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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Fear the cats! Bold project teaches endangered Australian animals to avoid deadly predator

    greater bilby

    A greater bilby in its burrow. Researchers have been trying to teach the threatened animals to fear cats by exposing them to the predators under controlled conditions.

    Jasmine Vink

    ROXBY DOWNS, AUSTRALIA—Katherine Moseby delves into a freezer at this arid mining outpost and pulls out the carcass of a pointy-faced animal the size of a rabbit. It’s a dead greater bilby, or at least what is left of one. She runs a cotton swab along a rip left in the bilby’s soft fur by the teeth of its killer. Later, analysis of DNA from the wound confirms Moseby’s suspicions: This bilby, a threatened species, was slain by a domestic cat.

    Over the past 25 years, the ecologist, who works for the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, has examined hundreds of native Australian animals killed by introduced predators, including domestic cats that have gone feral. The native fauna are often easy prey because they haven’t evolved to recognize and dodge the invaders, and medium-size mammals like the bilby have fared worst. Nearly three dozen Australian mammals have gone extinct since Europeans arrived, and although fences and predator eradication efforts have slowed the march toward extinction, Moseby wants to do better, perhaps by accelerating natural selection.

    For nearly 5 years, a team she helps lead with Michael Letnic at UNSW and Daniel Blumstein at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been placing bilbies and another threatened species into large fenced plots together with their feline enemies in hopes that, faced with extreme selective pressure, some individuals will learn or adapt to avoid attacks. Results published today suggest the “vaccination” approach has promise: Bilbies exposed to cats in a controlled setting were more likely to survive later, when they were released among feral cats, than those that hadn’t been exposed, they report in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

  • U.S. House proposes budget increases for energy, environmental research programs

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    Key research programs at the energy and interior departments would get budget increases—not deep cuts proposed by President Donald Trump—under proposed 2020 appropriations bills released today by spending panels of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would also see a hefty increase in its science budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October, under plans released by the Democratic-controlled House Committee on Appropriations.

    Highlights of the proposed budgets include:

  • Europe abandons plans for ‘flagship’ billion-euro research projects

    Angela Merkel looks into microscope

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at lab-grown minibrains at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin.

    David Ausserhofer/MDC

    When Martin Lohse, scientific director of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine here, welcomed participants to the kick-off meeting for a massive biomedical consortium last week, he wished them well, even though they would be spending their time in the dark. Lohse was talking about the windowless lecture hall, but he might as well have been referring to the murky future of the megaproject.

    The consortium, called LifeTime, aims to use three emerging technologies—machine learning, the study of single cells, and lab-grown organlike tissues called organoids—to map how human cells change over time and develop diseases. It is one of six candidates in the latest round of ambitious proposals for European flagships, billion-euro research projects intended to run for 10 years. There is just one snag: The European Commission has decided that it won’t launch any of them.

    Three existing flagships will continue under plans developed through Horizon 2020, the European Union’s science funding framework: projects on graphene, the human brain, and quantum technology. Details for Horizon 2020’s successor, Horizon Europe, are still being hashed out, but last month, the commission and the European Parliament agreed to a program structure, and it does not include the two or three new flagships the commission had previously intended to pick in 2020. “There was a strong sense by the community overall that we had too many different funding instruments and funding approaches,” says Kurt Vandenberghe, director for research policy at the commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation in Brussels. “We have tried to streamline this.” He says the six candidates may somehow be folded into Horizon Europe, which will run from 2021 to 2027.

  • African swine fever keeps spreading in Asia, threatening food security

    A man on a motorbike transports pigs in a cage at the back of the bike

    A man transports piglets in Thanh Hoa province in Vietnam, a country heavily affected by African swine fever where pork accounts for three-quarters of the national meat consumption.

    REUTERS/Kham

    SHANGHAI, CHINA—The spread of African swine fever (ASF) in Asia is taking a worrisome turn. First reported in northeastern China in August 2018, the highly contagious, often fatal pig disease quickly swept through the country, causing the death or culling of more than 1 million pigs. In recent weeks, it has jumped borders to Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia, Hong Kong, and possibly North Korea. Animal health experts agree that the disease will inevitably spread farther. And many of the newly hit countries are even less prepared to deal with ASF than China, they say, which has so far failed to end its outbreaks.

    Vietnam and Cambodia “probably do not have the technical abilities to be able to control ASF,” says François Roger, an animal epidemiologist at the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development in Montpellier. He believes the virus will soon surface in Myanmar and Laos, which have “weak veterinary infrastructures and surveillance systems,” and it may become endemic in Southeast Asia. If so, it would pose a continuing threat of reintroduction into China, even if that country succeeds in controlling its own outbreaks. A reservoir of endemic disease could also pose a wider threat: ASF-contaminated pork products have already been confiscated from air travelers in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia.

    The crisis is not only causing economic hardship, but also threatens food security in the region. In Vietnam, where pork accounts for three-quarters of the meat consumption, more than 1.2 million pigs across the country—4% of the national herd—have now died or been killed, the Vietnamese government announced on 13 May. “This is probably the most serious animal health disease [the world has] had for a long time, if not ever,” says Dirk Pfeiffer, a veterinary epidemiologist at City University of Hong Kong.

  • New EU research funding head stresses ‘superdisciplinarity’

    Mauro Ferrari

    Mauro Ferrari will be the next head of the European Research Council in Brussels.

    European Research Council

    Nanomedicine pioneer Mauro Ferrari will be the next president of the European Research Council (ERC), the funding organization announced today. He will come to the job in Brussels with limited European policy experience, after almost 40 years in the United States, where he worked at the University of California, Berkeley; the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland; and the Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas.

    A dual U.S. and Italian citizen, Ferrari trained in math at the University of Padua in Italy before pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Berkeley. At the age of 43, while leading a department at Ohio State University in Columbus, he also took classes at medical school there. “I never got a medical degree. You can write that the ERC will be led by a med school drop-out,” he jokes.

    Now 59, Ferrari will take over from French mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon on 1 January 2020 for a 4-year term at ERC’s helm. Since its inception in 2007, the funding body has awarded about 9000 of its coveted basic research grants, worth €16.9 billion.

  • NIH fears good-government bill would hamper peer review

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol, with an American flag in front of it.
    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The much-admired system to review grant proposals at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has become the latest flashpoint in a long-running battle between Congress and the executive branch over how the U.S. government manages advisory bodies.

    NIH’s parent body, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., opposes legislation moving rapidly through Congress that is aimed at making those committees more transparent. The department says that if the bill becomes law, its requirements could cause monthslong delays in appointing reviewers to NIH study sections and create massive amounts of additional paperwork. In addition, “requiring [NIH peer reviewers] to go through this process could be a major disincentive to service,” HHS argued in a 9 April letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY).

    Supporters of the bill say they responded to HHS’s concerns, first expressed in a similar letter sent to McConnell last year, by tweaking the bill to exempt NIH study sections. But HHS officials are now demanding the exclusion of all HHS advisory bodies, including those at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they say. Such a blanket exemption would gut the proposed reforms, proponents argue.

  • Why some climate scientists are saying no to flying

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    In 2016, two seemingly unrelated events conspired to make Kim Cobb confront her personal carbon footprint. First, a massive El Niño event hit the coral reef researcher’s 22-year study site, warming the ocean to record levels and killing 85% of the reefs. During her first scuba dive afterward, “I was crying in my mask,” says Cobb, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. It’s one thing to read papers about coral bleaching, but when it happens to a place where “you know every dive like the back of your hand, it’s something different.” Then, a few months later, her hope for government action to tackle climate change was extinguished when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president.

    So, she started to do a rigorous accounting of the carbon that she’s responsible for emitting, finding that air travel accounted for a whopping 85% of her carbon footprint in 2017. She’d flown roughly 200,000 kilometers that year, mostly to conferences. She vowed that 2018 would be different. “Flying is a luxury and a privilege that must be reserved for a fraction of the events that we use it for right now,” she argues.

    Cobb is one of a small but growing minority of academics who are cutting back on their air travel because of climate change. Traveling to conferences, lectures, workshops, and the like—frequently by plane—is often viewed as crucial for scientists to exchange information and build community. But Cobb and others are questioning that perspective—pushing conferences to provide more opportunities to participate remotely and changing their personal behavior to do their part in confronting the climate change crisis. On a website called No Fly Climate Sci, for example, roughly 200 academics—many of them climate scientists—have pledged to fly as little as possible since the effort started in 2017.

  • The world needs to get serious about managing sand, U.N. report says

    A sand dune in shadow
    bigalia/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Our reliance on sand is staggering—by volume, the amount we use is second only to water. As a key component of cement, asphalt, and glass, sand is integral to every aspect of our lives. It is in our phones, our schools, our hospitals, and our roads. Globally, humans consume up to 50 billion metric tons of sand and gravel every year, amounting to 18 kilograms per person per day. 

    But our insatiable demand for sand now poses “one of the major sustainability challenges of the 21st century,” and meeting it will require “improved governance of global sand resources,” concludes a United Nations report released this week. In particular, the report recommends encouraging ways of reducing demand for new sand and strengthening policies aimed at discouraging the harmful environmental impacts of sand mining. It also recommends developing a more traceable sand supply chain through better monitoring and international information sharing.

    The U.N. recommendations are “very timely,” says geologist Minik Rosing of the University of Copenhagen, because sand “is a natural resource that transcends national borders, and … extraction frequently has consequences beyond national borders.”

  • NIH says its 1-million-person health study is off to good start

    a research tech draws blood from the arm of a woman

    The National Institutes of Health’s All of Us health study aims to enroll 1 million participants, including children, within 6 years.

    Dake Kang/AP Photo

    A plan to entice 1 million people in the United States to volunteer for a huge study of health and genes is making good progress 1 year after its national launch, organizers said this week. The All of Us study run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has recruited 143,000 participants who have already taken surveys and visited a clinic to give blood and urine samples. Another 87,000 have at least registered for the study.

    Study leaders say these numbers give them confidence All of Us will reach 1 million participants within 5 or 6 years—although they will need to ramp up enrollment to reach that goal. And they expect to broaden the study’s geographic distribution, which so far largely covers just a few states.

    Announced by then-President Barack Obama 4 years ago, the All of Us study, which could cost $4 billion over 10 years, aims to enroll a diverse swath of U.S. inhabitants—citizens or not—who agree to share their health records and DNA on an anonymized basis. Researchers will use the data to develop “precision medicine,” or personalized treatments for others—the study participants themselves can request their genetic data but won’t receive medical help as part of the project. The 143,000 people who have given consent, taken surveys, and visited a clinic for physical measurements and to give blood and urine samples meet All of Us’s original diversity goal: Fifty-three percent are ethnic or racial minorities, far more than the 39% these groups constitute in the U.S. population. (For example, participants with self-identified African ancestry constitute 20% of the study, compared with 13% in the population.)

  • Chinese bioethicists call for ‘reboot’ of biomedical regulation after country’s gene-edited baby scandal

    He Jiankui

    He Jiankui speaks at a 2018 conference in Hong Kong, China, where he gave a public account of creating the first gene-edited human babies.

    Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    Four prominent Chinese bioethicists have published an unusually frank and critical assessment of their country’s handling of biomedical research in the wake of what they refer to as the “CRISPR babies’ scandal.”

    Their commentary, published online today in Nature, calls for “an overhaul” in the way the biomedical experiments in China are regulated, monitored, and registered and for “severe” penalties for researchers who violate regulations. “China is at a crossroads,” write Ruipeng Lei of Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Xiaomei Zhai of Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, Wei Zhu of Fudan University in Shanghai, and Renzong Qiu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “The government must make substantial changes to protect others from the potential effects of reckless human experimentation.”

    The authors say a “soul searching” is now taking place in China because of the November 2018 revelation that He Jiankui, a biophysicist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, had created the world’s first babies, twin girls, who had genes edited while they were embryos. He, who was subsequently fired from his job and has not spoken publicly since he described the germline editing experiment at a Hong Kong, China, meeting, used CRISPR—which cuts DNA—to cripple a cell surface protein that HIV uses to infect cells. The intent, he said, was to “genetically vaccinate” the girls so that they would not be susceptible to the virus.

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