Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Massive bleaching killed 35% of the coral on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef

    Dead (brown) and dying staghorn coral on the central Great Barrier Reef in May.

    Dead (brown) and dying staghorn coral on the central Great Barrier Reef in May.

    Johanna Leonhardt

    Researchers have confirmed the grim toll of an unusually hot summer on Australia's Great Barrier Reef: Mass bleaching has killed 35% of corals on the northern and central sections of the 2300-kilometer-long system. On 24 of the 84 reefs surveyed, 50% of the corals have perished, including specimens that were 50 to 100 years old. "They can't recover in anything less than that period, certainly not in 10 years," says Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville.

    Aerial surveys earlier this year found extensive and severe bleaching on the northern two-thirds of the reef. A combination of global warming and the ongoing El Niño, a periodic phenomenon that brings unusually warm water to the equatorial Pacific, warmed coastal waters. In reaction to hot water, corals lose the colorful symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae they host and turn white. The white coral skeletons are visible from the air. But brownish algae soon smother dead corals, after which the reef's condition can only be determined by close-up inspection. Hughes and his colleagues, who previously conducted aerial surveys, announced the results of their in-water confirmations in a media release today.

  • Questions abound after study links tumors to cellphone radiation

    Questions abound after study links tumors to cellphone radiation

    New study has raised fresh questions about the health impacts of cellphone use.

    Hernán Piñera/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Male rats exposed to cellphone radiation in a large U.S. government study were more likely to develop rare brain and heart cancers, a preliminary analysis has found, adding weight to concerns the ubiquitous devices could pose a health risk to people.

    But though the study is the most comprehensive yet of lab animals exposed to cellphone radiation, researchers say it’s far from conclusive. And the findings pose a number of puzzles. It’s not clear why cancer rates rose in male but not female rats, for instance, or why rats exposed to cellphone radiation lived, on average, longer than radiation-free rats. The study also does not pinpoint a biological mechanism that would account for the findings. And, as usual, it comes with the caveat that studies of rodents can mean little for humans.

    The findings, posted on the bioRxiv preprint server late on 26 May by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a multiagency research effort, have already begun rippling through scientific and political circles, triggering calls for additional research and, potentially, additional warnings about cellphone use.

  • In dramatic statement, European leaders call for ‘immediate’ open access to all scientific papers by 2020

    In dramatic statement, European leaders call for ‘immediate’ open access to all scientific papers by 2020

    The Competitiveness Council meeting in Brussels this week.

    EU Competitiveness Council

    In what European science chief Carlos Moedas calls a "life-changing" move, E.U. member states today agreed on an ambitious new open-access (OA) target. All scientific papers should be freely available by 2020, the Competitiveness Council—a gathering of ministers of science, innovation, trade, and industry—concluded after a 2-day meeting in Brussels. But some observers are warning that the goal will be difficult to achieve.

    The OA goal is part of a broader set of recommendations in support of open science, a concept that also includes improved storage of and access to research data. The Dutch government, which currently holds the rotating E.U. presidency, had lobbied hard for Europe-wide support for open science, as had Carlos Moedas, the European commissioner for research and innovation.

    "We probably don't realize it yet, but what the Dutch presidency has achieved is just unique and huge," Moedas said at a press conference. "The commission is totally committed to help move this forward."

  • U.S. advisers sign off on plan for reviewing risky virus studies

    A worker in a biosafety level 3 lab.

    A worker in a biosafety level 3 lab.

    Maggie Bartlett/NHGRI

    A board of advisers this week signed off on a proposal for how the U.S. government should go about deciding whether to fund certain studies that could potentially create dangerous human pathogens. The plan now goes to government officials, who say they hope to put out a policy by the end of year. Still unclear, however, is exactly when they will lift an 19-month-old ban that has halted a handful of virology studies.

    The report from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is meant to guide decisions about so-called gain-of-function (GOF) studies—experiments that modify a pathogen in ways that could make it more transmissible and more pathogenic in humans. Such studies can help experts prepare for pandemics, but they also pose risks if the altered pathogen should escape the lab. In 2011, two GOF studies with the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus sparked a lengthy NSABB discussion over whether the work should even be published. (Ultimately, the NSABB said it should be.) The studies also led to a new oversight policy for certain H5N1 experiments.

    Then in 2014, more papers on risky flu viruses, along with some mishaps at federal labs, convinced U.S. officials that existing policies weren’t enough. In October 2014, the White House announced a “pause” on new funding for 18 GOF studies of influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses (although several projects were later exempted). Officials then asked a revived NSABB to come up with a process for overseeing risky GOF studies.

  • Not unexpectedly, a new drug-resistant ‘superbug’ pops up in the United States

    Not unexpectedly, a new drug-resistant ‘superbug’ pops up in the United States

    E. coli bacteria growing in a dish.

    VeeDunn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    For years, public health experts have warned us that deadly bacteria are developing resistance to all our available antibiotics. This week, researchers reported the first known U.S. case of an Escherichia coli infection resistant to colistin, a harsh drug seen as a last resort to knock out stubborn infections. The finding, described in the American Society for Microbiology journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, is no big surprise to researchers tracking the rise of resistant bacteria. The resistance gene, known as mcr-1, was discovered in E. coli in China last year, and has since cropped up in Europe.

    As the United States crosses the same ominous milestone, research to understand resistance and develop new drugs is surging ahead. As Science reported earlier this month, evolutionary biologists have recently revisited old dogma about how best to prescribe antibiotics—revealing that trusted strategies such as using a high dose may not actually help prevent resistance.

  • Top French scientists slam surprise budget cut

    Top French scientists slam surprise budget cut

    Quantum physicist Serge Haroche, a 2012 Nobel Prize winner, condemns the cuts in an interview with French news channel iTELE.


    Scientists in France are up in arms after the government unexpectedly tabled a plan to cut €256 million from the country's research funds for this year. On Monday, seven Nobel laureates and a Fields medalist took to the pages of French broadsheet Le Monde to call on the government to reverse the decision. The cuts will “brutally destroy” France's research activities, the signatories warn in an open letter.

    The presidents of the scientific councils of five national organizations, including the National Center for Scientific Research and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, also expressed their indignation in a joint statement on Tuesday. But the French government says the measure is primarily a bookkeeping maneuver that won't have any practical impact on research activities.

  • U.S. should stick with troubled ITER fusion project, secretary of energy recommends


    The ITER fusion reactor under construction in France in April 2016.

    The ITER Organization

    The United States should continue for at least 2 more years its participation in ITER, the gigantic—and massively over budget—international fusion experiment under construction in southern France. That is the much anticipated—but not surprising—recommendation of a report from the Department of Energy (DOE) that congressional budgetmakers ordered last December and that was delivered to Capitol Hill this week.

    But there's a catch: To keep going, DOE says, the U.S. ITER effort will need significantly more money—at least $230 million in 2018, or $105 million more than DOE has requested for it in fiscal year 2017, which begins 1 October. And the report doesn't say whether the Unites States should continue in ITER if, as seems likely, Congress doesn’t agree to provide that extra money.

    "It's a punt and everybody expected a punt," a Senate staffer who works for the Republican majority tells ScienceInsider. "But in this budget climate tough decisions need to be made. They certainly didn't make the decision."

  • Q&A: Web billionaire describes his plan to shoot for the stars

    Breakthrough Starshot lasers

    Breakthrough Starshot will require lasers many times more powerful than any existing today.

    Breakthrough Initiatives

    Last month, Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner announced plans to send thousands of tiny spacecraft to visit Alpha Centauri, the closest star system at 4.4 light-years from Earth. Dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, the mission aims to take close-up images and collect data from any potentially habitable planets there. In order to cover the vast distance—41 trillion kilometers—in a reasonable time, the proposed spacecraft will each weigh less than a gram. Once in space, they will unfurl lightweight sails to catch laser beams shot from Earth, accelerating to one-fifth the speed of light under light pressure. Launch could be 30 years off, and the trip to Alpha Centauri would take a further 2 decades.

    Milner, who also supports the multimillion-dollar Breakthrough Prizes and Breakthrough Listen, a search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, has committed $100 million to this venture. But Breakthrough Starshot has polarized opinion: Some are enthused by its ambition, whereas others say it is costly and unnecessary, isn’t feasible, or is downright dangerous. Milner spoke with Science by phone about the challenges facing the project and how he answers his critics. His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Biotech company will sponsor historic high school science competition

    The 2016 Intel Science Talent Search awards gala.

    The 2016 Intel Science Talent Search awards gala

    Thanks to a personal connection, one of the most successful biotechnology companies in the United States is apparently the new title sponsor of the Science Talent Search (STS), the prestigious high school science competitions run by the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) in Washington, D.C. New York-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. will invest $100 million over the next 10 years to become the third such sponsor in STS’s nearly 75-year-long history, according to several media outlets. Adding to the evidence, an application to trademark the name “Regeneron Science Talent Search” has been filed in the United States.

  • Jeremy Berg named Science editor-in-chief

    Jeremy Berg

    Jeremy Berg

    Wendie Berg

    Jeremy Berg, a biochemist and administrator at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) in Pennsylvania, will become the next editor-in-chief of Science magazine on 1 July. A former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) who has a longstanding interest in science policy, Berg will succeed Marcia McNutt, who is stepping down to become president of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The board of AAAS, which publishes Science, announced Berg’s appointment today. AAAS immediate past-president, Gerald Fink, who led the search committee, praised Berg as a “terrific choice.” Berg’s “broad scientific perspective and passionate advocacy for basic research, combined with his interest in scientific policy, makes him a superb spokesperson for the scientific community,” said Fink, a geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    Berg says his wide-ranging interests drew him to the editor-in-chief position, which also includes oversight of the other journals in the Science family. “I’m very passionate about science communications broadly defined, from scientific results through policy, and to the scientific community but also the public. When this position became available, it struck me as ideal,” he says.

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