Oct 19, 2017

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Welcome back. Please let me know what you think of Axios Science and our coverage in the stream. You can send me a note (alison@axios.com) or reply to this email.

The pitch for a health DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is known for creative, high-tech research projects that often sound like science fiction. Now, a philanthropic heavyweight and a former DARPA program director together are pushing for the federal government's health department to have its own version.

The big questions: How would it fit in the health department that also includes the National Institutes of Health? And how will pharmaceutical and other companies be incentivized to take products to market? The answers — and some clever navigating of the potential tensions — could help determine whether an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or HARPA, ever gets off the ground.

The players: Bob Wright, the former CEO of NBC and founder of Autism Speaks, is the main force behind the proposal. He's tapped Geoffrey Ling, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins and the former director of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, to develop the proposed agency and, Wright hopes, lead it.

The details: They advocate setting up a semi-autonomous body directly under the Department of Health and Human Services — but independent from NIH.

  • HARPA, like DARPA, would be "performance-based, milestone-driven, timeline-driven with the efforts determined by the government," Ling says.
  • It would center on contracts between the agency and researchers spanning academia, corporate and government agencies.

Read the full story here.

How Harvey might impact coral reefs

Rice University's Adrienne Correa writes in Axios today: Hurricane Harvey dumped thirteen trillion gallons of rain on southeast Texas. That water has since gathered into a massive low-salinity plume on the Texas ocean shelf. Before November, winds may carry some of this runoff to reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, triggering mass death or disease in corals and other organisms.

Why it matters: Reefs protect shorelines and support fisheries. We know hurricanes destroy reefs through wave action, but less is known about the impacts of storm-driven runoff. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of such storms, actions to mitigate these effects will be needed.

Go deeper with the rest of Adrienne's piece.

Axios stories to spark your brain
  • History: Scientists detected the collision of two neutron stars for the first time, providing evidence for the cosmic source of gold and other heavy elements. Even more important: they say the approach — via both traditional telescopes and gravitational wave detectors — demonstrates a new way to study the universe.
  • Superhuman: The latest version of AlphaGo mastered the ancient game without any input from humans.
  • Hot: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports the first nine months of 2017 are the second-warmest in records dating back to the late 1800s, per Ben Geman.
Who owns space?

Axios' Erin Ross writes: We're standing at the starting line of a new space race, one that could trigger a gold rush-like hunt for resources. Companies are lining up to launch space mining missions, and countries are passing laws to allow them. There's just one problem: Under some interpretations of the 50-year-old Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by almost 100 countries, none of this is legal.

The bottom line: In the past, the answer to the question "who owns space?" was easy: everyone and no one. Soon, that might not be true.

Read Erin's story about the thorny legal questions surrounding our push into space.

What we're reading elsewhere
Something wondrous

Red wood ant species, found in Europe and North America, build 7-foot mounds in the forests. A few years ago, a husband-and-wife team of geologists, Gabriele and Martin Berberich, noticed the mounds tend to be found near active tectonic faults. They struggled to publish that observation. "It sounds crazy, right? — geology and ants interacting?" says their collaborator Israel del Toro, an entomologist at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

But in a study published last week, they modeled their efforts on medicine's double-blind experimental design to determine whether there is an association between the geology of a place and the occurrence of ants there.

How they did it: Del Toro and his colleague mapped the location of nests in two forested areas in Denmark without knowing the geology or the hypothesis. The Berberichs meanwhile compiled data about the tectonic faults in the area, not knowing what Del Toro found.

When they put the two datasets together, they found the ants' nests "were eight times more likely to be found within 60 m of known tectonic faults than were random points in the same region but without nests."

What's next: Correlation, of course, doesn't imply causation. The researchers want to know whether there is any underlying biology. One idea: the ants could be using warm gas released from microfaults that can't be seen with the eye as chimneys to stay active during the cold winters. They plan to now map the microfaults in the area and determine their temperature.

Alison Snyder