Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Is there really a covert manipulation of U.N. discussions about regulating gene drives?

    Anepholes mosquito

    Some researchers believe gene drive technology could one day control populations of mosquitoes that spread malaria.

    Penn State/James Gathany/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    It had scandal written all over it. Disclosed emails revealed that a covert coalition lobbying for relaxed regulations around a genetic extinction technology, with help from a well-funded public relations firm, Emerging Ag, was attempting to game the system and manipulate the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). That was the spin in press releases (see here, here, and here) issued last week by several watchdog groups that want a moratorium on research related to gene drives, which could enable bioengineers to increase the odds of passing down genes to offspring. The people in the supposed covert coalition say it’s nothing of the sort, they have no interest in gaming the system, and that their opponents are manipulating the truth. “It’s complete bullshit,” says Todd Kuiken, a synthetic biology researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who is a central target of the criticisms. “It’s asinine.”

    Kuiken is a member of the CBD’s Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology (AHTEG), which met last week in Montreal, Canada. Like other proponents of gene drives, Kuiken contends that they could help control disease, remove invasive species, and create pest-resistant crops. “They’re trying to slander my name,” he asserts.

    A member of the AHTEG who resigned, longtime biosafety activist Edward Hammond of Austin, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a trove of Kuiken’s emails. Hammond called the emails “the Gene Drive Files,” which he posted on his website, Prickly Research. The emails disclose that Emerging Ag is working with Kuiken and other AHTEG members to help recruit scientists to an open online forum on synthetic biology meant to inform the CBD. The public relations firm—which the critics note was given $1.6 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “increase awareness, understanding, and acceptance of possible gene drive applications for public good purposes”—also coordinates responses to postings on the online forum that are critical of gene drives. Other emails discuss gene drive research projects funded by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

  • French president’s climate talent search nabs 18 foreign scientists

    French President Emmanuel Macron

    Emmanuel Macron 

    ©FNMF/N. MERGUI/Flickr

    French President Emmanuel Macron’s effort to lure disgruntled foreign climate scientists to France—especially from the United States—has produced its first harvest. France today announced that Macron’s Make Our Planet Great Again initiative has recruited its first class of 18 scientists. The list includes some prominent names, including climate impacts researcher Camille Parmesan, who received a share of the 2007 Nobel Prize for her contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    In June, just a few hours after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord, Macron cheekily invited disgruntled U.S. scientists to relocate to France and “make our planet great again.” A week later, the French government unveiled a website that soon spelled out the details: It was offering 3- to 5-year grants, worth up to €1.5 million each, to attract about 50 high-level foreign climate scientists. Overall, the program totaled about €60 million in direct funding and in-kind support.

    More than 1800 scientists expressed initial interest, 450 were deemed eligible, and 255 submitted applications. Ninety were then invited to submit proposals in collaboration with a French institution. The French National Research Agency ultimately received 57 proposals, which were reviewed by a nine-member international panel chaired by Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, U.K. The proposals were “high quality and in cutting-edge fields,” Le Quéré says.

  • Researcher in Swedish fraud case speaks out: ‘I’m very disappointed by my colleague’

    Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt

    Peter Eklöv (left) oversaw research conducted by postdoc Oona Lönnstedt (right) that an investigative panel has concluded was based on fabricated data.

    Uppsala University

    Uppsala University (UU) in Sweden released a long-awaited, damning report yesterday about two researchers who published a high-profile study about the dangers of microplastics—particles less than 5 millimeters in size—to fish in Science last year.

    An investigation by UU’s Board for Investigation of Misconduct in Research found that postdoc Oona Lönnstedt fabricated data for the paper, purportedly collected at the Ar Research Station on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea. Her supervisor, Peter Eklöv, bears responsibility for the fabrication as well, the board said, but his behavior didn’t meet UU’s criteria for misconduct at the time the paper was published. (It would today, the board’s chairperson, Erik Lempert, tells Science.) Both researchers were found guilty of misconduct for not obtaining a permit from an ethics review panel before conducting the experiments on Gotland.

    Accusations against the duo were leveled a week after the paper was published by Fredrik Jutfelt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and UU’s Josefin Sundin, with the help of five colleagues elsewhere in the world. Jutfelt and Sundin had seen Lönnstedt at work on Gotland, and claimed she didn’t perform the experiments described in the paper.

  • Brexit agreement would allow EU scientists to stay in United Kingdom

    Theresa May shakes hands with Jean-Claude Juncker

    U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May shook hands with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker today in Brussels before announcing a divorce deal for the United Kingdom.

    AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

    The United Kingdom announced today that EU citizens living in the country can stay after Brexit happens in 2019—a key demand of the U.K. scientific community. The announcement will come as a relief to the many thousands of EU scientists who work in the United Kingdom.

    “For researchers today’s deal offers much needed hope,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in London, said today in a statement. “Certainty over their right, and their family’s right, to live, work, or study under the same conditions as they do now will allow people to plan for their future.” 

    The decision comes after months of tense negotiations with the European Union over the “terms of the divorce,” including the amount of the United Kingdom’s outstanding debts. The agreement is likely to be approved by the European Council on 14 December.

  • U.S. science groups make last-minute push to influence final tax deal

    Paul Ryan stands and speaks into an assortment of microphones, apparently gesticulating with his hands. Next to him stands Mitch  McConnel, whose hands are in his pockets. Both men are wearing red ties, but Ryan's is striped whereas McConnel's is dotted.

    Representative Paul Ryan (R–WI, left), the speaker of the House of Representatives, is negotiating a final tax bill with Senator Mitch McConnell (R–KY, right), the Senate’s majority leader.


    It wasn’t your typical graduate school experience. But earlier this week, eight graduate students, including doctoral students in anthropology and astrophysics at major U.S. universities, ended up in handcuffs after they refused to end a noisy protest outside the Washington, D.C., office of Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan (R–WI).

    The arrests were just one dramatic development in a frenzied, last-minute effort by the U.S. scientific and academic communities to shape a major rewrite of the nation’s tax code now being finalized by Congress. The protesters, for instance, want Ryan to help block a House-passed provision that would impose a new tax on tuition assistance that graduate students receive from universities. Biomedical and environmental scientists, meanwhile, are targeting provisions they argue will harm drug development and efforts to promote renewable energy. But time is running short.

    The U.S. Senate last week approved a massive, Republican-backed rewrite of the federal tax code that mirrors, in key respects, a bill passed on 16 November by the U.S. House of Representatives. Both bills would dramatically cut corporate rates and, over a decade, deliver a majority of their benefits to the most affluent individuals.

  • EPA’s Pruitt promises controversial ‘red team’ climate debate could come soon

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt told lawmakers today his long-anticipated exercise to debate climate change science could be launched early next year as Democrats criticized him, saying EPA shows "all the signs of an agency captured by industry."

    Appearing before the U.S. House of Representative’s Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Pruitt said EPA's work on his "red team, blue team" review of climate science is still ongoing. Nevertheless, he said, the exercise's public debut could come as soon as January.

  • In California fires, a starring role for the wicked wind of the West

    Embers blow from a tree

    REUTERS/David McNew

    Originally published by E&E News

    Powerful winds are spreading Southern California fires that have destroyed at least 175 structures and forced more than 27,000 evacuations.

    The wind is expected to bedevil firefighters for several more days, with large blazes raging in Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. And while the fires' causes are under investigation, it's clear that high winds made the conflagrations so destructive.

    Called the Santa Anas, the dry winds typically hit in late fall and are infamous in the Golden State.

  • Rocket Lab poised to provide dedicated launcher for CubeSat science

    Electron rocket on platform

    Rocket Lab is set to launch its second Electron rocket, nicknamed “Still Testing.”

    Rocket Lab

    Atop an emerald green hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at the tip of New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, sits a diminutive launch pad, built and operated by Rocket Lab, a Los Angeles, California–based aerospace company. On 8 December, a 10-day launch window will open for the second flight of the Electron, one of the world’s first rockets specifically designed to carry small satellites to orbit—a capability that intrigues many scientists.

    “These small payload–dedicated launch capabilities are so important,” says aeronautical engineer Kerri Cahoy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “They’ll let us deploy dozens to hundreds of CubeSats and provide data to weather forecasters, people monitoring agriculture, surveillance—you name it.”

    In the last decade, CubeSats, measuring 10 centimeters to a side, have revolutionized space science. Cheap and expendable, they can be built and flown frequently, often in constellations with many units working together. But up until now, CubeSats have always been stowaways, hitching rides on rockets carrying larger satellites. As an alternative route, they can be launched along with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and wait for astronauts to deploy them. But both avenues to orbit can mean waits of months or even years. And even then, they provide access to a limited number of places above our planet: either the ISS’s 400-kilometer-high, equatorial orbit, or wherever the larger satellite happens to be headed.

  • Q&A: Why fossil scientists are suing Trump over monuments downsizing

    a man (V. David Polly) in sunglasses and a baseball cap, standing atop scenic cliffs in Utah

    Paleontologist P. David Polly in the fossil-rich Circle Cliffs region of Utah, which President Donald Trump has removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    Society for Vertebrate Paleontology/Colter Hoyt

    In a move likely to lead to a precedent-setting court battle, President Donald Trump earlier this week dramatically downsized two national monuments in Utah. On 4 December, he lifted strict protections from about 85% of the 61,000-hectare Bears Ears National Monument, which was created by former President Barack Obama last year. And he cut in half the 760,000-hectare Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, created by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. Both monuments are known for exceptional sites holding the remains of ancient human settlements, unique ecosystems, and troves of fossils.

    Trump said the cuts were needed because past presidents had “severely abused” their authority under the federal Antiquities Act in creating the monuments, which typically bar industrial activities. The law “requires that only the smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection as national monuments,” Trump said in remarks in Salt Lake City. “Unfortunately, previous administrations have ignored the standard and used the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control. These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home.”

    The Trump administration has said it might also downsize two other monuments—Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou and Nevada’s Gold Butte—and allow more industrial activity in a half-dozen others, including several marine preserves. 

  • Argentine scientist indicted over design of glacier inventory

    A dump truck at Barrick Gold Corp’s Veladero gold mine

    A dump truck carrying minerals at the Veladero gold mine in Argentina.


    A prominent glaciologist, Ricardo Villalba, has been indicted on criminal charges for allegedly favoring a mining company as a consequence of how his former institute designed Argentina’s national glacier inventory.

    The 27 November federal criminal court indictment also includes three former environment ministers. All four have been charged with “abuse of authority” for failing to protect water sources under a 2010 law aimed at preserving glaciated areas. The law prohibits mining in those areas.

    The lawsuit was filed by a grassroots group after the Veladero mine in northwestern Argentina spilled cyanide into the Jáchal watershed in September 2015. Another spill in the same area occurred this past September.

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