Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Astronomy’s next big space telescope could threaten the field, panel warns


    A new report cautions NASA about controlling the cost of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2025.

    NASA Goddard

    U.S. astronomers are wary that their next big space telescope, a mission to study cosmic acceleration and exoplanets, could balloon in cost and scope just like the budget-busting $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). So says a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel tasked with taking the temperature of the field midway between “decadal surveys”—the regular reports in which astronomers list their funding priorities for the next 10 years. Given the recent success in detecting gravitational waves, the panel also says the United States should rejoin a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) to build the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a mission to study gravitational waves in space.

    “The community very much wants to see LISA go forward,” says panel chair Jacqueline Hewitt, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “The partnership [with ESA] dissolved, but it will have to be rebuilt,” she says.

    Overall, the panel was pleased with progress made on a variety of scientific fronts, particularly in the study of exoplanets and gravitational waves. But they worried that stagnant budgets at the field’s main funding agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA—along with pressure from overspending on large projects like the JWST are threatening many of astronomers’ most sought-after projects. “Budgets have been different from what we assumed” in 2010, she adds.

  • U.K. scientists get a bit of Brexit relief, at least for grant proposals

    U.K. flag

    Anecdotal reports have suggested that collaborators in other countries are wary of including U.K. scientists in EU grant proposals.

    Simon Goldsworthy/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    In a move welcomed by scientists, the U.K. government has announced it will guarantee funding for research grants awarded by the European Union between now and an eventual Brexit. The decision could boost confidence for international collaborations that apply to Horizon 2020, the European Union’s main competitive grants program.

    The decision provides “much-needed reassurance to researchers in the UK and across Europe that the UK is still in the game as a reliable player in research funding bids,” Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, an advocacy group based in London, said in a statement. “This is a great first step." Other research advocates said the move fell short of the full assurances that scientists need.

    Ever since the United Kingdom voted in a June referendum to leave the European Union, scientists have worried about the future of research funding provided by the European Union, as well as Brexit's impact on workforce mobility and on the United Kingdom's voice in international science policy. Many of these issues will be decided in international negotiations after the U.K. government officially begins the process of leaving the European Union, which won’t happen until next year at the earliest.

  • Candidate cancer drug suspected after death of three patients at an alternative medicine clinic

    Prosecutors say their investigation suggests that Ross's patients were given 3-Bromopyruvate.

    Prosecutors say their investigation suggests that Ross's patients were given 3-Bromopyruvate.

    Alexei Cruglicov/iStockphoto

    A new type of cancer drug developed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, but not yet tested in clinical trials may have triggered the deaths of three patients who were undergoing an alternative cancer treatment by a nonmedical practitioner in Germany. Germany has many such practitioners, and the field is loosely regulated. The public prosecutor in Germany is now investigating whether the case constitutes involuntary manslaughter.

    The drug in question, 3-Bromopyruvate (3BP), has been hailed by some researchers as a potential breakthrough, but so far the only human data about its efficacy and safety are anecdotal. Many scientists say the drug should not be administered to patients except in carefully controlled experimental settings. If the link to the three deaths is confirmed, that could cloud 3BP's commercial prospects.

    German police took action on 4 August after two patients from the Netherlands and one from Belgium died shortly after undergoing treatment at the Biological Cancer Centre, run by alternative practitioner Klaus Ross in the town of Brüggen, Germany, 50 kilometers west of Düsseldorf. Two other patients had to be treated for life-threatening conditions, the prosecutor's office said in a press release today. Police in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium have urged other patients treated at the center to contact local health authorities; at least 26 have done so. Media reports suggest that cancer patients often sought Ross's help after they ran out of conventional therapy options, or to avoid aggressive chemotherapy. He offered a 10-week “basic therapy” against cancer for €9900 ($11,057).

  • DEA verdict on marijuana research draws mixed reaction

    Marijuana cultivated at the University of Mississippi

    Marijuana cultivated at the University of Mississippi for research purposes.

    Robert Jordan/Associated Press

    Frustrating those wishing to study its medical potential, marijuana will remain a Schedule I substance, the most tightly regulated class of drugs in the United States. The announcement today by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) keeps marijuana in the same class as heroin, LSD, and other potentially dangerous or highly addictive drugs and comes as a disappointment to U.S. researchers who have argued that looser restrictions are needed to facilitate studies on whether cannabis can treat conditions ranging from chronic pain to brain tumors to childhood epilepsy.

    There was a glimmer of good news for those scientists in the DEA announcement, though. The administration will amend a policy that had restricted them to a single source of marijuana for research studies, a federally-funded farm at the University of Mississippi.

    DEA’s decision not to reschedule marijuana presents a Catch-22. By ruling that there is not enough evidence of “currently accepted medical use”—a key distinction between the highly restrictive Schedule I classification and the less restrictive Schedule II—the administration essentially makes it harder to gather such evidence.

  • Chemists to get preprint server of their own

    Chemists to get preprint server of their own


    Call it a chain reaction. Following the leads of the physics, mathematics, economics, and biology communities, the American Chemical Society (ACS) announced yesterday that it will start a preprint server for chemistry papers, tentatively titled ChemRxiv.

    The site will be modeled after arXiv, the decades-old server that's provided a home for preliminary research in physics, mathematics, and computer science, and bioRxiv, begun 3 years ago by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, which does the same for biology. It will be the first preprint server begun by a professional scientific society, groups that have historically been concerned about the impact of free preprint servers on the revenue they derive from traditional journal publishing. ACS is chemistry's dominant professional organization and one of its leading publishers.

  • Relocating Australian tortoise sets controversial precedent

    western swamp tortoise

    The western swamp tortoise is being moved to new sites outside of its historical range.

    Gerald Kuchling

    As long as it has been known to science, the diminutive western swamp tortoise has been in peril. By the time it was formally named in 1901—using a decades-old museum specimen—Pseudemydura umbrina was presumed extinct. And since it was rediscovered in the 1950s, biologists have struggled to protect it from the twin threats of habitat loss and introduced predators, which drove its numbers to bottom out at just 30 individuals in the 1980s. Now that climate change poses an even more urgent threat to the endangered tortoise, biologists have a controversial plan to safeguard its future—by moving it to new sites outside of its known historical range. The translocation, which took place today, makes the tortoise the first vertebrate to be deliberately relocated because of climate change.

    The yearlong trial, several years in the planning, will track 12 captively bred juvenile tortoises released to each of two sites roughly 250 kilometers south of their native habitat on the outskirts of Perth, Australia. Although the sites aren’t ideal for the tortoises now, detailed modeling of rainfall, temperature, swamp hydrology, and tortoise biology predict they will be in half a century.

    The trial will be a contentious test case in conservation circles. Introducing nonnative species into new ecosystems has an ignominious history, not least in Australia, where the deliberately introduced European red fox and domestic cat have wreaked havoc on native wildlife. But the idea of assisted colonization has gained some favor over the past decade as conservationists grapple with the impacts of rapidly changing climate on habitat suitability for numerous flora and fauna.

  • Yellow fever emergency forces officials to combat virus with tiny dose of vaccine

    Mothers wait to have their children vaccinated during routine vaccination at a health center in the town of Nyunzu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Mothers wait to have their children vaccinated during routine vaccination at a health center in the town of Nyunzu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Olivier Asselin/Alamy Stock Photo

    It’s an unprecedented emergency measure, but one that could become the norm: In a bid to stop an outbreak of yellow fever, more than 8 million people in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), will be vaccinated using just one-fifth the normal dose. The campaign, scheduled to start next week, comes as yellow fever continues to spread in the DRC and vaccine demand outstrips supply.

    Scientists feel confident that the lower doses will offer protection, at least for the short term, but they are urging studies accompanying the campaign to assess whether routine use of the lower dose is an option.

    The current outbreak started in neighboring Angola in December of last year and later spread to the DRC. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 16 million people in the two countries have already been vaccinated, and Angola has reported no new cases for more than 6 weeks. But new cases are still emerging in the DRC, which has reported more than 2000 suspected cases so far and 95 deaths.

  • U.S. science groups have 20 questions for candidates

    A large audience awaits the start of a debate in Las Vegas, Nevada.

    A large audience awaits the start of a debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, among Republican presidential candidates.

    Riccardo Savi/Associated Press

    Politicians talk about issues they think will sway voters, a tenet that explains why U.S. presidential candidates never say much about science, research, and innovation on the campaign trail.

    That perennial silence frustrates scientific leaders, who feel that citizens deserve to know where the candidates stand on issues ranging from climate change to cybersecurity. So a coalition of 56 higher education and scientific organizations has come up with 20 questions whose answers could help voters choose from among Democrat Hillary Clinton, Republican Donald Trump, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, and Libertarian Gary Johnson.

    Created in 2008 and expanded for the 2016 campaign, ScienceDebate has promised to post each candidate’s reply. But its real targets are the public and the media, which the coalition hopes will force the candidates to address some of these topics during the final 3 months of the campaign.

  • Americans may know more than you think about science

    Climate change activists

    These climate change activists demonstrate the power of “community literacy."


    Americans know a lot more about science and health issues than traditional surveys of individuals would suggest, according to a new report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Those surveys ignore what the report calls “community literacy”—the phenomenon by which individuals learn about and take collective action on issues they care deeply about, from AIDS to environmental justice.

    The report assesses the state of science and health literacy in the United States and those who study it. It also offers some unusually blunt advice to Congress, which ordered up the study, and to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded it.

    The good news, according to the report, is that Americans “perform comparably to adults in other economically developed countries on most current measures of science knowledge.” That finding is meant to contradict the stereotype of Americans learning little science in school and being oblivious to or willfully ignorant of the scientific consensus on everything from climate change to evolution. In addition, the report finds that large groups of people can help advance the frontiers of knowledge through “community action, often in collaboration with scientists.”

  • Ornithologists set their nets in Washington, D.C.—to catch birds and attention

    Pete Marra of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, mourning dove

    Pete Marra of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center shows off a mourning dove netted during a bird banding event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on 3 August.

    John Gibbons/Smithsonian Institution

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—The National Mall here attracts millions of tourists each year, drawn by the sweeping views of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, as well as the world-class Smithsonian museums flanking the grassy expanse. But earlier this week, an unusual sight greeted some visitors: a small team of scientists setting up nets to capture some of the mall’s flying residents.

    Their quarry—including gray catbirds, song sparrows, and mourning doves—were soon released. And the unusual pop-up field station also aimed to draw attention to a landmark anniversary in bird conservation, as well as an upcoming conclave on bird science.

    The conclave is the North American Ornithological Conference, a major meeting set to open here on 16 August. On the same day, bird lovers will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a 1916 agreement between the United States and Canada that is considered a historic turning point in international efforts to protect birds.

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