Nuclear rocket eyed for Mars trips
NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plan to launch and test a nuclear-powered rocket engine in space as soon as 2027, the agencies announced last week. Such engines promise higher thrust and efficiency than conventional ones, enabling faster travel times and bigger payloads for human missions to Mars, the agencies say. Although NASA has experimented with nuclear engines since the 1960s, none has been demonstrated in space. Powered by low-enriched uranium, the engine’s fission reactor will heat and vaporize liquid propellants, shooting the gases out of a nozzle to provide thrust. NASA will provide the engine and DARPA the experimental spacecraft that will carry it. The design plans include a safety review.
Pandemic declaration extended
Three years after it started, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), the World Health Organization (WHO) declared this week. But a special emergency committee for the disease hinted that the designation—which gives WHO recommendations more heft and can influence travel and quarantine policies—might end later this year. Since WHO first declared COVID-19 a PHEIC on 30 January 2020, the panel has recommended 11 times to keep the designation in place. Although COVID-19 is causing fewer deaths now than 1 year ago, it “remains a dangerous infectious disease,” the panel said, with more than 170,000 COVID-19–related deaths reported within the past 8 weeks, about 80,000 of them in China. The committee encouraged WHO to integrate SARS-CoV-2 surveillance into monitoring of influenza viruses. It asked the agency to assess how ending the PHEIC would affect the development and authorization of COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. Separately, the administration of President Joe Biden said this week it will end the U.S. declaration of a national public health emergency in May . That policy has, for example, paid for COVID-19 testing and treatment for people lacking health insurance.
Scientists’ job joy stays strong
Job satisfaction in 2021 among U.S. scientists and engineers holding Ph.D.s matched the high levels recorded prepandemic, according to survey findings reported last week by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Across academe, government, and industry, between 89% and 95% of respondents said they were very or somewhat satisfied with their principal job, about the same levels as in 2019. Employment also stayed high, at about 85%. In 2021, 3% reported that COVID-19 influenced them to work only part time or not at all, for example because of pandemic-related family responsibilities, reduced hours, or layoffs, the Survey of Doctorate Recipients found.
Reports of Long Covid wane
Long Covid’s prevalence among Americans who’ve had the virus is declining, a survey indicates. The new data come from the Household Pulse Survey, run by the U.S. Census Bureau; during the pandemic, it has added questions about COVID-19. The most recent results, analyzed last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation, showed that in June 2022, 19% of people who reported having had a bout of COVID-19 said they had Long Covid when they took the survey. By January, that number had dropped to 11%. The decline suggests at least some people are recovering from the chronic, disabling symptoms, such as fatigue and breathlessness, associated with Long Covid. It also suggests the risk of developing Long Covid may have dropped over time. Still, the U.S. prevalence is about 6%, as researchers study how to treat it.
Dolphins boost fishers’ haul
For more than a century, artisanal fishers in southern Brazil have worked alongside wild bottlenose dolphins in an unusual example of cooperative hunting. The dolphins chase a 40-centimeter-long fish called the Lebranche mullet (Mugil liza) toward shore, where fishers standing in shallow water toss their nets. Now, researchers have quantified the benefits for the fishers: They increase the odds of catching mullet 17-fold when they throw their nets in sync with the dolphins’ predatory dives. These mammals use rapid-fire echolocation, a sign of hunting, when the fishers are casting. But this teamwork has become less common during the past 16 years as overfishing by artisanal and commercial fishers has reduced mullet populations, the scientists report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
China’s R&D outlay surges again
China’s expenditures on R&D rose 10.4% in 2022, to 3.09 trillion yuan ($457 billion), the country’s National Bureau of Statistics says. It was the seventh year in a row spending rose by 10% or more. In 2020, China’s R&D spending was about 15% less than that of the United States.
Lander returns to research jobs
Eric Lander, who resigned in February 2022 as President Joe Biden’s top science adviser after an investigation found he bullied subordinates, will resume academic research positions he held before starting that position. He had taken leave from the Broad Institute and faculty positions at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work for the White House. The institute’s director, Todd Golub, wrote Broad researchers last week that “we have high expectations for all Broadies to foster an inclusive culture of respect. … Eric also deeply values this culture and is committed to upholding it.”
Hallucinogen tackles depression
The psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has shown promise in treating major depressive disorder in an early stage trial, a drugmaker said last week in a press release. It is one of several hallucinogens medical researchers have been testing for mental disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The short duration of DMT-induced trips, lasting 20 minutes to 1 hour, may offer an alternative to longer treatment sessions needed with other psychedelics, such as psilocybin and LSD. In the DMT trial, half of the 34 participants received an active dose, the other half only a placebo; all also received supportive therapy. Using a standardized rating scale for major depression, researchers found those who received DMT showed a significant reduction in their symptoms at the end of 2 weeks compared with placebo, according to the firm Small Pharma, which made the test compound.
Tubes, containing rock, deposited by NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars’s surface for possible return to Earth for analysis. They will serve as a backup in case the rover fails to deliver other samples to a future lander.
Biden nixes mining in U.S. wilderness area
The Biden administration blocked new mining and geothermal development in 91,258 hectares in northern Minnesota containing rivers, lakes, and forests for at least 20 years under a decision announced last week. The protected area includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and surrounding watershed, which are the most heavily visited wilderness in the United States. The policy reverses one by former President Donald Trump’s administration that opened the way for a copper and nickel mine. Scientists who studied the proposal said pollution from the mine could enter nearby waters. Only Congress can make the mining ban permanent.
NIH oversight of EcoHealth grant rapped
A federal watchdog has found the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) did not properly oversee a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York City–based nonprofit that funded work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump claimed SARS-CoV-2 could have come from the WIV lab, an idea that many scientists continue to say lacks evidence. Soon after, NIH terminated the EcoHealth grant, which had provided $600,000 to WIV. The 18-month-long audit by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services says NIH did not provide a valid reason for the termination or provide EcoHealth with required information for appealing the decision. The report also finds that “NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address” problems with the project’s compliance, such as a 2-year delay in a progress report from EcoHealth that described potentially risky virus experiments. And auditors concluded that EcoHealth’s monitoring of WIV eroded once the pandemic started and that EcoHealth had overbilled $90,000 in expenses on NIH grants totaling $8 million from 2014 to 2021. EcoHealth responded that the audit “did not find significant issues” in its performance. NIH said it is improving its oversight.
New official worries Iran scientists
Many Iranian scientists are dismayed about the 17 January appointment of Abdolhossein Khosropanah, a hardline conservative cleric, as the new secretary of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCCR). Among other responsibilities, SCCR elects university deans and the presidents of the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Medical Sciences. As its secretary, Khosropanah, who succeeded a more moderate cleric, will not formally participate in decisions but can wield considerable informal power. Khosropanah has promoted unproven Islamic medicine against COVID-19—claiming it cured him three times—and has been accused of plagiarism.
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