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  • New Google effort uses cellphones to detect earthquakes

    Two people walk down a damaged road after an earthquake

    The magnitude 7.8 Kaikōura earthquake in 2016 ripped up highways and hillsides on New Zealand’s South Island.

    REUTERS/Anthony Phelps

    Google is getting further into the business of saving lives. Today, the internet giant announced that users of its Android phones in New Zealand and Greece will receive warnings of damaging earthquakes about to strike their locations. And those earthquakes will be detected not by the usual seismometers, but by the phones themselves.

    Earthquakes are a well-known threat in both countries. In New Zealand, the Pacific Plate collides with the Australian Plate and their grinding regularly causes large quakes, including a 2011 shock in Christchurch that killed nearly 200 people. Greece is spread across three tectonic plates, with damaging quakes a near-annual occurrence. But neither country has deployed an operational warning system. That created an opportunity to make a difference, says Marc Stogaitis, the project’s lead engineer at Google. “We have two big problems we want to solve: detecting earthquakes as quickly as possible and sending out alerts as quickly as possible.”

    Such earthquake early warning systems take advantage of a simple fact: The speed of light travels faster through the fiber optic cables of the internet than an earthquake’s waves. Traditional warning systems use seismometers to detect an earthquake’s size and magnitude, then relay a warning, via smartphone or loudspeakers, to residents likely to feel the quake. Such warnings, even if they only come seconds before a quake hits, can buy people enough time to drop to the floor, take cover beneath a desk, or hold on until the shaking stops. These systems are robust, but they are difficult and expensive to develop. One system, known as ShakeAlert, took 15 years to create and deploy in California, Oregon, and—starting next week—Washington state. It cost $60 million to build and needs more than $30 million annually to operate.

  • Big-name scientists surprised to find themselves on journal board

    conceptual illustration of a hand holding a magnifying glass over papers
    Feodora Chiosea/iStock

    The journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability (EHS) has an enviable roster of high-profile scientists on its editorial board, including noted biologist Paul Ehrlich, an emeritus professor at Stanford University, and Jerry Franklin, an ecosystem analyst at University of Washington, Seattle.

    There’s only one problem: Many board members are no longer involved with EHS—if they ever were. “I can remember no contact with the journal for years, if ever,” Ehrlich says. “I should not be appearing as associated with the journal,” Franklin adds.

    Their names ended up on the journal’s masthead, along with many others, when the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the Ecological Society of China (ESC) jointly launched EHS 6 years ago. But that collaboration has ended, and several scientists contacted by Science were unaware EHS still bills them as “international advisors” or “subject editors.” Such padding can make a journal look more prestigious than it is—and help it qualify for an impact factor, crucial for attracting submissions.

  • ‘Superagency’ may further politicize Indonesian research

    Forest becomes a plantation on island of Sumatra

    A forest gives way to a plantation on Sumatra. Deforestation and other major challenges mean that Indonesia needs science more than ever, researchers say.

    BEAWIHARTA BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

    Indonesia has dismantled its science ministry and created an overarching national research agency, a move some scientists worry will strengthen political control over research in a country where academic freedom is already under pressure and politics have taken an authoritarian turn.

    The Indonesian Parliament on 9 April approved a proposal by President Joko Widodo to eliminate the Ministry of Research and Technology (RISTEK) and create a new National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). Details have yet to be fleshed out, but BRIN seems set to have broad powers to fund, execute, and control research in the country. It will be led by physicist Laksana Tri Handoko, who currently heads the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

    Widodo has often criticized the Indonesian scientific community for what he says is lackluster performance. The country’s $1.7 billion annual research budget—a fraction of what the United States and many European countries spend—is enough, he told Indonesian academics in 2019. “Where’s the output?” he asked. Widodo has also been critical of the large number of research agencies scattered around the national bureaucracy and provincial governments across the archipelago.

  • Get your coronavirus test, join the party: Experimental mass events in the Netherlands draw fire

    Netherlands National soccer team fans cheer at a game

    As part of Fieldlab, 5000 fans attended a 27 March soccer match between the Netherlands and Latvia.

    Hollandse-Hoogte via ZUMA Press/Newscom

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

    The Eurovision Song Contest, known best for its over-the-top performances and outrageous costumes, has a new feature this year: It will be the site of a massive field experiment to see whether concerts and other events can be held safely in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nine rehearsals and televised shows, staged 18–22 May in Rotterdam, Netherlands, will each be attended by 3500 visitors who will have to show a recent negative SARS-CoV-2 test to get in. Those admitted can choose to drop social distancing and go without face masks—precautions currently mandatory in indoor public spaces in the Netherlands, where most people remain unvaccinated.

    The contest will be the last of 20 experimental events, together dubbed Fieldlab, set up by the Dutch event industry in collaboration with scientists and the Dutch government. But Fieldlab has come under fire as events have grown bigger and COVID-19 cases in the Netherlands surged. A music festival for 10,000 people on 24 April was banned by the host city, Breda, after more than 300,000 people signed a petition opposing it. And last week, more than 350 researchers criticized the studies in an open letter that complained of a lack of peer review, an intransparent setup, and ethical failings.

  • COVID-19 vaccines may protect many, but not all, people with suppressed immune systems

    A patient receives a vaccine in her upper arm

    A cancer patient in Louisville, Kentucky, receives a dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

    Jon Cherry/Getty Images

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

    For Eva Schrezenmeier, a nephrologist at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, the news was sobering: Among 40 patients with transplanted kidneys at her hospital who’d been vaccinated against COVID-19, only one was churning out the antibodies that would likely protect him from the disease. Because transplant patients take powerful drugs to suppress the immune system so it doesn’t attack a donated organ, her team expected diminished responses to a vaccine. But Schrezenmeier, who posted a preprint describing her study last week, hadn’t anticipated just how badly the vaccine might falter in her patients.

    Her finding is at the grim extreme of research on how well COVID-19 vaccines work in the many millions of people whose immune systems are suppressed by drugs or disease. In many, the vaccines do seem to maintain their potency. But in others—particularly organ transplant recipients and those taking certain immune-dampening medications—effectiveness is less assured or even absent. To learn more, researchers are launching larger studies, seeking more clarity and ways to help patients whose weakened immune systems make protection against COVID-19 all the more urgent. “There is a lot of confusion and fear among patients,” says Alfred Kim, a rheumatologist at Washington University in St. Louis who cares for people with the autoimmune disease lupus and strongly urges vaccination
    for them.

  • COVID-19 ‘brain fog’ inspires search for causes and treatments

    conceptual illustration of a viruses and clouds in the air around a woman wearing a mask
    Ponomariova_Maria/iStock

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

    Since she fell ill with COVID-19 around Thanksgiving, Pamela Furr has been waiting for her old self to return. A radio news anchor in Tennessee for more than 10 years, she now sometimes finds herself stuck midsentence grasping for simple words; she is prone to forget events and conversations if she doesn’t write them down. “I’m not the same person that I was before COVID,” she says. “I kind of miss me.”

    The true prevalence of cognitive problems in COVID-19 survivors is elusive, and the underlying causes of lingering symptoms are the subject of ongoing studies. But it’s now clear that trouble thinking, concentrating, and remembering can be among the most debilitating “long-haul” symptoms and can persist for months. As more and more people seek help to overcome their brain fog at clinics set up for post–COVID-19 care, researchers and physicians are turning to treatments developed for stroke and traumatic brain injuries. And a few are setting out to test cognitive training video games they hope will expand the reach of therapy.

  • Florida private school threatens jobs of teachers who seek COVID-19 vaccines

    Leila Centner

    Leila Centner announced a school she co-founded would “to the extent possible” not employ staff if they got COVID-19 vaccines.

    Romain Maurice/Getty Images for Haute Living

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

    Many universities are moving to require students and faculty to receive COVID-19 vaccines before returning to campus in the fall. But one private pre-K to eighth grade school in Florida has turned that on its head, The New York Times reports today. The school last week told its teachers and other staff they should avoid the “COVID-19 injection” because of the purported dangers that vaccinated people posed to students.

    A co-founder of the Centner Academy in Miami, Leila Centner, informed its 50 teachers and 25 support staff that if they choose to be vaccinated against COVID-19, they will not be welcome back on campus in the fall. Those already vaccinated will need to be separated from children while at school, according to a letter she sent to the school’s staff that was obtained by the newspaper.

  • U.S. national academy picks record number of women, minorities

    National Academy of Sciences headquarters

    The headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

    Maxwell MacKenzie/National Academy of Sciences

    The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) chooses its members in a process that has long discriminated against female and minority scientists, as well as those from less prestigious universities. But NAS officials have begun to tinker with that process with the goal of increasing gender, racial, and geographic diversity. And this year’s class, announced today, shows the impact of those changes.

    One-half of the members of this year’s class—59 of 120—are women; 10 years ago it was roughly one-quarter. The new cohort also includes nine Black scientists; NAS officials say there were never more than three in previous classes, and often the number was zero.

    “I’m amazed at how far we’ve come,” says plant geneticist Susan Wessler, NAS home secretary. “Of course, we can still do better. But the demographics are changing much more quickly than I ever imagined.”

  • Biden fills out science team with NOAA, DOE, and diplomacy picks

    the white house
    iStock.com/bboserup

    President Joe Biden is rounding out his science team. The White House yesterday announced nominees to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Science Affairs. The trio includes two veterans of government service and one newcomer.

    NOAA, one of the country’s premier climate-focused agencies, held a dubious distinction under former President Donald Trump: It went his entire term without an administrator who had been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Yesterday, Biden moved to end its string of acting leaders, nominating Rick Spinrad, an oceanographer at Oregon State University (OSU), Corvallis, and a longtime NOAA hand, as the agency’s next head.

     Spinrad previously served as NOAA’s chief scientist under former President Barack Obama. Before that, he held positions under former President George W. Bush, leading NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, the agency’s primary climate science arm, and its National Ocean Service. Spinrad was a prominent critic of the Trump administration’s interference in the agency’s forecasts of Hurricane Dorian and its late-term installment of climate contrarians in several prominent roles. Although those scientists have been dismissed, Spinrad will likely seek to restore public confidence in the agency while also boosting morale of its staff.

  • Gravity-based batteries try to beat their chemical cousins with winches, weights, and mine shafts

    Gravitricity tower in Edinburgh, U.K.

    Gravitricity generates electricity by dropping an iron weight down a shaft.

    Gravitricity/Peter Dibdin

    EDINBURGH, U.K.—Alongside the chilly, steel-gray water of the docks here stands what looks like a naked, four-story elevator shaft—except in place of the elevator is a green, 50-ton iron weight, suspended by steel cables. Little by little, electric motors hoist the weight halfway up the shaft; it is now a giant, gravity-powered battery, storing potential energy that can be released when needed. And that moment is now: With a metallic moan, the weight inches back down the shaft. Reversing direction, the motors become electric generators, sending up to 250 kilowatts of power back to the grid. For peak power, the weight can descend in 11 seconds—but for testing purposes, it moves just a few meters at “creep speed,” says Douglas Hitchcock, project engineer at Scottish startup Gravitricity.  

    The company announced this week that its small-scale demonstrator is now operational, capable of switching between drawing energy from the grid and sending it back in a matter of seconds. The design offers an alternative to the chemical batteries that dominate the global energy storage market—a market that is growing hand in hand with renewable power, which needs to bank energy when the Sun shines or the wind blows, and release it when the grid faces high demand.

    Gravitricity is one of a handful of gravity-based energy storage companies attempting to improve on an old idea: pumped hydroelectric power storage. Engineers would dam up a reservoir on a hill, pump water to it at times of low demand (usually at night), and release it to generate electricity. But the systems require specific terrain, expensive infrastructure, and planning approval that is increasingly hard to come by. These days, banking energy usually means hooking up renewable power to giant batteries.

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