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  • Researchers decry Trump picks for education sciences advisory board

    President Donald Trump

    President Donald Trump


    One month before his term expires, President Donald Trump has revived a moribund federal education research advisory panel by appointing eight members who appear to have no expertise in the subject area.

    The National Board for Education Sciences (NBES) provides guidance to the director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. But the lack of a quorum on the 15-member presidentially appointed board has prevented it from meeting since the waning days of the Obama administration.

    That lengthy presidential snub of the panel was part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to shrink government that resulted in a reduced flow of scientific advice to various federal agencies. That effort has had a particularly dramatic impact at regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, where the administration dismantled or dramatically reshaped several science advisory panels. For education researchers, a mothballed NBES deprived them of a high-level conduit for using their methodological expertise to help shape federal policies meant to improve education outcomes for all students.

  • The Paris climate pact is 5 years old. Is it working?

    The Arc de Triomphe is illuminated green with text that reads “Accord DeParis c’est fait!”

    In 2015, lights on the Arc de Triomphe announced the signing of the Paris agreement to curb climate change. But the pact has produced mixed results.

    Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    When world leaders celebrated reaching a landmark climate change agreement in Paris in December 2015, the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe were illuminated with green floodlights and the message “Accord de Paris c’est fait!” (the Paris agreement is done!). Now, five tumultuous years later, a new slogan might be “travail en cours” (work in progress).

    That will be the implicit message sent tomorrow when nations gather—virtually—to look back on what the Paris agreement has achieved in its first half-decade and, more importantly, to unveil new pledges to further cut planet-warming emissions. Although analysts say the pact has helped make progress toward its goal of preventing average global temperatures from increasing by 2°C above preindustrial levels, the effort is also shadowed by ample evidence that many countries aren’t living up to the promises they made in 2015. And even if nations had kept those promises, some researchers forecast that global temperatures would rise by 2.6°C by the end of the century, underlining the need for stronger action.

    If a grade is awarded to the Paris pact “based on whether we have any prospect of meeting a 2°C target, from that point of view, it’s probably a D or an F,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist and policy expert at Princeton University. But at the same time, he says, the pact has made a “real difference” by helping make climate change “a top concern of all countries.”

  • Development of unique Australian COVID-19 vaccine halted

     Structural model of the trimeric SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein

    For a potential COVID-19 vaccine, the spike protein (structural model pictured) of the pandemic coronavirus was stabilized by a bit of an HIV protein (red).

    P. R. Young, Microbiology Australia (2020) 41: 109-112 CC BY

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    The backers of Australia’s homegrown COVID-19 vaccine candidate today announced a halt to its further development, after some of the first people to receive the vaccine in a safety trial generated antibodies to an unintended target, the AIDS virus. A small fragment of an HIV protein is a component of the vaccine used to add stability to the intended antibody target, the spike protein of the pandemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

    Although the added component didn’t represent an actual infection with HIV, the vaccine developers and the Australian government concluded a widespread rollout of the candidate would interfere with HIV diagnostic tests and decided not to proceed to larger clinical trials that would have measured its protection against COVID-19. Given the strong efficacy shown by several recent COVID-19 vaccines, it’s likely that other candidates still in development will now have a higher bar to clear to move forward.

  • FDA panel backs Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, paving way for emergency use in the United States

    In a clean room, a pharmacist attaches a label to a syringe

    A pharmacist at Mount Sinai Queens hospital labels syringes that will be used for COVID-19 vaccine doses, perhaps as soon as next week given the Food and Drug Administration advisory panel vote today.

    AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

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

    The preliminary report 1 month ago that an experimental COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech had 95% efficacy startled the world. But few surprises occurred today when the vaccine advisory committee to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strongly backed the companies’ request for an emergency use authorization (EUA) of their candidate for people 16 years of age and older. If FDA promptly accepts the recommendation, as is expected in the next few days, select groups of people in the United States could, for the first time, begin to receive COVID-19 vaccines outside of a clinical trial.

    Other scientists hailed the panel’s decision. “It’s great to know that we have efficacious products coming online and will soon be available to folks,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician who specializes in vaccines at the University of Florida. The vaccine’s level of efficacy, she says, “exceeded expectations.”

  • China launches gamma ray–hunting satellites to trace sources of gravitational waves

    An illustration of two very dense neutron stars merging and exploding as a kilonova

    A new Chinese space mission will watch for gamma ray bursts from merging neutron stars.


    The China National Space Administration’s Chang’e-5 mission, set to return Moon rocks to Earth next week, has grabbed headlines around the world. But China’s other space agency, the science-focused National Space Science Center (NSSC) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is making news of its own: Just after 4 a.m. local time today it launched its Gravitational Wave High-energy Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province.

    GECAM’s two small satellites—130 centimeters tall and weighing 150 kilograms—are now in identical 600-kilometer-high orbits, but on opposite sides of Earth. From these perches they will watch for the gamma ray bursts that emanate from the merger of ultradense objects, events that also generate gravitational waves, ripples in space-time. In 2017, astronomers witnessed this celestial light show, when a pair of neutron stars, dead cores leftover from supernova explosions, merged and spewed debris glowing at multiple wavelengths. A merger of a neutron star and a black hole are also thought to generate both light and gravitational waves. But whether a merger of two black holes should produce any sort of light is an open question, says Xiong Shaolin, an astrophysicist at CAS’s Institute of High Energy Physics and GECAM’s principal investigator. “Most theorists think the answer is no, but more and more people believe that in some circumstances it may produce electromagnetic emissions, including gamma ray bursts,” he says.

    Working together, the two satellites can monitor the whole sky, tracing the source of a gamma ray burst to a particular location. Existing gamma ray observatories, such as NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, only have partial views of the sky, and are sometimes blocked by Earth, says Gemma Anderson, an astronomer at Curtin University. “GECAM has the whole sky covered,” she says. Also, Swift and Fermi are optimized to capture the longer, higher energy gamma ray bursts that hail from the collapse of massive stars. GECAM’s observational energy range extends down to 6 kiloelectronvolts, lower than Swift and Fermi, which may be an advantage spotting the “softer” gamma ray bursts associated with gravitational waves, Xiong says.

  • Mexico’s coronavirus czar faces criticism as COVID-19 surges

    illustration of Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez

    “The mission calls me and until I deliver results—I hope favorable—I cannot stop,” says Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez, Mexico’s undersecretary of prevention and health promotion.


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

    There’s hardly a Mexican who doesn’t know Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez by now. Mexico’s undersecretary of prevention and health promotion has sat across from reporters at 7 p.m. sharp almost every single night since late February to update them, and the country, on the toll of the coronavirus pandemic. His firm demeanor, careful speech, and courteous personality have made his televised coronavirus press briefings even more popular than those of the country’s president.

    But as COVID-19 deaths in Mexico continue to soar—surpassed only by the United States, Brazil, and India—many have questioned López-Gatell Ramírez’s leadership. Critics accuse him of undercounting the true numbers and mishandling the nation’s response. In early August, the governors of nine Mexican states demanded his resignation. His defenders, though, say he’s making sound decisions based on science and doing the best he can with the resources at his disposal.

  • Trump’s new cost-benefit rule will curb EPA’s regulatory power

    The Salt Lake City skyline obscured by fog

    A new rule that shapes how government officials evaluate the costs and benefits of new environmental regulations could hamper efforts to reduce air pollution in places such as Salt Lake City.

    Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

    Originally published by E&E News

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today raised new barriers to protecting public health with a thicket of cost-benefit forecasting requirements for future climate and air pollution regulations.

    The changes make it more difficult to fully account for how regulations could reduce illness and deaths.

  • Great efficacy claimed for another COVID-19 vaccine, this one from China

    Sinopharm vaccine update

    On 6 October, people in a clinical trial of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine waited to receive one of its two doses at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre in United Arab Emirates.

    REUTERS/Khushnum Bhandari

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

    A COVID-19 vaccine made in China has outstanding efficacy data, according to a press release issued today by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has been testing the candidate in a study involving 31,000 people. UAE said that based on an interim analysis of data from that trial, it would formally “register,” or approve, the vaccine for widespread use. This is the fifth COVID-19 vaccine to show signs of working, and this one uses an entirely different technology from the others.

    UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention said the vaccine, which contains a chemically inactivated version of the pandemic coronavirus and is given in two doses, had 86% efficacy “against COVID-19 infection”—a phrase that puzzled outsiders, as other vaccines have mainly been assessed for their ability to prevent symptoms. The press release further states that the vaccine completely prevented moderate and severe cases of the disease and raised “no serious safety concerns.”

  • Europe hopes new R&D fund will boost meager defense capabilities and create opportunities for science

    Man looks at a flying drone

    Drones will be one of the research topics supported by a growing European Defense Fund.

    Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

    This summer, in a leafy, wooded area near Utrecht, the Netherlands, scientists were testing out battlefield haute couture: adaptive camouflage. Researchers with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research mounted a swath of fabric on a stand and watched as its pattern shifted to match the greens and browns of the foliage. Cameras connected to the fabric picked up the scenery and hundreds of embedded light-emitting diodes mimicked it, like the skin of a chameleon. The team is testing other materials to weave into the futuristic camouflage, including polymers that absorb body heat and radio waves, making soldiers harder to detect with thermal imagers and radars.

    Just as striking as the fabrics is the project’s funding source: the European Union, better known for trade rules and farm subsidies than military maneuvers. The camouflage work is part of a Swedish-led, six-country project that received a €2.6 million grant from the union’s Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR). The 3-year fund, worth €90 million, also supports research in artificial intelligence (AI) for bomb detection, laser weapons, railguns, and drones. It is a sign of much bigger things to come: Next year, PADR will be rolled into the new European Defense Fund (EDF), with a budget of €7 billion over 7 years, split between early-stage research and late-stage development.

    That’s tiny compared with the $80 billion per year the United States spends on defense R&D. And it’s even small compared with the combined €5 billion or so spent on defense research each year by EU nations. But the European Union, which has no military resources of its own, hopes the EDF, by topping up joint national investments, will encourage its members to strengthen their modest defense capabilities. For European researchers, the spending is opening new opportunities—and stirring some qualms.

  • Iran vows to build two new nuclear facilities, alarming observers

    Arak heavy water nuclear facility, Iran

    Raising a new proliferation concern, an Iranian law passed last week calls for a second heavy water nuclear reactor like the original design of one in Arak (shown here).

    ISNA/Hamid Foroutan/AP

    Iran’s possible responses to the assassination of a prominent nuclear scientist go well beyond boosting uranium enrichment and expelling weapons inspectors, two provisions of a law passed by Iran’s parliament that alarmed nonproliferation experts last week. Equally worrisome are new facilities the law requires, which could enable Iran to make plutonium and fashion uranium into bomb components.

    The legislation had been in the works for months, but parliament fast-tracked it after the 27 November killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, director of a Revolutionary Guard research unit who had previously led a secret nuclear weapons program shuttered in 2003, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran’s powerful Guardian Council last week approved the law. The potential limits on IAEA monitoring are of particular concern, says a European diplomat involved in negotiations with Iran. “IAEA would go blind in many areas of Iran’s nuclear establishment.”

    Posing a fresh proliferation risk are the new facilities the bill mandates: a lab for working with uranium in metal form—a vital skill if Iran were to make nuclear weapons—and a heavy water reactor that could accumulate plutonium in its spent fuel. “If either was to proceed, that would stand out as a major proliferation concern,” says Richard Johnson, senior director for fuel cycle and verification at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative.

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