ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Competition helps college students find a place in science

    Reavelyn Pray sitting and smiling in a laboratory

    Reavelyn Pray is spending the summer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, before starting classes at the University of Houston in Texas.

    Courtesy Reavelyn Pray

    Reavelyn Pray was taught that students like her didn’t become scientists. But thanks to a lot of hard work and timely help from heavy hitters in the scientific community, Pray is a lot further along toward her goal than the naysayers ever thought possible.

    As a poor, Hispanic student growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Pray found school to be a refuge from an unstable family situation that resulted in her becoming homeless at age 16. And although math and science were her favorite courses, she and the other low-income minority students in her classes were repeatedly told that “becoming a scientist or an engineer are jobs that are too big for us.”

    For a while it seemed they were right. After graduating high school, Pray enrolled in a bioinformatics course at the local community college. But a year later she dropped out after becoming pregnant with her daughter, Emma, now 6 years old.

  • Q&A: Former Obama science adviser John Holdren on the White House science office and Trump’s science policy

    John Holdren speaks on science at White House in 2015

    John Holdren speaks on science at the White House in 2015.

    NASA/Bill Ingalls/Flickr

    Yesterday, ScienceInsider reported on developments at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology (OSTP), which under President Donald Trump is now dramatically smaller than it was under former President Barack Obama and without a leader. Today, we talk with physicist John Holdren, who for 8 years was Obama’s top aide on science and technology issues. He also led OSTP, becoming the office’s longest-serving director since the office was created by Congress in 1976.

    Holdren is now back at Harvard University, where he is a professor of environmental policy in both the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. He says he is troubled by what has happened to his office, and to science policy, under Trump. Holdren spoke with ScienceInsider about those concerns and about the role OSTP plays in supporting the president’s agenda. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.   

  • Trump nominates finance executive for DOE science undersecretary

    The White House

    The White House

    The White House

    President Donald Trump has nominated Paul Dabbar, an investment banker with J.P. Morgan Chase in New York City, to be the Department of Energy’s (DOE's) undersecretary for science.

    If confirmed by the Senate, Dabbar would succeed Franklin "Lynn" Orr in the post. Orr left the post this past January.

    According to a White House statement released today, “Dabbar is Managing Director for Mergers & Acquisitions for J.P. Morgan, and has over $400 billion in investment experience across all energy sectors including solar, wind, geothermal, distributed-generation, utility, LNG, pipeline, oil & gas, trading, energy technology, and has also led the majority of all nuclear transactions.”

  • House panel set to vote on bill that cuts or eliminates some DOE science programs

    US Capitol at night

    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The House of Representatives appropriations panel will vote Wednesday on a Department of Energy (DOE) spending bill that largely rejects deep 2018 cuts to science programs proposed by President Donald Trump. But the bill still imposes reductions on some programs in the biological and environmental sciences. And it would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and two of DOE four research “Hubs,” on solar power and batteries.

    A committee report on the bill released today offers details on the bill, which covers the 2018 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. A House appropriations subcommittee late last month approved the bill, which keeps overall funding for DOE’s Office of Science flat at $5.39 billion but imposes deep cuts on applied renewable energy programs. The full House spending panel will now vote on the proposal.

  • ‘Replication grants’ will allow researchers to repeat nine influential studies that still raise questions

    man smoking e-cigarette

    One replication study will look at the correlation between e-cigarette use and smoking among adolescents.

    mauro-grigollo/iStockphoto

    AMSTERDAM—Is experimenting with e-cigarettes among young people associated with a higher risk of smoking tobacco, as an influential study published 2 years ago in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found? Can exposure to a natural environment help you recover from stress, as researchers claimed in a landmark 1991 paper? And is the “10 commandment effect”—the phenomenon that reminding people of moral standards makes them less likely to deceive —real?

    We may soon have fresh answers to those questions, thanks to the first research fund specifically dedicated to replication studies. The Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) today announced the scheme’s first nine grantees ; all of them plan to replicate a study that had a major impact in their field but also raised questions—or eyebrows—for some reason. NWO has made €3 million available for the pilot program, to be awarded in three annual rounds.

    Two types of studies were eligible for funding: reproduction research, essentially a reanalysis of the data collected in a previous study; and replication, which involves the collection of fresh data using the research protocol for the original study. Applicants had to show that the study they wanted to replicate had “cornerstone” status in the field, and that the replication was relevant, with a special focus on impact on health policy and medical guidelines. 

  • Trump’s White House science office still small and waiting for leadership

    President Donald Trump examines a helicopter drone at a White House meeting with technology companies.

    President Donald Trump examines a drone at a 22 June meeting with technology leaders that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy helped organize.

    Olivier Douliery/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

    The 1976 law that created the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) lets presidents tailor the office to fit their priorities. Under former President Barack Obama, OSTP grew to a record size and played a role in all the administration’s numerous science and technology initiatives. In contrast, President Donald Trump has all but ignored OSTP during his first 6 months in office, keeping it small and excluding it from even a cursory role in formulating science-related policies and spending plans.

    OSTP is not alone across the government in awaiting a new crop of key managers. But such leadership voids can be paralyzing for a small shop. Trump has yet to nominate an OSTP director, who traditionally also serves as the president’s science adviser. Nor has he announced his choices for as many as four other senior OSTP officials who would need to be confirmed by the Senate. An administration official, however, told Science that OSTP has reshuffled its work flow—and that there’s a short list for the director’s position.

  • New Zealand aims to eradicate invasive predators, but winning public support may be big challenge

    Common Brush-tailed Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) juvenile in tree, New Zealand

    The brush-tailed possum may be cute, but the invader is posing a serious threat to New Zealand’s native species.

    Tobias Bernhard Raff/Minden Pictures

    AUCKLAND, NEW ZELAND—A year ago, the national government here announced a bold plan to rid the country of a trio of invasive predators that threatens native birds. Experts say the task will require new technologies—such as deadlier toxins and possibly even the release of genetically modified organisms—that have yet to be invented. But winning public support for using these new methods could be an even bigger task, scientists say.

    Moving any new control measures from the lab to the landscape will be “as much of a social challenge as it is a biological challenge,” says conservation biologist James Russell of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

    With that in mind, scientists are eyeing a social experiment to rival the biological one: finding ways to include the public early and often in discussing predator control plans, and allowing people to have a say in which methods are deployed. 

  • Glider aims for new heights and rare scientific data

    Glider flies over in Argentinian mountains

    The Perlan 2 glides in flights over Argentina, powered only by gusts of wind called mountain waves.

    James Darcy/Airbus

    Surfing stratospheric waves in an engineless glider isn’t for the faint of heart, especially when you encounter turbulence. It’s like “being inside a washing machine,” says Jim Payne, who intends to break the current glider altitude record as the chief pilot for the Perlan 2, an experimental mission sponsored by the European aerospace company Airbus. “People don’t believe it until they’ve been there,” says Payne, who is based in Minden, Nevada, and described the mission at a briefing last month in Washington, D.C.

    And go there he will. This week, Payne and his co-pilot plan to begin a season of flights near El Calafate, Argentina, riding waves created by powerful gusts of wind over the Andes Mountains. They hope to reach a height of 16,700 meters in a series of flights over 2 months, breaking the current glider record. In the coming years, they may even reach their ultimate goal—a height of 27 kilometers. That would break the record for sustained level flight by any aircraft, which has been held for 41 years by the SR-71, a jet-powered spy plane. Along the way, Payne and his team also hope to do a little science, taking measurements in a place where few sensors have gone. The data could help shed light on atmospheric mixing and the behavior of waves in the stratosphere that play a role in weather on Earth’s surface. The Perlan Project dates back to 1992, when the project’s founder, Einar Enevoldson, a NASA test pilot, became convinced that gliders could reach the stratosphere by riding so-called “mountain waves” as they rise up through the atmosphere. In 2006, Enevoldson and his co-pilot reached a height of 15,460 meters, the current glider record. They were deterred from going higher by the frigid air that leaked into the cabin.

    Eleven years later, Payne will ride those same waves in a new, custom glider with a 25-meter wingspan. But the Perlan 2’s most important feature is its pressurized cabin, built to withstand the cold and near-vacuum of the stratosphere, where pressures are low enough for blood to boil. At these altitudes, pilots are usually equipped with big and bulky space suits, but the Perlan 2’s sealed cabin will protect the pilots while still granting them a full range of motion. The aircraft’s first round of flights in Argentina began in 2016, but bad weather prevented pilots from getting higher than 7900 meters.

  • Tesla to build titanic battery facility

    Tesla CEO Elon Musk

    Tesla CEO Elon Musk, in Australia today, talking about the development of the world's biggest lithium-ion battery. 

    Ben Macmahon/ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Tesla announced today that it will build the world's largest lithium-ion battery system to store electricity in Australia. The 100-megawatt installation—more than three times as powerful as the biggest existing battery system—will be paired with the Hornsdale Wind Farm near Jamestown, operated by the French renewable energy company Neoen, in a deal with the state of South Australia. The Tesla battery should smooth out the variability inherent in sustainable power generation schemes.

    "Cost-effective storage of electrical energy is the only problem holding us back from getting all of our power from wind and solar," says Ian Lowe, an energy policy specialist at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia, near Brisbane. The Tesla system, he says, will "demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale storage." It might also win over skeptics who doubt that renewables can match the dependability of conventional fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, says Geoffrey James, a renewable energy engineer at University of Technology Sydney.

    Tesla may be known best for its pioneering electric cars, but it has also been extending the lithium-ion battery technology used in its cars to the storage of renewably generated electricity, with products aimed at both home and industrial applications. The agreement with South Australia is by far its biggest sale yet. (Tesla did not reveal the price tag).

  • How Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA

    Smallpox virus

    An unpublished study suggests that making variola, the virus that causes smallpox, is neither expensive nor difficult. 

    Eye of Science/Science Source

    Eradicating smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in history, took humanity decades and cost billions of dollars. Bringing the scourge back would probably take a small scientific team with little specialized knowledge half a year and cost about $100,000.

    That’s one conclusion from an unusual and as-yet unpublished experiment performed last year by Canadian researchers. A group led by virologist David Evans of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, says it has synthesized the horsepox virus, a relative of smallpox, from genetic pieces ordered in the mail. Horsepox is not known to harm humans—and like smallpox, researchers believe it no longer exists in nature; nor is it seen as a major agricultural threat. But the technique Evans used could be used to recreate smallpox, a horrific disease that was declared eradicated in 1980. "No question. If it’s possible with horsepox, it’s possible with smallpox,” says virologist Gerd Sutter of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

    Evans hopes the research—most of which was done by research associate Ryan Noyce—will help unravel the origins of a centuries-old smallpox vaccine and lead to new, better vaccines or even cancer therapeutics. Scientifically, the achievement isn't a big surprise. Researchers had assumed it would one day be possible to synthesize poxviruses since virologists assembled the much smaller poliovirus from scratch in 2002. But the new work—like the poliovirus reconstitutions before it—is raising troubling questions about how terrorists or rogue states could use modern biotechnology. Given that backdrop, the study marks "an important milestone, a proof of concept of what can be done with viral synthesis,“ says bioethicist Nicholas Evans—who's not related to David Evans—of the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

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