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  • Europe picks categories for three flagship space missions

    An artist’s impression depicts thermal plumes venting from the southern polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus

    Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with its geysers of water (artist’s illustration), could be the target for a future European flagship mission.

    European Space Agency/Science Office

    The biggest space missions gestate for the longest time. Today, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed the three broad science themes it wants to pursue for large-scale missions of €1 billion or more that would launch between 2035 and 2050. They include a close look at icy moons around Jupiter and Saturn, dissecting the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets, and new ways to study the formation of the universe’s first stars, galaxies, and black holes. “We must start planning the science and the technology we’ll need for the missions we want to launch decades from now,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, said in a statement.

    ESA refreshes its slate of science missions roughly every decade or two. The current program, called Cosmic Vision, has three flagship missions that will launch before 2034: a spacecraft to study Jupiter’s moons, an x-ray telescope, and a gravitational wave detector. 

    The next round, dubbed Voyage 2050, kicked off in 2019 with almost 100 suggested missions or themes from teams of researchers. Those ideas that could achieve breakthrough science were whittled down into three broad categories by 75 researchers split into six committees. ESA’s Science Programme Committee approved the categories this week. Although the themes do not explicitly call for missions, some translate into fairly specific mission possibilities.

  • Harvard bans former anthropology chair after finding persistent sexual harassment

    Gary Urton

    Last year, Gary Urton retired from Harvard University with emeritus status, which has now been revoked.

    As a result of findings of sexual harassment, Harvard University today stripped prominent anthropological archaeologist Gary Urton of his emeritus status and banned him from all events on campus. A yearlong investigation found that Urton, who specializes in Andean culture, engaged in “persistent” sexual harassment and unwelcome sexual conduct, and abused his power with students and employees he supervised in the past 2 decades, according to a searing university statement released today.

    The statement from Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, read in part: “Dr. Urton is no longer welcome on any part of the FAS campus.” He will not be allowed to teach any classes, advise students, have library privileges, use office space, or attend any lectures, faculty meetings, or Harvard events. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow also imposed the sanctions against Urton across the entire Harvard campus and at all university-sponsored events.

    The statement also accused Urton of hampering Harvard’s Title IX investigation by providing “materially misleading information.”

  • Research on ocean plastic surging, U.N. report finds

    Microplastics found in Arctic waters

    Plastic is increasingly ubiquitous, even in remote ocean waters. These microscopic pieces were found in the Arctic Ocean.

    ELISA MARTI and ANDRES CÓZAR/University of Cádiz

    Plastic winds up everywhere—from the top of Mount Everest to remote corners of Antarctica. Every year, millions of tons of discarded plastic also wash into the ocean. Some of it floats in giant garbage patches, whereas other bits drop to the sea floor, even turning up in the hindguts of crustaceans in deep ocean trenches.

    Research about ocean plastic is swelling, too, from just 46 papers in 2011 to 853 in 2019, according to a U.N. report published today on the state of global science. This year’s edition of the report, which UNESCO publishes every 5 years, found that the growth in ocean plastic research outstripped that of the other 55 development-related topics it tracked (see chart, below). “It has really skyrocketed in recent years,” says Erik Van Sebille, an oceanographer and climate scientist at Utrecht University who uses plastic particles as tracers to study the ocean’s dynamics.

    Carmen Morales, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Cádiz’s Marine Litter Lab, says plastic is more conspicuous than contaminants such as metals or organic compounds, and it draws more attention from the public and policymakers. “It’s an eyesore to have all this plastic on beaches,” adds Bart Koelmans, an aquatic ecologist at Wageningen University. “For many people, that is enough to be concerned.” Scientists are delving into where the plastic comes from, where it goes, and how it affects the environment and human health.

  • Europe announces mission to study volcanoes on Venus

    Artist impression of ESA's EnVision mission at Venus

    EnVision will peer through Venus’s thick clouds with radars and spectrometers.


    Mars is so last year. After NASA announced on 2 June that it will launch two probes to Venus before the end of the decade, the European Space Agency (ESA) today joined the party by selecting EnVision, another orbiter mission to our cloud-wrapped twin, for launch in 2031. The €610 million EnVision is the latest medium-class mission in ESA’s science program.

    Compared with Mars, Venus has seen fewer visits from robotic spacecraft, but increased interest in climate change and Earth-like exoplanets has prompted researchers to ask why Venus is now a scalding hot greenhouse oven with a sulfuric acid atmosphere, after starting out so similarly to Earth. ESA’s Venus Express, which operated from 2006 to 2014, helped find hinds of ancient oceans and active volcanoes on the planet. Firming up that evidence is a key aim for EnVision, says lead scientist Richard Ghail of Royal Holloway, University of London. “The pattern of volcanoes tells us how the planet works,” he says.

    Although there is some overlap in the aims and instruments of the NASA and ESA missions, Ghail says, “They do all fit together and in a sense, they are in the right order.” NASA’s VERITAS will provide a detailed global map of the planet’s topography, whereas DAVINCI+ will establish compositional “ground truth” by parachuting a probe through the atmosphere. EnVision will follow up by zooming in to understand how surface activity affects atmospheric dynamics, Ghail says.

  • Russian climate scientists upset by ministry’s call for ‘alternative’ research

    Pipelines in a natural gas field in Russia.

    Russia’s natural gas producers would benefit from a call by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “alternative” climate research that would “not necessarily imply abandoning fossil fuels.”

    Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Russia is a signatory to the Paris climate agreement, and dozens of its scientists have contributed to the consensus reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that detail the causes and consequences of global warming. This month, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament passed the country’s first climate bill, setting a course for carbon neutrality through emissions reductions and limits on deforestation. Just last week, speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, President Vladimir Putin said Russia is concerned about climate change, and any claims that it is not are “nonsense, a myth, and sometimes outright distortion.”

    But not everyone in Putin’s government seems to have gotten the message. Last month, in a document reviewed by ScienceInsider, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended funding studies that would allow Russia to promote “alternative” viewpoints on climate change that “would not necessarily imply abandoning fossil fuels and limiting industrial growth.”

    The document, signed on 21 May by the head of the ministry’s department of international organizations, also says the United Nations and IPCC “have been aggressively forcing the consensus on the causes of climate change. … For a long time, a ‘scientific basis for climate change’ has been forming that is not always favorable to Russia.” And it asserts that “Isolated alternative research is not developed further nor discussed by the international scientific community (it is basically blocked or silenced).”

  • Cloudy waters are driving Florida’s massive manatee die-off

    three manatees eat seagrass

    Along Florida’s east coast, polluted waters have harmed aquatic plants, a key source of food for manatees, contributing to the deaths of more than 700 of the animals.


    Florida’s most recent winter dealt a blow to its West Indian manatees, iconic marine mammals that are a big tourist attraction. In the first 5 months of this year, 761 manatees wintering in one Florida lagoon died, according to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The number represents about 10% of Florida’s population of Trichechus manatus latirostris, the subspecies found there, and is more than the total number of the manatees that died across the whole state in 2020.

    The cause of death: starvation because of the loss of seagrass in increasingly polluted waters, a problem not easily fixed. “I would not be surprised if this happens again next year,” says Daniel Slone, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

    The only vegetarian marine mammal, manatees—often called sea cows—thrive in subtropical waters, where they feed on seafloor grasses, algae, and floating plants. In the Atlantic Ocean north of the equator, two subspecies exist. One lives in the southern part of the Caribbean. The other meanders through Florida’s rivers, springs, and coastal waters, sometimes straying north to Massachusetts in the summer. Manatees cannot tolerate water colder than 20°C, so in Florida during colder months they gather in warm springs, or in the water discharged at coastal power plants from cooling generators. 

  • Brazil gives Russian COVID-19 vaccine a chance, approving the import of limited doses

    A person holds up a box and vial of Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine

    A number of Brazilian states can now import and use Sputnik V, the Russian vaccine for COVID-19, although a key regulatory agency in the country still has safety concerns.

    AP Photo/Andre Penner

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

    Despite safety concerns, the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (Anvisa) reversed itself last week and voted to allow a trickle of Sputnik V, the Russian-made COVID-19 vaccine, into the country. Only 928,000 doses will be imported—just a fraction of the total requested by a group of state governors—and the agency imposed stringent measures to reduce supposed health risks and monitor the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

    In April, with Brazil facing a massive COVID-19 surge and a scarcity of vaccine, Anvisa vetoed a previous import request, citing concerns that the vaccine contains adenoviruses that could replicate and harm vaccinated people. The decision sparked a lawsuit threat by Sputnik V’s manufacturer, the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, and drew criticism from some scientists. But on 4 June, four of Anvisa’s five directors decided to allow the importation of Sputnik V, swayed by a new law and Brazil’s continuing, worsening crisis. “The health context that our country is going through makes us face the need to make the greatest number of vaccines and medicines available,” said Alex Machado, one of the four directors. Brazil has one of the world’s highest burdens of COVID-19 but has only vaccinated about 15% of its people with a first dose.

  • Japanese scientists warn that Tokyo Olympics could help spread COVID-19

    A couple pose for a selfie in front of the Olympic Rings

    Japan is set on going ahead with the Olympics in July, despite Tokyo’s ongoing state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Carl Court/Getty Images

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

    A group of Japanese scientists, including some of the nation’s most senior advisers on the COVID-19 pandemic, is warning that allowing spectators at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will help the virus spread domestically and internationally. Their recommendation to bar or at least limit spectators, not yet formally published but described to ScienceInsider in general terms, represents an increasingly outspoken challenge from scientists to the government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which remain adamant about going ahead with the games just 6 weeks before the 23 July opening ceremony.

    Japan and IOC have already barred tourists from entering Japan to watch the games in person. But millions of people in Japan could attend competitions at more than 40 venues in and around Tokyo.

  • Mixing COVID-19 vaccines appears to boost immune responses

    a gloved hand holds one vial of Pfizer and one vial of Astrazeneca COVID-19 vaccines.

    Initial data support giving a dose of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine (left) followed by one of Pfizer and BioNTech’s (right).

    Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images

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

    Faced with short supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and unforeseen side effects, some countries have adopted an unproven strategy: switching shots midstream. Most authorized vaccines require two doses administered weeks or months apart, but Canada and several European countries are now recommending a different vaccine for the second dose in some patients. Early data suggest the approach, born of necessity, may actually be beneficial.

    In three recent studies, researchers have found that following one dose of the vaccine made by AstraZeneca with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine produces strong immune responses, as measured by blood tests. Two of the studies even suggest the mixed vaccine response will be at least as protective as two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech product, one of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines.

  • A ‘landmark’ trial to test mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 in Africa can’t get the coveted shots

    A health care preforms a sonar scan on a pregnant woman’s belly.

    A new clinical trial hopes to test messenger RNA vaccines for COVID-19 in pregnant women, like this one receiving a sonogram at an AIDS care center in South Africa.

    AP Photo/Denis Farrell

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

    The questions are urgent, and the funding is in place. But a highly anticipated, $130 million clinical trial, meant to test the efficacy of the novel messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 against a key variant of the pandemic coronavirus as well as in people living with HIV and pregnant women, is stalled. It is ready to launch in eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa, yet neither maker of the vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, wants to participate—or even provide their vaccines.

    A group of prominent HIV advocates and activists in South Africa has written a letter complaining about the delay to U.S. government officials, including Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which agreed to pay for the study. They stress that COVID-19 strikes people living with HIV especially hard, and that dangerous variants of SARS-CoV-2 evolve in them because many have weakened immune systems. “We believe this will be a landmark study for this region and … the world,” they wrote. “We respectfully ask that you do all in your power to enable this study to take place.”

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