Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • EPA’s Pruitt promises controversial ‘red team’ climate debate could come soon

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt told lawmakers today his long-anticipated exercise to debate climate change science could be launched early next year as Democrats criticized him, saying EPA shows "all the signs of an agency captured by industry."

    Appearing before the U.S. House of Representative’s Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Pruitt said EPA's work on his "red team, blue team" review of climate science is still ongoing. Nevertheless, he said, the exercise's public debut could come as soon as January.

  • In California fires, a starring role for the wicked wind of the West

    Embers blow from a tree

    REUTERS/David McNew

    Originally published by E&E News

    Powerful winds are spreading Southern California fires that have destroyed at least 175 structures and forced more than 27,000 evacuations.

    The wind is expected to bedevil firefighters for several more days, with large blazes raging in Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. And while the fires' causes are under investigation, it's clear that high winds made the conflagrations so destructive.

    Called the Santa Anas, the dry winds typically hit in late fall and are infamous in the Golden State.

  • Rocket Lab poised to provide dedicated launcher for CubeSat science

    Electron rocket on platform

    Rocket Lab is set to launch its second Electron rocket, nicknamed “Still Testing.”

    Rocket Lab

    Atop an emerald green hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at the tip of New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, sits a diminutive launch pad, built and operated by Rocket Lab, a Los Angeles, California–based aerospace company. On 8 December, a 10-day launch window will open for the second flight of the Electron, one of the world’s first rockets specifically designed to carry small satellites to orbit—a capability that intrigues many scientists.

    “These small payload–dedicated launch capabilities are so important,” says aeronautical engineer Kerri Cahoy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “They’ll let us deploy dozens to hundreds of CubeSats and provide data to weather forecasters, people monitoring agriculture, surveillance—you name it.”

    In the last decade, CubeSats, measuring 10 centimeters to a side, have revolutionized space science. Cheap and expendable, they can be built and flown frequently, often in constellations with many units working together. But up until now, CubeSats have always been stowaways, hitching rides on rockets carrying larger satellites. As an alternative route, they can be launched along with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and wait for astronauts to deploy them. But both avenues to orbit can mean waits of months or even years. And even then, they provide access to a limited number of places above our planet: either the ISS’s 400-kilometer-high, equatorial orbit, or wherever the larger satellite happens to be headed.

  • Q&A: Why fossil scientists are suing Trump over monuments downsizing

    a man (V. David Polly) in sunglasses and a baseball cap, standing atop scenic cliffs in Utah

    Paleontologist P. David Polly in the fossil-rich Circle Cliffs region of Utah, which President Donald Trump has removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    Society for Vertebrate Paleontology/Colter Hoyt

    In a move likely to lead to a precedent-setting court battle, President Donald Trump earlier this week dramatically downsized two national monuments in Utah. On 4 December, he lifted strict protections from about 85% of the 61,000-hectare Bears Ears National Monument, which was created by former President Barack Obama last year. And he cut in half the 760,000-hectare Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, created by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. Both monuments are known for exceptional sites holding the remains of ancient human settlements, unique ecosystems, and troves of fossils.

    Trump said the cuts were needed because past presidents had “severely abused” their authority under the federal Antiquities Act in creating the monuments, which typically bar industrial activities. The law “requires that only the smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection as national monuments,” Trump said in remarks in Salt Lake City. “Unfortunately, previous administrations have ignored the standard and used the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control. These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home.”

    The Trump administration has said it might also downsize two other monuments—Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou and Nevada’s Gold Butte—and allow more industrial activity in a half-dozen others, including several marine preserves. 

  • Argentine scientist indicted over design of glacier inventory

    A dump truck at Barrick Gold Corp’s Veladero gold mine

    A dump truck carrying minerals at the Veladero gold mine in Argentina.


    A prominent glaciologist, Ricardo Villalba, has been indicted on criminal charges for allegedly favoring a mining company as a consequence of how his former institute designed Argentina’s national glacier inventory.

    The 27 November federal criminal court indictment also includes three former environment ministers. All four have been charged with “abuse of authority” for failing to protect water sources under a 2010 law aimed at preserving glaciated areas. The law prohibits mining in those areas.

    The lawsuit was filed by a grassroots group after the Veladero mine in northwestern Argentina spilled cyanide into the Jáchal watershed in September 2015. Another spill in the same area occurred this past September.

  • Nations agree to ban fishing in Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years

    the arctic ocean with ice floats

    Declining summer sea ice could open the Arctic Ocean to commercial fishing.

    NASA/Kathryn Hansen/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Nine nations and the European Union have reached a deal to place the central Arctic Ocean (CAO) off-limits to commercial fishers for at least the next 16 years. The pact, announced yesterday, will give scientists time to understand the region’s marine ecology—and the potential impacts of climate change—before fishing becomes widespread.

    “There is no other high seas area where we’ve decided to do the science first,” says Scott Highleyman, vice president of conservation policy and programs at the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C., who also served on the U.S. delegation to the negotiations. “It’s a great example of putting the precautionary principle into action.”

    The deal to protect 2.8 million square kilometers of international waters in the Arctic was reached after six meetings spread over 2 years. It includes not just nations with coastal claims in the Arctic, but nations such as China, Japan, and South Korea with fishing fleets interested in operating in the region.

  • For World AIDS Day, an urgent call for more attention to men and boys

    A group of teenage boys play foosball at a youth center in South Africa.

    Teens play foosball at a youth center run by the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation near Cape Town, South Africa. A new report says HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs often fail to reach boys.

    Jason Kane/PBS NewsHour

    Friday is World AIDS Day, and pronouncements once again are making proud declarations of the many strides made against HIV in the past year.

    But this 1 December there’s also a loud lament about treatment shortcomings within a surprising demographic: boys and men.

    The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has bluntly titled its new report Blind Spot and notes in its first sentence that focusing on boys and men may seem “counterintuitive” given the gender inequalities that often put girls and women at a disadvantage when it comes to infection and treatment. But data speak. Overall, more than 20 million of the 37 million HIV-infected people in the world now receive antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, which both save lives and prevent transmission. But in people 15 years of age or older, ARV coverage of men is only 47% compared with 60% for women.

  • If you haven’t had dengue infection, don’t use our vaccine, drug company warns

    A health worker inserts a syringe into a vial of dengue vaccine.

    A health worker prepares to administer a vial of dengue vaccine in the Paraná state of Brazil in 2016.

    Sanofi Pasteur/Gabriel Lehto/Novas Imagens Cine Video/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The manufacturer of the sole dengue vaccine on the market says a new study shows that it should only be used in people who have had a previous infection from the mosquito-borne virus.

    As Reuters and several other news outlets have reported, France’s Sanofi Pasteur released a statement that said a 6-year analysis of people who received the vaccine found more severe disease occurred in people who initially were naïve to the virus. Sanofi Pasteur stressed that the vaccine still protected against dengue fever when it was given to people who had prior dengue infections.

  • Q&A: Japanese physician snares prize for battling antivaccine campaigners

    Riko Muranaka speaking at the Foreign Correspondents' Club

    Riko Muranaka


    A Japanese physician and writer who is under fire from antivaccination groups for defending a cervical cancer vaccine won an international award today for her perseverance. She hopes the recognition will lead to a reevaluation of the vaccine's safety in Japan.      

    Riko Muranaka, a lecturer at the Kyoto University School of Medicine in Japan who writes about women's health issues, found herself in the crosshairs of antivaccination campaigners after publishing articles explaining how clinical trials and extensive reviews had demonstrated the safety of several human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines. HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer and also causes genital warts, as well as oropharyngeal and other cancers in men. International trials have shown that the vaccines prevent HPV infections in most individuals, and the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, recommends including HPV vaccination in national immunization programs.

    The HPV vaccine became available in Japan at a reduced cost or for free in 2010, and the vaccination rate rose to about 70%. In April 2013, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare made the vaccine part of the free national immunization program and recommended it for girls in their early teens. But soon afterward, antivaccine campaigners started claiming the shot causes debilitating side effects. TV programs repeatedly broadcast a video of a young woman having seizures supposedly after receiving the HPV vaccine. The ministry suspended its vaccination recommendation and vaccination rates have since plummeted to less than 1% of eligible girls. (The HPV vaccine remains freely available.)

  • NASA sensor to study space junk too small to be seen from Earth

    Impact chip in the window of the International Space Station

    A fragment of space debris much smaller than a millimeter gouged out a 7-millimeter-wide chip in a window on the International Space Station.


    The film Gravity dramatized the risks of space junk. But although flyaway wrenches and broken-off rocket parts may pose the deadliest threat to spacecraft, most orbital debris is actually much smaller—think flecks of paint and the splinters of shattered satellites. Now, NASA hopes to learn more about the dust-size microdebris orbiting Earth with the Space Debris Sensor (SDS), set to be attached to the International Space Station (ISS) following a 4 December cargo launch by SpaceX.

    Using ground-based radars, the U.S. Air Force keeps track of about 23,000 objects larger than a baseball, so satellite operators can avoid collisions by maneuvering out of the way. But much less is known about smaller debris, says Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit focused on space sustainability, in Washington, D.C. The SDS will study objects smaller than a millimeter—and at high speeds they can still cause real damage, Weeden says. “If a satellite is in orbit for 10 or 15 years, those little abrasions can have an impact by degrading sensors or degrading materials on the satellite,” he says.

    NASA previously studied microdebris by inspecting the windows and radiators of space shuttles, which returned to Earth pockmarked with tiny impacts. “A detailed ground inspection could estimate what sizes the objects were that impacted it, but there’s limited information you can get out of that,” says Joseph Hamilton, an orbital debris scientist and SDS principal investigator at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 

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