Europe waters down transnational ‘research buddy’ plan

Europe’s latest research-funding programme includes, for the first time, money for ‘low-performing’ member states to set up research centres in their regions, in partnership with well-established institutions from other countries. But some observers were disappointed earlier this month when the European Union (EU) announced that the host countries will manage the centres — a rule that critics say could be challenging for fledgling institutions and perhaps perpetuate problems, such as nepotism, that have contributed to their poor performance in the first place.

“There are lots of really good scientists [in southern and eastern Europe] but it’s the management of institutions that is inefficient, old style, corrupt,” says Botond Roska, a neuroscientist at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland.

In the ‘teaming’ scheme, partners would submit business plans for new or upgraded research centres and a strategy for complementing local strengths. Those with the best plans would win initial funding of €200,000–500,000 (US$ 273,000–684,000) from Horizon 2020 — the EU’s €80-billion research-funding scheme for 2014–20 — and could compete for a further €15 million–20 million in a second round.

Read the rest of this news story at Nature News [html] [pdf]

See also my previous coverage of the teaming scheme for Nature News ["European ministers back research-buddy plan" 18 December 2012] and Science Magazine ["Europe Mulls Plans to Boost Research in Poorer Regions" 7 June 2012]


The Moon Belongs to No One, but What About Its Artifacts?

In 1969, the third man to walk on the moon, astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., also became the first lunar archaeologist. As part of the Apollo 12 crew, he examined an earlier robotic lander, Surveyor 3, and retrieved its TV camera, aluminum tubing and other hardware, giving NASA scientists back on Earth the evidence they needed to study how human-made materials fared in the lunar environment.

This week’s planned robotic landing by the Chinese National Space Agency, the first controlled landing since the 1976 Luna 24 mission, signals a renewal of sophisticated lunar exploration. This time around, more countries will be involved, as will commercial entities. Private organizations are in hot pursuit of the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers cash rewards for achieving technical milestones, one of which is landing near the Apollo sites. A recent bill introduced in the House, called the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act, proposes a novel form of protection. Unfortunately, it appears to interfere with existing space law.
Read the rest of this post at Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog: [html] [pdf]

See also my 2011 story on this topic for Science Magazine: [html]

Volvo to Test Self-Driving Cars in Traffic

Volvo and a consortium of Swedish research institutions will test self-driving cars in street traffic in and around Gothenburg starting in 2017, they announced yesterday. The project begins next year with customer research and hardware development. It will culminate in a fleet of 100 cars that will alternate between driving themselves and allowing their human occupants to drive, depending on where they are.

Read the rest of this blog post on IEEE Spectrum’s Tech Talk blog: [html] [pdf]


The Sound of Sliding

December-2013-coverWhen a landslide tore through a remote Alaskan valley in July, no one was there to bear witness. But hours later, geoscientist Colin Stark of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory spotted the event in the pattern of seismic waves passing through the Earth’s crust. Within days, using data from earthquake sensors and satellite images, he and colleague Göran Ekström were able to estimate, from their lab in New York, the landslide’s size, and even determine its path.

The forces generated by landslides aren’t as well understood as those that occur during earthquakes, partly because landslides often strike unpopulated areas with no observers. As a result, landslides leave few clues to how they unfold, making it difficult to predict them or prevent damage the next time.

When humans do live nearby, the consequences can be dire. In 2000, a landslide on the Chinese-Indian border went unnoticed. The rubble created a dam that broke a few months later, killing about 130 people. With better tools for understanding how landslides evolve, where they flow and why some parts of slopes crumble as they do, “these people would not have died,” Stark says.

Ekström and Stark’s collaboration began when Ekström was investigating an apparent series of earthquakes in Taiwan. The seismic data generated by the quakes seemed odd, so he approached Stark, an expert on landslides in the region. To understand the unfolding event better, they created an algorithm combining data from satellite imagery and the international network of seismic stations. The algorithm showed the event was not an earthquake at all, but a series of landslides.

Soon, Ekström and Stark expanded their work to investigate landslides elsewhere. To trace the footsteps of a landslide, they begin by using seismic waves to calculate its force. Then they overlay satellite images to see how far the rubble traveled. Using these parameters, they can calculate a landslide’s mass and acceleration — information otherwise impossible to glean, even for those videotaping the event.

Recently the two used their method to unearth crucial clues about 29 known landslides and discover previously unknown events, including a series of seven landslides in India in 2010. This kind of knowledge, they say, could eventually help researchers — and residents — steer clear of danger in advance of an event.
First published in the December 2013 Discover Magazine [html] [pdf]


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