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  • U.K. buys stake in satellite company that could spoil astronomy

    Model of One Web satellite

    OneWeb plans to launch as many as 42,000 satellites to an orbit that could harm astronomy.

    NASA/Kim Shiflett

    When OneWeb filed for bankruptcy protection in March, astronomers breathed a sigh of relief. The company planned to launch thousands of internet-providing satellites into low-Earth orbit, where their reflections could disrupt the observations of ground-based telescopes. But now, the company has risen from the grave with the announcement today that the U.K. government and the Indian cellphone operator Bharti Global have successfully bid to rescue OneWeb with a $1 billion investment.

    The revived company now plans an even larger constellation of up to 42,000 satellites, at an altitude of 1200 kilometers—the worst possible outcome for astronomers. At that altitude, satellites will leave bright trails across telescope images all through the night, effectively ruining the observations of survey telescopes such as the 8-meter Vera C. Rubin Observatory, under construction in Chile. “It’s the stuff at 1000 kilometers that is the real killer for astronomy,” says Mark McCaughrean of the European Space Agency, speaking at a briefing organized by the European Astronomical Society (EAS). “Engagement [with astronomers] has to happen and it has to happen now.”

    Astronomers first became concerned about such “megaconstellations” last year, when the launch company SpaceX lofted the first batch of its Starlink satellites. The aim of the project is to provide internet access in areas hard to reach with fiber-optic cables. The satellites, launched 60 at a time in a single rocket, proved to be highly visible in the sky, to the alarm of astronomers. The company has now launched 540 Starlink satellites—part of an initial goal of 1584—and aims to provide a service in the United States and Canada before the end of the year.

  • Operation Warp Speed’s opaque choices of COVID-19 vaccines draw Senate scrutiny

     Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), holds up a model of COVID-19.

    During a hearing on COVID-19 vaccines, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, showed off a replica of the virus that causes the disease.

    Saul Loeb/Pool via AP

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    The leaders of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s well-funded project to develop COVID-19 vaccines at record speed, have said they are running a transparent project. They have bristled at critics who say they make major decisions behind closed doors. But at a Senate subcommittee hearing today that focused on Warp Speed, scientists at the front of the effort, after repeated questioning, gave limited answers about the vaccine candidates they have chosen as frontrunners in the race and their selection criteria.

    At the opening of the hearing—held by the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies—Senator Patty Murray (D–WA) put the witnesses on notice that she wanted straightforward answers on many issues. “We’re going to need to hold this administration accountable to avoid repeating mistakes and delays,” Murray said. “The administration still has not provided any explanation of how it is selecting vaccine candidates, what the risks are of narrowing down that shortlist or addressed concerns about potential conflicts in contracts that predate this crisis.”

  • Amid protests against racism, scientists move to strip offensive names from journals, prizes, and more

    The Gate of Honour, a listed building at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University, which has been spray painted with the with words "Eugenics is genocide.”

    In June, graffiti supporting calls for the Univeristy of Cambridge to remove a stained glass window memorializing statistician Ronald Fisher, a supporter of eugenics, appeared on a campus building. The university later removed the Fisher window.

    AP Images

    Update (3 July): This story has been changed to include Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's decision to remove the name of famed biologist James Watson from its graduate program on account of his racial comments.

    For Earyn McGee, terminology matters.

    McGee, a herpetologist, studies the habitat and behavior of Yarrows spiny lizard, a reptile native to the southwestern United States. The University of Arizona graduate student and her colleagues regularly pack their things—boots, pens, notebooks, trail mix—and set off into the nearby Chiricahua Mountains. At their field site, they start an activity with a name that evokes a racist past: noosing.

    Noosing” is a long-standing term used by herpetologists for catching lizards. But for McGee, a Black scientist, the term is unnerving, calling to mind horrific lynchings of Black people by white people in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Being the only Black person out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of white people talking about noosing things is unsettling,” she says. McGee has urged her colleagues to change the parlance to lassoing,” which she says also more accurately describes how herpetologists catch lizards with lengths of thread.

  • One U.K. trial is transforming COVID-19 treatment. Why haven’t others delivered more results?

    a health care worker in protective gear cares for a patient

    A World Health Organizationled global trial of treatments for COVID-19 was slow to enroll coronavirus-infected people, like this one in a Spanish intensive care unit, whereas a large trial in the United Kingdom quickly produced results for three treatments.

    PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    On 29 June, University of Oxford clinical scientists Martin Landray and Peter Horby changed how physicians around the world consider treating COVID-19—for the third time in little more than 3 weeks. The principal investigators of a U.K. megatrial called Recovery, which has been testing existing drugs as therapies for the new infection, the pair had just finished reviewing data from 1596 patients who had received a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir, two antivirals known to curb HIV, and 3376 patients who had received only standard care. In a press release, they and their Recovery colleagues announced there had been no significant difference in the death rate between the two groups. “This could have worked. And it was a bust,” says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “It was really important to clarify that.”

    Earlier the same month, and again through press releases, Recovery (Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 therapy) delivered widely accepted verdicts on two other treatments. It revealed that dexamethasone, a cheap steroid, reduced deaths by one-third in patients on a ventilator and showed that hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug controversially touted for COVID-19, did not benefit hospitalized patients. A run on dexamethasone ensued as physicians in the United Kingdom and elsewhere quickly made it part of their standard of care for the sickest patients, whereas many other studies of hydroxychloroquine now looked futile and were halted.

  • The global AIDS meeting, the Woodstock of science gatherings, goes virtual amid COVID-19

    Participants enter the mail hall of a large AIDS meeting

    The International AIDS Conference gathers scientists, health workers, celebrities, and activists such as these protesting grandmothers in Durban, South Africa. Can that eclectic mix now come together online?

    J. Cohen/Science

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Anton Pozniak attended his first international AIDS conference in 1990, and it changed his life. The English physician was debating whether he should specialize in infectious disease or pulmonology. After the meeting, there was little debate. “I just thought I have got to be a part of this.” Now, Pozniak heads the International AIDS Society (IAS), which runs the mega-biannual meeting, originally scheduled to take place in San Francisco and Oakland, California, next week. Instead, it is going virtual.

    AIDS 2020, the 23rd International AIDS Conference, is but one of slews of scientific meetings that have been upended by COVID-19 and gone online. But this gathering of some 20,000 people has no parallel in the world of medicine or science. Researchers, health care workers, pharmaceutical companies, and public health officials from around the world spend 1 week intensely interacting with—and sometimes being harshly criticized by—people from affected communities, which includes villagers from remote parts of Asia and Africa, LGBTQ people, drug users, and sex workers. Speakers have ranged from presidents and royalty to A-list movie stars and musicians. A global village connected to the conference venue offers free admission, creating a festival atmosphere with music, plays, movies, photo exhibits, sculptures, and dance. HIV/AIDS advocates regularly stage boisterous protests that take over streets, city bridges, and the conference stage itself. Media come in droves.

  • United Kingdom plans ‘office for talent’ to smooth entry for top scientists

    Boris Johnson

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s U.K. government has announced plans to make it easier for top scientists to get visas.

    REUTERS/Toby Melville

    The U.K. government plans to set up an “office for talent” to oversee visas and make it easier to attract top scientists after Brexit, according to an R&D road map announced today.

    The R&D plan builds on a budget, announced in March, that held big boosts for science. The plan underscores the Conservative Party’s ambition to prioritize science post-Brexit, and reiterates a desire to double public R&D funding by 2024. It also calls for reducing the bureaucracy that hampers research, increasing open-access publishing, and boosting diversity of the research workforce. Alongside a £280 million research support package announced earlier this week for those who lost funding because of COVID-19, the road map dedicates a further £300 million to upgrading scientific infrastructure.

    Among the new proposals in the plan is the talent office, which would be located in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office. Although the plan does not give details on the function of the office, it could have the authority to oversee immigration rules set up by other government agencies, says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield.

  • Hong Kong universities rattled by new security law

    two riot police arrest a protester

    A new security law is being met with protests in Hong Kong. Andrew Wan, a pro-democracy lawmaker, was among hundreds of demonstrators arrested on 1 July for allegedly violating the new law.

    Roy Liu/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Academics in Hong Kong are facing new worries today after the mainland government yesterday abruptly imposed a controversial new security law that critics say could infringe on human rights and chill academic freedom.

    “We don’t know exactly how the law will be implemented, but just the perception and uncertainty that it creates will be a problem for the universities,” says Sun Kwok, a Hong Kong–born astronomer who was dean of science at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for 10 years.

    The law was imposed by the government in Beijing after months of demonstrations in Hong Kong. The protests were initially triggered by a proposed extradition bill that could have subjected Hongkongers to the mainland’s legal system, but grew over worries about the erosion of the city’s quasi-independent status. The law gives authorities new powers to punish “offenses of secession, subversion, organization, and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong authorities began to enforce the law today, arresting hundreds of protesters—including those holding signs with independence slogans—for alleged violations, according to media reports.

  • New White House rules restrict use of grant funding to deal with COVID-19 impacts

    the white house
    iStock.com/bboserup

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    New rules on how U.S. universities manage federal research grants leave them with less flexibility to cope with the pandemic. The changes, which rescind many temporary measures adopted this spring as COVID-19 shuttered campuses and froze the economy, come despite continued uncertainty over the fall semester and the status of research on U.S. campuses.

    “I am speechless because I just don’t know” what lies ahead, confessed David Mayo, head of sponsored research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), during a meeting yesterday of a top-level advisory panel to the National Science Foundation (NSF) at which the changes were discussed.

  • Just 50% of Americans plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Here’s how to win over the rest

    People protesting coronavirus closures in Virginia

    Even before a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, some activists are ready to attack it; this woman attended a “Reopen Virginia” protest in Richmond in April. 

    Matthew Rodier/Sipa USA/AP IMAGES

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Within days of the first confirmed novel coronavirus case in the United States on 20 January, antivaccine activists were already hinting on Twitter that the virus was a scam—part of a plot to profit from an eventual vaccine.

    Nearly half a year later, scientists around the world are rushing to create a COVID-19 vaccine. An approved product is still months, if not years, away and public health agencies have not yet mounted campaigns to promote it. But health communication experts say they need to start to lay the groundwork for acceptance now, because the flood of misinformation from antivaccine activists has surged.

  • The line is forming for a COVID-19 vaccine. Who should be at the front?

    A pregnant woman getting a scan

    Pregnant women might normally be the last to receive a new coronaviurs vaccine, but a new study may push them to the head of the line.

    Ricardo Castelan Cruz/Eyepix/Abaca/Sipa USA

    Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    When and if the world has a COVID-19 vaccine, who should get it first? That question came into sharp relief last week. A committee that makes vaccine use recommendations to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrestled with the issue in a virtual meeting, and new data suggested how fraught any prioritization is likely to be: Pregnant women—normally the last to receive a new vaccine, given the possibility of harm to a fetus—may have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, suggesting they should be high on the list.

    Bruce Gellin, former director of the U.S. government’s National Vaccine Program who now helps lead the nonprofit Sabin Vaccine Institute, says the prioritization issue comes down to a tricky balancing act between best helping society versus protecting an individual’s health. “These are tough decisions, because everybody can make a case for why somebody should be ahead of somebody else in line,” he says. “Nobody’s going to debate health care workers and first responders—people who are putting themselves at risk for others and keeping things moving. After that is when it gets complicated.”

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