News this Week

Science  24 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6233, pp. 376

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  1. This week's section

    Sikuliaq ready for duty

    The RV Sikuliaq in the Bering Sea during ice and science trials.


    The rumbling of the RV Sikuliaq's engine was music to ocean scientists' ears this month, during a 23-day cruise to test how the newest addition to the U.S. oceanographic fleet handled icy seas. Starting from the island of Amaknak in Alaska, the ship crunched north into so-called ten-tenths sea ice—the name shiphands give to a sea ice coating that stretches to the horizon. The 80-meter-long, $200 million Sikuliaq is not an icebreaker, but its hardened hull is rated to move through solid sea ice as thick as 0.8 meters—a rating that will allow scientists on board to access icy areas during the fall and spring, such as the southern parts of the Bering Sea. The Sikuliaq easily passed its various trials: Winches delivered sampling equipment in ice and water, and crews exited the ship on foot to take samples from surrounding ice. “She's a great ship, and a great addition to the U.S. science fleet,” says chief scientist Carin Ashjian, a biological oceanographer from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Sikuliaq begins full research operations in ice later this year.

    Festival aims to make math fun


    High-fives and wild laughter were plentiful at the United States' first National Math Festival. The festival, held on 18 April in Washington, D.C., aims to help kids and adults see the beauty and wonder of math, says David Eisenbud, director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley, California. “People don't really understand what mathematics is about, and if they understood it they would all like it as much as I do.” MSRI co-organized the festival with the Institute for Advanced Study and in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. Children made Möbius strips, gaped at mathematical card tricks, and clutched balloon octahedra in lieu of balloon animals. In a race called the “Oobleck Olympics,” teams competed to pour water out of jugs—sped up by swirling the bottle to create a vortex, as shown—while cornstarch and water on a speaker danced to the beat of music.

    39.6%—Fraction of foreign students in U.S. science and engineering graduate programs in 2013. That all-time record is due both to increases in temporary visas and declining domestic enrollment, according to the National Science Foundation.

    Around the world

    Oakland, California

    Gene editing patent fight

    The dispute over who owns the rights to a groundbreaking and lucrative gene-editing technique has reached the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The University of California (UC) last week asked the office to reconsider 10 patents awarded to synthetic biologist Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a method of precisely cutting or replacing letters in a DNA sequence that could lead to new treatments for genetic diseases. UC Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna and collaborators first described the technique, often called CRISPR-Cas9, in a 2012 Science paper, but Zhang won the patents last year by submitting notebooks that suggest his discovery predated Doudna's. In what could be a long and costly battle, both sides will present evidence for the dates of their findings to a board of patent examiners.

    Xishuangbanna, China

    Rubber plants imperil biodiversity

    Harvesting latex from the caoutchouc, or rubber tree.


    A growing demand for rubber products—particularly tires—has fueled the conversion of more than 2 million hectares of forests and farms worldwide into rubber plantations in the past decade. That could exacerbate the extinction crisis in southern China and other parts of Southeast Asia, new research in Conservation Letters suggests. The researchers found that conversion of forest to rubber mono culture decreases the number of bird, bat, and insect species. Additionally, pesticide, herbicide, and sediment runoff affects aquatic life, and the loss of smaller trees and shrubs leads to soil erosion and landslide risk. Some 84% of the world's existing 9.9 million hectares of rubber trees are in Southeast Asia, and global rubber consumption will likely grow 3.5% annually, the team found. But there may be hope: Sustainability certification schemes have reduced the negative impacts of oil palm and paper and pulp growing. A similar effort for rubber, the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative, launched its pilot phase in January.

    Perth, Australia

    Anger over ‘consensus center’

    The Australian government has again angered the country's scientists by announcing it will contribute $4 million toward a new center to be built at the University of Western Australia's Business School in collaboration with the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a Massachusetts-based think tank created and directed by controversial environmental author Bjørn Lomborg. Lomborg has crossed swords with scientists for his views on mitigating climate change. “In the face of deep [funding] cuts to … scientific research organisations, it's an insult to Australia's scientific community,” said Australia's Climate Council, a nonprofit science and outreach center established by scientists after the Australian government shuttered its climate change commission in 2013. The Australian Consensus Centre will focus on the economic implications of agriculture, aid, and global development, according to a university official, but not climate change.


    Three Q's

    In March of 1970, forestry graduate student Doug Scott of the University of Michigan helped create a massive, 5-day “Teach-in for the Environment.” The teach-in was a precursor to the first Earth Day on 22 April, an environmental activism event founded by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson that drew 20 million people across the United States.

    Q:Ecologist Barry Commoner, once called the “Paul Revere of ecology,” was there; what role did he play?

    A:Our kickof event … overflowed a 14,000-person basketball arena. The event started with the cast of Hair and had Nelson and the governor of Michigan. Commoner was the central speaker. [But] he was a college professor, not used to speaking in front of the hot lights where you couldn't see the audience.

    Q:What happened during the teach-in?

    A:We basically took over the campus for 5 days. Hundreds of people turned out to help organize. Professors devoted class time to the topic of the environment.

    Q:Why did science students lead the charge?

    A:I suppose we were paying more attention to the impact that man was having on the environment. But the whole university got involved. The law school hosted a 2-day symposium about what was then the cutting-edge topic of environmental law. You had to be pretty dedicated to your studies to not know what was going on and join in.

    Science funding head exits

    The head of Portugal's science funding agency, biomedical researcher Miguel Seabra, stepped down this month amid mounting criticism of his agency's policies. The Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) angered researchers in January 2014 when it announced a sharp drop in state-funded Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowships. Seabra also oversaw a controversial evaluation of the country's R&D units, announcing in June 2014 that 22% of the 322 evaluated units would lose their funding due to poor ratings, and another 26% would see their budgets reduced to “core funding.” Critics slammed the evaluation process as neither robust nor transparent. Crystallographer Maria Arménia Carrondo, a former adviser to FCT's board, will take over from Seabra, the Ministry of Education and Science announced last week, but some fear her close connection to Seabra means that no drastic change is likely to happen.