Eruption in Tonga is biggest in 30 years
As officials assessed the extent of death and damage caused by last week’s rapid, violent volcanic eruption in Tonga, scientists began to piece together the global impact of the rare event. The explosion at Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai on 15 January caused a tsunami and likely created the highest cloud recorded in 3 decades, its ash and smoke rising 39 kilometers, according to an early estimate. The eruption, perhaps fueled by the lava’s contact with cold shallow seawater, had the force of a hydrogen bomb, its rapidly rising gases creating atmospheric ripples that wrapped around the planet several times—the first time such a wave has been captured by modern satellites. Although the ash lofted into the stratosphere by the volcano could slightly cool local temperatures for the next few months, the volcano created little in the way of longer lived, light-blocking particles—such as those seen after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which lowered the global average temperature by about a half-degree for 2 years.
U.S. global science lead ebbs
The United States does not—and can not—lead the world in science, the National Science Foundation’s top advisory board told U.S. policymakers this week in a review of recent trends. This year’s edition of the National Science Board’s biennial Science and Engineering Indicators—a quantitative assessment of the global research enterprise—confirms the United States has lost its top ranking to China on several metrics in recent years, including the overall number of published papers and patents issued, and is no longer unrivaled in selected fields. “It would be the height of hubris to think we could lead in everything,” says the board’s Julia Phillips, a retired physicist. “The important thing is for the United States to decide where it cannot be No. 2.” The board emphasized the need to expand the U.S. domestic scientific workforce and retain support for collaborative research across borders. “And if we continue to lead the world in basic research,” Phillips says, “then we’re still in a really good position.”
Gift funds academic software
Schmidt Futures, a philanthropy co-founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, said this week it will give universities $40 million over the next 5 years to help their scientists obtain better software for use in their research. Academic researchers often rely on shaky, homemade computer software written by students and postdoctoral researchers, and some U.S. research grants that do pay for software engineering only cover a part-time position. The Virtual Institute for Scientific Software will fund centers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Washington to hire full-time software engineers, paying salaries high enough to compete with industry and government.
Synonym for breast cancer, among the growing number of “tortured phrases” found by researchers in more than 3000 journal articles. The phrases may have been created by automatic paraphrasing software used to defeat plagiarism detection software — which can introduce technical errors. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
Alzheimer’s drug faces roadblock
In a highly unusual move, U.S. Medicare administrators proposed last week to sharply limit when the government would pay for use of Biogen’s controversial Alzheimer’s drug, aducanumab. Marketed under the name Aduhelm, the antibody targets the abnormal buildup of the sticky brain protein amyloid. It won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2021 despite conflicting clinical trial results and skepticism among many scientists about its safety and effectiveness. On 11 January, President Joe Biden’s administration proposed to cover Aduhelm’s $28,200-per-year price tag only for Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in a randomized controlled clinical trial—a restriction that would also apply to future FDA-approved antiamyloid drugs. The policy is designed to enable researchers to collect more data on the risks and benefits of the drug. The agency expects to make a final decision in the spring.
A boost for ‘challenge’ trials
Supporters of research in which people are intentionally infected with a disease to test vaccines have received a $2 million boost to advocate for expanding the use of such “challenge trials.” Open Philanthropy, an organization funded largely by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, his spouse, this month committed the money to the nonprofit 1Day Sooner. It was founded in April 2020 to recruit and represent volunteers for challenge trials to test vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, work that two U.K. research groups are conducting. The new funding will cover one-third of 1Day Sooner’s budget for the next 2 years, as it explores challenge trials’ potential in diseases such as those caused by Group A Strep, shigella, and tuberculosis bacteria, 1Day Sooner co-founder Josh Morrison says. Challenge trials can sound risky, but managers typically provide proven, conventional treatments to the volunteers if the experimental vaccine doesn’t work and they become seriously ill.
Arctic hares are epic hoppers
Rabbits and their relatives tend to be homebodies, rarely straying more than a few kilometers. But at least one arctic hare traveled a record 388 kilometers. She averaged 8 kilometers per day, and one day hopped 31 kilometers. The animal was one of 25 arctic hares (Lepus arcticus) outfitted with satellite tracking tags on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic, near northern Greenland. Sandra Lai, a wildlife biologist at the University of Quebec in Rimouski, and colleagues attached the transmitters in September 2019 and tracked them through the winter. Like the long-distance champion, most of the tagged hares traveled southwest for more than 100 kilometers, the researchers reported last month in Ecology. They suspect the hares were migrating to find food near Lake Hazen, one of the largest lakes north of the Arctic Circle, where the region’s milder climate encourages plant growth.
Decades on, EPA nixes pollutant
Highlighting just how slowly the wheels of science-based regulation can grind, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will, for the first time in 3 decades, add a new chemical to the list of air pollutants it regulates. The decision to regulate 1-bromopropane, a solvent used by dry cleaners and auto shops, comes 20 years after researchers first raised concerns about the chemical’s potential effects on human health and 12 years after groups formally petitioned the agency to act. In 1990, Congress gave EPA the power to expand a list of nearly 200 pollutants it regulates under the Clean Air Act. But the agency had never exercised that power until this month. EPA says it will next propose how it will regulate the solvent—which could take a year to finalize.
University of Michigan fires chief
The University of Michigan (UM) last week terminated its president, immunologist and physician Mark Schlissel, for conducting a yearslong affair with a subordinate. UM’s Board of Regents found he used his university email account from 2019 to 2021 to send suggestive and flirtatious messages to the co-worker—behavior the regents called “egregious” and “inconsistent with promoting the dignity and reputation” of the university. Schlissel himself had denounced such relationships in July 2021, when he announced a new university policy, according to The Ann Arbor News. He told the newspaper there would be zero tolerance for someone in a leadership position to “solicit a personal or romantic relationship with someone they have a supervisory authority or career influence over,” adding, “That’s exceptionally important because of the power dynamic. It makes it difficult sometimes for folks to effectively say no.” The regents last week named former UM President Mary Sue Coleman, a chemist, as interim president.