Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Why scientists had trouble predicting Hurricane Michael’s rapid intensification

    residents step over a damaged road at the beach

    Hurricane Michael, whose rapid intensification proved difficult to forecast, made landfall on 10 October near Mexico Beach, Florida.

    Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

    Hurricane Michael roared into Mexico Beach, Florida, on 10 October as the strongest storm ever to strike the Florida Panhandle in terms of wind speed, and the third strongest to make landfall in the continental United States. The storm caused severe damage to several coastal communities, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Florida State University’s Panama City campus. Officials have attributed 18 deaths to the storm and dozens of people have been reported missing.

    Although National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasters were able to predict where and when Michael was likely to make landfall several days in advance, the storm’s rapid intensification—jumping from a Category 2 to just shy of a Category 5 in 24 hours—proved tougher to anticipate. NHC defines “rapid intensification” as a storm’s maximum sustained winds increasing by at least 56 kilometers per hour in 24 hours or less. Michael underwent at least three intensification periods on its 5-day march toward the coast.

    “Predicting a hurricane’s track is relatively straightforward because storms are propelled in one direction or another by the large-scale air currents in the atmosphere,” says Robert Rogers, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Florida. “We’ve gotten a much better handle on predicting those large-scale currents over the past 20 years.”

  • MIT to use $350 million gift to bolster computer sciences

    aerial view of MIT campus

    The campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge will soon be home to a new college of computer science, which will get its own building.

    dbimages/Alamy Stock Photo

    A $350 million gift from investment banker Stephen Schwarzman will allow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to “rewire” how it educates students in this foundational subject, school officials announced today.

    The money will help finance a new building that will house a college of computing named for its major donor. It will also allow MIT to cope with the rising demand for computer science courses from students majoring in any number of disciplines by paying for 50 new faculty members.

    “Roughly 40% of our current undergraduates are majoring in computer science or computer science and X,” says MIT Provost Martin Schmidt. With only 10% of the university’s 1000 faculty currently teaching computer science courses, Schmidt says, “having them teach 40% of the undergraduates has created a huge load imbalance.”

  • Trump’s EPA scraps air pollution science review panels

    air pollution on a street in Salt Lake City

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has disbanded panels that were supposed to review the science underpinning efforts to reduce air pollution, such as this blanket of smog in Salt Lake City in 2016.

    Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP

    Originally published by E&E News

    Andrew Wheeler, the acting chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), yesterday fired a panel of scientific experts charged with assisting the agency's latest review of air quality standards for particulate matter. He also scrapped plans to form a similar advisory panel to aid in a recently launched assessment of the ground-level ozone limits.

    Those steps, coupled with Wheeler's previously announced decision to concentrate authority in a seven-member committee made up mostly of his appointees, quickly sparked objections that the agency is intent on skewing the outcome of those reviews in favor of industry.

  • New climate report actually understates threat, some researchers argue

    a panel speaking at a press conference

    Hoesung Lee (center), chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, discussed a new report on limiting global warming during a press conference in Incheon, South Korea, on 8 October.

    Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    The United Nations climate report released this week had some stunning revelations, claiming that the 2020s could be one of humanity's last chances to avert devastating impacts.

    But some say its authors were being too cautious.

  • One of the world’s most important crop gene storehouses just got a funding boost

    Set of various rice in bowls: white glutinous, black, basmati, brown and thai red mixed rice. Black wooden background, low light, top view.

    Rice is one of the worlds most important crops.

    Svetlana Lukienko/shutterstock

    When plant breeders want to improve crops, they turn to the diversity stored in gene banks around the world. But many of these critical storehouses, which hold seeds and other plant tissues, are in poor condition as a result of funding shortages. Now, the Crop Trust, a nonprofit based in Bonn, Germany, is aiming to help crop gene banks find firmer footing by providing a steadier source of cash. And today it announced its first award, a 5-year, renewable grant of $1.4 million annually, to the gene bank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. 

    “These crop collections are too important to the world to be left to uncertainty,” says Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, which was founded in 2004. “They can’t depend on budgets that go up and down.”

    The trust is best known for its work on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility dug into an Arctic mountain in Norway. It contains nearly 1 million samples of crop seeds gathered from gene banks over the world, kept in case disaster strikes. But the organization also has been quietly working to improve the ability of gene banks to conserve and distribute seeds, and helping the banks meet standards that qualify them for long-term funding from an endowment established by the trust.

  • Surging R&D spending in China narrows gap with United States

    aerial view of FAST telescope

    The world’s largest radio telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope is one product of China’s growing spending on research.

    STR/AFP/Getty Images

    China’s total spending on R&D rose a robust 12.3% last year to a record 1.76 trillion yuan ($254 billion), according to a government report released yesterday. Already second in the world in R&D spending behind the United States, China has narrowed the gap.

    Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that in 2012, China spent about 34% as much as the United States, a figure that rose to 44% in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available. In terms of purchasing power parity, however, China’s 2016 spending was equivalent to 88% of U.S. spending.

    "The year-to-year growth in R&D spending indicates firm governmental and social support for making China a scientific power," says Xie Xuemei, a specialist in innovation economics at Shanghai University in China. "However, there is still a long way to go" to match the research capabilities of developed countries, she adds.

  • Was cancer scientist fired for challenging lab chief over authorship?

    Xiaoqi Xie at a microscope

    Xiaoqi Xie says she was fired from the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey because she asked to share first authorship on a paper submitted to Nature.

    Rutgers University last month terminated a veteran cancer scientist in retaliation, the researcher says, for challenging a powerful principal investigator on the authorship of a paper apparently accepted for publication in Nature. The researcher is now deciding whether to appeal her dismissal in arbitration through her union or to sue Rutgers.

    Xiaoqi Xie, 54, was fired on 28 September from a research job in the lab of Eileen White, deputy director and chief scientific officer at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick. Xie, who had conducted research at the institute since 2007 and has worked in White’s lab since 2011, was cited in her termination letter for failing to do her job “effectively,” for “conduct unbecoming” a faculty member, and for “serious violation” of university policies, namely her alleged failure on five occasions between May and early July to promptly euthanize more than 20 sick mice being used to study melanoma—charges she disputes. In the letter, Rutgers also accuses her of missing three meetings with her bosses.

    The firing comes 6 months after Xie first challenged White’s decision to give another lab scientist sole first authorship on a paper, submitted in April to Nature and not yet published. That manuscript reveals a novel mechanism by which tumor growth is stunted when host animals are incapable of autophagy—the cell’s degrading and recycling of unneeded or damaged components. White is a leading authority on autophagy and has earned many scientific honors, including selection as an AAAS fellow. (AAAS is the publisher of ScienceInsider.)

  • Key climate panel, citing impending crisis, urges crash effort to reduce emissions

    Coal power plant

     Coal-fired thermal power plants in Singrauli, India


    The United Nations’s climate panel has moved the goal posts for limiting climate change, setting the world a staggering challenge. A report released yesterday in Incheon, South Korea, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says allowing the planet to warm by more than 1.5°C could have dire consequences, and that a speedy transformation of the world’s energy systems is needed to avoid breaching that limit, which is notably tighter than the target of 2°C cited in the Paris agreement of 2015. “Net [carbon dioxide] emissions at the global scale must reach zero by 2050,” said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a climate scientist at France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission in Paris and a key participant in drafting the report.

    There is no time for delay, the report warns, a consensus drawn from thousands of scientific studies. The world has already warmed by about 1°C since preindustrial times, two-thirds of the way toward the new target. “We have to alter course immediately; no longer can we say the window for action will close soon—we’re here now,” Drew Shindell, an atmospheric scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, wrote in an email to Science. Among other measures, the IPCC says, coal needs to be all but eliminated as a source of electricity, renewable power must be greatly expanded, and “negative-emissions” strategies that suck carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere need to be adopted on a large scale, particularly if emissions reductions are delayed.

    Under pressure from island nations at risk from sea-level rise, the United Nations agreed during the Paris negotiations to ask the IPCC to investigate the impact of 1.5°C of global warming. In what IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee, a South Korean economist, called “a Herculean effort,” more than 90 authors and reviewers from 40 countries examined 6000 scientific publications. The resulting picture is urgent and alarming. Given accumulated emissions, the report says, “Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052.”

  • Women fare well in this year’s round of NIH high-risk awards

    Anna Wexler

    University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Anna Wexler is among this year’s winners of the National Institutes of Health’s Early Independence Awards.

    Dan Burke Photography

    Last March, Anna Wexler was nearly 9 months pregnant with her first baby—and the timing could not have been worse. The postdoctoral researcher in medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania was a finalist for a prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) research award for young scientists. The competition required a 20-minute interview with a review panel at a Washington, D.C., hotel a few miles from the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland—just 9 days before her baby was due.

    Wexler and her husband, a physician, packed their car with supplies for the drive south just in case the baby came on the way. Five days before the 12 March interview, her contractions began. By the third day of an unusually long labor, “I had pretty much given up” on making it to Washington, D.C., she says.

    In the end, NIH allowed the sleep-deprived new mom to do the interview by web conference during the panel’s lunch break, 2 days after her son was born. And this week, Wexler learned that she is one of 11 winners of the Early Independence Awards (EIAs). The $400,000-dollar-a-year (with overhead costs), 5-year grant will allow her, just a year after she earned her Ph.D. in social science, to launch her own research group looking at social and ethical issues raised by direct-to-consumer and do-it-yourself medicine and science.

  • Is a little radiation good for you? Controversial theory pops up in Senate hearing on EPA transparency plan

    female patient lying down with x ray machine above her

    A recent Environmental Protection Agency proposal questions long-standing assumptions about the risks of low-level exposure to radiation and toxins.

    Science Photo Library/Alamy Stock Photo

    As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moves to overhaul how scientific studies can inform regulations, a U.S. Senate panel briefly became a stage for a decades-old scientific argument over the potential human health risks—or benefits—of low doses of toxins and radiation.

    EPA’s so-called transparency proposal, released in draft form in April, is contentious because critics say it would bar regulators from considering a wide range of studies that are difficult to reproduce or rest on confidential data, including lengthy, large-scale human health studies involving subjects who were promised privacy. A less discussed provision of the proposal calls on regulators to consider alternatives to their longtime assumption that even small doses of toxins or radiation can pose threats to human health, and that those risks increase as the dose gets bigger—a concept called linear dose-response.

    A scientist who champions an alternative to that model was one of three witnesses at yesterday’s hearing, held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Toxicologist Edward Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, is known for promoting the controversial theory of hormesis—that small doses of toxic agents can be healthful. In 2011, Calabrese sparked outrage by alleging that Hermann Muller and Curt Stern, two researchers who laid the groundwork for modern limits on radiation exposure, had downplayed evidence that radiation was harmless at low levels.

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