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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Q&A: On a Bering Sea island, disappearing ice threatens a way of life

    Opik Ahkinga on a cellphone

    Opik Ahkinga

    Brendan Smith/North Pacific Research Board

    Over the past two winters, ice cover in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia has fallen to the lowest levels seen in at least 4 decades. Now, scientists are trying to figure out whether this is a statistical fluke, or another sign of climate change. A lasting shift could dramatically transform a region that is home to indigenous communities whose way of life relies on ice. Some communities cut holes in the sea ice for crabbing, for example, or use the ice to travel to fishing and hunting areas.

    One native community that has had a close-up view of the recent changes in the Bering Sea is the village of Diomede, which sits on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait. Opik Ahkinga is the village’s environmental coordinator. ScienceInsider recently interviewed her about how the changing winter ice has affected life on Little Diomede Island and nearby Big Diomede Island.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Citizen sleuths exposed pollution from a century-old Michigan factory, with nationwide implications

    Right to left: Lynn McIntosh, A. J. Birkbeck, Janice Tompkins, and Rick Rediske

    A small group of Michigan residents, including (right to left) Lynn McIntosh, A. J. Birkbeck, Janice Tompkins, and Rick Rediske, tracked widespread contamination from a former tannery.

    REX LARSEN

    ROCKFORD, MICHIGAN—For more than a century, a sprawling tannery here on the banks of the Rogue River churned out leather used to make some of the country's most popular shoes. The factory emitted a putrid stink, but it enabled this city of roughly 6000 people to thrive. "That's the smell of money," some locals used to say.

    In 2009, however, shifts in the shoe trade prompted the tannery's owner, Wolverine Worldwide, which is based here, to close the facility. In a 2010 request for state funds to help redevelop the 6-hectare site, which sits astride a picturesque business district, lawyers representing the company stated: "There is no known contamination on the property."

    Lynn McIntosh, a piano teacher and writer who has lived just a block from the tannery for more than 25 years, was skeptical. The statement was "legalese laced with hogwash," she recalls thinking when she read it. Tanneries use a stew of hazardous chemicals to transform raw hides into leather, she knew, and sometimes left contamination behind. For that and other reasons, McIntosh and others asked city and state officials to require a comprehensive environmental study of the site before it was redeveloped.

    Their plea was rebuffed, so she and a small band of allies launched their own investigation. The group, which ultimately named itself Concerned Citizens for Responsible Remediation (CCRR), collected maps, dug into newspaper archives, and filed requests for public records. Members spoke with scientists knowledgeable about tannery chemicals and hired an environmental attorney with a background in geology to help them strategize. McIntosh even staked out and photographed the demolition of tannery buildings, followed waste trucks to dump sites, and interviewed retired tannery workers. The years of effort yielded stacks of documents that McIntosh—who prefers a simple clamshell cellphone to modern smart screens and paper files to the digital cloud—lugged to meetings in heavy bags.

    Now, that sleuthing is having far-reaching impacts in Michigan and beyond. The concerned citizens uncovered evidence that the tannery had contaminated large swaths of land and water with chemicals known as a per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), which researchers have linked to an array of human health problems. More than 4000 such compounds exist, and they are widely used in products such as fire-fighting foams, nonstick coatings, carpeting, food packaging, and even dental floss. The tannery used two PFASs by the ton to waterproof shoe leather. In a statement to Science, Wolverine said that when it submitted its application for state redevelopment funds in 2010, it did not know any of the chemicals had leaked. "There was no testing or other environmental data for the former tannery, and no basis to conclude that there was contamination on the property."

  • Trial set for Italian underground lab chiefs accused of endangering water supplies

    Gran Sasso National Laboratory

    Gran Sasso National Laboratory, built under a mountain in Italy, is closing two of its big physics experiments because of environmental concerns.

    Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

    The Gran Sasso National Laboratory, an underground physics lab in central Italy and one of the largest of its kind, is in trouble. Last week, several lab heads were ordered to stand trial on charges of endangering local water supplies, even as the lab prepares to shut down two of its biggest and most controversial experiments. The events come amid threats to close the motorway tunnel that connects the lab to the outside world.

    The lab, run by Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Rome, is home to many experiments designed to study dark matter, neutrinos, and other rare phenomena. Its position 1400 meters under the Gran Sasso mountain chain shields experiments from the noise of cosmic rays that strike Earth. But the lab also sits in the middle of a large aquifer that supplies drinking water to several hundred thousand people and is vulnerable to pollution from chemicals used in the lab.

    Last week, prosecutors in nearby Teramo announced that 10 people will stand trial in September, after being charged with failing to properly isolate the aquifer from sources of pollution. The indicted include three of the lab’s managers—INFN President Fernando Ferroni, lab director Stefano Ragazzi, and the lab’s head of environment Raffaele Adinolfi Falcone—as well as three directors of Strada dei Parchi, the company that runs the 10-kilometer-long motorway tunnel, and four from Ruzzo Reti, which operates an aqueduct that distributes drinking water from the aquifer.

  • Snakebites, a globally neglected killer, get a ‘transformational’ injection of research funds

    Great Lakes Bush Viper
    reptiles4all/Shutterstock

    In 1970, when David Warrell was a young hospital clinician in northern Nigeria, he faced three horrifying snakebite cases in quick succession that would change the course of his career. One man had stepped on a puff adder while getting out of bed. He arrived with a gangrenous leg and died of sepsis before Warrell could amputate. Another man was bitten by a saw-scaled viper while farming sorghum. He arrived bleeding from his mouth and urinary tract, and he soon died from massive internal bleeding. A third victim, a boy, was struck by a snake charmer’s Egyptian cobra. He was dead on arrival, after the snake’s venom progressively paralyzed his body, starting with his eyelids and ending with his breathing muscles. In no cases did Warrell have antivenom to administer as he helplessly observed deaths that he soon realized were common.

    “I got a missionarylike attitude toward snakebite as a neglected public health problem,” says Warrell, an emeritus professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and director of the Global Snakebite Initiative in Brisbane, Australia.

    Snakebites kill as many as 138,000 people a year, mostly among the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Another 400,000 victims suffer major disabilities such as amputation. The health burden is greater than that of any of the 20 neglected tropical diseases tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO) and equal to that of prostate or cervical cancer. Yet funders, more interested in infectious diseases that can be prevented and eradicated, have largely stayed away.

  • Senate panel delays good-government bill, scolds HHS for ‘moving the goal posts’

    Rob Portman

    Senator Rob Portman (R–OH) hopes to strike a compromise on new rules for government advisory panels.

    Joshua Morrison/The News via AP

    A Senate panel delayed action today on a bipartisan bill to improve government transparency among advisory bodies in deference to concerns from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that the legislation would seriously disrupt the agency’s ability to review research proposals. At the same time, the bill’s Republican sponsor in the Senate chastised NIH’s parent body for “moving the goal posts” after legislators believed they had struck a compromise last fall to address NIH’s concerns about the bill’s impact on its 173 study sections.

    “I’m not someone who likes to publicly admonish agencies, unless it’s warranted,” said Senator Rob Portman (R–OH), referring to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “But we did work with them, and I thought we had reached a compromise. And then they moved the goal posts.”

    Without debate, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) unanimously approved 15 bills and four nominees to senior positions at agencies it oversees during a 20-minute business meeting this morning. But its chairman, Senator Ron Johnson (R–WI) postponed action on the transparency bill, H.R. 1608, after Portman said committee members needed more time to examine its provisions.

  • Fear the cats! Bold project teaches endangered Australian animals to avoid deadly predator

    greater bilby

    A greater bilby in its burrow. Researchers have been trying to teach the threatened animals to fear cats by exposing them to the predators under controlled conditions.

    Jasmine Vink

    ROXBY DOWNS, AUSTRALIA—Katherine Moseby delves into a freezer at this arid mining outpost and pulls out the carcass of a pointy-faced animal the size of a rabbit. It’s a dead greater bilby, or at least what is left of one. She runs a cotton swab along a rip left in the bilby’s soft fur by the teeth of its killer. Later, analysis of DNA from the wound confirms Moseby’s suspicions: This bilby, a threatened species, was slain by a domestic cat.

    Over the past 25 years, the ecologist, who works for the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, has examined hundreds of native Australian animals killed by introduced predators, including domestic cats that have gone feral. The native fauna are often easy prey because they haven’t evolved to recognize and dodge the invaders, and medium-size mammals like the bilby have fared worst. Nearly three dozen Australian mammals have gone extinct since Europeans arrived, and although fences and predator eradication efforts have slowed the march toward extinction, Moseby wants to do better, perhaps by accelerating natural selection.

    For nearly 5 years, a team she helps lead with Michael Letnic at UNSW and Daniel Blumstein at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been placing bilbies and another threatened species into large fenced plots together with their feline enemies in hopes that, faced with extreme selective pressure, some individuals will learn or adapt to avoid attacks. Results published today suggest the “vaccination” approach has promise: Bilbies exposed to cats in a controlled setting were more likely to survive later, when they were released among feral cats, than those that hadn’t been exposed, they report in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

  • U.S. House proposes budget increases for energy, environmental research programs

    ScienceInsider logo

    Key research programs at the energy and interior departments would get budget increases—not deep cuts proposed by President Donald Trump—under proposed 2020 appropriations bills released today by spending panels of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would also see a hefty increase in its science budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October, under plans released by the Democratic-controlled House Committee on Appropriations.

    Highlights of the proposed budgets include:

  • Europe abandons plans for ‘flagship’ billion-euro research projects

    Angela Merkel looks into microscope

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at lab-grown minibrains at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin.

    David Ausserhofer/MDC

    When Martin Lohse, scientific director of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine here, welcomed participants to the kick-off meeting for a massive biomedical consortium last week, he wished them well, even though they would be spending their time in the dark. Lohse was talking about the windowless lecture hall, but he might as well have been referring to the murky future of the megaproject.

    The consortium, called LifeTime, aims to use three emerging technologies—machine learning, the study of single cells, and lab-grown organlike tissues called organoids—to map how human cells change over time and develop diseases. It is one of six candidates in the latest round of ambitious proposals for European flagships, billion-euro research projects intended to run for 10 years. There is just one snag: The European Commission has decided that it won’t launch any of them.

    Three existing flagships will continue under plans developed through Horizon 2020, the European Union’s science funding framework: projects on graphene, the human brain, and quantum technology. Details for Horizon 2020’s successor, Horizon Europe, are still being hashed out, but last month, the commission and the European Parliament agreed to a program structure, and it does not include the two or three new flagships the commission had previously intended to pick in 2020. “There was a strong sense by the community overall that we had too many different funding instruments and funding approaches,” says Kurt Vandenberghe, director for research policy at the commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation in Brussels. “We have tried to streamline this.” He says the six candidates may somehow be folded into Horizon Europe, which will run from 2021 to 2027.

  • African swine fever keeps spreading in Asia, threatening food security

    A man on a motorbike transports pigs in a cage at the back of the bike

    A man transports piglets in Thanh Hoa province in Vietnam, a country heavily affected by African swine fever where pork accounts for three-quarters of the national meat consumption.

    REUTERS/Kham

    SHANGHAI, CHINA—The spread of African swine fever (ASF) in Asia is taking a worrisome turn. First reported in northeastern China in August 2018, the highly contagious, often fatal pig disease quickly swept through the country, causing the death or culling of more than 1 million pigs. In recent weeks, it has jumped borders to Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia, Hong Kong, and possibly North Korea. Animal health experts agree that the disease will inevitably spread farther. And many of the newly hit countries are even less prepared to deal with ASF than China, they say, which has so far failed to end its outbreaks.

    Vietnam and Cambodia “probably do not have the technical abilities to be able to control ASF,” says François Roger, an animal epidemiologist at the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development in Montpellier. He believes the virus will soon surface in Myanmar and Laos, which have “weak veterinary infrastructures and surveillance systems,” and it may become endemic in Southeast Asia. If so, it would pose a continuing threat of reintroduction into China, even if that country succeeds in controlling its own outbreaks. A reservoir of endemic disease could also pose a wider threat: ASF-contaminated pork products have already been confiscated from air travelers in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia.

    The crisis is not only causing economic hardship, but also threatens food security in the region. In Vietnam, where pork accounts for three-quarters of the meat consumption, more than 1.2 million pigs across the country—4% of the national herd—have now died or been killed, the Vietnamese government announced on 13 May. “This is probably the most serious animal health disease [the world has] had for a long time, if not ever,” says Dirk Pfeiffer, a veterinary epidemiologist at City University of Hong Kong.

  • New EU research funding head stresses ‘superdisciplinarity’

    Mauro Ferrari

    Mauro Ferrari will be the next head of the European Research Council in Brussels.

    European Research Council

    Nanomedicine pioneer Mauro Ferrari will be the next president of the European Research Council (ERC), the funding organization announced today. He will come to the job in Brussels with limited European policy experience, after almost 40 years in the United States, where he worked at the University of California, Berkeley; the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland; and the Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas.

    A dual U.S. and Italian citizen, Ferrari trained in math at the University of Padua in Italy before pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Berkeley. At the age of 43, while leading a department at Ohio State University in Columbus, he also took classes at medical school there. “I never got a medical degree. You can write that the ERC will be led by a med school drop-out,” he jokes.

    Now 59, Ferrari will take over from French mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon on 1 January 2020 for a 4-year term at ERC’s helm. Since its inception in 2007, the funding body has awarded about 9000 of its coveted basic research grants, worth €16.9 billion.

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