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  • A half-trillion corals live in just one ocean. Does that mean they are safe?

    Acroporid coral

    In the Pacific Ocean, the population size of this coral, Acropora cf grandis, is about 100 million.

    Andreas Dietzel

    A comprehensive survey of corals has turned up billions of colonies across the Pacific Ocean. The work—based on actual head counts, satellite data, and informed estimates—suggests many species are not in immediate danger of extinction, and the census could help conservationists and policymakers make better decisions about how to protect reefs.

    The numbers are “incredibly encouraging,” says Nancy Knowlton, a retired coral reef biologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. “The biggest take-home message is that it’s not hopeless, even if corals have been painted as the canary in the coal mine.” And although some researchers worry this abundance could lead policymakers to ease up on efforts to protect reefs, Knowlton says, “having a clear set of numbers makes it easier to figure out what to do next.”

    Over the past several decades, corals have suffered tremendous damage from warming seas, which causes bleaching, a process that causes stressed corals to lose the algal partners they need to survive. Corals are also being assaulted by ocean acidification, which can harm their ability to build their hard frames, as well as by pollution, overfishing, oil spills, and other human activities. In some places, such as the Caribbean, coral numbers have dwindled and, overall, the extent of coral reefs is half what it was in the 1870s. Experts have warned that most coral reefs could be gone by 2100. Already, about one-third of the world’s 6000 known coral species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Species. On the other hand, some reefs are proving resilient to marine heat waves or have continued to thrive against all odds.

  • International megatrial of coronavirus treatments is at a standstill

    A COVID patient in Iran gets treatment

    Clinicians care for a COVID-19 patient in Tehran. Iran is one of more than 40 countries taking part in the Solidarity trial testing coronavirus treatments.


    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    The only global trial of potential COVID-19 treatments is languishing. The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Solidarity trial, set up last year to quickly test potential COVID-19 therapies with tens of thousands of patients, produced headlines in October 2020 when it showed that four candidate treatments offer little benefit. But since then, it hasn’t launched any new tests. On 27 January, John-Arne Røttingen, who works at Norway’s foreign ministry and chairs the trial’s executive group, pulled the plug on the study’s only remaining arm, which tested the antiviral remdesivir. “The Solidarity trial is now on pause,” he says.

    The executive group discussed potential new targets at a meeting on 24 February, and Røttingen hopes to restart the trial in a few weeks. But observers are dismayed at the pause in the challenging but important trial. “It would be such a shame for this extraordinary network of clinical researchers to not maintain their momentum of discovery,” says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “They have had a strong influence on global patient care during the pandemic.”

  • Ireland’s main science funder plans for budget boost

    At twilight, two people walk in front of the Campanile bell tower of Trinity College

    Universities like Trinity College Dublin will benefit from a budget boost at Science Foundation Ireland.

    David Soanes Photography/Getty Images

    Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the nation’s biggest science funder, is planning a major boost to its budget. The plan also includes a program dedicated to fundamental research—a policy shift for an agency that over the past decade has spent most of its funding on industry-aligned research centers.

    The new strategy, published on 1 March and the first since 2012, plans for 15% annual rises that will boost the agency’s grant spending—the vast majority of the agency’s budget—from €200 million in 2020 to €376 million by 2025. Separately, the strategy allocates €11 million in 2021 for early career researchers pursuing basic research.

    The agency says the budget rises will help boost the nation’s overall public and private R&D spending from a meager 1.1% of gross domestic product, well below the European average of 2.2%, to a goal of 2.5% by 2025. “What we built into our strategy is an assumption that Ireland is going to get there,” says Ciarán Seoighe, deputy director general of SFI.

  • Fusion startup plans reactor with small but powerful superconducting magnets

    A computer rendering of two people standing next to a compact, high-field, DT burning tokamak

    SPARC could be the first fusion reactor to produce net energy—10 years before ITER and in a machine 10 times smaller.

    CFS/MIT; T. Henderson

    A startup chasing the dream of plentiful, safe, carbon-free electricity from fusion, the energy source of the Sun, has settled on a site, timetable, and key technology for building its compact reactor. Flush with more than $200 million from investors, including Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy, 3-year-old Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced today that later this year it will start to build its first test reactor, dubbed SPARC, in a new facility in Devens, Massachusetts, not far from its current base in Cambridge. The company says the reactor, which would be the first in the world to produce more energy than is needed to run the reaction, could fire up as soon as 2025.

    Commonwealth and a rival U.K. company have also chosen the technology they think will let them leap ahead of the giant, publicly funded ITER reactor under construction in France and ever further ahead of a U.S. pilot plant being considered by the Department of Energy: small but powerful magnets, made from high-temperature superconductors. Commonwealth is assembling its first nearly full-scale magnet and hopes to test it in June. “It’s a big deal,” CEO Bob Mumgaard says. “It’s beyond what everyone else aspires to.”

    Fusion reactors burn an ionized gas of hydrogen isotopes at more than 100 million degrees Celsius—so hot that the plasma must be contained by a mesh of magnetic fields so it doesn’t melt the reactor walls. At ITER, sufficiently powerful fields are achieved using niobium alloy superconducting wires that can carry huge currents without resistance through magnet coils. But such low-temperature superconductors must be chilled to 4° above absolute zero, which requires bulky and expensive liquid helium cooling. And there’s a limit to the amount of current the niobium wires can carry, forcing ITER to adopt huge magnets with many wire turns to generate the needed fields. ITER’s largest magnets are 24 meters across, contributing to the reactor’s $20 billion price tag. 

  • NIH director apologizes for ‘structural racism,’ pledges actions

    Francis Collins speaks into a microphone

    Francis Collins


    Responding to concerns about discrimination against Black people, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins today issued an unusual public apology for what he called “structural racism in biomedical research” and pledged to address it with a sweeping set of actions.

    NIH’s long-running efforts to improve diversity “have not been sufficient,” Collins wrote in the statement. “To those individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism, I am truly sorry.” The agency plans “new ways to support diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and will also correct policies within the agency “that may harm our workforce and our science,” he added.

    Although some observers welcomed NIH’s plans, first described Friday at a meeting of Collins’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), critics fault the agency for not more directly addressing funding disparities between Black and white scientists.

  • The $450 question: Should journals pay peer reviewers?

    Illustration of hands exchanging money for a signed paper

    For many busy working scientists, receiving yet another invitation from an academic journal to peer review yet another manuscript can trigger groans. The work is time-consuming, and rewards can seem intangible. What’s more, the reviewers work for free, even as the large commercial publishers that operate many journals earn hefty profits.

    But despite occasional, exasperated cries of “I should get paid for this,” scientists have soldiered on. Many cite a sense of duty to help advance their disciplines, as well as the need for reciprocity, knowing other researchers volunteer to peer review their manuscript submissions.

    But last week, researchers at a scholarly publishing conference debated a provocative question: Should peer reviewers be paid?

  • Brazil’s first homemade satellite will put an extra eye on dwindling Amazon forests

    aerial view of a deforested area bordering the Amazon rainforest

    A new Brazilian satellite would allow near–real-time monitoring of Amazonian deforestation.

    AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

    The fate of Brazil’s satellite program—and the country’s capacity to monitor disappearing Amazon forest—will be decided in 17 minutes and 30 seconds on Sunday. That’s the time it will take to launch Amazonia-1, the first satellite entirely developed by the country. If the mission goes well, Brazil will join about 20 countries that have managed the whole chain of design, production, and operation of a satellite. Amazonia-1 will give researchers more frequent updates on deforestation and agricultural activity in the world’s largest tropical rainforest. But other challenges await, as Brazilian scientists deal with increasing cuts in research funding and a political split on the country’s space program.

    The satellite represents “a milestone for Brazil,” says Adenilson Silva, an engineer at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) who leads the mission and will oversee the launch at the Indian space center on the island of Sriharikota. The satellite’s development, which began in 2008, has involved more than a dozen Brazilian companies and an investment of 360 million reais ($60 million)—about one-sixth what it would cost to import ready-to-use equipment, Silva says. Amazonia-1 is the first of three Amazon-monitoring satellites INPE aims to build with the same manufacturing platform.

    The new satellite is a 2.5-meter-long metallic cuboid weighing 640 kilograms. It’s loaded with 6 kilometers of cables and three wide-angle cameras capable of detecting any area of deforestation bigger than four soccer fields. A planned launch in 2018 was postponed because of a lack of funding and delays in the supply of key components from collaborating companies.

  • New, more inclusive journal policies ease author name changes on published papers

    a stack of open magazines

    When Teddy Goetz—a fourth year medical student at Columbia University—applied to residency programs in October 2020, he felt as though he had no choice but to out himself as transgender. “I had to put my birth name all over my application because of my publications, and that was really upsetting,” he says. He changed his legal name to Teddy last year. But many of his papers listed him using a name he no longer identifies with.

    Before submitting his applications, Goetz had contacted every journal he’d published in—14 in total—to request they change his name. Two journals offered to change his name and issue a correction notice. Many others didn’t have a policy to deal with author name changes and refused to change his name without one. It was disheartening, but he continued to press the journals to accommodate his request. Now, his name is changed or in the process of being changed on all but one of his publications. “It’s been a very long process and involves a lot of … labor, time, energy, attention, massive spreadsheets,” he says. But it’s worth it. “My legacy should not be the name that isn’t mine; the legacy should be mine.”

    Goetz is part of an informal group of transgender scientists who have been pushing for changes to the scientific publishing industry to make it more inclusive—not only for trans scientists, but also for others who change their names midcareer, for instance because of a change in marital status or religion. Over the past 6 months, they’ve seen marked progress: Many scientific publishers—including the American Chemical Society (ACS), the Royal Society of Chemistry, PLOS, Wiley, and AAAS—established policies that make it easier for authors to change their first or last name on published papers. (AAAS is the publisher of Science Careers.) Springer Nature, which publishes more than 2500 journals, expects to announce a new name change policy “in the near future,” according to a statement emailed to Science Careers.

  • Dutch research funding agency, paralyzed by ransomware attack, refuses to pay up

    Hands rest on a computer keyboard

    Hackers published a batch of internal documents from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) on the dark web yesterday, after the agency refused to pay up in a ransomware attack. The attack, which began on 8 February, has completely knocked out the agency’s grant application and review process and cut off NWO’s communication with applicants, grantees, and universities.

    Ransomware attacks on organizations, companies, and even hospitals have become increasingly common, and some institutions have decided that paying is the easiest way to get computer systems back up or prevent the release of confidential data. NWO refused to do so. “On fundamental grounds, NWO, as part of the Dutch governmental institutions, isn’t willing to pay ransom,” the agency said in a statement yesterday. “Although NWO highly regrets the unfortunate situation of sensitive personnel documents being spread … NWO will not alter its position.” The funder says more stolen documents may end up in public “in the near future.”

    NWO, whose nearly €1 billion budget makes it the main Dutch funding agency, disclosed the hack on 14 February. The agency can no longer use email, other apps, or its telephone lines; neither can a number of organizations affiliated with or hosted by NWO, including the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research and the European Polar Board. NWO has canceled many meetings until at least 15 March and says it can’t receive or pay bills; the best way for applicants and grantees to get in touch, the organization says, is via a frequently asked questions page. (The agency’s website was not affected by the attack.) “We’re very sorry for the inconvenience that this causes to our applicants,” a spokesperson says.

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