Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • New memo offers first glimpse of how Trump’s science adviser would like to shape spending priorities

    Kelvin Droegemeier

    Science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier


    A new White House directive laying out next year’s spending priorities for federal research agencies describes a U.S. science enterprise imperiled by internal problems and foreign governments. It’s the first time this annual exercise has addressed the perceived threat to research posed by Chinese government entities.

    The nine-page memo also incorporates several favorite themes from recently arrived presidential science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier, notably, that the continued health of U.S. research enterprise depends on preserving “American values” and that scientists must do a better job of modeling and predicting environmental variability.

    Each summer, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issue a memo on the administration’s priorities in R&D. The memo is meant to influence what agency heads submit to OMB in September as their budget request for the next fiscal year, a process that ends when the president submits his budget to Congress the following February.

  • As Hurricane Dorian bears down, researchers get ready

    Plywood covers windows at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine.

    Windows at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine have been covered with plywood in preparation for Hurricane Dorian.

    Heather Krumholtz/Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience

    For the fourth consecutive year, scientists in Florida are preparing for a major hurricane, laying down sandbags and boarding up windows at research facilities along the state’s Atlantic coast. The Bahamas are also bracing for what the U.S. National Weather Service says could be “life-threatening storm surge and devastating hurricane force winds,” and at least one researcher expects damage to a long-term field experiment being conducted there. Facilities in North and South Carolina could face hurricane-related trouble next week.

    Weather forecasters expect Hurricane Dorian, as of Saturday a Category-4 storm with wind speeds of up to 233 kilometers per hour, to wallop the northern Bahamas sometime Sunday with winds of up to 281 kilometers per hour. The storm is then expected to continue to move west and north toward the Florida coast, although its exact track is still uncertain. It could also bring high winds, rainfall, and coastal flooding to the Carolinas.

    “#Hurricane prep is in effect” at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine, staff tweeted yesterday, sharing pictures of workers sealing windows with plywood and equipment that had been lifted off floors to avoid flooding. “#boarditup #raisethoseincubators #emptythosebottomshelves #Dorian.”

  • ‘A little bit of everything is burning.’: A NASA scientist dissects Amazon fires

    map of fire detections between August 15-22 in South America

    Fires detected by NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites in South America between 15 and 22 August

    MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview

    A rash of fires in the Brazilian Amazon has caused diplomatic tensions between Brazil and several European countries and triggered protests from environmental groups around the world. Brazil’s government has pledged to stop the fires and sent in the military but denies its policies and rhetoric are responsible.

    Science talked with remote sensing specialist Douglas Morton, one of the scientists who is closely watching the blazes. Morton heads the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which monitors land use and environmental changes through satellite data. Between January and late August, NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites have detected 100,000 “fire spots” in the Brazilian Amazon—the highest number in that period since 2010. The numbers are in line with those from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

    With partners at the University of California, Irvine, Vrije University in Amsterdam, and the University of Maryland in College Park, Morton maintains the Global Fire Emissions Database, which tracks carbon emissions and burned areas from fire activity around the world. He has also worked in the field with Brazilian colleagues since 2001, studying the forests’ vulnerability and resilience to drought, fire, and logging.

  • Great white sharks have suddenly disappeared from one of their favorite hangouts

    a great white shark breaching in False Bay in South Africa

    Great white sharks are gone from False Bay in South Africa. One theory holds that they were scared away by orcas.

    Chris and Monique Fallows/Minden Pictures

    Sightings of white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) have crashed this year in False Bay near Cape Town, South Africa—one of the best-known hot spots of the predators in the world—and scientists aren’t sure why. Orcas, which love to dine on shark liver, may have scared them off, researchers say, but human activities could also play a role.

    Shark Spotters, a local charity that monitors the city’s beaches daily and warns swimmers if sharks are near, has not recorded a single confirmed white shark sighting this year—not even during the summer months, from January to April, when the fish usually come close to shore.

    The boats that take tourists to watch sharks hunt seals at Seal Island, in the middle of False Bay, have not recorded sightings either. Sharks tagged along the South African coast have not “pinged” any of the receivers located in the bay since January 2017, and white shark bite marks have been missing from whale carcasses floating in the bay this year.

  • NSF’s huge ecological observatory is open for business. But tensions remain

    the installation of a research tower surrounded by trees

    The final site in the National Ecology Observatory Network, including a sensor-laden tower, was completed in Hawaii earlier this year.


    LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY—Twenty years in the making, with setbacks along the way, the $460 million National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is now fully operational. At 81 sites across the United States, stretching from arctic tundra in Alaska to tropical forests in Puerto Rico, state-of-the-art sensors are collecting a wide range of environmental data designed to allow ecologists to detect large-scale patterns.

    But as NEON moves into its operating phase, the project continues to be the subject of debate within the ecological science community. And those tensions were on display here earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), where both NEON’s problems and promise were discussed at several sessions.

    Some ecologists worry NEON won’t have been worth the wait, and that the cost of operating the network will reduce the funding available for smaller-scale research projects. There has also been controversy surrounding how Battelle, the Columbus-based firm that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has hired to run NEON, has handled the project’s scientific advisers. But other researchers are looking forward to NEON’s growing data streams, saying they will allow ecology to enter a new era of big data and tackle new questions.

  • EPA’s controversial ‘secret science’ plan still lacks key details, advisers say

    epa headquarters building

    The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.

    Rob Crandall/Alamy Stock Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    More than a year after U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leaders ignited a firestorm with a plan for limiting the agency's use of scientific research, they still have no clear answers on how fundamental aspects of the proposed regime would work, according to an update recently provided to an independent advisory panel.

    The proposed rule, titled "Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science," would bar the agency from tapping scientific studies in crafting major new regulations unless the underlying research data "are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation," according to the text.

  • Australia plans to tackle foreign influence at nation’s universities

    a student covered in post-it notes protest at a Lennon Wall on a university campus

    A supporter of the Hong Kong, China, pro-democracy protests stands next to a “Lennon Wall” at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Several such walls have been vandalized recently.


    In response to growing concerns in Australia about foreign influence at universities, cyberspying, and a perceived erosion of freedom of speech on campuses, the country’s education minister today announced that a new task force will develop “best-practice guidelines for dealing with foreign interference.”

    The decision grew out of recent meetings between university and government representatives, Minister for Education Dan Tehan said in a speech at the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra this afternoon. “Everybody wants a considered, methodical approach to deal with this issue,” he said, “one that strikes a balance between our national interest and giving universities the freedom to pursue research and collaboration. We must get the balance right.”

    Tehan did not mention China, according to a ministry transcript of the news conference. But it is clear the country is the primary concern. “There’ve been a series of miniscandals throughout the tertiary education sector that show there is a big problem of foreign interference in universities coming from China, and the government has now realized that the universities themselves are not going to act,” says Clive Hamilton, an ethicist at Charles Sturt University in Canberra who has been outspoken in warning about threats to Australia’s universities.

  • Is setting a deadline for eradicating malaria a good idea? Scientists are divided

    A woman watches over a child with malaria in a hospital bed in Ivory Coast

    A woman watches over a child with malaria in a hospital in Jacqueville, Ivory Coast, in April.

    SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

    In 2007, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates stunned many scientists when, at a meeting in Seattle, Washington, they called for the worldwide eradication of malaria. Many felt malaria was so entrenched—there were almost 250 million cases annually—and so difficult to fight that any talk of eradication was premature. But it’s hard to ignore two of the world’s most generous funders, and both the World Health Organization (WHO) and researchers embraced the idea. Soon, a flurry of working groups, scientific papers, and public health strategies were laying the groundwork.

    But the consensus is dissolving. Last week, WHO dropped a minor bombshell of its own when it released the summary of a report that says malaria eradication isn’t feasible in the foreseeable future. And it argues that setting any deadline will undermine disease control efforts, as it did when WHO set a similar goal 64 years ago. “We must not set the world up for another failed malaria eradication effort that could derail attempts to achieve our vision for decades,” says the report from WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group on Malaria Eradication (SAGme).

    “It’s a watershed moment,” says Willem Takken, a retired medical entomologist from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. “Basically WHO now admits we won’t get rid of malaria anytime soon.”

  • There’s no doubt that Brazil’s fires are linked to deforestation, scientists say

    trees on fire in Brazil

    The rainforest is on fire in the Jamanxim Environmental Protection Area near the city of Novo Progresso, Brazil.

    Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace​

    SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—“Dry weather, wind, and heat”—those were the factors that Brazilian Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles blamed for the rising number of forest fires in the Amazon in a recent tweet. But scientists in Brazil and elsewhere say there is clear evidence that the spike, which has triggered concerns and anger around the world, is related to a recent rise in deforestation that many say is partly the result of prodevelopment policies of the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

    The blazes are surging in a pattern typical of forest clearing, along the edges of the agricultural frontier, says Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo here. Historical data show the two phenomena are closely linked: Chainsaws lead the way, followed by flames, and then cattle or other forms of development. “There is no doubt that this rise in fire activity is associated with a sharp rise in deforestation,” Artaxo says.

    By Saturday, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) had counted more than 41,000 fire spots in the Brazilian Amazon so far this year, compared with 22,000 in the same period last year. The Global Fire Emissions Database project, which includes scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the University of California, Irvine; and Vrije University in Amsterdam, sees the same trend, although its numbers are slightly higher. (The main data source for both agencies is the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, an instrument aboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites that detects the location and intensity of fires through a thermal signature. But each agency has its own algorithms to analyze the images and classify the spots.)

  • Scientists say sustainable forestry organizations should lift ban on biotech trees

    eucalyptus plantation

    Productivity of eucalyptus plantations could be increased with trees genetically modified for faster growth.


    Look at anything made from trees—a ream of paper, a cardboard box, lumber—and it's probably stamped with the logo of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or an equivalent organization. These nonprofits certify that forests are managed sustainably, and one common requirement is no genetically modified (GM) trees. But that ban hinders research and should change, researchers say in today's issue of Science. The technology, they argue, has important potential to remedy many pressing problems facing forests.

    "Having this restriction doesn't make any sense," says Sofia Valenzuela, a biochemist at the University of Concepción in Chile.

    Certification of forest sustainability began to take off in the 1990s. Environmental groups, concerned about tropical deforestation, wanted to encourage consumers to buy products from sustainably managed forests. FSC, headquartered in Bonn, Germany, bases its certifications on a range of social, environmental, and economic factors. Together, FSC and a similar effort, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), in Geneva, Switzerland, have certified about 440 million hectares around the world.

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