News this Week

Science  06 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6222, pp. 590
  1. This week's section

    A new eye on water in the soil

    NASA's soil moisture probe launched last week.


    Globally, soils hold a tiny fraction of Earth's water. But that moisture is crucial to water, carbon, and energy cycles: It determines how vulnerable regions are to drought and flood, how well plants grow and suck up atmospheric carbon, and how Earth heats up and cools of —a key driver for storms. Despite its importance, soil moisture has been monitored mostly by a sparse set of probes stuck in the ground. But the launch on 31 January of NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive probe, a $916 million satellite, promises to change that. The mission will generate a global map of soil moisture every 2 to 3 days at a resolution of 10 kilometers, helping improve weather forecasts, flood forecasts, and drought monitoring. “This is an important factor that people have been chasing from the earliest days of optical remote sensing,” says hydrologist Dara Entekhabi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the science team leader for the mission.

    New dino really stuck its neck out

    Qijianglong lived in Asia with other long-necked cousins.


    Many plant-eating dinosaurs had long necks, but none more impressive than the mamenchisaurids, a group of dinos that once roamed Asia. Last week, researchers reported the discovery of a new species of mamenchisaurid in southern China. Dubbed Qijianglong guokr (“Qijian” after the district in which it was found, “long” for dragon in Chinese, and “Guokr” for the name of a Chinese organization that supports paleontology research in Qijian), the beast's neck made up about half of its total 15-meter length, the team reported online in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The 160-million-year-old skeleton is impressively well preserved: All 17 of its neck vertebrae were found, as was much of its skull. Unique among mamenchisaurids, the dinosaur's porous vertebrae were filled with air while Qijianglong was alive, so its neck would have been unusually light and versatile.

    Science has a ball

    Debutantes dance while an art project about synesthesia lights up Vienna's City Hall.


    In Vienna, home of the waltz, nearly every profession and cause throws a ball. The science community inaugurated its own Ball der Wissenschaften, or Science Ball, on 31 January, with debutantes, ballgowns—and carnivorous-plant table decorations. Physicist Jörg Schmiedmayer simulated a double-slit experiment in the sweaty disco hall while computer scientist Helmut Veith lectured on probability at the roulette table. Quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger, the Austrian Academy of Sciences president (and fellow of AAAS, publisher of Science), gave interviews and circulated with an adoring entourage. The ball highlights Vienna's place as “the biggest university and research hub in central Europe,” says organizer and science communicator Oliver Lehmann. But for many of the 2500 attendees it is also a counterpoint to the unfortunately named Akademikerball, or Academics' Ball, held the night before by a right-wing anti-immigration party. Lehmann says the Science Ball aimed to affirm that Vienna's academic community waltzes to a tune of diversity and openness.

    “It's pretty funny that the ideal gas law is making headlines.”

    Physicist Max Tegmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to The New York Times, on the finding that weather conditions, not tampering, reduced pressure in footballs during a playoff game.

    By the numbers

    66—Percentage of Americans who would be more likely to vote for a candidate who says that global warming is real and is anthropogenic, according to a poll in The New York Times.

    35—Millimeters per year that Iceland is rising due to isostatic rebound as its glaciers melt.

    >50—Percentage of people born since 1960 who will develop cancer in their lifetime, according to a new study in the British Journal of Cancer.

    Around the world

    Salt Lake City

    Myriad gives up gene patent fight

    The molecular diagnostics company Myriad Genetics has put an end to a long battle to defend its controversial patents on genetic tests for cancer risk. Several of the companies Myriad was suing for patent infringement announced settlements last week, and the company said that it plans to settle the remaining suits. The Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated many of the company's key patents by declaring human genes unpatentable. But Myriad still sued several companies, including LabCorp and Ambry Genetics, claiming that certain patents remain valid. A federal district court last March rejected Myriad's request for an injunction blocking Ambry from selling its test, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., upheld the decision in December.

    Tübingen, Germany

    Police search German institute

    An ongoing investigation into alleged mistreatment of rhesus macaques at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics led to a police search of the facility on 29 January and seizure of documents related to animal care and treatment. In September, a television program that included video shot at the institute by an undercover animal rights activist triggered protests and several investigations. An inquiry by the Max Planck Society found “no serious shortcomings” in animal care. And on 16 January the state of Baden-Württemberg said it so far had found no reason to revoke the institute's animal research licenses. Investigators with the local prosecutor's office are now analyzing more than 100 hours of film as well as detailed experimental records.

    Basel, Switzerland

    Tamiflu helps, new study finds

    Last week saw the latest—though likely not last—salvo over the merits of the influenza-fighting drug Tamiflu, produced by the pharmaceutical company Roche. Blending data from nine clinical trials of more than 4000 patients, Roche-funded researchers found that Tamiflu reduces the risk of hospital admission from flu by 63%, and the drug's use is associated with fewer cases of lower respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis. The new findings, published online on 29 January in The Lancet, haven't swayed skeptics. “There are no new data presented here on complications or hospitalizations that we did not already know of,” says epidemiologist Peter Doshi of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore, who belongs to the Cochrane Collaboration, an international network of scientists that has been highly critical of Tamiflu's benefits.


    Fire guts academy library

    The academy fire burned for more than a day.


    A fire at the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences (INION) in Moscow last weekend destroyed a substantial part of its library. After breaking out on Friday night, the fire lasted more than 25 hours; researchers are describing the damage to the library's collection of documents and books on social sciences as “catastrophic.” Vladimir Fortov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, puts the losses at “about 20% of the unique scientific works that were kept in hard copies,” and others say they could be higher. Fortunately, fire brigades managed to confine the fire and save the main depository, which contains 14 million documents, including some in ancient languages and rare editions dating back to as early as the 16th century.

    New York City

    Boom times for academic charity

    U.S. colleges received a record-setting amount of philanthropic gifts in 2014. And thanks to a strong stock market, the size of their endowments also soared. Two studies out last week documented those positive trends: Colleges and universities raised $37.5 billion, and their endowments grew by an average of 15.5%. The studies also showed that the rich got a lot richer last year: Nearly one-fourth of all donations went to only 20 colleges. Harvard University, the leader in both categories, brought in nearly $1.2 billion in contributions and its endowment reached a new high of $35.9 billion, some $10 billion above the second-place University of Texas (UT) system. UT Austin raised $529 million last year. By comparison, the median endowment size for the 832 schools surveyed was $110 million.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Windfall for pediatric research

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is scrambling to spend an unexpected $150 million windfall for pediatric research by this fall. In December, NIH received the first installment of a 10-year, $126 million research initiative created in memory of a 10-year-old girl who died of cancer. That same month, NIH ended its controversial National Children's Study of the environmental factors affecting a child's development and began looking for other uses for the $165 million it had just received from Congress to continue the study. Research funded by the unforeseen bonanza will capitalize on technologies that can collect and analyze vast amounts of information on the children being studied, NIH officials told an outside advisory panel last week.


    ‘Three-parent’ therapy approved

    The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly this week to allow U.K. researchers to pursue a new fertility treatment that could prevent certain genetic diseases. Called mitochondrial DNA replacement therapy, it would allow women carrying mutations in mitochondrial genes to have healthy children, thanks to fresh mitochondria from a donor. The measure, which passed 382 to 128, has been controversial in part because it would alter the DNA of an embryo in a way that could be passed on to future generations, and some scientists argue that its possible side effects are uncertain. However, several ethical and scientific reviews and a public consultation in the United Kingdom supported approval. If the measure is approved by the House of Lords, the United Kingdom can then grant licenses for experimental use of the technique in humans.


    Three Q's

    Microbiologist Anne Glover was the first—and sometimes controversial—chief science adviser of the European Commission (Science, 8 March 2013, p. 1144). In particular, some nongovernmental organizations objected to her ardent support for genetically modified (GM) crops. In November, the new commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, eliminated her job. At a Science Media Centre briefing this week in London, she spoke to reporters about her experiences.

    Q:Why was your position scrapped?

    A:No reason was given to me. My contract ended at the end of February. I've had no contact with the new presidency or the new team.

    Q:Do you regret saying (in 2013) that opposing GM organisms is a form of madness?

    A:No. … As well as being a chief scientific adviser, I'm also a human being and I use the rich variety of the English language. And my use of words expressed my frustration.

    Q:Some have said your job was ill-defined. Anything you would have done differently?

    A:I might have been much more energetic in asking the commission to prepare the ground for my arrival. That would have made the biggest difference: to set some ground rules before turning up.

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