A new human coronavirus isolated from a patient in Saudi Arabia is raising questions over how to handle the intellectual property (IP) of newly emerging infectious diseases. As Nature Biotechnology went to press, the World Health Organization (WHO) had been notified of 81 cases and 45 deaths globally since September 2012 attributed to the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, (MERS-CoV). Ali Mohamed Zaki, a microbiologist at Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who isolated the virus from a patient, has lost his job after announcing the existence of the virus through a public medium. Saudi officials accuse him of mailing a virus sample to a laboratory in The Netherlands without permission. They also claim that patents filed by the Dutch researchers have delayed the Saudi health response.
Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC) and Germany’s Max Planck Society agreed late last month to major budget cuts at the Hispano-German Astronomical Observatory at Calar Alto, Spain.
The new contract cuts the observatory’s 2014-2018 budget from 2010 forecasts (PDF, in Spanish) of more than €3.2 million per year to €1.6 million per year (PDF, in Spanish and English). Then the Max Planck Society, which has contributed nearly two-thirds of the observatory’s budget since 1979 in return for 50% of the facility’s observing time, will leave the joint venture. The decision to drop out is not new; it was part of a 2010 agreement and is part of a shift toward new observatories with different capabilities.
The observatory will start cutting staff this month, and beginning in 2014 it will operate only one of its three instruments, its 3.5-metre telescope. Its remaining 2.2-metre and 1.23-metre telescopes will be available to research teams with the funds to operate them.
“All the medium-size observatories are going through such exercises,” says astronomer Hans-Walter Rix, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, the German operating partner of the observatory. In their prime, 2- to 4-metre telescopes such as those at Palomar in California, La Silla in Chile and Kitt Peak in Arizona drew many researchers, but a proliferation of larger telescopes in locations with better observing conditions has changed astronomers’ priorities.
Researchers are about to take a big step toward better understanding a tiny air pollutant. A U.N. expert panel earlier this month agreed on a technical road map that will guide the first multinational effort to create a standardized emissions inventory of black carbon, a kind of microscopic soot particle. Scientists say that black carbon emissions play an important but poorly understood role in both global climate change and air pollution.
“The increased emphasis on complete reporting across the countries … is clearly an important step forward,” says atmospheric scientist Chris Dore, chair of the U.N. task force, which helps implement the 1979 Geneva Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. Fifty-one nations, including the United States and members of the European Union, abide by the convention.
The move reflects growing concern about black carbon particles, which are produced by burning an array of fuels, including oil, wood, crop residues, and even garbage. Health researchers consider airborne soot particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers a major health threat, causing lung disease and premature death. And climate scientists say that black carbon is a key player in global warming because it can absorb solar radiation and accelerate ice melting.
Efforts to calculate black carbon’s full impact, however, suffer from incomplete emissions data. A January study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, for instance, concluded that existing climate models underestimate black carbon’s climate-changing contribution by up to a factor of three as a result of data gaps in key regions. Existing inventories, such as those created by measuring emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes, contain large uncertainties, says atmospheric physicist Philip Stier of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. In part, that’s because they are often designed to show only that a nation is complying with air pollution rules and don’t include soot sources such as forest and cooking fires, or particles that settle on roadways and are lofted into the air by passing cars. “Black carbon is a poorly defined substance,” Stier says. “It’s always measured in a slightly different way, [which] doesn’t always refer to the same material.”
The new road map—unveiled on 20 May after a meeting of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Task Force on Emission Inventories and Projections in Istanbul, Turkey—aims to put nations on the same page. The voluntary plan calls for nations to start measuring black carbon emissions from an array of sources, including transportation, the energy industry, and agriculture. Nations will add the data to annual emissions reports and dig into existing data to calculate past emissions going back to the year 2000. The plan also requests emissions projections out to 2050.
Dore expects a U.N. steering body to approve the plan later this year, and nations will begin reporting in 2015, although a few could start in 2014. Some nations may go beyond the guidelines to collect additional data, including measures of black carbon sources not covered by the road map. The voluntary guidelines could one day become mandatory, following a path taken by other pollutants covered by the convention.
The inclusion of black carbon emissions in the annual reports is “really important,” says aerosol scientist Catherine Liousse of the Midi-Pyrenees Observatory in Toulouse, France. It will encourage nations that now don’t measure such emissions to start and enable better comparisons of existing inventories by promoting standard methods.
Researchers, meanwhile, are working to develop better methods for getting a broader picture of black carbon in the atmosphere. One $3 million study sent a Gulfstream jet with air-sampling instruments on undulating flights—from 150 meters to 13,500 meters—in five study areas around the world over several years. Other researchers are mounting low-cost black carbon detectors on ultralight aircraft and drones. Their goal is to better understand the role black carbon is playing in different parts of the atmosphere: While climate researchers may care more about soot interactions with frozen water droplets, for instance, health researchers want to compare how different-sized particles affect the lungs.
The Romanian Ministry of Education, Research, Youth and Sport has asked universities to nominate replacements for the 19 members of the National Research Council (CNCS), Romania’s main research funding agency. Council members resigned en masse on 12 April to protest retroactive cuts in research grants.
In e-mails recently sent to CNCS grantees, the Romanian government announced that it would make cuts in the 2013 installment of multiannual research grants issued in 2011. The decision appears to have been the final straw in already strained relations between the government and the council, chaired by neurobiologist Alexandru Babeş of the University of Bucharest.
One of the researchers affected by the cuts is Romanian paleoclimatologist Bogdan Onac of the University of South Florida in Tampa, who used his 2011 CNCS grant, worth $455,000, to rekindle research relationships with his home country. Onac bought an isotope analyzer, hired two graduate students in Romania, and paid half a professor’s salary there to help him analyze samples found in Romanian caves. On 8 April, however, Onac got an e-mail from the government financing agency, UEFISCDI, advising him that the grant’s 2013 installment would be about 45% less than agreed, “taking into account the available budget.” Other grantees lost up to 55% of their promised 2013 funds, Onac says.
The government e-mails said that the difference would arrive in 2014. But many Romanian scientists no longer trust such promises. A protest letter to the Romanian government signed by 568 Romanian researchers notes that similar delays beset the 2010 funding round and that promises of later making up the payments fell through. (Three hundred and fifty-eight researchers signed the English version of the letter.) The letter, dated 9 April, also asks why the government is issuing new calls for grants in 2013 if there is not enough funding to fulfill its previous obligations.
Onac says that the cuts may hurt his three collaborators in Romania. “They are completely dependent on my Romanian grants,” he says. “I will just keep going until I finish the grant money and then I will just stop working with them.”
The cuts are only one flash point between the current Romanian government and CNCS. The government has also struck a requirement, introduced by former research and education minister Daniel Funeriu, that international panels review grant applications and that applicants have papers published in an internationally ranked peer-reviewed journal. Onac calls the decision a step back that will hurt research quality. With international review, “only the best proposals were awarded, because evaluation went outside Romania,” he says.
In a press release carried by HotNews.ro, the research ministry defended the cuts by claiming that CNCS’s approval rates for the Ideas grants had been higher than it could sustain. The ministry attacked the council for asking it to prioritize the Ideas grants over the much smaller Human Resources grants, which tend to benefit younger researchers. The 2013 call will differ in that it will focus on “real socio-economic needs” and attract private-sector co-financing.
Onac is worried about how the government will fill the new council, because it asked universities, and not a broad array of scientists, for nominations: “Our experience is that the universities will always propose people who are high in their structures but not necessarily scientists with good publication records,” he says.