Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Update: ‘A bit chaotic.’ Christening of new coronavirus and its disease name create confusion

    A painting depicting a coronavirus just entering the lungs

    A painting of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus as it enters the lungs. An expert group says a novel coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2, belongs to the same viral species.

    David S. Goodsell

    *Update, 13 February, 12:15 p.m.: The story below, published on 12 February, has been updated with information from a WHO spokesperson. 

    “COVID-19. I’ll spell it: C-O-V-I-D hyphen one nine. COVID-19.”

    That’s how Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), introduced the agency’s official name for the new disease that’s paralyzing China and threatening the rest of the world. The christening yesterday, at one of WHO’s now daily outbreak press conferences in Geneva, ended 6 weeks of uncertainty about what the disease would be called—but it also created some new confusion.

  • Wildfire researcher deported amid growing rift between Indonesian government and scientists

    Fires rage in Indonesia

    Estimates of how much Indonesian forest and peatland burned in 2019 are politically sensitive.


    After living and working in Indonesia for about 15 years, French landscape ecologist David Gaveau suddenly left the country on 28 January. Indonesian immigration authorities had ordered Gaveau, a research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, on Java, to leave because of a visa violation.

    Gaveau, who also directed a small consulting company on Bali, would not comment on the reason for his departure. But some colleagues suspect it’s no coincidence that he was expelled the month after CIFOR published an estimate of the damage from Indonesia’s 2019 wildfires that far exceeded the government’s own numbers. Some see his deportation as another sign of the growing tension between the Indonesian government and the scientific community. In recent years, several researchers studying environmental damage from development and fires have faced government pressure and some have lost their jobs and their right to stay in the country. Indonesian scientists have felt pressure as well. “I am afraid these signs mean the Indonesian government is starting to leave science behind,” says Herlambang Wiratraman, director of human rights law studies at Airlangga University.

    Gaveau is an expert on deforestation and forest fires who runs the Borneo Atlas and the Papua Atlas, online platforms that track changes in land use in industry concessions. In his analysis of the 2019 fires, based on images captured by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite and published in early December 2019, he concluded that about 1.6 million hectares of forest and degraded peatlands had burned between January and October in seven Indonesian provinces.

  • In Somalia, an unprecedented effort to kill massive locust swarms with biocontrol

    locust jumping in the desert

    Young locusts, such as these in northern Somalia, will be killed by a nontoxic biocontrol fungus before they swarm.

    AP Photo/Ben Curtis

    Somalia, one of several African nations being hit hard by enormous swarms of locusts, is planning to control them with a fungus in what would be the largest use of biopesticides against these insects.

    “Large-scale use to control an invasion of desert locusts would be a first,” says Michel Lecoq, a retired entomologist who worked on locust control at the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development. “If successful, it will be a big step forward.”

    The moment is crucial, because the next generation of locusts is now maturing and could devastate crops planted at the end of March. “We have a short window of opportunity to act,” Dominique Burgeon, director of emergencies at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said at a briefing Monday in New York City.

  • Trump’s new budget cuts all but a favored few science programs

    hands hold a copy of Trump's budget proposal

    Research advocates decry a fourth straight year of proposed spending cuts by President Donald Trump.

    Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call Inc./Getty Images

    For the fourth straight year, President Donald Trump has proposed sizable reductions in federal research spending. To be sure, it’s no longer news that the president wants deep cuts to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA. And in past years, Congress has rejected similar proposals and provided increases. But Trump’s 2021 request brings into sharper focus what his administration values across the research landscape—and what it views as unimportant.

    During a 10 February teleconference on the research portion of the $4.8 trillion budget request, administration representatives refused to address the proposed cuts to many areas of basic research and instead highlighted the few bright spots for science. For example, when asked about research on climate change, a discipline targeted for cuts, White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier changed the subject. “We want to keep this focused on artificial intelligence [AI] and quantum information science [QIS],” he said—two fields the administration has selected for spending increases.

    Droegemeier also insisted that the president’s overall request of $142 billion for research would be a 6% increase. In fact, it represents a 9% decline over 2020 spending; the 6% increase is based on Trump’s 2020 request, which Congress ignored.

  • Labs scramble to spot hidden coronavirus infections

    Scientists from a Wuhan hospital hold up samples.

    A staffer at a Wuhan, China, hospital holds up a sample from a suspected COVID-19 patient.

    STR/AFP/Getty Images

    The seeming precision of the global tallies of cases and deaths caused by the novel coronavirus now spreading from Wuhan, China belies an alarming fact. The world is in the dark about the epidemic’s real scale and speed, because existing tests have limited powers—and testing is far too spotty. “We are underestimating how common this infection is,” cautions Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust.

    Within days of Chinese researchers releasing the sequence of the virus on 11 January, scientists developed tests capable of detecting genetic sequences that distinguish the new agent from other coronaviruses circulating in humans. By 28 January, China’s National Medical Products Administration had approved diagnostic test kits from five companies. It was an astonishing pace for the response to a pathogen never seen before—and yet it was only a beginning.

    Today, there aren’t nearly enough test kits available to keep up with the skyrocketing case numbers, and some parts of the world may lack enough trained laboratory staff to apply them. And because the genetic tests look for snippets of viral genetic material in nose and throat swabs or fluid collected from the lung, they only work when somebody has an active infection. Scientists are still scrambling to detect antibodies against the virus in the blood, which could help find people who had an infection and recovered. 

  • Judge tosses EPA policy that barred agency grantees from serving as science advisers

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was widely criticized for barring researchers who received agency grants from serving on its science advisory panels.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    Green groups have clocked a win against a controversial Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy that limited who could be members of the agency’s science advisory boards.

    Yesterday’s ruling by Judge Denise Cote for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York came after multiple courts tossed similar claims.

  • National Institutes of Health would see 7% cut in 2021 under White House plan

    the White House with the fountain in front spouting water

    The White House in Washington, D.C.

    Norman Maddeaux/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    President Donald Trump’s 2021 budget proposal would slash the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by $3 billion to $38.7 billion, a 7% cut, while maintaining funding for a few priorities.

    The budget includes $50 million for the second year of the administration’s Childhood Cancer Data Initiative, which the National Cancer Institute has been planning since last summer. In 2021, it would link existing childhood cancer databases, create a data commons for preclinical studies and clinical data, and fund research on rare pediatric cancers.

    Support would continue for research on opioid addiction; influenza, including a universal vaccine; and AIDS as part of Trump’s goal to cut HIV infections 90% between 2020 and 2030.

  • Trump’s 2021 budget drowns science agencies in red ink, again

    A staff member carries a large stack of papers to a table

    A U.S. House of Representatives staffer handles copies of President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget request to Congress.

    REUTERS/Leah Millis

    It’s another sea of red ink for federal research funding programs in President Donald Trump’s latest budget proposal. The 2021 budget request to Congress released today calls for deep, often double-digit cuts to R&D spending at major science agencies.

    At the same time, the president wants to put more money into a handful of areas—notably artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science (QIS)—to create the new technology needed for what the budget request calls “industries of the future.”

    Here is a rundown of some of the numbers from the budget request’s R&D chapter. (The numbers reflect the portion of each agency’s budget classified as research, which in most cases is less than its overall budget.)

  • World’s largest linguistics database is getting too expensive for some researchers

    a teacher pointing to letters on a blackboard

    Banewel Mark, a literacy facilitator with the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation, teaches the Deg language, which is considered “vulnerable,” according to the Endangered Languages Project.

    Rodney Ballard

    It was 2015 when Gary Simons knew that something had to change. That was the year spare funds started to dry up at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a Bible translation group that helped revolutionize the documentation of endangered languages in the mid–20th century. SIL’s budget had long supported Simons’s passion project: Ethnologue—or “the Ethnologue” as many researchers call it—a massive online database considered by many to be the definitive source for information on the world’s languages.

    Ethnologue’s users—and there are hundreds of thousands—can track how many people speak each of the world’s tongues, from Hebrew to Hausa to Hakka (9.3 million, 63.4 million, and 48.2 million, respectively). The database indicates, on a scale of one to 10, every language’s risk of extinction. It also gives a surprisingly clear answer to the squishy question, “how many languages exist?” (7111, by the latest count). For linguists, it’s a resource of reference; for students, it’s a window into the diversity of human language.

    But for Simons, a computational linguist who has run Ethnologue for almost 20 years, it’s been a growing heartache. To help cover its nearly $1 million in annual operating costs, Ethnologue got its first paywall in late 2015; most nonpaying visitors were turned away after several pages. Since October 2019, the paywall has taken a new form: It lets visitors access every page, but it blots out information on how many speakers a language has and where they live. Subscriptions now start at $480 per person per year.

  • Major cancer institute sued by its own researchers over ‘tapering’ funding

    Two scientists examine results in a laboratory

    Paul Mischel (right) is one of six researchers suing the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research for tapering down its funding.

    University of California, San Diego

    Alleging that a leading cancer funder is slashing their support in an “unethical and reckless” way, six prominent cancer researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), have filed a lawsuit to compel it to continue its current level of support. The suit, filed quietly in November 2019 and amended last week, contends that the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR) is gradually drawing down its funding for cancer prevention and treatment research to the six plaintiffs, in order to close its 29-year-old San Diego branch by 2023.

    In a statement, LIRC confirmed it is winding down the San Diego branch—but stressed that, “[i]n implementing this decision, the Ludwig Institute is honoring its contractual obligations.” LICR also said it plans to respond to the lawsuit’s specific allegations “in due course.”

    The six plaintiffs, Don Cleveland, Arshad Desai, Richard Kolodner, Paul Mischel, Karen Oegema, and Bing Ren, primarily study tumor biology and cancer genomics, though some work more broadly, including Cleveland, who is also known for research on Huntington disease. In addition to funding from LICR, they receive substantial support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Breakthrough Prize, and other sources.

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