Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Biologists propose to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth

    greater bird of paradise looking over forest in Indonesia

    Can biologists sequence the genomes of all the plants and the animals in the world, including this greater bird of paradise in Indonesia?

    TIM LAMAN/National Geographic Creative

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—When it comes to genome sequencing, visionaries like to throw around big numbers: There’s the UK Biobank, for example, which promises to decipher the genomes of 500,000 individuals, or Iceland’s effort to study the genomes of its entire human population. Yesterday, at a meeting here organized by the Smithsonian Initiative on Biodiversity Genomics and the Shenzhen, China–based sequencing powerhouse BGI, a small group of researchers upped the ante even more, announcing their intent to, eventually, sequence “all life on Earth.”

    Their plan, which does not yet have funding dedicated to it specifically but could cost at least several billions of dollars, has been dubbed the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP). Harris Lewin, an evolutionary genomicist at the University of California, Davis, who is part of the group that came up with this vision 2 years ago, says the EBP would take a first step toward its audacious goal by focusing on eukaryotes—the group of organisms that includes all plants, animals, and single-celled organisms such as amoebas.

    That strategy, and the EBP’s overall concept, found a receptive audience at BioGenomics2017, a gathering this week of conservationists, evolutionary biologists, systematists, and other biologists interested in applying genomics to their work. “This is a grand idea,” says Oliver Ryder, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in California. “If we really want to understand how life evolved, genome biology is going to be part of that.”

  • Two top Chinese-American scientists have dropped their U.S. citizenship

    Yang Chen Ning

    Physics Nobel laureate Yang Chen Ning has reclaimed his Chinese citizenship.

    Chinese University of Hong Kong

    BEIJING–Two top Chinese scientists, one a Nobel laureate and the other a winner of a top computer science prize, have renounced their U.S. citizenship to become citizens of China.

    The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) confirmed this week that Yang Chen Ning, 94, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, and Andrew Yao (Yao Qizhi), 70, the A.M. Turing Award winner in 2000, were recently inducted into the academy’s ranks as domestic academicians rather than foreign. Both men have been affiliated with Tsinghua University here since 2004.

    CAS released a statement confirming the news but offered no further explanation as to why the two had given up their U.S. citizenship. Both men were born in China but established their careers in the United States and retained their naturalized U.S. citizenship even after returning to China. Neither Yang nor Yao could be reached for comment.

  • Will Trump revamp complex plan to save endangered sage grouse?

    A male sage grouse puts on a mating display.

    A male greater sage grouse displays on a mating ground, or lek, in California.

    Jeannie Stafford/USFWS

    Originally published by E&E News

    When former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that sweeping federal plans designed to save the greater sage grouse had been finalized less than a year and a half ago, she hailed it as an "epic conservation effort" that took years to complete.

    The Republican governors of Nevada and Wyoming and the Democratic governors of Colorado and Montana stood next to Jewell at the September 2015 ceremony. She revealed that the mottled-brown bird would not be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, in large part because of the federal plans.

    But the election of President Trump just over a year later has federal and state officials, conservation groups, and others expecting big changes in how the plans are carried out — if they are ever fully implemented.

  • Study thyself: Political scientists assess extent of sexual harassment at their annual meeting

    people walking into a meeting hall

    Attendees at the 2016 American Political Science Association annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    American Political Science Association

    The letter was blunt: The annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) should be an opportunity to communicate with colleagues, not a chance to proposition them. Weary of counseling a steady stream of individuals who have been sexually harassed during the premier gathering of the nation’s political scientists, 11 senior female academics pleaded with APSA in September 2015 to be more aggressive in addressing the problem.

    In response, the association last fall updated its antiharassment policy, listing nine forms of “unacceptable” behavior and reminding its 13,000 members that sexual harassment is “a serious form of professional misconduct.” This month it went further, asking members to describe instances of harassment at APSA’s annual meeting. The survey is believed to be the first attempt by an association to quantify the prevalence of sexual harassment at a scientific gathering.

    “The annual meeting is about professional advancement. You shouldn’t have to worry about people hitting on you at the bar,” says Julie Novkov, a professor at the State University of New York in Albany and one of the authors of the 2015 letter. “But there’s a captive audience. And some people try to take advantage of that situation.”

  • Updated: Major U.S. science groups endorse March for Science

    A group of demonstrators who support science in Boston in February 2017.

    Demonstrators rally for science near the AAAS annual meeting in Boston in February.

    Lindzi Wessel

    The March for Science, set for 22 April, is creating a buzz in the scientific community. The march arose as a grassroots reaction to concerns about the conduct of science under President Donald Trump. And it has spurred debate over whether it will help boost public support for research, or make scientists look like another special interest group, adding to political polarization.

    Leaders of many scientific societies have been mulling whether to formally endorse or take a role in the event. And today, some major groups—including AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), which has about 100,000 members, and the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which has about 60,000 members—announced they are signing on. The two organizations were on a list of 25 formal partners unveiled by the March for Science.

    “We see the activities collectively known as the March as a unique opportunity to communicate the importance, value and beauty of science,” AAAS CEO Rush Holt wrote in a statement on the website of the Washington, D.C.–based organization, which bills itself as the largest general science society in the world. Participation “is in keeping with AAAS’ long-standing mission to ‘advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.'”

  • More groups sue to force USDA to restore online animal welfare records

    Monkey in a cage

    An adult monkey in a shipping crate at Primate Products Inc. in Immokalee, Florida, in 2015


    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today restored some of the tens of thousands of animal welfare documents that it removed from its website early this month. 

    In this announcement, the agency says that it is “posting the first batch of annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports” resulting from a “comprehensive review” that began with the complete removal of previously public documents that are generated by the agency as it enforces the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act. The new announcement points readers to the reposted information on the USDA website, here.

    Those familiar with the records say USDA has so far restored only a small number of the previously posted documents. Among the data still unavailable are the vast majority of  reports from regular inspections of animal-holding facilities that are monitored under AWA, including puppy mills and zoos. A number of groups have sued USDA to force it to repost all of the records.


  • Firing of veteran NIH scientist prompts protests over publication ban

    Brain activity on a 3D brain surface

    Allen Braun's federal lab spent decades studying brain activity during stuttering, reciting, or listening to poetry (above), and normal language processing but he was fired last year, and the use of his data has been prohibited, sparking protests from Braun's collaborators.

    At least two dozen junior and senior researchers are stuck in scientific limbo after being barred from publishing data collected over a 25-year period at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) lab. The unusual ban follows the firing last summer of veteran neurologist Allen Braun by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) for what many scientists have told Science are relatively minor, if widespread, violations of his lab’s experimental protocol.

    Most of the violations, which were unearthed after Braun himself reported a problem, involve the prescreening or vetting of volunteers for brain imaging scans and other experiments on language processing. The fallout from the case was recently chronicled on a blog by one of Braun’s former postdocs, and it highlights a not-uncommon problem across science: the career harm to innocent junior investigators following lab misconduct or accidental violations on the part of senior scientists. But this case, say those familiar with it, is extreme.

    “We’re truly collateral damage,” says Nan Bernstein Ratner of the University of Maryland in College Park, who researches stuttering. She spent 5 years collaborating with Braun. Now, two of her graduate students have had to shift their master’s theses topics, and an undergraduate she mentored cannot publish a planned paper. “The process has been—you can use this term—surreal.”

  • Online university leads United States in awarding doctorates to blacks

    Kitty and Abdulla Warsame

    Kitty and Abdulla Warsame celebrate the Walden doctorate she earned in 2011.

    Courtesy of Kitty Warsame

    An online, for-profit university is doing something that has long eluded brick-and-mortar institutions in the United States: awarding advanced degrees to significant numbers of black students.

    New data from the latest Survey of Earned Doctorates by the National Science Foundation (NSF) document how Walden University, which has its academic headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is far outpacing every other U.S. university in serving this population. At the same time, Walden’s success won’t improve faculty diversity, one of the holy grails of U.S. higher education, until traditional brick-and-mortar institutions become more accepting of online degrees.

    Founded in 1970, Walden ranks first by a wide margin among all U.S. universities in doctoral degrees awarded to black students, NSF reports. Its total of 682 degrees from 2011 through 2015 is nearly twice the number awarded by second-place Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. Every other university lags far behind. Walden’s 5-year total is six times the number awarded by such large state institutions as the University of Illinois in Urbana, and Michigan State University in East Lansing.

  • To avoid risk of misfire, NASA's Juno probe will keep its distance from Jupiter

    Jupiter’s south pole

    The swirling atmosphere over Jupiter’s south pole, captured by Juno on 2 February.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/John Landino

    NASA’s Juno spacecraft will remain in 53-day-long orbits around Jupiter, rather than attempting to shift closer to the planet and risk a misfire of its balky engine, the agency announced today. The longer orbits should not jeopardize the spacecraft’s scientific mission, which could now stretch until 2021, as long as its systems stay operational and funding remains.

    Juno arrived at Jupiter this past July, and the original plan for the $1.1 billion spacecraft had it passing through two longer orbits before firing its engine once again to end up in 14-day orbits for the majority of its mission. However, when preparing for the maneuver in October 2016, two helium valves in Juno’s propulsion system did not pressurize properly, prompting NASA to delay the October burn. Ultimately, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, could not find a fix that would not risk Juno’s scientific goals.

    In its current, longer orbit, Juno approaches Jupiter as closely as it would have in the shorter, 14-day traverse, zipping 4100 kilometers above its clouds, allowing similar measurements. Indeed, “The science opportunities are truly better in the longer orbit,” says Scott Bolton, the project’s principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to its planned measures of Jupiter’s gravity, used to probe its cloud-shrouded interior structure, and gauging the planet’s water on its close approaches, Juno will take its extra time to measure the farther reaches of the planet’s magnetosphere—“bonus science,” the agency said.

  • Bird flu strain taking a toll on humans

    A quarantine researcher checks on a chicken at a poultry farm

    A quarantine researcher checks on a chicken at a poultry farm in Hubei province in China earlier this month.


    SHANGHAI, CHINA—An avian influenza virus that emerged in 2013 is suddenly spreading widely in China, causing a sharp spike in human infections and deaths. Last month alone it sickened 192 people, killing 79, according to an announcement this week by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission in Beijing.

    The surge in human cases is cause for alarm, says Guan Yi, an expert in emerging viral diseases at the University of Hong Kong in China. "We are facing the largest pandemic threat in the last 100 years," he says.

    As of 16 January, the cumulative toll from H7N9 was 918 laboratory-confirmed human infections and 359 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite its high mortality rate, H7N9 had gotten less attention of late than two other new strains—H5N8 and H5N6—that have spread swiftly, killing or forcing authorities to cull millions of poultry. But so far, H5N8 has apparently not infected people; H5N6 has caused 14 human infections and six deaths.

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