Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Same bottom line hides sharp disagreement in Congress over energy research

    The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both want to boost spending on the proposed Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment in Lead, South Dakota, which would study particles shot from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois.

    The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both want to boost spending on the proposed Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment in Lead, South Dakota, which would study particles shot from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois.


    Legislators in both houses of Congress agree that science at the Department of Energy (DOE) should get a slight boost—0.9%—next year. But how they get to that number is quite another story.

    This week the full Senate is expected to approve a $5.4 billion budget for DOE’s Office of Science that would eliminate support for an international fusion project in France and trim domestic fusion research. The cuts allow legislators to give relatively healthy boosts to the office's five other research programs within an overall tight budget. To reach the same total, the spending panel in the House of Representatives has proposed continuing to fund ITER and fusion but cutting biological and environmental research and holding the other programs to tiny increases.

    For years, observers have been warning that the U.S. commitment to ITER, the gargantuan fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, has been squeezing other DOE basic research programs. That tension shows through clearly in the House and Senate versions of the budget for DOE for fiscal year 2017, which begins 1 October.

  • Europe to bet up to €1 billion on quantum technology

    Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for digital economy, and Henk Kamp, the Dutch minister for economic affairs, visit the QuTech lab, a quantum technology laboratory in Delft, the Netherlands.

    Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for digital economy, and Henk Kamp, the Dutch minister for economic affairs, visit the QuTech lab, a quantum technology laboratory in Delft, the Netherlands.

    Quantum Manifesto

    The European Commission has picked a third research area where it hopes to have a major impact by spending a massive amount of cash. Research groups across the continent will receive up to €1 billion over the next 10 years to develop quantum technologies, which might be used to develop anything from faster computers and very secure communication systems to ultrasensitive sensors and more precise atomic clocks.

    The project "should place Europe at the forefront of the second quantum revolution, bringing transformative advances to science, industry and society within the decade to come," a spokesperson for the European Commission wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. “This is an exciting and ambitious effort to focus the extraordinary scientific accomplishments from Europe to develop fundamentally new technologies based on the quantum state of matter,” says David Awschalom, a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who is not involved in the project.

    Two similarly ambitious schemes showering money on a single topic, called Flagship projects, have been underway in the European Union since 2014. One focuses on the study of graphene, the other on a computer model of the entire human brain. They were selected after an exhaustive high-profile beauty contest and announced with a series of media events. This time, there was no formal competition, and the project’s announcement was hidden in a short sentence in a long document this week describing plans to “digitize European industry.”

  • New Stanford center offers insight into the evolution of scientific cartography

    Stanford cartographic technology specialist Deardra Fuzzell examines a celestial map at the new center.

    Stanford cartographic technology specialist Deardra Fuzzell examines a celestial map at the new center.

    Wayne Vanderkuil, Stanford Libraries

    The new David Rumsey Map Center, which opened last week at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, showcases what was once one of the world’s great private map collections—more than 150,000 maps, globes, and cartographic artifacts. The collection is especially rich with 18th and 19th century maps that illustrate the birth of scientific cartography.

  • Tired of short-term contracts, Spanish postdocs sue their employer

    The Spanish National Research Council's headquarters in Madrid.

    The Spanish National Research Council's headquarters in Madrid.

    Luis García/Wikimedia Commons

    The past few years, many postdocs at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) have obtained a permanent position in an unusual way: by suing their employer. The researchers, along with many technicians and administrative staff, have successfully asked the courts to make CSIC comply with Spanish labor law and turn their short-term contracts into indefinite employment.

    But now, CSIC is pushing back with a series of controversial measures that many say punish the institutes and research groups where such cases have occurred. The new measures, detailed in an internal memo that was recently leaked to national newspaper El País, have drawn criticism from the scientific community and angered trade unions. One union, the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), accuses CSIC of a “witch hunt” against those who exercise their employment rights and the centers and research groups that host them.

    CSIC employs some 10,000 research and administrative staff in more than 120 institutes that span every discipline from mathematics to biology and the humanities. Like other research institutions in Europe, CSIC is doing away with its tradition of lifetime civil servant employment and introducing more and more short-term contracts funded by research grants and industry contracts.

  • Possible causes of Prince's death: Separating the plausible from the crazy


    Rock singer Prince performs at the Forum in Inglewood, California, during his opening show, 18 February 1985.

    AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing

    Whenever a celebrity dies under murky circumstances, speculations run wild. The bulk of news reports about the rock star Prince’s death yesterday suggested influenza may have claimed his life. “Could Flu Have Caused Prince's Death? Yes. Here's Why,” read a Forbes headline. Other media outlets used his surprising demise at 57 to remind readers of the risk flu presents and how it kills. TMZ, the celeb gossip e-zine, has “multiple sources” that say Prince, despite being a Jehovah’s Witness, received a “save shot” for a drug overdose 6 days before his death. The conspiracy-minded also came out of the woodwork and suggested it was the flu vaccine, the way his plane made an emergency landing, or yes, that he actually isn’t dead at all. 

    Of course it’s possible that Prince died from influenza, and one of his representatives last week told reporters that a bad bout with the disease explained his emergency landing in Illinois and a visit to a hospital. Maybe, as some news stories have ventured, there was a link between his epilepsy and flu that ended his life. (A PubMed search of “influenza, epilepsy, mortality” has a meager 23 hits.) But in the absence of new data, the evidence suggests that flu is an unlikely explanation unless he had an underlying health problem, like a heart condition, that is known to increase the risk of death from flu. And of course the surest way to find a probable rather than a possible answer to his cause of death is to conduct an autopsy, which reportedly is underway.

    According to the most authoritative study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that analyzed flu deaths in the United States from 1976 to 2007, the over-65 age bracket suffers the highest mortality by far, accounting for 87.9% of the deceased. (The study looks at both influenza and the often-related pneumonia deaths.) The 19- to 64-year-old age bracket was next at 10.6%.

  • Space agencies eye global Earth observatory

    Mount Rainier

    This image of Mt. Rainier depicts the main kinds of observations that the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission will make: glaciers (ice), volcanoes (crustal deformation), and forests (ecosystems).


    Major space agencies are edging toward agreement on a capability that climate watchers have long desired: an international satellite system for uniformly measuring greenhouse gas emissions and their capture in carbon sinks.

    Next week, the heads of 11 space agencies are expected to issue a joint communique from a meeting in New Delhi calling for cooperation to calibrate instruments and validate measurements “to achieve an international, independent system for estimating the global emissions based on internationally accepted data.” “We need a global space observation system to be in place sooner than later,” says Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of CNES, France’s space agency in Paris. “Cooperation among the space agencies is a must if planet Earth is to be saved.”

    Currently, space-faring nations have a combined total of 130 Earth-observing satellites in orbit. But these platforms use varying standards, making it virtually impossible, experts say, to compare and verify data sets.

  • Germany to continue building its Ivy League

    The next phase of Germany's Excellence Initiative will cost €533 million a year, Research Minister Johanna Wanka said today.

    The next phase of Germany's Excellence Initiative will cost €533 million a year, Research Minister Johanna Wanka said today.

    BMBF/Hans-Joachim Rickel

    The program designed to create a German Ivy League will be extended indefinitely, giving a handful of the country’s top universities a yearly bonus of at least €10 million in extra funding, the German government announced today. “We are opening a new chapter in the development of higher education in Germany,” Research and Education Minister Johanna Wanka told a press conference in Berlin this morning.

    Germany’s Excellence Initiative, launched in 2006, was meant to boost research at German universities to world-class status. Whereas research organizations such as the Max Planck Society are widely recognized as funding top research, the country’s chronically underfunded universities have lagged behind, with only a few breaking the top 50 in world rankings. The €4.6 billion spent on the effort so far has paid off, an international commission concluded in January: Although German universities haven't made it to the top of world rankings, the program has made them more dynamic and has encouraged them to build on their strengths, the report concluded. The panel did recommend some tweaks to the funding structure, however.

    State and federal politicians had committed last year to extend the program, but had not decided what form it would take. The outline announced this morning by the Joint Science Conference (GWK), which includes federal and state science ministers of research, education, and finance, still needs to receive final approval from Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the German state, or Länder, in June, but they are expected to sign off on the plan.

  • U.S. goes shopping in Iran’s nuclear bazaar, will buy heavy water for science

    spallation neutron source

    The Department of Energy plans to send 6 tons of heavy water from Iran to the Spallation Neutron Source at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory

    Mere months ago, Iran’s nuclear program was an international pariah. Now, it’s supplying the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) with a strategic substance that the United States itself can’t produce. DOE has struck a deal to purchase 32 tons of heavy water—water containing the hydrogen isotope deuterium—from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

    The $8.6 million sale, expected to be completed Friday morning in Vienna, helps Iran meet a commitment under last July’s nuclear deal to shed heavy water—and it will have a swords-to-ploughshares payoff. “We’re securing material that will allow us to do great science,” says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. DOE will resell a portion to industry for uses such as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging and protecting optical fibers and semiconductors against deterioration by blasting them with deuterium gas. DOE will also send 6 tons to Oak Ridge for an upgrade of the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), the world’s most powerful accelerator-driven machine for generating neutrons for research.

    Deuterium—hydrogen with an added neutron—accounts for just one in every 6420 hydrogen atoms. That neutron makes heavy water (D2O) more efficient than regular water at slowing neutrons and initiating fission. As a result, a handful of countries use it as a moderator in nuclear power reactors. But deuterium has a dark side. Heavy water reactors can transmute uranium into plutonium, for use in weapons.

  • AstraZeneca partners its way to a genomic bounty

    AstraZeneca partners its way to a genomic bounty

    AstraZeneca will embed a research team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, U.K.

    Magnus Manske/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is joining forces with several heavy hitters in genetic sequencing to mine up to 2 million people’s genomes for new drug targets. The London-based company today launched an in-house genomics center that will swap data and samples with Human Longevity Inc. (HLI)—geneticist J. Craig Venter’s ambitious genomics startup—and will embed a research team in the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The company expects that whole genomes, combined with individual health data, will reveal rare genetic variants that influence disease and suggest new drug targets.

    Given that only about 100,000 people in the world have had their entire genomes sequenced to date, the new resource would be unprecedented, says geneticist Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, who is not involved in the partnership. Other pharma companies have made big investments in genomic data. Amgen’s 2012 takeover of deCODE Genetics’s 140,000-person volunteer database  was “somewhat of a precursor to this,” Topol says, but was limited to an Icelandic population and didn’t include whole genomes for every participant. “This is about finally getting some horsepower to get us to the big data, whole genome level,” he says.

  • New research ship highlight of otherwise flat NSF budget bill in Senate

    New research ship highlight of otherwise flat NSF budget bill in Senate

    U.S. senators want the National Science Foundation to build three, not just two, of the regional research vessels depicted in this schematic.

    Oregon State University

    Senate appropriators have made a third research vessel their top priority in the 2017 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    The full Senate appropriations committee today unanimously approved $7.509 billion for NSF, a $46 million boost over its current budget, as part of a $56 billion bill covering several science agencies and the departments of justice and commerce. Within the amount for NSF, legislators added $53 million to the agency’s large new facilities account to begin building three regional-class research vessels rather than the two NSF had requested. (Earlier this week, a spending subcommittee had approved the bill, but released few details.)

    NSF’s research and education accounts were held flat, at $6.033 billion and $880 million, respectively, as was the agency’s internal operating budget. President Barack Obama had requested $46 million more for research and $18 million for education. (NSF had also requested an additional $43 million to accommodate its move next year to a new building in northern Virginia.)

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