News this Week

Science  29 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6238, pp. 948

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  1. This week's section

    Massive cosmic ray detector grows

    In July, the Telescope Array identified a potential cosmic ray hotspot (in red).


    Japan will spend $3.7 million to expand a huge array of particle detectors that studies the highest energy cosmic rays. The current Telescope Array (TA) consists of 507 detectors spread over 700 square kilometers of Utah desert to detect the avalanches of particles triggered when the rays strike the atmosphere. The international collaboration of 130 physicists will add 400 detectors, nearly quadrupling its area. TA also has three batteries of telescopes that detect the light from particle avalanches, and researchers hope the U.S. National Science Foundation will fund two more. Japan paid two-thirds of TA's original $25 million cost. The rays' origins remain unknown. Physicists with the even larger Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina reported in 2007 that the rays seem to emerge from the fiery hearts of certain galaxies. Although that result hasn't held up, last July TA researchers reported hints of a hotspot in the northern sky. The expanded TA will test whether the hotspot is real, says Hiroyuki Sagawa of the University of Tokyo, TA's co-spokesperson, and “with two observatories we can see the whole sky.”

    “Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and … it will impact how our military defends our country.”

    President Barack Obama on 20 May, to the graduating Coast Guard Academy class. The same day, the White House released a new report on the security implications of climate change.

    ‘Lucy’ was not alone

    These jaws and teeth may belong to Lucy's cousin.


    The famous human relative known as “Lucy” may have shared her territory with a related species. Since the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, many other fossils of her species, Australopithecus afarensis, have been found nearby. But claims for other australopithecine species living at the same time have been controversial (Science, 28 March 2003, p. 1994). Now, in this week's issue of Nature, scientists working in Ethiopia report uncovering a new species they call A. deyiremeda in sediments dated 3.3 million to 3.5 million years old. (In the local Afar language, deyi means “close” and remeda means “relative.”) The new fossils, including parts of two upper jaws and two lower jaws plus some associated teeth, have smaller teeth and more forward-facing cheekbones than A. afarensis. If these differences represent a new species, at least two early human relatives may have lived in close proximity and carved out separate ecological niches during a critical period in human evolution.

    Robin mom fooled by fake egg

    3D printed robin's egg (at left) fits right in.


    Cowbirds are the ultimate deadbeat parents: They sneak their eggs into the nests of other birds. Such behavior has prompted the evolution of eggs of many shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns and a recognition system to help duped parents identify their own eggs. To study this arms race, animal behaviorist Mark Hauber of Hunter College in New York City is using 3D printers, working out the right materials to use to make fake eggs convincing. This week in PeerJ, Hauber and colleagues highlight the importance of color: They report that robins accepted 3D eggs painted blue, like real robins' eggs—but rejected beige 3D “cowbird” eggs. And egg patterns may be even more important than color, which is limited in variability because nature has only two eggshell pigments to work with, Hauber and colleagues reported last week in Biology Letters. To test patterns' importance, the team is using a device called EggBot, which paints precision patterns for Easter eggs and other decorations, to “make incredibly faithful replicas and fine-tune variations on the theme,” Hauber says.

    Around the world

    Lausanne, Switzerland

    Editors sacked in OA clash

    A fast-growing open-access (OA) publishing company has dismissed virtually the entire leadership of two medical journals amid a heated conflict over editorial independence. Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine were launched in 2014 as part of Frontiers, an OA company founded and run by husband-and-wife couple Henry and Kamila Markram, both neuroscientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. (Henry Markram also created the controversial €1 billion Human Brain Project.) On 7 May, Frontiers removed 31 editors after they complained that company staff were interfering with editorial decisions and violating core principles of medical publishing. The editors say Frontiers' publication practices are designed to maximize profits, not the quality of papers. Frederick Fenter, executive editor at Frontiers, says the company had to fire the entire group because they were holding up the publication of papers until their demands were met, which he likens to “extortion.”

    Washington, D.C.

    House committee OKs cures act

    A committee in the U.S. House of Representatives last week unanimously approved the 21st Century Cures Act, a major effort to spur medical innovation. The bill creates an Innovation Fund within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with $10 billion in mandatory funds for 5 years, which will support young scientists; high-risk, high-reward research; and a program to allocate $500 million a year in matching funds to NIH's institutes for specific research areas. The bill also sets up another fund to dole out an annual $110 million for the next 5 years to support several efforts at the Food and Drug Administration, including the evaluation of new drug development tools and the use of patient feedback in the review of new therapies. The bill next goes to the House floor for a vote. It will then need to be reconciled with a Senate version still in discussion.

    Palmyra, Syria

    World Heritage Site under attack

    Roman funerary temple in Palmyra, dating to the 3rd century C.E.


    Archaeologists are concerned that Islamic State militants, who took control of the ancient city of Palmyra last week, killing hundreds of people, will also destroy its monuments and artifacts. Palmyra, one of six World Heritage Sites in Syria, was at a crossroads of Greek, Roman, and Persian cultural influences and contains Roman barracks and temples, a medieval citadel, and the Temple of Bel, which dates to the 1st century C.E. The group destroyed another World Heritage Site, Hatra, in northern Iraq, and also sells antiquities as a source of funding, according to Katharyn Hanson, a specialist in protecting cultural heritage at the University of Pennsylvania. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to ban the sale of antiquities imported from Syria, but it has not come up for a vote.

    San Diego, California

    Scientists seek volunteer readers

    Biomedical research is often slow and incremental, but the discovery of a hidden connection can provide a leap forward. Last week, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute launched an initiative, dubbed Mark2Cure, that will ask volunteers to help find these often needle-in-a-haystack links by scanning papers for key terms to help create a powerful searchable database. The National Institutes of Health already spends millions of dollars hiring professional curators to do this sort of work. Now, the Scripps team aims to engage laypeople to do the same job—in small chunks at a time using their own computers—for free. The campaign is first reaching out to a highly motivated crowd—the small community of people affected by NGLY1 deficiency, a newly discovered genetic disorder that can cause liver problems, poor reflexes, an inability to produce tears, and sometimes seizures.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. push-pull on ITER

    For the second year in a row, Senate budgetmakers have moved to pull the United States out of ITER, the huge and hugely over budget international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France. The cut comes in the Senate version of the so-called energy and water spending bill, which would fund the Department of Energy and other agencies for fiscal year 2016. But nixing ITER is hardly a done deal: On 1 May, legislators in the House of Representatives passed their own version of the energy and water bill, which includes $150 million for the U.S. contribution to ITER—the amount the White House has requested. The Senate subcommittee had also moved to cut funding to ITER last year, when the Democrats controlled the Senate. But the final budget bill for fiscal year 2015, signed by President Barack Obama on 16 December 2014, contained $150 million for the project.

    Washington, D.C.

    Big cuts to non-‘core’ sciences

    You won't actually find the numbers anywhere in the bill, but a congressional spending panel has endorsed a 16% cut in funding next year for the social and geosciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). The cuts result from a new formula created by the chair of NSF's spending panel, Representative John Culberson (R–TX), which requires NSF to spend 70% of its research dollars on four directorates. Although NSF's overall research spending in 2016 would grow by only 0.7% in the bill, Culberson provides an 8% boost to the favored disciplines and holds other research activities at 2015 levels. That leaves the social and geosciences directorates with $255 million less than they have this year.

    Los Angeles, California

    Gay marriage study retracted

    An author of a study concluding that even relatively short conversations with a gay canvasser could make voters more supportive of gay marriage and equality has asked that it be withdrawn. Last week, political scientist Donald Green of Columbia University sent a retraction request to Science after he became convinced that his co-author Michael J. LaCour, a political science Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, had made up data for the December 2014 paper. The study drew on apparent inperson and Internet surveys of some 9500 registered voters in California. However, researchers attempting a follow-on study found that the survey company cited by the paper claimed no knowledge of the project. A tweet on LaCour's Twitter account last week said he is preparing to offer a defense “at my earliest opportunity.” Science has added an Editorial Expression of Concern to the paper.

    Wako, Japan

    New RIKEN head's tenure plan

    New RIKEN President Hiroshi Matsumoto wants to introduce a tenure system at Japan's network of national laboratories. As elsewhere, beginning scientists in Japan are on a treadmill of short-term appointments. This has skewed research toward quick results needed to burnish resumes for recurring job hunts and “creates a very difficult situation for young researchers,” Matsumoto said at a press conference last week. A tenure scheme would offer the hope of a stable career path and help retain the best young talent. Matsumoto also intends to push RIKEN scientists and administrators to routinely use English to smooth international cooperation. He wants to give researchers more flexibility in spending appropriated funds and to hire more technicians, too. “My mission is to support the capabilities and the ideas of researchers,” he said.


    Famed mathematician dies


    John Forbes Nash Jr., who shared the 1994 Nobel memorial prize in economics, died on 23 May at the age of 86. Nash did trail blazing work in algebraic geometry, the theory of partial differential equations, and the theory of noncooperative games. His 1950 doctoral dissertation from Princeton University explored the Nash equilibrium, a strategic deadlock that can arise in several-player games. Researchers have applied the concept to topics including arms control, macroeconomics, and political science. Nash suffered from a decades-long mental illness, described in the biography A Beautiful Mind and a film by the same name. His honors included the John von Neumann Theory Prize; the 1994 Nobel; and the 2015 Abel Prize, presented by the king of Norway. Nash and his wife, Alicia de Lardé Nash, were returning from the Oslo award ceremony when their taxi lost control and crashed, killing both.

    Correction (27 May 2015): Physicists with the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina reported in 2007, not 2009, that the rays seem to emerge from the fiery hearts of certain galaxies.

    Correction (2 June 2015): The item “Editors sacked in OA clash” has been corrected; it was company leadership, not the journals, that fired the editors.