Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Crop-protecting insects could be turned into bioweapons, critics warn

    aphids walking along a wheat stalk

    Researchers are studying whether aphids and other insects could be used to transmit viruses that help protect plants.

    Larry Mayer/Getty Images

    It sounds like science fiction: A research program funded by the U.S. government plans to create virus-carrying insects that, released in vast numbers, could help crops fight threats such as pests, drought, or pollution. “Insect Allies,” as the $45 million, 4-year program is called, was launched in 2016 with little fanfare. But in a policy forum in this week’s issue of Science, five European researchers paint a far bleaker scenario. If successful, the technique could be used by malicious actors to help spread diseases to almost any crop species and devastate harvests, they say. The research may be a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the piece argues.

    The paper is likely to touch off another round in the long-running debate about “dual-use research of concern,” scientific work that may have benefits but could also be used for nefarious means. Other recent examples of such science include the creation of a flu mutant better able to spread in mammals and the synthetic creation of the extinct horsepox virus, a cousin of the virus that causes smallpox.

    Funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, Insect Allies aims to use insects such as aphids or whiteflies to infect crops with tailormade viruses that can deliver certain genes to mature plants; it’s essentially gene therapy for crops. The goal, DARPA says, is to find a new way to protect plants growing in the field from emerging threats. The approach would be faster and more flexible than developing new crop varieties in the laboratory, which can take years, says Blake Bextine, who manages the project at DARPA. The research is carried out by groups at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in University Park, The Ohio State University in Columbus, the University of Texas in Austin, and the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York.

  • Leon Lederman, father of ‘the God particle,’ dies

    Leon Lederman

    Leon Lederman in 2015

    Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

    Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prizewinning physicist and passionate advocate for science education who coined the term "the God particle," died today at age 96. His death was announced by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, where he was director from 1978 to 1989.

    Lederman and two colleagues shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1988 for their discovery, 26 years earlier, that elusive particles called neutrinos come in more than one type. (Physicists now know that there are three types of neutrinos.) Later, Lederman headed the team that discovered a particle called the bottom quark. And he led Fermilab while it built its Tevatron collider, the world's highest energy atom smasher from 1983 to 2010.

  • At global climate talks, U.S. stresses uncertainty and value of fossil fuels

    a flare burning at a fracking well at sunset

    U.S. officials argue that fossil fuels, such as natural gas produced at this drilling site, are key to reducing poverty.

    Aaron M. Sprecher/AP Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    Top researchers are huddled with government officials in South Korea this week to confront the scientific consensus that maintaining a safe global climate will require immediate and aggressive action.

    The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to release a long-awaited study Monday showing what the world will look like if temperatures rise an average of 1.5°C over preindustrial levels, versus the 2° scenario scientists once deemed safe.

  • U.S. census nominee steers through political minefield at confirmation hearing

    Steven Dillingham after hearing

    Steve Dillingham (left), with Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R–WI, right) before today’s hearing.

    J. Merivs/Science

    Steven Dillingham avoided controversy today in a Senate hearing on his nomination to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau. But both Democrats and Republicans on the panel tried to win his support for their stances on the political controversies swirling around the 2020 census.

    Filling a job that has been vacant since John Thompson stepped down in June 2017 seems to be the priority for both parties in the runup to the decennial census. And Dillingham’s balancing act all but assures eventual confirmation for the 66-year-old political scientist, who had led two other federal statistical agencies under Republican administrations.

    The biggest political minefield facing Dillingham is the current lawsuit against his future boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, for his decision to add a citizenship question to the decennial census. Opponents say the question wasn’t properly vetted and will lead to an undercount. Today, Dillingham sidestepped a direct question about his view of the question from Senator Steve Daines (R–MT), who believes it is both appropriate and essential.

  • Japanese spacecraft drops a third rover on asteroid Ryugu

    An artist impression of MASCOT

    After successfully dropping two small hopping rovers on the surface of asteroid Ryugu last month, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 today deployed another probe with a suite of instruments that will do some serious science. Hayabusa2, which arrived at Ryugu in June after a 3.5-year journey, descended to 51 meters above the asteroid and released the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT). Twenty minutes later, the asteroid’s gravity had pulled the 10-kilogram probe, 30 by 30 by 20 centimeters in size, to the surface.

    The Minerva hopping rovers deployed on 21 September have cameras snapping some amazing pictures, but minimal scientific instrumentation. MASCOT, jointly developed by the German Aerospace Center and the French National Centre for Space Studies, carries a camera, instruments to measure day-to-night thermal changes and check for magnetism, and an infrared spectral microscope to study the mineral composition and look for any evidence the asteroid once hosted water or organic molecules. MASCOT will collect data in one location, then hop to a second for another round of observations. About 16 hours after deployment, MASCOT’s batteries will run down and the observation phase of the mission will be over.

    A photo MASCOT took as it approached Ryugu was posted on Twitter earlier.

  • U.K. scientists ‘are going to be all right,’ after Brexit, science minister promises

    Sam Gyimah

    Science minister Sam Gyimah hopes the United Kingdom can still have a say in EU funding programs such as Horizon Europe, which will begin in 2021.

    Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament (CC BY 3.0)

    In January, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Sam Gyimah as science and universities minister as a part of a broader cabinet reshuffle. Gyimah, a Conservative member of parliament representing East Surrey, replaced Jo Johnson, who had been science minister for almost 3 years. Last month, Gyimah came to the United States on a whistlestop tour. He visited pharmaceutical companies in Boston and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. In Washington, D.C., he met with National Space Council head Scott Pace to talk about opportunities for collaboration in commercial space. During his visit, Gyimah spoke with Science about the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, a topic that is causing a great deal of anxiety among U.K. scientists. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    Q: You were a banker for Goldman Sachs after you studied philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. What interest do you have in science?

    A: Everyone who’s rational should have an interest in science. The future of our planet depends on our understanding of science. … It’s something I value immensely.

  • Airlines fight effort to force them to carry lab animals

    United Boeing 777 in flight

    United Airlines stopped transporting nonhuman primates in 2013.

    imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo

    A last-ditch attempt by biomedical science advocates to force airlines to transport nonhuman primates and other research animals appears to be facing stiff headwinds. Last week, four international carriers strongly urged the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to summarily reject a plea from a leading research advocacy organization to order the airlines to resume flying animals to research facilities around the world. The request is “misguided,” “far-fetched,” and contrary to laws that allow airlines to decide what kinds of cargo they will carry, the companies argued. DOT has not said how it will respond.

    “The prohibition on the carriage of research animals will slow down the progress of essential and life-saving biomedical research that is necessary for drugs, treatments, cures, and the prevention of disease,” wrote Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) in Washington, D.C., which filed the complaint in August, in an email to Science. “It also violates several provisions of federal law.”

    But Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president at Norfolk, Virginia–based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which for years has been putting pressure on airlines to end these flights, calls NABR’s complaint “an act of desperation.” She doubts it will have any impact on airline policy.

  • Biologists irate at NSF’s new one-proposal cap

    three adult baboons and one baby

    The National Science Foundation’s new Understanding the Rules of Life track supports work on baboon gut microbiomes.

    Elizabeth Archie, University of Notre Dame/NSF

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, has made several tweaks to its grant proposal policies in recent years to keep staff and reviewers from being overwhelmed by the rising number of submissions. But some biologists say the latest change goes too far.

    Last month, NSF’s biology directorate announced that researchers could submit only one proposal a year in which they are listed as a principal investigator (PI) or co-PI. The cap applies only to the directorate’s three core tracks and excludes several other NSF programs from which many biologists receive support.

    The new limit is intended to reduce the number of rejected proposals resubmitted without major changes, says Alan Tessier, the biology directorate’s deputy assistant director. NSF would like scientists to collaborate at a deeper level than just “carving up the science” and listing each other on the grant proposal’s cover sheet, Tessier says.

  • NASA climate mission Trump tried to kill moves forward

    the ISS with Earth in the background

    Once mounted on the space station, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder will reduce uncertain measures of climate-related phenomena such as clouds.


    A new space station sensor that will lay the foundation for future long-term observations of Earth’s climate is moving ahead, despite repeated attempts by President Donald Trump’s administration to kill it. Yesterday, amid a torrent of other news, NASA quietly announced it had awarded a $57 million contract to start building the instrument, which is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) early next decade.

    Last year, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder was one of several earth science missions targeted by the new administration for cancellation. Although Congress ultimately rejected that request, it prompted NASA to halt work on the project in May 2017. But now, the agency said, it has awarded a contract to the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder, to build CLARREO Pathfinder’s primary component, a specialized camera.

    The revived mission joins several other earth science programs in surviving near-death threats. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, which the Trump administration also proposed for cancellation, is now set to launch to the ISS  in February 2019. Congress has drafted, though has not yet passed, language reinstating NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System. And the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has pledged to follow the guidance of the earth science decadal survey, a consensus wish list of NASA missions compiled by earth scientists that has endorsed many of the missions targeted for cancellation or budget cuts.

  • Tired of male-dominated meetings, leading cancer conference makes nearly all of its speakers women

    conference attendees gather at a poster session

    Conference attendees gather at a poster session at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany.

    Tobias Schwerdt/DKTK

    Calling out “manels”—all male panels at meetings—has been one way researchers concerned about gender equity have called attention to the frequent imbalance of men and women on scientific conference programs. Now, organizers of a meeting at a leading cancer institute in Germany have gone a step further. At the Frontiers in Cancer Research meeting early next month, 23 of the 28 invited speakers—or 82%—are women.

    “We invited women who are driving the field. … The ratio is the opposite of what it usually is,” says Ursula Klingmüller, a systems biologist at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg and chair of the center’s Executive Women’s Initiative, which is organizing the meeting, which will run from 9 to 11 October.

    The aim of the meeting, hosted by DKFZ, is to “show that we have really outstanding researchers around the world doing excellent work.” Organizers briefly considered inviting only women as speakers, Klingmüller says, but decided that wasn’t the approach they wanted to take. Instead, the organizers invited a man to speak at each session. “No one is excluded,” she says.

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