News at a Glance: Playing Bumblebees, Risky Mushrooms and the Fate of the Java Man | Science

ASTRONOMY

Iran’s world-class telescope sees first light

In a major milestone for the Iranian scientific community, astronomers announced last week that the $25 million Iranian National Observatory (INO) is operational. They said the resolution of the first images – which show Arp 282, a pair of galaxies about 319 million light-years from Earth – was better than expected. Iranian scientists first proposed building the INO two decades ago, and to complete it they had to overcome hurdles few peers face elsewhere: sanctions restricting high-tech imports and visa restrictions limiting their travel abroad. Among other scientific goals, the 3.4-metre optical telescope at the summit of Mount Gargash will help fill a geographic gap in a global network that studies ephemeral phenomena such as gamma-ray bursts to try to pinpoint their locations and their to unravel physics. Engineers have yet to install the first scientific instrument, a high-quality imaging camera. Operators hope to forge international collaborations to install additional instruments, provided all sanction restrictions can be resolved.

BIOMEDICINE

WHO targets the main threats from fungi

Viruses and bacteria are in the spotlight of public health threats, but last week the World Health Organization (WHO) released its first-ever list of “priority pathogens,” which are fungi. Several of the 19 species of fungi that pose the greatest threats have developed resistance to treatments in the four classes of antifungal drugs that are now available. As a result, treatment can require longer hospital stays and second-line drugs that are expensive and highly toxic. The report also states that diagnostics for these fungi must be improved. The four biggest threats from fungi are Aspergillus fumigatus, Candida albicans, C. aurisand Cryptococcus neoformans, according to a WHO survey of clinicians and researchers. They ranked the threats based on criteria including antifungal drug resistance, the role of infection in patient deaths, and available diagnostics. The report calls for more R&D funding and strengthening of monitoring laboratories.

SCIENTIFIC COLLECTIONS

Indonesia wants fossils back

Indonesia has asked the Netherlands, its former colonizers, to return fossils of an original specimen called Java Man, an early hominin unearthed in East Java in the 1890s and named today Homo erectus erectus. The remains, including a skullcap, a tooth and a femur, are the most famous items on a list of treasures Indonesia wants back. The inventory sent to the Dutch government this summer and published by the Dutch newspaper trouble on October 18, contains mostly cultural items, including a dagger used in a collective suicide in Bali. But Indonesia is also demanding the return of 40,000 fossils unearthed by paleoanthropologist Eugène Dubois, whose discovery of Java man, one of the first “missing links” between apes and modern humans, caused a stir at the time. The Dubois collection is owned by the Dutch government and managed by the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, a museum in Leiden where the fossils are still being studied by scientists from around the world, a museum spokesman said. A commission will advise the government on whether to comply with Indonesia’s request.

ANIMAL BEHAVIOR

Bumblebees play with toys

bees with a ball
bumblebees (Bombos terrestrial) repeatedly manipulated wooden balls in a kind of game.RICHARD RICKITT

Researchers were training bumblebees to roll wooden balls toward a gate when they observed a previously unknown behavior: Some bees spontaneously rolled the balls even without a reward. Now, in new experiments, scientists have concluded that repeatedly manipulating these balls for no apparent purpose is a form of play. The finding is a first for any insect species, although a previous study observed wasps appearing to fight with each other. As with mammals and birds, younger bees gambled more than older ones, the team reports in this week animal behavior. Samadi Galpayage, a Ph.D. A student at Queen Mary University of London who led the study says the finding indicates a level of cognitive sophistication in bees that she hopes will spur action to protect them.

EQUITY CAPITAL

Society bans the name James Webb

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) said this week that articles in its journals must use the acronym JWST instead of the full name of the James Webb Space Telescope due to concerns about the namesake’s background and denial of calls by NASA to rename the telescope exist. Webb ran the agency through the 1960s and the early years of the Apollo program. Evidence found since his death in 1992 suggests that Webb, as a State Department clerk, helped initiate purges of gay men from the federal workforce in the 1950s. In 2021, months before NASA launched the telescope, its official historian and an outside expert reviewed the archives for Webb’s role. NASA didn’t release the findings, however, and said later that year it had found no evidence necessitating a name change. In its Oct. 24 statement on the acronym, RAS called “the firing of employees because of their sexual orientation…completely unacceptable.” It also supported a request by the American Astronomical Society for NASA to open its archive to an independent historian with expertise in LGBTQ+ history to investigate Webb’s role.

BIOMEDICINE

British eyes detect diseases early

A UK research organization this week began inviting participants to an ambitious, long-term health study that aims to enroll 5 million people by 2025 to improve early detection of many common and rare diseases. Our Future Health organization will work with the National Health Service on this project, the largest of its kind in the world. The company has received £79m in government research funding and is aiming to raise £160m from charities and life science companies. Participants provide blood samples and physical measurements, answer a questionnaire, and give consent for researchers to access their health records. The team expects to be able to warn participants about early signs of disease and develop new diagnostic tools by 2023. The researchers hope these changes will help reduce healthcare costs and the burden on healthcare systems.

quotation marks

Of course, livelihood counts, but so does life.

  • Devi Sridhar, public health researcher at the University of Edinburgh
  • Criticism of COVID-19 policies being promoted by new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as Finance Minister during the pandemic. Sunak opposed lockdowns on all but the most vulnerable to avoid damaging the economy.
ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Fund supports ocean, carbon technology

A new venture capital fund is betting that a partnership with a leading marine research center will help create valuable new marine technology companies that will fight climate change. Last week, Brian Halligan, who has made a fortune in software, announced the launch of Propeller, a $100 million mutual fund that is one of the first of its kind. The fund partners with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in hopes of commercializing scientific discoveries and technological advances made by WHOI researchers. “We want to turn back [WHOI] an engine for startups,” Halligan said, similar to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology The Boston Globe. The partners released few financial details, but said potential commercialization goals for this “blue economy” include creating algae farms to remove carbon dioxide from seawater and finding environmentally safe ways to extract minerals from the seabed.

#I also

Fallen scholar sues US academy

A prominent Peruvian archaeologist, who was expelled from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) after investigations into sexual harassment, this month sued the academy and its president for defamation. The plaintiff, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, was ousted in 2021 in one of the academy’s first such actions since it updated the charter in 2019 to allow for expulsions for documented misconduct violations. Castillo Butters’ lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, DC this month, seeks $5 million in damages from the Academy and NAS President Marcia McNutt. (McNutt was Editor-in-Chief of Science from 2013 to 2016.) The filing does not identify which statements Castillo Butters considers defamatory. In 2020, his institution, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, concluded that there was evidence he had been sexually harassing people. But it didn’t sanction him because the alleged harassment took place before it passed a policy authorizing such discipline. Castillo Butters, who denies the allegations, won a defamation lawsuit in Peru this year against one of his accusers, who has appealed.

HIGHER EDUCATION

US Ph.D. degrees drop

In the 2020-21 academic year, US universities awarded 4% fewer science PhDs compared to the previous year, the largest annual decline since 1999, according to data released last week by the US National Science Foundation. The declines were sharpest in science and life sciences – 8% and 6%, respectively. (Their decline was even larger — 12% and 7%, respectively — compared to 2018-19, the last full year before the pandemic began.) These areas require mostly in-person work, and it’s not clear how many students graduate because of it lab closures, travel restrictions, and other pandemic-related challenges have been delayed — and whether the easing of pandemic restrictions will spark a recovery.

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