Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • South Korea’s nuclear U-turn draws praise and darts

    wind farm

    A wind farm off Jeju is an exception in South Korea, which has lagged in renewable energy.

    SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    A campaign promise to scale back South Korea’s reliance on coal and nuclear power helped Moon Jae-in win the nation’s 10 May presidential election. In recent weeks he has fleshed out the details: He plans to phase out coal-fired power plants, block the construction of new nuclear plants, and ramp up the country’s reliance on natural gas and renewable energy. It is a dramatic reversal of the country’s previous nuclear-centric energy policy. And it has split energy economists, editorial pundits, and the academic community.

    “It is a historical, transitional moment,” says Yun Sun-Jin, who studies environmental and energy policy at Seoul National University (SNU). The shift will help the country meet its pledge to cut greenhouse emissions, reduce local air pollution, and cut the risk of nuclear accidents, she says.

    But some analysts wonder whether the country will be able to scale up new power sources fast enough to avoid price hikes and power disruptions. Nuclear power advocates, for their part, are appalled. A “distortion of facts is creating and spreading an ungrounded phobia” against nuclear energy, says Joo Han Gyu, a nuclear engineer at SNU. “My students are deeply disappointed” with the new policy, Joo adds. An unnamed nuclear engineering professor told local media his once thriving department is now “like a funeral parlor.” 

  • Update: Creationist geologist wins permit to collect rocks in Grand Canyon after lawsuit

    Brightly colored layers of rock in the Grand Canyon.

    A portion of the Grand Canyon.

    Zubair Khan/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Update: Andrew Snelling will get his permit to collect rocks in Grand Canyon, Scott Wartman of reported yesterday. Snelling dropped his lawsuit after the National Park Service offered to have "experienced staff" help "pinpoint locations and determine appropriate sampling methodology." In a statement, Snelling said he was "gratified that the Grand Canyon research staff have recognized the quality and integrity of my proposed research project and issued the desired research permits so that I can collect rock samples in the park, perform the planned testing of them, and openly report the results for the benefit of all."

    Here is our earlier story, originally published by E&E News on 19 May:

  • In India, critics assail proposal to build 100 waste-fueled power plants

    Indian man collects trash near water

    A worker collects trash near India’s Yamuna River to recycle and sell on the local market.


    An Indian government proposal to build up to 100 incineration plants to burn municipal waste and produce electricity is drawing sharp criticism from opponents, who say the plan flies in the face of the nation’s efforts to cut air pollution and shift to cleaner energy sources.

    The proposal, part of a sweeping draft 3-year action plan released this past April by an influential government think tank, is aimed at managing the some 170,000 tons of waste generated each day in some 8000 larger municipalities. Waste-to-energy plants are “the best option” for dealing with this waste, which poses a “serious public health threat,” the plan states. It suggests establishing a new Waste to Energy Corporation of India “to speed up the process of cleaning up municipal solid waste” by developing public-private partnerships to build the plants. The corporation could “play a key role in fast-tracking … waste to energy plants across 100 smart cities by 2019,” the report states. The plan envisions the plants, which it suggests would be environmentally beneficial, generating 330 megawatts of electricity by 2018 and 511 megawatts by 2019. (The typical coal-fired power plant generates about 500 megawatts annually.)

    But many Indian environmentalists and scientists say the idea is flawed. “Incineration is the worst option possible,” says engineer Anant Trivedi of New Delhi, a former member of the Technical Experts Evaluation Committee of India’s Central Pollution Control Board. “This belief that you are creating clean energy from waste is also wrong.”

  • NASA’s new astronaut corps features an abundance of scientific talent

    Woody Hoburg with the Jungle Hawk Owl drone

    Warren “Woody” Hoburg prepares the Jungle Hawk Owl for its first flight in May.

    Veronica Padron

    As a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Jessica Watkins wrote her dissertation on the extended landslides that occur on Mars. She relied on images from orbiting satellites and NASA’s rovers, the closest most planetary geologists will ever come to the martian surface.

    But now, as one of NASA’s newest astronauts, Watkins just might someday get the chance to visit those terrains. This month, the postdoc at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena was one of just 12 people chosen to join NASA’s astronaut corps. And the new group may be uniquely equipped to help NASA achieve its goals of returning humans to space on an array of new vehicles and eventually sending them to Mars.

    Although a majority of those deemed to have the right stuff are active military personnel with extensive flight experience, four of the new astronauts are civilians who hold science and engineering Ph.D.s. Watkins is one of two geologists in the class who have been keeping a close watch on the Red Planet. The other, Zena Cardman, a doctoral student in astrobiology at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in State College, has spent years working on projects that use Earth as an analog for understanding contemporary Mars and how it evolved.

  • Canada’s basic science at risk of fading away, report argues

    Canadian flag

    Rebecca Schley/Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

    Canada’s scientific enterprise is at risk of sinking to junk bond status as a result of a funding crunch and misguided government and granting council policies, argues a report released today.

    In particular, the authors decry a steady shift away from basic science that has left a smaller portion of the nation’s growing scientific community focused on fundamental research.

    “Dismantling fundamental research support has changed the very nature of how science is conducted in Canada,” according to the report from the Global Young Academy, an international society. It urges the Canadian government to inject a minimum of $352 million into the budgets of the nation’s three granting councils in the coming year. It also wants federal spending on basic research to be directly tied to “the number of active researchers in the Canadian research ecosystem”—which has been growing, even as funding has stagnated.

  • Scientist tells her story in latest partisan battle on House science panel

    Dr. Swackhamer, wearing a blue shirt, a Dasani water bottle in front of her, speaks into a microphone while testifying in Congress

    Deborah Swackhamer testifies last month before the House of Representatives science committee.

    House Science Committee Democrats

    Deborah Swackhamer made sure to follow the rules before giving testimony last month to Congress on the role of science in setting policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But her caution didn’t prevent her from being caught in the crossfire of another partisan clash between Republicans and Democrats on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    A professor emerita at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Swackhamer is chair of EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), an external panel that advises the agency’s science office. But when the science committee’s Democrats invited her to a 23 May hearing on state involvement in EPA regulation setting, she told them she would appear only as a private citizen and would focus on how science helps the agency do its job.

    Swackhamer ran that plan by senior officials in EPA’s science office, and they seemed to be fine with that distinction, spelling out some ground rules for her to follow. She agreed, then accepted the committee’s invitation and submitted her testimony. But on 22 May, one day before the hearing, Ryan Jackson, chief of staff to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, emailed her to suggest changes to that testimony. Jackson also said that her statement needed to be vetted by the agency’s congressional affairs office.

  • NIST would escape deep cuts in House spending plan

    Two researchers view screens that allow them to visualize the movement of concrete particles.

    Researchers with the National Institutes of Standards and Technology use a visualization laboratory to explore the movement of concrete particles.

    Earl Zubkoff/NIST

    A House of Representatives spending panel is offering a compromise between the deep cuts sought by President Donald Trump for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the agency’s current budget.

    A bill to be marked up tomorrow that covers several science agencies would give NIST $865 million in 2018. That’s nearly $90 million lower than in 2017, but it would be $140 million higher than Trump has requested. NIST’s science programs would get $660 million, an amount that falls between its current budget of $690 million and Trump’s plan to spend $600 million.

  • Trump cuts to NSF mostly rejected by House panel, but it nixes new ships

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    Oregon State University

    A House of Representatives spending panel wants to spare the National Science Foundation (NSF) from most of the 11% cut that was proposed by President Donald Trump for its 2018 budget. But it would do so in part by eliminating funding for three mid-sized research vessels that Congress last year told NSF to start building.

    A panel led by Representative John Culberson (R–TX) will vote tomorrow on a 2018 spending bill that covers NSF and several other science agencies. A draft of that legislation, released today, sets NSF’s next budget at $7.338 billion, some $134 million below its current level but $685 million above the president’s request.

    The House mark holds NSF’s six research accounts level, at $6.033 billion. NSF’s education directorate would also tread water, at $880 million. The biggest variation from 2017 would come in its major research facilities account, which funds new construction.

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