Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Allosaurus on the auction block

    dinosaur skeleton

    This dinosaur specimen from Wyoming is up for auction in Paris on Monday.


    On 4 June, geological hammers will give way to an auctioneer’s gavel as the fossilized skeleton of a gigantic predatory dinosaur goes up for sale in the Eiffel Tower in Paris, to the dismay of one of the world’s largest international paleontological societies.

    The 8.7-meter-long specimen is estimated to be about 70% complete and between 151 million years and 156 million years old. It’s said to have been unearthed legally in 2013 in Wyoming, although the paleontologists who unearthed it remain anonymous. According to the auction house Aguttes’s promotional catalog, the specimen may belong to a previously unknown species, probably a close relative of the iconic Jurassic predator Allosaurus fragilis. Eric Mickeler, a Barcelona, Spain–based member of The European Chamber of Expert-Advisors in Fine Art who is overseeing the auction for Arguttes, has told some media that the buyer might have a say in choosing a scientific name for the potentially new species. He estimates the specimen’s value as €1.2 million to €1.8 million.

    But assessing the specimen’s scientific status and naming it if it does represent a new species requires scientific access and analysis—which the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) in Bethesda, Maryland, says may not happen if the highest bidder is a private party. Earlier this month, SVP officials wrote to Aguttes urging the cancellation of the sale. The letter points out that professional ethics dictate that a specimen can be the basis for a new name only if it’s housed in a recognized museum or other repository.

  • Making grad school work for STEM students

    two people in front of posters

    Two postdocs at the University of California, San Francisco, make a sketch of their career paths as part of the National Institutes of Health–funded Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training program.

    Elizabeth Silva/2015 MIND program at UCSF

    How many reports does it take to change U.S. graduate education?

    Answer: anywhere from one to 20. But the current system must want to change.

    The training of graduate students in science is no laughing matter. But the cascade of reports issued on the topic over the past quarter-century has become something of an inside joke among those who care about graduate education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. So, when a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) this week issued a report on “revitalizing” graduate STEM education that referenced 19 related studies, its chairperson wasn’t surprised.

  • Scientists race to reveal how surging wildfire smoke is affecting climate and health

    Smoke from a nearby wildfire blanketed Seeley Lake, Montana, for weeks in the summer of 2017.

    Smoke from a nearby wildfire blanketed Seeley Lake, Montana, for weeks in the summer of 2017.


    Emily Fischer is likely one of the few people whose summer plans were buoyed by a recent forecast that much of the western United States faces another worse-than-normal wildfire season. Unusually warm weather and drought, together with plenty of dry grass and brush, are expected to create prime conditions for blazes this summer, federal officials announced on 10 May.

    The forecast has local officials bracing for the worst. But it represents an opportunity for Fischer, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who is preparing to spend the summer flying through plumes of wildfire smoke aboard a C-130 cargo plane jammed full of scientific equipment. The flights are the highlight of an unprecedented effort, costing more than $30 million, that involves aircraft, satellites, instrumented vans, and even researchers traveling on foot. Over the next 2 years, two coordinated campaigns—one funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the other by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—aim to better understand the chemistry and physics of wildfire smoke, as well as how it affects climate, air pollution, and human health.

    "This is definitely the largest fire experiment that has ever happened," says atmospheric chemist Carsten Warneke of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, one of the lead scientists. Wildfire smoke, he adds, is "one of the largest problems facing air quality and climate issues going forward."

  • Europe’s science spending set for another big boost

    HELIOtube, an inflatable solar heat collector

    The company that developed HELIOtube, an inflatable solar heat collector, received funding under Horizon 2020. The European Commission plans to give innovation a bigger boost in Horizon Europe.


    On 7 June, the European Commission will lay out detailed plans for one of the biggest single research programs on the planet. Called Horizon Europe, the program could be worth €97.6 billion between 2021 and 2027, up from about €77 billion for the current 7-year program, Horizon 2020. Its influence, however, will go beyond size.

    Europe's research programs provide stable funding for 7 years, some of it up for grabs for researchers around the world. And although they represent less than 10% of the total research money available in the European Union, the continuous growth of the EU science budget in the past decades, at the expense of agriculture and regional development, is a clear signal that it sees research and innovation as the future drivers of its economy.

    Next week's proposals are unlikely to contain major surprises, because the commission has unveiled its main ideas over the past months, in particular its overall 7-year budget plan, issued on 2 May. Although Horizon Europe will keep Horizon 2020's main features, the commission has laid the groundwork for several novelties, including a new agency to tackle the continent's perennial innovation problem and a big, separate push on collaborative defense research. But contentious negotiations lie ahead. The United Kingdom is negotiating the terms of its impending exit from the European Union, and some member states want to tighten budgets. Meanwhile, research advocates want more generous spending, noting the low application success rates in Horizon 2020—a frustrating 11.9% so far.

  • The science candidates: Texas runoff loss leaves Wilson with bitter taste

    Mary Wilson

    Mary Wilson lost her bid last week for the Democratic nomination in Texas’s 21st congressional district.


    This year, ScienceInsider is following a number of candidates with science, technology, engineering, and math backgrounds as they run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In some districts, science candidates have ended up competing against each other for the right to represent their party in the general election on 6 November.

    That’s what happened in the 21st congressional district of Texas, where Joseph Kopser, who has an engineering background, won a 22 May Democratic primary that also included Mary Wilson, a minister and former mathematician.

    Today, in the second piece of a two-part series, Wilson discusses her defeat and her experience running for office. Yesterday, we looked at how Kopser plans to build on his win.

  • The science candidates: Kopser builds big tent after win in Texas

    Joseph Kopser stands against a wall

    Joseph Kopser won a runoff last week to win the Democratic primary in Texas’s 21st congressional district.


    This year, ScienceInsider is following a number of candidates with science, technology, engineering, and math backgrounds as they run for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In a few districts, science candidates have ended up competing against each other for the right to represent their party in the general election on 6 November.

    That’s what happened in the 21st congressional district of Texas, where Joseph Kopser, who has an engineering background, won a 22 May Democratic primary that also included Mary Wilson, a minister and former mathematician.

    Today, in the first piece of a two-part series, we look at how Kopser plans to build on his win. Tomorrow, Wilson discusses her defeat and her experience running for office.

  • Will U.S. academies expel sexual harassers?

    Marcia McNutt, head of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences

    Marcia McNutt, head of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, wants members to consider ejecting harassers.

    Stephen Voss

    As high-profile sexual harassment cases fuel public criticism, the presidents of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced last week they may adopt new policies allowing the prestigious bodies to eject members who have committed harassment and other forms of misconduct. Members of the academies—which serve as both honorific societies and advisers to the U.S. government—are elected by existing members to life-long terms, and the bodies currently lack mechanisms for removing them for harassment.

    Because scientists and the public “place much trust” in the three Washington, D.C.–based academies, their leadership councils “have begun a dialogue about the standards of professional conduct for membership,” the presidents said in a 22 May statement. “We want to be sure that we are doing everything possible to prevent sexual harassment, to instill a culture of inclusion and respect, and to reinforce that harassment is not tolerated.” The statement was signed by Marcia McNutt, head the National Academy of Sciences (NAS); C. D. Mote Jr., head of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE); and Victor Dzau, head of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM).

    Some researchers welcomed the announcement. “This may seem small, but as someone who’s been working with them for 2 years, this is BIG for this organization,” tweeted Kate Clancy, an anthropologist who studies sexual harassment in science at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Clancy helped author an NAS report on sexual harassment in science that will be released on 12 June.

  • Research during Ebola vaccine trial: It’s complicated

    researcher working with blood samples

    A long-running Ebola blood study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that sets up makeshift labs in remote parts of the country will join the vaccine trial underway.

    UCLA-DRC Research Program

    During an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus like the one underway in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), research necessarily takes a back seat to proven containment strategies, including isolation of infected people, identification and testing of their contacts, and safe burial of the dead. But the DRC has approved one vaccine trial, and a second study piggy backed on it to assess immune response to the vaccine, in the hope that the “experimental” intervention might help curb the outbreak and offer some insights for the future.

    The unlicensed vaccine, made by Merck, performed exceptionally well in a large clinical trial held in Guinea during the 2015 outbreak, but it came as that epidemic already was winding down and had little impact on bringing it to an end. At last count in the DRC, 52 cases were confirmed, probable, or suspected; 22 deaths had been reported; and the outbreak had spread to three locations in Équateur province, including a city of 1.2 million people on the heavily trafficked Congo River.

    The new trial will mirror the strategy used in Guinea and vaccinate “rings” of people around cases: contacts (there are more than 600 already), contacts of contacts, and front-line responders. The study will follow vaccinated people to see whether they develop disease and to monitor for adverse events to assess safety. For ethical reasons, there is no control group, however, so the study will yield limited data about efficacy. “The vaccine is just one part of the big response,” explains Yap Boum, a microbiologist with Doctors Without Borders who lives in Yaoundé and is helping the DRC’s Ministry of Public Health run the study. (Studies of other experimental treatments like monoclonal antibodies and drugs may take place, but none has yet been approved by the DRC government.)

  • An Iranian researcher went home to serve his country. Now, ‘I realize that I’m lucky I’m not in prison.’

    Kaveh Madani

    Kaveh Madani

    Kaveh Madani

    When Kaveh Madani returned to Iran last September to serve as his country’s deputy vice president for the environment, political hardliners didn’t exactly lay out a welcome mat. Upon his arrival in Tehran, the water management expert was detained and interrogated, and several years’ worth of his photos and emails were confiscated.

    Eventually, things settled down and Madani, 36, a specialist on Iran’s dwindling water resources, started to raise his profile inside the country. Prior to his homecoming, he had been a faculty member at Imperial College London and spent 14 years overseas, including 3 years at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

    But domestic politics in Iran took a sinister turn this past January. That month, in the wake of nationwide protests over the sputtering economy, security officers arrested seven environmental activists. The public prosecutor accused them of spying, alleging, among other things, that camera traps for monitoring rare Asiatic cheetahs and other wildlife were intended to eavesdrop on the nation’s ballistic missile program. In February, one detainee, Kavous Seyed-Emami, co-founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Tehran, died in mysterious circumstances in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Authorities claim he committed suicide.

  • Swedish court blocks new home for Nobel Foundation

    architect model of the new Nobel Center building

    The proposed Nobel Center (center) would host the award ceremony for the Nobel Prizes.

    © David Chipperfield Architects

    A Swedish court has blocked construction of a controversial new Nobel Center planned for central Stockholm’s waterfront.

    The eight-story, brass-clad structure is expected to serve as a hub for the Nobel Foundation’s activities, including the annual December award ceremonies for the world’s most prestigious science prizes. But critics have argued that the 1.2 billion Swedish krona ($140 million) center will destroy the historical character of the waterfront, and on 23 May, the Land and Environment Court in Stockholm agreed.

    The center would house the offices of the Nobel Foundation, an auditorium for the award ceremony (now held in Stockholm’s concert hall), the Nobel Museum, and also provide space for exhibitions, educational programs, and a restaurant. Construction was originally scheduled to begin in 2017. But the winning design by the Berlin office of David Chipperfield Architects has been controversial since it was unveiled in 2014. The plans were scaled back in 2015 and revised again in 2016, but critics say the building is still too big and clashes with the historic harbor buildings that would surround it. They also object to tearing down or moving the current buildings at the site, a customs house built in 1876 and several wooden harbor warehouses.

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