of the asteroids. Based on his own models, Myhrvold says that errors in the asteroid diameters based on WISE data should be 30%. In some cases, the size errors rise to as large as 300%. “Asteroids are more variable than we thought they were,” he says. He has submitted the paper to the journal Icarus for review.

  • U.S. lawmaker orders NASA to plan for trip to Alpha Centauri by 100th anniversary of moon landing

    An artist’s conception of the starship <i>Leonora Christine</i>, from Poul Anderson’s 1970 science fiction novel <i>Tau Zero</i>, is powered by a Bussard ramjet.

    An artist’s conception of the starship Leonora Christine, from Poul Anderson’s 1970 science fiction novel Tau Zero, which is powered by a Bussard ramjet.

    Tau Zero/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) (CC BY 2.0

    It seems that the recently announced Breakthrough Starshot project—to send a privately funded fleet of tiny spacecraft to a nearby star—may have started a star rush. Today a senior U.S. lawmaker who helps write NASA’s budget called on the agency to begin developing its own interstellar probes, with the aim of launching a mission to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system, in 2069—the centenary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX), a self-professed space fan who chairs the House of Representatives appropriations subpanel that oversees NASA, included the call for the ambitious voyage in a committee report released today. The report accompanies a bill setting NASA’s budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins 1 October; the full House appropriations panel is set to consider the bill on Tuesday.

    In the report, Culberson’s panel “encourages NASA to study and develop propulsion concepts that could enable an interstellar scientific probe with the capability of achieving a cruise velocity of 0.1c [10% of the speed of light].” The report language doesn’t mandate any additional funding, but calls on NASA to draw up a technology assessment report and conceptual road map within 1 year.

  • Top mosquito suspect found infected with Zika


    An Aedes aegypti mosquito

    Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The usual suspect has been caught, not red-handed but red-bellied. Since the beginning of the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, health authorities and researchers have strongly suspected that the mosquito Aedes aegypti, known for spreading several deadly viruses, was also guilty of spreading Zika from one person to another. But direct evidence had been hard to find. Now, researchers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, report that they have found the Zika virus in wild-caught A. aegypti. The researchers did not find the virus in other mosquito species they captured in neighborhoods where Zika was spreading, which strengthens the case that A. aegypti is the main vector driving the outbreak.

    That mosquito species, which is ubiquitous in urban areas across Brazil and much of Latin America, is known to spread several closely related viruses, including dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever. Researchers had confirmed that the species could be infected with Zika and that the virus could multiply and infect the mosquito’s saliva—a requirement for it being able to spread the virus. But no one in Latin America had found a wild-living specimen that was carrying the virus.

    Despite the hundreds of thousands of human cases, it’s not easy to find infected mosquitoes, explains Oliver Brady, an entomologist at the University of Oxford. “Finding the virus in a mosquito is extremely difficult,” he says. “They infect people and die before anyone shows up at the hospital” with disease symptoms.

  • France tightens rules in wake of fatal clinical trial

    The University of Rennes Hospital Center.

    The University of Rennes Hospital Center.

    Electzik/Wikimedia Commons

    The French government is taking measures to lower the health risks to volunteers in clinical trials in the wake of the final report about a study that killed one person and landed five others in the hospital in January. Furthermore, the contract research company that conducted the study, Rennes, France–based Biotrial, must within a month provide a "plan of action" explaining how it will avoid a repeat of its mistakes during the trial or lose its operating license, French health minister Marisol Touraine said today at a press conference on the report’s release.

    The 127-page report by France's General Inspectorate of Social Affairs (IGAS) doesn't pinpoint why or how the potential drug caused brain damage in previously healthy control subjects; it calls on the government to "mobilize the international scientific community" to find out what went wrong and suggests a range of scientific approaches, such as testing whether the drug hits other brain targets than the intended one and a study of the potential toxicity of the compound's metabolites.

  • Near miss at Fukushima is a warning for U.S., panel says

    A spent fuel pool at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente, California.

    A spent fuel pool at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente, California.


    Japan’s chief cabinet secretary called it “the devil’s scenario.” Two weeks after the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing three nuclear reactors to melt down and release radioactive plumes, officials were bracing for even worse. They feared that spent fuel stored in the reactor halls would catch fire and send radioactive smoke across a much wider swath of eastern Japan, including Tokyo.

    Thanks to a lucky break detailed in a report released today by the U.S. National Academies, Japan dodged that bullet. The near calamity “should serve as a wake-up call for the industry,” says Joseph Shepherd, a mechanical engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who chaired the academy committee that produced the report. Spent fuel accumulating at U.S. nuclear reactor plants is also vulnerable, the report warns. A major spent fuel fire at a U.S. nuclear plant “could dwarf the horrific consequences of the Fukushima accident,” says Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., who was not on the panel.

  • Zika funding too low in House, Senate bills, Obama says

    A worker sprays insecticide in the Dominican Republic in an effort to kill the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus.

    A worker sprays insecticide in the Dominican Republic in an effort to kill the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus.

    Presidency of the Dominican Republic/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    It’s not surprising that the congressional debate over funding the U.S. response to Zika has been hard to follow, given how much remains confusing about the virus itself. Which mosquitoes primarily transmit the infection in Latin America? Is the strain circulating there more dangerous than the one discovered in Africa nearly 70 years ago? How widely will it spread around the world? Most alarmingly, why is Zika-caused brain damage in fetuses and Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults only surfacing now?

    Those unanswered questions, coupled with the mounting cases of serious harm caused by the virus in Latin America, explain why the Obama administration insists that it needs more to battle the epidemic than either the Senate or the House of Representatives this week agreed to spend. “Bottom line is, Congress needs to get me a bill,” President Barack Obama said today after a Zika briefing from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chief Tom Frieden, and Anthony Fauci, the point person from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). “It needs to get me a bill that has sufficient funds to do the job. … We've got outstanding scientists and researchers who are in the process of getting this done, but they’ve got to have the support from the public in order for us to accomplish our goal.”

    On 22 February the White House requested $1.885 billion. The emergency appropriations proposal—which went into fine detail—gave $1.509 billion to HHS (which oversees NIH and CDC), $335 million to the U.S. Agency for International Development, and $41 million to the State Department.

  • Industry-backed project aims to become one-stop shop for clinical research data

    Information from clinical trial serum samples could end up in a new data-sharing platform called Vivli.

    Information from clinical trial serum samples could end up in a new data-sharing platform called Vivli.


    There’s a broad consensus that widely sharing patient-level data from clinical trials is desirable, with potential advantages ranging from faster identification of side effects, easier confirmation of a therapy’s efficacy, and a reduction in duplicative efforts. But many in industry and academia are still reluctant to divulge their data, for a variety of reasons. Now, a new project from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University is trying to build a global, neutral platform for such data sharing, but some are skeptical it’s the right solution.

    The idea for Vivli, from vivlíthiki, the Greek word for library, was articulated nearly 20 years ago in a dissertation written in the wake of the Human Genome Project. Informatics researcher Ida Sim, now a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, was inspired then by GenBank, a website now operated by the National Institutes of Health that allowed researchers to easily upload and find full genomic sequences in one place. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we have that for human clinical trials?’” Sim said.

    Despite her lobbying efforts, the idea didn’t take root, however. Clinical trial registries did emerge, such as, but they typically offered only broad information about each trial and its findings, not the actual data from each trial subject.

  • Europe stalls weed killer renewal, again

    Activists in the United Kingdom last month relabeled bottles of Roundup, which contains glyphosate, to warn that it "probably causes cancer."

    Activists in the United Kingdom last month relabeled bottles of Roundup, which contains glyphosate, to warn that it "probably causes cancer."

    Global Justice Now

    European regulators have again eschewed a decision on the renewal of the approval of the widely used weed killer glyphosate, giving fodder to critics who say the chemical causes cancer and should be banned.

    Glyphosate's current license expires on 30 June and its renewal has divided the European Union's member states after contradictory scientific assessments. The Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF), which is made up of representatives of the 28 states, was to decide on the renewal yesterday, but the European Commission canceled the vote—which was bound to be indecisive yet again.

    The commission had initially proposed to renew the chemical's license for 15 years, a plan that needed the member states' green light through a so-called qualified majority in the PAFF committee. In March, the committee failed to reach an agreement. At this week's meeting, member states were still split on a revised, 9-year renewal proposal, prompting the commission to scrap the vote again.

  • Yellow fever threat is ‘serious’ but not an ‘emergency,’ WHO says

    The Angola military administers yellow fever vaccine at the Quilometro 30 market in Luanda in February.

    The Angola military administers yellow fever vaccine at the Quilometro 30 market in Luanda in February.

    © JOOST DE RAEYMAEKER/epa/Corbis

    After weeks of growing alarm about the ongoing urban outbreaks of yellow fever in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) lowered the pitch a little today. It called the outbreak “a serious public health event,” but because the international spread of the disease has slowed and vaccine supplies are recovering, the committee stopped short of declaring it a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC). That label would have given any recommendations from WHO greater power. (The organization has declared a PHEIC four times: for H1N1 influenza, the resurgence of polio, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and most recently the Zika virus.)

    “I think it was the correct decision,” says Duane Gubler, an infectious disease specialist who recently retired from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. “However, the threat is there and needs to be recognized, not ignored like we usually do.” 

    Yellow fever is caused by a virus spread by Aedes aegypti, the same mosquito that spreads Zika. Isolated human cases usually occur in or close to the jungle, where monkeys are a reservoir of the pathogen. When the virus gets into the mosquito population of a major city, however, it can cause devastating outbreaks. This happened in December of last year in Luanda, the capital of Angola and home to at least 8 million people. In the country as a whole, 2267 suspected cases of yellow fever have been reported, with at least 293 deaths.

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