Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Unusual Mexico earthquake may have relieved stress in seismic gap

    man standing on rubble

    A quake in Mexico last week leveled the city hall in Juchitán de Zaragoza and left dozens dead.

    Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

    Este artículo está disponible en español.

    When Vlad Manea heard about the deadly magnitude-8.2 earthquake that struck the coast of Mexico’s Chiapas state on 7 September, he was stunned, but not altogether surprised. A geophysicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Juriquilla, Manea is one of only a handful of earth scientists who study seismic activity in the region. For more than a century, there had been little activity to study—precisely why Manea thought the area could be due for a big one.

    The epicenter of the quake, which struck just before midnight local time, was just southeast of the Tehuantepec gap, a 125-kilometer-long stretch of Mexico’s Pacific coast that has been seismically silent since record-keeping began more than a century ago. All along that coast, the ocean’s tectonic plates meet the continental North American plate and are forced underneath it. Violent earthquakes mark the release of built-up pressure between the grinding plates. But the ruptures have somehow avoided the Tehuantepec gap and the Guerrero gap, more than 500 kilometers to the northwest.

    For decades, scientists have monitored the Guerrero gap because of its proximity to Mexico City. A rupture there could devastate the capital, which is built on a drained lakebed that amplifies seismic waves. In 1985, a magnitude-8.1 quake near the Guerrero gap killed thousands, spurring the city to install a seismic alert system and tighten building codes. Those measures seemed to help last week: The capital sustained little damage in spite of considerable shaking.

  • Pall hangs over U.S.-Iran science ties

    an abandoned ship in Urmia Lake, Iran 2013

    Despite a sour political climate, some U.S. scientists continue to be involved in efforts to restore Iran’s vanishing Lake Urmia.

    Abraham Mirmalek

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—Rising tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments have frozen most scientific contacts between the two nations, experts reported at a forum here last week.

    Long at the vanguard of efforts to broker ties between Iranian and U.S. scientists, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) has mothballed its highly praised, 16-year-old engagement program, Glenn Schweitzer, director of NAS’s office for Central Europe and Eurasia, stated at a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council. That’s a huge blow to science diplomacy with Iran, as the academy’s program since its inception has accounted for more than half of all participants in U.S.-Iran science engagement activities—some 1500 scientists from 120 institutions—according to an NAS report released on Friday that summarizes the program’s activities from 2010 to 2016.

    Iran and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, and as a result scientific ties have waxed and waned often in concert with the levels of hostility expressed by the two governments toward each other. Science engagement efforts were gaining momentum in 2015 and in early 2016, after the Iran nuclear deal was signed and came into effect. But President Donald Trump’s administration’s efforts this year to restrict travel from Iran and five other Muslim-majority nations prompted Iran to retaliate by tightening its visa policy for U.S. citizens. Also casting a pall is Iran’s imprisonment of several U.S. citizens, including Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American graduate student in history at Princeton University sentenced in July by Iran’s judiciary to 10 years in jail over accusations of espionage.

  • Senate panel seeks middle ground on human fetal tissue research and abortion

    Image of US Capitol

    Wally Gobetz/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    A Senate spending panel yesterday countered a move by its House of Representatives counterpart to quash federal funding for research that uses human fetal tissue from elective abortions. The move sets up a conflict that will need to be resolved when lawmakers meet later this year to hash out differences between the House and Senate bills, which will provide funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 2018 fiscal year that begins on 1 October.

    The Senate Appropriations Committee, in a bill that boosts NIH funding by $2 billion, to $36.1 billion, ordered the biomedical research agency to launch a pilot study to determine whether banking tissue from stillbirths and spontaneous abortions, or miscarriages, could serve all of the needs of biomedical researchers. The bill orders NIH to model its program on an NIH initiative that, 25 years ago, sought to assess the quality and quantity of such tissue as a first step in establishing a national network of banks of tissue from spontaneous abortions.

    How researchers obtain human fetal tissue—which is used to study infectious diseases, eye maladies, normal and abnormal fetal development, and other illnesses—has long been a political flashpoint. Those opposed to abortion have for decades sought to ban the use of federal funds for studies that use fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan placed a de facto moratorium on the use of tissue from elective abortions, which President Bill Clinton lifted in 1993; Congress legalized funding for such research the same year.

  • Scientists put a ‘smartfin’ on my surfboard. Is it the next wave in ocean monitoring?


    Surfing fin–embedded sensors collect coastal data.

    Kat Hammond

    At 10:24:05 a.m. on 29 August, I entered the Pacific Ocean, surfboard in hand, at Swami’s, a break near my home in Cardiff, California. I paddled out and, for 93 glorious minutes, surfed the best waves I’d ridden all month. During my session, the water temperature fluctuated between 20.33°C and 21.38°C.

    I know all of this, to several decimal points, thanks to the work of two scientists I surfed with that day, engineer Phil Bresnahan and coastal biogeochemist Tyler Cyronak, both of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in nearby San Diego. With support from a New York City–based nonprofit called the Lost Bird Project, Bresnahan and Cyronak have developed a surfboard fin that contains a temperature sensor, a GPS device, a circuit board with a microcontroller, a Bluetooth chip, and a rechargeable battery; eventually, they plan to add sensors for pH, chlorophyll, salinity, and oxygen. The technology is packed into a milled-out section of the 13-centimeter-tall “smartfin,” one of which they loaned me to test surf.

    The goal isn’t to help surfers monitor their surf sessions. Instead, they are aiming to gather data for studies of the coastal zone. They hope to distribute the fins widely enough to provide valuable data for researchers who track the health of sea life–rich reefs and kelp forests or monitor coral bleaching, the mixing of atmospheric gases by breaking waves, riptides, pollutants, and, over time, the ocean’s absorption of heat from global warming. 

    In collaboration with the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental nonprofit started by surfers, Bresnahan and Cyronak have loaned 50 smartfins over the past 3 months, and data are beginning to pour in. Cyronak notes that the California coast has temperature gauges on some piers, but they are few and far between. “Scientists want coastal data and the coast is hard to monitor,” he says. “To really understand what’s happening in the coastal zone you need a lot of measurements.”

  • PETA versus the postdoc: Animal rights group targets young researcher for first time

    Two PETA protesters holding signs which read "YALE: STOP TORMENTING BIRDS!" and "CHRSITINE LATTIN: STOP TORTURING BIRDS!"

    PETA supporters protest outside a conference building in Long Beach, California, while Christine Lattin presents her work. 


    It started in May with a web post by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “Tell Yale University to Stop Tormenting Birds!” the headline read, followed by text accusing postdoc Christine Lattin of wasteful experiments and animal abuse in her research on stress in wild house sparrows. Then the emails from PETA supporters began flooding Lattin’s inbox: “You should kill yourself, you sick bitch!” Then the messages on Facebook and Twitter: “What you’re doing is so sick and evil.” “I hope someone throws you into the fire …”

    By the end of August, PETA—based in Norfolk, Virginia—had organized three protests against Lattin, and she says she was getting 40 to 50 messages a day. “Every time I went to check my email or Twitter, my heart started racing. I worried there might be another message. I worried about the safety of my family.”

    In some ways, Lattin’s story is nothing new. PETA and other animal rights groups have hounded researchers for decades in hopes of shutting down animal experiments in the United States and elsewhere. But Lattin is an unusual target. She’s a self-professed animal lover with a background in bird rescue; her studies are far less invasive than the research PETA has traditionally gone after; and she’s only a postdoc, much younger and less established than any scientist the group has singled out before. 

  • How to collect better data on government programs—and improve privacy, too

    Paul Ryan at a podium

    Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan (R–WI, at lectern) and Senator Patty Murray (D–WA, second from right) thanked members of the commission on 7 September for their report.

    Michele Freda, Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking

    *Update, 8 September, 11:30 a.m.: The two key congressional sponsors of a new report on making better use of government records (see story, below) say they are thrilled with the panel’s recommendations and have already begun to implement them.

    “This is impressive and important work you’ve done,” Representative Paul Ryan (R–WI), speaker of the House of Representatives, told members of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking yesterday during brief remarks at the report’s unveiling on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. But there’s more to do, emphasized Senator Patty Murray (D–WA). “A report is only as good as the work that comes from it,” she said, adding that she and Ryan are crafting a bill “to turn several of the nearly two dozen recommendations into law, and to lay down a foundation for even more work to come.”

    Murray said the pending legislation, dubbed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, is focused on the report’s three core ideas: expanding access to the data, ensuring privacy, and strengthening the government’s capacity to evaluate how spending trillions of dollars every year on programs affects the health, education, and economic wellbeing of millions of Americans. Ryan said the bottom line for him is “changing our approach [to government] … to get the results we want and to improve people’s lives.”

  • Italian scientists welcome surprise €400 million boost for basic research

    Valeria Fedeli

    Italian Minister for Education, University, and Research Valeria Fedeli

    AP Photo/Luca Bruno

    Plagued by budget cuts and attacks on science, Italian scientists have had little to cheer about recently. But on Sunday, they received a welcome surprise when Valeria Fedeli, the minister for education, university, and research, announced that Italy will put an extra €400 million into its main basic science fund, the Research Projects of National Interest (PRIN). The money, to be spent over 3 years, will more than quadruple PRIN’s annual funding.

    The biggest part of the increase, €250 million, will come out of unused reserves at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), a government-funded foundation in Genoa that has recently come under criticism.

    “This is the largest investment in competitive funds for basic research of the last 20 years,” says Elena Cattaneo, a stem cell biologist at the University of Milan and a senator for life in the Italian Parliament who had lobbied for the shift to basic science. PRIN funding has been going up and down since 2002, according to a group of academics calling itself Return On Academic ReSearch (ROARS), but overall has been modest. The latest funding round, in 2015, provided only €95 million for 3 years.

  • Billionaire’s gift pushes ocean sensors deeper in search of global warming’s hidden heat

    Workers on boat deck with Deep Argo float

    Encased in plastic, the glass spheres inside Deep Argo floats resist ocean pressures 6000 meters deep.


    Every day, thousands of robotic floats bob up and down, tracking temperatures in the world's oceans, which sop up an estimated 90% of the heat from global warming. In the course of a decade, the international Argo array has provided one of the steadiest signatures of the effect of greenhouse gas emissions. But Argo has its limits. The floats go no deeper than 2000 meters, warded off by the crushing pressures at greater depths.

    Now, the array is going deeper, where hidden reservoirs of heat may lurk. On 7 September, billionaire Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen announced a $4 million partnership with the U.S. government that would be used to purchase 33 Deep Argo floats, capable of descending 6000 meters and reaching 99% of the ocean's volume. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which pays for U.S. contributions to Argo, is calling it the first "formal public-private partnership for sustained ocean observation."

    In a time of tight budgets, cautious federal agencies might shy away from unproven technology such as Deep Argo, says Bob Weller, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who is leading a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel investigating the future of ocean observation. That's where billionaires can step in. "It's exciting to see philanthropies bring support to innovative new sampling methods," he says.

  • United Kingdom wants cozy science ties with Europe after Brexit

    Joint European Torus

    The U.K. government wants to continue research with the European Union at the Joint European Torus, a fusion facility, after Brexit. 

    Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

    The U.K. government today released a long-awaited position paper on the future of scientific collaborations with the European Union after Brexit. Its overarching goal is “a more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country.”

    Despite the lofty aim, the paper is getting a mixed reception. While lauding the aspiration of such a science arrangement as “absolutely correct,” John Womersley, who directs the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, said in a statement that “the paper is so lacking implementation details that it will probably disappoint most of the science community rather than reassure them.”

    Topping the list of complaints is the lack of clarity over how the U.K. government will ensure the continued exchange of scientific talent across the English Channel. In contrast to the government’s stated wish in the paper to attract the “best and brightest,” Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, notes that a leaked draft strategy on immigration, if implemented, “could lead to swathes of scientists and engineers being cut off from entering the U.K.” The research community is also worried about shortfalls in funding and about new complexities in regulations.

  • Lasker prizes recognize work on cell growth, cancer prevention, and reproductive care

     (left to right):  Professor Michael N. Hall, Biozentrum University of Basel Switzerland; John T. Schiller, Ph.D., Deputy Chief, Laboratory of Cellular Oncology, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute; Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., Acting Director

    Michael N. Hall, John T. Schiller, and Douglas R. Lowy, winners of this year’s Lasker awards for basic and clinical medical research.

    (Left to right): Ingrid Singh, Photo Department, Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland/Wikimedia; National Cancer Institute; National Cancer Institute

    This year’s Lasker prizes are going to a molecular biologist who figured out how cells regulate growth and two researchers who developed a vaccine for the cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV). Another honoree is Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit organization that provides reproductive health care in the United States and beyond. The award comes as the group faces efforts by Republicans in Congress and the White House to cut its federal funding because it provides abortion services.

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced today its three annual prizes, each of which comes with a $250,000 award. Regarded as the United States’s most prestigious biomedical research awards, the Laskers often precede a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Eighty-seven Lasker laureates have gone on to win a Nobel.

    The 2017 prize for basic medical research was awarded to molecular biologist Michael Hall, 64, of the University of Basel’s Biozentrum in Switzerland for discovering how a group of proteins called target of rapamycin (TOR) direct cell growth. In yeast, humans, and many other organisms, TOR proteins sense the availability of nutrients and other growth signals, such as hormones, and regulate cell size accordingly. “I think of TOR as the brain of the cell,” Hall said in a video produced by the Lasker Foundation. Until the early 1990s, researchers assumed that cell growth was a process that happened spontaneously in the presence of raw materials, without any control mechanism. Hall’s work challenging that idea got a sometimes chilly reception, he told Science, because his finding weren’t easy to communicate and they upended a long-standing scientific paradigm. Today, researchers recognize that TOR growth regulators are involved in a multitude of processes, including aging, brain development, and diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

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