Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Scientists are racing to model the next moves of a coronavirus that’s still hard to predict

    data visualization of the spread of the coronavirus through international travel

    This model shows the most probable routes that the novel coronavirus will take to spread from the international airport in Beijing to airports around the world. Bubble size represents relative risk at each airport.

    Dirk Brockmann

    Beyond China itself, Thailand is the country that most likely will have people who arrive at one of its airports with an infection by the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has sickened more than 30,000 people. So says the latest update of a global risk assessment model created by a team of researchers from the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Robert Koch Institute that relies on air travel data.

    Next on the team’s list is Japan—Osaka’s international airport, interestingly, is more at risk than Tokyo’s—which is followed by South Korea, Hong Kong, and then the United States. Russia likely has more infected people flying in than India, Germany (mainly the Frankfurt and Munich airports) is the most vulnerable country in Western Europe, and Ethiopia is the only sub-Saharan African country to break into the top 30 of virus-threated countries.

    So, how seriously should this model, and the dozens of other computer simulations of the outbreak, be taken? Scientists studying the 2019-nCoV outbreak are getting plenty of data to groundtruth and tweak their models. As of yesterday, for example, the most confirmed cases outside of mainland China were in Japan (45), Singapore (28), Thailand (25), Hong Kong (24), and South Korea (23). That could be considered a partial success for the Berlin model, but it also reflects that this is a dynamic outbreak that upends assumptions at a blinding speed; for example, the airport in Wuhan, China, the outbreak’s epicenter, was closed on 23 January, which radically altered airline exportation of the virus, and today there are 61 confirmed cases on a cruise ship off the coast of Japan.

  • U.S. attorneys warn of upcoming ‘spike’ in prosecutions related to China ties

    Andrew Lelling speaking on a panel

    Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, explains recent prosecutions under the Department of Justice’s China Initiative at a 6 February event in Washington, D.C. To his left is Jay Town, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama.

    Center for Strategic and International Studies

    Researchers in academia and industry who work with Chinese institutions should expect a “spike” in prosecutions this year as a result of a U.S. government initiative to stop economic espionage, say federal prosecutors leading the effort. And although they say the criminal cases could harm potentially useful U.S. collaborations with China, the prosecutors believe they will help deter future problems.

    “Some will complain that [the prosecutions] might have a chilling effect on collaboration with the Chinese. The answer to that is—for good and bad reasons—yes, it will,” said Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, at an event yesterday in Washington, D.C. “China has launched a massive nationwide effort to pilfer U.S. technology and know-how and transfer it to China for its own uses, so unfortunately this kind of response is needed.”

    Lelling was just one panelist appearing before a packed house at the Center for Strategic and International Studies for an event featuring Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The discussion, which included representatives from academia and industry, focused on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) China Initiative, which aims to disrupt what U.S. officials say is a systematic effort by the Chinese government to obtain advanced technology with economic and military value.

  • Colombian university fires prominent biologist accused of sexual harassment

    the main building of the University of Los Andes

    The University of Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia

    David Vargas/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

    A prestigious Colombian university has fired a prominent biologist for sexually harassing students and other violations. Yesterday’s decision by the University of Los Andes (Uniandes) in Bogotá is the latest turn in a 15-month controversy that has divided the private school’s biology department, catalyzed protests, and attracted the attention of Colombia’s media. The case has also highlighted growing efforts by universities across Latin America to confront sexual harassment.

    Adolfo Amézquita Torres, a herpetologist who entered Uniandes as an undergraduate student in 1985 and ultimately became the head of its biology department, was dismissed as a result of “ethical lapses,” “threats against the rights and dignity of students,” “inattention to conflict of interest standards,” and “negligence in fulfilling his duties and responsibilities,” according to a university statement.

    The university received “dozens” of complaints about Amézquita Torres’s behavior, President Alejandro Gaviria Uribe told ScienceInsider after the decision was announced. They included allegations of favoring female students he was dating and retaliating against those who rejected his advances or voiced concerns about his behavior.

  • This powerful observatory studying the formation of galaxies is getting a massive, $54 million expansion

    The MeerKAT radio telescope

    MeerKAT, which will get 20 new dishes by 2022, will eventually become part of the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the largest radio telescope in the world.

    South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

    South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT telescope is set to grow by almost one-third, significantly increasing its sensitivity and ability to image the far reaches of the universe. The 20 new dishes come with a $54 million price tag, to be split evenly between the South African government and Germany’s Max Planck Society.

    MeerKAT, a midfrequency dish array, is already the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world. Since its inauguration in 2018, it has captured the most detailed radio image of the center of the Milky Way and discovered giant radiation bubbles within it.

    “The extended MeerKAT will be an even more powerful telescope to study the formation and evolution of galaxies throughout the history of the universe,” says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). Francisco Colomer, director of the Joint Institute for Very Long Baseline Interferometry European Research Infrastructure Consortium, says the expansion will “enhance an already impressive instrument.” The new dishes will have a slightly different design from the existing ones and a diameter of 15 meters instead of 13.5 meters. 

  • Ex-Emory scientist with ties to China charged with fraud

    gate at Emory Univeristy

    Neuroscientist Li Xiao-Jiang, who has been charged by the U.S. government with fraud, worked at Emory University.


    A former Emory University neuroscientist has been charged with defrauding the U.S. government by taking a salary from a Chinese institution while also being paid through research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    The charges against Li Xiao-Jiang were filed on 21 November 2019 in U.S. district court in Atlanta and were first reported yesterday by NBC News. Li and his wife, Li Shihua, worked at Emory’s medical school for 23 years before being dismissed in May 2019 for failing “to fully disclose … the extent of their work” in China. One week later, the couple defended themselves in an interview with ScienceInsider.

    In November 2018, NIH asked Emory to investigate the actions of the couple, who use animal models to study Huntington disease. The NIH letter was part of the agency’s ongoing probe of nearly 200 academic researchers thought to have violated policies requiring disclosure of all sources of research support. As with many of the cases, Li Xiao-Jiang was a participant in China’s Thousand Talents Program, one of several programs that has recruited thousands of foreign scientists over the past decade.

  • ‘This beast is moving very fast.’ Will the new coronavirus be contained—or go pandemic?

    People on a train in masks

    Travelers pass a checkpoint at the China-Russia border.

    Svetlana Mayorova/TASS/Sipa USA/Newscom

    The repatriation of 565 Japanese citizens from Wuhan, China, in late January offered scientists an unexpected opportunity to learn a bit more about the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) raging in that city. To avoid domestic spread of the virus, Japanese officials screened every passenger for disease symptoms and tested them for the virus after they landed. Eight tested positive, but four of those had no symptoms at all, says epidemiologist Hiroshi Nishiura of Hokkaido University, Sapporo—which is a bright red flag for epidemiologists who are trying to figure out what the fast-moving epidemic has in store for humanity. If many infections go unnoticed, as the Japanese finding suggests, that vastly complicates efforts to contain the outbreak.

    Two months after 2019-nCoV emerged—and with well over 20,000 cases and 427 deaths as of 4 February—mathematical modelers have been racing to predict where the virus will move next, how big a toll it might ultimately take, and whether isolating patients and limiting travel will slow it. But to make confident predictions, they need to know much more about how easily the virus spreads, how sick it makes people, and whether infected people with no symptoms can still infect others.

    Some of that information is coming out of China. But amid the all-out battle to control the virus, and with diagnostic capabilities in short supply, Chinese researchers cannot answer all the questions. Countries with just a handful of cases, such as Japan, can also reveal important data, says Preben Aavitsland of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. “It’s up to all countries now that receive cases to collect as much information as possible.”

  • Florida state legislator fears overreaction in probe of foreign research ties

    Joseph Geller

    Florida state Representative Joseph Geller (D)

    Steve Cannon/AP

    Florida state Representative Joseph Geller (D) wants to know how many publicly funded Florida scientists have links to Chinese institutions that they haven’t disclosed. But after six scientists from the University of Florida (UF) and the Moffitt Cancer Center were dismissed recently because they hid such relationships, Geller hopes the Republican-led panel on which he serves doesn’t simply propose outlawing such foreign collaborations.

    “Do I think they should get a Lasker [Prize]?” Geller asks about the ousted scientists, referring to a major biomedical research award. “No. But we need some context, too, especially when you’re talking about researchers who live and die on funding” from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    “If all the researchers did was make a mistake, they should be punished—maybe a suspension or something,” Geller says. “But I don’t think we want to permanently deprive ourselves of their talents. I think we have a shortage of such dedicated researchers.”

  • Why did a Chinese university hire Charles Lieber to do battery research?

    Charles Lieber surrounded by press as he leaves federal court

    Charles Lieber

    REUTERS/Katherine Taylor

    Among the ongoing mysteries surrounding last week’s arrest of Harvard University nanoscientist Charles Lieber is the precise nature of the research program Lieber was conducting in his cooperation with Chinese researchers.

    Lieber was arrested on 28 January on charges of making false statements to U.S. law enforcement officials and federal funding agencies about a collaboration he forged with researchers in China. He was released two days later on a $1 million bond. An affidavit outlining the charges against Lieber notes that in January 2013, he signed an agreement between Harvard and Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China. According to the affidavit, “The stated purpose of the agreement, which had a five-year effective term, was to ‘carry out advanced research and development of nanowire-based lithium ion batteries with high performance for electric vehicles.’”

    Officials at WUT have not responded to requests for comment on their agreement with Lieber. But it outlines just the kind of high-tech work that U.S. prosecutors involved in efforts to investigate Chinese attempts to acquire advanced technology from U.S.-based researchers say they are concerned about. They allege that the Chinese government has used such collaborations to improperly take advantage of the federally funded research enterprise, and gain an edge in economic and military advances.

  • BRAIN Initiative’s first director sets sights on clinical tools

    headshot of John Ngai

    John Ngai

    Brittany Hosea-Small/University of California, Berkeley

    Since its launch in 2013, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative has doled out about $1.3 billion in grants to develop tools that map and manipulate the brain. Until now, it has operated with no formal director. But last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which manages the initiative and is a key funder, announced that neurobiologist John Ngai would take the helm starting in March.

    Ngai, whose lab at the University of California, Berkeley, focuses on the neural underpinnings of the sense of smell, has helped lead BRAIN-funded efforts to classify the brain’s dizzying array of cell types with RNA sequencing. Ngai told ScienceInsider about how the initiative is evolving and how he hopes to influence it.

    The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Study claiming new coronavirus can be transmitted by people without symptoms was flawed

    A bus with people evacuated because of the coronavirus

    Germans repatriated from Wuhan, China, arrive at an army barracks on 1 February to be examined for signs of infection with the new coronavirus.

    Frank Rumpenhorst/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    A paper published on 30 January in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) about the first four people in Germany infected with a novel coronavirus made many headlines because it seemed to confirm what public health experts feared: that someone who has no symptoms from infection with the virus, named 2019-nCoV, can still transmit it to others. That might make controlling the virus much harder.

    Chinese researchers had previously suggested asymptomatic people might transmit the virus but had not presented clear-cut evidence. “There’s no doubt after reading [the NEJM] paper that asymptomatic transmission is occurring,” Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told journalists. “This study lays the question to rest.”

    But now, it turns out that information was wrong. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German government’s public health agency, has written a letter to NEJM to set the record straight, even though it was not involved in the paper. 

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