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December 09, 2016

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[Editorial] Lifeline for refugee scholars

The global refugee crisis now stands at 65 million forcibly displaced people, according to the United Nations. Could the world ever have imagined a number exceeding that produced by the Nazis and World War II? The conflict over Syria alone, raging since 2011, has so far resulted in more than 11 million refugees and internally displaced persons. Over the past year, international summits have convened to address this global crisis, including the United Nations Summit in September. There is a growing view that the world must recognize these individuals not as part of a temporary emergency, but as a long-term challenge, and one where higher education can play a major role. Author: Allan Goodman

by Allan Goodman at December 09, 2016 12:00 AM

[In Brief] News at a glance

In science news around the world, the European Space Agency's funders give the second half of the ExoMars mission a go but kill the Asteroid Impact Mission, the hunt for gravitational waves resumes, Indonesia's government issues a permanent ban on converting peatlands for agriculture, and the U.S. Congress is poised to make a deal on legislation that determines how the National Science Foundation will fund research proposals. Also, scientists prepare to investigate the aftermath of fires that raged through the southern Appalachian Mountains last month. And a chunk of amber picked up in a Myanmar market turns out to contain an unusual treasure: a feathered dinosaur tail.

December 09, 2016 12:00 AM

[In Depth] Corals tie stronger El Niños to climate change

A detailed, long-term ocean temperature record derived from corals on Christmas Island in Kiribati and other islands in the tropical Pacific shows that the extreme warmth of recent El Niño events reflects not just the natural ocean-atmosphere cycle but a new factor: global warming caused by human activity. Over the last 7000 years, El Niños, which warm the eastern Pacific, waxed and waned. Then, during the 20th century, their intensity began to climb. The trend is likely to continue, boding ever-more-destructive El Niños in the future. The finding helps settle a long-standing debate about the role of global warming in these events, which had been hard to resolve because records are short and spotty in the remote parts of the Pacific where El Niño hits hardest. Author: Christopher Pala

by Christopher Pala at December 09, 2016 12:00 AM

[In Depth] Worries, confusion after cancer trial deaths

An experimental cancer therapy is facing its biggest setback yet, after an unexpected complication killed seven people, five of them in a single clinical trial. The company, Seattle, Washington–based Juno Therapeutics, has its most troubled trial on hold and is racing to figure out why patients suffered fatal brain swelling, called cerebral edema. Researchers elsewhere are grappling with possible ramifications for the breakthrough treatment, in which a patient's T cells are genetically engineered to fight cancer. Called chimeric antigen receptor–T therapy, it goes up for drug approval next year. Doctors speculate that the cerebral edema could be due to the specific product tested and the trial's patient population, rather than the overall strategy itself. But they're mostly in the dark, and hope that additional research, including new animal models, could help explain what happened and why. Author: Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel at December 09, 2016 12:00 AM

[In Depth] U.S. Congress wants to know the weather weeks ahead

The U.S. Congress is poised to pass a sweeping weather bill, the first in a generation, that, among its many provisions, aims to bolster the capacity of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to make seasonal weather predictions between 2 weeks and 2 years out. The bill also calls for NOAA to improve its hurricane and tornado research, directs the agency to improve tsunami warnings and research prehistoric surges, orders the agency to evaluate how well the public understands its weather alerts, offers a sharp response to NOAA's delayed and overbudget satellite missions, and requires NOAA to shift from relying exclusively on its own satellites and weather data and to look for commercial alternatives wherever possible. Author: Paul Voosen

by Paul Voosen at December 09, 2016 12:00 AM

[In Depth] AIDS epidemic nears control in three African countries

This World AIDS Day, 1 December, surprisingly good news came out of southern Africa, the region in the world that has suffered the most from HIV. A random household survey done of some 80,000 people in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—each of which has more than 10% of adults living with the virus—found that more than 86% of the people on treatment had fully suppressed their virus. This means they can stave off AIDS and it vastly reduces the likelihood that they will transmit the virus to others. In keeping with this finding, the massive survey effort led by Columbia University's Mailman School of Health discovered that the rate of new infections in Zimbabwe and Zambia was substantially lower than previously estimated by modeling done by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) that relied on less rigorous data. This bolsters hopes that these countries are on the path to the UNAIDS goal of controlling their AIDS epidemics by 2030. Author: Jon Cohen

by Jon Cohen at December 09, 2016 12:00 AM

[In Depth] Perovskite solar cells gear up to go commercial

Cheap photovoltaic materials called perovskites are continuing their march to commercialization. At a meeting in Boston last week, researchers reported new results on tandem solar photovoltaics in which perovskite cells are layered atop conventional silicon solar cells. In this configuration, the perovskite cells absorb more bluish photons, whereas the silicon cells absorb photons toward the red end of the visible spectrum. The new tandems already generate more energy than either of the component cells by themselves. And it's expected they will continue to improve over the next year, perhaps converting as much as 30% of incoming light energy into electricity. Steady progress is also being made in making perovskites rugged and durable enough to survive in real-world conditions. If all goes well, the first commercially made perovskite-silicon tandems could be ready for field tests in 2018. Author: Robert F. Service

by Robert F. Service at December 09, 2016 12:00 AM

[In Depth] Carbon monoxide, the silent killer, may have met its match

Given off by engines, heaters, and fireplaces, the tasteless, odorless gas known as carbon monoxide (CO) sends more than 50,000 Americans to the emergency room—and kills approximately 500—every year. CO poisons in at least two ways. First, it binds tightly to the hemoglobin in blood and prevents it from delivering oxygen throughout the body. Second, it inhibits the process of respiration in mitochondria, cells' powerhouses. About the best physicians can now offer in cases of poisoning is a treatment developed more than 50 years ago: high-pressure oxygen. But a research team has repurposed the protein neuroglobin into a highly effective CO scavenger and a study in mice gives hope it may become the first true antidote for CO poisoning. Author: Wudan Yan

by Wudan Yan at December 09, 2016 12:00 AM