Science: In an editorial, Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, warn that in the current fiscal crisis, those “not heard from will probably have the most to lose.” They caution that hearing from scientific societies and advocacy groups “is simply not enough” and add that it is “essential that every member of the science and engineering community personally convey to policy-makers and the U.S. public the great importance of strong science funding.” They report that the National Institutes of Health could lose up to $5.5 billion and that NSF, with a $6 billion annual budget, could lose up to $1 billion. Leshner and Woolley stipulate that scientists should acknowledge the need for tax and entitlement reform to ensure “new revenues and the elimination of unnecessary, duplicative programs and regulations.” All scientists “must assume that policy-makers are unaware” of science funding’s importance, they write. “That’s what we have to change through our actions, now.”
Science News: Photosynthesis uses sunlight to create fuel sources for plants, and researchers have been working to develop similar processes. A new study by researchers from the University of Rochester in New York have used cadmium-selenium nanocrystals in water to create H2. When sunlight strikes the crystals, they release electrons, which were picked up by hydrogen atoms in the water that then joined to form hydrogen gas. Because splitting water molecules to get the free hydrogen atoms is difficult, the researchers added ascorbic acid and a nickel catalyst to the solution. What surprised the researchers about the setup was that once initiated, the process continued for two weeks, at which point they stopped the run themselves. Other similar systems for creating H2 degrade fairly quickly.
New Scientist: Shiv Abhilash Bhardwaj, the technical director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), said that the group hopes to break ground on an advanced heavy water reactor next year. India, with high levels of thorium reserves, has desired thorium reactors since the beginning of its nuclear industry in the 1950s. Bhardwaj claims that the new reactor design will be safe enough to be located in major cities. However, nuclear engineers in the US do not consider heavy water reactor designs safe enough for metropolitan locations. Ralph Moir of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory believes that the focus on thorium reactors is inspired more by a desire for energy independence than by a concern for reactor safety. There are also questions as to whether NPCIL will actually follow through with the plan, since India has a history of overstating its nuclear energy goals. A plan put forward in 1969 by the Indian Atomic Energy Commission foresaw India producing 43 gW of energy by nuclear power by 2000, but only 4.8 gW of the country’s power today comes from nuclear energy.
Nature: The Mayan civilization spread across much of modern Mexico and Central America between 300 CE and 1000 CE, but collapsed in the relatively short span of 200 years. What caused the collapse is unknown, but a variety of factors may have contributed. A new study suggests that significant variation in rainfall amounts was one of those factors. A team led Douglas Kennett of the Pennsylvania State University estimated rainfall amounts by measuring radioactive oxygen isotope concentrations in a 2000-year-old stalagmite. The researchers believe that high rainfall from 440 CE to 660 CE prompted a population boom. That was followed by 340 years of protracted droughts that coupled with political instability (determined by records on statues erected during the period) and led to the localized collapse of Mayan city-states and the full collapse of the wider civilization. The technique used for dating the study produced remarkably small error margins compared with previous carbon-dating efforts. However, because the stalagmite only represents localized rainfall, it may not be an accurate representation of empire-wide precipitation patterns.
BBC: In a speech to the Royal Society, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a two-year spending increase—£60 million ($95.7 million) per year—for the European Space Agency. By increasing the contribution, Osborne hopes ESA will award more contracts to UK companies. The UK space industry has seen an average growth of 7.5% since 2008 and is one of the fastest growing areas of the economy. As part of the increased investment, ESA has agreed to base its satellite telecommunications headquarters in Harwell, Oxfordshire. Despite the increased space spending, the UK’s overall civil research budget will continue to be cut over the next two years until it is 10% lower than the 2010 budget.