Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • India nears approval of first GM food crop

    a mustard field

    An Indian advisory committee has cleared a genetically modified mustard for commercial use.

    sj liew/Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

    Amidst acrimonious debate over the safety of genetically modified (GM) food crops, India’s top biotechnology regulator last week declared a transgenic mustard plant “safe for consumption.” Moving the plant into farmers’ fields is now a political decision in the hands of India’s environment minister, who may wait until the Supreme Court of India resolves several long-pending related cases.

    The GM mustard has been under development for almost a decade. A report assessing the plant’s risks was released a year ago, drawing some 700 comments that were reviewed by the Ministry of Environment’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). The report concluded the mustard was safe and nutritious, and GEAC chair Amita Prasad in New Delhi says the commission unanimously agreed on 11 May to recommend allowing farmers to plant the crop for the next 4 years. The final decision will be made by Environment Minister Anil Dave.

    The GM mustard was developed with public funding by plant scientist Deepak Pental of the University of Delhi. His team introduced several genes from a soil bacterium, Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, into the mustard to facilitate hybridization. Mustard is largely a self-pollinating crop and creating high-yield hybrids has been cumbersome. 

  • U.S. spy agencies wimp out on science of climate change, but still say it’s a security threat

    Sun rising over Earth's horizon


    U.S. national security is being threatened by improvements in artificial intelligence (AI) and genome editing, as well as the impacts of climate change, overfishing, and biodiversity loss, concludes the latest edition of an annual report released today by the U.S. intelligence community. But the report tries to avoid the increasingly politicized fight over climate science—without denying the existence of global warming.

    Dropping off the threat list from last year’s report are worries about gains in analyzing big data by other nations, as well as improvements in virtual reality. But new this year are concerns about the slowing pace of advances in the U.S. semiconductor industry and China’s continued efforts to grow their own computer chip capabilities. 

    The 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment, delivered to Congress today by Daniel Coats, U.S. director of national intelligence, is a 32-page rundown of global and regional threats that the nation’s spy agencies believe demand attention from policymakers. Along with familiar warnings about terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and cyberattacks, the report flags a number of science-related issues.

  • Critics say plan for drifting ocean trash collectors is unmoored

    Artist impression of Pacific Cleanup

    Inventor wants to use floating booms to channel plastic trash into a solar-powered collector (artist’s conception).

    Erwin Zwart/The Ocean Cleanup

    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.

  • Botanists fear research slowdown after priceless specimens destroyed at Australian border

    Type of Lagenophora sundae Mia, collected in Java.  Digitized as part of the renovation of the National Herbarium of the Museum

    The type specimen of a daisy, genus Lagenophora, collected in Java. The image is all that remains after the specimen was destroyed by Australian customs. 

    ©MNHN - Herbier National, Paris

    This week’s news that Australian customs officers incinerated irreplaceable plant specimens has shocked botanists around the world, and left many concerned about possible impacts on international research exchanges. Some have put a freeze on sending samples to Australia until they are assured that their packages won’t meet a similar fate, and others are discussing broader ways of assuring safe passage of priceless specimens.

    "This story is likely to have a major chilling effect on the loan system between herbaria across national boundaries," says Austin Mast, president of the Society of Herbarium Curators and director of the herbarium at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Without the free sharing of specimens, the pace of plant diversity research slows."

    As a result of the customs debacle, curators in New Zealand put a stay on shipping samples to Australia. So has the New York Botanical Garden in New York City, which holds the second largest collection of preserved plants in the world. "We, and many other herbaria, will not send specimens to Australia until we are sure this situation will not be repeated," says herbarium Director Barbara Thiers. 

  • Spanish court clears leading mathematician of mismanagement charges, orders him restored to job

    Manuel de León

    Credit: ICMAT

    After a nearly 2-year legal battle, a Spanish court has cleared a leading Spanish mathematician of allegations that he mismanaged funds, and has ordered him returned to his position as head of a prestigious national mathematics institute.

    In 2015, mathematician Manuel de León was removed as director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT) in Madrid, a research center that is jointly run by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and three Madrid universities, amid allegations that the center had sidestepped spending rules. De León, who helped found ICMAT and had led the center since 2008, said the allegations were fueled by internal bureaucratic disputes and jealous colleagues. He challenged his dismissal in court.

    A ruling issued by the Upper Court of Justice of Madrid on 27 April backs De Léon and tells a dark tale of intrigue. It presents evidence that “there had been a campaign of discredit” against De León, prompted by his complaints against another administrator, and that the decision to dismiss him was motivated in part by professional envy. The court ordered ICMAT’s overseers to restore De León to his post; he had been elected to a new term as director in July 2015, just before his dismissal. 

  • Senate fails to repeal methane control rule in final antiregulation vote

    gas burning

    Oil and gas operations often burn off excess methane.

    WildEarth Guardians/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    A Republican push to kill an Obama-era rule restricting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry fell short today. In a razor-thin 49–51 vote, the Senate rejected a resolution overturning the so-called methane rule.

    The vote comes just as the clock runs out on a tool Republicans have used to do away with 14 regulations issued in the last months of the Obama administration. Thursday is the last day for Congress to use the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which gives Congress 60 working days to overturn new regulations. Until this year, the act had been used only once—in 2001—to overturn a workplace ergonomics rule.

    The surprise deciding vote in the methane rule came from Senator John McCain (R–AZ). In a statement, McCain said although he has concerns about the current regulations, using the CRA would tie the hands of agencies, blocking them from issuing any “similar” rule in the future. “I believe that the public interest is best served if the Interior Department issues a new rule to revise and improve the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] methane rule,” he said. Two other Republican senators, Lindsey Graham (R–SC) and Susan Collins (R–ME), had previously announced their opposition to the bill.

  • Australian astronomy one of few winners in new budget

    The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization building in Australia

    Australia’s CSIRO faces fresh cuts in new spending plan.

    CSIRO (CC BY-NC 3.0)

    In terms of the impact on science, the Australian budget, released 9 May, is “very bland,” says Les Field, science policy secretary at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra, the nation’s leading scientific association. “There are no big spending initiatives but no major cuts,” he adds.

    It’s a “business-as-usual budget for science and technology,” agrees Kylie Walker, CEO of Science and Technology Australia in Canberra, which represents scientists.

    Overall spending on science for the fiscal year beginning 1 July and in later years, called the forward estimates, is not yet clear because support is spread across several ministries. But the plan does reveal some winners and losers. 

  • Departure of U.S. Census director threatens 2020 count

    Portrait of John Thompson, director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

    John Thompson will leave the Census Bureau on 30 June.

    U.S. Census Bureau

    John Thompson is stepping down next month as director of the U.S. Census Bureau. His announcement today comes less than 1 week after a congressional spending panel grilled him about mounting problems facing the agency in preparing for the 2020 decennial census. And Thompson’s pending retirement is weighing heavily on the U.S. statistical community.

    Thompson is leaving halfway through a 1-year extension of a term that expired last December. His departure will create what a 2012 law was expressly designed to avoid—a leadership vacuum during a crucial time in the 10-year life cycle of the census, the nation’s largest civilian undertaking. The immediate concern is who the Trump administration will appoint, and how soon it will act.

    “The key is to act expeditiously,” says Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy organization. “The normal length of time to fill a vacancy [with a nomination] is 6 months, but the Census Bureau doesn’t have the luxury of time.”

  • Is NSF feeling the Trump effect on clean energy?

    parabolic trough solar power plant

    The National Science Foundation’s oversight board is discussing whether to continue featuring advances in clean energy technologies, such as this parabolic trough solar power plant, in its periodic statistical tome.

    Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The Trump effect may have swept over the National Science Board this morning.

    The presidentially appointed oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering whether to revise a portion of the agency’s statistical bible because it might be seen as out of step with the new administration’s views on renewable energy research.

    “Given the current climate—I mean, political situation—in Washington, I’m wondering whether highlighting [clean energy] is something we still want to do,” board member G. P. (Bud) Peterson asked today during the board’s review of the next edition of Science & Engineering Indicators, a biennial compendium of global trends in science and technology.

  • Biotech execs, academic leaders make case for NIH funding at White House meeting

    Donald Trump with U.S. biomedical research leaders in the Oval Office

    President Donald Trump meets with U.S. biomedical research leaders in the Oval Office on 8 May.

    Shealah Craighead/White House

    Could the Trump administration be changing its mind about slashing funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)? Scientific leaders were optimistic yesterday after meeting for 2 hours at the White House with several biotech executives to discuss the “ecosystem” in which federally funded basic research leads to discoveries that companies turn into treatments.

    The closed meeting, described 2 weeks ago by Bloomberg News as a “summit,” took place on 8 May in a room in the White House residence. Twenty-seven people attended, including NIH Director Francis Collins, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, and nine White House officials including President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump. About a dozen outside speakers ranged from Stanford University’s president and the CEOs of the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medicine to four CEOs from biotech companies including Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

    The meeting took place against the backdrop of White House plans for massive cuts to NIH that lawmakers in Congress have so far rebuffed. After the president proposed cutting NIH by about $1 billion in 2017, Congress instead gave the agency a $2 billion raise, to $34 billion, in a bill Trump signed last Friday. However, Trump’s proposed “skinny budget” for the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October would trim $5.8 billion from NIH’s budget.

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