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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NASA’s Dawn mission denied asteroidal third act

    NASA’s Dawn mission denied asteroidal third act

    NASA has decided the Dawn spacecraft shouldn’t leave Ceres (above) in order to chase another asteroid.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

    A third act will be denied to the Dawn spacecraft, which has explored Vesta and Ceres, the two largest bodies in the asteroid belt. On 1 July, NASA headquarters said that the spacecraft should remain in orbit around Ceres, rather than using its ion propulsion engine to visit 145 Adeona, a 150-kilometer-wide asteroid, in 2019, as its mission leaders had wanted.

    Learning of the decision, the Dawn team was surprised and disappointed. “We thought that everyone we had talked to about this plan was enthusiastic about it,” says Chris Russell, the mission principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I had no negative vibes until this particular moment.”

    The decision was based on the recommendations of a senior review panel, which evaluated all the agency’s ongoing planetary missions, NASA planetary division director Jim Green, who is based in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion—the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun—has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” Green said.

  • North American energy deal places focus on Mexico

    wind farm

    Wind farms like this one on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico have faced strong community opposition.

    L.Hernández/Associated Press

    There’s a big geopolitical imbalance in the new clean energy agreement reached this week by the presidents of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Although Canada already far exceeds the trilateral pledge to generate half of North America’s electricity from non–carbon-based sources by 2025 and the United States has a clear path forward, Mexico faces major hurdles. Experts say that new laws will improve its chances of holding up its end of the agreement. But the Mexican government also needs to tighten enforcement of those laws and resolve conflicts over building renewable energy projects on indigenous land.

    The three countries signing the new agreement now generate 37% of their electricity from clean power sources, with Canada at 75% thanks to abundant hydropower and the United States at 33%, more than half of which comes from nuclear power plants. (The United States also consumes more than 80% of the total amount of electricity used by the continent’s 500 million residents.)

    Mexico trails the pack with only 22% of its electricity from non–fossil fuels, and the two reactors at its only nuclear power plant generate just 4% of the country’s electricity. Although the government is planning to build several new nuclear plants, most of the immediate action will likely be focused on renewables like solar and wind, experts say.

  • Completing troubled ecological observatory will cost $35 million more

    A worker readies instruments on a tower that is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

    A worker readies instruments on a tower that is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

    NSF/Neon Inc.

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has agreed to spend $35.5 million more to complete its National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). That brings the total cost of the troubled project, already reduced in scope and delayed by a year, to $469 million.

    NSF officials say the additional construction money won’t squeeze out existing research programs in biology. Instead, the agency will tap funds earmarked for maintenance and operations but not spent because the project is behind schedule.

    Even so, NSF may still face a serious cost crunch down the road. The project’s new contractor, Battelle Memorial Institute, has promised that all 81 sites in the continental-wide network will be uploading data for scientists to use by December 2017. And that’s when NSF will need to have a better grasp of what it will take to operate the observatory, says Maria Zuber, chair of NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, which this week signed off on the additional spending.

  • Science minister says he's watching out for post-Brexit 'discrimination' against U.K. researchers

    Jo Johnson

    “I can’t commit to any particular definition of freedom of movement for you,” Jo Johnson said today.

    Associated Press

    Just a week after the United Kingdom's vote to exit the European Union rocked the continent, the country's science minister says he's “vigilant” about discrimination against U.K. scientists in European research programs. But his words appear insufficient to quell scientists' anxieties for the long term.

    As long as the United Kingdom hasn't left the European Union, it is “business as usual” for Horizon 2020, the European Union's giant 7-year research program, Jo Johnson assured scientists in a speech at the Wellcome Trust in London today. Among other types of projects, Horizon 2020 provides funding for collaborative research projects, involving so-called “consortia” of scientists in several E.U. member states. There have been anecdotal reports that researchers in other countries have become reticent to include U.K. colleagues in new grant proposals because they worry that such partnerships won't endure when the divorce becomes final.

  • U.S. should abandon controversial effort to update human research rules, National Academies panel says

    doctor examines a patient

    Rules governing research involving human subjects have become a source of controversy.

    EdTech/Stanford University (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Stop what you are doing—now!—and wait for more discussion and instruction.

    That’s the blunt message that a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee on reforming federal regulation of U.S. research sent today to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government agencies. In one part of a wide-ranging report on ways to reduce research red tape, the panel calls on U.S. agencies to abandon a controversial proposal to update rules that protect human research participants, then wait for the president and Congress to create a new high-level commission to recommend improvements.

    The proposal, which was released last year and has received extensive criticism from science groups, “is marred by omissions, the absence of essential elements, and a lack of clarity,” the report states. And its “inadequacies signal a pressing need for a comprehensive review of the nation’s ethical, legal, regulatory and institutional frameworks for protecting research subjects.”

  • European Commission gives controversial weed killer a last-minute reprieve

    Glyphosate is one of the world’s most widely used herbicides.

    Glyphosate is one of the world’s most widely used herbicides.

    Tamina Miller, Creative Commons

    To the relief of farmers, the controversial herbicide glyphosate will remain on the market in Europe for another 18 months. The widely used weed killer faced a 30 June deadline for reapproval of its safety—without which it could not be sold—but the decision has been stuck in political gridlock. So the European Commission stepped in to extend the safety approval until December 2017. The decision was mentioned by Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis during a press conference today and may be officially announced tomorrow, according to a commission source.

    The safety of glyphosate has been hotly debated ever since the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared it a “probable human carcinogen” in March 2015. Regulatory agencies had previously declared glyphosate safe when properly used, and the European Food Safety Authority was on track to renew its approval. (The differing opinions caused some confusion, which is clarified here.) Opponents of the herbicide campaigned for the commission not to renew the market license. Glyphosate manufacturers and the farm lobby objected fiercely, and member states could not reach a majority decision about how to proceed.

  • Out, out red tape: Congress weighs bills to reduce regulatory burden on academic science

     Out, out red tape: Congress weighs bills to reduce regulatory burden on academic science

    U.S. universities complain about the high cost of complying with rules to ensure that federal research dollars are being spent properly. A tsunami testing facility at Oregon State University, Corvallis, is partly funded with federal funds.

    Oregon State University (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The federal government and U.S. universities are notorious for their stifling bureaucracies. So it’s no great surprise that the government’s oversight of campus-based research is larded with requirements that are inefficient, redundant, and simply make no sense.

    Periodic attempts to streamline the process haven’t been very successful. But this year, influential lawmakers from both parties are hoping to make a significant dent in the problem by tying the issue to broader pieces of legislation moving through Congress. One of those bills should advance this week, in fact, as a Senate panel is expected on Wednesday to approve a measure that includes substantial language aimed at giving researchers some regulatory relief.

    The bill—which is officially known as the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 3084)—would promote research, innovation, and science education at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Commerce, and across federal agencies. But it offers a convenient legislative vehicle to address regulatory reform. Other bills that address the topic focus on shortening the time from discovery to treatment in the U.S. health care system, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or on tweaking specific federal regulations.

  • Q&A: Former E.U. science adviser Anne Glover on U.K. research after Brexit: 'I'm very pessimistic'

    Anne Glover

    The Brexit referendum was not fought on evidence but on prejudice around immigration, Glover says.

    European Biomass Conference/Flickr

    Anne Glover has had her struggles with the Brussels bureaucracy. The Scottish biologist was the European Union’s first chief science adviser—and the last. With a tiny budget and an ill-defined mandate, she was often frustrated in her attempts to get politicians to acknowledge scientific evidence when it went against positions they held. After Jean-Claude Juncker became president of the European Commission in 2014, he scrapped the post, to her chagrin, and replaced it with a new science advice mechanism.  

    But Glover, who is now vice principal for external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, is one of many scientists who are shocked at the United Kingdom’s vote to quit the European Union.

  • New U.S. drone rules get positive reviews from researchers

    New U.S. drone rules get positive reviews from researchers

    A researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, prepares a drone for a survey flight.

    DOE Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

    New U.S. rules on drone operations are getting a general thumbs up from researchers who rely on the unmanned aircraft to collect data and make observations. That marks a shift from a few years ago, when worried researchers went to court to block Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone regulations that they argued were overly restrictive and would harm academic science.

    The final FAA rule, released by the White House on Tuesday, seems to have alleviated many of those concerns. (You can read all 624 pages of the final rule here). The new regulations are “fantastic, just late,” says biogeographer Benjamin Heumann of Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, who uses drones to map biodiversity and invasive species and had been critical of early versions. “It’s nice to have the FAA come forward with some new rules that kind of follow some common sense. … This is where we should have been 2 years ago.”

    The new rules outline how people can legally operate what are officially known as small unmanned aircraft systems (sUASs), defined as drones that are fewer than 25 kilograms and operate at 160 kilometers per hour or less. In general, they forbid operators from flying the aircraft over people who are not participating in their operations, and above 122 meters in altitude. Flights must be conducted during the daytime and the aircraft has to remain within the pilot’s line of sight. And drone pilots must be at least 16 years old and take an online test to earn a government permit known as a remote pilot airman certificate. Students or research team members who don’t hold such a certificate can fly a drone if they are under the direct supervision of someone who holds a certificate.

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