News this Week

Science  09 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6257, pp. 140
  1. This week's section

    Large mammals thrive post-Chernobyl

    Radiation hasn't altered the abundance of elk and other wildlife, scientists say.

    PHOTO: VALERIY YURKO

    Elk, roe deer, wild boars, and other wildlife are thriving in a radiation-contaminated preserve near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, scientists reported this week in Current Biology. They found “no evidence of a negative influence of radiation on mammal abundance” in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a region largely of limits to people that straddles the Belarus-Ukraine border. Much of the 4200-square-kilometer zone was evacuated after the nuclear plant's unit 4 reactor exploded in 1986, sending a radioactive plume over Europe. Between 2008 and 2010, Belarusian scientists counted animal snow tracks in the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve in the Belarus sector of the exclusion zone; they had also tallied animal numbers by helicopter in the 10 years after the disaster. The team found no correlation between contamination levels and track counts; instead, they report, mammal populations in the exclusion zone rose after the accident—suggesting that hunting, forestry, and agriculture had suppressed wildlife numbers before 1986. But some scientists argue that the study glosses over evidence that radioactive contamination has damaged individual animals. http://scim.ag/Chernobylanimals

    Venus, Psyche missions are among NASA finalists

    An impact may have stripped the asteroid Psyche of its mantle, exposing olivine-rich rock (green, in an artist's impression) once at its core-mantle boundary.

    CREDIT: PETER RUBIN/JPL

    NASA has announced five finalists for its Discovery program, a low-cost planetary science mission line with a $500 million cost cap. Selected from among 27 proposals, two of the contenders are missions to Venus—not visited by a NASA spacecraft since 1994—and the other three would study asteroids, including a strange nickel-and-iron asteroid dubbed Psyche (shown). Each finalist will receive up to $3 million to pursue a more detailed proposal for the final selection about a year from now. Typically, NASA picks just three finalists in its Discovery competitions, which take place every few years. (The inaugural mission was the 1996 launch of NEAR Shoemaker, an asteroid probe.) But this time the agency may choose two winners instead of the usual one, says Michael New, Discovery program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “It depends on what our budgets in the out years look like,” he says. http://scim.ag/Discoveryfinalists

    New ozone limit disappoints all

    EPA set a new limit for ozone pollution, a main contributor to smog.

    PHOTO: © MATT MAWSON/CORBIS

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on 1 October tightened its national limits on ground-level ozone pollution, a main contributor to smog. Agency officials say that the target—lowered from the current 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70 ppb—will lower incidence of asthma and reduce the number of premature deaths. Industry groups, which had waged an expensive and intense campaign to keep the standard at 75 ppb, criticized the decision. The new standard also disappointed environmental advocates, who argue that EPA's own science advisers have suggested that 70 ppb would provide “little margin of safety” for the protection of public health. But EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters last week that 70 ppb reflects what the science says about what standard is needed to satisfy the Clean Air Act. http://scim.ag/ozoneEPA

    “When my 5-year-old grandson came over and saw the pelvis, he just stood there with his jaw wide open and stared.”

    Michigan farmer James Bristle, about the 11,700- to 15,000-year-old mammoth carcass unearthed on his property last week.

    By the numbers

    37 million—Number of HIV-infected people around the world, up from the current 28 million, who would be eligible for antiretroviral treatment under new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. WHO is pushing for early treatment and prevention to end the epidemic by 2030.

    $75 million—Amount of money earned by more than 1000 “predatory publishers,” which charge scientists a fee to publish un–peer-reviewed research in fake journals, in 2014 alone. The average price per article was $178 (BMC Medicine).

    Around the world

    Geneva, Switzerland

    WHO: End Ebola travel bans

    Although the dwindling Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Liberia remains a “public health emergency of international concern,” 34 countries are overreacting to the threat with “excessive or inappropriate travel and transport measures,” announced the World Health Organization (WHO) this week. Overreactions to the threat of Ebola “negatively impact response and recovery efforts,” WHO said in its statement, which followed a meeting of an Ebola emergency committee that oversees International Health Regulations. WHO wants member states to lift travel and trade bans on Ebola-affected countries by the end of the month, but refused Science's request to specify which countries and policies it was criticizing as it is a “dynamic list.” The committee did advise WHO to maintain some temporary restrictions on the two countries with ongoing Ebola transmissions, now at fewer than 10 cases per week; such restrictions include that all travelers leaving these countries should be screened for unexplained fevers.

    New Delhi

    India's climate change pledge

    India, the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, announced its long-awaited climate commitment on 2 October, the last major economy to make its pledge ahead of the United Nations talks in Paris this December. The country said it would not place an overall cap on CO2 emissions, but would instead reduce its “carbon intensity,” cutting emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 33% to 35% in 2030 relative to 2005 levels; emissions would still rise, but more slowly. India also pledged to produce some 40% of its energy from renewable or low-carbon sources by 2030, and vowed to undertake reforestation efforts that would absorb up to 3 billion tons of CO2 by 2030.

    Springfield

    Museum shuttered in budget fight

    Ground sloth and mastodon bones at the museum.

    CREDIT: SETH PERLMAN/AP PHOTO

    A political stalemate that has dominated Illinois for months has now led to the closure of the iconic 138-year-old Illinois State Museum in Springfield, as well as four satellite museums. The museum, which was home to the largest collection of mastodon fossils in the world, closed its doors on 1 October as the result of a tense budget standoff between the state's Democrat-led General Assembly and its Republican governor. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the agency that oversees the museum, announced the pending closure this past June, after the politicians failed to agree on a new budget. Scientists and the public spoke out, writing op-eds to local papers, signing a petition, and joining a Save the Illinois State Museum Facebook page, but the agency moved forward. http://scim.ag/ISMclosed

    Atlanta

    Trade deal praised, panned

    Public health experts are pleased with some aspects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement announced this week, although some are complaining that certain provisions will harm consumers and patients. Pharmaceutical companies have pushed for 12 years of intellectual property protections for biologics, drugs derived from living organisms. Instead, the TPP agreement offers 5 years of exclusive marketing privileges that prevent competition from generic alternatives. The deal “fell short of Big Pharma's most extreme demands but will contribute to preventable suffering and death,” Peter Maybarduk, an official with the consumer rights group Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., wrote in a statement. Antismoking efforts also won a partial victory. Tobacco companies have used trade agreement clauses to initiate arbitration over plain packaging laws, which they say deprive them of the benefits of their trademarks. The TPP curtails this strategy but does not rule it out entirely. Sharon Friel, a public health expert at Australian National University in Canberra, worries that tobacco companies could still file dispute resolution claims under the TPP, leading to “regulatory chill,” or a hesitancy on the part of governments to enact tobacco control measures that might invite costly litigation. http://scim.ag/TPPdeal

    Newsmakers

    Brazil reboots science ministry

    Brazil's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation leadership has changed hands for the third time in less than 2 years, as part of a shakeup announced last week by embattled President Dilma Rousseff to shore up political support in the country's congress. Rousseff named Celso Pansera, 52, to replace Aldo Rebelo, who had held the position for just 10 months (Science, 16 January, p. 218). Pansera, a first-time federal deputy out of Rio de Janeiro, has no background in science policy or research, but comes from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, which controls both houses of congress. Researchers in Brazil have long complained about the science ministry being used as a political bargaining chip; although many researchers had protested the appointment of Rebelo, a reputed climate change doubter, he performed well as minister, says Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. “The scientific community is very disappointed” by the latest reshuffle, says glaciologist Jefferson Simões, of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

    Three Q's

    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's cabinet is filled with Ph.D.-trained technocrats. One of the youngest is Sorena Sattari, the vice president for science and technology. Sattari, 43, wants to imbue Iran with an “entrepreneurial spirit”; he oversaw the creation of an innovation fund that in 2 years has handed out $600 million in low-interest loans to 1650 technology startups and other firms seeking to branch out in new directions. http://scim.ag/Sattari

    Q:Iran and Russia plan to jointly develop environmental monitoring satellites. Is this a deepening of scientific ties?

    A:We have formed for the first time a joint commission on science and technology cooperation, which is much higher level than our economic joint commission. It's headed by the deputy prime minister of Russia and myself. For the first time, science and technology is driving the relationship between our countries.

    Q:In 2013, President Rouhani pledged to increase academic freedom at Iranian universities. Are conditions improving?

    A:It's unprecedented for an Iranian president to walk in and out of a university and talk to students without some sort of protests. We never experienced this before. It shows how supportive the majority of university students are of his policies. The university atmosphere has become much better compared to the past. Iran is becoming more open.

    Q:The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution has said that “the revival of the great Islamic civilization” is “contingent upon all-out progress in science.” What does that mean?

    A:It means that we want to be the superpower of science and technology in the region. And we want to be No. 1 in the Islamic world as well.

    IPCC's new chief

    Hoesung Lee, a climate and energy economist from South Korea, will be the new chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), member governments decided on 6 October at a meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Lee, currently IPCC's vice chairman, will succeed Rajendra Pachauri of India, who resigned from his post this year after allegations of sexual harassment (which he denied). Lee has said he wants to “support what has worked, keep what is needed, and change what needs improvement” at IPCC, the world's main body for synthesizing scientific information on climate change for policymakers.

    Scientist sentenced for fake data

    Rarely does scientific falsification end in criminal charges, but last week the Copenhagen City Court in Denmark sentenced neuroscientist Melina Penkowa to 9 months of “conditional imprisonment” for doctoring data in her 2003 dissertation. The former professor at the University of Copenhagen was convicted of scientific misconduct for fabricating the results of animal research that never actually took place. The court says Penkowa not only made up data for her 2003 thesis, but later fabricated more data to cover her tracks. Penkowa—who pled not guilty—remains free on a suspended sentence. Should she commit academic fraud again, the court says she'll find herself behind bars.

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