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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Mystery surrounds ouster of Chinese researchers from Canadian laboratory

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    Canadian researchers are reacting with puzzlement to the news that a “policy breach” has caused the nation’s only high-containment disease laboratory to bar a prominent Chinese Canadian virologist, her biologist husband, and a number of students from the facility.

    On 5 July, officials at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, Canada, escorted Xiangguo Qiu, biologist Keding Cheng, and an unknown number of her students from the lab and revoked their access rights, according to Canadian media reports. The Public Health Agency of Canada, which operates the lab, confirmed it had referred an “administrative matter” matter to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but said it would not provide additional details because of privacy concerns.

    A number of observers have speculated that case involves concerns about the improper transfer of intellectual property to China (all of the researchers involved are believed to be Asian). But Frank Plummer, a former scientific director of the NML who left in 2015, says the lab isn’t an obvious target for academic or industrial espionage. “There is nothing highly secret there, and all the work gets published in the open literature,” he says. “I don’t know what anyone would hope to gain by spying.”

  • Update: Twins who were face of controversial rare disease treatment have died

    Hugh and Chris Hempel with their daughters Addi and Cassi

    The Hempel family, pictured when twins Addi (left) and Cassi (second from right), who both had Niemann-Pick type C, were about 11 years old. Chris Hempel (right) says the twins passed away within 27 minutes of each other.

    HUGH AND CHRIS HEMPEL

    *Update, 18 July, 4:30 p.m.: The Hempel twins, Addi and Cassi, died on 4 July. They were 15 years old. “They passed away within minutes of each other and we are filled with so much sorrow,” their mother, Chris Hempel, wrote in an email to ScienceInsider.

    She wrote that her daughters had been admitted to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada, on 29 and 30 June, after they developed labored breathing and high temperatures. The cause, it emerged, was an aggressive virus that had invaded their lungs. Although Niemann-Pick type C (NPC) was not on their death reports, “Certainly their underlying NPC disease was a contributing factor,” Hempel wrote. “[T]heir pulmonary systems were already weakened by the NPC.”

    Hempel and her husband, Hugh, pioneered the experimental use of a sugar molecule, 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin, as a treatment for the rare genetic disease, winning a compassionate use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its use in the twins. In January 2018, they sued several companies involved in developing a commercial treatment; their allegations include breach of contract, theft of trade secrets, and unjust enrichment. The Hempels’ lawyer on 11 July filed a request for a delay in the proceedings in U.S. District Court in Maryland in order to allow the Hempels time to grieve. But Chris Hempel wrote that they plan to press on “vigorously” with that lawsuit.

  • World Health Organization declares Ebola outbreak an international emergency

    an Ebola victim is put to rest at the Muslim cemetery in Beni, Congo DRC

    An Ebola victim was laid to rest Sunday in Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    AP Photo/Jerome Delay

    The World Health Organization (WHO) today declared that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which surfaced in August 2018, is an international emergency. The declaration raises the outbreak’s visibility and public health officials hope it will galvanize the international community to fight the spread of the frequently fatal disease.

    “It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our effort,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. “We all owe it to [current] responders … to shoulder more of the burden.”

    As of today, Ebola has infected more than 2500 people in the DRC during the new outbreak, killing more than 1650. By calling the current situation a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, has placed it in a rare category that includes the 2009 flu pandemic, the Zika epidemic of 2016, and the 2-year Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa before it ended in 2016.

  • Elon Musk’s startup eyes human testing for brain-computer interface

     ultrathin electrodes that thread into the brain

    Neuralink is developing a system of ultrathin electrodes that thread into the brain to read from or stimulate neurons.

    Neuralink

    Elon Musk’s high-profile foray into connecting brains to computers, a 2-year-old company called Neuralink, detailed its ambitions and unveiled some initial results at a livestreamed event yesterday before an invitation-only crowd at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. With thousands watching online, Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, described the firm’s goal of using tiny electrodes implanted in the brain to “cure important diseases” and “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”

    Details about those planned applications remain sparse, but Neuralink briefly presented some of its first rodent data from ultrasmall electrodes at the event. And in a seemingly spontaneous answer to a question, Musk revealed that the company has already used its device to allow a monkey to control a computer with its brain. The company aims to implant electrodes into a person paralyzed by spinal cord injury by the end of 2020, he added—and Neuralink’s head neurosurgeon, Matthew MacDougall of California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, made a presentation wearing scrubs. But the firm will need clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to perform such an experiment in the United States.

    The first generation of Neuralink’s technology consists of a chip containing neuron-size polymer threads that a surgical robot would stitch into the brain to record electrical signals from neurons and convey them to a wireless device worn behind the ear. In a white paper also released yesterday, the company describes using this system to record from thousands of its electrode “threads” in a living rat.

  • Arctic science at risk as University of Alaska braces for draconian budget cuts

    A student takes an ice core sample in the Arctic

    A graduate student from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks takes an Arctic ice core earlier this year.

    University of Alaska Fairbanks

    University of Alaska (UA) administrators are scrambling to decide how to impose deep mandatory spending cuts that could hobble research programs at one of the world’s premier Arctic science institutions. The UA Board of Regents this week began to consider declaring a “financial exigency” that would allow officials to take extraordinary cost-cutting measures, which are expected to include laying off some tenured faculty and unionized staff, as well as eliminating or downsizing campuses and departments. The discussion followed a 28 June decision by Governor Mike Dunleavy (R) to reject a proposed $8.7 billion state operating budget and insist on a reduction of $444 million, including a $136 million cut to the UA system.

    The cut, which applies to the fiscal year that began 1 July, amounts to a 40% decrease in UA’s state funding, and a 17% reduction overall. Officials at the university, which operates three flagship and 13 community campuses, has some 1200 full-time faculty, and serves about 26,000 students, say they will decide how to proceed later this month.

    Dunleavy has said the cut is needed to balance the state’s budget and boost annual payments to residents from oil drilling revenue. But researchers are worried about the impact on UA, a prominent player in studying climate change in the Arctic, the planet’s fastest-warming region. UA in Fairbanks (UAF) is among the world’s top Arctic science institutions in terms of funding and publications, according to an analysis by the University of the Arctic in Rovaniemi, Finland.

  • First Ebola case in African border metropolis could be a ‘game-changer,’ WHO leader warns

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus listens to a delegate at the end of a meeting

    World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (right) at a high-level meeting today where he called the first Ebola case in the crossroads city of Goma “potentially a game-changer.”

    FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

    The first case of Ebola was diagnosed yesterday in Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that’s home to some 1 million people. Goma is a hub of transborder traffic between the DRC and Rwanda and hosts an international airport; the discovery heightened fears that the epidemic, now in its 10th month, may become even harder to squelch.

    At a 3-hour high-level meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, today, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he is reconvening a special committee “as soon as possible” to consider whether the epidemic, which has killed 1665 people in the DRC, now needs to be declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a designation that can rally international support but can also isolate a country when other states impose travel bans, as occurred in the West African Ebola epidemic in 2014. Noting that Goma “is a gateway to the region and the world,” Tedros said the case there “could potentially be a game-changer.” Although the epidemic is still confined to the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, in the northeast of the country, “the response is at a critical juncture,” WHO added in a statement released after the meeting. “WHO assesses the risk of spread to neighboring provinces and countries as very high.”

    The Emergency Committee is a group of external experts convened by WHO to assess whether a public health crisis potentially has global reach and requires a global response. Since the outbreak began in August 2018, the committee has convened three times, most recently in June. Every time, it declined to elevate the epidemic to PHEIC status. A WHO spokesperson says the group could reconvene as early as this week.

  • In killing citizenship question, Trump adopts Census Bureau’s preferred solution to a thorny problem

    President Donald Trump

    President Donald Trump

    GAGE SKIDMORE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    President Donald Trump’s decision this afternoon to abandon plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and instead rely on existing government records to generate citizenship statistics matches the Census Bureau’s preferred option for dealing with the politically explosive issue. It’s also a win for those who have wanted to keep such a charged question off the decennial head count.

    “This is option C,” says former Census Director John Thompson, referring to a March 2018 memo in which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross spelled out several options for developing a citizenship tally, and gave his rationale for deciding to include the question on the count that will begin on 1 April 2020. Option C “is what the Census Bureau proposed to Secretary Ross,” adds Thompson, who stepped down in June 2017, a few months after Ross began clandestine efforts to get the Department of Justice to request the question. Ross eventually chose what he called option D, a combination of using information already in government agency files, known as administrative records, along with a yes/no question about citizenship on the census questionnaire sent to U.S. households.

    The Supreme Court, however, blocked Ross’s decision, saying he had violated administrative law by providing a “contrived” rather than a “genuine” explanation for why he wanted to add the question. Critics of the question say it would have prompted many people living in the United States to decline to answer the census, leading to an undercount of the population, and was motivated by a desire to reduce the political power of regions that tend to support Democratic candidates.

  • In a first, a Japanese spacecraft appears to have collected samples from inside an asteroid

    people in the control hayabusa room celebrate

    Engineers and technicians in Sagamihara, Japan, cheer for Hayabusa2’s successful second touchdown on the asteroid Ryugu.

    ISAS/JAXA 

    Japan’s Hayabusa2 successfully completed its second touchdown on the asteroid Ryugu and probably captured material from its interior that was exposed by firing a projectile into the asteroid earlier this year. It is the first collection of subsurface materials from a solar system body other than the moon.

    Engineers and technicians in the spacecraft’s control room near Tokyo could be seen erupting into cheers and applause on a YouTube live stream when Project Manager Yuichi Tsuda proclaimed the operation a success just before 11 a.m. local time.

    At an afternoon press briefing, Tsuda said, “Everything went perfectly.” He joked that if a score of 100 indicated perfection, “I would give this a score of 1000.”

  • Update: Hawaii governor says construction of controversial giant telescope will begin soon

    Telescopes on Mauna Kea

    The Thirty Meter Telescope would be the 22nd instrument atop Mauna Kea. Japan’s Subaru (left) and the Keck telescopes are shown.

    peace portal photo/Alamy Stock Photo

    Update, 11 July, 9 a.m.: The governor of Hawaii, David Ige (D), and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) International Observatory announced on 10 July that construction of the TMT would begin next week. In a statement, the governor said that, to ensure the safety and security of the public and personnel, the access road to the summit observatory on Mauna Kea would be closed and there would be other road closures to allow large equipment to be brought in. In addition, several areas of the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve designated for hunting would temporarily be closed for hunting.

    Meanwhile, in a last ditch attempt to stop the project, opposition groups led by Native Hawaiians and Kanaka Maoli religious and cultural practitioners and protectors on 8 July filed a petition asking the Third Circuit Court of Hawaii to block construction. The opponents argue that the governor, the attorney general of Hawaii, the Board of Land and Natural Resources, the University of Hawaii, the mayor of Hawaii county, and the TMT International Observatory had failed to comply with the rules of a 1977 management plan for Mauna Kea requiring the project to post a security bond equivalent to the construction contract cost. “By failing to post the bond they have laid all financial liability on the People of Hawai’i, in the event the TMT doesn’t get full funding and this is especially important because they don’t have full funding now,” says opposition activist Kealoha Pisciotta of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.

    Here is our previous story from 25 June: 

  • Are dinosaur fossils ‘minerals’? The Montana Supreme Court will decide high stakes case

    one fossil specimen with two dinosaurs

    The remains of two "dueling dinosaurs" have sparked an ownership dispute that could set legal precedent.

    ©BHIGR 2013

    Originally published by E&E News

    Pristine dinosaur fossils discovered in Montana have sparked a property rights dispute that has hit paleontologists like an asteroid.

    The lawsuit, now at the Montana Supreme Court, concerns who owns some of the greatest fossil finds in the last century, including two dinosaurs preserved while locked in combat and a rare complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.

    They are worth millions, and paleontologists say a federal appeals court ruling would have "fundamental and extraordinary impacts upon the conduct of science concerning the history of life on Earth."

    The case hinges on a seemingly straightforward question: Are fossils considered "minerals" under Montana state law?

    In Montana, rights to a property's mineral estate are often severed from its surface rights. Historically, fossils have been considered part of the surface estate.

    That all seemed to change last November when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the owners of the mineral rights of a ranch where the fossils were found.

    The ruling sent shock waves through the paleontology world, threatening to upend the way fossil hunters have operated for decades.

    It would make searching for fossils extremely complicated, said David Polly, a former president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, based in Bethesda, Maryland, because paleontologists would need to navigate both surface ownership—to get to the dig location—and mineral ownership of a parcel. Often, mineral rights are hard to find and frequently change hands between large corporations.

    More alarmingly, he said, it could raise questions about the ownership of fossils currently in museums.

    "In principle, it could have opened those to post hoc challenges," Polly said. "If those started disappearing from collections, it would be a disaster."

    Polly's group, as well as several museums across the country, got involved after that 9th Circuit ruling. They enlisted Gary Guzy, the former White House Council on Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency general counsel.

    Now, they've convinced the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit to pump the brakes. It has referred the case to the Montana Supreme Court, where it will be taken up later this year.

    Guzy, who now works for the firm Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C., said his clients quickly realized the scope of the 9th Circuit decision.

    "What seemed apparent was that what had been depicted all along as a private party contractual and almost property dispute really had significant implications for the paleontological profession," he said, "and the range of institutions that are involved in promoting the knowledge of the history of life on Earth."

    "Greatest paleontological find of this century"

    Spanning parts of Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming, the Hell Creek Formation is one of the world's most studied areas for clues into life some 66 million years ago.

    Within the formation is a tract of land in Garfield County, Montana, that was previously owned by George Severson.

    Around 1983, Mary Ann and Lige Murray leased the land from Severson and worked it as ranchers. Over the following years, Severson transferred parts of the land to the Murrays and his two sons—Jerry and Bo Severson.

    In 2005, the Severson sons agreed to sell the surface rights to the Murrays while retaining much of the mineral rights.

    The value of those rights quickly escalated.

    Shortly after the sale, the Murrays and an amateur fossil hunter, Clayton Phipps, found on their property a mother lode of fossils—a "spike cluster," as it is known in paleontology.

    In 2006, they discovered complete fossils of two dinosaurs that appear to have been fighting when they died.

    The Murrays quickly named the fossils the "Dueling Dinosaurs," and the scientific importance of the fossils is hard to overstate, said paleontologist Peter Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota.

    "The Dueling Dinosaurs are probably the greatest paleontological find of this century," said Larson, who has seen the fossils and spoken with the Murrays.

    Larson explained why such a find is so rare. The dinosaurs appear to have been fighting on a sandbar in the middle of a river. Something happened — probably an earthquake — that liquefied the sand underneath them, sucking them down and preserving their skeletons.

    "It is a pristine record of an interaction between a prey animal and predator," he said, adding that they were the most pristine complete dinosaurs ever found in the area.

    The following year, a triceratops foot was found, then, in 2011, a triceratops skull.

    Then came perhaps the pièce de résistance. In 2013, a complete T. rex was discovered on the property. The "Murray T. rex" is considered one of only a dozen ever found in such condition.

    A "bizarre" ruling

    When the Seversons got word of the finds, they quickly sought to declare ownership of the fossils, including the T. rex, which the Murrays were trying to sell to a Dutch museum for several million dollars.

    The Murrays filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that the fossils were theirs because they owned the surface rights to the land.

    A district court sided with the Murrays, leading the Seversons to appeal to the 9th Circuit.

    There, in a colorful opinion, the court sided with the Seversons.

    "Once upon a time, in a place now known as Montana, dinosaurs roamed the land," wrote Eduardo Robreno, a senior Pennsylvania district judge who was on the panel by designation.

    "On a fateful day, some 66 million years ago, two such creatures, a 22-foot-long theropod and a 28-foot-long ceratopsian, engaged in mortal combat. While history has not recorded the circumstances surrounding this encounter, the remnants of these Cretaceous species, interlocked in combat, became entombed under a pile of sandstone. That was then ... this is now."

    The 2-1 ruling sided with the Seversons, saying they "have the better of the arguments" (E&E News PM, Nov. 6, 2018).

    Lawyers for the Murrays declined to comment and said their clients are not speaking to the media. The Seversons' attorneys said their clients are traveling and could not be reached.

    The ruling spurred considerable hand-wringing in the paleontological community, Larson of the Black Hills Institute said, calling the 9th Circuit decision a "really bizarre ruling."

    Quickly, some of the most important players in the field weighed in, including the 2,200-member Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Museum of the Rockies.

    They, along with a Montana property rights group, backed the Murrays in court documents when they asked the court to reconsider the case — or send it to the Montana Supreme Court.

    "The panel's decision imposes extraordinary uncertainty upon scientists and the public," they wrote, and it may "destabilize title to countless important fossils in academic, museum, and private collections around the world ... potentially subjecting those fossils to ownership challenges by holders of Montana mineral deeds."

    The 9th Circuit took the unusual step of granting the rehearing, vacating their earlier decision and then punting the question to the Montana Supreme Court — a good sign for the Murrays.

    "Given the frequency of divided ownership of Montana surface and mineral estates, and that Montana possesses vast deposits of valuable vertebrate fossil specimens, the issue is substantial and of broad application," the court wrote.

    "Therefore, after considering these factors, and in the spirit of comity and federalism, we exercise our discretion to certify this question to the Montana Supreme Court."

    Other aspects of the dispute also appear to be breaking the Murrays' way.

    In April, Montana enacted a law that states "fossils are not minerals and that fossils belong to the surface estate."

    The law, however, does not apply to existing disputes, though the "Dueling Dinos" case is likely the only existing matter of its kind.

    "One can always make assumptions, and courts can do whatever they want," Larson said. "But it seems like our side is in a good position."

    Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2019. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net

    Related stories:

    Not Sold! 'Dueling Dinos' Flop at Auction (November 2013)

    Selling America's Fossil Record (January 2014)

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