ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

    ROMAN G. AGUILERA/EFE/Newscom

    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. 

  • Satellites measuring Earth’s melting ice sheets to go dark

    Artist’s conception of the GRACE spacecraft orbiting Earth.

    Artist’s conception of the GRACE spacecraft orbiting Earth.

    NASA/JPL

    A sentinel of Earth’s climate is going dark. After running for a decade beyond its planned life, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) is nearly out of fuel and will soon make its final science run, NASA announced late yesterday. The tandem of satellites—called GRACE-1 and GRACE-2—measure minute shifts in Earth’s gravity to chart flows of mass across the planet, such as the unexpectedly rapid melt of polar ice sheets and the drawdown of underground water reservoirs called aquifers.

    Scientists had hoped GRACE would operate until its successor, the $550 million GRACE Follow-on (GRACE-FO) mission, reached orbit. But troubles securing a ride to space have delayed GRACE-FO’s launch until early 2018. Meanwhile, the battery in GRACE-2 used to store solar power has been deteriorating rapidly, forcing the satellite to burn through fuel. Engineers turned off an accelerometer last year to keep it running, but the satellite’s data have continued to degrade.

    On 4 September, scientists lost contact with GRACE-2 after another of its battery cells stopped operating. Four days of feverish work followed, with scientists steeling themselves for the mission’s end. But finally, engineers bypassed the satellite’s flight software, successfully rebooting it. NASA has now put GRACE-2 on standby until mid-October, when it will run until early November in full sun on its final planned science collection.

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

    Senate wing of the United States Capitol building

    OGphoto/iStockphoto

    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.

     

  • The islanders of New Guinea are some of the most diverse people in the world. Here’s why

    Members of Papua New Guinea's Kaluli tribe dig up potatoes

    Papua New Guinea highlanders from the Kaluli tribe still cultivate crops such as potatoes.

    HEMIS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

    If you travel the meandering Sepik River of New Guinea, it quickly becomes apparent that from one bend to the next the people along the banks speak distinct languages. The island's remarkable linguistic diversity reflects real genetic differences, a research team reports this week in Science. More unexpected, the team concludes that this genetic variation dates back just 10,000 to 20,000 years, rather than to 50,000 years ago or so, when humans first arrived.

    The island's independent invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago did not wipe out the genetic differences, as it did in Europe or parts of Asia. "With agriculture, you tend to get genetically homogenized societies," says team member Anders Bergström, a graduate student at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, U.K. In Europe, farmers from Anatolia replaced local hunter-gatherers and erased much of their genetic contribution. That this did not happen on New Guinea "is a big surprise," says Sanger geneticist Chris Tyler-Smith, who led the team.

    The researchers analyzed variation among 1.7 million DNA markers across the genomes of 381 Papua New Guinea (PNG) residents, and they also compared the complete genomes of another 39. They concluded that the people of New Guinea were isolated from Asians for most of prehistory, and that highland and lowland dwellers separated from each other 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. In the highlands, people split into three very distinct clusters of social groups within the past 10,000 years, soon after they began cultivating plants. In the lowlands, two main clusters arose in the north and south.

  • Updated: Researchers rally around science advocate convicted in Egypt

    Ismail Serageldin

    Ismail Serageldin

    D.shennawy/Wikimedia Commons

    *Update, 13 September, 5:15 p.m.: A new letter of support for Serageldin includes 90 Nobel Prize winners, 20 heads of state, and some 150 scholars. More information can be found here. The court will hear his appeal next week. Here is our original story from 11 August:

    Scientists, engineers, and others are hoping an Egyptian court will reconsider a prison sentence given to one of the nation’s most prominent science advocates. Last week, in a surprising outcome, an Egyptian judge sentenced Ismail Serageldin, founding director of Egypt's Library of Alexandria, to 3.5 years in prison for financial misdemeanors. Serageldin has appealed the 31 July verdict, and this week more than 180 scientists, engineers, physicians, and public figures issued a declaration of support (in Arabic) on his behalf.

    Serageldin directed the library, also known as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and its 14 affiliated research institutes and museums, from 2001 until he retired this year. Previously, he worked as an economist at the World Bank and chaired the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, which helps steer a global network of research facilities.

    After the 2011 revolution in Egypt, several employees at the library accused Serageldin and three colleagues of misusing public funds. Of 118 charges, the judge dismissed all but three: not giving some employees enough work, improperly canceling life insurance policies, and improperly renting out cafeterias at the library. Supporters of Serageldin expected the Court of Misdemeanors in Alexandria to also toss out those charges. But the judge instead sentenced Serageldin to prison; his colleagues received 6- to 18-month terms.

  • New study finds link between flu vaccine and miscarriage. But is it real?

    woman receiving flu vaccination

    Many countries recommend that pregnant women receive the flu vaccine.

    Patrick ALLARD/REA/Redux

    News Staff Writer Jon Cohen wrote the 2005 book Coming to Term: Uncovering the Truth About Miscarriage, so ScienceInsider asked him for his perspective on one of today’s hot stories.

    Splashed across the web today were headlines connecting the flu vaccine to miscarriage. The “hint of a possible link” in a new study would likely lead to questions about the safety of the vaccine, The Washington Post wrote. Edward Belongia, the last author of the paper, is a widely respected influenza researcher at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute in Wisconsin, who sits on the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. And the study’s place of publication, Vaccine, is a top-notch specialty journal.

    But the small-scale study, which found a slightly higher chance of miscarriage in women who received a flu vaccine 2 years in a row that included a specific strain of the virus, is littered with “possible,” “may,” and “could.” And the researchers themselves stress the “important” limitations of the new work. Among them, in the authors’ own words:

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