Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Giant radio telescope array prepares to begin construction in Australia and South Africa

    artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array

    An artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array’s radio dishes in southern Africa. It will add 133 dishes to the existing 64-dish MeerKAT array in South Africa.

    SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

    Officials with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world’s biggest radio telescope, say they have nearly finalized designs and are planning for construction to begin in Australia and South Africa. This week, at a final engineering meeting in Shanghai, China, designs were presented for the array’s dishes and antennas, which a committee will review in the coming weeks—setting the stage for construction to begin.

    “I’m feeling confident,” of starting construction in early 2021, says Philip Diamond, SKA director general at the organization’s headquarters near Manchester, U.K. The design review committee is expected to make suggestions, “but we’re not expecting any show-stoppers,” he says.

    The SKA, funded by 13 nations from around the world, will eventually consist of thousands of dishes scattered across southern Africa and a million sticklike antennas in Western Australia. Daunting early cost estimates convinced planners to start with a more limited array that is expected to cost €1.7 billion for construction and 10 years of operation. In this first phase, the SKA group will deploy 130,000 antennas in Australia and add 133 dishes to the 64 of the MeerKAT array, an SKA precursor instrument in South Africa that opened last year.

  • This lab on wheels could be a game-changer during the next Ebola outbreak, scientists say

    Specialty mobile laboratory truck made by Integrum Scientific, LLC

    A new mobile lab was born out of scientists’ “frustration” about the lack of infrastructure during the West African Ebola outbreak.

    M. Enserink/Science

    NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND—During the next Ebola outbreak, this brand new vehicle might come to the rescue. It’s a lab on wheels that some scientists say could greatly improve the response to disease outbreaks and epidemics. It can be flown into trouble spots by plane and driven to even the most remote locations, and it has everything on board needed to rapidly diagnose patients or carry out research studies.

    A prototype was parked outside a conference center here for 1 week during the annual conference of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. The company that developed it, Greensboro, North Carolina–based Integrum Scientific, says the first vehicle may soon be tested in Uganda, which occasionally has outbreaks of Ebola and a related virus, Marburg.

    The idea was born out of “deep frustration” among scientists during the 2013–16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, says clinical virologist and pediatrician Calum Semple of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, who is on the company’s infectious disease scientific advisory board. The three most affected countries—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—had almost no laboratory infrastructure. Suspected Ebola patients were often held in quarantine rooms for a long time while their samples were shipped to other locations and tested, putting those not actually infected at risk of infection by other patients.

  • Brazil’s deforestation is exploding—and 2020 will be worse

    aerial view or forest fires in Altamira, Brazil

    The rainforest burns in Pará, the state in Brazil with the highest deforestation rate.

    © Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace

    Development, most of it illegal, destroyed more than 9700 square kilometers of Brazilian Amazon rainforest in the year ending in July, according to a government estimate released on Monday—an increase of 30% from the previous year and the highest rate of deforestation since 2007–08.

    The number is based on analysis of high-resolution Landsat satellite images by the Program for Monitoring Deforestation of the Amazon by Satellite (PRODES), run by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. The estimate confirms indications of increased forest loss reported earlier this year by a different system, the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER), which uses lower resolution satellite images for real-time monitoring of illegal activities in the forest.

    Many scientists and environmentalists blame the deforestation spike on President Jair Bolsonaro’s aggressive policies to support mining and ranching and to dismantle environmental protections. But Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles has said the increased deforestation continues a trend that began in 2012, before Bolsonaro was elected. Science asked Philip Fearnside, a scientist at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, who’s right. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • New deal won’t prevent 5G communication networks from interfering with weather forecasts

    Geo color weather satellite image showing cloud coverage over North America

    Weather forecasters fear interference from 5G communications network could interfere with data collected by satellites, such as the orbiter that produced this image.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/STAR

    Delegates at an international conference yesterday approved a standard for electronic noise emitted by 5G, the next-generation wireless communication technology, that will result in interference with weather-forecasting observations from space, meteorologists say.

    The decision at the United Nations’s World Radiocommunication Conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, restricts the noise from 5G emissions from to –33 decibel watts (dBW) outside of the 24-gigahertz communications band. After 8 years, the limit would be tightened to –39 dBW, on the assumption that 5G will not be widely deployed until that time.

  • Trump plan to push seafloor mapping wins warm reception

    seamount "Kahalewai"

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mapped the sea floor in the Central Pacific Basin, including a 4200-meter-high mount called Kahalewai.

    NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research/Mountains in the Deep: Exploring the Central Pacific Basin

    The coastal waters of the United States cover an area dwarfing the nation itself. Yet more than half of that ocean floor is a blank—unmapped by all but low-resolution satellite imagery.

    Now, the White House has announced a new push to examine these 11.6 million square kilometers of undersea territory. President Donald Trump this week signed a memorandum ordering federal officials to draft a new strategy that would accelerate federal efforts to map and explore these reaches.

    The 19 November declaration comes at a time of growing interest in mapping the world’s ocean floors. A consortium of scientists from around the world is working to create a complete, detailed picture of the global seabed by 2030. Nations are probing the ocean floor in search of valuable minerals, oil, and gas. In 2021, the United Nations will launch what it’s calling the decade of ocean science.

  • Top Chinese researcher faces questions about image manipulation

    headshot of Cao Xuetao

    Cao Xuetao

    VCG/Getty Images

    One of China’s most prominent scientists is facing a barrage of questions about images in dozens of papers produced by laboratories he leads. The Chinese Academy of Engineering has launched an investigation of the publications, by immunologist Cao Xuetao, president of Nankai University in Tianjin, and the case is getting extensive attention in both traditional and social media.

    Cao has defended the scientific validity of the papers, says he is cooperating with the review, and has promised to work with journals to correct any errors. “I most sincerely apologize for any oversight on my part,” he wrote 17 November on PubPeer, the publications review website where researchers first raised questions about the papers. “I remain confident about the validity and strength of the scientific conclusions made in those publications.”

    The episode highlights long-standing concerns about China’s scientific enterprise, observers say, including whether star scientists can effectively oversee the far-flung research empires they often lead, and whether officials are making progress in stamping out chronic research misconduct.

  • Trump nominee to lead NOAA withdraws, citing medical issues

    Barry Myers

    Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather, had been nominated to lead the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


    Originally published by E&E News

    Barry Myers, the former CEO of AccuWeather Inc., withdrew late yesterday his hot-button nomination to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its 12,000 employees, citing health concerns.

    The full Senate never voted on President Donald Trump's embattled NOAA pick, even though a split Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee sent his nomination to the floor three times in party-line decisions.

  • Massive Australian blazes will ‘reframe our understanding of bushfire’

    a man looking at a burned down house

    A homeowner inspects the damage done earlier this month by one of Australia’s many wildfires.


    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia is on fire like never before—and this year’s “bushfire” season, which typically peaks in January and February, has barely begun. Driven in part by a severe drought, fires have burned 1.65 million hectares in the state of New South Wales, more than the state’s total in the previous 3 years combined. Six people have died and more than 500 homes have been destroyed. As Science went to press, some 70 uncontrolled fires were burning in adjacent Queensland, and South Australia was bracing for potentially “catastrophic” burns.

    David Bowman, a fire ecologist and geographer and director of the Fire Centre at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, spoke with Science about the crisis. The flames have charred even moist ecosystems once thought safe, he says. And the fires have become “white-hot politically,” with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal government drawing criticism for refusing to acknowledge any link to climate change.

    The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • European data law is impeding studies on diabetes and Alzheimer’s, researchers warn

    A picture of NIH Director Francis Collins with a quote about European privacy laws laid

    For many people, the most apparent effect of the European privacy law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has been a flourishing of website pop-ups, demanding your consent to store browsing behavior as cookies. An annoyance, perhaps, but hardly more than an inconvenience. For Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), however, the regulation has turned out to be a serious impediment to research.

    Since 1993, Collins has been principal investigator for a project studying type 2 diabetes in Finnish people, who have relatively homogenous genetics and detailed health records. Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare has sent 32,000 DNA samples to Collins's laboratory. He and his U.S. collaborators used the data to discover more than 200 places in the genome where variants increase the risk of illness. But in May 2018, when GDPR came into force, the Finnish institute stopped all data sharing on the project, because NIH could not provide guarantees that would satisfy the institute's interpretations of the law's requirements. Progress has since "slowed to a crawl," Collins says.

    This week in Brussels, representatives from NIH, academia, industry, patient advocacy groups, the European Commission, and data protection authorities met to share their GDPR frustrations. They hope to highlight the obstacles it creates for some international collaborations and explore possible responses. "I hope this is only a temporary slowdown, and that the meeting in Brussels opens the way to a solution," Collins says.

  • U.S. Senate panel sees a standard grant application as defense against foreign influence

    Rob Portman listens to questions from reports

    Senator Rob Portman (R–OH) chaired a hearing today on protecting U.S. research.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

    The university administrators who have long advocated for a standard grant application process across the U.S. government say it would save time and money. Today, an influential Senate panel offered another reason: to prevent the fruits of government-funded research from falling into the wrong hands.

    How to deal with China’s transformation into a technological superpower is a front-burner issue for national policymakers. A new report by the intelligence panel of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs says federal research agencies have been tardy in responding to China’s aggressive moves, which are exemplified by its decadelong effort to recruit world-class scientists working in U.S. labs.

    The report’s release coincided with a hearing today that featured senior managers from three of those agencies—the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science—as well as from the Department of State official who oversees visas and the head of counterintelligence at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Those officials described numerous steps their agencies have taken in the past 18 months to protect the integrity of their grantsmaking process, perhaps most notably the letters NIH has sent to more than 70 institutions warning that some of their faculty members may have violated NIH rules by failing to disclose foreign affiliations.

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