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News at a glance: China’s carbon pledge, ARPA-H’s interim head, and an exascale computer

News at a glance: China’s Carbon pledge, ARPA-H’s interim head, and an exascale computer

CONSERVATION

U.S. moves to stop Alaska copper mine

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving to block construction of a massive copper and gold mine that would risk polluting the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon runs. EPA announced last week it plans to forbid disposal of mine waste from the proposed Pebble Mine in the surrounding area, a move that would effectively kill the project. “Two decades of scientific study show us that mining the Pebble Deposit would cause permanent damage to an ecosystem that supports a renewable economic powerhouse and has sustained fishing cultures since time immemorial,” Casey Sixkiller, EPA’s regional administrator, said in a press release. The proposal signals what could be the final chapter in a decadeslong saga that came to a head in 2014 when the administration of then-President Barack Obama announced plans to block the mine. EPA reversed course under former President Donald Trump. But in November 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant a crucial permit after concluding the project was “contrary to the public interest.” EPA officials could make a final decision later this year.

CLIMATE POLICY

Justices allow higher carbon cost

The U.S. Supreme Court last week allowed the Biden administration to use a higher number for how much carbon pollution costs society, after declining to take up a challenge from energy-producing, Republican-led states. Federal agencies use the figure, known as the social cost of carbon, when evaluating the costs and benefits of regulations; it attempts to capture costs, such as adverse health effects, that aren’t reflected in market prices. The court’s refusal to take the case means the administration can use its proposed cost of $51 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. That figure was used by former President Barack Obama’s administration before former President Donald Trump’s administration cut it to $7 per ton.

180

Length, in kilometers, of what scientists think is the world’s largest clone, a seagrass bed off the coast of Western Australia. Estimated to be 4500 years old, it grew as a hybrid of two species, possibly as an adaptation to climate change. (Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences)

COVID-19

Man admits threatening Fauci

A West Virginia man faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty last week to charges that he repeatedly emailed Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to threaten him and his family with sadistic, graphic violence and death. Thomas Patrick Connally Jr. sent messages between December 2020 and July 2021 that expressed rage over advice from Fauci to the public and the White House about how best to respond to the pandemic. Connally, who was particularly aggrieved about mandatory vaccination policies, used an anonymous, encrypted email account, but an investigator from the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of the Inspector General traced the tirades to him. Connally also admitted he sent threatening emails to Francis Collins, former head of the National Institutes of Health who was then Fauci’s boss. Fauci has received many other death threats regarding COVID-19 and has had a government security detail since soon after the pandemic started.

LEADERSHIP

ARPA-H agency gets interim head

The Biden administration last week named a temporary overseer of the new U.S. agency for cutting-edge health research. Adam Russell, an anthropologist now at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security, will become acting deputy director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) in June, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said. Russell will help launch ARPA-H, which Congress created earlier this year as an arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with an initial budget of $1 billion. But the new agency will not recruit program managers, who will shape its priorities, until Biden appoints a director, acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak told a House of Representatives panel. Russell is a former program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, on which Congress modeled ARPA-H, and has also worked at the intelligence community’s version of DARPA.

PALEONTOLOGY

Bones hint at warm-blooded dinos

A new method using molecular analysis of dinosaur bones suggests some species had a high metabolic rate, adding support to the hypothesis they were warm-blooded. Paleontologists used infrared spectroscopy and other methods to determine the chemical components of thigh bones of four dinosaur species and, for comparison, a modern hummingbird. In a study published last week in Nature, they reported finding an abundance of molecules known to be produced as waste during oxygen inhalation; the authors noted that warm-blooded animals take in more oxygen than cold-blooded ones to keep their body temperatures constant. The team says the findings disprove hypotheses that most dinosaurs had low metabolisms that prevented them from surviving the global chill precipitated by an asteroid strike 66 million years ago. But other researchers not involved in the study say the technique needs independent confirmation.

THEY SAID IT

Researchers try to keep pace with surging gun violence

mourners grieving the Uvalde, Texas, shool shooting
CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Two devastating mass shootings in the United States in recent weeks—at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store and an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school—have renewed calls for scientific study of the causes and prevention of gun violence. (Above, mourners grieve the school shooting.) For years, Congress blocked funding for the research. But in 2020, lawmakers set aside $25 million for studies supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Rebecca Cunningham, a gun violence researcher at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, talked with Science last week about prospects for this scholarship. (A longer version of this interview is here.)

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We now have a bubbling up of scholars pivoting their careers toward this pressing problem, and we’ve now had national conferences where scientists can come together and talk about the science of gun violence. From a scientific standpoint, I think there is hope and progress.

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The more difficult news is we still are massively underfunded compared to cancer or any other serious cause of death among kids [or] the rest of our population.

  • Rebecca Cunningham
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
CLIMATE POLICY

China to plant 70 billion trees

China is striving to stop increasing its carbon emissions by 2030 and reduce them to net zero by 2060, climate envoy Xie Zhenhua told the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last week. But the country’s 90 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants under construction and record levels of coal production “will make delivering China’s climate targets tougher” but not impossible, says Li Shuo, a Greenpeace adviser in Beijing. In a new commitment, Xie also said that in an expansion of reforestation efforts, China will plant and conserve 70 billion trees over the next 10 years. By sequestering atmospheric carbon, the trees will help reduce net emissions, but they are not equivalent to leaving fossil fuels “permanently locked away from the atmosphere,” says Josep Canadell, director of the Global Carbon Project, which tracks greenhouse gas emissions.

PUBLISHING

Database of journal costs begins

Coalition S, a group of research funders pushing to eliminate paywalls for scientific articles, last week started up a first-of-its-kind online database where those who pay for open access to articles will be able to learn the actual cost of publishing them. The effort, meant to promote transparency and comparison shopping, will at first depend on publishers to provide the information voluntarily; if they don’t, coalition members might require disclosure as a condition of paying to make the articles open access. University libraries and funders that help underwrite publishing costs will have access to the database once the portal is up and running later this year. Portal users will be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement; that’s meant to prevent publishers from learning about one another’s costs, which could expose to them to allegations of fixing prices. Plan S, the policy announced by the coalition in 2018 to make research it funds immediately free to read when published, took effect in 2021, and is set to expand in January 2025.

COMPUTER HARDWARE

U.S. gets first exascale computer

The United States has its first computer that can top 1 quintillion (1018) operations per second, a measure called an exaflop. Tests prove the Frontier supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory hit that mark, making it the world’s most powerful machine, according to the latest TOP500 list of supercomputers, released this week. It may not be the only exascale computer: In 2021, reports surfaced that two supercomputers in China had topped that threshold. But benchmarking tests for them have not been submitted to TOP500 sponsors, perhaps because of China’s national security concerns, some industry observers speculate. Powered by 8,730,112 computer chip “cores,” Frontier is expected to support artificial intelligence algorithms, using massive data sets to explore topics in climate change, fusion energy, biology, and materials science.

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