Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Philosophers and neuroscientists join forces to see whether science can solve the mystery of free will

    conceptual illustration of a driver inside a man’s head

    A new research program on free will teams up neuroscientists and philosophers.

    Philosophers have spent millennia debating whether we have free will, without reaching a conclusive answer. Neuroscientists optimistically entered the field in the 1980s, armed with tools they were confident could reveal the origin of actions in the brain. Three decades later, they have reached the same conclusion as the philosophers: Free will is complicated.

    Now, a new research program spanning 17 universities and backed by more than $7 million from two private foundations hopes to break out the impasse by bringing neuroscientists and philosophers together. The collaboration, the researchers say, can help them tackle two important questions: What does it take to have free will? And whatever that is, do we have it?

    Neuroscience’s first and most famous encounter with free will occurred in 1983, when physiologist Benjamin Libet made a peculiar discovery. A brain signal called the readiness potential was known to precede self-initiated actions, such as raising a hand or spontaneously tapping a finger. Libet found the readiness potential starts to rise before people report they are aware of their decision to move. Many took that as a challenge to the existence of free will. But subsequent studies argued that was a flawed interpretation, and that the results said little about free will.

  • Q&A: Why fishery managers need to overhaul recreational fishing rules

    Robert Arlinghaus holding a sea trout

    Robert Arlinghaus with a sea trout he caught off the Danish coast

    Christian Skov

    For environmental conflict and political drama, it’s hard to beat fishing. Almost all the fish consumed by developed countries comes from industrial fisheries, which generate not just a lot of revenue, but controversy over their impact, such as accidentally harming seabirds or scraping the sea floor. Meanwhile, recreational fishing usually escapes notice. Although it also has a large impact, both environmental and economic, amateur fishing is often ignored by regulators or swept under the same kind of rules as commercial fishing. This needs to change, researchers argue in a commentary published online yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    Each year, recreational anglers catch an estimated 47 billion fish. About half are let go, but there can be a sizable impact on fish stocks. Populations can be depleted in small lakes, for example. Intense fishing can cause fish to evolve to smaller sizes and adopt new behaviors. And some management practices designed to please freshwater anglers, such as the release of popular but nonnative species, can harm biodiversity. Off the coast, saltwater anglers are sometimes chasing the same fish as commercial boats, leading to conflicts between the two groups.

    Researchers have been thinking about how to improve management of recreational fisheries and reduce conflicts, and a group of experts offers recommendations in the PNAS article. ScienceInsider spoke with one of the lead authors, biologist Robert Arlinghaus of Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin. Arlinghaus is also an avid angler. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • WHO panel proposes new global registry for all CRISPR human experiments

    a hand holding a microplate containing embryos

    A researcher adjusts a microplate containing embryos undergoing gene editing with CRISPR. An expert panel has recommended that all such experiments be submitted to a global registry.

    Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

    There’s an “urgent need” to create a transparent global registry that would list all experiments related to human genome editing, an expert committee convened to advise the World Health Organization (WHO) said today. The international committee of 18 researchers and bioethicists, which met in Geneva, Switzerland, over the past 2 days, also agreed with the widespread consensus that it would be “irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing.”

    The committee stopped short, however, of endorsing the call for a “moratorium” on human germline editing issued last week by prominent group of researchers in a Nature commentary. “I don’t think a vague moratorium is the answer to what needs to be done,” said Margaret Hamburg, a co-chair of the WHO committee who formerly headed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and now works with the U.S. National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., during a teleconference for the media today. Several other high-profile statements and reports on genome editing have also avoided using the word “moratorium,” although they have similarly emphasized that too many risks and unknowns still surround this technology to use it for germline modifications—which could alter sperm, eggs, or embryos in a way that could pass changes on to future generations—even if the modifications are aimed at preventing life-threatening diseases.

    The committee met in the wake of the startling news in November 2018 that a researcher in China, He Jiankui, had used the genome editor CRISPR on the embryos of twin girls who subsequently were born. He and his co-workers say they attempted to cripple a gene in the girls to make their cells resistant to HIV infection. Researchers from around the world criticized the work for not being transparent, failing to address an unmet medical need, and not properly informing participants in the study of the risks. The Chinese government has condemned He’s work, he was fired from his university in Shenzhen, China, and a formal investigation is underway.

  • U.S. researchers hope Congress will dig NSF out of a $1 billion budget hole

    NSF's McMurdo Station in Antarctica

    The proposed budget for the National Science Foundation would continue to fund a $410 million renovation of its McMurdo research station in Antarctica, where construction costs have risen.

    Mike Lucibella/NSF

    For the second time in 3 years, President Donald Trump has recommended deep cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia. And scientists are hoping Congress will again come to the agency’s rescue.

    One month after signing a 2019 spending bill that gave NSF a record $8.1 billion budget, Trump has proposed shrinking it by $1 billion in 2020. The president’s $7.1 billion request was apparently so depressing that NSF’s director, France Córdova, did not participate in a media call yesterday to review the request. Instead, she left it to her aides to insist that NSF will continue “to push the frontiers” of knowledge despite the proposed 12.5% reduction.

    The chair of the National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body in Alexandria, also sees a silver lining in the dark budget clouds. “NSF will persevere at $7.1 billion and do wonderful things,” says Diane Souvaine, a professor of computer science at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “And if it gets additional funds, its impact on research will be even greater.”

  • Gene-edited foods are safe, Japanese panel concludes

    employee stocking grocery shelves

    In Japan, genetically modified products have to be labeled; an advisory panel did not say whether that should apply to gene-edited food as well.

    Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    Japan will allow gene-edited foodstuffs to be sold to consumers without safety evaluations as long as the techniques involved meet certain criteria, if recommendations agreed on by an advisory panel yesterday are adopted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. This would open the door to using CRISPR and other techniques on plants and animals intended for human consumption in the country.

    “There is little difference between traditional breeding methods and gene editing in terms of safety,” Hirohito Sone, an endocrinologist at Niigata University who chaired the expert panel, told NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster.

    How to regulate gene-edited food is a hotly debated issue internationally. Scientists and regulators have recognized a difference between genetic modification, which typically involves transferring a gene from one organism to another, and gene editing, in which certain genes within an organism are disabled or altered using new techniques such as CRISPR. That’s why a year ago, the U.S.Department of Agriculture concluded that most gene-edited foods would not need regulation. But the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled in July 2018 that gene-edited crops must go through the same lengthy approval process as traditional transgenic plants

  • Founder of geometric analysis honored with Abel Prize

    Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck

    Karen Uhlenbeck

    Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study

    The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters today announced that Karen Uhlenbeck has won the 2019 Abel Prize, a Nobel-level honor in math. Uhlenbeck won for her foundational work in geometric analysis, which combines the technical power of analysis—a branch of math that extends and generalizes calculus—with the more conceptual areas of geometry and topology. She is the first woman to receive the prize since the award of 6 million Norwegian kroner (approximately $700,000) was first given in 2003.

    Caroline Series, a math professor at the University of Warwick in Coventry, U.K., and president of the London Mathematical Society, says, “To see a woman right up there, honored for a lifetime of distinguished work in math, who has made a huge difference to the development of the field in the last 40 years—that is hugely important.”

    Uhlenbeck, 76, spent much of her career at the University of Texas in Austin and is now a visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey. Her work stands at the heart of several important advances in math, including the revolutionary work in 4D topology by Simon Donaldson of the Simons Center at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. It has also fertilized interactions between math and theoretical physics, including string theory.

  • Cost of Mars 2020 mission may rise by up to 15%

    Image of the Mars 2020 rover.

    An artist’s conception of the Mars 2020 rover. Several of its instruments are costing more than expected.


    THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS—It was largely buried in the detailed budget justification for 2020 that NASA released today, but it didn’t take long for eagle-eyed scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) here to dig it up: NASA’s next flagship mission, the $2.46 billion Mars 2020 rover, is following the pattern of its predecessors and seeing its cost rise because of technical issues.

    The mission’s cost will increase by no more than 15%, Lori Glaze, NASA’s acting director of planetary science, said at LPSC’s annual “NASA night” today. But that sizable sum—which could run to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the agency’s final calculations—will take money away from other projects, including small trims to currently operating Mars missions.  

    The admission is a blow for NASA, which allowed Mars 2020 to grow in scope and ambition earlier this decade but had been proud of it staying within spending limits the agency set in 2016.

  • Appeals court dismisses charges of institutional racism at U.K.-Kenyan research partnership

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    An appeals court in Kenya has dismissed charges of institutional racism at a U.K.-Kenyan research partnership. The Court of Appeal in Nairobi overturned a 2014 verdict by a lower court that found that six Kenyan academics working for the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)–Wellcome Trust Research Programme, had faced “systemic discrimination” in their careers. The scientists haven’t proved their claims, according to the appeals court, which also struck down 5 million Kenyan shilling (about $50,000 at the current exchange rate) in compensation that the lower court had awarded to each of the plaintiffs.

    The verdict was handed down on 8 February but has not been widely reported.

    The research program is a partnership between KEMRI in Nairobi, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity, which provides the bulk of the funding. Headquartered in Kilifi, on Kenya’s coast, it now has more than 100 scientists and more than 700 support staff.

  • NSF hopes Jason can lead it through treacherous waters

    France Córdova walking

    National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, who represented the United States at a 2017 meeting in Italy of leading scientific nations, is trying to balance national security and open research.

    Nicolò Campo/LightRocket/Getty Images

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, doesn’t fund classified research. But it is hoping a group of prominent scientists with a long history of advising the U.S. military and intelligence communities can help it respond to growing concerns that international collaborations pose a security risk to the United States.

    NSF officials are negotiating with Jason, an independent group set up in 1960 that has examined everything from unconventional warfare to climate change. If a deal is reached, it would be the first time that NSF has engaged the team.

    “NSF is exploring work with Jason due to the specialized expertise of its members,” says Amanda Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. NSF officials declined to answer questions about the terms and scope of the study, and Greenwell noted that “no contract with Jason has occurred to date.”

  • Lawmakers seek delay of radio spectrum auction for next-gen cell service, saying 5G plans could hurt weather satellite data

    water vapor map of western North America

    A recent view of water vapor forming a rare “bomb cyclone” over the United States, captured by one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s geostationary satellites.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Update, 15 March: Overriding concerns from NASA, NOAA, and Congress, the FCC went ahead with its 5G spectrum auction on Thursday, 14 March. Bids after the first day totaled more than $300 million.

    Here is our initial story:

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers today asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, D.C., to delay an auction of a wireless spectrum scheduled for tomorrow to be used for future 5G service. FCC is ignoring scientific evidence that the radio spectrum being put up on the block could interfere with crucial measurements collected by weather satellites, the lawmakers say.

    In a letter sent to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Representative Frank Lucas (R–OK), the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House of Representatives’s science committee, say communications traffic in one segment of the spectrum that FCC is putting up for auction could compromise the satellites’ ability to track water vapor from space. Such water vapor measures are essential to predicting future rainfall, tracing hurricanes, and monitoring sea ice. Thanks to its intrinsic physical properties, water vapor cannot be tracked at other frequencies.

    “Any interferences with this channel would therefore seriously impact public safety,” Johnson and Lucas write.

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