Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • New California telescope aims to catch quickly moving celestial events

    workers installing a camera

    Zwicky Transient Facility team members install the instrument's new camera. 

    Caltech Optical Observatories

    Astronomers in California have taken a telescope built before most of them were born and converted it into a new instrument dedicated to one of the newest and fastest-moving branches of astronomy: spotting objects in the sky that change from one day to the next.

    The new Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), which today opened its eye to the sky, was created by retooling the 1.2-meter Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, which, starting in 1948, took pictures of the night sky onto specially curved glass photographic plates. The ZTF, named in honor of Fritz Zwicky, the Bulgaria-born astronomer who worked for most of his career at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, has been fitted with a new camera made up of 16 charge-coupled device (CCD) detectors. That will enable it to snap single images covering an area more than 200 times the size of the full moon.

    With such a wide field of view—the biggest of any telescope more than 0.5 meters wide—the ZTF can survey the whole northern sky visible from Palomar every night. By doing so, astronomers can spot anything that changes from the previous night’s images, enabling them to identify quickly changing celestial phenomena, including supernovae, variable and binary stars, the active cores of distant galaxies, potentially Earth-threatening asteroids, and the flash of merging neutron stars that could also emit gravitational waves. 

  • Update: After death of captured vaquita, conservationists call off rescue effort


    Captured vaquitas will be housed in a sea pen until a sanctuary is set up.

    Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Creative

    On Friday, VaquitaCPR, the $5 million last-ditch effort by the Mexican government and conservationists to capture a rare porpoise called the vaquita, will formally announce the end of the project. The team captured two vaquitas: One, a calf, had to be released because it was stressed; the other, an adult female, died before it could be released. Since that death on 5 November, the 67-person team stopped trying to capture this diminutive cetacean. Instead, it has focused on trying to get detailed photographs of the 15 or so animals that still exist in the Gulf of California, their only habitat, so they can keep better track of the animals.

    Continually plagued by bad weather, the project was halted because the vaquitas reacted poorly to being placed in the sea pen designed to house them. That persuaded researchers that capturing the animals was not worth the risk. “There’s nothing worse than having an animal die in your hands,” says Frances Gulland, the lead VaquitaCPR veterinarian and a scientist at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. 

    The rescue attempt came about because illegal poaching of a fish highly prized for its swim bladder. The vaquitas become entangled and drown in the fishing nets. Despite efforts by the Mexican government to stop fishing where the vaquitas live, their numbers have dropped precipitously. With bringing vaquitas into captivity off the table for now as a solution, “what has to happen is the ramping up of enforcement” against poachers, Gulland says. 

  • A new ‘accelerator’ aims to bring big science to psychology

    a gray-scale face

    A study of human faces will kick off the Psychological Science Accelerator.

    Valerie Everett/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    A study of how people perceive human faces will kick off a new initiative to massively scale up, accelerate, and reproduce psychology studies.

    The initiative—dubbed the “Psychological Science Accelerator” (PSA)—has so far forged alliances with more than 170 laboratories on six continents in a bid to enhance the ability of researchers to collect data at multiple sites on a massive scale. It is led by psychologist Christopher Chartier of Ashland University in Ohio, who says he wants to tackle a long-standing problem: the “tentative, preliminary results” produced by small studies conducted in relatively isolated laboratories. Such studies “just aren’t getting the job done,” he says, and PSA’s goal is to enable researchers to expand their reach and collect “large-scale confirmatory data” at many sites.

    To gain access to the accelerator, researchers submit proposals to Chartier, who then forwards anonymized versions of submissions to a five-member selection committee. It considers factors such as how important the research question is, what impact it might have on the field, and how feasible data collection would be. Promising proposals are then passed to other committees—totaling more than 40 people—for feedback. The initial panel then makes the final call.

  • Trump’s agriculture department reverses course on biotech rules

    A tractor plows a farm field with red and green row crops.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to reconsider how to regulate some genetically engineered crops.

    Wayne Stadler/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has withdrawn a plan to overhaul how it regulates biotechnology products such as genetically engineered (GE) crops.

    The proposed rules, released in January as part of a broader update to federal biotech regulations, would have formally exempted some modern gene-edited plants from regulation, but industry and academic groups worried it would also add more onerous requirements for safety assessments early in the development of such products.

    USDA’s announcement and its notice in the federal register today provided little detail about the motivation for the reversal. The agency is taking another look at the rules to balance “regulatory requirements [that] foster public confidence” with a “review process that doesn’t restrict innovation,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue said in a statement. USDA will now start fresh discussions with stakeholders to consider other approaches, the statement said. 

  • Lamar Smith, the departing head of the House science panel, will leave a controversial and complicated legacy

    Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) presides over a hearing.

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) in 2014

    NASA/Aubrey Gemignani/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    When Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) announced last week that he would not run for re-election in 2018, after 32 years in Congress, many scientists reacted with glee.

    Smith’s current 5-year tenure as chairman of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, they say, has been a relentless attack on the integrity of the scientific enterprise, with a special focus on undermining peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF), blocking the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate industrial excesses, and curbing research on climate change. Smith’s use of subpoenas—he is the first science panel chairman to gain the power to issue those legally enforceable orders to produce documents or testify—has led to bitterness among researchers who argue he abused his power to attack individual scientists and attempt to smear their reputations. And some science lobbyists say the committee has become a cesspool of bitter partisanship; they fondly recall a time when panel Republicans and Democrats joined hands on important legislation designed to strengthen federal support for research and innovation that was backed by the academic community.

    But before Smith became chairman of the science committee in late 2012, he spent 2 years as the head of the judiciary committee. And longtime observers of Congress note that he built precisely that kind of bipartisan coalition to win passage of landmark legislation reforming the U.S. patent system. The 2011 America Invents Act, which adopted the same first-to-file rule that governs patents in the rest of the world, required him to work in tandem with a Democratic administration and Senate—after winning over an academic community that was initially skeptical of the dramatic policy shift and wary of how it would affect small inventors.

  • $10 million lawsuit over disputed energy study sparks Twitter war

    Solar panels

    A solar panel array

    Wikimedia Commons/Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nadine Y. Barclay

    Originally published by E&E News

    A Stanford University professor's lawsuit against the National Academy of Sciences has sparked angry responses from scientists who say it sets a dangerous precedent that shoves disagreements over research into the courts.

    "Getting to the bottom of the science should be done through the process of science. Not through attacks or lawsuits," Alan Townsend, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote on Twitter yesterday, part of a chain of critical tweets.

  • EPA unveils new industry-friendlier science advisory boards

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially unveiled new membership rosters today for several key science advisory panels that give more weight to representatives of industry and state governments at the expense of university researchers.

    The rosters for the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the Science Advisory Board posted online this morning appear to reflect the impact of restrictions put in place this week by agency chief Scott Pruitt. The new policy bars current recipients of EPA grants from serving on any agency advisory committees and effectively ends a tradition of appointing members to two consecutive three-year terms. The newly released lineups largely dovetail with an advance copy obtained earlier this week by E&E News.

  • House science chair to retire from Congress

    Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) presides over a hearing.

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) in 2014

    NASA/Aubrey Gemignani/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The controversial chairman of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives announced today that he will not seek re-election to Congress next fall. The pending departure of Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) could give the U.S. scientific community a chance to recalibrate a rocky 5-year relationship with a key congressional committee.

    The 69-year-old Smith, who was first elected to Congress in 1986, is in the middle of his third 2-year stint as chairman of the science committee. House rules require members to step down as chairman after 6 years, so Smith was already a lame duck.

    But his departure could be more than simply a changing of the Republican guard. Smith, trained as a lawyer, has fought acrimonious battles with scientists over peer review, climate change, and the role of the federal government in supporting basic research since becoming chairman in January 2013. He has clashed repeatedly with senior officials at the National Science Foundation, which he has accused of wasting tax dollars on frivolous research, and at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he believes has hampered economic development through overregulation.

  • Hundreds of astronomers rally behind whistleblowers at controversial Swiss institute

    night view of ETH building

    ETH Zurich has announced an investigation into alleged mistreatment of researchers at its Institute for Astronomy.


    Nearly 700 astronomers have signed a letter of support for early-career researchers who recently reported cases of alleged bullying at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. The university announced last week that it would launch an external investigation into allegations that a leading professor of astronomy, Marcella Carollo, had exhibited “inept management conduct toward many of her graduate students.”

    The ETH investigation follows the university’s August decision to close the Institute for Astronomy, where the alleged mistreatment took place. That decision was made quietly, and few in the astronomy community noticed until 21 October, when the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag reported extensively on the allegations, including charges that authorities had ignored earlier reports of misconduct.

    After the story appeared, two dozen of Carollo’s colleagues and former lab members drafted a letter defending her and her husband, cosmologist Simon Lilly, both of whom were hired in 2002 to launch the institute. That letter acknowledged that Carollo could be “a relentless task master” but said this stemmed from a strong commitment to her students and a “desire to maximise their career chances.”

  • Trump’s EPA has blocked agency grantees from serving on science advisory panels. Here is what it means

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Scientists receiving grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., many of them leading university researchers, are being purged from the agency’s advisory boards. The move, announced today by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, bars scientists from serving on these boards if they are now receiving money through an agency grant. It marks a major change in who can serve on the committees, which help steer EPA research and regulations by providing input on scientific questions.

    Pruitt’s move comes after he signaled earlier this month that he would take this step, and acted earlier this year to end the service of numerous researchers on several EPA advisory bodies. (Read more here and here.)

    ScienceInsider breaks down today’s announcement, why it matters, and how people are reacting.

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