Clive Cookson

Thank you for reading my science blog over the past year.

I’m now joining forces with the FT’s health blog, where I shall continue to post about all aspects of science from medical research to space. Please follow me there.

This science blog will remain in existence as an archive but I shall not be posting any new material here.

Clive Cookson

As a space enthusiast who grew up in the 1960s – and was sure as a boy that he would be travelling to the moon and back by 2010 – I have mixed feelings about the demise of Nasa’s return-to-the-moon programme, announced in President Obama’s federal budget announcement.

While I am sad that the US will not, after all, be sending astronauts back to the moon this decade, I recognise that the Constellation lunar return programme, a legacy of the Bush administration, was unsustainable in the present financial climate.

Constellation involves two Ares rockets, one of which has already been launched on an unmanned test flight, and an Orion crew vessel on which the space agency Nasa has already spent – wasted, as it turns out – an estimated $9bn. But, as the White House buget statement puts it, ” the program was over budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.”

Instead, Nasa’s manned space activities will focus on new rockets developed by private companies to fly astronauts to the International Space Station in low orbit just 340km above the Earth. The ISS, a collaborative project also involving the Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, would keep going at least until 2020.

This will require Nasa and its partner agencies to give the public a clearer idea of  ISS’s purpose and mission. Is it there mainly as a symbol of permanent human presence in space, pointing to future manned missions to more exciting destinations such as Mars? Or is it a practical base for carrying out research in zero gravity above the Earth’s atmosphere? No one seems really to know at the moment.

President Obama wants Nasa to work with commercial companies to develop much less expensive space vehicles to convey people to and from the ISS. This will require the agency to adopt more of a hands-off attitude to space transport design and to involve innovative private companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Until now the agency has specified all details of its rockets, which have been built by big contractors such as Northrop Grumman and United Technologies.

President George W. Bush saw a return to the moon as a step towards sending astronauts to Mars a decade or two later. His successor has not removed a Martian voyage from Nasa’s long-term agenda but he says the US cannot afford to take the intermediate step.

Mr Obama’s decision appears to leave the lunar landing field clear for China and India. Both countries are planning manned moon missions for later this decade.

However, the administration will face fierce opposition in Congress, both from politicians who feel that US national pride and security require a more active manned space programme and from those whose states or districts stand to lose a lot of aerospace business from the new policy.

Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, Nasa’s main launch base, said: “I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for Nasa, and for the thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs.”

Clive Cookson

Painting urban roofs white is perhaps the simplest and most benign of the various schemes that have been proposed to fight climate change through geo-engineering.

Steven Chu, the US energy secretary, advocated white roofs last year but some experts doubted whether the idea would make enough impact to be worth pursuing.

Now the first computer modelling study to simulate the impact of white roofs on cities worldwide, carried out at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, has confirmed that they could significantly cool urban areas and mitigate some effects of global warming. The study will be published in Geophysical Research Letters.

“Our research demonstrates that white roofs, at least in theory, can be an effective method for reducing urban heat,” says NCAR scientist Keith Oleson. “It remains to be seen if it’s actually feasible for cities to paint their roofs white, but the idea certainly warrants further investigation.”

The study team used a new computer model to simulate the amount of solar radiation absorbed or reflected by urban surfaces. The simulations, which provide an idealized view of different types of cities around the world, indicate that, if every roof were entirely painted white, the urban heat island effect could be reduced by 33 percent.

While the model did not have enough detail to capture individual cities, it did show the change in temperatures in larger metropolitan regions. The New York area, for example, would cool in summer afternoons by around 1 degree centigrade.

White roofs are evidently not going to save the planet on their own but it does sound as though we should be considering a painting programme.

Clive Cookson

My story in yesterday’s FT about the astonishing increase in China’s research output in recent years has stirred up a lively response through emails to me and on discussion groups such as Chinapol.

The most interesting question is whether the soaring output of scientific papers – a 64-fold increase since 1981 and five-fold rise since 1998 – has been matched by an improvement in quality.

Many people with experience of Chinese research seem to doubt it. Some people talk about shoddy, repetitive papers that just scrapes through the peer review process but will never inspire anyone.

A recent article in the journal Nature looked at one adverse effect of the relentless pressure in Chinese universities to publish more papers in “high-impact” journals: an apparent rise in academic fraud and plagiarism, as researchers cut corners and lowered their ethical standards.

Clive Cookson

I’ve just met one of my scientific heroes, Frank Drake.

He started the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – SETI – 50 years ago when he pointed a large radio-telescope in West Virginia at the nearby star Tau Ceti and listened for any radio signals that might be coming our way from an alien civilisation based on a planet orbiting the star.

Of course SETI has not heard a clear peep from ET over the past half-century, despite listening to thousands of stars with technology far more sophisticated than anything available to the young Drake in 1960.

But enthusiasts are not discouraged – far from it. The discovery of hundreds of “extrasolar” planets over the past few years has reinvigorated the search.

This week Drake, aged 79 and still working on SETI, was in London for a discussion about extraterrestrial life at the Royal Society.

At a meeting with science journalists, it was clear that the sliver-haired astronomer is as convinced as ever that detectable civilisations are out there – about 10,000 in our Milky Way galaxy, he estimates, making reasonable assumptions about the various unknowns in his famous Drake equation for estimating the chances for hearing from ET.

There are at least 100bn stars in the Milky Way, so just one in 10m has a detectable civilisation, according to Drake. Although that means a lot more searching, the technology continues to improve rapidly. And, as Drake says, SETI can now work hand in hand with the new planet-hunting telescopes such as Nasa’s Kepler, so that astronomers will be able to listen for signals from Earth-like planets as soon as they are discovered.

So far SETI has relied mainly on radio-telescopes but an alternative, just coming into operation, would look for short but incredibly powerful bursts of light from alien lasers, producing coded flashes that would outshine their parent star for an instant.

“In the universe elsewhere there is intelligent life. I’m confident about that but how easy it is to find we don’t know,” Drake says. How wonderful it would be if we made contact in his lifetime.

Clive Cookson

deCODE genetics was the biotech industry’s champion at scientific discovery – contributing more research papers to top journals than any other company – but its commercial model was far from successful. In November it filed for bankruptcy protection.

Today, happily, the core deCODE genetics business is resurrected as a private company, with new funding – including some from the venture capitalists who originally backed it in the 1990s.

The Icelandic company’s press release boasts proudly but correctly: “deCODE operates the most productive human gene discovery engine in the world.”

It has discovered an amazing number of genetic variations that contribute to common human diseases, often in collaboration with academic groups. But deCODE’s drug development and DNA testing business brought in less revenue than expected, and the company lost serious money in the 2008 Lehmann Brothers crash.

deCODE founder Kari Stefansson will remain as executive chairman and president of research, joined on a two-man executive committee by new recruit Earl “Duke” Collier, previously executive vice-president at Genzyme.

The company says it will continue to offer deCODE diagnostics disease risk tests, deCODEme personal genome scans, and contract service offerings including genotyping, sequencing and data analysis. “Going forward, deCODE will concentrate on translating its science into medically and commercially important products and services,” it says.

deCODE was not universally popular but I am delighted that this very distinctive Icelandic enterprise will live on and, I hope, contribute more to human healthcare.

Clive Cookson

Many scientists are on the look-out for links between persistent man-made chemicals and ill health in people.

The latest identification of a possible association is published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Toxicologists at Exeter University and the Peninsular Medical School found that people with higher blood concentrations of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) had higher rates of thyroid disease. PFOA is a persistent organic chemical used in industrial and consumer goods including nonstick cookware and stain- and water-resistant coatings for carpets and fabrics. The analysis used almost 4,000 samples from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

“There have long been suspicions that PFOA concentrations might be linked to changes in thyroid hormone levels,” said study co-author David Melzer of the Peninsula Medical School. “Our analysis shows that in the ‘ordinary’ adult population there is a solid statistical link between higher concentrations of PFOA in blood and thyroid disease.”

The findings may be important because persistent perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) such as PFOA are found in water, air and soil worldwide. But the mechanism by which they might cause thyroid problems is not known.

Independent experts urged people to treat the report with caution. Although the link found by the Exeter researchers seemed significant – people with the highest 25% of PFOA concentrations were more than twice as likely to report current thyroid disease than those with the lowest 50% of PFOA – many “confounding factors” might have caused the association.

Much more research will be needed to show whether or not there is a causal link.

Clive Cookson

As the world comes to terms with the tragedy of Haiti, we hear a grim warning that Indonesia faces another mega-earthquake and a possible tsunami, which could be as severe as the Boxing Day 2004 event which killed an estimated 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean.

John McCloskey of the University of Ulster, an authority on Indonesian earthquakes, issues the warning in the journal Nature Geoscience. He focuses on a section of the notoriously active Sunda zone west of Sumatra, where the Australian tectonic plate runs under the Eurasian plate.

There have been three huge earthquakes along this plate boundary in 2004, 2005 and 2007. But the full strain remains in one section, the 300km Mentawi segment opposite the city of Padang. A substantial magnitude 7.6 quake here last September killed 1,000 people, but unfortunately the analysis by McCloskey and colleagues shows that this did not relax 200 years of accumulated stress – and may have made a gigantic tremor in the near future even more likely.

“For hundreds of years the energy is stored as the two tectonic plates bend and deform. Then, in just a few seconds all this energy is released generating a massive earthquake and sometimes flexing the seafloor to create a tsunami,” McCloskey says. “Off western Sumatra the bow is drawn tight. The last shock happened more than 200 years ago and the stresses are probably larger now than they were then; the earthquake must happen soon.”

The quake will be at least magnitude 8.5 (far greater than Haiti’s 7.3) and it could unleash a tsunami even more destructive than in 2004.

Such an event would kill many thousands locally in Sumatra, though the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system set up since 2004 should prevent more widespread loss of life this time. Indonesia’s recent seismic history should also mean that it is somewhat better prepared for catastrophe than Haiti was – though again the international community will have to move quickly to help if (or when) the worst happens to Padang.

Clive Cookson

In the aftermath of the terrible Haitian earthquake, the priority is of course the relief effort. But seismologists are using data from the magnitude 7 tremor to increase their knowledge of the way stresses build up in the Earth’s crust as tectonic plates grind slowly together – and are released suddenly in an earthquake.

Although there is no way the Haiti quake could have need predicted, in terms of giving a useful warning of timing, some seismologists had been concerned about the risk of disaster there.

In a remarkable piece of timing, Robert Yeats, a geoscientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, told Scientific American in an interview a week before the disaster that an imminent big earthquake on the US west coast concerned him far less than a “big one” that might occur in Haiti, due to the large fault near the capital city of Port-au-Prince — and the poverty-driven low level of earthquake-preparedness there.

“If they have an earthquake on this fault that runs through Port-au-Prince,” the death toll would be tremendous, he said — a prediction that turned out to be horribly true.

The Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden Fault passes within 16 kilometers of Port-au-Prince, at the intersection of the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, which are sliding past one another at a rate of one or two centimetres a year. This movement creates a “strike-slip fault”, the same kind as the San Andreas Fault in California where the North American and Pacific plates are sliding in different directions. The Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden Fault had been building up pressure since the last serious earthquake under Haiti in the 19th century.

Current methods of assessing where quakes are most likely to occur are based mainly on the record of recorded historical events. Huilin Xing of the University of Queensland says these could be supplemented with new computational and observational technologies.

Very destructive recent earthquakes have occurred after long periods of inactivity, Xing points out. It was 600 years between the 2004 Boxing Day Sumatra earthquake/tsunami and a previous equally strong quake. The corresponding intervals were 5,000 years to the 2008 China Sichuan earthquake and 200 to the current Haiti earthquake.

Clive Cookson

It may seem parochial on a day when I’ve been focusing on the terrible aftermath of the Haiti earthquake but I want to mention an excellent new report on science journalism in my blog this evening.

Science and the Media – Securing the Future was commissioned by Lord Drayson, the UK science minister, and written by an expert group chaired by Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre.

The report draws on new research at Cardiff University about the health of science journalism in the UK, which is relatively reassuring.

But the expert group warns about the serious threat to the quality and independence of science reporting posed by the wider crisis in journalism. As it points out, the economic and institutional constraints under which journalists now operate have in many cases caused heavier workloads, less time to seek out stories and check facts, more reliance on a very limited pool of news sources, and an growing homogeneity in science coverage.

What is really impressive about the report is the array of new initiatives already inspired by the group’s activities. There are dozens – many of them awaiting funding but some ready to go.

These actions range from better training for scientists and journalists to the provision of new resources for science journalists (for example an independent service to analyse press releases for their balance and accuracy).

Anyone interested in science journalism should look at the report.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.