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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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)

  • Trump White House shelves ‘adversarial’ review of climate science

    the white house
    iStock.com/bboserup

    Originally published by E&E News

    The proposed White House panel that would conduct an “adversarial” review of climate science is dead for now, as President Donald Trump grapples with negative perceptions of his environmental record at the outset of his reelection campaign.

    The months-long push from within the National Security Council to review established science on climate change divided White House advisers and generated sharp opposition from researchers across the country. The effort, led by a physicist overseeing technology issues at the NSC, William Happer, stalled indefinitely amid internal disagreements within the White House, according to two sources.

  • #MeTooSTEM founder out at Vanderbilt

    BethAnn McLaughlin

    Neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin has left Vanderbilt University.

    Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

    BethAnn McLaughlin, the controversial neuroscientist who founded the advocacy organization #MeTooSTEM 14 months ago, said today that she has left Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville “by mutual agreement” with the institution.

    “My employment and faculty appointment ended July 8. I value my time at Vanderbilt, and I look forward now to exploring new opportunities,” McLaughlin, 51, said in a statement issued through her lawyers.

    McLaughlin was denied tenure in 2017 but appealed, saying her tenure process had been tainted by retaliation for her testimony in a sexual harassment case. A faculty committee in February declined to reverse that tenure denial. Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, who will leave his post next month, accepted the committee’s decision.

  • Trump officials deleting mentions of ‘climate change’ from U.S. Geological Survey press releases

    James Reilly

    Under Director James Reilly, the U.S. Geological Survey has drawn criticism for deemphasizing concerns about climate change.

    NASA

    Originally published by E&E News

    A March news release from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) touted a new study that could be useful for infrastructure planning along the California coastline. At least that's how President Donald Trump’s administration conveyed it.

    The news release hardly stood out. It focused on the methodology of the study rather than its major findings, which showed that climate change could have a withering effect on California's economy by inundating real estate over the next few decades.

  • Update: Mount Sinai institute director facing discrimination allegations leaves post

    Mt. Sinai Medical Center

    A lawsuit targets a global health institute and the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, which is part of the Mount Sinai Health System.

    Homieg340/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

    *Update, 3 July, 12:41 p.m.: The director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health, who is facing allegations of age and gender discrimination, is leaving that position, the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai announced in an email today. Prabhjot Singh “has chosen to step down” as chair of the Department of Health System Design and Global Health, and as director of the institute, wrote Dean Dennis Charney. Singh will remain on the medical school’s faculty, and Rachel Vreeman, a physician-researcher who has specialized in treating children living with HIV, will become the institute’s interim director, Charney wrote.

    *Update, 23 May, 4:23 p.m.: The co-chairs of the Board of Trustees at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai yesterday told the medical school’s faculty that the board is forming a “special committee to review matters related to the allegations of discrimination,” as well as any other related issues. “We appreciate that this matter has generated concern,” Richard Friedman and James Tisch wrote in an email to faculty. They promised the board’s special committee “will act consistently with the values that shape this institution.”

    *Update, 21 May, 4:30 p.m.: On 16 May, hundreds of faculty and staff at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the affiliated Mount Sinai Health System wrote to the organization’s board of trustees, demanding an external investigation of the lawsuit’s allegations. As of today, 369 faculty and staff have signed the letter, which calls the lawsuit’s allegations “profoundly disturbing” and urges the board to implement a policy of “zero tolerance” for harassment.

  • Australia continues to see steady drop in new HIV infections

    a giant condom over an obelisk in Hyde Park, Sydney, a part of an HIV awareness campaign

    Aggressive promotion of condom use has helped curb HIV infections in Australia. This giant condom in Sydney was part of a 2014 awareness campaign.

    SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

    Australia continues to be at the forefront of reversing the increase in HIV infections, with a study released today showing that the number of new diagnoses in 2018 dropped 13% year-on-year, to 835 cases. The pace of the decline more than doubled from the previous year, according to the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. New infections are at the lowest level in 18 years and the decline is seen across the country, says Rebecca Guy, a Kirby Institute epidemiologist.

    The decline in new infections is concentrated among men who have sex with men (MSM), particularly those born in Australia. But that good news is tempered by a modest drop in heterosexually acquired infections, from 238 to 189, and stubbornly persistent levels of new infections in Indigenous peoples, particularly those in remote areas. “Australia is tracking toward elimination of the transmission of HIV,” Guy says, though she and others emphasize there is still much work to be done.

    The downward trend in new infections among MSM has been gathering steam for several years, thanks to aggressive promotion of condom use, widely available testing, and successful efforts to get those infected quickly started on antiretroviral drugs, which drive down viral loads, making the host unlikely to pass HIV on to partners.

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