Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Q&A: Mathematical ecologist to be new chief scientist of Nature Conservancy

    Hugh Possingham

    Hugh Possingham

    Andrew Benison

    The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a major conservation organization based in Arlington, Virginia, has recruited a chief scientist from the other side of the world. Hugh Possingham, an Australian mathematical ecologist at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Brisbane will take over the role in November. Possingham, 53, led a group that developed conservation planning software, called Marxan, that has been used in more than 150 countries for designing nature reserves, zoning plans, and other purposes. The Australian government relied on the software when it rezoned the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004, greatly expanding and diversifying the protected areas. Possingham also has advised the Australian government on other conservation issues, such as reducing the amount of forest converted to pasture, which has several negative effects including destroying koala habitat and emitting greenhouse gases.

    TNC has about 3500 staff, including more than 600 with Ph.D.s, although the number of active researchers is much smaller. Although most well-known for its work purchasing land in the United States, the organization is active in many other countries. Possingham takes over from Peter Kareiva, who now heads the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kareiva has been an iconoclast in the conservation community, emphasizing the resiliency of nature, arguing for the role of business and economic development in conservation.

  • Embattled Australian agency head defends climate research cuts

    Climate change

    Larry Marshall


    The simmering controversy over the scientific direction and staffing of Australia’s premier research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization (CSIRO), heated up this week with the release of internal documents suggesting that CSIRO’s management disdains “public good” research. Separately, an employee association claimed that up to 450 jobs at the agency could be lost—100 more than announced previously. Today, CSIRO’s chief executive, Larry Marshall, sought to allay fears of job losses while defending the agency’s new priorities.

    Speaking at a Senate budget hearing, Marshall said he was surprised by the “extremely negative” response to his February announcement of plans to “realign and restore our business growth” and cut jobs. He said he did not “anticipate the magnitude and level of misrepresentation” of the plans by news media, which he blamed for distressing staff and triggering an avalanche of criticism. More than 3000 climate scientists from around the world condemned the change in direction in an open letter to the federal government.

    Earlier this week, the Senate panel released 700 pages of internal CSIRO documents related to the new strategy. Particularly revealing were those discussing the oceans and atmosphere division, which employs most CSIRO climate scientists. Although acknowledging that the agency’s climate scientists are internationally respected, “Nature papers alone don’t cut it,” division deputy director Andreas Schiller wrote in a 21 November 2015 email to agency leaders. “Public good is not good enough, [it] needs to be linked to jobs and growth,” he added. In a later email he suggested CSIRO make a “clean cut” and eliminate 120 staff engaged in “public good/government-funded climate research.”

  • Drug for pedophiles to be tested in Swedish trial

    A still from a video introducing the crowdfunding campaign for the trial.

    A still from a video introducing the crowdfunding campaign for the trial.


    Swedish researchers have started a clinical trial to assess whether a prostate cancer drug could help prevent pedophilic behavior—and they're counting on online donations to help finish it.

    The team is reaching out to the public to collect £38,000 ($53,000) through a campaign launched today on Walacea, a U.K. crowdfunding website for scientific research. They hope to show that the drug, which lowers testosterone levels in the body, will reduce the pedophilic impulses that might cause people to abuse a child. So far, the researchers have recruited “four or five” participants, but they ultimately aim to enroll 60 men, the trial's principal investigator, Christoffer Rahm, said at a press briefing to announce the campaign in London on Wednesday.

    The trial will not enroll sex offenders, said Rahm, a psychiatric researcher at the Karolinska Institute (KI) near Stockholm; on the contrary, the project “wants to shift the focus [to] preventing child sexual abuse from happening in the first place” by targeting men who have sought help to deal with their pedophilic impulses.

  • Mekong megadrought erodes food security

    Drought is hammering Vietnam's agriculture, including crops like rambutan seen here being transported in the Mekong delta.

    Drought is hammering Vietnam's agriculture, including crops like rambutan seen here being transported in the Mekong delta.

    Thomas Schoch/Creative Commons

    The worst drought ever recorded in Vietnam is stoking fears of a food security crisis. In a meeting with government officials next week, researchers with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)’s Asia regional office in Hanoi will unveil maps showing how water scarcity and climate change may imperil key crops—rice, cassava, maize, coffee, and cashew nuts—across the country. 

    "The severity of this year's drought will have a profound impact on Mekong delta agricultural production,” says Brian Eyler, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

    As of mid-March, nearly a million people in central and southern Vietnam lack access to fresh drinking water, according to a recent United Nations report. And supplies of rice, the main staple crop, are in jeopardy. Saltwater intrusion in the Mekong delta has destroyed at least 159,000 hectares of paddy rice so far, with a further 500,000 hectares at risk before the onset of the summer monsoon. The Vietnam government has approved $23.3 million in emergency funds to compensate hard-hit farmers and provide water tanks and other critical provisions. Meanwhile, the Vietnam Red Cross Society has been mobilized to provide assistance in provinces where local health clinics are struggling to deliver essential services due to insufficient freshwater.

  • ‘Hubble repairman’ to retire from NASA’s top science spot

    NASA’s John Grunsfeld at an Earth Day event in Washington, D.C., in 2015

    NASA’s John Grunsfeld at an Earth Day event in Washington, D.C., in 2015

    NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

    NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and astronaut who worked on three repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, will retire from his position as head of the science mission directorate on 30 April, the agency announced today.

    Grunsfeld served for many years as an astronaut within NASA’s human spaceflight division, and flew on five shuttle missions. Since 2012, he led NASA’s science division, where he became an advocate for marrying the agency’s human and robotic exploration divisions.

    It was not his first time at headquarters. In 2004, he was chief scientist—an advisory role to the administrator—and he was put in the difficult position of having to defend a decision to cancel Hubble’s final servicing mission (which ended up going ahead in 2009). After a stint at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, Grunsfeld was called back to headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 2012, following the departure of Associate Administrator Ed Weiler.

  • China takes microgravity work to new heights

    China's Shijian-10, the second of four scientific space missions, carries a collection of microgravity experiments.

    China's Shijian-10, the second of four scientific space missions, carries a collection of microgravity experiments.


    China's space science ambitions mark a new milestone today with the launch of a microgravity research satellite set for 2 a.m. Wednesday morning Beijing time. The Shijian-10 (SJ-10) spacecraft carries 20 experiments covering fluid physics, materials science, and the effects of radiation and microgravity on various biological systems.

    The mission deepens China's international cooperation in space, carrying an experiment jointly developed with the European Space Agency (ESA). "We have been sharing scientific data and sharing results" with China, says Antonio Verga, an ESA microgravity researcher in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. In particular, ESA scientists worked with Chinese colleagues on the Geospace Double Star Exploration Program, though the mission's two satellites were developed and launched by China's National Space Science Center (NSSC). SJ-10 "is the first cooperative mission in which ESA is actually flying a piece of hardware on a Chinese mission," Verga says.

    The SJ-10 spacecraft will be launched on a Long March 2D rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern Gansu province. After 12 days in orbit, a re-entry capsule will return most samples to Earth, landing in Inner Mongolia. The short time frame is typical for space microgravity missions, Verga says. Experiments on the orbiter will continue for three more days, running on batteries for power.

  • Angolan yellow fever outbreak highlights dangerous vaccine shortage

    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

    The three people dressed in baby blue plastic suits and goggles form a human conveyor belt for chicken embryos. The first takes a tray of eggs that were injected with a yellow fever vaccine virus, then left to incubate for 4 days, and cuts the top off each egg. The second tweezes the embryos out of the eggs and deposits them in a large bottle. The last person adds some liquid, then blends the embryos into a rich, red broth that contains millions of weakened virus particles.

    The end result of this procedure, repeated dozens of times every week at the Pasteur Institute of Dakar, is a highly effective vaccine that offers lifelong protection against yellow fever. But the 80-year-old process is decidedly low-tech and hard to scale up—and that's become a problem, because a big yellow fever outbreak that started in December 2015 in Luanda, Angola's capital, has emptied the world's strategic reserves of the vaccine.

    The Pasteur Institute, which makes about 10 million doses a year, is one of only four facilities around the world producing yellow fever shots, joining two government-run plants in Russia and Brazil and French vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur. Their combined output has long fallen short of the world's needs, and the Angola outbreak has worsened the shortfall. Another major outbreak—for instance in Asia, where yellow fever has never gained a foothold—could be impossible to control, says Jack Woodall, a retired virologist in London, formerly of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. “I hate being alarmist," says Woodall, who's also a moderator at the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, an online alert system for disease outbreaks. "But this is something I’m really panicking about.”

  • Scientific advisers tapped to guide Biden’s cancer moonshot

    Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.

    Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.

    Marc Nozell/Flicker (CC BY 2.0)

    The National Cancer Institute (NCI) today named a blue ribbon panel of scientists and other experts to help guide Vice President Joe Biden’s ambitious $1 billion moonshot to cure cancer.

    Announced during President Barack Obama’s January State of the Union Address, the moonshot project will aim to double progress against cancer in the next 5 years and break down silos that prevent researchers from working together. NCI is spending $195 million on the effort this year and Obama has requested another $680 million for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for next year.

    The 28-member blue ribbon panel, a working group of the NCI’s National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB), will have three co-chairs: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge cancer biologist Tyler Jacks, who is chair of NCAB; Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, cancer immunologist Elizabeth Jaffee; and NCI acting deputy director Dinah Singer. The other panelists include cancer center directors, researchers in tumor genomics and cancer immunotherapy, patient advocates, and industry leaders, including Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO of NantWorks, who recently launched his own cancer moonshot to test immunotherapy drugs.

  • Killer bat fungus jumps to West Coast

    White-nose syndrome, seen in this bat in Maine, has crossed the Rockies.

    White-nose syndrome, seen in this bat in Maine, has crossed the Rockies.

    Jonathan Mays, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

    A lethal fungus devastating U.S. bat populations in the East and Midwest has crossed the Continental Divide for the first time, unexpectedly popping up in Washington—approximately 2000 kilometers farther west than previously seen.

    The discovery of white-nose syndrome in a single, sickly little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) found in mid-March by hikers at the edge of the Cascade Mountains, 50 kilometers east of Seattle, Washington, is confirmation of what scientists considered the inevitable spread of the disease across the continent. “This is a nightmare scenario come true,” says Jeremy Coleman, an ecologist and head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s white-nose syndrome program in Hadley, Massachusetts. “This is the news we have been bracing for and warning about going back for the last 8 years.”

    But the syndrome’s appearance in the far northwest corner of the country, announced Thursday by state and federal wildlife agencies, came as a surprise. In recent years, it had only reached as far west as Minnesota and Nebraska, after an orderly march across the continent from its start in upstate New York.

  • Groups protest House demands for names of fetal tissue researchers

    House of Representatives

    Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), head of the House’s investigative panel on fetal tissue.

    Gage Skidmore

    A special investigative panel in the U.S. House of Representatives this week intensified its probe into the use of fetal tissue in biomedical research with a dozen new subpoenas aimed at researchers and abortion providers. This second round of inquiries, two of them directed to individual faculty members at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, deepens concerns among some education groups and scientists that personal information revealed in the investigation could make researchers the target of extremist violence.

    The House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, launched last October and led by Representative Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), grew out of Republican backlash over undercover videos released last summer by the Center for Medical Progress, an antiabortion group that accused the organization Planned Parenthood of illegally profiting from the sale of tissue from abortions. The panel sent out more than 30 information requests to universities, companies, and abortion clinics before issuing three formal subpoenas in February to the abortion provider Southwestern Women’s Options (SWO), the tissue procurement company StemExpress, and UNM, whose health sciences center includes labs that work with fetal tissue from abortions performed by SWO. The request included “the identity, by name, of persons who participated in each study” involving fetal tissue, as well as those who transferred tissue to the university.

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