Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Ripples in space: U.S. trio wins physics Nobel for discovery of gravitational waves

    red light tracks outside the LIGO facility

    In this time-exposure shot of one of LIGO’s interferometer arms in Livingston, Louisiana, the red lights symbolize gravitational waves. 

    Joe McNally

    Two years ago, physicists detected for the first time the infinitesimal ripples in space itself set off when two black holes whirled into each other. The observation of such gravitational waves fulfilled a century-old prediction from Albert Einstein and opened up a whole new way to explore the heavens. Today, three leaders of the massive experiment that made the discovery received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

    Rainer Weiss, 85, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and Kip Thorne, 77, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena hatched plans for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in 1984. Barry Barish, 81, a Caltech particle physicist, later guided the construction of the twin LIGO observatories in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. Weiss will receive one half of the $1.1 million prize, and Thorne and Barish the other half. LIGO's third founder, Ronald Drever, died in Edinburgh on 7 March at age 85. (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.)

    Other physicists rate the discovery of gravitational waves among the most important ever in physics. “It's revolutionary,” says Abraham Loeb, a theorist at Harvard University. It's very rare that we open a completely new window on the universe.”

  • Grass-fed cows won’t save the climate, report finds

    Cows in a field

    Livestock is responsible for an estimated 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions.


    If you thought eating only “grass-fed” hamburgers could absolve you from climate change guilt, think again. There’s a lack of evidence that livestock (such as cattle, sheep, and goats) dining on grassland has a lower carbon footprint than that fed on grains, as some environmentalists and “pro-pastoralists” claim, according to a new report by an international group of researchers led by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), based at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

    “Switching to grass-fed beef and dairy does not solve the climate problem—only a reduction in consumption of livestock products will do that,” says one of the report’s authors, Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom.

    Livestock is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions, researchers estimate. The animals emit gases such as nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane in amounts that have significantly changed our atmosphere. And the impact is growing. As more people worldwide are lifted out of poverty, many more can afford to eat meat regularly; global demand for animal products, now 14 grams per person per day, is expected to more than double by 2050.

  • Filling the pipeline for computer science teachers

    teachers in a computer science training

    A workshop to help train computer science teachers.

    Anne Todd Leftwich

    It’s not easy to teach a subject in which you have no training. But Kristen Haubold, a computer science teacher at James Whitcomb Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana, was up for the challenge.

    Haubold arrived at Riley 5 years ago as a math teacher after graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington. A year later, Indiana began developing a new computer science requirement for elementary and high school students, and Haubold signed up for the course that the state was offering. She also began looking around for resources to create a curriculum that would meet the new standard, which Indiana officials finalized earlier this year.

    The course, Computer Science Principles, debuted in 2014. This fall she’s added a second course: Computer Science A. But Haubold remains the only computer science teacher in the 18,000-student district.

  • Updated: Why would a university pay a scientist found guilty of misconduct to leave?

    university of georgia

    Josh Hallett/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

    *Update, 2 October, 11:30 a.m.: The U.S. government’s watchdog office on scientific misconduct in biomedical research has concluded that Azza El-Remessy, a former tenured associate professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, inappropriately altered data in five images from three papers. The finding of misconduct was issued by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) on 29 September, RetractionWatch reported today.

    ORI determined that El-Remessy had “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly used the same Western blot bands to represent different experimental results” in three papers—a 2005 paper in the Journal of Cell Science, a 2013 paper in PLOS ONE, and a 2007 paper in The FASEB JournalThe Journal of Cell Science and The FASEB Journal papers have been retracted. The PLOS ONE paper, which has been cited nine times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ sWeb of Science, has not yet been corrected or retracted.

    Here is our original story from 31 July:

  • Timing is everything: U.S. trio earns Nobel for work on the body’s biological clock

    Image of Nobel prize

    Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    Discoveries about how organisms stay in sync with Earth’s rhythm of day and night have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

    Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Michael Young of The Rockefeller University in New York City share the prize equally for their work on how several genes work together to control the basic circadian clock, encoding proteins that build up during the night and are broken down during the day. These clocks are ticking inside plants, fungi, protozoa, and animals. In recent years, researchers have found that the clock is related not only to our sleep cycle, but also to metabolism and brain function.

    Circadian, or daily, rhythms are “just as fundamental as respiration,” says Charalambos Kyriacou, a molecular geneticist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. “There isn’t any aspect of biology that circadian rhythms aren’t important for. They are totally fundamental in a way that we didn’t anticipate” before the discoveries honored today.

  • After upheaval, Russian Academy of Sciences gets new leader

    The Russian Academy of Sciences building at night, a multi-story white building with square windows in a perfect grid.

    Headquarters of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

    Nikita Jukov/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    MOSCOW—After months of uncertainty, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) here finally has a new leader. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved physicist Alexander Sergeyev as the academy’s president for the next 5 years. Sergeyev has vowed to secure more money for Russian science and create a fund, through a new tax on fossil fuel company profits, for upgrading the country’s antiquated research infrastructure.

    Sergeyev, director of the RAS Institute of Applied Physics in Nizhny Novgorod, may be best known abroad as head of the Russian team involved in the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. In Russia, he is highly respected by colleagues. “In any case, I can say that the academy is ready to team up around him,” Vladimir Fortov, former RAS president, told TASS news agency. “The Academy is on his side, and that’s the most important result today.”

    Sergeyev campaigned for the RAS presidency on a 100-page manifesto that seeks to walk back wildly unpopular reforms of Russia’s top science body, which includes more than 700 research organizations. Under this reform, RAS merged with two other academies—the medical and agricultural sciences—and lost control over buildings and other property which was handed over to the new government body, the Federal Agency of Scientific Organizations. “The academy must be given the function of scientific and organizational governance over the academic institutions, including the issues of the distribution of funds, sharing the budget for the basic research and, at the same time, more responsibility for the result,” Sergeyev said on the eve of the RAS presidential elections on Monday. 

  • After contentious hearings, agency approves new permit for stalled Hawaiian telescope

    TMT complex

    Artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

    Courtesy TMT International Observatory

    Update, 28 September, 4:40 p.m.: Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources today voted 5-2 to approve a permit to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The vote follows retired judge Riki May Amano’s recommendation this past July to approve the permit. Amano’s recommendation came after a lengthy and often contentious hearing forced by opponents of the TMT, who successfully argued that the land board had not followed proper procedures in 2011 in issuing its first permit for the telescope.

    The board placed 43 conditions on the permit, including a previously negotiated plan requiring the University of Hawaii to decommission three existing telescopes atop Mauna Kea, where the TMT is to be built, and barring any future telescopes on the mountain. In a statement, Suzanne Case, chair of the board, said: “This was one of the most difficult decisions this Board has ever made. The members greatly respected and considered the concerns raised by those opposed to the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope at the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.”

    TMT opponents tell ScienceInsider that they will appeal the decision. Kealoha Pisciotta, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and a plaintiff in the case against the TMT permit, said she believed the board had rubber-stamped the permit, and the decision seemed like a foregone conclusion. “They did not deliberate. They did not properly consider or take into account the evidence,” she said.

  • Researchers caught in growing rift over Catalan independence

    Students protest in favor of the Referendum of Catalonia Catalan, in Barcelona.

    Students marched in Barcelona, Spain, today to defend their "right to decide" Catalonia's fate, just days before a disputed independence referendum.

    Rex Features via AP Images

    REUS, SPAIN—Scientists in Catalonia are feeling the ripples of a severe crisis as the region’s bid for independence from Spain comes to a head.

    Researchers have much at stake in the independence referendum, scheduled for 1 October in defiance of Madrid’s central government. Nationalists trust that Catalan science would thrive in a nimbler, independent state of 7.5 million people and become a beacon of a new, progressive republic. Others fear that the secession would plunge science into isolating uncertainty, cut access to essential funding streams and networks, and spark a brain drain.

    Like other regions of Spain, Catalonia has a distinct language and a strong sense of cultural difference that were repressed under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, which ended in 1975. As an autonomous community of Spain, it has its own Parliament and government, the Generalitat, in Barcelona that manage a range of devolved powers from the region’s cosmopolitan capital. But Catalan nationalists say they want a separate state with complete control over its finances and policies—a sentiment that has soared in recent years.

  • What’s the evidence? Congress struggles to understand new report on evidence-based policy

    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

    Every member of Congress probably wants to use evidence to make better policy. But a hearing this week suggests it might be a mistake to press lawmakers for details, or ask what they mean by evidence.

    Four members of the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking gamely came to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to discuss their new report on how researchers could better use government records holding data on millions of Americans without violating privacy. The lawmakers who serve on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee for the U.S. House of Representatives were cordial to the members of the commission, created 18 months ago thanks to the efforts of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R–WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D–WA), for whom evidence-building capacity is a priority.

    But those in attendance seemed to have a tenuous grasp of the commission’s focus—using administrative records to study the effects of hundreds of government programs. As a result, confusion permeated the 2-hour hearing, and commission members were forced to duck several questions that fell outside the purview of the study.

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