Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Could November elections scramble a controversial U.S. mission to a frozen moon?

    John Culberson at a House subcommittee meeting

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who has been a key player in providing funding for a NASA mission to Europa, is facing a tough re-election battle.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

    Earlier this year, planetary scientists got a pleasant surprise: a big boost in NASA’s budget, instituted at the direction of Representative John Culberson (R–TX), a leading member of the House of Representatives spending panel. But some of that money—$195 million, to be exact—came with a catch. It had to be spent on a robotic mission to land on Europa, Jupiter’s frozen moon, to search for signs of life.

    Culberson’s lander has been somewhat controversial among scientists because it hasn’t gone through NASA’s traditional selection and vetting process. And today, researchers at an agency advisory meeting debated whether the congressional elections in November could bring a new lander-related headache: the defeat of Culberson, who is facing a tough re-election contest. If Culberson loses, NASA risks becoming “locked in” to an expensive and complicated project that lacks a key champion in Congress, one researcher worried.

    By Culberson’s mandate, NASA had already begun to lay out plans for the Europa lander, which could launch by 2026. But at a panel session today at NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group, held in Pasadena, California, planetary scientists grappled with whether, and how aggressively, the agency should support the mission.

  • Hurricane Florence is coming. Scientists are scrambling to prepare

    Hurricane Florence seen from ISS

    A state of emergency has been declared for much of the United States’s mid-Atlantic seaboard as Hurricane Florence, a swirling spiral more than 550 kilometers wide with winds gusting to more than 225 kilometers per hour, churns toward the coast. Florence is expected to cause life-threatening flooding as it makes landfall on Friday, and 1.5 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia have already been ordered to board up their homes and flee.

    Researchers at the universities and government facilities in Florence’s predicted path are bracing for the storm. Some are scrambling to protect sensitive samples against power outages and secure expensive instruments from winds and floods. Others are rushing to deploy new experiments to collect as many data as possible before, during, and after the hurricane.

    ScienceInsider will be tracking how Hurricane Florence affects the research community. Tell us your story—or send us a tip about a story you think we should be covering—by emailing, or tweeting to @ScienceInsider.

  • Slippery volcanic soils blamed for deadly landslides during Hokkaido earthquake

    aerial view of Landslides in Atsuma, Japan

    Landslides in the town of Atsuma killed dozens after last week’s earthquake on Japan’s Hokkaido island.

    The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

    The magnitude-6.7 earthquake that struck Japan’s Hokkaido island on 6 September had an outsize impact on the landscape: hundreds of landslides that scarred hillsides, decapitated ridges, and caused most of the 41 deaths attributed to the earthquake. Now, some scientists are saying the island was primed for the landslides when heavy rains soaked subsurface deposits of volcanic soil in the region, turning them into a geologic grease layer. Others, however, aren’t convinced yet.

    Like much of Japan, Hokkaido hosts numerous volcanoes, both active and dormant. Kyoji Sassa, a landslide expert and professor emeritus at Kyoto University in Japan, believes eruptions over the ages have left layers of volcanic material such as pumice draping the hilly landscape beneath sediments deposited later, as is seen in many other volcanic areas in Japan. The porous volcanic material readily soaks up water and becomes slippery, Sassa says. And Hokkaido had just been hit by drenching rains from Typhoon Jebi, the most powerful storm to strike Japan in 25 years. It pummeled the Osaka area to the south on 4 September, then traveled up the archipelago, delivering heavy rains to Hokkaido.

    When the earthquake shook the water-logged soils a few days later, Sassa says the shear forces easily ruptured the weak pumice strata, allowing tons of heavy, wet soil to slide downhill. The landslides, concentrated in an area near the quake epicenter on the southern side of the island, “moved very rapidly,” says Sassa, founder and secretary general of the International Consortium on Landslides, because wet pumice is particularly slippery.

  • Controversial plastic trash collector begins maiden ocean voyage

    boat towing long trash collector

    An experimental plastic trash collector is towed out of San Francisco Bay on 8 September.

    The Ocean Cleanup

    *Update, 11 September, 9:55 a.m.: A high-profile and controversial effort to collect and haul away plastic trash in the ocean is finally going to sea. A massive tugboat left San Francisco Bay this weekend, pulling a long sinuous boom constructed by The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The device, which is intended to catch plastic trash floating at the surface, will be tested for 2 weeks about 400 kilometers offshore. If it does well, the boom will be towed to a concentration of floating trash about 2200 kilometers from California. Although the original design called for a few trash collectors each with a 200-kilometer span, revised plans called for many smaller collectors with 1-kilometer-long booms. The current system has been scaled down further, to 600 meters in length. The Ocean Cleanup hopes to make its first pickup run in 6 months, shipping the trash back to shore and converting it into promotional objects to help cover costs. As Science reported below on 11 May 2017, critics are skeptical of the project, which some see as well-intentioned but misguided.

    Critics say plan for drifting ocean trash collectors is unmoored

    It is undeniably an ambitious vision. Boyan Slat, a charismatic 22-year-old drop-out inventor, plans to clean up plastic trash circulating in the North Pacific Gyre by launching a fleet of floating trash collectors. Ocean currents would propel floating plastic trash into curved floating booms, which would funnel trash toward a central tank, to be collected monthly by ships. “We let the plastic come to us,” he says. The group hopes to eventually finance the operation by recycling the plastic and selling it as a branded product or raw material. Slat already has a pair of sunglasses made from recycled Pacific plastic.

    Skeptics say the idea doesn’t make much sense and that collecting trash closer to shore would be more cost effective. “Focusing clean-up at those gyres, in the opinion of most of the scientific community, is a waste of effort,” says marine biologist Jan van Franeker of Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands. “It’s a lot of money to reduce something that disappears in 10 to 20 years, if you stop the input.” His research on seabirds showed a 75% decline of ingested plastic over 2 decades after reductions in industrial plastic entering the North Sea. Critics also worry that the high-tech clean-up project could distract from less glamorous efforts to lessen the use of plastic.  

    Slat’s 4-year-old organization, The Ocean Cleanup, based in Delft, the Netherlands, is well on its way to launching its first unit. At an event tonight in the Werkspoorkathedraal—an industrial meeting hall in Utrecht, the Netherlands—Slat unveiled a new design that he says will allow The Ocean Cleanup to deploy its first collector in 2018, 2 years earlier than planned. It will also collect trash at twice the rate of earlier designs, he predicts.

  • If you’ve had anesthesia, you can likely thank this veterinarian who just won a top science prize

    John B. “Iain” Glen

    John “Iain” Glen

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation has awarded its three annual prizes, regarded as the United States’s most prestigious biomedical research awards, to four researchers in fields including genetics and anesthetic drug development. The Laskers often precede a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Since the awards were founded in 1945, 87 Lasker laureates have later gotten the call from Stockholm.

    The basic research prize is shared by Michael Grunstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, and C. David Allis of The Rockefeller University in New York City, who investigated the histone, once considered to be inert packing material for DNA. It is now recognized as an essential component in gene regulation.

    Joan Argetsinger Steitz of Yale University won the special prize for her discoveries in RNA biology, as well as her work in mentoring and advocating for women in science.

  • Fewer people are answering a U.S. agency’s citizenship query. That’s fueling fears for the 2020 census

    empty seats with American flags

    Citizenship status has become a hot-button issue for the U.S. Census Bureau.

    Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

    A growing number of Americans are not willing to disclose their citizenship status on a government survey, according to new research. The finding adds fuel to an already fierce political debate over adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

    State officials and civil rights groups have sued Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, challenging his decision earlier this year to add such a question to the decennial census. Ross’s opponents worry some groups, notably foreign-born residents, will shy away from answering the question because of the current hyperpartisan battle over U.S. immigration policy. That could undermine the accuracy of the constitutionally mandated exercise used to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and allocate $800 billion in federal funds, they say. The new data appear to bolster that argument by documenting rising nonresponse rates to the question on a related Census Bureau survey.

    Citizenship is one of 72 questions on the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual sampling of 3.5 million households that in 2005 replaced the long form of the decennial census. The new study finds that the portion of respondents who did not answer the ACS citizenship question more than doubled between 2010 through 2016, from 2.7% to 6%. In contrast, the nonresponse rates for other demographic questions on the ACS—including race, sex, age, and Hispanic origin—remained constant, at less than 2%.

  • A deadly pig disease raging in China is bound to spread to other Asian countries, experts warn

    pigs in a pen

    SHANGHAI, CHINA—African swine fever (ASF), a deadly virus in pigs and wild boar, continues to spread in China and will almost certainly wreak havoc in other countries in Asia soon. That's the somber conclusion from a meeting of animal health experts organized by the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Bangkok late last week. "It's no longer ‘if’ [spread beyond China] will happen but when, and what we can do collaboratively to prevent and minimize the damage,” FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth said in a statement issued on Friday, at the end of the 3-day meeting. Veterinary authorities from 12 countries agreed to form a new network to share information and work jointly to control the spread of the disease.

    The virus that causes ASF doesn't infect humans, but the most virulent strains are nearly universally fatal for pigs. There is no vaccine and no cure, so controlling the spread of the disease requires destroying all animals on infected farms. The appearance of the virus in China in August—and its inevitable spread—threatens devastating economic losses for farmers and shortages of a vital source of protein for citizens of developing countries, particularly in East and Southeast Asia.

    China's agriculture ministry reported a new outbreak while the Bangkok meeting was in progress; the virus has now been found at 18 farms or slaughterhouses in six provinces, according to FAO. The outbreak sites are widely dispersed, indicating that shipments of pork products are spreading the disease; live animals aren't usually shipped over such long distances.

  • Peer reviewers in developing nations are underrepresented, report suggests

    hands working through stacks of papers clipped

    Combined, scientists spend nearly 70 million hours peer reviewing manuscripts for scholarly journals every year, a new report says. But too much of the onus rests on researchers in wealthy countries, according to the report by the company Publons—based in London and Wellington—which enables researchers to track and claim credit for the peer reviews they perform.

    The uneven workload could lead to overburdened reviewers and subpar reports, says Tom Culley, marketing director at Publons. “We need more people to spend time on peer review and to have the right incentives, recognition, and rewards for doing so.”

    Publons analyzed millions of referee reports uploaded by its approximately 400,000 users, extracting information such as reviewers’ locations and the length of their reports. It used information from the Web of Science, which indexes more than 20,000 journals, and ScholarOne, a peer-review management platform, to extrapolate beyond Publons’s database. (All three companies—Publons, Web of Science, and ScholarOne—are owned by Clarivate Analytics in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Publons released the report on peer review—which wasn’t peer reviewed—on 7 September.

  • Trump adds physicist Will Happer, climate science critic, to White House staff

    Will Happer sitting in a chair, holding a microphone

    Will Happer at a conference in 2016

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    William Happer, a physics professor and vocal critic of mainstream climate science, has joined the White House as a top adviser.

    Happer, 79, told E&E News in email that he began serving yesterday on the National Security Council as the senior director for emerging technologies. NSC officials confirmed Happer's new role but declined to provide further detail about the appointment, which CNN first reported.

  • Open-access journal editors resign after alleged pressure to publish mediocre papers

    science insider logo

    All 10 senior editors of the open-access journal Nutrients resigned last month, alleging that the publisher, the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), pressured them to accept manuscripts of mediocre quality and importance.

    The conflict is familiar for many commercial open-access publishers: Because authors pay fees per published article (about $1800 in the case of Nutrients), the publisher has an incentive to publish as many as possible. On the other hand, scientists prefer to publish in choosy, reputable journals, and academic journal editors want to maintain this quality.

    On 15 August, the editor-in-chief of the journal, Jon Buckley, of the University of South Australia in Adelaide, received an email from MDPI announcing his replacement at the end of the year by someone who would “bring different ideas on board.” Buckley says this was an excuse to push him aside because of his strict editorial policy. He resigned immediately, and nine other senior editors followed.

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