Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • China opens unique free electron laser facility

    Parent and child walking in smog

    Parents walk students to school amid thick haze in China's Shandong province in 2015. A new free electron laser facility will probe aerosols in smog.

    REUTERS/China Daily

    China is joining the elite club of countries that have equipped researchers with the potent sources of high-energy photons called free electron lasers (FELs). The Dalian Coherent Light Source, whose completion was announced today in Beijing, has a twist that makes it unique: It is the only large laser light source in the world dedicated to the particular range of short-wavelength light called vacuum ultraviolet, which makes it “a new tool for the detection and analysis of molecules undergoing chemical reactions,” says Alec Wodtke, a physical chemist at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

    Scientists around the world have rushed to build FELs over the past decade because they produce vastly brighter light, in shorter pulses, than synchrotrons, the particle accelerators that have been the workhorses of protein crystallography and cell biology and materials science. In synchrotrons, electrons go whizzing around a storage ring a kilometer or more in circumference. As their paths bend, the electrons throw off photons that are formed into beams.

    In contrast, FELs fire electrons from a linear accelerator into an undulator, in which magnets of alternating polarity push and pull the electrons along a sinuous path. As the electrons round each bend, they produce photons. Interactions between the electrons and the accumulating photons as they travel through the undulator generate coherent laser light (Science, 10 May 2002, p. 1008).

  • Japan loses another spacecraft

    SS-520 rocket

    An SS-520 rocket in an undated file photo from the Japan
    Aerospace Exploration Agency.


    Japan's troubled space efforts suffered another setback today with the aborted launch of a tiny rocket intended to put a microsatellite into orbit.

  • Update: What Trump's nominees said Thursday about science and climate at their Senate hearings

    Donald J. Trump at a podium

    President-elect Donald J. Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    This week marks the beginning of U.S. Senate hearings on President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees to his Cabinet. Most, if not all, of the nominees are expected to win confirmation, which requires just 51 votes. ScienceInsider is keeping a watch to see whether scientific issues—such as climate change—get much discussion, and what kind of reaction any comments draw. 

    On Thursday, Senators heard from several nominees, including Representative Mike Pompeo (R–KS), Trump's nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and retired Marine General James Mattis, nominated for secretary of defense. We’ll be updating periodically as new hearings occur, with the most recent news at the top, so come back to see what’s happening.

  • Pot has some medical benefits, U.S. Academies say, but obstacles to research loom

    A woman holds up a cannabis plant during a demonstration

    Many states have legalized medical marijuana, but possession and use remains a federal crime in the United States.

    REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

    There is “conclusive or substantial evidence” that marijuana or related compounds can effectively treat chronic pain, nausea caused by chemotherapy treatment for cancer, and spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis, according to a report published today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report urges more research on both the benefits and risks of marijuana, but notes that researchers who want to study the drug face significant obstacles.

    The 395-page report is the work of an expert committee that considered more than 10,000 research abstracts in their review of the scientific literature on cannabis. “It’s very comprehensive and balanced,” says Igor Grant, who directs the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego. Grant was not on the committee that produced the report, but he provided feedback as an independent reviewer.

    Marijuana is now legal for medical use in 28 states and the District of Columbia, but the federal government still considers possession or use to be a crime; the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently declined to remove it from their Schedule I list of dangerous drugs with no acknowledged medical benefits. “This report really does refute [DEA’s] position,” Grant says. “It’s absolutely not correct to say there’s no evidence for medical benefit, at least for certain conditions.”

  • That grad school reference letter may be more important than you think

    Hands on keyboard

    Ramberto Cumagun (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    GRE scores and undergraduate GPA don’t predict students’ future graduate school productivity, but reference letters from previous research advisers may provide clues about whether they are going to publish well, according to a story over at our Science Careers sister site about two papers published today in PLOS ONE.

  • Here’s how to improve controversial carbon accounting tool that Trump allies want to gut, says U.S. science academy

    Centralina Power Plant

    U.S. regulators use a measure called the social cost of carbon to put a price tag on the damage caused by emitters, such as this power plant in Washington State.

    Kid Clutch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The U.S. government should tweak its approach for estimating the financial impacts of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution, which it uses in drafting new regulations, according to a report released today by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS).

    The new report focuses on a controversial measure called the social cost of carbon (SCC), an estimate in dollars of the economic consequences of CO2 emissions. Determining the SCC is a complex calculation that includes estimates of how much warming is created by additional CO2, the damages—such as lost agricultural productivity and human disease—that result, projections of population and economic growth, and a “discount rate” that quantifies how much society today would spend today to avoid future damages.

    The current estimate for the SCC in 2020 is $42 per metric ton of CO2 added to the atmosphere. That means if a particular regulation was projected to reduce CO2 emissions in 2020 by 1 million metric tons, the estimated benefit would be $42 million, which could then be weighed against the cost of implementing the new regulation.

  • Exclusive Q&A: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Trump's proposed vaccine commission

    Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

    Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an outspoken vaccine critic, said today that he was asked by President-elect Donald Trump to chair a “vaccine safety and scientific integrity” commission. (A Trump spokesperson, however, later said that "no decisions have been made at this time" about such a commission.) Kennedy espouses discredited links between vaccines and neurological disorders, including autism. He has also been harshly critical of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends the childhood vaccine schedule. Scientists and others have fiercely disputed Kennedy’s claims.

    ScienceInsider caught up with Kennedy by telephone in an airport flight lounge shortly after he met with Trump in New York City. He made it clear that CDC’s vaccine scientists and practices will be a major focus of the commission’s work. Excerpts from our interview, which have been edited for brevity and clarity, appear below.

  • Stuart Henderson appointed director of DOE's Jefferson Lab

    New Jefferson Lab director Stuart Henderson in a photo from 2011.

    Stuart Henderson in 2011.

    Michael Kappel/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Stuart Henderson, an accelerator physicist who has worked at numerous Department of Energy (DOE) national labs, has been appointed director of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, the lab announced Friday. Specializing in nuclear physics, Jefferson Lab has a staff of 700 and an annual budget of $150 million. Physicists there use their electron accelerator, the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF), to probe the structure of protons, neutrons, and small nuclei.

    Jefferson Lab physicists are just completing a $338 million upgrade to the CEBAF that doubled its energy to 12 giga-electron volts (GeV), and that makes it a particularly exciting time to join the lab, Henderson says. "There's been a tremendous investment in the 12-GeV upgrade and job one is getting the machine working smoothly and getting the science out," he says. "Fortunately, we have a very enthusiastic community of users."

    Henderson, 53, has a long track record both at DOE's national labs and on large accelerator projects. He currently works at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, where he leads development of a proposed $734 million rebuild of the lab's x-ray synchrotron, the Advanced Photon Source. From 2010 to 2014 he worked at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, and before that, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he led commissioning of the lab's $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source. Prior to joining Oak Ridge he worked at Cornell University on its Cornell Electron Storage Ring.

  • White House announces review process for risky virus studies

    A worker in a biosafety level 3 lab.

    A worker in a biosafety level 3 lab.

    Maggie Bartlett/NHGRI

    Federal officials today released a plan to help U.S. agencies decide whether to fund controversial studies that make viruses more dangerous. The guidance may finally bring an end to a moratorium that has kept a handful of experiments funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on hold for more than 2 years.

    The policy from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) essentially follows recommendations from last May from an advisory committee that attempted to define the riskiest experiments and spell out when they should be funded. Both critics and supporters of these hotly debated studies welcomed the policy, which some feared would languish if left to the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. But some are reserving judgment until they see the results of the reviews.

    Although the new guidance provides no timelines, HHS is working to put the review process in place “as quickly as possible,” said an agency spokesperson on background. The agency says that “any projects that are determined suitable to proceed will do so with appropriate risk mitigation measures in place.”

  • Cleveland Clinic will discipline doctor who wrote antivaccination column

    Vaccinating a baby

    Neides’s column complained, among other things, about the vaccination of newborns against hepatitis B, which they can contract from their mothers in the birth canal. 

    Image Point Fr/shutterstock

    The Cleveland Clinic yesterday released an apology from a staff physician who published an antivaccination column late last week on the news website The doctor, Daniel Neides, will be “appropriately disciplined,” the Ohio hospital added in its own statement, which noted that the family physician’s views do not reflect his institution’s.

    "Cleveland Clinic is fully committed to evidence-based medicine,” the clinic stated. “Harmful myths and untruths about vaccinations have been scientifically debunked in rigorous ways. We completely support vaccinations to protect people, especially children who are particularly vulnerable.”

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