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  • ‘It’s a very special picture.’ Why vaccine safety experts put the brakes on AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine

    Cameras point at a patient receiving a shot in the arm

    A doctor administers a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 in Dippoldiswalde, Germany, on 15 March—the day the German government said it would temporarily halt the use of the vaccine because of safety concerns.

    Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

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

    The decision this week by more than 20 European countries to temporarily stop using AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine has opened a rift between vaccine safety experts, who say the cases of serious clotting and bleeding that triggered the pause are alarming and unusual, and public health officials concerned that the immunization pause on a continent in the grip of the pandemic’s third wave could take a heavy toll.

    “The harm caused by depriving people of access to a vaccine will likely vastly outweigh even the worst case scenario if any link to the clotting disorders is eventually found,” University of Leeds virologist Stephen Griffin told the United Kingdom’s Science Media Centre. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the World Health Organization have recommended that countries continue immunizations while they investigate the reports.

  • As Biden mulls reversing Trump’s monument cuts, researchers urge him to go big

    Structure built into the rock at Bears Ears

    A portion of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah

    Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

    When paleontologist Rob Gay returned to his research sites at the Bears Ears National Monument last month after a long absence, he wasn’t sure what he would find. Former President Donald Trump had shrunk the monument, created by former President Barack Obama, by 85% and weakened protections for sites holding fossils and cultural artifacts. Gay spotted new off-road vehicle tracks in the vermillion-hued soil. But thankfully, he says, his sites had not been damaged.

    Gay is just one of many researchers and Native American officials urging President Joe Biden to reverse Trump’s downsizing of Bear Ears—and even expand it. Doing so would not only restore stricter protections for numerous sites, but also free up federal funding for surveys, research, and preservation efforts. But although the Biden administration has hinted that it will reverse Trump’s order—and the decision could come soon—it faces some tricky decisions that could shape the political and policy landscape for monuments for years to come.

    “There are still some very thorny legal questions,” says paleontologist David Polly of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, who is spearheading a push by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) to reinstate the previous boundaries of Bears Ears, as well as restore lands that Trump removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. If Biden simply reverses Trump’s actions, for example, it could bolster Trump’s claim—now being challenged in court—that presidents have unfettered legal authority to drastically alter monuments created by previous presidents.

  • Who is Camille Noûs, the fictitious French researcher with nearly 200 papers?

    Image of journal author bylines
    C. Aycock/Science

    Camille Noûs first appeared on the research scene 1 year ago, as a signatory to an open letter protesting French science policy. Since then, Noûs has been an author on 180 journal papers, in fields as disparate as astrophysics, molecular biology, and ecology, and is racking up citations.

    But Noûs is not a real person. The name—intentionally added to papers, sometimes without the knowledge of journal editors—is meant to personify collective efforts in science and to protest individualism, according to RogueESR, a French research advocacy group that dreamed up the character. But the campaign is naïve and ethically questionable, says Lisa Rasmussen, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. It flouts the basic principle of taking responsibility alongside the credit of authorship, she says. And some journal editors are balking at going along with the protest.

    RogueESR has spent the past year protesting a French research reform law that introduced new types of temporary research jobs. The group, which has no formal leader, says the changes threaten academic freedom and job security, and that the law’s focus on metric-based research evaluation—such as numbers of publications or citations—emphasizes individual accomplishment too much and is damaging to the research culture.

  • California universities and Elsevier make up, ink big open-access deal

    The Powell Library on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles

    The Powell Library at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of many in the 10-campus system involved in the new publishing deal.

    Wolterk/iStock

    Two years after a high-profile falling out, the University of California (UC) system and the academic publishing giant Elsevier have patched up differences and agreed on what will be the largest deal for open-access publishing in scholarly journals in North America. The deal is also the world’s first such contract that includes Elsevier’s highly selective flagship journals Cell and The Lancet.

    The deal meets demands made by UC when it suspended negotiations with Elsevier in 2019. It allows UC faculty and students to read articles in almost all of Elsevier’s more than 2600 journals, and it enables UC authors to publish articles that they can make open access, or free for anyone to read, by paying a per-article fee. Elsevier says it will discount those open-access fees, and UC says it will subsidize their authors.

    UC estimates the new deal will cost its libraries’ budget 7% less than what they would have paid had it extended its old contract with Elsevier, which expired in December 2018. UC paid $11 million that year. But the university’s total spending on the deal, including money from outside funding sources, could be higher than that, depending on how many articles it publishes open access, Elsevier says.

  • After long shutdown, giant radio telescope array set to resume observations

    An aerial view of the ALMA antenna array in the Chajnantor Plateau of the Chilean Andes.

    Chile’s 5000-meter-high Chajnantor Plateau holds the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s 66 radio dishes.

    © Clem & Adri Bacri-Normier/wingsforscience.com/ESO

    The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a set of 66 radio astronomy dishes perched high in the Chilean Andes, was hit hard by the pandemic. It shut down on 22 March 2020 and has remained silent ever since—far longer than most scientific facilities. But ALMA managers announced today that observations will resume this month, after a 6-month campaign of repairs and planning. “It went about as well as could be expected,” says ALMA Director Sean Dougherty. “It’s a testament to how well these telescopes were built.”

    When COVID-19 struck last year, many telescopes closed for a time to protect their staff. But once restrictions eased and managers found ways to work safely, facilities began to reopen. Most of the telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii returned to work by May 2020. The Chilean telescopes run by the European Southern Observatory and the U.S. National Science Foundation restarted in September and October. But ALMA had a tough path to reopening.

    Its location on the 5000-meter-tall Chajnantor Plateau is higher than most other telescopes, so high that some staff need oxygen to work. It’s also remote, so the 200 staff and astronomers who typically work there live in a residence at 2900 meters’ altitude, 26 kilometers downhill from the telescope. All their food, accommodation, and services must be provided, which produces “a whole bunch of logistical problems,” Dougherty says.

  • New Ebola outbreak likely sparked by a person infected 5 years ago

    Ebola virus particles (red) on a larger cell

    The Ebola virus may cause latent infections in survivors that could spark new outbreaks.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    An Ebola outbreak in Guinea that has so far sickened at least 18 people and killed nine has stirred difficult memories of the devastating epidemic that struck the West African country between 2013 and 2016, along with neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, leaving more than 11,000 people dead.

    But it may not just be the trauma that has persisted. The virus causing the new outbreak barely differs from the strain seen 5 to 6 years ago, genomic analyses by three independent research groups have shown, suggesting the virus lay dormant in a survivor of the epidemic all that time. “This is pretty shocking,” says virologist Angela Rasmussen of Georgetown University. “Ebolaviruses aren’t herpesviruses”—which are known to cause long-lasting infections—“and generally RNA viruses don’t just hang around not replicating at all.”

    Scientists knew the Ebola virus can persist for a long time in the human body; a resurgence in Guinea in 2016 originated from a survivor who shed the virus in his semen more than 500 days after his infection and infected a partner through sexual intercourse. “But to have a new outbreak start from latent infection 5 years after the end of an epidemic is scary and new,” says Eric Delaporte, an infectious disease physician at the University of Montpellier who has studied Ebola survivors and is a member of one of the three teams. Outbreaks ignited by Ebola survivors are still very rare, Delaporte says, but the finding raises tricky questions about how to prevent them without further stigmatizing Ebola survivors.

  • Europe moves to exclude neighbors from its quantum and space research

    Mariya Gabriel

    A department overseen by European Union research commissioner Mariya Gabriel wants to safeguard strategic research by barring non-EU researchers.

    AP Photo/Francisco Seco

    In a sign of growing national tensions over the control of strategic research, the European Commission is trying to block countries outside the European Union from participating in quantum computing and space projects under Horizon Europe, its new research funding program.

    The proposed calls, which must still be approved by delegates from the 27 EU member states in the coming weeks, would shut out researchers in countries accustomed to full access to European research programs, including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Israel. European Economic Area (EEA) countries Norway, Lichtenstein, and Iceland would be barred from space research calls while remaining eligible for quantum computing projects.

    Research advocates see the proposed restrictions as self-defeating for all parties, including the European Union. It would be a classic lose-lose, with researchers in all countries having to work harder, and spend more, to make progress in these fields,” says Vivienne Stern, director of UK Universities International. The unexpected news has upset some leaders of existing collaborations and left them scrambling to find out whether they will need to exclude partners—or even drop out themselves—if they want their projects to be eligible for further funding. “It is really a pity because we have a tight and fruitful relationship with our partners in the U.K.,” says Sandro Mengali, director of the Italian research nonprofit Consorzio C.R.E.O. and coordinator of an EU-funded project developing heat shields for spacecraft.

  • France grossly underestimated radioactive fallout from atom bomb tests, study finds

    An image of the French Licorne nuclear test

    From 1966 to 1974, France conducted 41 above-ground test of nuclear weapons on the Moruroa atoll, including this one of a 0.9-megaton giant in the Licorne test on 3 July 1970.

    CTBTO/SCIENCE SOURCE

    From 1966 to 1974, France blew up 41 nuclear weapons in above-ground tests in French Polynesia, the collection of 118 islands and atolls that is part of France. The French government has long contended that the testing was done safely. But a new analysis of hundreds of documents declassified in 2013 suggests the tests exposed 90% of the 125,000 people living in French Polynesia to radioactive fallout—roughly 10 times as many people as the French government has estimated.

    “This is going to make a big splash in France,” predicts Frank von Hippel, a physicist specializing in public and international affairs at Princeton University, who was not involved in the work. Most French Polynesians were exposed to a relatively small amount of radiation, von Hippel notes, and the central issue is who is eligible for compensation under French law.

    The findings come from a 2-year collaboration, dubbed the Moruroa Files, between Disclose, a French nonprofit that supports investigative journalism; Interprt, a collective of researchers, architects, and spatial designers affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who focus on environmental issues; and the Science & Global Security program at Princeton. The findings were presented on 9 March on the project’s website, in a book, and in a technical paper posted to the arXiv preprint server.

  • What’s in the huge pandemic relief bill for science?

    the US capitol
    iStock.com/uschools

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

    A massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill now on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk will deliver cash to a wide array of groups—including the scientific community.

    The U.S. House of Representatives today approved final passage of the bill, which Biden is expected to sign on Friday, on a 220211 party-line vote.

  • Viral vector unlikely to be cause of leukemia in gene therapy patient

    illustration of sickle shaped red blood cells

    Bluebird Bio is tamping down cancer concerns regarding a gene therapy approach to prevent the sickling of blood cells (above).

    Stocktrek Images/Science Source

    Gene therapy researchers are breathing easier after a company reported today that the modified virus it used to treat sickle cell disease in a person who later developed leukemia was very unlikely to have caused the cancer.

    The leukemia case, which Bluebird Bio disclosed on 16 February, led the company to halt its two sickle cell disease trials and suspend sales of a similar treatment for beta-thalassemia. The following week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put a hold on the company’s two sickle cell disease trials and two beta-thalassemia trials.

    But the company has now done various lab tests and found “important evidence demonstrating that it is very unlikely our BB305 lentiviral vector played a role in this case,” said Chief Scientific Officer Philip Gregory in a press release. The company is now in discussions with FDA about lifting the trial hold.

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