Science

Biden’s vaccine mandates, bad Facebook data, and a doctored portrait

Conservation

Ban on deep-sea mining sought

A conservation congress last week called for a global moratorium on deep-sea mining until strict reviews are put in place. The controversial activity, which targets valuable elements such as manganese and nickel, is regulated on the high seas by the International Seabed Authority, a U.N.-chartered organization. The group has issued 30 exploration licenses, but no commercial mining permits, because the authority has not finalized regulations. Conservationists worry deep-sea mining will destroy biologically rich seamounts, hydrothermal vents, and other habitats. In addition to calling for the mining moratorium, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains a Red List of threatened species, also approved a separate resolution calling for the protection of 80% of the Amazon by 2025. The measure was proposed by Indigenous organizations, which were able to fully vote for the first time at the meeting, the union’s quadrennial World Conservation Congress.

COVID-19

Biden mandates U.S. shots

President Joe Biden’s administration may face lawsuits challenging the mandates he announced last week to compel more Americans to receive COVID- 19 vaccines, but many legal experts suggest the policy is on solid ground. Companies with 100 or more employees could be fined if their workers are not either vaccinated against the pandemic coronavirus or regularly tested for it. In addition, all federal employees and contractors, and health care workers who participate in Medicare or Medicaid programs, must be vaccinated, with no testing opt-out. Some public health experts said the federal mandates should have gone further, to require proof of vaccination for airline passengers, for example. In his announcement, Biden voiced frustration that 25% of the Americans who are eligible for the vaccine—nearly 80 million people—have not received one shot. States that have the lowest uptake have had the highest rates of severe cases and deaths. As for threats of legal challenges, “have at it,” Biden said; the U.S. military requires several vaccines, as do states for children to attend schools, and these rules have withstood challenges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Amazon is directly profiting from the sensationalism of anti-vaccine misinformation.

  • Representative Adam Schiff (D–CA), in a letter to the e-commerce giant complaining that its algorithms promote books containing conspiracy theories and debunked claims about COVID
Social media

Facebook acknowledges bad data

Facebook apologized last week for providing 110 social scientists from the research consortium Social Science One with incomplete data on its users from the United States. The researchers, who were studying the impacts of social media on democracy and elections, thought they were receiving information on all U.S. Facebook users. But the data only covered about half of them—those who had indicated clear political leanings on the social media giant’s platform. The revelation came after researcher Fabio Giglietto of the University of Urbino noticed discrepancies between recent, publicly released Facebook data and the information academics received from the company starting in February 2020. Facebook had provided the data in an aggregated form that kept academics from spotting the error sooner, according to Gary King of Social Science One. He says Facebook’s “remarkably sloppy” mistake could make the users appear more politically polarized than they actually are. But researchers won’t know the full extent of the damage until they reanalyze corrected data provided by Facebook in the coming months.

Research integrity

Journals pull papers on Uyghurs

Two journals have retracted four papers by authors in China that used genetic data from Uyghurs and other Chinese minorities without evidence of proper informed consent. Human rights activists worry the data could be used for security purposes, adding to the intensive surveillance and detentions already imposed on the Uyghurs. The authors did not agree to the retractions, according to the notices covering three of the papers posted on 7 September by the International Journal of Legal Medicine and for the fourth by Human Genetics on 30 August. A spokesperson for Springer Nature, publisher of both journals, says about 40 papers published in its titles remain under investigation.

History of science

Changes that hid chemistry giants’ wealth unmasked

Two views of 1788 painting of Lavoisier couple
DEPARTMENT OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND DEPARTMENT OF PAINTINGS CONSERVATION/METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY S.A. CENTENO, D. MAHON, F. CARÒ, AND D. PULLINS, HERITAGE SCIENCE (SPRINGER OPEN), 2021

Completed around 1788, the iconic portrait by Jacques-Louis David of Antoine Lavoisier and his wife, Marie Anne Paulze Lavoisier, celebrates a pioneer of modern chemistry and the woman historians credited as his close collaborator. Now, researchers have found evidence that David altered the image to obscure signs of their wealth—including her large, ornate hat and his desk, originally shown as decorated with gilt bronze. Conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art glimpsed the changes during work in 2019 to restore the painting; they used infrared and x-ray spectroscopy to peer through its layers and identify the chemical composition of its pigments. The techniques revealed areas of paint containing mercury (red, above right) that were later covered over. On 30 August in Heritage Science, the team suggested the changes may have been a deliberate attempt to placate leaders of the brewing French Revolution. Even so, in 1794 they guillotined Antonie Lavoisier, who had also been a tax collector. But Marie Anne Paulze Lavoisier survived, and helped establish her husband’s scientific legacy by publishing his papers.

Humor

Meows take Ig Nobel Prize

Research on the “meowsic” of cat calls snagged one of this year’s Ig Nobel Prizes, a tongue-in-cheek annual tribute to off-beat studies, at an online ceremony last week. Researcher Susanne Schötz at Lund University won the biology prize for her analyses of a range of cat sounds—from purrs, trills, and tweedles to meows, yowls, and hisses. In one study, she found humans could predict, based on a meow’s intonation alone, whether the cat was anxious about being taken to the vet or was asking for food. (Food meows rise at the end, whereas vet meows fall.) In her acceptance speech, Schötz demonstrated 12 distinct cat sounds. Other Ig Nobels went to an analysis of bacteria that hitch a ride on used chewing gum and a method to rid submarines of cockroaches.

4000

Tons of carbon dioxide that will be removed annually from the atmosphere by the world’s largest carbon-capture plant, which began operations last week in Iceland.

216 million

People who may be forced to migrate within their own countries to escape the effects of climate change, such as drought, by 2050. (World Bank)

Publishing

Retraction draws complaints

The journal Scientometrics drew fire last week for retracting an article about “predatory” journals after a publishing executive criticized the paper for relying on a controversial list of such journals that includes his company’s titles. Frederick Fenter, chief executive editor at publisher Frontiers, faulted Beall’s List of predatory journals as biased and unreliable in a 6 May letter to Scientometrics, first reported by Retraction Watch. Librarian Jeffrey Beall had maintained the list until 2017 when he shut it down following criticism from Frontiers. In a retraction notice, Scientometrics, which carries research about scholarly publishing, did not mention Beall’s List, but said the paper contained methodological flaws. Some members of the journal’s board of reviewers have strongly disagreed with the decision, criticizing what they see as undue pressure by Frontiers. (The majority shareholder of Springer Nature, which publishes Scientometrics, is Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which has also invested in Frontiers.) The authors also criticized the retraction, pointing out that their article discussed shortcomings of Beall’s List. How to accurately define a predatory publisher or journal has been a topic of continuing scholarly debate.

Tools

Research seminars gain new life

Universities collectively hold hundreds of thousands of research seminars a year, but scientists have lacked an easy way to make, find, and view recordings of them. Spurred by the surge of remote meetings during the pandemic, a new website aims to fix that. Cassyni.com was launched on 1 September with more than 5000 seminars from 650 research institutions in 34 countries. Many are indexed with speakers’ names, transcripts, slides, and remote attendees’ comments, and each seminar can be assigned a digital object identifier (DOI) number so it can be systematically cited. The platform also allows users to schedule and hold seminars integrated with Zoom. Named for the 17th century astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the service charges varying fees depending on clients’ size.

#MeToo

Probe faults researcher of aging

The antiaging SENS Research Foundation last week published the findings of an independent probe that led to the ouster of the organization’s co-founder and chief science officer, gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. An investigation by a law firm concluded de Grey sexually harassed two women who are now biotech entrepreneurs; he pursued one when she was 17 and 18 years old and told another woman, then a student, that she should entice foundation donors with her “womanhood.” It also found that de Grey interfered with the probe, leading SENS to dismiss him on 21 August. In a Facebook comment, de Grey challenged the probe’s evidentiary standards.

Conservation

EPA opposes Alaska mine

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week reversed itself—again—and said it wants to block a controversial gold and copper mine in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, near the Aleutian Islands, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. In 2014, EPA under then-President Barack Obama proposed barring federal permits for the Pebble Mine because it would endanger surrounding ecosystems and a $300-million-a-year commercial salmon fishery. In 2019, under then-President Donald Trump, the agency reversed that decision. Now, with President Joe Biden in the White House, EPA says it will ask a federal court to cancel the Trumpera decree, clearing the way for the agency to again consider blocking the mine. Its backers already suffered a serious blow in 2020, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to issue a permit over environmental concerns.

Energy

Innovative magnet raises hopes for fusion power

Workers around a large fusion magnet
GRETCHEN ERTL, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2021

The elusive goal of fusion energy may be closer after Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) announced last week that a powerful new magnet produced a field of 20Tesla, twice as strong as that of conventional superconducting magnets. The 2-meter-long, D-shaped electromagnet (above, center), developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the largest ever fashioned from exotic materials that can function as superconductors at high temperatures. CFS researchers will use the magnets in a planned fusion reactor, or tokamak, to confine a hot plasma so that some of the nuclei in it fuse and release more energy than needed to sustain the reaction—a long-sought goal for the field. The CFS design will be smaller than that of other tokamaks, such as ITER, a big reactor funded by multiple countries.

Three Qs

Landsat’s ‘mother’ looks back

Next week, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey will launch the Landsat 9 Earth observing satellite, kicking off the program’s 50th anniversary. Attending will be engineer Virginia Norwood, known as the mother of the groundbreaking satellite series. Now 94 and retired, she designed the first multispectral sensor, which was shot into space aboard Landsat 1 in 1972. That paved the way for future novel remote sensing instruments, which made it possible to track forest loss and see hidden geological features. Newer types of satellites can record images with higher resolution, but researchers continue to value the Landsat data set for documenting Earth’s changes. Despite resistance to women in science when Norwood began her career, she attributes her NASA successes to never taking “no” for an answer. (A longer version of this interview is at scim.ag/LandSat50.)

Q: What innovations did you develop that enabled the multispectral scanner?

A:Being multispectral and desiring the widest spread possible meant that you are necessarily having a completely different device. Each band takes different detectors and different techniques, and each has its own little problems. Then you had to fit them all together. So, you had to do a lot of adaptation to make those bands [into one image] so they can be compared with each other. And it was the first time that data from space had been digitized.

Q: How did you persuade NASA to trust this method?

A:Because of the diversity of the spectral bands, [NASA] realized that it was important to try [it]. … The delightful thing to me was that after [Landsat] launched, various users would say, “I just was able to do this or that” that they had never thought they could before.

Q: Do you feel part of Landsat 9?

A:I do. For example, it has thousands of detectors that are in a “push broom array.” I originally would have liked to have done [the first scanner] that way, but I was without a prayer of being able to do it because the detector technology was not available.

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