Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Researchers deplore U.K. decision to leave the European Union


    Economic studies, evolutionary biology, and nanotechnology are most at risk if the United Kingdom left the European Union.

    DSmith/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    U.K. researchers and their organizations have reacted with dismay to last night’s decision by the U.K. electorate to leave the European Union. Science and technology were not a major talking point during the referendum campaign, but numerous scientists and research organizations urged voters to preserve the United Kingdom’s E.U. membership.

    “This is a really serious worry for me. … I fear desperately for U.K. science,” says Steve Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford, U.K., home of the Joint European Torus (JET), a fusion reactor that is one of a handful of European facilities sited in the United Kingdom. “There is no way I can pretend to be anything other than dispirited and disappointed," says Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London. "Whilst I don’t believe that people voted to leave the E.U. with science and health foremost in their minds, I fear that the consequences for both will be serious over the coming year unless we take firm and decisive action now.”

    "Personally, I’m a bit bewildered and ashamed by my own country. I never thought this would happen," the European Commission's former science adviser, Anne Glover, who is now vice principal for external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, tells ScienceInsider.

  • Senators introduce bipartisan bill to support U.S. research and education

    Innovation banner

    Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The U.S. science community got a big pat on the back today from members of the Senate commerce and science committee.

    The senators delivered their encouraging message in the form of a bipartisan bill that would reauthorize programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and tweak policies on science education and innovation across the federal government. Two years in the making, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act finally makes its appearance as the Senate’s proposed replacement of the 2010 America COMPETES Act that expired in 2013.

    The new bill (S.3084) was crafted by Senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI) and has the backing of the committee’s chairman, Senator John Thune (R–SD), and ranking member Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL). It is much closer to the community’s view of the federal role in research and education than a sheaf of legislation adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives in the past year. It endorses NSF’s current approach to choosing what research to fund, urges the executive branch to find ways to reduce the amount of time that universities and scientists spend complying with rules governing recipients of federal research dollars, and calls for the spread of NSF’s wildly popular Innovation Corps program to train budding academic entrepreneurs.

  • Portugal joins world’s hot spots for cave biodiversity


    This pseudoscorpion is a Portuguese cave superstar.

    A. Sofia/Natural History Museum of Denmark

    A decade ago, cave biology was a subject few Portuguese ever talked about. Now, the bizarre creatures that inhabit the dark underworld are becoming a source of national pride, says Ana Sofia P. S. Reboleira, a biologist with the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen. That’s in large part thanks to her efforts, which have resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of Portuguese caves surveyed for biological life. She and others have identified so many novel species that call Portugal’s caves home that this tiny Mediterranean country would qualify as a biodiversity hot spot for cave organisms—if the field hadn’t recently changed its criteria. Still, in recognition of the nation’s growing interest in the underworld, Portugal recently built a lab and visitor center over one of its more notable caves.

    A Portuguese native, Reboleira traces her love of caves to a trip to a commercial cavern with her parents at age 6. At 14, she took up caving as a hobby. While studying biology in college, she realized that she could blend her passion for deep dark places with her love of animals by becoming a cave biologist. At about the same time, David Culver, a cave expert at American University in Washington, D.C., surveyed the world’s cave literature. With the help of colleagues, he then came up with the first list of cave biodiversity hot spots—those with at least 20 organisms specialized for subterranean life, according to the criteria they settled on. (Caves are much less diverse than most surface ecosystems, where a biodiversity hot spot is defined by the presence of hundreds of species crowded into an area.) With further work, Culver and other cave biologists determined there existed a “ridge” of subterranean biodiversity that extended from the Spanish-French border through Slovenia and other places in the Balkans.

  • Update: Ill workers rescued from South Pole in daring winter flight

    Emergency rescue launched for ill worker at South Pole

    A Twin Otter leaves the South Pole in a 2003 medical evacuation.

    Photo by Jason Medley, NSF

    Two sick workers were evacuated from the National Science Foundation's (NSF’s) Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station today and taken to the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera station on the Antarctic Peninsula. They are now awaiting transport off the continent to receive medical care, either today or tomorrow, depending on weather conditions. NSF is not releasing the workers’ identities and medical conditions, citing privacy.

    Here is our previous coverage, from 15 June:

    Two propeller-driven planes took off today from Calgary, Canada, on a perilous rescue mission to the U.S. research station at the South Pole. If all goes well, one of the planes will arrive in 6 days to pick up a member of the winter-over crew suffering from an unspecified medical emergency that requires treatment at a hospital.

    Every February, after the scientists have left, a few dozen people hunker down to spend the long, dark austral winter at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole research station operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Medical problems do occur, but most can be handled with medical personnel on site or in consultations with stateside doctors. The decision to evacuate someone is not made lightly because such a rescue operation is both dangerous and elaborate. Medevacs require planes that can operate in the extreme cold and are equipped with skis. The South Pole station has no tarmac, so the planes must land in the dark on compact snow.

    The Twin Otter aircraft are operated by the Canadian firm Kenn Borek Air, Ltd., which contracts with NSF to provide logistical support to the U.S. Antarctic Program. The aircraft will fly via South America to the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. One will remain there as a backup for search-and-rescue operations; the other will travel another 2400 kilometers to the South Pole.

  • Analysis: Does Obama’s claim to have rescued science hold up?

    John Holdren and Barack Obama

    White House science adviser John Holdren listens as President Barack Obama speaks to astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 2010.

    NASA/Bill Ingalls (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    This week, John Holdren became the longest-serving presidential science adviser in U.S. history. He marked the occasion by issuing a list of 100 things that President Barack Obama has done to fulfill his inaugural pledge to “restore science in its rightful place.”

    Such exercises in legacy building are common for veterans of departing administrations, and Holdren joined this one in its earliest days. But Holdren’s list is also a telling reminder of the limits of power for any occupant of the White House.

    That conclusion is based on the 10 items that Holdren’s office chose to highlight in a White House blog, arguably what he sees as the administration’s greatest scientific accomplishments since taking office in January 2009. However, several of those policies have been disrupted by political, economic, and societal forces beyond the president’s control.

  • First proposed human test of CRISPR passes initial safety review

    First proposed human test of CRISPR passes initial safety review

    The genome-editing method CRISPR may soon be tested in a clinical trial for the first time.


    A cancer study that would represent the first use of the red-hot gene-editing tool CRISPR in people passed a key safety review today. The proposed clinical trial, in which researchers would use CRISPR to engineer immune cells to fight cancer, won approval from the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, a panel that has traditionally vetted the safety and ethics of gene therapy trials funded by the U.S. government and others.

    Although other forms of gene editing have already been used to treat disease in people, the CRISPR trial would break new ground by modifying three different sites in the genome at once, which has not been easy to do until now. The study has also grabbed attention because—as first reported by the MIT Technology Review—tech entrepreneur Sean Parker’s new $250 million Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy will fund the trial.

    “It’s an important new approach. We’re going to learn a lot from this. And hopefully it will form the basis of new types of therapy,” says clinical oncologist Michael Atkins of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., one of three RAC members who reviewed the protocol.

  • STEM educators fear spending bill undermines goal of new U.S. law

    STEM educators fear spending bill undermines goal of new U.S. law

    Tampa, Florida, science teachers learn how to model the creation of the universe for their students.

    Kyle McDonald, Strawbridge Studios

    A federal grant has helped 500 teachers in Tampa, Florida, discover new ways to teach science at every grade level. The knowledge they’ve gained over the past 3 years has translated into 24 new lessons and a curriculum that includes hands-on strategies such as engineering design challenges.

    But the fate of that and dozens of other federally funded programs to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in U.S. elementary and secondary schools is up in the air following the first move by Congress to fund a new education law that reshuffles money allocated for STEM activities. A 2017 spending bill approved earlier this month by the Senate appropriations committee falls well short of what STEM educators had expected, setting off a potentially zero-sum game between science and other parts of the curriculum.

    Last year Congress replaced the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, reviled for its emphasis on annual testing, with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new blueprint for federal oversight of public education wiped out the $153-million-a-year Math and Science Partnership (MSP) program that had funded the training of Tampa-area teachers, along with three smaller accounts to support physical education, school counseling, and advanced placement courses. Those activities must now compete for money in a new account, called Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. The block grants are designed to give local educators greater flexibility to tailor programs that meet the needs of their districts, according to federal lawmakers, while keeping STEM education a high priority. And to sweeten the pot, Congress authorized $1.65 billion for the grants, some six times the combined amount earmarked for the four programs under the old law.

  • Giant U.S. fusion laser might never achieve goal, report concludes

    National Ignition Facility

    A special viewing port allows a peek into the National Ignition Facility’s target chamber.

    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    A long-troubled laser megaproject is facing fresh hurdles.

    A recent report concludes that although the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF)—a Department of Energy (DOE) laser lab designed to heat and compress capsules of hydrogen isotopes until they fuse, releasing energy—is making technical progress, it is still a long way from its titular goal: ignition, or a fusion burn that sustains itself and produces more energy than it takes to spark it.

    According to Physics Today magazine, the independent report, sponsored by DOE, suggests NIF-related research should shift from identifying the obstacles in the path to ignition, to whether ignition is even possible.

  • Why the Orlando shooter fired

    Anti-gay youth yell homophobic slurs during the NYC Anti Violence Project (AVP) rally in Queens, New York.

    Some homophobic people may be internally conflicted about their own sexuality, research suggests.

    Stacy Walsh Rosenstock/Alamy Stock Photo

    Investigators probing the killer behind the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, are finding evidence of an angry young man likely conflicted about his sexuality. A small but growing body of research suggests that some men with strong homophobic attitudes may be gay themselves, and that homophobia itself may signal other mental issues.

    Such research could provide much-needed data in an era when gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are the largest target group for hate crimes in the United States, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, and twice as likely as African-Americans to be targets of violence. (A decade ago, Jews were the top targets.)

    “We are just at the beginning of serious studies of homophobia,” said endocrinologist Emmanuele Jannini at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, who is also president of the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine.

  • China overtakes U.S. supercomputing lead

    Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee

    The Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is the fastest U.S. machine, but now just third in the world behind two computers in China.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Wikimedia

    China has claimed two computing crowns. A new supercomputer at China’s National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi in Jiangsu province has snagged the top spot on the latest TOP500 list of supercomputers, which was unveiled today at the 2016 International Supercomputing Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. The new machine, known as the Sunway TaihuLight, has a peak performance of 93 petaflop per second (Pflop/s), or 93 quadrillion calculations per second. That’s nearly three times the performance of its closest competitor, Tianhe-2, another Chinese supercomputer, and nearly 2 million times faster than a standard laptop. More important, for the first time China has overtaken the United States as the country with the largest installed supercomputing capacity.

    “We’re seeing an inflection point,” says Horst Simon, a supercomputing expert and deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Simon and a few other supercomputer experts update the TOP500 list twice a year to track trends in their field. Countries other than the United States have previously claimed the top spot for an individual machine’s performance, but this is the first time another country has eclipsed the United States in total supercomputing power. “We’ve seen this trend building for the last few years,” says Wu Feng, a supercomputing expert at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. “It shows that China is committed to a sustained investment in high-performance computing.”

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