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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • New Stanford center offers insight into the evolution of scientific cartography

    Stanford cartographic technology specialist Deardra Fuzzell examines a celestial map at the new center.

    Stanford cartographic technology specialist Deardra Fuzzell examines a celestial map at the new center.

    Wayne Vanderkuil, Stanford Libraries

    The new David Rumsey Map Center, which opened last week at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, showcases what was once one of the world’s great private map collections—more than 150,000 maps, globes, and cartographic artifacts. The collection is especially rich with 18th and 19th century maps that illustrate the birth of scientific cartography.

  • Tired of short-term contracts, Spanish postdocs sue their employer

    The Spanish National Research Council's headquarters in Madrid.

    The Spanish National Research Council's headquarters in Madrid.

    Luis García/Wikimedia Commons

    The past few years, many postdocs at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) have obtained a permanent position in an unusual way: by suing their employer. The researchers, along with many technicians and administrative staff, have successfully asked the courts to make CSIC comply with Spanish labor law and turn their short-term contracts into indefinite employment.

    But now, CSIC is pushing back with a series of controversial measures that many say punish the institutes and research groups where such cases have occurred. The new measures, detailed in an internal memo that was recently leaked to national newspaper El País, have drawn criticism from the scientific community and angered trade unions. One union, the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), accuses CSIC of a “witch hunt” against those who exercise their employment rights and the centers and research groups that host them.

    CSIC employs some 10,000 research and administrative staff in more than 120 institutes that span every discipline from mathematics to biology and the humanities. Like other research institutions in Europe, CSIC is doing away with its tradition of lifetime civil servant employment and introducing more and more short-term contracts funded by research grants and industry contracts.

  • Possible causes of Prince's death: Separating the plausible from the crazy

    Prince

    Rock singer Prince performs at the Forum in Inglewood, California, during his opening show, 18 February 1985.

    AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing

    Whenever a celebrity dies under murky circumstances, speculations run wild. The bulk of news reports about the rock star Prince’s death yesterday suggested influenza may have claimed his life. “Could Flu Have Caused Prince's Death? Yes. Here's Why,” read a Forbes headline. Other media outlets used his surprising demise at 57 to remind readers of the risk flu presents and how it kills. TMZ, the celeb gossip e-zine, has “multiple sources” that say Prince, despite being a Jehovah’s Witness, received a “save shot” for a drug overdose 6 days before his death. The conspiracy-minded also came out of the woodwork and suggested it was the flu vaccine, the way his plane made an emergency landing, or yes, that he actually isn’t dead at all. 

    Of course it’s possible that Prince died from influenza, and one of his representatives last week told reporters that a bad bout with the disease explained his emergency landing in Illinois and a visit to a hospital. Maybe, as some news stories have ventured, there was a link between his epilepsy and flu that ended his life. (A PubMed search of “influenza, epilepsy, mortality” has a meager 23 hits.) But in the absence of new data, the evidence suggests that flu is an unlikely explanation unless he had an underlying health problem, like a heart condition, that is known to increase the risk of death from flu. And of course the surest way to find a probable rather than a possible answer to his cause of death is to conduct an autopsy, which reportedly is underway.

    According to the most authoritative study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that analyzed flu deaths in the United States from 1976 to 2007, the over-65 age bracket suffers the highest mortality by far, accounting for 87.9% of the deceased. (The study looks at both influenza and the often-related pneumonia deaths.) The 19- to 64-year-old age bracket was next at 10.6%.

  • Space agencies eye global Earth observatory

    Mount Rainier

    This image of Mt. Rainier depicts the main kinds of observations that the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission will make: glaciers (ice), volcanoes (crustal deformation), and forests (ecosystems).

    NASA/JPL

    Major space agencies are edging toward agreement on a capability that climate watchers have long desired: an international satellite system for uniformly measuring greenhouse gas emissions and their capture in carbon sinks.

    Next week, the heads of 11 space agencies are expected to issue a joint communique from a meeting in New Delhi calling for cooperation to calibrate instruments and validate measurements “to achieve an international, independent system for estimating the global emissions based on internationally accepted data.” “We need a global space observation system to be in place sooner than later,” says Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of CNES, France’s space agency in Paris. “Cooperation among the space agencies is a must if planet Earth is to be saved.”

    Currently, space-faring nations have a combined total of 130 Earth-observing satellites in orbit. But these platforms use varying standards, making it virtually impossible, experts say, to compare and verify data sets.

  • Germany to continue building its Ivy League

    The next phase of Germany's Excellence Initiative will cost €533 million a year, Research Minister Johanna Wanka said today.

    The next phase of Germany's Excellence Initiative will cost €533 million a year, Research Minister Johanna Wanka said today.

    BMBF/Hans-Joachim Rickel

    The program designed to create a German Ivy League will be extended indefinitely, giving a handful of the country’s top universities a yearly bonus of at least €10 million in extra funding, the German government announced today. “We are opening a new chapter in the development of higher education in Germany,” Research and Education Minister Johanna Wanka told a press conference in Berlin this morning.

    Germany’s Excellence Initiative, launched in 2006, was meant to boost research at German universities to world-class status. Whereas research organizations such as the Max Planck Society are widely recognized as funding top research, the country’s chronically underfunded universities have lagged behind, with only a few breaking the top 50 in world rankings. The €4.6 billion spent on the effort so far has paid off, an international commission concluded in January: Although German universities haven't made it to the top of world rankings, the program has made them more dynamic and has encouraged them to build on their strengths, the report concluded. The panel did recommend some tweaks to the funding structure, however.

    State and federal politicians had committed last year to extend the program, but had not decided what form it would take. The outline announced this morning by the Joint Science Conference (GWK), which includes federal and state science ministers of research, education, and finance, still needs to receive final approval from Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the German state, or Länder, in June, but they are expected to sign off on the plan.

  • U.S. goes shopping in Iran’s nuclear bazaar, will buy heavy water for science

    spallation neutron source

    The Department of Energy plans to send 6 tons of heavy water from Iran to the Spallation Neutron Source at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory

    Mere months ago, Iran’s nuclear program was an international pariah. Now, it’s supplying the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) with a strategic substance that the United States itself can’t produce. DOE has struck a deal to purchase 32 tons of heavy water—water containing the hydrogen isotope deuterium—from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

    The $8.6 million sale, expected to be completed Friday morning in Vienna, helps Iran meet a commitment under last July’s nuclear deal to shed heavy water—and it will have a swords-to-ploughshares payoff. “We’re securing material that will allow us to do great science,” says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. DOE will resell a portion to industry for uses such as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging and protecting optical fibers and semiconductors against deterioration by blasting them with deuterium gas. DOE will also send 6 tons to Oak Ridge for an upgrade of the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), the world’s most powerful accelerator-driven machine for generating neutrons for research.

    Deuterium—hydrogen with an added neutron—accounts for just one in every 6420 hydrogen atoms. That neutron makes heavy water (D2O) more efficient than regular water at slowing neutrons and initiating fission. As a result, a handful of countries use it as a moderator in nuclear power reactors. But deuterium has a dark side. Heavy water reactors can transmute uranium into plutonium, for use in weapons.

  • AstraZeneca partners its way to a genomic bounty

    AstraZeneca partners its way to a genomic bounty

    AstraZeneca will embed a research team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, U.K.

    Magnus Manske/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is joining forces with several heavy hitters in genetic sequencing to mine up to 2 million people’s genomes for new drug targets. The London-based company today launched an in-house genomics center that will swap data and samples with Human Longevity Inc. (HLI)—geneticist J. Craig Venter’s ambitious genomics startup—and will embed a research team in the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The company expects that whole genomes, combined with individual health data, will reveal rare genetic variants that influence disease and suggest new drug targets.

    Given that only about 100,000 people in the world have had their entire genomes sequenced to date, the new resource would be unprecedented, says geneticist Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, who is not involved in the partnership. Other pharma companies have made big investments in genomic data. Amgen’s 2012 takeover of deCODE Genetics’s 140,000-person volunteer database  was “somewhat of a precursor to this,” Topol says, but was limited to an Icelandic population and didn’t include whole genomes for every participant. “This is about finally getting some horsepower to get us to the big data, whole genome level,” he says.

  • New research ship highlight of otherwise flat NSF budget bill in Senate

    New research ship highlight of otherwise flat NSF budget bill in Senate

    U.S. senators want the National Science Foundation to build three, not just two, of the regional research vessels depicted in this schematic.

    Oregon State University

    Senate appropriators have made a third research vessel their top priority in the 2017 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    The full Senate appropriations committee today unanimously approved $7.509 billion for NSF, a $46 million boost over its current budget, as part of a $56 billion bill covering several science agencies and the departments of justice and commerce. Within the amount for NSF, legislators added $53 million to the agency’s large new facilities account to begin building three regional-class research vessels rather than the two NSF had requested. (Earlier this week, a spending subcommittee had approved the bill, but released few details.)

    NSF’s research and education accounts were held flat, at $6.033 billion and $880 million, respectively, as was the agency’s internal operating budget. President Barack Obama had requested $46 million more for research and $18 million for education. (NSF had also requested an additional $43 million to accommodate its move next year to a new building in northern Virginia.)

  • ITER leader faces tough questions, even from relatively supportive U.S. House panel

    ITER

    ITER construction is ramping up, even as the United States mulls its commitment to the project.

    ITER Organization

    For Bernard Bigot, director-general of ITER, the gargantuan fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives was likely to be a relatively amicable event. After all, even as budgetmakers in the Senate have tried repeatedly to pull the United States out of the troubled project, House appropriators have supported it and have prevailed in budget negotiations. Nevertheless, yesterday, in a hearing held by the energy subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Bigot faced pointed questions from both Republican and Democratic representatives, suggesting some of them maybe losing patience with ITER.

    ITER aims to prove that a plasma of deuterium and tritium nuclei trapped in a magnetic field can produce more energy than it consumes as the nuclei fuse in a "burning plasma," a process that mimics the inner workings of the sun. But ITER is running far over budget and at least 10 years behind its original schedule.

  • New energy bill approved by U.S. Senate looks favorably on research

    New energy bill approved by U.S. Senate looks favorably on research

    Ron Cogswell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Federal energy research could get a financial shot in the arm under a bipartisan energy bill, passed by the U.S. Senate today on an 85 to 12 vote, which calls for hefty budget increases for science. But researchers shouldn’t start celebrating: Whether the money ever reaches laboratories will depend on a number of factors, including whether Congress and the White House can agree on a final version of the legislation, and whether the lawmakers who control the purse strings actually ante up the funding envisioned by the bill.

    The so-called authorizing legislation—the first major rewrite of federal energy law since 2007—sets policy and nonbinding funding levels for a broad array of government programs, including research efforts. It envisions funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, the nation’s major funder of the physical sciences, rising by 5% per year, to $7.13 billion in 2020 (up from $5.35 billion this year). DOE’s smaller Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which aims to commercialize high-risk energy technologies, would grow to $375 million in 2020 (up from $291 million this year).

    Those numbers are more generous than the figures included in a draft of the Senate bill introduced in January. That version included a 4% annual raise for the Office of Science, and a smaller boost for ARPA-E. But that changed thanks to two amendments—one from Senators Lamar Alexander (R–TN) and Richard Durbin (D–IL), and another offered by Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI).

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