Daring Antarctic evacuation under way; US medical association declares gun violence a health crisis; and astronomers find Earth in a rocky relationship.
Events | Policy | Funding | Research | Facilities | Trend watch
Polar evacuation The US National Science Foundation has launched a rare and daring mid-winter effort to evacuate a crew member from its South Pole research station. The person’s name and medical condition have not been released, but 48 people are spending the winter season at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. On 20 June, two Twin Otter aeroplanes arrived at the British Rothera station on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is being used as a staging base for the mission. The rescue team is awaiting suitable weather to make the 2,400-kilometre flight from Rothera to the South Pole station.
Scientists say stay As the United Kingdom prepares to vote on whether or not to stay in the European Union, 5,000 researchers have signed a letter to The Times newspaper warning that a British exit, or ‘Brexit’, will damage science. The letter, organized by the anti-exit group Scientists for EU and published on 20 June, is the latest intervention by researchers ahead of the 23 June referendum. Many scientists say that leaving the EU would be bad for research, but there is also a vocal contingent that holds the opposing view.
Space-station crew comes home An International Space Station crew — Tim Peake of the European Space Agency (ESA), Yuri Malenchenko of Roscosmos and NASA’s Tim Kopra (pictured, left to right) — returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule on 18 June, landing in the plains of Kazakhstan. Peake is the first British ESA astronaut, and Malenchenko has now spent 828 days in space, the second most of anyone. After arriving in orbit last December, the three took part in astronaut-health studies to investigate how our eyes, brains and immune systems adapt to long-duration space flight.
Diluted vaccine Yellow-fever vaccine could be used effectively at a diluted dose should the ongoing epidemic in Africa worsen, the World Health Organization’s expert committee on immunization agreed on 17 June. The epidemic — the worst in almost 30 years — has infected a reported 3,137 people and killed 345 in Angola, the worst-affected country. The full-strength vaccine conveys lifelong protection, but mass immunization to control the epidemic has depleted stockpiles. Using the vaccine at one-fifth of its normal strength would provide protection for at least 12 months — adequate in an emergency situation — and would leave five times as much vaccine available.
JAXA pay cuts Three top executives of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are taking a temporary pay cut because of the loss of the agency’s Hitomi X-ray astronomy satellite. JAXA president Naoki Okumura and two others will reduce their pay by 10% for four months from July, the agency announced on 15 June. After a successful launch in February, Hitomi was lost in March after engineers sent it the wrong software command, causing it to tumble out of control and break apart.
Gun-violence crisis California’s state legislature voted on 15 June to establish a US$5-million firearms-violence research centre at the University of California, following the 12 June mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead and 53 injured. There is little research on gun violence; since 1996, it has been difficult — if not impossible — for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the topic, owing to a federal budget restriction that limits research that could be used to promote gun control. Although US President Barack Obama ordered the CDC in 2013 to resume the research, the agency says that it does not have the resources. Separately, on 14 June, the American Medical Association declared gun violence a public-health crisis, and resolved to lobby Congress to fund the CDC to investigate the causes of the problem. See page 436 for more.
Excellence strategy Germany’s federal government and the governments of its 16 states agreed on 16 June to permanently continue a multibillion-euro programme set up in 2005 to strengthen the performance of selected research universities. From 2017, universities will be able to apply for an extra €10 million to €15 million (US$11 million to $17 million) per year from a €533-million annual budget that the governments have earmarked for the extended initiative, renamed the Excellence Strategy. Over the next decade, the windfall will help to create up to 15 ‘excellence universities’, as well as dozens of local and regional research hubs in selected fields of science.
Earth’s pet rock Astronomers in Hawaii have spotted an asteroid that has been tagging along with Earth for almost a century. The companion, designated 2016 HO3, is estimated to be 40–100 metres in diameter and poses no threat to Earth, NASA said on 15 June. It orbits both our planet and the Sun, drifting ahead of or behind Earth from year to year (pictured), but staying within a range of 38–100 times the Earth–Moon distance. Other ‘quasi-satellites’ have been found, but 2016 HO3 is the most stable example so far. Quasi-satellites remain close enough to Earth to make them good targets for future spacecraft missions, says Robert Jedicke, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
Space fire NASA scientists ignited the largest-ever deliberate fire in space on 14 June. Engineers used a remote-controlled hot wire to set light to a sheet of cotton and fibreglass measuring 1 metre by 0.4 metres. The material was housed in an uncrewed Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship that had just left the International Space Station. Instruments placed around the sheet monitored the fire as it burned for around eight minutes, and sent data back to Earth. The Space Fire Experiment, or Saffire, is the first of three tests designed to understand how fire spreads in microgravity, and ultimately to improve fire safety for astronauts.
Coffee and cancer Coffee is unlikely to cause cancer, said the World Health Organization’s cancer agency on 15 June, reversing its previous guidance. In 1991, the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyons, France, had described coffee as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. The latest guidance, which is based on a review of more than 1,000 studies, made no such connection. However, beverages consumed at a higher temperature (above 65 °C), such as piping hot tea and maté were deemed “probably carcinogenic” on the basis of epidemiological evidence. The drinks had a particular link to oesophageal cancers (D. Loomiset al.LancetOncol.http://doi.org/bj6x;2016).
South Pole CO2 Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at the South Pole have passed 400 parts per million (p.p.m.) for the first time in 4 million years, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on 15 June. The region crossed this symbolic threshold on 23 May, and was the last place on Earth to do so. Average global CO2 concentrations, which registered around 280 p.p.m. before the Industrial Revolution, hit 399 p.p.m. in 2015 and are expected to exceed 400 p.p.m. in 2016.
Biggest icebreaker Russia launched what will be the world’s largest and most powerful icebreaker on 16 June in St Petersburg, according to state news agencies. The Arktika is currently just a hull, and lacks a superstructure and the two nuclear reactors that will power it, but officials say that it will join the growing fleet of Russian icebreakers by the end of 2017. The vessel is not specifically designed to enable research, but it arrives as Russia seeks to maintain year-round access to the Arctic, and as many nations pursue economic opportunities presented by thinning sea ice in the region.
ITER retooled The long-delayed international nuclear-fusion project ITER in St-Paul-lez-Durance, France, is to proceed with a revised construction road map that aims to see ‘first plasma’ by the end of 2025, its governing board said on 16 June. The streamlined schedule will focus on building a doughnut-shaped vacuum vessel that can generate and confine hydrogen plasma, and postpones the installation of components for sustained fusion of heavy hydrogen isotopes. Sticking to the original schedule would have required an extra €4.6 billion (US$5.2 billion) from ITER’s sponsors. It is not yet clear what savings the new plan will bring in the short term.
Belgian research institutes account for most of the jobs advertised under the European Union’s Science4Refugees initiative, which collates posts open to refugee scientists and researchers. The initiative was launched last year to help highly qualified refugees to find jobs. Around 350 adverts from 19 European countries were live on the EURAXESS researcher portal as of 21 June. Of these, 145 were for jobs in Belgium. Refugees compete for the jobs on the same basis as non-refugee applicants.
Related links in Nature Research
Related external links
About this article
Cite this article
The week in science: 17–23 June 2016. Nature 534, 440–441 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/534440a