Science (Un?)Muzzled, Scientists in Office, and a Lunar XPrize Update | Vol. 4 / No. 14

Photo: Joshua Tree National Park, CC0 (Public Domain)

Two stories about science and American politics, and one about going… to the Moon! (Seriously). It’s the news roundup for January 29, 2017.

Talking (or Not) About Science

This week’s news has regretfully been eaten alive by the debate playing out on the US national stage about “what science can be communicated to whom” as well as “by whom” and “with what review.” Various government departments were gagged to various degrees — the EPA told not to communicate with the press or release findings without approval, the EPA’s climate change website ordered removeda decision that has since been delayed. A national park tweeting climate change facts until the account was officially gagged, to be replaced by dozens of “rogue” twitter feeds ranging from an alt USDA to an rogue EPA to an alt State Department, all tweeting in an unofficial capacity to get around the orders. Rogue NASA has over 700,000 followers already.

But even where absent, the orders have caused a “chilling effect” — the CDC has already canceled conferences on the health effects of Climate Change and on health problems suffered by LGBT youth. These weren’t (apparently) requested or ordered, just done voluntarily because people at the CDC were (possibly justifiably) scared.

Thankfully, there’s this guy named Al Gore, who — along with a number of partners, including the American Public Health Association and the Harvard Global Health Institute — is holding a scaled-down one-day version of the originally three-day conference in Atlanta on February 16. From the press release:

“They tried to cancel this conference but it is going forward anyway,” said former U.S. Vice President and Climate Reality Founder and Chairman Al Gore. “Today we face a challenging political climate, but climate shouldn’t be a political issue. Health professionals urgently need the very best science in order to protect the public, and climate science has increasingly critical implications for their day-to-day work. With more and more hot days, which exacerbate the proliferation of the Zika virus and other public health threats, we cannot afford to waste any time.”

So at least there’s that.


314 Action

In a related story this week, the new administration’s actions regarding the free and open flow of science seem to have hit a nerve with the scientific community. Famous science communicators like astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson have long lamented the lack of scientists and engineers in politics, but that may be about to change. The Atlantic is reporting that more than 400 people have signed up for a group called 314 Action to express interest in running for political positions as a scientist. “Out of the lab, into public office” reads the lead on the form to sign up for more information on how to run for office, and their first meeting will be mid-March. Michael Eisen, a geneticist at UC Berkeley and co-founder of PLoS, has announced that he’ll be running for a Senate seat in 2018. Now scientists may not have the political expertise to win, I know, but that’s where 314 Action and its 80,000 donors and experienced political insiders come in. Their job — as they see it — is to turn these scientists into politicians in time to make a difference. Here’s hoping they can, because conservative or liberal, evidence-based policy will make this world a saner one. You can learn more at 314 Action.


To the Moon!! | Photo: dylan_odonnel;, CC0 (Public Domain)

To The MOON!

In other news, it is with a mixture of happiness and sadness that I can report that five teams have made it to the final round of the Google Lunar X Prize. Happiness because that’s five teams who are going to try to get a private rover to the moon this year. Sadness because one of my favourites — German team Part-Time Scientists — isn’t on the list. Now if you don’t recall, there are $30 million in prizes up for grabs, with the grand prize of $20 million going to the first privately-funded team to “successfully place a robot on the Moon’s surface that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth.” This week’s list certifies that five teams had chartered a verified launch contract to the moon by the deadline (PT Scientists’ wasn’t verified in time). According to the press release:

SpaceIL (Israel) a non-profit organization, has secured a position on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Their goal is to make an educational impact and to create an “Apollo Effect” for the next generation in Israel.

Moon Express (USA) signed a multi-mission launch contract with Rocket Lab USA for three lunar missions by 2020. Their directive is to open up the Moon’s vast resources for humanity and establish new avenues for commercial space activities beyond Earth orbit.

Synergy Moon (International) team member Interorbital Systems will serve as the launch provider, using a NEPTUNE 8 rocket to carry a lunar lander and rover to the surface of the Moon. Synergy Moon is made of up individuals from over 15 countries, with a mission to make manned orbital travel, personal satellite launches and Solar System exploration cost effective and accessible.

TeamIndus (India) signed a commercial launch contract aboard the Indian Space Research Organization’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). TeamIndus’ spacecraft is designed to nestle inside the nosecone of the PSLV and will launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota.

HAKUTO (Japan) signed a rideshare agreement to have TeamIndus carry its four-wheeled rover to the Moon. Hakuto’s ultimate target is to explore holes that are thought to be caves or ‘skylights’ into underlying lava tubes, for the first time in history, which could lead to important scientific discoveries and possibly identifying long-term habitats to shield humans from the Moon’s hostile environment.

They’re also giving out $1 million in prizes to the teams who didn’t make it, calling it a Diversity Prize “to recognize each of their unique approaches and initiatives over the years.” They’ve also changed the rules slightly so that only the launches have to take place by December 31, 2017, but either way this is very, very, exciting. We’re going back to the moon. This year. And this time we’re going to do it for economics. With any luck, this time it’ll be permanent. You can check out the Google Lunar XPrize size for more.


Here’s what we got up to this week!

If you missed any of those, go check them out now (I’ll wait).


Best of the Rest

And since there’s always, always more than we can cover here each week, here’s a rundown of the things we didn’t cover, a.k.a. your weekly linkspam:

Finally, it is with great sadness that I report the death of one of the luminaries of the acting world, Sir John Hurt passed away from cancer this week aged 77. In remembrance of one of his many roles, I leave you with this image of Hurt as the War Doctor, courtesy of the BBC facebook page “Doctor Who and the TARDIS.

Have the best week you can, everybody.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.