Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Who is starting all those wildfires? We are

    two fire fighters silhouetted by burning trees

    Firefighters confront the boundary fire on the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona earlier this year. Started by a lightning strike, it burned some 7000 hectares.

    Brandon Oberhardt/U.S. Forest Service (CC BY SA 2.0)

    As parts of the western United States choke on smoke from wildfires scorching more than 660,000 hectares, renewed attention is falling on the role that people have played in starting some of these blazes. An Oregon fire that has consumed 13,000 hectares, for instance, is thought to have been started by teens tossing firecrackers.

    Jennifer Balch, a wildfire ecologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has examined just how big a role people are playing in starting wildfires in the United States. Nationwide, humans are responsible for starting 84% of wildfires, according to a paper co-authored by Balch, published this past March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In California, the eastern United States, and the coastal Northwest, people are behind more than 90% of wildfires. And, by starting so many fires, humans are essentially lengthening the fire season, into times of the year when natural causes—such as lightning—don’t play a major role.

    ScienceInsider spoke with Balch about those numbers, and their implications. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

  • Pay up or retract? Survey creator's demands for money rile some health researchers

    Pills in an elderly woman's hands

    A questionnaire that examines patients’ adherence to recommended drug regimens has stirred controversy.


    Last June, a health care researcher in the United States was clearing out her email when she came across a message that looked like spam. She was about to delete it when a name in the subject line gave her pause: Dr. Morisky.

    The message concerned an abstract that the researcher and two colleagues had published in a journal just days before. It asked whether the researchers had obtained a license for a copyrighted questionnaire, called the Eight-Item Morisky Medication Adherence Scale (MMAS-8), that they’d used in the study. The scale helps predict how likely patients are to adhere to a drug regimen—an important issue, because a lack of adherence can worsen health and is estimated to cost $300 billion a year in the United States.

    The researcher, then a graduate student, says she had contacted the scale’s author, public health specialist Donald Morisky of the University of California, Los Angeles, for permission to use the tool. She never heard back. Now, Morisky and a colleague, Steve Trubow, were demanding $6500 for its use. Stunned, the researcher replied that she couldn’t afford that, but offered $200. The reply came about 3 hours later: “Unfortunately … we can’t reduce the fees. … We will turn this case over to our lawyer.”

  • U.K. expands kill zone for badgers in fight against bovine TB, sparking controversy

    a European badger in the forest

    More European badgers (Meles meles) will be in the crosshairs this year.


    The United Kingdom will triple the number of badgers killed in its campaign to eradicate a strain of tuberculosis (TB) that strikes cattle. As many as 33,841 badgers could be shot over the next year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced yesterday. Wildlife advocates are upset at the increased slaughter, and scientists are skeptical about the chances of success. “It is deeply disappointing,” said Rosie Woodroffe, an ecologist with the Zoological Society of London.

    Bovine TB has been spreading for 2 decades in the United Kingdom, and England has the highest incidence in Europe. There is no threat to human health, because pasteurization kills the bacteria in milk. Cattle herds are regularly checked for the disease, and when infections are detected, the herd must be slaughtered. Last year the toll reached 29,000 animals. The disease enters herds through the shipping of undiagnosed cattle, and from badgers, which are the main reservoir of the disease in wildlife.

    The government’s 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB relies on restricting transport of cattle from disease hot spots and vaccinating or killing badgers. Badger culls began in 2013 in Somerset and Gloucestershire, and now cover 10 areas. Eleven more areas are being added now, each covering an average of 489 square kilometers. A preliminary analysis of the first 2 years of culling, reported last month in Ecology and Evolution, cautioned that the data were limited and it would be “unwise” to generalize about how effective the policy has been so far.

  • Hurricane Irma update: On ravaged Barbuda, an archaeology center tries to pick up the pieces

    Hurricane Irma seen from above

    Hurricane Irma passes the eastern end of Cuba on the morning of 8 September.


    Deadly Hurricane Irma has subsided after tearing across the Caribbean and Florida. Millions are still without power, and officials are still assessing casualties.

    Prior to the storm's arrival in Florida, The Scientist reported that many researchers were racing to stormproof their equipment and back up data and experimental material that could be damaged. Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory was lashed hard by the hurricane this past Wednesday but came through apparently unscathed, reports. The U.S. Forest Service’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry, headquartered at Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, posted poststorm images on Twitter, revealing only light damage and no injuries to staff.

    ScienceInsider is continuing to track how Irma is affecting researchers, so email and let us know your story.

  • 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.

    Ebrahim 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.”

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