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  • Europe unveils targets for hyped research ‘missions’

    underwater view of plastic garbage floating in water

    In its healthy waters mission, the European Union aims to eliminate plastic pollution by boosting recycling.

    Magnus Larsson/

    The European Union today revealed proposed objectives for its much-hyped “missions,” which will concentrate research funding on tackling problems in five broad areas: cancer, adapting to climate change, carbon-neutral cities, healthy waters, and soil health. The missions could receive hundreds of millions of euros per year from Horizon Europe, the forthcoming 7-year, €81 billion research program, and additional funds from other EU programs.

    The five reports published today contain the recommendations of the advisory boards charged with designing the missions, made up of scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and other luminaries. Each proposes long-term goals and more detailed interim targets, which the European Commission will review before making its final decision.

    But it is still unclear how the missions will be organized and managed, and what their budgets will be, casting some doubt on whether they will be ready by the January 2021 start of Horizon Europe. The “fundamental challenge” is “how you go from the big targets to the operationalization,” says Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. He suspects some mission grant calls will be launched on time, but “we will only really see what they will look like in their entirety after 2 or 3 years.” Nevertheless, Palmowski argues the plans are “remarkably well advanced,” considering politicians didn’t agree on the five topics until March 2019.

  • WHO unveils global plan to fairly distribute COVID-19 vaccine, but challenges await

    A health care worker in protective gear collects a swab sample to be tested for the coronavirus disease.

    Frontline health care workers, such as these testing a man in Jakarta, Indonesia, for a coronavirus infection, would be among the first to be immunized with a COVID-19 vaccine under a new World Health Organization plan.

    Willy Kurniawan/Reuters via Newscom

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that countries representing close to two-thirds of the world’s population have joined its plan to buy and fairly distribute COVID-19 vaccines around the globe. It also unveiled the mechanism through which it plans to allocate the vaccine as it becomes available, aiming “to end the acute phase of the pandemic by the end of 2021.”

    “It is a huge success to have equivalent to 64% of the world’s population signed up,” Alexandra Phelan, a lawyer at Georgetown University who specializes in global health policy, wrote in an email. “However, this doesn’t reflect the deeply unequal power dynamics in global health and vaccine manufacturing capabilities that may still challenge equitable access to vaccines.” China and the United States are notably absent from WHO’s list of partners in the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, she and other observers noted.

  • ‘I’m worried about voters screwing up.’ Election scientist tackles 2020 U.S. vote

    headshot of Charles Stewart III

    Charles Stewart III

    Stuart Darsch/MIT Political Science

    As the November U.S. election approaches, anxiety is running high. There are fears of Russian meddling, breakdowns in the U.S. mail system, intense partisan rancor, voter suppression, fraud, and the logistics of enabling people to safely vote in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

    So what are the seasoned election scientists’ biggest fears, and what are they doing about it? ScienceInsider asked political scientist Charles Stewart III at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the nation’s leading experts in the science surrounding election administration. He is co-director of the recently launched Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, which is working with researchers and election administrators to “ensure that the 2020 election can proceed with integrity, safety, and equal access.” It has, for example, helped connect modelers with election officials trying to figure out how to best place ballot drop boxes and polling places. The effort, Stewart says, “is really research in the interest of action.”

    The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • COVID-19 data scandal prompts tweaks to elite journal’s review process

    computer screen showing a retracted paper with The Lancet
    E. Petersen/Science

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Three months after retracting a high-profile COVID-19 paper, editors at The Lancet hope to assure the research community that they’ve learned their lesson. The journal yanked a study on risks of hydroxychloroquine—an antimalarial drug whose proposed use as a COVID-19 treatment has stirred scientific and political controversy—in June when its authors couldn’t prove the underlying patient data even existed. Yesterday, it announced policies, effective immediately, that aim to keep flawed studies using “large, real-word datasets” from slipping past peer review again. They include stricter standards for the expertise of peer reviewers of such papers and requirements that all authors vouch for the validity of their data and detail their data-sharing plans.

    “We aim to learn whenever we can how we might reduce risks and improve processes,” the editors wrote in an accompanying editorial about stresses the pandemic has placed on peer review.

  • Ig Nobel Prizes reward research on helium-huffing alligators and knives made of feces

    Chinese Alligator (Alligator sinensis)

    A study that placed Chinese alligators (Alligator sinensis) in helium chambers revealed mechanisms of their vocalizations and earned the authors a 2020 Ig Nobel Prize.

    Gregory G. Dimijian/Science Source

    The Ig Nobel Prizes, an annual event celebrating quirky, comical discoveries, carried on despite the pandemic in a virtual ceremony riddled with bugs—and bug jokes. The Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine that hosts the event, selected bugs as the theme for the 30th annual event, although the winning studies spanned an array of icky, wondrous, and unconventional research. The ceremony took place entirely online for the first time with a series of prerecorded speeches, musical numbers, and lightning-speed lectures.

    This years prize in entomology went to an investigation of why so many insect researchers are themselves fearful of spiders. The survey of arachnophobic entomologists, published in 2013 in American Entomologist, explored why people who devoted their careers to critters such as cockroaches and maggots still found spiders unnerving. Among spiders’ most disliked traits were their fast, unpredictable movements and their many legs.

    The acoustics prize went to researchers who recreated in reptiles the party trick of inhaling helium from balloons. To study crocodilian vocalizations, the team placed alligators in an airtight, helium-filled chamber and found that the high-energy frequency bands of their bellows got even higher. The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2015, are the first evidence that nonavian reptiles produce sound from vibrations in the vocal tract, known as formants.

  • Former Los Alamos physicist gets probation for failing to disclose China ties

    Ariel view of Los Alamos National Laboratory

    Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico

    Los Alamos National Laboratory

    A former Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist who pled guilty to federal charges of lying about his contact with a talent recruitment program funded by the Chinese government has been sentenced to 5 years of probation and fined $75,000.

    In 2018, Turab Lookman, 68, denied to Los Alamos officials that he had “been recruited or applied for a job with the Thousand Talents Program, established by the Chinese government to recruit individuals with access to or knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property,” according to a Department of Justice statement. But prosecutors alleged that Lookman had, in fact, at least applied to the Chinese program, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

    Lookman initially pled not guilty to several charges in May 2019. But in January, he pled guilty to a single count of making a false statement after prosecutors agreed to drop several other charges, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

  • Meet the man who told Trump climate change is real

    Wade Crowfoot

    Wade Crowfoot’s challenge to U.S. President Donald Trump’s misleading comments on climate change went viral. Here, Crowfoot examines a fire scene in California.

    Paul Kitagaki Jr/Sacramento Bee via ZUMA Wire/Newscom

    Originally published by E&E News

    Wade Crowfoot, a California Cabinet secretary, didn’t plan on confronting President Donald Trump on extreme heat and wildfires. Then Trump dismissed climate change.

    “It’ll just start getting cooler, you just watch,” Trump said during a Monday meeting with California officials who were briefing him on the state’s catastrophic wildfires.

  • Pandemic inspires new push to shrink jails and prisons

    women working in a prison laundry facility

    Outbreaks of the pandemic coronavirus in correctional facilities have prompted moves to reduce populations.


    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Even before COVID-19 began to sweep through U.S. correctional facilities, Michael Daniels saw the storm coming. As the director of justice policy and programs for Franklin county in Ohio, Daniels knew the county’s two jails, with about 1950 inmates, wouldn’t allow for social distancing to control the coronavirus’ spread. So, back in March, he asked his team: How could they get as many people as possible out of there quickly?

    In New York City, Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, was having similar conversations. The pandemic “distilled to its essence [how] we think about the use of jail,” she says. “Was it worth putting somebody in jail if you thought that they were at risk of getting COVID?”

  • Turkish scientists and physicians face criminal investigations after criticizing COVID-19 policies

    Turkish protesters

    Protesters gather in Bursa, Turkey, on 21 July to support Kayıhan Pala, a public health researcher accused of “misinforming the public” about the coronavirus pandemic and “causing panic.”

    Medical Chamber Of Bursa

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    In April, Kayıhan Pala, a prominent public health expert at Uludağ University in northwestern Turkey, was shocked to find himself the target of a criminal complaint. Pala, a member of the COVID-19 monitoring group of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), had given an interview to a local website and shared research that showed the number of cases and deaths from the coronavirus were much higher than the government had reported. The complaint, filed by the governor of the province of Bursa, accused him of “misinforming the public” and “causing panic.”

    Saying it was his job to speak out about a burgeoning health crisis, Pala called for the charges to be dismissed. Instead, the prosecutor’s office asked administrators at the university to investigate. Only after a monthslong investigation, and national and international condemnation from rights groups and health workers, did the university conclude on 1 September that Pala had acted within his duty.

  • Eli Lilly reports promising first results for an antibody against COVID-19

    Coronavirus 2019-nCoV and Virus background with disease cells

    Researchers have high hopes for monoclonal antibodies’ power in fighting the novel coronavirus.


    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Today brings the first whisper of success for a class of closely watched drugs that it’s hoped will begin to beat back COVID-19 before vaccines are licensed: monoclonal antibodies, engineered versions of the same virus-fighting antibodies that the body naturally produces.

    Eli Lilly reports this morning interim results from a placebo-controlled trial of one such compound, cloned in quantity from an antibody captured from the blood of a patient who recovered from COVID-19. In June, the company began a trial delivering either placebo or one of three doses of the antibody, called LY-CoV555, to 452 patients. These were not gravely ill people, but patients with mild or moderate symptoms who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 within the past 3 days and had not been hospitalized.

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