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Senior science journalist Sharon Begley dead at 64

“I consider Sharon to be a quintessential figure of the Enlightenment,” Jon Meacham, former Newsweek editor, said in an email. “She has written brilliantly about everything that happens under the sun, and beyond, from the origins of human life to climate change, from the mysteries of the brain to the death of Diana.

In her 1997 cover story on Princess Diana, she took readers on a thrilling paparazzi car chase through the streets of Paris until the still of night at Balmoral Castle, where Prince Charles awoke his sons. to tell them that their mother – ‘the mother,’ Ms Begley wrote, ‘who took them to eat in burgers and visit homeless shelters when almost everyone in their life thought mainly of palaces and polo – was dead.

The beating of science allowed Ms Begley to explore all that appealed to her and, in her modest way, to show her wit. In a short article on whether women were more verbose than men, she concluded, “I could go on, but I wouldn’t want to validate the remaining stereotypes.”

In one of her many stories on climate change, she wrote that magazines were more likely to use the image of a cuddly polar bear than that of endangered insects, even though the insects disappeared. “Would dig a bigger hole in the web of life.” Newsweek ran this story with a polar bear on the cover.

When Richard L. Berke, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Stat, assembled a team in 2015 for what was then a start-up, he asked for the names of the country’s top science writers. Ms Begley, then at Reuters, was on virtually every list.

Once she got on board, “she brought instant credibility to our new news operation,” prompting other reporters to sign on, said Berke, former deputy editor of the New York Times. While at Stat, Ms. Begley broke new ground in the esoteric fields of genomics and genetics, but always in easy-to-read prose.

She wrote with moral clarity. In an article, she suggested that the lack of urgency in finding a cure for sickle cell disease was due to the fact that it mainly affected “the wrong people” – that is, black people. In another, she said that a “cabal” of researchers had thwarted progress in the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease by “dogmatically” clinging to a theory of the disease while rejecting the approaches. alternatives.

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Banned by Trump but brought back by Biden, Fauci aims to ‘let science speak’

On Thursday morning, just hours after Mr Biden’s inauguration, Dr Fauci addressed the executive board of the World Health Organization, telling the body that the United States would not follow through on the asks Mr. Trump to leave the group in the middle. pandemic.

“The United States stands ready to work in partnership and solidarity to support the international Covid-19 response, mitigate its impact on the world, strengthen our institutions, advance epidemic preparedness for the future, and improve health and well-being of all. the world, ”Dr. Fauci said in a video appearance.

During the Trump administration, Dr. Fauci’s appearances in the White House briefing room were often preceded by rambling and controversial meetings in the Oval Office with Mr. Trump and his aides, many of whom prompted optimistic scenarios or misleading data.

On Thursday, Dr Fauci described a different scene.

“One of the things that was very clear about 15 minutes ago, when I was with the president, is that one of the things that we are going to do is to be completely transparent, open and honest,” he said. he declares. “If things go wrong, not point the finger at it but fix it and make sure everything we do is based on science and evidence.”

Dr Fauci stopped, as if to marvel at what he had just said.

“I mean, it was literally a conversation I had 15 minutes ago,” he says. “And he said it several times.

A reporter noted that Dr Fauci – who last appeared in the briefing room in November – had largely disappeared from public view late last year after angering Mr Trump at de too many times.

Are you back now, he asked her.

He smiled and looked at Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary.

“I think so,” he said.

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Video: Science is ‘hope’, says Biden

“We know that science is discovered, it is not fiction. It’s also about hope, and that’s America. It’s in this country’s DNA, let’s hope. We are on the cusp of some of the most remarkable breakthroughs that will fundamentally change the way of life for all life on this planet. We can make more progress in the next 10 years, I predict, than we have done in the last 50 years. “Today, I am proud to announce a team of some of the nation’s brightest and most accomplished scientists to lead the way.” “The opportunities we have and the challenges we face are greater than ever. The president-elect knows that science and technology will be essential to cope with this moment. And he instructed us in this letter, and I don’t mean, just his science advisers, I mean the entire scientific community and the American public to answer important questions about how best to use science and science. technology to improve our health, economic well-being and national security. “” Perhaps never before, in living memory, the links between our scientific world and our social world have been so clear as today. The Covid-19 crisis has inflicted extraordinary suffering. But it has also painted a mirror of our society, reflecting and its deadly wake, the lack of resources and the medical disparities, the inequality that we have allowed to calcify. Science is at the heart of a social phenomenon. It is a reflection of people, our relationships and our institutions. When we provide inputs to the algorithm, when we program the device, when we design, test and research, we are making human choices, choices that carry our social world and a new and powerful way that matters who does those choice. The science behind climate change is not a hoax. The science behind the virus is not partisan. The same laws apply. The same proof is true whether you accept them or not. And President-elect Biden and I will not just listen to science, we will invest in.

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Biden and Harris will introduce members of their White House science team this afternoon.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Saturday morning announced further appointments for his State Department and plans to introduce new leaders of the White House science team in Wilmington, Delaware in the aftermath. -midday.

The Biden-Harris transition team has announced several appointments, including that of Brian P. McKeon, who has worked with Mr. Biden for more than 25 years, as assistant secretary of state for management and resources. Bonnie Jenkins, a veteran arms control expert, has been appointed Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs; Ms. Jenkins is also the founder of a Women of Color National Security Group.

Uzra Zeya, who has held several positions in the State Department, has been appointed Undersecretary for Emergency Preparedness, Democracy and Human Rights. Mr. Biden also formally announced the appointments of Wendy Sherman as Assistant Secretary of State and Victoria Nuland as Under Secretary for Political Affairs; his plans to appoint Ms Sherman and Ms Nuland have already been reported.

On Saturday afternoon, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will publicly introduce the members of the White House science team. They are:

  • Dr Eric Lander, Candidate for Director of the Office for Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Designated Presidential Science Advisor

  • Dr Alondra Nelson, OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society

  • Dr Frances H. Arnold, Co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

  • Dr Maria Zuber, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

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Fruit flies are essential to science. So are the workers who keep them alive.

The rooms that make up the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center at Indiana University are lined from wall to wall with identical shelves. Each shelf is filled with uniform racks and each rack with indistinguishable glass vials.

The tens of thousands of types of fruit flies in the vials, however, are each beautifully different. Some have fluorescent pink eyes. Some jump when you turn on a red light on them. Some have short bodies and curly iridescent wings, and look like “little ballerinas,” said Carol Sylvester, who helps care for them. Each strain doubles as a unique research tool, and it has taken decades to introduce the traits that make them useful. If left unattended, the flies would die off within weeks, blocking entire scientific disciplines.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, workers in all sectors have held the world together, taking great personal risks to care for sick patients, maintain supply chains and feed people. But other essential jobs are less well known. At the Stock Center, dozens of employees came to work every day, through a lockdown and afterwards, to deal with the flies that underpin scientific research.

For most casual observers, fruit flies are tiny dots with wings that hang around old bananas. But over the past century, researchers have turned the insect – known to science as Drosophila melanogaster – into something of a genetic standard. Biologists regularly develop new “strains” of flies, in which certain genes are turned on or off.

Studying these slight mutants can reveal how these genes work – including in humans, as we share more than half of our genes with Drosophila. For example, researchers discovered what is now known as the hippo gene – which helps regulate organ size in fruit flies and vertebrates – after flies with a defect grew to become unusually large. and wrinkled. Further work on the gene has indicated that such defects can contribute to the uncontrolled cell growth that leads to cancer in people.

Other work on flies shed light on diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to Zika, taught scientists about decision-making and circadian rhythms, and helped researchers who used them win six Nobel Prizes. Over a century of fine-tuning fruit flies and cataloging the results has made Drosophila the best characterized animal model we have.

This is a great role for an unpretentious bug. “When I try to tell people what I’m doing, the first thing they usually say is, ‘Why would you keep fruit flies alive? I’m trying to kill them! Said Ms Sylvester, who has been a storeroom at Bloomington since 2014.

If a few hitchhiking from the grocery store at her house her kids screw her up, she added, “Mom, you brought your co-workers home.” “

The Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center is the only institution of its kind in the United States and the largest in the world. It is currently home to over 77,000 different fruit fly strains, most of which are in high demand. In 2019, the center shipped 204,672 vials of flies to laboratories in 49 states and 54 countries, said Annette Parks, one of the centre’s five principal investigators.

It’s “one of the gems we have in the community,” said Pamela Geyer, a stem cell biologist at the University of Iowa who has been ordering flies at the storage facility for 30 years.

Other model organisms can be frozen at particular life stages for long term storage; Laboratory freezers around the world contain mouse embryos and cultures of E. coli. But fruit flies cannot go on ice. Caring for the creatures means “turning” them regularly: transferring them from an old vial to a clean one that has been supplied with a spoonful of food. Quarantined with other members of their strain, the flies mate and lay eggs, which hatch, pupate and reproduce, continuing the cycle.

“We have strains in our collection that have been continuously propagated like this since about 1909,” across generations and institutions, said Cale Whitworth, another senior researcher at the repository. To keep their millions of fruit flies returned and happy, the center employs 64 stockists, as well as a media preparer – think fly cook – as well as a kitchen assistant and five dishwashers.

At the storage center, as everywhere, the first eddies of the pandemic seemed worrying. “I remember joking with people, ‘We’re the people at the start of the dystopian novel, and we don’t know what’s going to happen yet,” ”Ms. Sylvester said.

As the number of cases increased, Dr Whitworth packed a backpack with a pillow and a toothbrush, imagining the worst. “I was right in the middle of the ‘Everybody’s sick, last man on earth’ kind of thing,” he said. “For example,” How many flies can I return in 20 hours, sleep for four hours, and continue to return the next day? “

Instead, when Indiana University closed on March 15, the storage facility remained open.

Kevin Gabbard, the fly boss, made an emergency store. Although they eat the same thing every day – a yeast puree made mostly from corn products – flies can be picky. Mr. Gabbard, without risking anything, ordered two months of their favorite brands. “You think of cornmeal from cornmeal,” he says. “But it isn’t if it isn’t fair.”

The co-directors devised a more robust Hail Mary plan that, if absolutely necessary, would allow them to “keep most of the flies alive with just eight people,” Dr Whitworth said. They also decided to stop all expeditions, focusing their energy on caring for the flies.

On March 26, the flies stopped leaving the building – and almost immediately messages of support began to arrive. “You are all wonderful,” read one email. “The fly community is strong because of the phenomenal work you do.”

At about the same time, employees had a choice to make. Deemed to be essential workers, they were allowed to come to campus. The university guaranteed them a full salary even if they decided to stay home, or an hour and a half to enter. (The center covers its costs through a combination of federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and its own income from fly sales.)

The vast majority chose to continue working, Dr Whitworth said – even though the work was suddenly quite different. The center is generally a very social place to work, with birthdays and group lunches. Hours are normally flexible, which is a big selling point for employees, many of whom are parents or students, or have retired from full-time work.

Now people work in masks, often in separate rooms. Changes in one of the buildings in the center have become strictly scheduled to avoid overlaps. “You can work alone for a while, maybe all day,” said Roxy Bertsch, who has been a stockist since 2018.

And for the first few weeks, stockists – many of whom do additional tasks, such as packaging, shipping, and training – spent all of their time turning flies, which is monotonous and hard on the hands. “All we did was come in, feed the flies and leave,” Ms. Bertsch said.

But she kept coming back. After her son was potentially exposed to the coronavirus and had to self-quarantine, she counted the 14 days until she could return.

“There is no way you could stop me from working if I could be here,” she said.

Ms. Sylvester specializes in caring for flies whose mutations mean they need more TLC. She also worked full time throughout the shutdown, fueled by concern for her charges. “I especially love flies and I don’t want them to die,” she says. “I never thought I would love the larvae so much.”

In mid-May, the center resumed shipping inventory. Dr Parks delivered another batch of messages, many of which are now tinged with relief.

“It feels like Christmas,” tweeted a lab at Aarhus University in Denmark, with a photo of a box of vials.

A post earlier in the spring from Tony Parkes, a biologist at Nipissing University in Ontario, praised all those who “do their jobs with little distinction, but whom everyone relies on as a fundamental backbone.”

When Dr. Parkes’ lab shut down, he spent some of his unexpected downtime thinking about the storage facility. It’s an equalizer, he said, allowing even small labs to tackle big issues “without requiring massive resources.”

It also allows researchers to literally share their findings with each other. “You don’t have to run your own library to have access to all this information,” he said, because the repository is “there when you want it”.

The people who run the center also think about it. “It means a lot to know that you are a part of it,” Ms. Bertsch said.

But it adds some pressure. “We all feel that great weight in making sure the storage facility is there for everyone,” Dr Whitworth said.

The pandemic continues, of course, and other obstacles are emerging. Although the fall semester went off without incident, cases are increasing in the region, increasing the potential for another shutdown. Mail delays, both at home and abroad, have prompted the center to suggest that its customers turn to private carriers – the flies perish if they are in transit for too long.

Although they are no longer paid extra, everyone continues to come to work. And even if things change, Dr. Whitworth is ready. “I never unpacked my bag,” he says. “He’s still sitting in the closet.”

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Raising fringe theories, Ron Johnson challenges virus science

WASHINGTON – In choosing a roster of doctors to testify on treatments for the coronavirus before his committee on Tuesday, Senator Ron Johnson has assembled a group of witnesses who question much of the public health consensus on the virus.

There is a prominent vaccine skeptic, an outspoken critic of masking and social distancing, and at least two doctors who have promoted the use of a pest control drug that government scientists have recommended not to use. not use to treat coronavirus.

This is the latest example of how Mr Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin who used his powerful investigative group to amplify baseless accusations made by President Trump, has now embraced the role of the Senate’s top Covid antagonist. .

Even as some of his fellow Republicans have sought to use their platforms to encourage Americans to take precautions against the spread of the virus and to persuade the public that vaccines against it will be safe and life-saving, Mr Johnson has suggested that the dangers of the coronavirus have been exaggerated and over-regulated. And on two occasions in the past three weeks, Mr Johnson has used his hammer in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee to raise voices that public health experts say represent fringe beliefs.

It sparked a sort of low-profile mutiny within the panel, angering Democrats who plan to essentially boycott traditional cross-examination of witnesses and disrupting some Republicans who plan to skip Tuesday’s session for fear their presence will be considered. as a credibility to the procedure.

The selections underline how Mr Johnson, a former plastics lord who made no secret of his contempt for the Washington establishment, eagerly echoed Mr Trump’s most conspiratorial and anti-scientific impulses and has waded head first in battles. even the president’s usually reliable phalanx of congressional supporters were unwilling to fight.

Mr Johnson spent much of the year investigating the corruption of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter, who he said was motivated by Mr Biden’s political campaign , and which ultimately did not disclose any wrongdoing by the elder Mr. Biden. Since the election, he has questioned whether Mr Biden won fairly, saying last week that Attorney General William P. Barr should produce evidence to back up his claim that the Justice Department found no Evidence of the Kind of Widespread Election Fraud Mr. Trump has insisted unfoundedly costing him the election.

Mr Johnson is not surprised at the criticism he has drawn.

In an interview on Monday, he said that while he supported widespread vaccination and masking, he believed many of his colleagues had been too deferential to a public health facility which, due to his obsession with finding a vaccine and the lacking experience in treating coronavirus patients, had undermined, overlooked and even “censored” other potential treatments that he said could help.

“We have overreacted to this,” Mr Johnson said of the virus. “We weren’t smart. We should have isolated the sick, protected the most vulnerable, and then the rest of us will continue with our lives as safely as possible. “

Mr Johnson’s main witness on Tuesday, Dr Jane M. Orient, cast doubt on coronavirus vaccines and lobbied for the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug pushed by Mr Trump, as a treatment . She helps lead a group that believes government immunization mandates violate human rights.

Another, Washington cardiologist Ramin Oskoui, told Fox News last month that it was “an established science” that “social distancing doesn’t work, quarantine doesn’t work, masks don’t work. ” On the contrary, it is well established that all three are effective in limiting the spread of the virus.

Two others promote the use of ivermectin, a drug often used to fight lice and pinworms, to treat coronavirus patients, despite the National Institutes of Health recommendation against its use outside of clinical trials.

Mr Johnson said he believes the public has a right to educate themselves about early treatments that they might not otherwise be aware of.

“There is a breakdown on the right information in social media and the media,” he said. “So people are denied information to make smart choices for themselves.

Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, the top Democrat on the panel, worried that the witnesses “would amplify theories which are at odds with the wider scientific community and, according to experts, could cause harm.”

“These fringe views run counter to what the Senate should be doing – working on a bipartisan basis to protect the American people and fight this deadly pandemic,” Peters said.

He clearly refused to invite a witness to Tuesday’s hearing, and his aides said he did not intend to engage with witnesses during the session. Instead, he’s working with a group of a dozen leading health experts to draft a letter to be submitted to Congress from Congressional challenging their views.

Mr Johnson’s inflammatory public statements and his decision to give a platform to an assortment of vexatious doctors promoting alternative treatments also angered some fellow Republicans, who privately regretted that he was acting irresponsibly. But in the club Senate, few are ready to openly criticize a colleague or challenge a president for how he runs his committee.

Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who had criticized the Hunter Biden investigation as being politicized, pointedly skipped questioning witnesses at the previous coronavirus hearing and does not plan to attend on Tuesday. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who is expected to take the Republican top spot on the panel in January after Mr Johnson’s term as president ends, has done everything possible to project confidence for the scientific consensus on the coronavirus , publicly announcing last month that he had signed up for a vaccine trial in part to persuade Americans he was safe.

Dr Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University School of Public Health, who spoke with Mr Johnson at a November hearing on hydroxychloroquine, called the event a “powerful reminder that even Congress is not immune to toxic conspiracy theories ”.

During the hearing, Mr Johnson wondered aloud why medical professionals like Dr Jha had despised the drug, which has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective in treating coronavirus patients, and supported another medicine, remdesivir, which has been shown to work but is more expensive.

“I question the fact that, because this cocktail costs around $ 20 and remdesivir costs $ 3,000, maybe there is a little bias, maybe there is a little conflict, can -being that there is a small agenda, ”he said.

“It gives platforms to people who are well outside the mainstream medical community,” Dr Jha said in an interview.

Mr Johnson declared his own coronavirus infection in early October – “I had two positive tests. I guess they are valid, ”he said – they didn’t need treatment.

Mr Johnson’s interest in health issues is long standing and in line with his most recent statements. He was the primary sponsor, for example, of the so-called right to judge legislation that Congress overwhelmingly approved in 2018 to allow critically ill patients to bypass the Food and Drug Administration and use treatments. experimental experiments.

“He’s always been a vexatious person,” said Mark Becker, former county chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, who recently wrote an op-ed for The Bulwark, a website geared towards conservatism “Never Trump”, at About a recent call with Mr Johnson.

“But everything on the Republican side has become a political argument, even a public health crisis,” Becker said. “And he always cares not to piss off those Trumpers. He told me this very clearly: ‘I’m not going to piss them off.’ “

The math is most likely astute, as the senator plans to run for a third term in 2022 in a competitive state where he has been elected twice with narrow margins. Although he initially pledged to serve only two terms, Mr Johnson has since hinted that he may feel compelled to run again, arguing that times have changed. Mr. Trump’s vocal support could be essential.

Thomas Nelson, the Outagamy County executive and a Democrat defying Mr Johnson, predicted voters would remember Mr Johnson using a powerful perch in Washington to publicly explore “the bizarre plot holes.”

“What’s wrong? I mean, what’s wrong with you? Mr. Nelson said in an interview.” Can’t you see the existential threat that faces communities like your hometown? ”

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Politics, science and remarkable race for a coronavirus vaccine

The President was particularly excited about this goal. At a White House meeting on March 2, as Mr. Bancel and other pharmaceutical executives presented their vaccination plans, Dr. Fauci warned that it would take “a year to a year and a half” before that the doses can reach the general public.

Mr Trump replied, “I like the sound of a few months better.”

Warp Speed ​​had two leaders. Dr Slaoui was in charge of science, who had led research and development at drug maker GlaxoSmithKline for years and served on Moderna’s board. In charge of logistics, General Gustave F. Perna, a four-star general who headed the army materiel command.

The operation, which took place in a suite on the seventh floor and an operations center on the second floor at Health and Human Services Headquarters, had a military flavor. Its leaders discussed the book “Freedom’s Forge,” an account of how American industry armed the military during World War II, and imposed what they called a “combat rhythm” of meetings. , including a daily 8 hour session on vaccines. Dozens of military officers reported working in uniform.

The most important decision, Dr Slaoui said, was which vaccine candidates to choose from the nearly 50 possible candidates. His team chose three types of vaccines, each to be used by two companies if one company fails. Federal officials called the finalists “horses,” a nod to the race between them.

Moderna and Pfizer would pursue mRNA vaccines, considered the fastest to develop. The government was prepared to pay a large chunk of the development bill, guide clinical trials, and even deliver supplies to factories.

Dr Bourla was not interested. As one of the world’s largest vaccine producers, Pfizer did not need federal help to develop a new product, he decided, and with nearly $ 52 billion in annual revenue, he neither needed nor wanted the grant.

“If we fail, we will have to write off $ 2 billion” in vaccine development costs, Dr Bourla said at the New York Times DealBook online summit this week. “It’s painful for any business, but it wasn’t going to break us.”

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As elections approach, Trump makes final push against climate science

“The real issue at stake is the national climate assessment,” said Judith Curry, former president of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who said she had been in contact with Dr. Maue, the new chief scientist. “This is what the powers that be are trying to influence.”

Besides Dr Curry, the strategy was described by Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a former member of Mr Trump’s transition team, and John Christy, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

According to E&E News, Dr Christy, a critic of past national climate assessments, said he was invited by the White House this summer to take a leadership position at NOAA, but declined the offer. He said he understood the role was to change the agency’s approach to climate assessment.

Ms Curry and the others have said if Mr Trump wins re-election, further changes to NOAA will include removing long-time climate assessment authors and adding new authors who question the degree warming, the extent to which it is caused by human activities and the danger they pose to human health, national security and the economy.

A biased or diminished climate assessment would have far-reaching implications.

It could be used in court to strengthen the positions of fossil fuel companies sued for climate damage. It could thwart efforts by Congress to reduce carbon emissions. And, ultimately, it could weaken what’s known as the “finding of endangerment,” a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency scientific finding that greenhouse gases endanger health. public and thus force the federal government to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Other changes in the work could include shifting funding from NOAA to researchers who reject the established scientific consensus on climate change and eliminating the use of certain scientific models that project dire consequences for the planet if countries are doing little to reduce carbon dioxide pollution.

Dr. Noble, the new chief of staff, has already pushed for a new layer of control over the grants NOAA awards for climate research, according to people familiar with the discussions.