News this Week

Science  10 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6244, pp. 122

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  1. This week's section

    Catastrophic floods caused by pollution

    Floodwaters surging through Sichuan province in 2013 produced deadly landslides.


    In just 5 days in July 2013, enough rain fell in China's Sichuan province to produce the country's worst flooding in 50 years. Rivers burst their banks and poured through city streets, washing away homes, factories, and bridges. Some 200 people died and another 300,000 were displaced. Atmospheric scientist Jiwen Fan of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, wondered what role air pollution played in the disaster. Smog is “notorious” in Sichuan, Fan says; mountains surrounding the province trap emissions from big cities like Chongqing and Chengdu. So Fan and her colleagues designed computer models of the atmospheric conditions before the flood. They found that the contaminated air reduced sunlight reaching the basin, and instead trapped more heat higher up in the atmosphere. That led to altered atmospheric circulation patterns and redistributed precipitation: Instead of rain clouds forming over the basin during the day, the rain fell at higher intensity the following night in the nearby mountains, they reported this month in Geophysical Research Letters.

    Fate of U.S. red wolves uncertain


    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is pondering the fate of a group of 50 to 75 red wolves (Canis rufus, pictured), on a North Carolina peninsula, the only population left in the wild. Red wolves were nearly hunted to extinction in the 20th century. Biologists established a captive breeding population and began releasing wolves in North Carolina in 1987. Although the long-term threat is hybridization with coyotes, wolves were also being shot by coyote hunters. After a court-ordered ban on coyote hunting, locals protested and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission demanded that FWS reconsider the wolf recovery program. FWS said last week that it must learn more, and will spend the rest of the year evaluating recovery efforts and conducting research on the species—including questions such as whether it can survive outside of zoos, and whether it is really a distinct species—and won't release any more animals into the wild for the time being.

    Why The Joy of Life has lost its shine

    When Henri Matisse's Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life, pictured) debuted in 1906, its shockingly bright colors—including abundant amounts of cadmium sulfide (CdS)–based yellow—caused a stir at Paris's Salon des Indépendents. But the vivid colors have since faded. In 2006, scientists using portable x-ray fluorescence found CdS pigments in all the regions of the painting with fading, flaking, and other degradation effects. Now, a new study in Applied Physics A by scientists working at the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France, digs deeper into the degradation mechanisms. The team tested tiny samples of damaged paint with techniques including x-ray diffraction, x-ray absorption spectroscopy, x-ray fluorescence, and infrared microscopy. The culprit? Light. The water-insoluble CdS pigment, they found, is vulnerable to light-induced oxidation that turns it into water-soluble—and colorless—cadmium sulfate. And many other masterpieces are at risk of fading, they note—the pigment was widely used by other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, including Vincent Van Gogh.

    $18,700,000,000—Settlement amount, announced last week, of claims by the federal government and five states against oil giant BP for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

    At least one-half of the amount will go to ecological restoration and research.

    By the numbers

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health plans to analyze genetic information from 1 million people for a study on individual genetic variability, part of the Precision Medicine Initiative. A recent survey of 2601 people to help guide the study found the following:

    74%—want their genetic results from the study returned to them

    43%—are willing to have “their information and research results available on the Internet to anyone,” if anonymized

    58%—believe research participants should help decide what to do with study results

    Around the world

    Geneva, Switzerland

    Report pans WHO Ebola response

    The World Health Organization (WHO) bungled its response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa last year, an independent six-member panel writes in a report released on 7 July. The group, led by Dame Barbara Stocking, the former chief executive of Oxfam in the United Kingdom, says there were “significant und unjustifiable delays” in WHO's response, and the agency's communication was “unable to gain command over the narrative of the outbreak.” It also criticizes WHO member states for unwarranted restrictions on travel. The report suggests wide-ranging reforms, including the establishment of a new Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response within WHO, and says countries' members fees should go up by 5%.

    Oklahoma City

    Earthquake lawsuits get the OK

    Oklahoma has seen a dramatic rise in small quakes.


    Lawsuits in Oklahoma against oil and gas companies accused of inducing earthquakes can go ahead, following an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision on 30 June. The state has seen a drastic rise in small earthquakes in recent years, and scientific studies have linked them to the injection of wastewater from oil and gas operations. The court decision says that two lawsuits, stemming from a magnitude-5.7 earthquake in 2011 in Prague, Oklahoma, should proceed through the court system, potentially making industry vulnerable to class action lawsuits. Industry attorneys had argued that the cases should be adjudicated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the state body tasked with regulating oil and gas operations.


    Scouts seek EC science advisers

    The European Commission has asked a trio of scouts to help fill the void left by the former chief scientific adviser (CSA), a role the commission controversially removed when it took office in November. The scouts will be tasked with finding scientists for a seven-strong “high-level group” of advisers, one of the key elements of the commission's new science advice system. The trio consists of chemist David King, a former U.K. CSA; law professor Rianne Letschert of the International Victimology Institute Tilburg in the Netherlands; and António Vitorino, president of the Jacques Delors Institute, a European policy think tank. The commission aims to have the group up and running by early October, a spokesperson says.


    McNutt tapped to lead NAS

    Geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who has served as editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals since 2013, was nominated this week to stand for election as the next president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). If elected, as expected, McNutt would become the first woman to head the organization, founded in 1863 to provide independent scientific advice to the U.S. government. McNutt is slated to take the helm at NAS on 1 July 2016, when current president Ralph J. Cicerone ends his second term. Prior to joining Science, McNutt was head of the U.S. Geological Survey, and was president and chief executive officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. She plans to remain at the helm of the Science journals until she formally takes the NAS post.

    Correction (24 July 2015): This item was edited to clarify NAS's role as an independent organization.

    Scientist jailed for faking data

    A former AIDS researcher at Iowa State University in Ames was sentenced to more than 4.5 years in prison last week and ordered to repay more than $7 million to the U.S. National Institutes of Health in a rare case of a scientist receiving prison time for faking data. Dong-Pyou Han was found to have tampered with rabbit blood to alter the results of an AIDS vaccine study. In December 2013, Han agreed to a 3-year ban on federal funding after an investigation by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. But Han's case also caught the eye of Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA), who protested that the penalty seemed “very light”—and prosecutors apparently agreed. Han pleaded guilty to two felony counts of making false statements, joining a tiny number of U.S.-based researchers sentenced to prison for misconduct.

    Three Q's

    Biological oceanographer Mark Abbott will be the next president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. Abbott, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, Corvallis, since 2001, takes WHOI's helm amid choppy seas for the ocean sciences: A National Research Council (NRC) report in January found that the tough budget climate will necessitate significant spending cuts to major ocean infrastructure such as the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), in which WHOI plays a large role.

    Q:How will the NRC's report affect WHOI?

    A:[The survey] did identify a real dilemma: What is the appropriate balance between community-supported infrastructure and individual success? OOI suffered a bit by not having the data out there, and as the community begins to see what it can achieve scientifically people will be more positive. Infrastructure without the science is not of much use.

    Q:What challenges and opportunities does WHOI face?

    A:The biggest challenge is how we move science forward in an era of tight federal budgets. [WHOI is] an organization driven by individual success … but it's not just a collection of entrepreneurs. I see opportunities to restrengthen links to the Navy, and to rethink and rebuild traditional relationships with the National Science Foundation, NOAA, and others. [WHOI's] Center for Marine Robotics offers exciting opportunities to engage with the high-tech sector.

    Q:Is autonomous sampling the future of ocean science?

    A:[Physical oceanographer] Walter Munk [called] the first century of modern ocean science the century of undersampling. We can't get out there enough. Autonomous sensors and vehicles are going to play a key role. There is a revolution underway. We can start to think about sampling and understanding the ocean on the same scales at which we sample and understand the atmosphere.

    UCAR head leaving post

    Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a federally funded laboratory based in Boulder, Colorado, is leaving the organization. Last week, UCAR's Board of Trustees announced its intention to terminate Bogdan's 5-year contract after 3.5 years. UCAR drew criticism earlier this year when it lost a key weather forecasting contract with the U.S. Air Force, one of the main supporters of its Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model. WRF, supported through partnerships with organizations including the Air Force, the National Weather Service, and the Navy, is the primary weather forecasting model in the United States. Effective in 2016, the Air Force plans to instead adopt a model created by the U.K. Met Office to improve forecasting abilities and lower costs.