Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

  • United Nations report urges expanding World Heritage sites to high seas

    A United Nations report advocates creation of World Heritage sites in the open ocean.

    A United Nations report advocates creation of World Heritage sites in the open ocean.

    Tiago Fioreze/Wikimedia Commons

    A United Nations group is urging the world’s governments to expand a longstanding—but largely symbolic—conservation strategy to international waters. To make sure that important high seas ecosystems get the attention they deserve, governments should establish ways to designate World Heritage sites in the two-thirds of the world’s seas that sit outside of national borders, argues a new report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

    “Just as on land, the deepest and most remote ocean harbours globally unique places that deserve recognition,” World Heritage Centre Director Mechtild Rössler wrote in an introduction to the report, published yesterday.

  • NIH moves to lift moratorium on animal-human chimera research


    A proposed NIH policy would require extra review for certain studies that create chimeras, or animals with both human and animal cells. Show here are a mouse, a rat-mouse chimera, a mouse-rat chimera, and a rat.

    Nakauchi et al./The University of Tokyo

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced that the agency soon expects to lift a moratorium on funding for controversial experiments that add human stem cells to animal embryos, creating an organism that is part animal, part human. Instead, these so-called chimera studies will undergo an extra layer of ethical review but may ultimately be allowed to proceed.

    Although scientists who support such research welcomed the move, some were left trying to parse exactly what the draft policy will mean. It is “a step in the right direction,” says Sean Wu, a stem cell researcher at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who co-authored a letter to Science last year opposing the moratorium. But "we still don’t know what the outcome will be case by case,” he adds. However, some see the proposal as opening up research in some areas that had been potentially off-limits.

    At issue are experiments in which scientists introduce human pluripotent stem cells—cells that can potentially turn into any kind of tissue—into very early embryos of mice and other animals and then let the animals develop. Such experiments can be used to study human development, generate disease models, and potentially grow human organs for transplantation. But the idea of such human-animal chimeras has drawn public concern, and some scientists and ethicists worry that the experiments could produce, say, a supersmart mouse.

  • Australia’s new government makes an about-face on climate research

    CSIRO facility in Hobart, Australia.

    Australia’s climate change research efforts will be coordinated from this CSIRO facility in Hobart, Australia.


    Australia’s new science minister has ordered the nation’s premier science agency to “put the focus back on climate science.” And Australian scientists have their fingers crossed, hoping the directive from Greg Hunt, revealed this morning, really indicates the federal government is reversing a previous decision to scale back climate research efforts.

    They also hope the U-turn might mean a rethink of a February realignment of priorities by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) that called for eliminating 350 jobs, including 110 climate science positions. The agency later scaled back the job cuts to 295 positions, including more than 60 climate and marine scientists. 

    The new directive came as a surprise, given Hunt—environment minister until a recent reshuffle after the 2 July federal election—did not oppose the cuts when they were first announced. However, he today told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) “both the prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull] and I have clear and strong views” on the importance of climate science.

  • Russian scientists bracing for massive job losses

    Russian Academy of Sciences building

    The ax is falling at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

    Nataliya Sadovskaya/Wikimedia

    MOSCOW—Russia’s scientific community is reeling from news that the government plans to fire about 10,000 researchers over the next 3 years. Most layoffs would be from Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) institutes, according to the online news site

    The staff cuts, representing about 17% of RAS’s 49,000-strong workforce, are the latest move in a controversial and painful effort to overhaul the academy. The Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO), set up in 2013 to manage RAS’s property and most of its budget, has recently stepped up efforts to make the academy leaner and meaner by merging institutes; several dozen mergers are planned.

    Scientists decry the moves. In an open letter last month to President Vladimir Putin, more than 150 RAS researchers asserted that the reforms are eroding science’s image in Russia; they warned of disastrous consequences for the nation, including a brain drain of young scientists and an “upsurge in activities of bureaucrats and impostors.” The mergers are “a completely unnatural way of development,” says Mikhail Sadovsky, a physicist at RAS’s Institute of Electrophysics in Ekaterinburg. The 21 July letter, initiated by a group of discontented RAS researchers called the July 1 Club, argues that FASO must be brought to heel by placing it under RAS.

  • Young blood antiaging trial raises questions


    A controversial pay-to-participate clinical trial will test whether plasma from young donors can counteract aging.

    Martin Schutt/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    It was one of the most mind-bending scientific reports in 2014: Injecting old mice with the plasma portion of blood from young mice seemed to improve the elderly rodents’ memory and ability to learn. Inspired by such findings, a startup company has now launched the first clinical trial in the United States to test the antiaging benefits of young blood in relatively healthy people. But there's a big caveat: It's a pay-to-participate trial, a type that has raised ethical concerns before, most recently in the stem cell field.

    The firm’s co-founder and trial principal investigator is a 31-year-old physician named Jesse Karmazin. His company, Ambrosia in Monterey, California, plans to charge participants $8000 for lab tests and a one-time treatment with young plasma. The volunteers don’t have to be sick or even particularly aged—the trial is open to anyone 35 and older. Karmazin notes that the study passed ethical review and argues that it’s not that unusual to charge people to participate in clinical trials.

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