Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.K. pledges $88 million to gigantic U.S. particle physics experiment

    illustration of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment

    The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment detector features four massive modules, each containing 17,000 metric tons of liquid argon.


    The United Kingdom has agreed to help build the next great particle physics experiment in the United States.

    In a signing ceremony today at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., U.K. officials pledged to spend ₤65 million—roughly $88 million—on key components for the proposed Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), a particle detector located in a defunct gold mine in Lead, South Dakota. Last month, researchers began digging the four massive caverns that will house the gargantuan modular detector.

    The agreement “involves us in one of the most exciting new physics experiments in the world,” Jo Johnson, U.K. minister for universities, science, research, and innovation, told ScienceInsider. “We’re delighted to be a part of it.”

  • Publishers go after networking site for illicit sharing of journal papers

    conceptual image of sharing ideas through computers

    Social networking sites where researchers swap papers have been accused of infringing  on journals' copyright.


    A major scientific publishing group is taking aim at a social networking site for allowing researchers to illegally post copies of their journal papers. The International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) in Oxford, U.K., and The Hague, the Netherlands, has written to ResearchGate, a networking website for researchers, to express concerns over its article-sharing practices.

    ResearchGate, the world’s largest academic social network site with more than 13 million members, has been criticized before for facilitating the upload of paywalled papers. These studies are posted by authors themselves—even though the site’s intellectual property policy states that its users should investigate whether they have the rights to share content before doing so.

    ResearchGate, operated out of Berlin, has reportedly raised more than $87 million in funding from the likes of the research charity the Wellcome Trust, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates since launching in 2008.

  • China’s atomic clock passes space test

    Tiangong-2 space lab

    China’s cold atom clock is working on board the Tiangong-2 space laboratory. 

    Imaginechina via AP Images

    Clocks that use cold atoms form the backbone of the international time system here on Earth. Now, scientists in China have successfully demonstrated a cold atom clock in space, an achievement that could lead to more accurate terrestrial timekeeping and better tests of fundamental physics.

    Most atomic clocks rely on a very steady tick: the frequency of fluorescent light emitted by cesium atoms after being excited by a microwave field. The frequency is steadier when the atoms move slowly, and so scientists first trap the atoms using intersecting laser beams and cool them down to a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero.

    Because the laser beams would impair the frequency measurement, the atoms must be released from the trap before they are excited by the microwaves. Typically, they are nudged upward by another laser and zapped with microwaves as they rise and then fall back down to Earth. But the briefness of this free fall limits how long the atoms can be probed and, hence, the clock’s accuracy and stability. In orbit, however, the atoms are in continuous free fall and can in principle be probed over longer periods of time.

  • Scientific society defines sexual harassment as scientific misconduct

    Poster hall of AGU 2015 Fall General Meeting

    The new policy would apply to participants at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting.

    Ebbi Roe Yovino/

    Sexual harassment is a form of scientific misconduct under a new policy adopted last week by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, D.C.

    “We’ve seen and heard of too many instances, stories, and studies that show harassment in the sciences is happening and that the problem is significant,” AGU leaders wrote in a 15 September post announcing the change, part of an update of the society’s ethics code. “Research has shown the destructive effects harassment, discrimination, and bullying can have on not only the people directly involved but on the research, institutions, students, faculty, or colleagues surrounding the misconduct.”

    The new policy applies not only to the society’s members and staff, but also to nonmembers participating in the society’s activities. AGU President Eric Davidson calls it “a major step forward” in addressing the issue.

  • Cybersecurity and technology transfer seen as top priorities for NIST director nominee

    Headshot of smiling Walter Copan

    Courtesy of Walter Copan

    President Donald Trump has nominated Walter Copan, an expert in technology transfer, to be the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which supports physical sciences research and operates labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado.

    The 63-year-old Copan is a Ph.D. chemist and president and CEO of the Colorado-based Intellectual Property Engineering Group. He says his top priority for the agency is to implement the Cybersecurity Framework, a NIST-led effort to improve network security across federal agencies as well as industry.

    “I think we all see cybersecurity as national security and economic security,” Copan says. He also wants to make sure security improvements benefit not just federal agencies and large corporations, but also smaller companies that can’t afford teams of information technology professionals. “Small- and medium-sized businesses are drivers of the economy. Statistics show that when [these businesses] are the victim of a cyberattack they go out of business in less than a year,” Copan says.

  • Top astronomer on the challenges of building the world’s largest telescope, and what’s next

    Portrait of Spanish researcher and professor Xavier Barcons

    New ESO chief Xavier Barcons (above) takes over from Tim de Zeeuw after a 10-year term.


    Spanish astronomer Xavier Barcons took over the reins this month of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the world’s foremost international astronomy organization. It is currently building the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), destined to be the world’s largest when completed in 2024.

    In the 1980s Barcons set up the first x-ray astronomy group in Spain at the University of Cantabria. He is a specialist on active galactic nuclei, superbright galactic cores thought to be caused by giant black holes sucking in and heating up quantities of gas and dust. To study them, he’s been heavily involved in European x-ray space telescopes such as XMM-Newton and the forthcoming Athena, due for launch in 2028. Barcons has also worked at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Spain’s Council for Scientific Research, and served as chair of ESO’s council from 2012 to 2014.

    He joins ESO in a period of high activity as the organization embarks on the E-ELT, its biggest project so far. But a shadow hangs over the €1.1 billion facility: Because of a shortfall in funding, the ESO council has only approved a first phase of construction, which will produce a working telescope but with certain desired components delayed until extra funding can be found. Those components include 210 of the 798 segments that make up the 39-meter main mirror, back-up mirror segments, some lasers for the adaptive optics system, and a few instrument components. 

  • U.S. House approves 2018 spending bills, but process far from finished

    Senate wing of the United States Capitol building


    The U.S. House of Representatives today took a major step toward setting federal science budgets for the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October. But Congress is still far from the finish line, and final spending levels aren’t likely to be finalized until late this year at the earliest.

    Legislators voted largely along party lines in approving a package of 12 appropriations bills that would provide about $1.23 trillion in 2018 for so-called discretionary programs. That category covers about one-third of the federal budget and includes most research budgets. (The rest pays for mandatory entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security and interest on the $20 trillion national debt.)

    The good news for the research community is that the 211-to-198 vote by the House largely rejects deep cuts to science programs proposed by President Donald Trump earlier this year—and even calls for spending increases at a few agencies, including $1.1 billion more for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But the budgets of several research agencies would shrink by a few percentage points, or remain at existing levels.

  • After uproar, U.K. Parliament’s science committee now has a female member

    The United Kingdom’s House of Parliament in London,

    The United Kingdom’s House of Parliament in London, with the Big Ben clock tower.

    Daniel Coomber/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Before dawn this past Tuesday morning, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee tweeted that it was “pleased to announced our membership has been confirmed.” Parliamentary committees had been dissolved after the recent U.K. election, and now the panel was rolling out its new contingent of lawmakers. The only problem: All eight of the mostly smiling faces belonged to men.

    This made the science committee Parliament’s only panel without any women. In the previous Parliament, women made up 60% of the membership of the science committee, including its first chair.

    Many observers were dismayed. “My heart sank,” blogged Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. Physicist Athene Donald of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom opined in The Guardian: “It is not encouraging for young female scientists to see that parliament apparently cares so little about their futures that they couldn’t even come up with even that long-derided sole token woman.” 

  • Once this Viking warrior was revealed to be a woman, some began to question her battle bona fides

    1889 sketch of a female Viking’s gravesite with weapons, armor, and horses she was buried with.

    This 1889 sketch of a female Viking’s gravesite shows the weapons, armor, and horses she was buried with.

    C. Hedenstierna-Jonson et al., American Journal of Physical Anthropology (8 September 2017) © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

    Last week, archaeologists reported that a Viking buried with a sword, ax, spear, and two shields—first discovered in the 1880s and long thought to be a man—was, in fact, a woman, making her the first known high-ranking female Viking warrior. Yet some Viking scholars have expressed doubt about whether the woman was actually a Valkyrie-like, battle-hardened fighter, or whether she had just been buried with a warrior’s accoutrement.

    Science spoke with the team’s lead author, archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University in Sweden, about what archaeologists can infer about the Viking woman in question, and the double standards that crop up when female remains defy historical stereotypes. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


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