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  • Are dinosaur fossils ‘minerals’? The Montana Supreme Court will decide high stakes case

    one fossil specimen with two dinosaurs

    The remains of two "dueling dinosaurs" have sparked an ownership dispute that could set legal precedent.

    ©BHIGR 2013

    Originally published by E&E News

    Pristine dinosaur fossils discovered in Montana have sparked a property rights dispute that has hit paleontologists like an asteroid.

    The lawsuit, now at the Montana Supreme Court, concerns who owns some of the greatest fossil finds in the last century, including two dinosaurs preserved while locked in combat and a rare complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.

    They are worth millions, and paleontologists say a federal appeals court ruling would have "fundamental and extraordinary impacts upon the conduct of science concerning the history of life on Earth."

    The case hinges on a seemingly straightforward question: Are fossils considered "minerals" under Montana state law?

    In Montana, rights to a property's mineral estate are often severed from its surface rights. Historically, fossils have been considered part of the surface estate.

    That all seemed to change last November when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the owners of the mineral rights of a ranch where the fossils were found.

    The ruling sent shock waves through the paleontology world, threatening to upend the way fossil hunters have operated for decades.

    It would make searching for fossils extremely complicated, said David Polly, a former president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, based in Bethesda, Maryland, because paleontologists would need to navigate both surface ownership—to get to the dig location—and mineral ownership of a parcel. Often, mineral rights are hard to find and frequently change hands between large corporations.

    More alarmingly, he said, it could raise questions about the ownership of fossils currently in museums.

    "In principle, it could have opened those to post hoc challenges," Polly said. "If those started disappearing from collections, it would be a disaster."

    Polly's group, as well as several museums across the country, got involved after that 9th Circuit ruling. They enlisted Gary Guzy, the former White House Council on Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency general counsel.

    Now, they've convinced the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit to pump the brakes. It has referred the case to the Montana Supreme Court, where it will be taken up later this year.

    Guzy, who now works for the firm Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C., said his clients quickly realized the scope of the 9th Circuit decision.

    "What seemed apparent was that what had been depicted all along as a private party contractual and almost property dispute really had significant implications for the paleontological profession," he said, "and the range of institutions that are involved in promoting the knowledge of the history of life on Earth."

    "Greatest paleontological find of this century"

    Spanning parts of Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming, the Hell Creek Formation is one of the world's most studied areas for clues into life some 66 million years ago.

    Within the formation is a tract of land in Garfield County, Montana, that was previously owned by George Severson.

    Around 1983, Mary Ann and Lige Murray leased the land from Severson and worked it as ranchers. Over the following years, Severson transferred parts of the land to the Murrays and his two sons—Jerry and Bo Severson.

    In 2005, the Severson sons agreed to sell the surface rights to the Murrays while retaining much of the mineral rights.

    The value of those rights quickly escalated.

    Shortly after the sale, the Murrays and an amateur fossil hunter, Clayton Phipps, found on their property a mother lode of fossils—a "spike cluster," as it is known in paleontology.

    In 2006, they discovered complete fossils of two dinosaurs that appear to have been fighting when they died.

    The Murrays quickly named the fossils the "Dueling Dinosaurs," and the scientific importance of the fossils is hard to overstate, said paleontologist Peter Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota.

    "The Dueling Dinosaurs are probably the greatest paleontological find of this century," said Larson, who has seen the fossils and spoken with the Murrays.

    Larson explained why such a find is so rare. The dinosaurs appear to have been fighting on a sandbar in the middle of a river. Something happened — probably an earthquake — that liquefied the sand underneath them, sucking them down and preserving their skeletons.

    "It is a pristine record of an interaction between a prey animal and predator," he said, adding that they were the most pristine complete dinosaurs ever found in the area.

    The following year, a triceratops foot was found, then, in 2011, a triceratops skull.

    Then came perhaps the pièce de résistance. In 2013, a complete T. rex was discovered on the property. The "Murray T. rex" is considered one of only a dozen ever found in such condition.

    A "bizarre" ruling

    When the Seversons got word of the finds, they quickly sought to declare ownership of the fossils, including the T. rex, which the Murrays were trying to sell to a Dutch museum for several million dollars.

    The Murrays filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that the fossils were theirs because they owned the surface rights to the land.

    A district court sided with the Murrays, leading the Seversons to appeal to the 9th Circuit.

    There, in a colorful opinion, the court sided with the Seversons.

    "Once upon a time, in a place now known as Montana, dinosaurs roamed the land," wrote Eduardo Robreno, a senior Pennsylvania district judge who was on the panel by designation.

    "On a fateful day, some 66 million years ago, two such creatures, a 22-foot-long theropod and a 28-foot-long ceratopsian, engaged in mortal combat. While history has not recorded the circumstances surrounding this encounter, the remnants of these Cretaceous species, interlocked in combat, became entombed under a pile of sandstone. That was then ... this is now."

    The 2-1 ruling sided with the Seversons, saying they "have the better of the arguments" (E&E News PM, Nov. 6, 2018).

    Lawyers for the Murrays declined to comment and said their clients are not speaking to the media. The Seversons' attorneys said their clients are traveling and could not be reached.

    The ruling spurred considerable hand-wringing in the paleontological community, Larson of the Black Hills Institute said, calling the 9th Circuit decision a "really bizarre ruling."

    Quickly, some of the most important players in the field weighed in, including the 2,200-member Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Museum of the Rockies.

    They, along with a Montana property rights group, backed the Murrays in court documents when they asked the court to reconsider the case — or send it to the Montana Supreme Court.

    "The panel's decision imposes extraordinary uncertainty upon scientists and the public," they wrote, and it may "destabilize title to countless important fossils in academic, museum, and private collections around the world ... potentially subjecting those fossils to ownership challenges by holders of Montana mineral deeds."

    The 9th Circuit took the unusual step of granting the rehearing, vacating their earlier decision and then punting the question to the Montana Supreme Court — a good sign for the Murrays.

    "Given the frequency of divided ownership of Montana surface and mineral estates, and that Montana possesses vast deposits of valuable vertebrate fossil specimens, the issue is substantial and of broad application," the court wrote.

    "Therefore, after considering these factors, and in the spirit of comity and federalism, we exercise our discretion to certify this question to the Montana Supreme Court."

    Other aspects of the dispute also appear to be breaking the Murrays' way.

    In April, Montana enacted a law that states "fossils are not minerals and that fossils belong to the surface estate."

    The law, however, does not apply to existing disputes, though the "Dueling Dinos" case is likely the only existing matter of its kind.

    "One can always make assumptions, and courts can do whatever they want," Larson said. "But it seems like our side is in a good position."

    Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2019. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at

    Related stories:

    Not Sold! 'Dueling Dinos' Flop at Auction (November 2013)

    Selling America's Fossil Record (January 2014)

  • Trump White House shelves ‘adversarial’ review of climate science

    the white house

    Originally published by E&E News

    The proposed White House panel that would conduct an “adversarial” review of climate science is dead for now, as President Donald Trump grapples with negative perceptions of his environmental record at the outset of his reelection campaign.

    The months-long push from within the National Security Council to review established science on climate change divided White House advisers and generated sharp opposition from researchers across the country. The effort, led by a physicist overseeing technology issues at the NSC, William Happer, stalled indefinitely amid internal disagreements within the White House, according to two sources.

  • #MeTooSTEM founder out at Vanderbilt

    BethAnn McLaughlin

    Neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin has left Vanderbilt University.

    Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

    BethAnn McLaughlin, the controversial neuroscientist who founded the advocacy organization #MeTooSTEM 14 months ago, said today that she has left Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville “by mutual agreement” with the institution.

    “My employment and faculty appointment ended July 8. I value my time at Vanderbilt, and I look forward now to exploring new opportunities,” McLaughlin, 51, said in a statement issued through her lawyers.

    McLaughlin was denied tenure in 2017 but appealed, saying her tenure process had been tainted by retaliation for her testimony in a sexual harassment case. A faculty committee in February declined to reverse that tenure denial. Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, who will leave his post next month, accepted the committee’s decision.

  • Trump officials deleting mentions of ‘climate change’ from U.S. Geological Survey press releases

    James Reilly

    Under Director James Reilly, the U.S. Geological Survey has drawn criticism for deemphasizing concerns about climate change.


    Originally published by E&E News

    A March news release from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) touted a new study that could be useful for infrastructure planning along the California coastline. At least that's how President Donald Trump’s administration conveyed it.

    The news release hardly stood out. It focused on the methodology of the study rather than its major findings, which showed that climate change could have a withering effect on California's economy by inundating real estate over the next few decades.

  • Update: Mount Sinai institute director facing discrimination allegations leaves post

    Mt. Sinai Medical Center

    A lawsuit targets a global health institute and the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, which is part of the Mount Sinai Health System.

    Homieg340/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

    *Update, 3 July, 12:41 p.m.: The director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health, who is facing allegations of age and gender discrimination, is leaving that position, the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai announced in an email today. Prabhjot Singh “has chosen to step down” as chair of the Department of Health System Design and Global Health, and as director of the institute, wrote Dean Dennis Charney. Singh will remain on the medical school’s faculty, and Rachel Vreeman, a physician-researcher who has specialized in treating children living with HIV, will become the institute’s interim director, Charney wrote.

    *Update, 23 May, 4:23 p.m.: The co-chairs of the Board of Trustees at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai yesterday told the medical school’s faculty that the board is forming a “special committee to review matters related to the allegations of discrimination,” as well as any other related issues. “We appreciate that this matter has generated concern,” Richard Friedman and James Tisch wrote in an email to faculty. They promised the board’s special committee “will act consistently with the values that shape this institution.”

    *Update, 21 May, 4:30 p.m.: On 16 May, hundreds of faculty and staff at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the affiliated Mount Sinai Health System wrote to the organization’s board of trustees, demanding an external investigation of the lawsuit’s allegations. As of today, 369 faculty and staff have signed the letter, which calls the lawsuit’s allegations “profoundly disturbing” and urges the board to implement a policy of “zero tolerance” for harassment.

  • Australia continues to see steady drop in new HIV infections

    a giant condom over an obelisk in Hyde Park, Sydney, a part of an HIV awareness campaign

    Aggressive promotion of condom use has helped curb HIV infections in Australia. This giant condom in Sydney was part of a 2014 awareness campaign.

    SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

    Australia continues to be at the forefront of reversing the increase in HIV infections, with a study released today showing that the number of new diagnoses in 2018 dropped 13% year-on-year, to 835 cases. The pace of the decline more than doubled from the previous year, according to the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. New infections are at the lowest level in 18 years and the decline is seen across the country, says Rebecca Guy, a Kirby Institute epidemiologist.

    The decline in new infections is concentrated among men who have sex with men (MSM), particularly those born in Australia. But that good news is tempered by a modest drop in heterosexually acquired infections, from 238 to 189, and stubbornly persistent levels of new infections in Indigenous peoples, particularly those in remote areas. “Australia is tracking toward elimination of the transmission of HIV,” Guy says, though she and others emphasize there is still much work to be done.

    The downward trend in new infections among MSM has been gathering steam for several years, thanks to aggressive promotion of condom use, widely available testing, and successful efforts to get those infected quickly started on antiretroviral drugs, which drive down viral loads, making the host unlikely to pass HIV on to partners.

  • Exclusive: FDA enforcement actions plummet under Trump

    Illustration of letters
    Stephan Schmitz/folioart

    From monitoring clinical trials and approving medicines and vaccines, to ensuring the safety of blood transfusions, medical devices, groceries, and more, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is one of the nation’s most vital watchdogs. By several measures, however, FDA’s compliance and enforcement actions have plummeted since President Donald Trump took office, Science has found.

    The agency’s “warning letters”—a key tool for keeping dangerous or ineffective drugs and devices and tainted foods off the market—have fallen by one-third, for example. Such letters typically demand swift corrections to protect public health and safety. FDA records from Trump’s inauguration through 22 May show the agency issued 1033 warning letters, compared with 1532 for the most recent equivalent period under former President Barack Obama. Compared with the start of the Obama presidency, Trump-era letters dropped by nearly half.

    Warnings from the FDA Center for Devices and Radiological Health, which helps ensure the safety and quality of medical devices, and from some of the agency’s district offices—including Philadelphia, Florida, and New York—have dropped even more steeply, by more than two-thirds. Two district offices have not issued a warning in more than 2 years. The numbers don’t just reflect a new administration’s slow start. FDA sent significantly fewer warning letters in the second year of Trump’s presidency than in his first.

    FDA watchers say they can’t pinpoint what’s driving the decline, but they are alarmed. “Those who think the Trump administration has not succeeded in its deregulatory efforts ought to look at these data,” says Peter Lurie, an FDA executive under Obama and Trump and now executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. “Industry may well take the message from this that the cop is not on the beat as often.”

    Several other FDA actions under Trump show similar declines when measured against the end of the Obama administration. FDA inspection reports labeled “official action indicated”—typically a trigger for warning letters or similar actions—have fallen by about half under Trump and are continuing to trend downward. Even FDA’s rare injunctions, a more forceful step than warnings to prevent sales or distribution of unsafe or otherwise illegal products, fell from 35 in the last part of the Obama administration to 26 under Trump. (During a comparable period at the start of the Obama years, FDA issued 51 injunctions.) The agency’s “untitled letters”—for concerns that fall short of thresholds for formal warnings—also have dropped sharply under Trump.

  • NASA will fly a billion-dollar quadcopter to Titan, Saturn’s methane-rich moon

    Mockup of NASA's Dragonfly, a helicopter that would fly on Saturn’s moon

    The siren call of Titan could not be ignored. NASA’s next billion-dollar mission, called Dragonfly, will be an innovative quadcopter to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, the agency announced today. The craft will soar and hover over the icy moon’s surface—and land on it—in a search for the conditions and chemistry that could foster life.

    The mission—led by Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, and also managed by APL—will launch in 2026. It represents a calculated risk for the agency, embracing a new paradigm of robotic exploration to be used on a distant moon. “Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, D.C., while announcing the mission’s selection. “The science is compelling. It’s the right time to do it.”

    Titan is veiled by a nitrogen atmosphere and larger than Mercury. It is thought to harbor a liquid ocean beneath its frozen crust of water ice. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft studied Titan during its historic campaign, and, in 2005, dropped the short-lived Huygens probe into Titan’s atmosphere.

  • NIH probe of foreign ties has led to undisclosed firings—and refunds from institutions

    Michael Lauer

    Michael Lauer leads the National Institutes of Health’s extramural research program.

    National Institutes of Health

    An aggressive effort by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enforce rules requiring its grantees to report foreign ties is still gathering steam. But it has already had a major impact on the U.S. biomedical research community. A senior NIH official tells ScienceInsider that universities have fired more scientists—and refunded more grant money—as a result of the effort than has been publicly known.

    Since August 2018, Bethesda, Maryland–based NIH has sent roughly 180 letters to more than 60 U.S. institutions about individual scientists it believes have broken NIH rules requiring full disclosure of all sources of research funding. To date, the investigation has led to the well-publicized dismissals of five researchers, all Asian Americans, at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Emory University in Atlanta.

    But other major U.S. research universities have also fired faculty in cases that have remained confidential, according to Michael Lauer, head of NIH’s extramural research program. And some have repaid NIH “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in grants as a result of rule violations, he says. “I can understand why [the universities] aren’t talking about it,” Lauer says. “No organization wants to discuss personnel actions in a public forum.”

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