Axios Science

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January 13, 2022

Welcome back to Axios Science. This week's newsletter is 1,475 words, a 5½-minute read.

1 big thing: White House pushes scientific integrity policy forward

Illustration of a microscope examining a stack of papers
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Biden administration's push to bolster scientific integrity policies across federal agencies yielded its first report this week, but a co-chair of the report's panel is facing her own questions from the scientific community about a recent research integrity ethics breach, Andrew and I write.

Why it matters: The report could help address political interference or other methods of undermining science used to draw public health, environmental and technology policies.

Key takeaways: The first report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy calls for strengthening existing agency policies that protect federal science from suppression, manipulation and influence, including from politicians.

  • It also recommends creating an interagency body to implement the policies across the board and help sort out political interference — especially by senior-level officials who can be insulated from their own agencies.
  • The authors outlined a need for policies to cover citizen science as well as AI and other emerging technologies.
  • The report explicitly doesn't define scientific integrity, but it suggests that a standard definition for the federal government could be useful and outlines how it could encompass research integrity.

"It is a great first step that lays the groundwork for bolstering scientific integrity," says Jacob Carter, who researches scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The panel is facing one uncomfortable scientific integrity issue of its own. A co-chair of the White House's Scientific Integrity Task Force, noted marine scientist Jane Lubchenco, is facing criticism for her role in a research paper retracted last year.

  • Before she took up her current post as OSTP's first-ever deputy director of climate and environment, Lubchenco edited a research paper published in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS.
  • The paper on marine protected areas was retracted from the journal in October 2021 because the data underlying the analysis was not the most up to date and for violating conflict of interest policies.
  • Lubchenco has a personal relationship with one of the authors (her brother-in-law) and collaborated with the authors on related research, "both of which are disallowed" by the journal's editorial policies, PNAS stated in its retraction statement.

What they're saying: Researchers have criticized the research and pointed out the significance of the retraction while noting that Lubchenco is currently in a White House role. Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, went so far as to write that her task force leadership should be reconsidered.

  • Violations happen, and this one isn't "earth-shattering," he told Axios.
  • But Lubchenco's role in leading the Biden administration's efforts on scientific integrity sends the message that they "don’t expect to be held accountable on this."
  • "The issues that PNAS had with peer review of that paper and her role in it are explicitly singled out as matters of scientific integrity in this report," Pielke said.
  • An OSTP official tells Axios Lubchenco agreed the paper should be retracted. "But this task force report ... clearly addresses situations where there’s a close personal or professional relationship with a peer reviewer. So there’s no evidence that Jane’s work with the task force resulted in any pulled punch on the topic.”

What to watch: Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) introduced a scientific integrity bill in Congress last year. The bill, which has 178 co-sponsors (all but one of whom are Democrats), calls for standardizing policies across agencies.

  • Supporters of the legislation, including Pielke, say it is the most effective way to protect federal science and scientists from political interference.

Read the full story.

2. Earth's climate went off the rails in 2021, reports show

Data: NASA; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

Global warming became local to a new and devastating extent in 2021, with the year ranking as the sixth warmest on record, according to new, independent data from NASA, NOAA and Berkeley Earth, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: Each year's data adds to the relentless long-term trend, which shows rapid warming due overwhelmingly to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions during the past several decades in particular.

  • The global shifts in ocean heat, atmospheric moisture and surface temperatures on shorter timescales are increasingly being felt in the form of unprecedented and deadly extreme weather and climate events.
  • The world has not experienced a cooler than average year, compared to the 20th-century average, since 1976.

By the numbers: The statistics contained in these reports are astounding and drive home just how different the climate is today from just a few decades ago.

  • Nearly 2 billion people lived through their hottest year on record, as 25 countries earned this distinction, including China and Nigeria. No place on Earth had its coldest year on record, according to Berkeley Earth.
  • Four of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history occurred in 2021, as heat waves and drought primed the environment for massive blazes. This included the second-largest blaze on record, the Dixie Fire, which scorched more than 963,000 acres.
  • The nine years from 2013 through 2021 rank among the top 10 warmest years on record, according to NOAA.
  • The world is now 1.2°C (2.2°F) warmer than preindustrial levels, Berkeley Earth found, closing in on the Paris Climate Agreement's temperature target of limiting warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.
  • Beyond that point, scientists say, more perilous and potentially irreversible climate consequences may occur, including melting polar ice caps and loss of iconic ecosystems, such as coral reefs.

Go deeper.

3. Catch up quick on COVID

Data: N.Y. Times; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The U.S. is averaging 760,000 new COVID infections each day — more than double two weeks ago — and deaths are also on the rise, per Axios' Sam Baker and Kavya Beheraj.

The WHO warned Tuesday against treating COVID-19 as an "endemic" illness, per Axios' Erin Doherty.

A span of months between COVID-19 vaccination and a breakthrough SARS-CoV-2 infection may "offer greater protection against the Omicron variant than do closely spaced vaccination and infection," Nature's Saima May Sidik reports on a new study not yet peer reviewed.

"Fitted particle-filtering masks like N95s are up to 75 times more effective at preventing infection with COVID-19 than surgical masks," according to a recent study visualized by Axios' Will Chase.

4. Black hole eats a star

Artist's illustration of a black hole shredding a star.
Artist's illustration of a black hole shredding a star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A team of scientists using archival data has spotted a black hole shredding a star in deep space, Axios' Miriam Kramer writes.

Why it matters: This kind of stellar sleuthing can be used to find more of these types of events and piece together the details of how galaxies evolve through time.

Details: When a star gets too close to a black hole, the massive black hole can rip the star apart.

  • A new study accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal details one of these events seen by researchers on Earth in archival data gathered in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s by radio telescopes.
  • The object, named J1533+2727, was extremely bright in the late '80s through the mid-1990s but faded by 2017, according to the research team.
  • The authors of the study think that fading was caused by the star being gobbled up by the black hole in what's known as a "tidal disruption event."

Read more.

5. Worthy of your time

In a first, man receives a heart from a genetically altered pig (Roni Caryn Rabin — NYT)

Flying fish and aquarium pets yield secrets of evolution (Viviane Callier — Quanta)

Zeynep Pamuk on the case for creating science courts (Dan Falk — Undark)

6. Something wondrous

icefish in the Weddell Sea
Icefish in the Weddell Sea. Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute / PS124 AWI OFOBS team

Researchers have discovered a massive colony of icefish in Antarctica's southern Weddell Sea.

The big picture: Groups of up to 60 icefish nests have been spotted before, but researchers have now found an estimated 60 million active nests, which is believed to be the largest ever seen.

Details: Scientists were towing a camera behind their research vessel to survey the seafloor when they made the surprising discovery.

  • "We found fish nest after fish nest for four hours," says Autun Purser, a deep-sea ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany. "Nothing but fish nests."
  • The colony spans an estimated 240 square kilometers (about 93 square miles), the researchers report today in the journal Current Biology.
  • The majority of the nests had one male icefish guarding the eggs.

Why it matters: The researchers think the icefish (Neopagetopsis ionah) could be using the warmer waters in the area to navigate to the breeding colony.

  • Purser says it is likely the icefish are an important food source for Weddell seals that populate the sea ice and are known to dive in the area.

What's next: The scientists left cameras in the water to photograph the nests four times each day for the next three years.

  • They're interested in capturing more details about the nests — including whether the eggs hatch at the same time and if the location of the nests changes — to understand how the massive colony delivers nutrients to the unique ecosystem.
  • "The deep sea and under ice environment are not barren of life," Purser says. The colony is "a huge hidden ecosystem and it must support and influence neighboring ecosystems."

Thanks to Sarah Grillo for this week's illustration and Sheryl Miller for editing this edition. Sign up to receive this newsletter.

Editor's note: The final item in this newsletter has been updated with information about the navigation role of the warm waters in icefish breeding.