News this Week

Science  23 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6220, pp. 356

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  1. This week's section

    Judge's ruling: BP Gulf spill totaled 3.19 million barrels of oil

    A controlled burn of surface oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.


    After hearing “voluminous, dense, highly technical, and conflicting” testimony from geoscientists, a federal judge on 15 January ruled that petroleum giant BP spilled 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The U.S. government had argued for 4.2 million barrels; BP 2.45 million. The ruling means BP faces a maximum fine of $13.7 billion, or $4300 per barrel, for violations of the Clean Water Act; the final amount will be set in a proceeding that begins 20 January. Under the 2012 RESTORE Act, 80% of the fine will be dedicated to Gulf Coast restoration, recovery, and research. “There is no way to know with precision how much oil discharged. … There was no meter counting of each barrel of oil,” wrote District Court Judge Carl Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans. Six experts testified that as few as 2.4 million barrels of oil, and as many as 6 million, escaped during the 86-day ordeal; BP and the government agreed that 810,000 barrels were captured.

    Plan to save monarch butterflies backfires

    To help out the monarchs, planting the right milkweed matters.


    It started with the best of intentions: Well-meaning gardeners across the United States, upon learning that monarch butterflies were losing the milkweed they depend on because of the spread of herbicide-resistant crops, began planting milkweed in their own gardens. But inadvertently, they may be endangering the monarchs' iconic migration to Mexico by planting the wrong species of milkweed, scientists reported last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Many gardeners planted widely available tropical milkweed Asclepias curassavica, which doesn't die back in the winter like native milkweed does, offering the monarchs a year-round place to lay their eggs—so that many monarchs don't bother making the trip to Mexico at all. Worse, tropical milkweed hosts the protozoan parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, which caterpillars ingest along with their milkweed meals; when they hatch, the butterflies are covered in spores and are much weaker than their healthy counterparts. If an infected monarch does try to migrate, it will probably die long before it arrives in central Mexico.

    “I don't know if it is all [man's fault] but the majority is. … It is man who continuously slaps down nature.”

    Pope Francis on 15 January, responding to questions about his views on humankind's role in global climate change.

    Around the world

    Paranal, Chile

    First light for planet hunter

    The Next-Generation Transit Survey observatory.


    A group of European institutions announced first light on the Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS), a new planet-hunting instrument in Chile, last week. NGTS, like NASA's Kepler satellite, hunts for exoplanets by measuring dips in brightness as a planet crosses in front of its star. From the duration and frequency of the dips, scientists can deduce an exoplanet's size and orbit. Previous transit surveys by ground-based telescopes have only been able to detect Jupiter-sized or bigger planets due to the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere. Kepler, by focusing on one patch of sky for years, can spot Earth-sized or smaller planets with long orbits. NGTS aims to fill the gap between those rocky planets and gas giants, focusing on planets between two and eight times the diameter of Earth—super-Earths to exo-Neptunes.

    Pasadena, California

    Long-lost Mars lander found

    At last, scientists know the fate of the Beagle 2, a British-built probe sent to the Red Planet in late 2003 as part of the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Mars Express mission. When it couldn't establish contact with the probe, ESA declared the probe lost in 2004. But last week, scientists examining three images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter over several years (and at different sun angles) with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, announced they had spotted signs of the errant spacecraft on the planet's surface. Although mission scientists originally feared Beagle 2 had crash-landed, the images show that it landed successfully enough to partially deploy its solar panels—but the partial deployment wasn't enough to transmit data.

    Sydney, Australia

    Lawsuit over mine approval

    Australian environmentalists are taking the nation's environment minister to court over his approval last July of Indian firm Adani's AU$16.5 billion Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. Lawyers for the Mackay Conservation Group will argue that the minister, Greg Hunt, failed in his duty to properly consider the impact that greenhouse gas emissions from the burned coal will have on global warming and therefore on the Great Barrier Reef. Hearings begin 3 February. Over the mine's 60-year life, mining and transporting the coal is expected to produce more than 200 million tonnes of CO2; the burned coal will also emit 130 million tonnes yearly. A representative for Hunt said the minister made his decision in accordance with federal environmental protection legislation. The case is one of three lodged by conservation groups against the mine.

    Strasbourg, France

    Horizon 2020 cuts unveiled

    A controversial plan to divert research funds to economic stimulus became more concrete on 13 January, as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled legislation to implement the shift. It would deduct €2.7 billion over 5.5 years from Horizon 2020, the commission's main research program, set to invest about €80 billion between 2014 and 2020. The largest cut—€350 million—would come from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in Budapest, which funds industry-academia collaborations. The cut amounts to 13% of EIT's budget. The European Research Council loses €221 million, mostly in 2016 and 2017. The move has drawn muted opposition. “I'm surprised that there isn't a louder outcry and no clearer opposition from the scientific community,” Hans-Olaf Henkel, a member of the European Parliament, told Science|Business.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Squeeze put on flush scientists

    In the latest example of U.S. biomedical research budget stretching, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is imposing a strict one-grant limit on scientists who already have plentiful no-strings support. The rule, which will take effect in January 2016, will apply to researchers who have at least $400,000 per year in research funding not tied to a specific project (not including salary or overhead costs). The new limit “will enable NIGMS to fund additional labs, increasing the likelihood of making significant scientific advances,” NIGMS says. NIGMS Deputy Director Judith Greenberg estimates there are at least 22 Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators who hold two or three NIGMS research grants. Limiting them to a single grant could free up $6 million for 25 to 30 grants.


    ‘Eye in the sky’ to lead space org


    Veteran space engineer Alur Seelin Kiran Kumar has taken the reins of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), an organization riding high after its Mangalyaan probe reached Mars last September on the nation's first try. Known as “India's eye in the sky,” Kumar, 62, has overseen development of India's remote sensing systems, including the Bhaskara-1 Earth observation satellite in 1979 and a constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites now in orbit. As director of the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad, Kumar headed the team that designed three of Mangalyaan's five scientific payloads, including the Mars Color Camera. Kumar will oversee an ambitious slate of missions at ISRO, including the launch this spring of India's prototype space shuttle and Chandrayaan-2, India's second moon foray featuring a lander and a rover and slated for liftoff in 2017.

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