Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • New cellphone and health studies don’t eliminate uncertainty

    Women with a pink glove talks on a cell phone.

    Researchers have long debated the health impacts of cellphone use.

    Hernán Piñera/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Two long-awaited studies of how cellphone radiation affects the health of mice and rats, released yesterday, are giving scientists plenty to think about—but the findings won’t resolve the decades-old uncertainty surrounding the issue.

    The voluminous but sometimes puzzling results also aren’t likely to prompt U.S. agencies or other bodies to immediately change how they regulate the ubiquitous devices or view their health risks.

    Questions about whether cellphones harm health have persisted for decades. The devices emit nonionizing, electromagnetic radiation of the sort that heats food in a microwave oven, but scientists have struggled to conclusively link cellphone use to cancers or other illnesses.

  • Nasty U.S. flu season continues to intensify

    a person getting a shot in the arm

    Public health experts say getting a flu shot can still help protect you from this year’s unusually big outbreak.


    It’s week 10 of a flu season that may only be half over, and a wave of influenza across the entire United States has led to an alarmingly high number of sick people. Last week, 7.1% of all outpatient visits were for what’s classified as influenzalike illness (ILI), said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in a telephone press conference this morning. That was a jump of 0.5% from the preceding week, indicating that this year’s flu may not have peaked yet.

    In the last 15 years, only two U.S. flu seasons had a week with a higher percentage of outpatient visits for ILI, which is used as a proxy for flu because few cases are actually tested for the virus. And, Schuchat added, “We are by no means out of the woods.”

    CDC has linked the high number of cases to the spread of an influenza variant known as Type A, subtype H3N2, which is both particularly virulent and hard to stop with the flu vaccine. A Type A subtype known as H1N1 also is circulating widely, as is a Type B virus.

  • Fidel Castro’s eldest son, a physicist, is victim of apparent suicide

    Fidel Castro's first-born son foments a nanotech revolution

    Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart


    Physicist Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, the eldest son of Fidel Castro, committed suicide yesterday after undergoing months of treatment for depression, Cuba’s state media has reported. He was 68.

    Fidelito, as Castro Díaz-Balart was affectionately known in Cuba, was a prominent figure in the nation’s research scene, serving as science adviser to Cuban President Raúl Castro and as a vice president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences in Havana. “He was, in my view, a gentleman, a very modest person, and a dedicated scientist,” says geologist Manuel Iturralde, a fellow academician.

    Castro Díaz-Balart’s latest scientific project ruffled some feathers in the Cuban scientific community. In 2015, he established the Center for Advanced Studies of Cuba south of Havana that aimed to make the nation competitive in nanotechnology. The Cuban government spent millions of dollars outfitting the center with instruments—consuming the lion’s share of state funding for physics in recent years—but few scientists were willing to work at the remote site.

  • India’s premier research lab network gets cold shoulder in new budget

    Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee, India

    The Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee, India, and other top labs are in for more belt-tightening.

    Sanyam Bahga/Wikimedia Commons

    NEW DELHI—When the Indian government rolled out its national budget for 2018–19 here yesterday, many researchers could breathe a sigh of relief: Most science agencies got modest but inflation-beating increases. Not the 4600 scientists at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) here. The national network of 38 premier scientific laboratories is slated to receive $711.7 million, a 3.3% increase—only about half this year’s forecasted inflation rate.

    In 2015, the government sought to wean CSIR off the federal coffer, directing it to raise up to half its budget by commercializing its technologies. The council has made headway toward that target, and now funds about a quarter of its budget from outside sources. The cash-strapped labs took another hit last year, when new rules on salaries, pensions, and perks for government employees forced the council to raid its research budget for the increased personnel costs.

    “Sometimes a little tightening of the belt is good for the system,” CSIR’s Director General Girish Sahni told Science. As a result, he says, CSIR labs “have become focused.” 

  • House science committee spars over who loves the Department of Energy more

    Scientist working on nanofabrication in a lab

    Lawmakers clashed over President Donald Trump’s request to cut funding for the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, which includes a nanofabrication facility.

    Brookhaven National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met Tuesday to hear about management and priorities at the Department of Energy (DOE), and at first blush, the hearing could not have been more bipartisan. Both Republican and Democratic members of the committee heaped praise on DOE's basic research arm, the $5.4 billion Office of Science, and DOE's 17 national laboratories. Yet there was a current of discord, as Democrats fretted that President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed cuts to much of DOE's research portfolio.

    The committee heard testimony from Paul Dabbar, DOE's undersecretary for science, and Mark Menezes, DOE's undersecretary for energy. Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R–TX), assured them that the committee appreciates the importance of DOE's research efforts. DOE "is a world leader in basic science research and technological development," Smith said. "Without continued investment in basic and early stage research at DOE the U.S. will lose its global technology edge."

    However, Representative Marc Veasey (D–TX) noted that in its budget proposal for fiscal 2018, which started 1 October 2017, the Trump administration called for cutting funding for research on sustainable transportation and renewable energy by 70%, research on energy efficiency by 80%, and the Office of Science by 17%. (The Washington Post reported today that the White House’s 2019 budget request, to be released 12 February, calls for cutting DOE’s renewable energy programs by 72% from current levels.

  • Update: NASA confirms amateur astronomer has discovered a lost satellite

    the IMAGE satellite

    IMAGE during its construction


    *Update, 31 January, 11:20 a.m.: On 30 January, NASA confirmed that Tilley had discovered the revived IMAGE satellite. The NASA team was able to “read some basic housekeeping data,” the agency said, suggesting that at least the main control system is operational. Efforts to command IMAGE will likely take another week or two, as the satellite’s old control software is adapted to modern systems.

    Here is our original story from 26 January:

    After years in darkness, a NASA satellite is phoning home. 

  • In unusual move, judge grants CrossFit’s request to unmask anonymous peer reviewers

    People in a CrossFit gym using kettle bells

    A paper reporting injuries associated with a popular fitness regime has sparked a yearslong court battle.


    In what appears to be a first, a U.S. court is forcing a journal publisher to breach its confidentiality policy and identify an article's anonymous peer reviewers.

    The novel order, issued last month by a state judge in California, has alarmed some publishers, who fear it could deter scientists from agreeing to review draft manuscripts. Legal experts say the case, involving two warring fitness enterprises, isn't likely to unleash widespread unmasking. But some scientists are watching closely.

    The dispute revolves around a 2013 paper, since retracted, that appeared in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. In the study, researchers at The Ohio State University in Columbus evaluated physical and physiological changes in several dozen volunteers who participated for 10 weeks in a training regimen developed by CrossFit Inc. of Washington, D.C. Among other results, they reported that 16% of participants dropped out because of injury.

  • CDC director resigns after report on tobacco stock purchase

    Brenda Fitzgerald speaking at a TEDx event in Atlanta in 2014.

    Brenda Fitzgerald at a TEDx event in Atlanta in 2014.

    TEDx Atlanta/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), resigned abruptly today. She stepped down on the heels of a report from Politico that she had purchased stock in a large tobacco company 1 month into her tenure leading the nation’s top public health agency, which devotes itself to persuading smokers to quit and warning kids not to take up the habit.

    “On August 9, one day after purchasing [between $1000 and $15,000 of] stock in global giant Japan Tobacco, she toured the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory, which researches how the chemicals in tobacco harm human health,” Politico reported.

    The purchase preceded Fitzgerald’s 7 September 2017 signing of an ethics agreement promising to recuse herself from any activity that could pose a financial conflict, Politico reported. Fitzgerald, a former commissioner of public health in Georgia who took the reins at CDC’s Atlanta headquarters last July, did not sell the tobacco stock until 26 October 2017.

  • China moves to protect coastal wetlands used by migratory birds

    A spoonbill sandpiper feeds on a mudflat.

    The spoonbill sandpiper is among the endangered shorebirds that could benefit from China's move to protect coastal wetlands.

    Tengyi Chen

    China has armored its coastline over the past several decades, building sea walls and turning more than half of its marine wetlands into solid ground for development. The impact on the almost 500 species of migratory birds that rely on this habitat has been severe. But the tide is turning in favor of wildlife, conservationists believe, as the government is now moving to tighten regulations and designate new reserves to protect coastal wildlife.

    “The message has reached the central government,” says Jing Li of Saving the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper, a nonprofit based in Shanghai, China.

    In particular, China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA) earlier this month announced it will dramatically curb commercial development of coastal wetlands. “I’ve never heard of anything quite so monumental,” says Nicola Crockford of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, based in Sandy, U.K., which has worked to protect habitat of migratory birds in China and elsewhere.

  • Half of U.S. military facilities vulnerable to extreme weather and climate risks

    A jeep drives through deep floodwaters at a military base in Italy in 2005.

    Floods caused power outages at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy in 2005.

    Michael Lavender/U.S. Navy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News.

    About half of the military's infrastructure has been affected by extreme weather and other climate-related risks, according to a Pentagon report obtained by a nonpartisan climate think tank.

    The report — dated January 2018 and published yesterday by the Center for Climate & Security in Washington, D.C. — surveyed more than 3,500 military sites around the world. It found that about 50% of bases reported effects from events like storm surge flooding, wildfire, drought and wind.

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