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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Astronomers discover solar system’s most distant object, nicknamed ‘FarFarOut’

     The solar system’s most distant object is 140 times farther from the sun than Earth.cts whose orbits cannot be explained.

    The solar system’s most distant object is 140 times farther from the sun than Earth.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech

    For most people, snow days aren’t very productive. Some people, though, use the time to discover the most distant object in the solar system.

    That’s what Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., did this week when a snow squall shut down the city. A glitzy public talk he was due to deliver was delayed, so he hunkered down and did what he does best: sifted through telescopic views of the solar system’s fringes that his team had taken last month during their search for a hypothesized ninth giant planet.

    That’s when he saw it, a faint object at a distance 140 times farther from the sun than Earth—the farthest solar system object yet known, some 3.5 times more distant than Pluto. The object, if confirmed, would break his team’s own discovery, announced in December 2018, of a dwarf planet 120 times farther out than Earth, which they nicknamed “Farout.” For now, they are jokingly calling the new object “FarFarOut.” “This is hot off the presses,” he said during his rescheduled talk on 21 February.

  • Deal reveals what scientists in Germany are paying for open access

    ScienceInsider logo

    Project Deal, a consortium of libraries, universities, and research institutes in Germany, has unveiled an unprecedented deal with a major journal publisher—Wiley—that is drawing close scrutiny from advocates of open access to scientific papers.

    The pact, signed last month but made public this week, has been hailed as the first such country-wide agreement within a leading research nation. (Only institutions in the United States, China, and the United Kingdom publish more papers.) It gives researchers working at more than 700 Project Deal institutions access to the more than 1500 journals published by Wiley, based in Hoboken, New Jersey, as well as the publisher’s archive. It also allows researchers to make papers they publish with Wiley free to the public at no extra cost.

    This business arrangement, known as a “publish and read” deal, has been touted as one way to promote open-access publishing. But until this week, a key part of the Wiley agreement—how much it will cost—had been secret.

  • Retired physicist leading new Trump effort to question climate threat to security

    William Happer

    William Happer

    Gage Skidmore/flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    President Donald Trump’s administration found a way to formally question climate science after almost 2 years of false starts.

    William Happer, a prominent opponent of climate science in the Trump administration, is heading a new White House effort to downplay the national security risks posed by climate change. It resembles the "red team" approach promoted by scandal-plagued former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

    Named the Presidential Committee on Climate Security, the group is scheduled to meet tomorrow in the Situation Room at the White House, The Washington Post first reported. Its goal is to provide an "adversarial" review of climate science to determine if a series of recent reports have overstated the risks posed by global warming, according to a memo circulated within the White House obtained by E&E News.

  • From Science Careers: After a baby, 28% of new parents leave full-time STEM work

    a baby walking holding hands with two parents

    Just ask any new parent: Adding a baby to a household can also add stress to a career. Now, a new study backs that up with some startling numbers: After science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals become parents, 43% of women and 23% of men switch fields, transition to part-time work, or leave the workforce entirely. 

    Many researchers—and parents—already knew that STEM can be unwelcoming to parents, particularly mothers. But “the sheer magnitude of the departure was startling,” says Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and lead author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For both genders, “the proportions were higher than we expected.”

    The surprisingly high attrition rate for men also highlights that “parenthood in STEM is not just a mothers’ issue; it’s a worker issue,” Cech says. She hopes that the findings “might motivate changes,” such as more paid parental leave from both government and employers and policies that better support flexible and part-time work. “We are not suggesting that people who want families should avoid STEM; that’s not the solution,” she emphasizes.

  • Germany’s wolves are on the rise thanks to a surprising ally: the military

    wolf pup and a tank on the Military training area Munster, Germany.

    A wolf pup faces off with a tank on a training ground near Münster, Germany.

    Sebastian Koerner/LUPOVISION

    Wolves are an impressive success story for wildlife recovery in central Europe, bouncing back from near extermination in the 20th century to a population of several thousand today. And in Germany, where populations have been growing by 36% per year, military bases have played a surprisingly central role in helping the animals reclaim habitat, a new analysis finds.

    "What is really remarkable is that the military areas acted as a stepping stone for the recolonization"—and were far more important than civilian protected areas in the early stages of recovery, says Guillaume Chapron, a wildlife ecologist at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, who was not involved in the research. "It shows that when you strictly protect wildlife, it comes back."

    Across much of Europe, wolves were heavily persecuted for attacking livestock. They were wiped out in Germany during the 19th century. But in the 1980s and 1990s, new European laws protected wildlife and habitat, setting the stage for their recovery. And in eastern and southern Europe abandoned farmland meant fewer people and more deer for wolves to hunt. In the late 1990s, wolves began to dart into Germany from the forests of Poland. The first litter of pups in Germany was reported in 2001 in Saxony-Brandenburg. They’ve since spread westward into six more of Germany's 16 federal states, and monitoring data show their numbers are rising.

  • Major medical journals don’t follow their own rules for reporting results from clinical trials

    Doctor's hand holding blood phial and doing paperwork

    A study finds papers describing the results of clinical trials often fail to properly report outcomes.

    ISTOCK.COM/PEOPLEIMAGES

    It’s a well-known problem with clinical trials: Researchers start out saying they will look for a particular outcome—heart attacks, for example—but then report something else when they publish their results. That practice can make a drug or treatment look like it’s safer or more effective than it actually is. Now, a systematic effort to find out whether major journals are complying with their own pledge to ensure that outcomes are reported correctly has found many are falling down on the job—and both journals and authors are full of excuses.

    When journals and researchers were asked to correct studies, the responses “were fascinating, and alarming. Editors and researchers routinely misunderstand what correct trial reporting looks like,” says project leader Ben Goldacre, an author and physician at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and a proponent of transparency in drug research.

    Starting 4 years ago, his team’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine Outcome Monitoring Project (COMPare) project examined all trials published over 6 weeks in five journals: Annals of Internal Medicine, The BMJ, JAMA, The Lancet, and The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The study topics ranged from the health effects of drinking alcohol for diabetics to a comparison of two kidney cancer drugs. All five journals have endorsed long-established Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) guidelines. One CONSORT rule is that authors should describe the outcomes they plan to study before a trial starts and stick to that list when they publish the trial.

  • Update: U.S. science agencies see gains in final 2019 spending bills

    cleanroom test of James Webb telescope equipment

    Congress is considering spending bills that warn NASA not to exceed a new $8.8 billion cap for the James Webb Space Telescope, now under construction.

    Chris Gunn/NASA

    *Update, 15 February, 2:40 p.m.: President Donald Trump has signed a package of seven spending bills that give budget boosts to key federal science agencies. The signing marks the end of a budget battle that included a lengthy partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which disrupted work at numerous agencies that conduct or fund research. The final deal provides just $1.4 billion of the $5.7 billion Trump had sought for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—the issue that sparked the shutdown. But today, Trump announced he will attempt to use emergency powers to redirect more money to the wall project.

    As reported previously on ScienceInsider, the new spending bills, which cover the 2019 fiscal year that began in October 2018, generally reject deep cuts to research agencies proposed by Trump. The bills “would grant substantive increases for key science agencies including NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation,” notes this recent analysis prepared by David Parkes of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS in Washington, D.C. (which publishes ScienceInsider). “Agencies focused on environmental and climate research,” including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “would be protected from the administration’s proposed cuts.” Details of the 2019 bills can also be found at this budget tracker maintained by the American Institute of Physics in Washington, D.C.

    Congress also included language in the spending package that aims to slow plans by the Trump administration to relocate two agricultural research agencies based in Washington, D.C., and rearrange the agriculture department’s organizational chart.

    In August 2018, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue announced a competition for cities that wanted to host the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the department’s primary source of competitive academic research grants, and the Economic Research Service (ERS), its major in-house research and statistical office. He also said ERS would be reporting to the departments’ chief economist rather than its undersecretary for research, education, and economics (REE), who oversees NIFA and the Agricultural Research Service.

    Agricultural scientists screamed foul and mounted a vigorous lobbying effort that paid off. Voicing concern over “the unknown costs associated with the proposed move,” legislators ordered Perdue to “include all costs estimates for the proposed move” in his explanation of the president’s 2020 budget request, due out next month. They also requested “a detailed analysis of any research benefits of the relocation.”

    In addition, they ordered “an indefinite delay” in the proposed ERS reshuffling, believing it to be “appropriate for ERS to remain part of REE.”

    Here is our previous story from 22 January:

    Don’t try to take the money to the bank. But this week Congress plans to pass 2019 spending bills that would give healthy increases to the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and a handful of other science agencies that are now closed because of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

    Given the current partisan fight over a border wall, it’s no surprise that the Democratic-led House of Representatives and the Republican-led Senate will be voting on different bills. Neither version is expected to be adopted by the other body until congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump can reach some sort of deal to end the monthlong shutdown.

    When that finally happens, the numbers contained in this week’s appropriations measures stand a good chance of becoming the final spending levels for the current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. That’s because both bills are based on a conference agreement hashed out last fall by top appropriators in each house.

  • Researchers hung men on a cross and added blood in bid to prove Turin Shroud is real

    The shroud of Turin, Italy.

    Some people believe that a fuzzy, negative image of a face on a strip of linen belongs to Jesus. But studies have shown the cloth was created in the 14th century. 

    GIANNI TORTOLI/Science Source

    In an attempt to prove that the Turin Shroud—a strip of linen that some people believe was used to wrap Jesus’s body after his crucifixion and carries the image of his face—is real, researchers have strapped human volunteers to a cross and drenched them in blood. Most mainstream scientists agree the shroud is a fake created in the 14th century.

    The mock crucifixions are the most reliable recreations yet of the death of Jesus, the researchers suggest in an online abstract of a paper to be presented next week at a forensic science conference in Baltimore, Maryland (abstract E73 on p. 573 here). And they are the latest in a tit-for-tat series of tests, academic rebuttals, and furious arguments over the provenance—or lack thereof—of the centuries-old religious artifact. But the researchers hope the experiment will “support the hypothesis of Shroud authenticity in some new and unexpected ways.”

    The research team from the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado in Colorado Springs would not comment on the crucifixion experiments before presenting them to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’s (AAFS’s) annual meeting on 21 February. But the abstract describes "an experimental protocol by which special wrist and foot attachment mechanisms safely and realistically suspend the male subjects on a full-size cross."

  • EPA blasted for failing to set drinking water limits for ‘forever chemicals’

    fire fighters spray foam on a hill in LA

    Fire fighting foams often include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have contaminated water supplies across the United States.

    Mario Tama/Getty Images

    After intense pressure from politicians and environmental and public health groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today published a plan to tackle industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are showing up in drinking water supplies across the nation. But critics say the plan is vague and lacks regulatory teeth, and it will do little to reduce health risks.

    PFAS chemicals are widely used to make nonstick and water-proof products, including foams used to fight fires. The compounds can persist in the environment for decades, leading some to dub them “forever chemicals.” And studies have linked them to cancer and developmental defects, raising health concerns.

    In May 2018, EPA said it would develop a plan to tackle the substances in drinking water. Many were hoping the agency would set national regulatory limits on PFAS concentrations in water supplies. But the plan released today puts little meat on the bones of last year’s promises.

  • EXCLUSIVE: The first interview with Trump’s new science adviser

    Kelvin Droegemeier

    Portraits of the president and vice president hang on otherwise bare walls in Kelvin Droegemeier’s office.

    Stephen Voss

    The new science adviser to President Donald Trump has studied the causes and effects of extreme weather for nearly 4 decades. But meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier says he’s not a climate scientist and doesn’t want people to think he’s an expert on the topic.

    That humble demeanor comes naturally to the 60-year-old academic, colleagues say. It may serve him well as the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which helps coordinate and create science policy across the U.S. government. In filling a post that was vacant for 2 years, Droegemeier faces the stiff challenge of making a difference in an administration that many researchers say has repeatedly shown disdain for scientific evidence.

    In his first public interview since coming on board last month, Droegemeier pushed back on that criticism. “I think this president strongly supports science,” he told ScienceInsider from his office a few strides across a driveway from the West Wing. “And there’s a huge amount of evidence for the tremendous scientific advances that have happened on his watch.” (OSTP is currently updating a March 2018 document listing accomplishments in Trump’s first year.)

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