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Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • ‘Hybrid’ scientific conferences aim to offer the best of in-person and virtual meetings

    WiT hybrid conference showing a masked and socially distanced audience with hybrid in-person and virtual presenters

    Some conferences will convene partially in-person this year as “hybrid” meetings.

    Marina Bay Sands

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the conference experience for researchers around the globe as scientific societies canceled in-person meetings and scrambled to hold virtual events in their place—with varying success. Now, as vaccines become more widely available, particularly in the United States, some of those societies are grappling with a new challenge: when and how to safely get conference attendees into the same room again while maintaining the accessibility and wide reach virtual meetings afford.

    Many are opting to stay virtual. But this summer and fall, a handful of U.S. societies are taking the plunge and planning “hybrid” meetings, which will convene in a physical location and also allow for virtual participation. It's a significant undertaking, often involving two separate planning teams and greater expense—and the risk that virtual attendees won't get the full benefit of the meeting. But many are optimistic it will pay off. “We're going to take the best of both worlds and try and smash them together in a way that makes sense,” says Nate Wambold, director of meetings and conferences for the American Anthropological Association (AAA). (For its 2022 annual meeting, AAAS, Science's publisher, will also adopt a hybrid format.)

  • ‘A toxic cocktail:’ Panel delivers harsh verdict on the world’s failure to prepare for pandemic

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

    World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is up for reelection next year. A panel proposes limiting future WHO heads to a single 7-year term.

    FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    There was warning after warning after warning, and yet the world failed to do what was needed to prepare for a pandemic, the first comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 finds. This lack of preparation left countries short of essential supplies, burdened by underresourced health systems, and scrambling to coordinate a response, while large vulnerable populations had few options to protect themselves.

    “The combination of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system created a toxic cocktail which allowed the pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis,” the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR) writes in its report, which was presented today.

  • Next stop, space: NASA Webb telescope undergoes final tests

    the James Webb Space Telescope’s 18 hexagonal mirrors

    The mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope is undergoing final tests this month before being packaged up for launch.

    NASA/Chris Gunn

    NASA engineers are getting one last look at the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST): a final test to show that its 18 gold-tinted mirror segments can unfold into a precise honeycomb configuration. After the test concludes this week, the giant instrument will be folded up, packed into a shipping container, and shipped off to French Guiana, where it will launch into space on 31 October.

    The 6.5-meter-wide JWST is the agency’s next great observatory, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. In a NASA briefing today, Program Scientist Eric Smith told reporters it was born out of a realization in the mid-1990s that, no matter how long it stared into deep space, Hubble would never be able to see the universe’s very first stars and galaxies and learn how they formed and evolved. The expanding universe has “redshifted” the light of those primordial objects out of the visible spectrum; NASA needed a space telescope that worked in the infrared. “So the idea of Webb was born,” Smith says. Since then, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets. Smith says JWST will be able to probe their atmospheres for molecules such as carbon dioxide, water, methane, and others that could suggest the presence of life.

    Getting the $9 billion contraption to the point of departure has taken NASA much more time and money than it or Congress ever suspected. The construction of JWST proved to be the most complex and difficult science project in the agency’s history. The process of testing the telescope’s folding mirror, multilayered sunshield, and cryogenically cooled instruments has stretched years longer than planned.

  • ‘Something went wrong.’ Some astronomers feel left out of European road map

    Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will sit on top of Cerro Armazones (an artistic rendering)

    A 2008 Astronet road map called for the Extremely Large Telescope. Some astronomers are upset by the group’s latest effort.

    ESO

    For more than 1 year, Astronet, a group of more than 50 astronomers, has labored to draw up priorities for the next 2 decades of European astronomy. A partial draft plan, released in February, lists the field’s most pressing scientific questions, such as how primordial gases coalesced into the first stars and galaxies and whether the atmospheres of exoplanets betray signs of life. To answer them, the plan calls for new facilities including the Einstein Telescope, a gravitational wave detector to be built in a network of underground tunnels; antennas installed on the radio-quiet far side of the Moon; and a fleet of orbiting telescopes to probe exoplanet atmospheres.

    But some are unhappy with what the draft plan left out—particularly in radio and gamma ray astronomy, as well as the study of high-energy particles from space. “Something went wrong,” says Leonid Gurvits, a radio astronomer at the Delft University of Technology. “It’s not anyone’s intention, it just happened in this unfortunate way.” Astronet organizers say the drafts were not intended to be exhaustive and later revisions will reflect the roughly 200 comments received before a 1 May deadline.  

     Astronet mirrors the U.S. decadal survey of astrophysics, which since the 1960s has provided funding agencies and legislators with infrastructure priorities—essentially a wish list of big telescopes and space missions. The current iteration in the United States, known as Astro2020, is expected to release its report in the coming months. It was put together by more than 150 committee and panel members with input from hundreds of submitted white papers as well as dozens of virtual meetings and town halls.

  • Following whale deaths, Chilean researchers call for greater protections

    aerial view of a whale necropsy on a beach

    Scientists necropsy a fin whale killed by ship strike off central Chile in May 2018.

    Pablo Espinoza

    SANTIAGO, CHILE—It wasn’t hard for researchers to deduce what had killed the blue whale. The huge mammal, found on Chile’s southern Patagonian coast, was young and had no signs of disease. But beneath its ribs were a 1-meter-long hematoma and other wounds that were sure signs of “blunt trauma,” says Frederick Toro Cortes, a medical veterinarian at Santo Tomás University here.

    “The only thing that can have that kind of impact on a blue whale—the largest animal on the planet—is a large ship,” says Mauricio Seguel, a colleague of Toro Cortes who is a veterinary pathologist at the University of Guelph.

    The fatality alarmed marine researchers, in part because it was one of three deadly collisions reported in Chilean waters over just 8 days last month. Between 9–16 April, ship strikes also killed a Bryde’s whale off the nation’s far northern coast and a humpback whale near its southern tip. Researchers typically expect to hear of about one whale death within Chile from any cause each month or two, though whale deaths are also thought to be underreported.

  • Further evidence supports controversial claim that SARS-CoV-2 genes can integrate with human DNA

    A cross-section illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus showing its RNA

    Lab studies of genetically engineered human cells suggest the RNA (blue) of SARS-CoV-2 could convert to DNA in infected people and slip into their chromosomes.

    CLAUS LUNAU/Science Source

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    A team of prominent scientists has doubled down on its controversial hypothesis that genetic bits of the pandemic coronavirus can integrate into our chromosomes and stick around long after the infection is over. If they are right—skeptics have argued that their results are likely lab artifacts—the insertions could explain the rare finding that people can recover from COVID-19 but then test positive for SARS-CoV-2 again months later.

    Stem cell biologist Rudolf Jaenisch and gene regulation specialist Richard Young of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led the work, triggered a Twitter storm in December 2020, when their team first presented the idea in a preprint on bioRxiv. The researchers emphasized that viral integration did not mean people who recovered from COVID-19 remain infectious. But critics charged them with stoking unfounded fears that COVID-19 vaccines based on messenger RNA (mRNA) might somehow alter human DNA. (Janesich and Young stress that their results, both original and new, in no way imply that those vaccines integrate their sequences into our DNA.)

  • ‘It’s like the embers in a barbecue pit.’ Nuclear reactions are smoldering again at Chernobyl

    the older shelter protecting Reactor four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

    Since 2016, the canopylike New Safe Confinement has sealed off and protected the ruined Chernobyl reactor.

    Pyotr Sivkov/TASS/Getty Images

    Thirty-five years after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded in the world’s worst nuclear accident, fission reactions are smoldering again in uranium fuel masses buried deep inside a mangled reactor hall. “It’s like the embers in a barbecue pit,” says Neil Hyatt, a nuclear materials chemist at the University of Sheffield. Now, Ukrainian scientists are scrambling to determine whether the reactions will wink out on their own—or require extraordinary interventions to avert another accident.

    Sensors are tracking a rising number of neutrons, a signal of fission, streaming from one inaccessible room, Anatolii Doroshenko of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv, Ukraine, reported last week during discussions about dismantling the reactor. “There are many uncertainties,” says ISPNPP’s Maxim Saveliev. “But we can’t rule out the possibility of [an] accident.” The neutron counts are rising slowly, Saveliev says, suggesting managers still have a few years to figure out how to stifle the threat. Any remedy he and his colleagues come up with will be of keen interest to Japan, which is coping with the aftermath of its own nuclear disaster 10 years ago at Fukushima, Hyatt notes. “It’s a similar magnitude of hazard.”

    The specter of self-sustaining fission, or criticality, in the nuclear ruins has long haunted Chernobyl. When part of the Unit Four reactor’s core melted down on 26 April 1986, uranium fuel rods, their zirconium cladding, graphite control rods, and sand dumped on the core to try to extinguish the fire melted together into a lava. It flowed into the reactor hall’s basement rooms and hardened into formations called fuel-containing materials (FCMs), which are laden with about 170 tons of irradiated uranium—95% of the original fuel.

  • USDA now only partially inspects some lab animal facilities, internal documents reveal

    an inspector examining a cage with ferrets inside

    A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector examines ferret cages. A new policy mandates that inspectors do lighter inspections at certain lab animal facilities.

    U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

    In February 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made a significant—and apparently secret—change to how it oversees laboratory animal welfare, Science has learned. Instead of fully inspecting all of the nearly 1100 facilities that house monkeys, rabbits, and other creatures used in biomedical research, it mandated partial “focused” inspections for labs accredited by a private organization of veterinarians and scientists called AAALAC International.

    Such partial inspections violate the Animal Welfare Act, argues Katherine Meyer, director of Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic, which discovered the change after law student Brett Richey combed through more than 1000 pages of internal USDA documents. The federal law states that USDA must enforce “minimum requirements for handling, housing, [and] feeding” of research animals, as well as adequate veterinary care, Meyer notes. “How do you ensure that labs are in compliance with those standards if USDA is doing incomplete inspections?”

    USDA counters that it still inspects all lab animal facilities, as required by law. The agency “is not using AAALAC inspections. [It] is conducting focused inspections of research facilities because facilities that are AAALAC accredited generally have better compliance records, and we can expend less resources on said facilities,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to Science. In deciding how and when to inspect facilities, he said, “AAALAC accreditation is one factor that is considered, along with the facility’s history of noncompliances based on our previous inspections.”

    USDA’s approach is legal, says Larry Carbone, former associate director of the University of California, San Francisco’s animal care facility and an expert on animal welfare policy. There are also other safeguards for animal welfare, he notes. Still, he says, the agency’s secrecy about the policy is “troubling.”

    Harvard’s animal law clinic obtained the USDA documents—including PowerPoint slides, FAQs, and email exchanges—via a public records request, in the course of a separate effort to force the agency to update its welfare standards for research monkeys. In one document, USDA, citing concerns about workload, says it has “made it mandatory … for inspectors to perform focused inspection at AAALAC-accredited research facilities unless the research facility requested a full inspection.” And, in a redacted line that Science has since uncovered, it adds, “This focused inspection counts as the facility’s annual inspection.”

    Other USDA documents suggest what a “focused inspection” entails. Instead of taking a full look at an institution’s records, animals, and the facility itself (such as air conditioning units and surgery rooms) every year, an inspector only needs to look at one of those aspects or a sampling of them, according to a USDA PowerPoint. “An inspector could just look at a sampling of paperwork—and not a single animal,” Meyer argues.

    The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and other organizations that promote animal research have argued that USDA should consider AAALAC accreditation when assessing whether a facility is at risk for animal welfare violations. “AAALAC is an indicator that a facility goes above and beyond,” says Naomi Charalambakis, FASEB’s senior science policy analyst.

    But AAALAC accreditation should supplement, rather than supplant, USDA inspections, she says. FASEB has not recommended “that USDA should allow limited inspections just because a facility is AAALAC accredited,” adds Jennifer Zeitzer, the organization’s director of public affairs.

    The internal USDA documents also imply the new policy is confidential. The guidelines are “for official use, internal only,” reads one FAQ. “There will be no stakeholder announcement,” and the details will not be included in USDA’s official inspection guidelines, it continues. The agency also made no mention of the changes at a conference last month for heads of animal care facilities and others responsible for lab animal welfare.

    “The apparent sneakiness on USDA’s part is striking,” Carbone says. He says he’s also “disturbed” that the agency—as internal documents indicate—has told its inspectors not to ask a facility for proof of its AAALAC accreditation, or to probe whether it’s on AAALAC probation. “I’d for sure think they’d want to know why a place was put on AAALAC probation.”

    Meyer argues that AAALAC itself is problematic. She and others in the animal advocacy community have long contended that the organization is not an appropriate substitute for USDA because it only inspects institutions every 3 years, is made up of many of the same people that run animal research facilities, and—unlike USDA—schedules inspections in advance rather than showing up unannounced. (AAALAC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

    Over the past 5 years, USDA reports have cited several AAALAC-accredited facilities for critical violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including pain relievers not given in a timely manner and unmonitored animals bleeding to death inside their cages. Because AAALAC inspections are confidential—even to USDA—the agency could be giving such labs a minimal inspection and a “clean bill of health” under the new policy, Meyer says.

    Whether that is actually happening is unclear. USDA has inspected 322 research facilities since its new guidelines took effect, an internal document reveals. Of the 151 that the agency believed were AAALAC accredited, 91 got focused inspections. (Some facilities requested full inspections, the document states, “because they were concerned about the appearance of a ‘focused inspection.’”) But inspectors are not to note in their report what aspect of a facility they looked at, internal documents indicate. So an outsider would not be able to tell whether USDA missed potentially critical animal welfare violations because, for example, it didn’t look at animals that year.

    Some animal care experts support a heavier reliance on AAALAC. It “would benefit all involved,” says Troy Hallman, director of Yale University’s Office of Animal Research Support. In his experience, he says, four AAALAC inspectors come for 3 days, versus one USDA inspector for 2 days; AAALAC also looks at mice, rodents, and other creatures not covered by USDA. “‘Problematic’ labs would be identified just as easily by AAALAC as USDA,” Hallman says.

    Yet USDA’s own inspections are vital, says Allyson Bennett, senior editor at Speaking of Research, which advocates for animal studies. “USDA external oversight is critical to ensuring open public view of animal research, she says. “AAALAC can be wonderful, but it’s a private body with relatively few mechanisms for transparency.”

    Bennett adds, however, that it’s unrealistic to expect USDA to conduct thorough annual inspections without more funding, given the agency’s limited resources and the approximately 800,000 animals it oversees. “It’s a big job,” she says. “If we want USDA to do more, then it needs to be able to do more.” 

  • ‘There are so many hurdles.’ Indian scientists plead with government to unlock COVID-19 data

    a crowd of people sit and wait

    People wait in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai, India, on 29 April.

    AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

    Reporting for this story was supported by a journalism grant from the Thakur Family Foundation, which has not influenced the contents of this report.

    Indian researchers say they urgently need better access to data collected by government agencies to help them understand and fight the country’s devastating second pandemic wave. An open letter published on 29 April that has 740 signatories so far asks the government for access to databases on COVID-19 testing and genomic sequencing and urges it to remove other obstacles to research.

    “There are currently so many hurdles and so much paperwork around accessing these data,” says Partha Pratim Majumder, a genetic epidemiologist at the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics in West Bengal and one of letter’s signers.

  • What’s the future of vaccines linked to rare clotting disorders? Science breaks down the latest

    A man is inoculated with a vaccine next to a river in the jungle

    A man receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Pará state in Brazil on 17 April. The vaccine is the cornerstone of a global plan to end the pandemic.

    JOAO PAULO GUIMARAES/AFP via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Vaccine regulators have delivered a clear verdict: In most settings, the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) far outweigh the small risk they will cause an unusual and sometimes deadly clotting disorder. But many questions remain about who is most at risk, how the risk-benefit calculus changes when cases fall, and what the side effects mean for the future of these vaccines, which use adenoviruses to ferry the gene for SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein into human cells.

    A major concern is how the rest of the world will respond to some European countries’ moves to limit the use of the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines, and the brief suspension of the J&J shot in the United States. The AstraZeneca vaccine—named Vaxzevria, or Covishield when it’s produced by the company’s Indian partner, the Serum Institute of India—is the cornerstone of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, a scheme aimed at vaccinating billions in the developing world. J&J is expected to provide hundreds of millions of doses of its one-shot vaccine to COVAX this year.

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