Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Europe gives space programs a big boost

    Sentinel satellite

    Europe's fleet of Earth-observing Sentinel satellites could grow with a big budget boost.

    ESA/ATG medialab

    European nations have given a green light, and a significant funding boost, to almost all of the proposals laid out by the European Space Agency (ESA) for its future program, officials said today at the end of a 2-day budget meeting in Seville, Spain. The more than 20% rise in the ESA’s 3-year budget is the largest boost the agency has seen in 25 years, one that will allow it to: concurrently run two major orbiting observatories to look at x-rays and gravitational waves; join NASA in returning samples from Mars; expand its monitoring of Earth’s environment to help tackle the climate crisis; and develop a reusable vehicle to take cargo to and from space. 

    “This reaffirms our common ambition for Europe,” France’s research minister Frédérique Vidal told a press conference after the meeting of ministers from all 22 ESA member states. “You see a happy director general in front of you,” commented ESA chief Jan Wörner. 

    ESA managers have often come away disappointed after previous ministerial meetings, which take place roughly every 3 years, and must cancel or slow down programs that don’t win enough support. Wörner says the agency spent 2 years developing the current proposal and lobbying members for support. “NASA has one government, we have 22,” he joked. But as the ministers went through the 47-page list of programs it became clear that “not a single program had to stop,” he said. 

    In all, the ministers approved a budget of €12.5 billion for the next 3 years, a rise of more than 20% over a €10.3 billion budget set in 2016. “It was a surprise, more than I proposed, which is a very good message,” Wörner said. Ministers also agreed to an additional €1.9 billion to allow ESA’s mandatory programs—which all members must contribute to in line with their gross domestic product—to continue for another 2 years if for some reason the next ministerial is delayed.

    One of those mandatory programs is science. “Science is the backbone of what we do at ESA,” Wörner said. With a stagnant budget over the past couple of decades, the rate of mission launches had slowed and European space scientists were anxious for more. One goal was to bring forward the 2034 launch date of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a gravitational wave detector, to run at the same time as the Athena x-ray observatory because they share some targets, such as black holes. The science budget will now ramp up to €576 million per year by 2022.

    ESA’s Earth observation program was another big winner, receiving €2.6 billion over the next 3 years, 29% more than was requested. The program develops its own scientific satellites, called Earth Explorers, and also builds operational monitoring satellites called Sentinels for the European Union under the Copernicus program. ESA’s Earth observation director Josef Aschbacher told the press conference that he had “a very concrete list of how that money will be used.” Top of the list is building more powerful satellites to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide. Only a few satellites, such as NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, are operational, and scientists want to monitor the gas with finer resolution and distinguish between human-generated and natural carbon emissions. 

    In space exploration, which covers the International Space Station (ISS), the Moon, and Mars, ESA has committed to keep supporting ISS until 2030, to contribute components to the NASA-led Lunar Gateway space station, and to start building parts of the NASA-ESA Mars sample return mission. It has also adopted a French-German proposal for a lunar lander and rover. Wörner says this is a good example of ESA’s “moon village” concept, a lunar outpost that various space agencies and commercial enterprises can contribute to. “The idea is now 5 years old and finally we’re coming to concrete actions,” he said.

    In transportation, ESA will move ahead with upgraded versions of its larger Ariane and medium Vega launchers. And the agency will begin to develop its own capsule for transporting cargo, even though 80% of the support for the so-called Space Rider, a reusable system, comes from one member state, Italy. “Most importantly, Space Rider will fly, and land,” Wörner said.

    One area that did not fare so well is a new theme, or “pillar,” on space security and safety, focusing on space weather and threats from near-Earth objects. Hera, an asteroid deflection mission, won full funding, but the proposed Lagrange mission, which would station satellites between the Sun and Earth, as well as on a trailing Earth orbit, to watch for dangerous solar blasts, did not win full support. ESA will continue developing its instruments, Wörner says. “It’s not a disaster,” he said. The important thing, he added, is “we have a safety and security pillar now.” 

    *Correction, December 4, 10:15 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the boost to ESA’s Earth observation program and incorrectly described a reusable cargo capsule as being capable of transporting astronauts.

  • In unpublished paper, former White House climate adviser calls methane ‘irrelevant’ to climate

    Petrochemical Industrial Complex

    Oil and gas processing, as at this refinery in Russia, are copious sources of methane.


    Originally published by E&E News

    A climate skeptic with ties to the White House is back—this time as the co-author of a new paper that could help the Trump administration roll back climate rules.

    William Happer, an emeritus Princeton University physics professor, previously worked within the White House to conduct a hostile review of climate science. While that effort didn't go far, Happer at the same time worked on research into methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

  • ‘I’m known as an activist.’ New UNAIDS leader takes charge

    Winnie Byanyima

    Winnie Byanyima, the new executive director of UNAIDS, has specialized in social justice and women’s rights.

    Brian Otieno/UNAIDS

    Earlier this month, Winnie Byanyima, a high-profile diplomat and Ugandan politician who ran the nonprofit Oxfam for the past 7 years, took over a top job in the HIV/AIDS world—where she is far from a known figure.

    Byanyima now heads the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), a Geneva, Switzerland–based operation that sets the global agenda for ending the epidemic. It provides authoritative epidemiology and has offices in 70 outposts that help countries improve their treatment and prevention efforts.

    Byanyima, who has a long history working for social justice and women’s rights, steps into a job at a tumultuous time. Not only is a UNAIDS-led push to end the AIDS epidemic falling short of its targets, but the organization itself was also subjected to harsh criticism last year.

  • Quintet of study retractions rocks criminology community

    gavel on document

    Criminology researchers are retracting five studies that have sparked a bitter battle over potential scientific misconduct and issues of race. The episode has riveted the criminology community—and severed a once close relationship after one of the researchers accused his former mentor of falsifying data.

    On 10 November, Justin Pickett, a criminologist at the State University of New York in Albany, announced on Twitter that he and his co-authors have agreed to retract a 2011 study published in Criminology that examined public support for taking a suspect’s ethnicity into account at sentencing. Four additional disputed papers, published between 2015 and this year in the journals Criminology, Social Problems, and Law & Society Review, have been or are in the process of being be retracted with the agreement of all the authors, ScienceInsider has learned. Eric Stewart, Pickett’s former mentor and a criminologist at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, is a co-author of all five studies.

    The studies being retracted cover a range of topics. Two found that the number of black people lynched in a U.S. county 100 years ago influences whether white people in the same area today perceive black people as a threat and favor harsh punishments for them. Another examined the role of social context in antiblack and anti-Latino sentiment in the U.S. criminal justice system.

  • Major journal editors blast EPA’s ‘secret science’ rule, again

    Andrew Wheeler, the acting chief of the EPA, speaks at a press conference.

    Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

    Cliff Owen/AP photo

    The editors of six major scientific journals have raised a new alarm about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) controversial data transparency proposal. The proposal could become “a mechanism for suppressing the use of relevant scientific evidence in policy-making, including public health regulations,” the editors of Science, Nature, PLOS, Cell Press, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences write today in a joint statement. It follows a similar statement issued in early 2018.

    Both statements come in response to an EPA proposal for a new rule that would generally bar the agency from using studies that do not make their underlying data publicly available. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has said the rule is needed to ensure the agency uses only the best available science. But although the research community generally supports such calls for data transparency—and many journals require it for certain kinds of studies—the EPA proposal has drawn sharp criticism from many scientific and patient advocacy groups. In large part, that is because they fear agency officials will use it to rule out epidemiological studies that include confidential patient data that are difficult to make public. Such studies have often underpinned tougher air and water pollution regulations.

    In today’s letter, the journal editors urge EPA to maintain an emphasis on the quality of the studies it uses, and not make data transparency the determining factor. “We urge the EPA to continue to adopt an approach that ensures the data used in decision-making are the best available, which will at times require consideration of peer-reviewed scientific data, not all of which may be open to all members of the public,” they write. “The most relevant science, vetted through peer review, should inform public policy. Anything less will harm decision-making that claims to protect our health.”

  • New U.N. climate report offers ‘bleak’ emissions forecast

    Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station.

    Earth’s atmosphere from the International Space Station


    Originally published by E&E News

    Global emissions are expected to keep climbing despite promises from almost 200 nations to address climate change, propelling temperatures upward and threatening to shatter the threshold of 2°C that scientists say would invite dramatic changes to ecology and the economy.

    The 10th Emissions Gap Report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), released today, warned that there's "no sign" greenhouse gases will hit their zenith anytime soon. It arrived a day after the World Meteorological Organization revealed record-high concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

  • Elsevier signs first open-access deal in the United States

    Hunt Library

    Hunt Library at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, carries scientific journals covered by a new open-access arrangement.


    Publishing giant Elsevier has signed its first open-access deal with a U.S. institution, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Inside Higher Ed reports. The arrangement, which CMU announced on 21 November, will allow CMU scholars to publish articles in any Elsevier journal on an immediately free-to-read basis. CMU researchers will also continue to have access to paywalled Elsevier articles, which previous contracts covered with subscription fees.

    CMU did not disclose the cost of the arrangement, which has been a sticking point in Elsevier’s open-access negotiations with other research institutions. After the University of California system insisted on a price cut, Elsevier’s negotiations failed in February; in April, a research consortium in Norway cut a deal with Elsevier similar to CMU’s, while agreeing to a price hike. “All I can say is that we achieved the financial objectives we set out to achieve,” Keith Webster, dean of CMU’s university libraries and director of emerging and integrative media initiatives, tells Inside Higher Ed.

  • Giant radio telescope array prepares to begin construction in Australia and South Africa

    artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array

    An artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array’s radio dishes in southern Africa. It will add 133 dishes to the existing 64-dish MeerKAT array in South Africa.

    SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

    Officials with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world’s biggest radio telescope, say they have nearly finalized designs and are planning for construction to begin in Australia and South Africa. This week, at a final engineering meeting in Shanghai, China, designs were presented for the array’s dishes and antennas, which a committee will review in the coming weeks—setting the stage for construction to begin.

    “I’m feeling confident,” of starting construction in early 2021, says Philip Diamond, SKA director general at the organization’s headquarters near Manchester, U.K. The design review committee is expected to make suggestions, “but we’re not expecting any show-stoppers,” he says.

    The SKA, funded by 13 nations from around the world, will eventually consist of thousands of dishes scattered across southern Africa and a million sticklike antennas in Western Australia. Daunting early cost estimates convinced planners to start with a more limited array that is expected to cost €1.7 billion for construction and 10 years of operation. In this first phase, the SKA group will deploy 130,000 antennas in Australia and add 133 dishes to the 64 of the MeerKAT array, an SKA precursor instrument in South Africa that opened last year.

  • This lab on wheels could be a game-changer during the next Ebola outbreak, scientists say

    Specialty mobile laboratory truck made by Integrum Scientific, LLC

    A new mobile lab was born out of scientists’ “frustration” about the lack of infrastructure during the West African Ebola outbreak.

    M. Enserink/Science

    NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND—During the next Ebola outbreak, this brand new vehicle might come to the rescue. It’s a lab on wheels that some scientists say could greatly improve the response to disease outbreaks and epidemics. It can be flown into trouble spots by plane and driven to even the most remote locations, and it has everything on board needed to rapidly diagnose patients or carry out research studies.

    A prototype was parked outside a conference center here for 1 week during the annual conference of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. The company that developed it, Greensboro, North Carolina–based Integrum Scientific, says the first vehicle may soon be tested in Uganda, which occasionally has outbreaks of Ebola and a related virus, Marburg.

    The idea was born out of “deep frustration” among scientists during the 2013–16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, says clinical virologist and pediatrician Calum Semple of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, who is on the company’s infectious disease scientific advisory board. The three most affected countries—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—had almost no laboratory infrastructure. Suspected Ebola patients were often held in quarantine rooms for a long time while their samples were shipped to other locations and tested, putting those not actually infected at risk of infection by other patients.

  • Brazil’s deforestation is exploding—and 2020 will be worse

    aerial view or forest fires in Altamira, Brazil

    The rainforest burns in Pará, the state in Brazil with the highest deforestation rate.

    © Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace

    Development, most of it illegal, destroyed more than 9700 square kilometers of Brazilian Amazon rainforest in the year ending in July, according to a government estimate released on Monday—an increase of 30% from the previous year and the highest rate of deforestation since 2007–08.

    The number is based on analysis of high-resolution Landsat satellite images by the Program for Monitoring Deforestation of the Amazon by Satellite (PRODES), run by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. The estimate confirms indications of increased forest loss reported earlier this year by a different system, the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER), which uses lower resolution satellite images for real-time monitoring of illegal activities in the forest.

    Many scientists and environmentalists blame the deforestation spike on President Jair Bolsonaro’s aggressive policies to support mining and ranching and to dismantle environmental protections. But Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles has said the increased deforestation continues a trend that began in 2012, before Bolsonaro was elected. Science asked Philip Fearnside, a scientist at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, who’s right. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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