Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Clean air advocates worried by EPA’s move to rethink cost-benefit calculations

    Smog covers Los Angeles skyline

    The Environmental Protection Agency is rethinking how to calculate the costs and benefits of regulations, including those aimed at curbing smog, shown here enshrouding Los Angeles, California.

    Bob Travis/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    While the public and the media focus on Scott Pruitt's ethics scandals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA0 boss is quietly advancing a regulatory overhaul that could have profound implications for air quality standards.

    The agency earlier this month published the draft plan, titled "Increasing Consistency and Transparency in Considering Costs and Benefits in the Rulemaking Process."

  • Trump’s plan to reshuffle government strikes familiar notes

    Donald Trump at a podium

    President Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    President Donald Trump today proposed reorganizing parts of the federal government in ways that should sound very familiar to those who follow U.S. science policy. In fact, many of the ideas that would impact the research community have been floated by previous administrations—Democratic as well as Republican—and some are less bold than what his predecessors had hoped to achieve.

    Of course, the fact that they appear in the 132-page document unveiled this afternoon by the White House also means they were never embraced by Congress and did not go into effect. And many observers doubt Trump will fare much better in realizing his proposed changes than his predecessors.

    The plan, labeled “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century,” would affect federal research agencies in ways great and small. Here are highlights from that document, along with some background and preliminary reactions from the communities most affected.

  • Physicist hopes the evidence is clear in bid for New York congressional seat

    Elaine DiMasi

    Elaine DiMasi at a Democratic candidates’ forum in Setauket, New York

    DiMasi for Congress

    SUFFOLK COUNTY IN NEW YORK—First-time congressional candidate Elaine DiMasi didn’t know what to expect when she knocked on a front door here in this Long Island community. But her opening words—“Hi, I’m a scientist at Brookhaven who quit because I want Lee Zeldin’s job”—were enough to win her an invitation from the woman who answered to come inside and chat.

    The 49-year-old DiMasi doesn’t waste time getting down to business. Her top campaign issue, she tells the woman and her husband, is creating clean energy jobs to bolster the area’s economy and protect the environment, including more vocational training. She talks to the retirees about the need for universal health care, affordable housing, reasonably priced child care, and tuition-free higher education for working-class families. She also listened to their stories about the challenges facing their children and grandchildren, and how national Democratic leaders have never once thanked them for their small donations to the party over the years.

    Ten minutes into the conversation come the magic words the candidate was hoping to hear. “My priority is getting rid of Zeldin,” the woman tells DiMasi, and “you have our vote.”

  • After controversy, U.S. releases report showing elevated health risks from nonstick chemicals

    Firefighters spray foam on a burning truck.

    Report finds that some nonstick chemicals, which are commonly used in fire fighting foams, have higher health risks than once believed.

    Mark Taylor/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    President Donald Trump’s administration has released a politically charged toxicology report about nonstick chemicals showing they can endanger human health at significantly lower levels than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has previously called safe.

    The draft report from the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is a toxicological profile of four types of stain- and water-resistant chemicals.

  • Hundreds of U.S. scientists urge more transparency in animal research

    Dogs playing in an animal research facility

    Dogs are among the many kinds of animals used in research.

    Understanding Animal Research (CC-BY 2.0)

    Breaking with a history of reticence, nearly 600 scientists, students, and lab animal workers published a letter in USA Today this morning that calls on U.S. research institutions to “embrace openness” about their animal research.

    “We should proudly explain how animals are used for the advancement of science and medicine, in the interest of the well-being of humans and animals,” the 592 signatories write in the letter. “From the development of insulin and transplant surgery to modern day advances, including gene therapies and cancer treatments; animals … continue to play a crucial role in both basic and applied research.”

    The letter was organized by the pro–animal research advocacy group Speaking of Research, which has offices in the both the United States and the United Kingdom. The group notes that four Nobel Prize–winning biologists are among the signatories: William Campbell, Mario Capecchi, Carol Greider, and Torsten Wiesel. It was also signed by students, lab technicians, veterinarians, physicians, and a few public policy experts.

  • Trump’s new oceans policy washes away Obama’s emphasis on conservation and climate

    Waves crashing on rocks.
    Neville Nell/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Marine conservation and addressing climate change are out. Jobs and national security are in.

    That’s just one message sent by a new executive order detailing a revised U.S. oceans policy released today by President Donald Trump. The order formally revokes the 2010 oceans policy issued by then-President Barack Obama, and replaces it with a markedly different template for what the government should focus on in managing the nation’s oceans, coastal waters, and Great Lakes.

    Some changes in emphasis are sweeping. The Trump order deletes a preamble to the Obama policy that emphasized “how vulnerable our marine environments are,” called for improving the nation’s “capacity to respond to climate change and ocean acidification,” and stressed the need for “a national policy to ensure the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems.” It also drops the Obama order’s references to “social justice,” “biological diversity,” and “conservation.” 

  • Knighthood in hand, astrophysicist prepares to lead U.S. fusion lab

    headshot of Steven Cowley

    Steven Cowley

    Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

    It’s been quite a few weeks for Steven Cowley, the British astrophysicist who formerly headed the United Kingdom’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE). Last month, he was named as the new director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in New Jersey, the United States’s premier fusion research lab. Then, last week he received a knighthood from the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II “for services to science and the development of nuclear fusion.”

    Cowley, or Sir Steven, is now president of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. He will take over his PPPL role on 1 July. He has a long track record in fusion research, having served as head of CCFE from 2008 to 2016 and as a staff scientist at PPPL from 1987 to 1993. PPPL is a Department of Energy (DOE)-funded national laboratory with a staff of more than 500 and an annual budget of $100 million. But in 2016, the lab took a knock when its main facility, the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), developed a series of disabling faults shortly after a $94 million upgrade. PPPL’s then-director, Stewart Prager, resigned soon after. DOE is now considering a recovery plan for the NSTX, which is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.

    During Cowley’s tenure at CCFE, that lab also started an upgrade of its rival to the NSTX, the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST). Spherical tokamaks are a variation on the traditional doughnut-shaped tokamak design whose ultimate expression, the giant ITER device in France, is now under construction. The plan is for ITER to demonstrate a burning plasma, one where the fusion reactions themselves generate all or most of the heat required to sustain the burn. But once that is done, researchers hope spherical tokamaks, or some other variation, will provide a route to commercial reactors that are smaller, simpler, and cheaper than ITER. By upgrading the NSTX and the MAST, the labs hope to show that this type of compact reactor can achieve the same sort of performance as CCFE’s Joint European Torus (JET), the world’s largest tokamak right now and the record holder on fusion performance.

  • New radio telescope in South Africa will study galaxy formation

    MeerKAT’s 64 dishes

    MeerKAT’s 64 dishes can study the way hydrogen gas moves around galaxies.


    Today, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a continent-spanning radio astronomy project, announced that Spain has come on board as the collaboration’s 11th member. That boost will help the sometimes-troubled project as, over the next year or so, it forms an international treaty organization and negotiates funding to start construction. Meanwhile, on the wide-open plains of the Karoo, a semiarid desert northeast of Cape Town, South Africa, part of the telescope is already in place in the shape of the newly completed MeerKAT, the largest and most powerful radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.

    The last of 64 13.5-meter dishes was installed late last year, and next month South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will officially open the facility. Spread across 8 kilometers, the dishes have a collecting area similar to that of the great workhorse of astrophysics, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, New Mexico. But with new hardware designs and a powerful supercomputer to process data, the newcomer could have an edge on its 40-year-old northern cousin.

    “For certain studies, it will be the best” in the world, says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cape Town, which operates MeerKAT. Sensitive across a wide swath of the radio spectrum, MeerKAT can study how hydrogen gas moves into galaxies to fuel star formation. With little experience, South Africa has “a major fantastic achievement,” says Heino Falcke of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. 

  • U.S. legislators back larger facilities budget for NSF

     Large Synoptic Survey Telescope facility

    A rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope being built in Chile

    Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, is in line for a budget increase of 4% to 5% next year. That assessment is based on bills approved recently by the spending committees in both chambers of Congress. Lawmakers have also signaled support for growing the account that NSF uses to build major new scientific facilities.

    It could be months before Congress passes a final NSF spending bill for the 2019 fiscal year, which starts on 1 October. So agency officials aren’t banking on either the $8.175 billion approved by the House of Representatives appropriations committee last month nor the $8.069 billion budget adopted last week by its Senate counterpart. Competition from other domestic programs also could chip away at the amount NSF receives.

    Still, if ultimately enacted, an increase in the range of $300 million to $400 million over NSF’s current $7.767 billion budget would be the second straight vote of confidence in the agency from Congress. And it would mark the second year that lawmakers have rejected President Donald Trump’s plans for the agency, which called for deep cuts in 2018 and flat funding in 2019.

  • Fieldwork in the Arctic is surprisingly costly, limiting the research done there

    Coastal surveys in Cape Dorset

    Researchers prepare for coastal surveys of seabird colonies in Cape Dorset in Canada.

    Jennifer Provencher

    Mark Mallory, who has studied Arctic seabirds for more than 20 years, often notes in his scientific papers how expensive it is to conduct fieldwork in the far north, as have some of his colleagues. But when they recently tallied up their costs systematically, they were shocked to find the true price of northern research was eight times greater than for similar studies of seabirds in southern locations.

    The findings, reported on 4 June online in Arctic Science,  are among the first to quantify the high costs of Arctic research. The authors say funding sources are often insufficient to cover these expenses, limiting scientists from collecting enough data to understand how Arctic ecosystems are responding to climate change.

    Mallory, a professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Canada, convened seabird researchers who work in the Arctic and in temperate regions. Based on their actual expenses, they estimated costs for a generic scenario in which three researchers establish a field camp for 4 weeks to monitor the breeding success of seabirds, including travel; accommodation; and shipping food, equipment, and supplies for sites in Nunavut and northern Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada; Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago; Greenland; and the Aleutian Islands. The researchers compared these estimates to calculations for southern locales.

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