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News at a glance


SCI COMMUN### Politics The U.S. presidential race was upended in the first days of October as President Donald Trump tested positive for the pandemic virus and spent 3 days in the hospital. He was aggressively treated with two experimental medicines—monoclonal antibodies and the repurposed antiviral remdesivir—and a steroid used in severe COVID-19 cases. Trump returned to the White House on 5 October saying people should not fear the disease. But public health specialists voiced astonishment when he re-entered the building maskless, trailed by questions about his medical condition and a lack of information about how staff members would be protected from infection. All that followed a rancorous first debate on 29 September between Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Trump mocked Biden for having worn a mask at other times, despite evidence that the precaution reduces transmission of the virus. The president also left scientists puzzled when he described as a “disaster” Biden's role in the response to the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009. Then-President Barack Obama, whom Biden served under as vice president, declared it a public health emergency 6 weeks before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. That flu killed an estimated 12,000 Americans—far fewer than the 210,000 U.S. deaths recorded so far from COVID-19. > “Very few don't have some sort of connection to Big Tech.” > > Doctoral student Mohamed Abdalla , in Wired , about a study he led of faculty members specializing in artificial intelligence at four leading research universities. He found 58% (48 of 83) had received a grant or fellowship from one of 14 large technology companies, which may distort research priorities. ### Conservation High-tech fake turtle eggs can spy on poachers and wildlife trafficking routes. The real eggs are a delicacy in Central America, and illicit trading of them adds to other hazards to the survival of turtle species that are threatened. Researchers slipped 101 decoy eggs with GPS trackers embedded (left) into nests on four Costa Rican beaches. The scientists tracked five eggs to learn where the poachers took them; the farthest ended up 137 kilometers inland, the multinational team reported on 5 October in Current Biology . The researchers did not share this information with authorities, noting ethical concerns; many poachers live in poverty, and in Costa Rica, buying the eggs is not illegal. But, the authors say, the study shows that law enforcement agencies could use the method. ### Public health Coronavirus guidelines issued last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) again stirred controversy and concerns that undue political pressure had influenced some of its decisions. CDC announced that on 31 October it will lift an order barring cruise ships from sailing despite a recommendation by its director, Robert Redfield, to extend the ban until February 2021. The industry shut down in March after severe COVID-19 outbreaks occurred on multiple ships. Last week, CDC also drew fire for its updated guidelines on when colleges should test students and faculty and staff members for the pandemic virus. The agency recommended different frequencies of testing, including just a single, initial one, depending on circumstances such as whether students lived in residences with others who tested positive. Critics said the new guidelines should have recommended more regular testing of asymptomatic individuals. CDC addressed another uproar this week by acknowledging evidence that the virus can travel by air and infect people standing more than 2 meters apart in indoor spaces. The agency was faulted last month after it posted, and then withdrew, a draft suggesting otherwise. ### Infectious diseases An international program to reduce the risk of new zoonotic diseases, allowed to expire by the U.S. government in 2019 but extended until last month, will get a successor. On 30 September, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded a $100 million grant to help countries in Asia and Africa curb viruses jumping from animals to humans. The 5-year Strategies to Prevent Spillover program will have a different focus from its predecessor, PREDICT, whose termination was criticized by the scientific community: Rather than studying the drivers of spillover, it will seek interventions to reduce viral jumps, a USAID spokesperson says. A key goal is to “help partners at the country level build their expertise and ability to take action,” says veterinarian Deborah Kochevar of Tufts University, which leads a 13-institute consortium that won the grant. ### International affairs Yuri Orlov, the Russian physicist who championed human rights in the Soviet Union before being exiled in 1985, died on 27 September at age 96. Orlov helped organize the Soviet Union's branch of Amnesty International in 1973 and 3 years later co-founded the Moscow Helsinki Group, which monitored Soviet adherence to the civil rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords between the Soviet Union and the West. In 1977, Orlov was arrested and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor and exile in Siberia. After coming to the United States in a prisoner exchange, Orlov, an expert in particle accelerators, worked at Cornell University. He didn't think much of Russian President Vladimir Putin, writing in 2004 that “Russia is flying backward in time.” ### Governance Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has disrupted the process by which scientists are appointed to serve on the governing body of the country's leading academic society, the Science Council of Japan (SCJ). Researchers are criticizing the move as a threat to academic freedom. SCJ makes policy recommendations, promotes scientific literacy and international cooperation, and represents the interests of more than 800,000 scholars in virtually all academic disciplines. The prime minister customarily ratifies appointees recommended by SCJ for its governing body, the General Assembly. But according to an announcement last week, Suga withheld his blessing from six academics, in a list of 105 put forward, who work in the social sciences, law, and the humanities. All six had criticized legislation adopted by Japan's previous government, in which Suga was chief cabinet secretary. His failure to appoint them violated a law governing SCJ, said Satoshi Ihara, secretary general of the Japan Scientists' Association. ### Policy Mexican scientists this week blasted a move by the national legislature to eliminate 109 trust funds run by public research centers and government institutes, one-third of them devoted to science and technology. The government wants to use the money, some $3 billion in total, for the coronavirus pandemic. The funds support everything from student scholarships and emergency maintenance of equipment to major research projects at dozens of government centers. The money also helps pay for biosecurity and biotechnology research, fighting climate change, and disaster relief. On 6 October, Mexico's Chamber of Deputies approved a bill to terminate the funds, but with “reservations” that require further debate; it is expected to pass in the Senate. The plan is “a brutal blow” and the worst hit to Mexican science in 50 years, says Antonio Lazcano, an evolutionary biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, University City. ### Virology There's been a new case of infection with Alaskapox virus, a recently discovered pathogen that's related to smallpox. Alaska state health authorities reported on 30 September that they had found the virus in a woman from the Fairbanks area with a mild, gray skin lesion on one arm, similar to one seen in 2015 in the first known patient, also a woman from Fairbanks. Human infections with pox-viruses are on the rise, presumably because vaccination against smallpox—which offers some protection against related viruses—was halted after that deadly disease was eradicated 40 years ago. But the Alaska cases are no cause for alarm: There is no evidence the virus can be transmitted between humans—scientists think it came from wild mammals—and the lesions went away by themselves. ### Medicine prize goes to discoverers of virus that destroys the liver The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded this week for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus, one of the most common causes of liver cancer. The prize went to Harvey Alter of the U.S. National Institutes of Health; Michael Houghton of the University of Alberta, Edmonton; and Charles Rice of Rockefeller University. The hepatitis C virus, transmitted via blood, can cause chronic inflammation of the liver that quietly destroys the organ over decades, ultimately leading to cirrhosis and cancer. The laureates did work over 3 decades to identify the virus and show it was responsible for unexplained cases of hepatitis in people who received blood transfusions. They also developed a test to screen blood donations for the virus, which has nearly eliminated the risk of hepatitis from blood transfusions. Their research ultimately led to a successful treatment for the disease, which has cured millions of people. But about 71 million people worldwide still have chronic hepatitis C, and transmission continues via contaminated medical equipment, sharing drug injection needles, and from infected mothers to newborns during birth. The disease causes few acute symptoms, and testing in many developing countries is limited. ### Black hole hunters receive physics prize The Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded for pioneering discoveries regarding black holes—self-sustaining gravitational fields so intense that nothing, not even light, can escape. Roger Penrose, a mathematician at the University of Oxford, received half of the $1.1 million prize for his theoretical work, conducted in part with the late Stephen Hawking, that proved a black hole would be stable and thus could be a real astrophysical object and not a mere mathematical curiosity. Astronomers Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles, share the other half of the prize for deducing the presence of the supermassive black hole that lies in the heart of our Galaxy. Since the 1990s, Genzel and Ghez have led rival research groups that observed stars there, 26,000 light-years from Earth. They found ones orbiting a heavy, unseen object, called Sagittarius A*, at incredible speeds—some of the most convincing evidence for a behemoth black hole, with the mass of millions of Suns. ### Fauci: ‘Skunk at the picnic’ On 23 September, in the relative calm before President Donald Trump's coronavirus infection was revealed, Anthony Fauci relaxed at home after tangling earlier that day with U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) during a hearing on COVID-19. Fauci still had 200 emails in his inbox to read that night, but the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who also serves on the White House's Coronavirus Task Force, sat down with Science to discuss the pandemic and research on vaccines. (Read the full interview at [][1].) Some excerpts: On his showdown with Paul: “I said to myself, you know, ‘I'm sorry, I'm not gonna disrespect him, but I'm not gonna let him get away with saying things that are cherry-picked data.’” (Paul had suggested that the United States follow Sweden's COVID-19 policies because it had a lower death rate from the disease.) On speaking bluntly at the White House: “I'm walking a fine line of being someone who is not hesitant to tell the president and the vice president what they may not want to hear. There are some people in the White House, who, even when I first started telling it like it was in the task force meetings, they were like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ That's when I got that nickname ‘the skunk at the picnic.’ … I say, ‘I'm sorry, I'm not trying to undermine the president. But there is something that's called reality.’” On the state of the pandemic: “Yes, there are parts of the country that are doing well. But this country is a big forest, and when you have fires in some parts of the forest, the entire forest is at risk.” [1]:

Airlines look to help ailing industry with coronavirus testing at airports (but it's not a cure-all)

Los Angeles Times

Financially strapped airlines are pushing an idea intended to breathe new life into the travel industry: coronavirus tests that passengers can take before boarding a flight. Several airlines, including United, American, Hawaiian, JetBlue and Alaska, have announced plans to begin offering testing -- either kits mailed to a passenger's home or rapid tests taken at or near airports -- that would allow travelers to enter specific states and countries without having to quarantine. The tests will cost fliers $90 to $250, depending on the airline and the type of test. At Los Angeles International Airport, a design company has announced plans to convert cargo containers into a coronavirus testing facility with an on-site lab that can produce results in about two hours. On Thursday, Tampa International Airport began offering testing to all arriving and departing passengers on a walk-in basis. It's an idea that has gone global, with a trade group for the world's airlines calling on governments to create a testing standard for airline passengers as a way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic instead of using travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines.

AI, Machine Learning, seen revolutionizing undersea activities - Seapower


Artificial intelligence, machine learning and unmanned systems are enabling surface and undersea activities even while COVID-19 hampers the ability to put humans on ships, maritime leaders said during a webinar on Sept. 17. Retired Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the former Oceanographer of the Navy, said COVID has put ship deployments on hold for months, but the agency has leveraged autonomous systems to keep the work going. For instance, NOAA sent Sail Drones to Alaska to perform a critical fishery survey and for coastal mapping. "We were able to map in pretty shallow areas that would have been hazardous for ships," Gallaudet said in the webinar, hosted by the Marine Technology Society's Washington section and the company Oceaneering. NOAA was also able to use underwater gliders to measure water temperatures, which helped accurately predict the track of Hurricane Laura.

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence


Artificial intelligence and machine learning can teach us about the future. In today's Academic Minute, the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Falk Huettmann explores the benefit to the public good from these technologies. Huettmann is an associate professor of wildlife biology at Fairbanks. A transcript of this podcast can be found here.

How to reverse-engineer a rainforest


But 2019 was the year the earth burned. In Australia, the world watched in horror as bushfires destroyed 10.3 million hectares, marking the continent's most intense and destructive fire season in over 40 years. Earlier that fall, California saw more than 101,000 hectares destroyed, with damages upward of $80 billion. Alaska saw nearly a million. Record-breaking fires also hit Indonesia, Russia, Lebanon -- but nowhere saw the sheer mass of media coverage as the fires that tore through the Amazon nearly all last summer. By year's end, thousands of global media outlets had reported that Brazil's largest rainforest played host to more than 80,000 individual forest fires in 2019, resulting in an estimated 906,000 square hectares of environmental destruction. At the time, Brazil's National Institute for Space Research reported it was the fastest rate of burning since record keeping began in 2013. But amid the charred ruins of one of the largest oxygen-producing environments on the planet, a secret lies buried beneath the soil.

Travel Industry Automates Pandemic Response With New Digital Tools WSJD - Technology

"We've set it to alert us if someone has a fever over 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit," Brett Smith, chief information officer of the airport's operator, Propeller Airports, said about the repurposed device. The camera screens passengers as they line up for standard security checks by the Transportation Security Administration. Passengers with high fevers are screened a second time, and ultimately the airline determines if they pose a danger to others on board, Mr. Smith said. The airport began operations in March 2019 and serves as a northwestern hub for Alaska Airlines and United Airlines. Developed in 2018, in the wake of a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Athena's gun-detecting camera operates by combining object detection, computer vision and machine-learning to identify weapons and automatically alert on-site workers and police.

Machine learning is making NOAA's efforts to save ice seals and belugas faster - FedScoop


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists are preparing to use machine learning (ML) to more easily monitor threatened ice seal populations in Alaska between April and May. Ice flows are critical to seal life cycles but are melting due to climate change -- which has hit the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions hardest. So scientists are trying to track species' population distributions. But surveying millions of aerial photographs of sea ice a year for ice seals takes months. And the data is outdated by the time statisticians analyze it and share it with the NOAA assistant regional administrator for protected resources in Juneau, according to a Microsoft blog post.

Artificial intelligence makes a splash in efforts to protect Alaska's ice seals and beluga whales - Stories


Moreland's project combines AI technology with improved cameras on a NOAA turboprop airplane that will fly over the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska this April and May, scanning and classifying the imagery to produce a population count of ice seals and polar bears that will be ready in hours instead of months. Her colleague Manuel Castellote, a NOAA affiliate scientist, will apply a similar algorithm to the recordings he'll pick up from equipment scattered across the bottom of Alaska's Cook Inlet, helping him quickly decipher how the shrinking population of endangered belugas spent its winter.

Robot kayaks found the basin of an Alaskan glacier is melting 100 TIMES faster than models showed

Daily Mail - Science & tech

Seaborne robots have made a startling discovery beneath a 20-mile glacier in Alaska. The technology found the massive rivers of ice may be melting under the LeConte Glacier much faster than previously thought. Scientists programmed autonomous kayaks to swim near the icy cliffs of the glacier to measure the'ambient meltwater intrusions', which shows how much fresh water is flowing into the ocean from underneath the glacier. The study found ambient melting was 100 times higher than models had estimated. This is the first time experts have been able to analyze plumes of meltwater - the water released when snow or ice melts, where glaciers meet the ocean- because the feat is far too dangerous for ships due to falling ice of slabs from the glacier.

First major video game to feature a transgender lead character announced by Microsoft Xbox

Daily Mail - Science & tech

The first transgender character to lead a story line in a video game has been debuted by Xbox Games Studios, 'raising the bar' for the industry. In a sector that has long struggled with representation the announcement from X-box partner France-based DONTNOD Entertainment has been met with applause after featuring a transgender male at the forefront of its plot. Set in small-town Alaska, the tell me why game story line places the player at the heart of a mystery where identical twins Tyler and Alyson Ronan reunite after ten years apart - using their'supernatural bond' to unravel memories of a loving but troubled childhood. Florent Guillaume, Game Director for the tell me why franchise said: 'The core mechanic of the game is the special bond Tyler and Alyson share and is also a theme strongly anchored into the DONTNOD storytelling approach. 'Over the course of the story, players will explore the identical twins' different memories of key events and choose which memory to believe.