News at a glance: New U.S. coronavirus research, lab gear’s carbon cost, and a repurposed accelerator

The latest in science and policy

refurbished accelerator at Michigan State University
A refurbished accelerator at Michigan State University will help ease a shortage in U.S. facilities for testing microelectronics.GENNARA PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF THE FACILITY FOR RARE ISOTOPE BEAMS
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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 380, Issue 6641.Download PDF

Storied accelerator to test chips

The world’s first superconducting cyclotron will receive a new lease on life testing next-generation microchips, Michigan State University’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) announced last week. From 1982 to 2020, the K-500 cyclotron produced beams of atomic nuclei ranging from hydrogen to uranium for experiments in nuclear physics, relying on superconducting magnets to confine the particles. Last year, the cyclotron was replaced by FRIB’s new, more powerful, $730 million linear accelerator. Typically, old particle accelerators are demolished or employed to feed their bigger successors. But thanks to a $14 million grant from the Department of Defense, the refurbished K-500 will irradiate chips to see how they perform under challenging conditions resembling those in space.


U.S. reboots coronavirus research

President Joe Biden’s administration said this week it plans to spend more than $5 billion to stoke development of better coronavirus vaccines and treatments to curb future pandemics. Like Operation Warp Speed, its predecessor during the administration of former President Donald Trump, the new program, Project NextGen, will rely on public-private partnerships, The Washington Post reported. Its top goals include devising upgraded monoclonal antibodies to replace once-potent varieties whose effectiveness against the latest SARS-CoV-2 variants has waned. Another goal is to produce nasal vaccines that prompt immune responses within the body’s mucosal linings, potentially eliciting a stronger defense than shots in the arm. The program will also aim to create vaccines against multiple types of coronaviruses.

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It opens the door to another politically motivated lawsuit to get a safe and effective drug off the market.
  • University of Pittsburgh law professor Greer Donley
  • in STAT, about a U.S. District Court ruling invalidating the 2000 decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the abortion pill mifepristone. The ruling cited safety concerns, although multiple studies have found the pill safe.

Lab gear has a heavy carbon cost

The energy required to make and transport lab equipment, from centrifuges to mass spectrometers, and provide support services accounts for more than half the carbon emissions associated with research laboratories, according to a preprint study. The resulting carbon footprint was three times greater than that linked with conference travel, normal commuting, or heating, says the analysis, posted last week on the bioRxiv server. Its authors examined purchases by more than 100 laboratories in France and estimated the per capita emissions connected with various items. They also suggest ways to reduce a research group’s carbon footprint. Staff members could repair existing equipment to maximize its lifespan, for example. Duplication of equipment could be avoided by concentrating it at regional or national research centers. Researchers could use glassware instead of disposable plastics.


China blocks key databases

A Chinese company has suspended access to four databases widely used by China scholars worldwide because of a new security law that restricts the dissemination of data outside the country. The move by the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), which took effect on 1 April, covers databases holding national census information, dissertations, governmental statistical yearbooks, and conference proceedings. Its separate Academic Journals Database, which offers the full text of millions of papers in both Chinese and English representing more than 90% of the country’s scholarly publications, remains available. In December 2022, Chinese authorities slapped CNKI with an 87.6 million yuan ($13 million) fine for charging unfairly high prices. The company was instructed to reform its monopolistic behavior.


Hydro authority to return remains

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) says it intends to repatriate the remains of nearly 5000 Native Americans whose graves were excavated during dam-building projects in several states from the 1930s to the 1970s. The federally owned hydroelectric utility also said in last month’s announcement that it will return to tribal nations thousands of funerary objects also taken during excavations. Many tribal advocates have complained that institutions across the United States have been too slow in returning Native American remains and artifacts, in violation of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. As of 2022, 108,000 sets of remains were being held by museums, universities, and federal agencies, according to the National Park Service. Since 2011, TVA has returned more than 9000 sets of remains.


Court tosses carbon challenge

A U.S. appeals court last week rejected an effort to block the Biden administration from assigning a higher cost to the damage caused by carbon pollution. The plaintiffs—10 Republican-led, fossil-fuel-producing states—argued that the administration’s plan to raise what’s called the social cost of carbon would harm their economies. The metric attempts to capture the costs of carbon emissions, such as adverse health effects, that aren’t reflected in market prices, and is used to calculate the costs and benefits of regulations. It’s the second such court defeat for the states recently. While the lawsuit was in progress, the administration proposed increasing the social cost of carbon from $51 to $190 per ton.


Home runs in Major League Baseball since 2010 attributed to anthropogenic global warming. Warmer air is less dense, allowing balls to travel further. But changes in hitters’ strategies and balls’ stitching account for most of the big increase in home runs during that period. (Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society)


Genentech finds no fraud inquiry

Genentech has found no evidence that its employees alleged or investigated possible research fraud involving a 2009 Nature paper co-authored by Stanford University’s president, neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, contrary to allegations in a February article in the university’s student newspaper. Tessier-Lavigne worked at the company at the time; he has led Stanford since 2016. Genentech last week summarized the results of an investigation by its legal team, which interviewed more than 35 current and former employees. The probe did find that the Nature paper contains duplicate or composite images. Genentech’s summary also describes a frustrating and failed 3-year effort by Genentech scientists to replicate key results from the paper, which suggested a new mechanism for neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease. One senior Genentech official wanted the paper retracted or corrected. Stanford’s board has been investigating possible misconduct in other papers authored by Tessier-Lavigne before he became Stanford’s president.


Satellites will offer details of air pollution

Smog over Mexico City.
A space-based sensor will provide a fine-grained portrait of North America’s smog, such as in Mexico City.BÉNÉDICTE DESRUS/SIPA/AP IMAGES

North America will soon get a near-constant, close-up view of its air pollution, courtesy of satellite-borne instruments that include one launched last week. NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) instrument, riding aboard a commercial communications satellite, will hover 36,000 kilometers above Earth. From its geostationary orbit, matching Earth’s rotation, the instrument will enable scientists to make detailed hourly scans of air pollution across the continent, from the oil fields of northern Canada to the skyscrapers of Mexico City. TEMPO can identify the distinct, telltale pattern of light reflected by each of several types of air pollutants, including gases such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and bromine, as well as tiny bits of soot. Scientists say the instrument, along with a sibling satellite launched by South Korea in 2020 and another scheduled for launch by European countries in 2024, will be a substantial improvement over the once-a-day images they get now from other satellites. The new instruments could help researchers and regulators zero in on key pollution sources, better model how pollution moves through a region, and identify overlooked hot spots.

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