Job Change Lands Egyptian Scientist in Legal Battle

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Rania Siam thought she was putting her troubles behind her when she left Misr University for Science & Technology (MUST) near Cairo. It was June 2005, and the microbiologist had spent four tumultuous months as a lecturer there, quarreling with administrators and fellow faculty over working conditions and research support. That September, she landed a tenure-track position at the American University in Cairo (AUC). But just when things were looking up, MUST sued her.

In what observers call an unprecedented case in Egypt, MUST claimed that Siam’s departure caused “damage to MUST’s reputation and its scientific credibility,” and “lost [MUST] the scientific and educational benefits, which [it] would have gained from [Siam’s] research.” MUST took particular umbrage at missing out on a grant that Siam had applied for during her brief stay at the university and demanded $3 million in damages.

After 9 years of legal maneuvering, an Egyptian judge in March ordered Siam to pay MUST $49,000—the sum of the forfeited grant—in addition to court and attorney fees, and more than $14,000 in damages. Last week, Siam filed an appeal with the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest judicial authority.

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Canada’s World-Renowned Freshwater Research Facility Saved by New Management

Saved. A nonprofit group has struck a deal to keep open Canada's Experimental Lakes Area.
Saved. A nonprofit group has struck a deal to keep open Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area.

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), Canada’s flagship environmental research center that has been under threat of closure for 2 years, has found a savior. The ELA will leave government hands and will now be managed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a Winnipeg-based think tank. The 1 April announcement guarantees that the 46-year-old field site in northwestern Ontario will survive, at least for another 5 years, and will expand its research focus beyond that of the Canadian government’s mandate.

The deal will hopefully bring the ELA some “stability,” says Diane Orihel, a freshwater ecologist who since mid-2012 has led a campaign to save the facility. The campaign began after the Canadian government pulled the project’s funding and handed pink slips to its team of 16 scientists and technicians. Last year, the lab, which conducts experiments in a system of 58 lakes, was saved from the bulldozers by a stopgap payment of $2 million from the provincial government of Ontario. Now, IISD has a chance to rebuild the ELA after years of neglect by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Orihel says.

The ELA, the world’s only facility where researchers can intentionally poison whole lakes to monitor ecosystem effects, has an impressive research record: Its scientists were the first to find evidence for acid rain, and to fully diagnose the effects of pollutants such as mercury, phosphate, and synthetic hormones on aquatic life. IISD President Scott Vaughan tells ScienceInsider that he intends to build upon this past research, while looking to expand the scope of the facility’s science to investigate the effects of micropollutants and climate change on aquatic systems.

The takeover deal relies on agreements between Ontario and IISD, between Canada and IISD, and a third trilateral Canada-Ontario-IISD pact to ensure that all long-term data and physical samples from the facility are available to future researchers. Access to these freshwater data sets—some of the longest and most thorough in the world—will keep scientists coming back to ELA, backers say.

But the fresh management brings new challenges. The provincial government of Ontario has pledged $2 million a year for 5 years to cover operating costs and long-term monitoring. These funds will be topped up by Manitoba and Canada, which have promised $900,000 over 6 years and $250,000 per year for 4 years, respectively. But the provincial and federal moneys will not fund scientific experiments, which were previously funded through government grants. ELA scientists will now need to partner with universities to apply for those national grants. And beyond the next 5 years, the IISD will need to embark on a major fundraising campaign to keep the ELA open. “That’s an ambitious amount of money to raise,” Orihel says.

The next challenge will be to staff the facility. Vaughan says his goal is to invite back the scientists who previously worked at the ELA and offer them a job with IISD. That will be difficult, Orihel says: “The science team has been withering away for a number of years; as people retire they haven’t been replaced … some scientists got frustrated and took other positions.” She adds that the ELA is not just buildings and lakes, it is people, and the government should have done more to transition that previous team to a new operator.

If a new team can be found in time, the takeover comes just in time for experiments at the facility to resume in the spring. And this summer, after consultations with interested university-based scientists, the new research plan will be announced.

Brokering the deal has been a long haul, Vaughan says. IISD members are “incredibly grateful” to the scientists, including Orihel, who worked to save the ELA before IISD stepped in. He adds: “They are an impressive group of committed scientists.”

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Budget Plan Leaves U.K. Science Treading Water

U.K. researchers are going to have live with a flat R&D budget over the next few years. But on a day when British finance minister George Osborne announced a series of painful belt-tightening budget measures, observers say that the outcome for science could have been worse.

“In a difficult Spending Round, at a time of great economic challenge, we congratulate [Osborne] on maintaining investment in science and research,” said Ted Bianco, acting director of the Wellcome Trust, in a statement. Others were less optimistic. The flat R&D budget “adds real risk and difficulty,” warns Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology.

In a 26 June speech in London, Osborne said that the 2015 and 2016 science budget will be set at £4.6 billion a year—a level it hasn’t budged from since 2010. However, new money will be freed up for science infrastructure: a cool £1.1 billion a year until 2016 that nearly doubles the capital spending earmarked in the last spending review. The “huge investment” from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recognizes the enormous strength science brings to the modern economy, Osborne declared.

Handed lemons, the country’s top scientists are courageously making lemonade. In light of steep cuts that other government agencies must absorb, a stable R&D budget “is excellent news for the whole science community and we look forward to hearing how the investment will be used to meet the needs of our world-leading research teams,” said Peter Knight, president of The Institute of Physics in London, in a statement. Lesley Yellowlees, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, added that the investment is proof that the government has heeded the science community’s calls for protecting research.

After the government’s comprehensive spending review slashed science infrastructure spending by 25% in 2010, British science has had to make do with piecemeal funding for major initiatives such as high performance computing, synthetic biology, and advance materials. The new spending document offers a call out to “high-priority projects” such as the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, a hypersonic, precooled engine for the United Kingdom’s new spaceplane, and a supercomputer for weather forecasters.

Rules require that capital funds are spent on hardware or bricks and mortar, not on research. Because the budget allocated by research councils for R&D isn’t going up while inflation is, that means fewer and smaller grants will be awarded in 2015 and 2016. The review also leaves the United Kingdom languishing in seventh place among G8 nations in R&D spending as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP); its 0.6% tops only Italy. “A commitment from all sides of the debate to raise total government investment in science to the EU average of 0.7% of GDP, by the end of the next Parliament, would set Britain on the path for science-fuelled growth,” Yellowlees said.

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Study Finds Women Biologists More Likely to Avoid Spotlight at Conferences

Women who have beaten the odds to find themselves in the upper echelons of science face a further hurdle—visibility. Female scientists are less likely to sit on science advisory boards, receive awards, and give invited talks at conferences. However, a new study suggests that the reasons women appear less often on the podium are complicated.

Reporting in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Julia Schroeder of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and Hannah Dugdale of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom found that only 16% of invited speakers at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology Congress between 2001 and 2011 were women. The total—66 of 430 individuals—was half of what would be expected based on the number of senior female scientists in the life sciences.

The dearth of women is not because they aren’t being invited. Instead, female scientists were twice as likely as their male counterparts to turn down an invitation to talk in slots reserved for presenting original and important work. At the same time, the number of female presenters of posters and uninvited talks was almost at parity with men.

Evolutionary biologist Trudy MacKay of North Carolina State University in Raleigh says that relatively short notice and a tight budget contributed to her decision to decline an invitation to talk at the congress in 2011. Women also turn down talks because they receive too many invitations each year and are anxious about balancing the demands of family and work, says Jeanine Olsen of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who headed one of Europe’s Seventh Framework Programme’s Gender Action Plans aimed at promoting gender awareness. Younger women also tend to do less self-promotion, Olsen adds.

Finding ways to address those issues is next on Schroeder and Dugdale’s agenda. And the first step is to contact scientists to find out why they declined invitations. “Then we [will] know what can be done to change their minds,” Schroeder says.

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German Researchers Withdraw From Canadian Oil Sands Project

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TORONTO, CANADA—German scientists have pulled out of an international research project with Canada that was attempting to find ways to minimize the environmental damage caused by exploiting Alberta’s oil sands. The move comes after political pressure forced Germany’s largest scientific organization, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, to rethink its connections with an industry that many consider to be environmentally destructive.

The scientists who are part of the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative (HAI) will no longer be involved in developing technologies that improve Alberta’s crude oil or treat the toxic effluent from the oil sands projects. Instead, the scientists will focus their efforts on the initiative’s remaining research avenues, such as carbon capture and storage and mine site reclamation.

It is a change in focus, Stefan Scherer, the managing director for the HAI, tells ScienceInsider. HAI, founded in 2011, is a partnership between the Helmholtz Association and the University of Alberta “designed to find solutions to the pressing environmental issues facing energy projects such as Alberta’s oil sands in Canada and coal production in Germany,” according to the project’s Web site. “I don’t anticipate laying off scientists,” nor will money be withdrawn from the project; the initiative is not collapsing, Scherer adds. That sentiment was echoed by a spokesperson for Alberta’s Environment Minister Diana McQueen, whose department donated CAD $25 million to the project 2 years ago.

Of the four Helmholtz institutes involved in the partnership, only one, the Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, has suspended its work in Canada. The institute’s supervisory board voted in December to impose a moratorium on UFZ’s involvement in the project. This decision is a “small hiccup”, explained Lorne Babiuk, the vice president of research at the University of Alberta and co-chair in the initiative. He added that the initiative’s focus can easily be redirected because much of the technology being developed for use in the oil sands is relevant to other carbon industries. “We will reorient the initiative,” agrees the other co-chair, Reinhard Hüttl, scientific executive director of Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. “We won’t have projects directly related to oil sands.”

The German move was in part triggered by ongoing debate over a possible amendment to the European Union’s fuel quality directive that would restrict the use of “high-polluting” oil within Europe. Germany, the largest market for fuels in Europe and the fourth largest in the world, has so far blocked the move along with the United Kingdom, but public opposition to importing Albertan oil remains high. The Canadian government has been lobbying German politicians at both the national and the European level to continue blocking the ban. That lobbying, along with Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, prompted several German politicians to ask the Helmholtz Association pointed questions about the Alberta project.

“It was seen as a risk for our reputation,” Frank Messner, Helmholtz’s Environmental Research Centre head of staff, told a European news Web site. “As an environmental research centre we have an independent role as an honest broker and doing research in this constellation could have had reputational problems for us, especially after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.

An independent assessment into Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative environmental credentials will report its findings in June.

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Canada’s Cash Controversy

TORONTO, CANADA—The Bank of Canada has issued an apology for expunging an Asian-looking scientist from a new $100 banknote after some Canadians objected to the figure. The bank’s governor said that the bank will review the design process for new currency in light of the ensuing public outcry.

The kerfuffle began several years ago, when currency designers showed focus groups the proposed design for a bill highlighting Canada’s contributions to biomedical science. The bank has declined to release that original image, which apparently showed a woman with Asian features using a microscope. But some members of the focus groups expressed concerns that “Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented,” and that the image “stereotype[d] … Asians [as] excelling in technology and/or the sciences,”
according to a report published by the Vancouver Sun. The bank then redrew the image to appear more Caucasian, which has ruffled feathers. An editorial in the Calgary Herald, for example, complained that the bank’s actions =”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”
unwittingly reinforced the bigoted notion that white skin is neutral, [and] that ethnicity is a quality white people don’t have.=”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”

Ted Hsu, a former physicist and member of Canada’s Parliament, also criticized the bank’s actions. “I don’t think there is anything wrong … with the original image having too clear an ethnicity,” he says. “Canada is a diverse country; I think it is okay to have people of different ethnicities represented on our currency. … The Bank of Canada should not have responded to feedback [from focus groups] about how someone looked,” he adds, but should have instead left the design to the artist.

The new plasticized banknotes, which went into circulation this year, are more secure, cheaper, and greener than existing bills. In addition to the female scientist, the $100 note also includes a picture of a vial of insulin, which represents the discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes by Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best (along with non-Canadian John Macleod). An image of an electrocardiogram alludes to the 1950s invention of the pacemaker, and a twist of DNA represents Canada’s role in sequencing the human genome. The significance of the controversial figure at the microscope is less clear.

“At least it’s a woman,” quips Paul Dufour, a science policy specialist at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. The bank got one thing right, he says: It tried to promote the role of women in science.

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Scientists march on Canadian parliament

To the mournful tune of a lone saxophone scientists marched through the streets of Ottawa and onto Canada’s Parliament Hill  to protest a glut of cuts to government research labs and — they say — a lack of evidence-based decision making in the Canadian government.

The 10 July rally drew an estimated 2000 scientists, graduate students and their supporters to the sunny capital, many of them dressed in white lab coats; smaller protests took place in other cities across the country including in Regina,  Guelph and Calgary.

The protesters accuse the Harper government of shutting down Canadian scientific agencies because they threaten to expose the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction, particularly from the Alberta oil sand,  and of mining on Canadian lakes and rivers.

“That’s a story that [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen Harper doesn’t want you to hear,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, an advocacy organization that works to promote green water and energy policies, in her speech outside the Houses of Parliament.

Cuts to the Canadian federal budget this year have meant the closure of various scientific programs, including the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a 44-year-old research station that houses a system of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario. ELA provided the first evidence for acid rain, and diagnosed the effects of mercury pollution and synthetic hormones on aquatic life.

“Society has learned a tremendous amount [from these lakes],” said Jeff Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution.  “It [will] be tremendous loss, and not just to Canadian society, because [the lakes] generates knowledge of importance to any country with lakes,” he told Nature.

The cuts are imminent. The first of Canadian government scientists will lose their positions at the beginning of August , and the closure of the ELA is slated for April next year.

“The government would like to have universities take over this facility, [but] in this time frame that almost certainly won’t happen…[the facility] will [therefore] presumably be moth-balled, taking with it decades of internationally renowned research,” said Hutchings.

In response to today’s protest, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, released a statement that claims the Canadian governments commitment to supporting science. “Our government is investing in science and research that is leading to breakthroughs that are strengthening our economy and the quality of life of all Canadians.

“While the government is returning to a balanced budget, science, technology and innovation remain a strong priority with an added $1.1-billion investment over five years,” he said.

But Ian Rutherford, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society based in Ottawa points out that the protest is not just about a failure by the government to fund science. “There is an insidious campaign to muzzle scientists, to keep science out of the news, to… make science unimportant,” he says. “I think it is wrong. The scientific community has to stand up and say this is nuts.”

One environmental scientist, Kringen Henein of Carlton University in Ottawa, told Nature: “I’m really depressed… I just became a grandmother…and what is my grandson’s country going to be like in forty years if this is the way we are going?”

UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog stated that 5000 participated in the march, according to an organizer’s count. The revised figure of 2000 is based on a police estimate.

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UK invests in graphene technology

The UK government has pledged £50m towards developing spin-off technologies from the super-strong material graphene.

The announcement comes exactly a year after two Manchester-based scientists were awarded the Nobel-prize for its discovery.

The money is hoped to give researchers more bench space to explore the material’s commercial potential.

Funds will be available in the next few months, said the UK science minister.

Graphene, the “miracle material” of the 21st Century, is so far the strongest material known to science, and better at conducting electricity than copper.

It could have a large number of potential application; scientists say it could find uses from transparent touch screens to solar cells, from aircraft wings to optical communication systems, like broadband.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, in his speech at the Conservative Party conference said: “…We will fund a national research programme that will take this Nobel Prize-winning discovery from the British laboratory to the British factory floor.

“We’ve got to get Britain making things again.

“Countries like Singapore, Korea, America are luring [researchers] with lucrative offers to move their research overseas,” he added.

The funds for graphene R&D are in addition to £145 million “earmarked” for the establishment of more UK-based supercomputers, along with funding to support more computer-scientists and facilities to house them, the University and Science Minister David Willetts told BBC News.

He said: “I’m very happy; even in tough times we are investing in science”.

In response to the announcement, Professor Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics, said: “We’re delighted that the Government recognises the role science can play in creating a vibrant, diverse economy for the future of the UK – investment in science delivers great returns economically and intellectually”.

“We applauded the Government’s decision to ‘invest intelligently’,” said the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) Imran Khan in a statement.

However, he cautions: “These new investments are coming in the wake of enormous cuts to the nation’s science and engineering base.

“Last month [Case] released an analysis showing that £1.7bn will have been cut from research and development funds by 2014-15.”

Without a long-term strategy to put science and engineering at the heart of the UK’s economic recovery, said Mr Khan, home-growth discoveries like groundbreaking research into graphene could be a thing of the past.

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Climate to wreak havoc on food supply, predicts report

Areas where food supplies could be worst hit by climate change have been identified in a report.

Some areas in the tropics face famine because of failing food production, an international research group says.

The Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) predicts large parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be worst affected.

Its report points out that hundreds of millions of people in these regions are already experiencing a food crisis.

“We are starting to see much more clearly where the effects of climate change on agriculture could intensify hunger and poverty,” said Patti Kristjanson, an agricultural economist with the CCAFS initiative that produced the report.

A leading climatologist told BBC News that agriculturalists had been slow to use global climate models to pinpoint regions most affected by rising temperatures.

This report is the first foray into the field by the CCAFS initiative. To assess how climate change will affect the world’s ability to feed itself, CCAFS set about finding hotspots of climate change and food insecurity.

Focusing their search on the tropics, the researchers identified regions where populations are chronically malnourished and highly dependent on local food supplies.

Then, basing their analysis on the climate data amassed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the team predicted which of these food-insecure regions are likely to experience the greatest shifts in temperature and precipitation over the next 40 years.

Mapping hunger

By overlaying the maps, the team was able to pinpoint which hungry regions of the tropics would suffer most.

With many areas in Africa predicted to become drier, countries such as South Africa which predominately farm maize have the option to shift to more drought resistant crops.

But for countries such as Niger, in western Africa, which already supports itself on very drought resistant crop varieties, like sorghum and millet, there is little room for manoeuvre, explains Bruce Campbell, the director of CCAFS.

“West Africa really stands out as problematic. Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali. They are already dependent on sorghum and millet.

“In many places in Africa you are really going to need [a] revolution in farming systems,” he says.

“We need everything we can lay our hands on,” said Sir Gordon Conway, professor of international development at Imperial College London.

Governments are aiming to limit the average increase in temperature to 2C by the end of the century, he explained. But if temperatures continue to follow their current trajectories “we are on for a 3-4C increase”, Sir Gordon explained.

If this was correct “things get very alarming”, the professor said.

Professor Martin Parry, a visiting professor at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, who co-chaired one of the working groups in the IPCC’s last climate assessment, responded to the report by saying he thought that CGIAR, the parent body to the CCAFS, had been slow to move into the field of climate change as a key area of research. But he added that this step was very welcome.

But he cautioned: “This gives us a better local picture of where the most vulnerable areas might be… but it doesn’t make strong enough connections between the changes in the weather and its impacts on yields.”

This made it difficult to plan for adaptations, Professor Parry told BBC News.

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