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News at a glance: Carbon emission offsets, COVID-19 vaccines for kids, and scientists’ plagiarism


Less deforestation flattens still-alarming carbon emissions curve

A new report finds that carbon emissions from deforestation and other land use changes have decreased over the past decade, partly compensating for increases from burning fossil fuels. Based on updated estimates from satellite data, the report from the Global Carbon Project finds that emissions from sources such as fires, logging, and forest clearing, offset by some reforestation and regrowth of forests and abandoned farm lands, have been decreasing by about 4% a year over the past decade. But current emissions remain too high to appreciably curb warming; at current rates, warming would likely surpass the 1.5°C threshold set in the 2015 Paris agreement within 11 years, the report says. (See related story for updated warming projections based on nations’ new greenhouse gas commitments at the global climate summit.) Land use change contributes 10% of global emissions, the report says. It adds that a dip in carbon emissions in 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was mostly reversed this year as transportation and other activities restarted.

The world became one … to fight this pandemic. This is how I want to see the fight against climate change.

  • Climate scientist Nana Ama Browne Klutse of the University of Ghana, quoted by BBC, about this week’s COP26 climate summit

Asia eyes switch to renewables

The Asian Development Bank last week announced a program to substantially cut carbon emissions from Southeast Asia by helping retire coal-fired power plants and replacing the generating capacity with renewable energy. Unveiled during the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, U.K., the Energy Transition Mechanism will be financed by pooling several billion dollars from public, private, and philanthropic sources. Renewable electricity generation is now cheaper than coal, and investors can earn profits by financing the switch. The program aims to cut coal plant generating capacity by 50% in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam within 10 to 15 years, which could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 200 million tons per year. The bank expects to extend the program to other countries.

Climate policy

U.S. infrastructure bill bolsters climate response

carbon capture technology in Iceland
The U.S. government will invest in “air capture” of carbon dioxide, a technology already in use in Iceland.CLIMEWORKS/COVER IMAGES/AP IMAGES

The $1.2 billion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden was expected to sign into law this week contains numerous provisions to bolster climate adaptation and accelerate efforts to curb global warming. The law provides $47 billion to prepare the country for worsening fires, floods, and storms. It funds electric car charging stations and mass transit and contains $9.5 billion to develop “clean” hydrogen fuel, produced from low-carbon sources, for industrial use. An additional $3.5 billion will fund four centers to study ways of removing carbon directly from the atmosphere. Last week, the Department of Energy set a goal of making such “air capture” technologies more affordable, with a target cost of $100 per ton of carbon dioxide within 1 decade. Air capture is currently limited to small-scale tests, such as at a plant recently opened by Climeworks in Iceland.


Brazil scientists snub top award

Twenty-one scientists in Brazil who last week received the country’s highest scientific honor renounced it days later after President Jair Bolsonaro took back the same award from two fellow researchers whose work is at odds with his policy views. A screening committee had selected 32 scientists to receive the National Order of Scientific Merit, including Marcus Lacerda, lead author of a clinical study that showed the antimalarial drug chloroquine was ineffective against COVID-19 infections, and Adele Benzaken, who was fired from the Ministry of Health in early 2019 after editing a booklet on prevention of sexually transmitted diseases among transgender men. Without offering an explanation, Bolsonaro on 5 November withdrew Lacerda and Benzaken from the list. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences has asked Bolsonaro to reverse his decision. Scientists were also incensed when Bolsonaro himself was named “grand master” of the order last week, a pro forma recognition that previous presidents of Brazil have also received—even though he has drawn intense criticism for denying and ignoring scientific findings on Amazon deforestation, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and vaccination.


Share of U.S. adults who believe or are unsure of at least one of eight false COVID-19 statements tested in a survey. About one-third believe or are unsure about at least half. The false statements include that pregnant women should not get the COVID-19 vaccine and that it has been shown to cause infertility. (Kaiser Family Foundation)


Share of scientific journal articles that showed evidence of plagiarism, according to a meta-analysis. Eight percent exhibited signs of “major” plagiarism, such as reusing ideas and findings. In a 2014 study combining multiple surveys, just 2% of scientists confessed to the practice. (Scientometrics)


Risky studies of viruses end

The only experiments funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) that meet the U.S. definition of risky “gain-of-function” (GOF) virus research—and that kicked off controversy 10 years ago—have wound down. In 2011, two studies that modified the H5N1 bird flu to spread more easily in ferrets sparked an uproar from scientists worried about a lab escape. The studies were led by virologists Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. The ensuing storm led NIH in 2014 to pause funding of a few especially risky GOF studies. In 2017, the U.S. government adopted a “framework” for evaluating research on “enhanced potential pandemic pathogens” (ePPPs)—risky human pathogens with modifications that could make them more dangerous. Kawaoka’s and Fouchier’s H5N1 grants were funded again under the new policy in 2019. But Kawaoka’s ended in August 2020 and Fouchier’s, which was part of a large contract, stopped in March, according to recent updates to federal websites. Kawaoka tells Science his work has shifted to pancoronavirus vaccines. Fouchier says he plans to seek funding in Europe to continue the experiments. Debate over U.S. studies of GOF continues: Critics say the ePPP definition is too narrow and should have applied to U.S.-funded coronavirus experiments conducted in China.


HPV jabs ward off cervical cancer

In girls offered a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) at age 12 or 13, the prevalence of cervical cancer throughout their 20s was 87% lower than in unvaccinated girls, according to a study published online on 3 November in The Lancet. The authors examined nearly 28,000 cases of cervical cancer in U.K. women ages 20 to 30 from 2006 to 2019. The HPV vaccine Cervarix, which targets the two strains of HPV that cause most of these cancers, was introduced in the United Kingdom in 2008, and the oldest women in the study were not offered it, forming a comparison group. The United Kingdom recommends giving the vaccine at age 12 to 13, because it is most effective if given before sexual activity begins. But girls offered catch-up doses at ages 14 to 16 and 16 to 18 also saw reductions in cancer prevalence, of 62% and 34%, respectively. A Danish study published last month and a Swedish study that appeared last year reported large reductions in the risk of cervical cancer among women vaccinated as teenagers with a different HPV vaccine, Gardasil-4.

colored image of COVID patient's lung

Intense x-ray beams offer new views inside organs

Scientists have used an x-ray synchrotron to produce some of the most detailed images ever made of whole human organs. By combining extremely bright x-ray and more laserlike beams from the recently upgraded European Synchrotron Radiation Facility with a scanning method called hierarchical phase contrast tomography, researchers from ESRF and University College London traced anatomical details as small as 5 microns in postmortem organs. In an image of a lung from a 54-year-old (left), blue limns the airways, red traces unobstructed blood vessels, and yellow marks clogged ones. Researchers used the technique to show how COVID-19 damages blood vessels in the lung, ESRF said last week. The synchrotron’s x-rays, up to 100 billion times brighter than a conventional hospital x-ray, are too intense to be used to examine living tissue.


Asian languages’ origin pinpointed

For more than 100 years, linguists have debated when, where, and how a group of languages spoken today across central and eastern Asia, including those in the Japanese, Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic, and Turkic families, emerged. A new study combining linguistic, genetic, and archaeological data suggests these Transeurasian languages share a common origin and spread early with agriculture. Researchers compared ancient DNA from 23 individuals, stretching back to 7500 B.C.E., representing populations across Eurasia, to modern reference genomes to construct a rough family tree. The team mapped those relations onto data from hundreds of archaeological sites as well as etymological similarities in modern languages to puzzle out the evolution of these ancient people’s material culture and language. Taken together, the researchers report this week in Nature, the evidence indicates the Transeurasian languages originated about 9000 years ago with millet farmers in the West Liao River Valley in present-day northeastern China, then spread and split apart throughout the continent.


Octogenarian earns physics Ph.D.

Manfred Steiner finally has the degree he always wanted. This fall, the 89-year-old hematologist earned a doctorate in theoretical physics from Brown University. As a young man, Steiner dreamed of pursing physics, but his mother and uncle persuaded him to focus on medicine. He obtained his M.D. in 1955 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1967 before serving on the medical faculty at Brown from 1968 to 1994. Steiner began taking physics courses there in 2000 and successfully defended his thesis in September, the university announced last week. The work describes how the boundary between the two broad classes of quantum particles, bosons and fermions, might be blurred depending on whether the particles are confined to 1D or 2D spaces. In 2020, only 1.2% of recipients of doctorates from U.S. institutions in the physical and earth sciences was over age 45, according to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. The median age was 29.6 years.


U.S. drops firm after bad doses

Emergent BioSolutions announced last week the termination of its $600 million contract with the U.S. government under which the Maryland company would have manufactured millions of doses of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca. The cancellation comes 8 months after 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, also being made at Emergent’s Baltimore plant, were contaminated with an ingredient of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and production there was temporarily halted. Since then, the company has struggled to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements for producing either vaccine. Emergent will continue to produce anthrax vaccine for the United States at its Lansing, Michigan, facility, and recently signed a contract to produce a messenger RNA COVID-19 vaccine for the Canadian company Providence Therapeutics at its Winnipeg facility.

Comparing childhood risks

U.S. regulators have endorsed several childhood vaccines, now widely used, for diseases that killed fewer children than COVID-19 before vaccines.

Disease Annual deaths of children before vaccines Age at death
Hepatitis A 3 (1990–95) <20
Varicella (chickenpox) 16 (1990–94) 5–9
Rotavirus (causes diarrhea, vomiting) 20 (1985–91) <5
COVID-19 66 (October 2020–October 2021) 5–11

U.S. OKs COVID-19 shots for kids

U.S. regulators last week gave the long-awaited green light for vaccinating younger children against COVID-19, and within hours, the rush to give shots to 5- to 11-year-olds began. On 2 November, advisers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unanimously recommended Pfizer’s vaccine in this age group, saying benefits outweighed risks; CDC Director Rochelle Walensky agreed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had given its blessing the previous week. At the CDC advisers’ meeting, data presented showed COVID-19’s death toll in children was comparable to or greater than other diseases for which vaccination is now routine. Surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggest about 30% of parents plan to vaccinate their children immediately.

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