Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NASA moves to rejoin sped-up gravitational wave mission

    An artist's drawing of LISA measuring gravitational waves in space

    LISA, on the drawing boards for decades, may now launch earlier than 2034.

    Albert Einstein Institute/Milde Marketing/exozet; GW simulation: NASA/C. Henze

    Earlier this year, scientists announced the detection of gravitational waves—Einstein’s ripples in spacetime—for the first time on Earth. Those ripples are now reverberating through NASA, nudging the agency to mend fences with the European Space Agency (ESA) and rejoin an ambitious mission, called the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna (LISA), to study gravitational waves from space.

    This week, at the 11th LISA symposium in Zürich, Switzerland, a NASA official said he was ready to rejoin the LISA mission, which the agency left in 2011. Meanwhile, ESA says it is trying to move the launch of the mission up several years from 2034. “This is a very important meeting,” says David Shoemaker, a gravitational wave physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “It feels like a turning point.”

    Plans for LISA date back more than 2 decades. Three separate spacecraft, flying millions of kilometers apart from each other at the vertices of a giant triangle, would precisely measure their mutual separations using sensitive lasers, and thus be capable of detecting low-frequency ripples in spacetime. The objects causing these low-frequency ripples—such as orbiting supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies—would be different from the higher frequency ripples, emitted by collisions of much smaller black holes, that have so far been detected on Earth.

  • Who is getting left behind in the internet revolution?

    Internet sign

    Richard Pope/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The internet is often hailed as a liberating technology. No matter who you are or what kind of country you live in, your voice can be amplified online and heard around the world. But that assumes that people can get on the internet in the first place. Research has shown that poverty and remoteness can prevent people from getting online, but a new study out today also shows that just belonging to a politically marginalized group can translate to poorer access. The study, published online today in Science, provides the first global map of the people being left behind by the internet revolution.

    Mapping the internet is hard. Although it is true that every computer with a connection has a real-world location, no one actually knows where they all are. Rather than being organized top-down, the world's computers are connected to each other by a bushy, redundant network of servers. Each country builds and maintains its own infrastructure for connecting citizens to the wider internet. The decision to expand and maintain the infrastructure in one region and not another is up to those in power. And therein lies the problem: Ethnic and religious minorities who are excluded from their country's political process may also be systematically excluded from the global internet.

    The new study began as an examination of protest movements and how they depend on internet connectivity, says lead author Nils Weidmann, a political scientist at the University of Konstanz in Germany. "I have fine-grained protest data, but no fine-grained estimates for internet penetration." So he struck up a collaboration with computer scientists at the science and technology university ETH Zurich in Switzerland who were working on a solution to exactly this problem. Their method worked so well that he realized it could be used to map the internet access gap across the world.

  • France most skeptical country about vaccine safety

    Vaccine confidence map

    Credits: (Map) J. You/Science; (Data) Heidi Larson et al., EBioMedicine

    The French had less confidence in the safety of vaccines than the residents of 66 other countries recently surveyed by researchers.

    A team lead by anthropologist Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine conducted what it contends is “the largest survey on confidence in immunization to date,” interviewing more than 65,000 people. As the researchers report online in EBioMedicine today, 41% of respondents in France disagreed with the assertion that vaccines are safe. On average, just 12% of respondents in other nations disagreed with this statement.

    “I didn’t expect France to be as negative as it was,” says Larson, who runs The Vaccine Confidence Project, a nonprofit that monitors public concerns about immunization. At the other end of the scale, only 0.2% of the respondents in Bangladesh had similar safety misgivings.

  • Workshop on ethics of monkey research earns cheers and boos

    Rhesus macaques

    Rhesus macaques used in anxiety studies at an NIH lab.

    Richard T. Nowitz/Science Source

    Depending on whom you ask, yesterday’s U.S. government workshop on the state of nonhuman primate research was either a raging success or a complete fiasco. The event, held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, brought together dozens of scientists, veterinarians, and bioethicists to discuss how research on monkeys and related animals is contributing to human medicine and to review the welfare policies that surround this work. But observers differed widely on whether it accomplished what Congress had in mind when it told NIH to hold the event.

    “It was a great showcase of the importance nonhuman primates have played and continue to play in human health,” says Anne Deschamps, a senior science policy analyst at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, one of several scientific organizations that signed onto a white paper released in advance of the meeting that promoted the use of these animals in biomedical research. She contends that research on these animals has been critical for our understanding of HIV and the human brain.

    But the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), whose lobbying efforts led to the workshop, says the meeting was supposed to determine whether monkeys and their relatives belong in laboratories in the first place. “It was an infomercial for the use of monkeys in experiments,” says PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo in Norfolk, Virginia. “It was a wasted opportunity.”

  • Did a Swedish researcher eat the first CRISPR meal ever served?

    Pasta dish with cabbage engineered with CRISPR-Cas9

    A Swedish scientist included cabbage engineered with CRISPR-Cas9 in this pasta dish.

    Stefan Jansson/Umeå University

    In what Swedish plant scientist Stefan Jansson declares “maybe” a historic event, he cultivated, grew, and ate a plant that had its genome edited with CRISPR-Cas9. Umeå University, where Jansson studies how trees know it’s autumn and how proteins allow plants to harvest light, released a 5 September press release about his meal, a pasta dish that included 300 grams of cabbage he grew from seeds that had been genetically modified with CRISPR-Cas9. The revolutionary technology vastly simplifies the editing of genes, and has triggered many debates about whether its plant products should be considered a genetically modified organism (GMO) and subject to regulation.

    As noted by Science Daily and other media outlets, Jansson enjoyed the lunch with Gustaf Klarin, host of a Radio Sweden gardening show, which broadcast it earlier this week (in Swedish). “To our delight—and to some extent to my surprise—the meal turned out really nice,” Jannson wrote in a blog entry on 16 August, the actual day that history might have been made. “Both of us ate with great relish. Gustaf even thought the cabbage was the best tasting vegetable on the plate. And I agreed.”

  • India’s first transgenic food crop edges toward approval

    Mustard growing

    Mustard is grown widely in India. A genetically modified variety would greatly boost yields.

    Abhijit Kar Gupta/Flickr

    NEW DELHI—India has moved a big step closer toward embracing its first genetically modified (GM) food crop. In a safety review released yesterday, the environment ministry finds that GM mustard “does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings and animals.”

    Backers feel vindicated. “The biosafety study that has been carried out is as thorough as it can be, and now ideology should not overwhelm scientific evidence,” says Deepak Pental, a plant geneticist at the University of Delhi here who developed the GM variety. Critics are unswayed. “The conclusions are based on inadequate experimentation,” says Pushpa M. Bhargava, a plant molecular biologist and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India. Bhargava acknowledged that he had not fully read the report before ScienceInsider went to press.

    India in 2004 introduced GM cotton, which now comprises more than 90% of all cotton cultivated in the country. But it has been leery of allowing widespread cultivation of GM food crops. In 2010, the environment ministry put on hold the commercial planting of GM brinjal, an eggplant variety, equipped with a bacterial gene that thwarts insect pests. The moratorium continues and is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon.

  • Most humpback whales no longer endangered, United States says

    A humpback whale and calf swim side by side

    Humpback whale and calf.

    Texaus1/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The U.S. government announced Tuesday that it has removed most humpback whales from the federal endangered species list, saying that they have fully recovered in the last 46 years. The move marks “a true ecological success story,” said Eileen Sobeck, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assistant administrator for fisheries in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a 6 September statement.

    The plan has been in the works for more than a year. Previously, NOAA regarded all humpback whales as a single population. Under the new plan, the whales will be classified into 14 distinct population segments, and the fate of each considered separately.

    Nine of these populations, including whales that breed in Hawaii, Australia, and the West Indies, are now regarded as sufficiently recovered and no longer in need of the protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision to remove these populations was “based on the best available scientific information” and “extensive public comments,” said Angela Somma, chief of NOAA Fisheries’ endangered species division in Silver Spring, in a press conference yesterday.

  • Blue ribbon report urges U.S. cancer moonshot to invest in 10 promising areas

    Vice President Joe Biden talking to scientists inside a Duke University School of Medicine Lab.

    Vice President Biden discusses his cancer moonshot at Duke University School of Medicine earlier this year.

    Ben McKeown/Associated Press

    Vice President Joe Biden’s proposed moonshot to conquer cancer should invest in large collaborations, data sharing projects, and the promising cancer treatment known as immunotherapy, among 10 areas described in an advisory group’s draft report released this morning. The report was accepted (with one abstention) today by the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI's) advisory board, which is expected to pass it on to the NCI director and then to a federal task force. Now, Congress just needs to come up with the money to pay for the moonshot, research advocates say.

    “We are hopeful that these recommendations are going to be so exciting that Congress will be looking to identify paths forward to fund the cancer moonshot initiative,” says Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Washington, D.C., one of several cancer research and patient organizations that are praising the report.

    Biden first proposed a moonshot to cure cancer last year after his son Beau died of brain cancer. President Barack Obama embraced the idea in his January State of the Union address, with Biden vowing to make a decade’s worth of advances in 5 years. To help guide the effort, a 28-member blue ribbon panel of NCI’s National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) then consulted with more than 150 experts and reviewed more than 1600 suggestions from researchers and the public.

  • No proof that shooting predators saves livestock

    Gray wolf pelts hanging over side of pickup truck

    Federal officials shot four pack members after wolves killed cattle in Montana.

    Joel Sartore/National Geographic Creative

    On 5 August, biologists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ascended in a helicopter to shoot two members of the Profanity Peak wolf pack, which had been preying on cattle in the state’s northeast corner. After the cull failed to end predation, the state removed four more members of the 11-wolf pack. Some conservationists were outraged, but the logic behind such lethal control seems airtight: Remove livestock-killing wolves, coyotes, bears, and other predators, and you’ll protect farmers and ranchers from future losses.

    A new study, however, claims that much of the research underpinning that common sense notion is flawed—and that the science of predator control needs a methodological overhaul. Adrian Treves, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and his colleagues examined more than 100 peer-reviewed studies, searching for ones that randomized some by removing or deterring predators while leaving others untouched. Not a single experiment in which predators were killed has ever successfully applied this randomized controlled design, they reported 1 September in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. “Lethal control methods need to be subjected to the same gold standard of science as anything else,” Treves says. He argues that policymakers should suspend predator management programs that aren’t backed by rigorous evidence.

  • In wake of attacks, German science bodies fend for animal research

    A lab mouse rests in the gloved hands of a researcher


    Germany's major research institutes have teamed up to publicly defend “responsible” animal testing as a necessary part of biomedical science. At an event in Berlin today, the organizations launched a new project to educate the public about animal studies, after harsh attacks by animal rights activists in recent years. The 5-year project, called Tierversuche verstehen (Understanding animal testing), is centered around a website providing scientists’ testimonials and background information.

    “Responsible means always balancing animal protection and welfare with the importance of scientific knowledge for human beings. Acting responsibly also means developing and using alternative and supplementary methods,” says the website, which encourages researchers to use its materials—such as videos and graphics—in public presentations. It also offers to put interested scientists in touch with the organizers of media training courses, and to add volunteers to a database of researchers willing to respond to press queries.

    “Animal experimenters used to do what they wanted, and now they are increasingly under pressure to justify their work,” says Silke Strittmatter of Doctors Against Animal Experiments Germany, an animal rights group in Cologne.

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