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Not throwing away our shot

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PHOTO: CAMERON DAVIDSON

Over the past few weeks, prominent scientific publications have condemned President Donald Trump’s record on science. This is unprecedented. Although my predecessors at Science have always held elected U.S. officials accountable (but could not make a formal political endorsement because of the nonprofit status of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science), many of these publications are now clearly denouncing the U.S. president, administration, and federal agency leaders as the nation approaches a highly consequential presidential election. To paraphrase lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton” about another set of political essays, why do we write like we’re running out of time? Because recent events show that the voice of the scientific community can lead to positive change.

I have been supportive and then critical of Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When he granted the emergency use authorization (EUA) for hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), much of the biomedical community lost trust in him, but I maintained that if he stuck to the science on the COVID-19 vaccine, the nation should support him. When he botched the announcement of the EUA for convalescent plasma to treat the disease, I lost confidence in him again and wrote that society was on its own to tackle COVID-19 without help from the FDA. At the same time, Eric Topol, editor-in-chief of Medscape and a prominent scientist and public health advocate, called for Hahn to resign.

Topol got Hahn’s attention. After Topol’s editorial appeared, the commissioner reached out to him, which, as Topol told me, started a series of conversations about their differences. Hahn confirmed to Topol that he had been instructed by the White House to extoll the benefits of convalescent plasma beyond his scientific judgment. Subsequently, the FDA proposed to the White House a more stringent protocol for approving a COVID-19 vaccine. In the case of the two leading vaccine candidates (Moderna and Pfizer), a 2-month delay would be required for half of the volunteers that received a second shot, which must be delivered 3 to 4 weeks after the first immunization. This meant that an EUA for a vaccine would not be approved before the election. Trump attacked Hahn and criticized this logical move for patient safety as being politically motivated. Surprisingly, a few days later, the White House agreed to the FDA guidelines. Hahn had stood up for science and stood up to Trump. In an interview with Topol, Hahn pledged to stand up for sound scientific judgement.

The pressure put on Hahn by the scientific community played a big role in stiffening his spine. Topol told me that Hahn said he was “profoundly dejected” after the convalescent plasma debacle and realized that the subsequent vaccine drama posed an “existential crisis”—either he would be fired by Trump or permanently lose his standing in the scientific community. Ultimately, he decided that doing what was right for the success of the COVID-19 vaccine trials and the safety of the public—while also repairing his reputation in medical science—was more important than keeping his job at the FDA. We can hope that it’s too much trouble for Trump to fire him this close to the election. I’m now back to supporting Hahn knowing that scientists will decide whether to approve the COVID-19 vaccines and provided he continues to support science.

With his apparent recovery from COVID-19 due perhaps in part to receiving an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail from Regeneron, Trump’s attention has turned to touting this treatment as a “cure” and promising its availability to all Americans. An antibody-based treatment does deserve more scientific attention, but a therapeutic is not a cure. If an EUA for this treatment is announced, the scientific community needs Hahn to resist Trump’s pressure to exaggerate and declare the pandemic over. These antibodies are helpful but currently in very limited supply and not something that will “get everybody out of the hospitals,” as Trump said recently. The scientific community must keep the pressure on Hahn to state the science clearly.

Readers who don’t think Science and its publishing peers should write about politics often tell us to “stick to science.” We are sticking to science, but more importantly, we’re sticking up for science.

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Science

Too bright to breed

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Night light from coastal cities overpowers natural signals for coral spawning from neighboring reefs.

PHOTO: NOKURO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Most coral species reproduce through broadcast spawning. For such a strategy to be successful, coordination has had to evolve such that gametes across clones are released simultaneously. Over millennia, lunar cycles have facilitated this coordination, but the recent development of bright artificial light has led to an overpowering of these natural signals. Ayalon et al. tested for the direct impact of different kinds of artificial light on different species of corals. The authors found that multiple lighting types, including cold and warm light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, led to loss of synchrony and spawning failure. Further, coastal maps of artificial lighting globally suggest that it threatens to interfere with coral reproduction worldwide and that the deployment of LED lights, the blue light of which penetrates deeper into the water column, is likely to make the situation even worse.

Curr. Biol. 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.039 (2020).

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SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers

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SpaceX has debuted an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband internet service, for both iOS and Android devices. The Starlink app allows users to manage their connection – but to take part you’ll have to be part of the official beta program, and the initial public rollout of that is only just about to begin, according to emails SpaceX sent to potential beta testers this week.

The Starlink app provides guidance on how to install the Starlink receiver dish, as well as connection status (including signal quality), a device overview for seeing what’s connected to your network, and a speed test tool. It’s similar to other mobile apps for managing home wifi connections and routers. Meanwhile, the emails to potential testers that CNBC obtained detail what users can expect in terms of pricing, speeds and latency.

The initial Starlink public beta test is called the “Better than Nothing Beta Program,” SpaceX confirms in their app description, and will be rolled out across the U.S. and Canada before the end of the year – which matches up with earlier stated timelines. As per the name, SpaceX is hoping to set expectations for early customers, with speeds users can expect ranging from between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, and latency of 20ms to 40ms according to the customer emails, with some periods including no connectivity at all. Even with expectations set low, if those values prove accurate, it should be a big improvement for users in some hard-to-reach areas where service is currently costly, unreliable and operating at roughly dial-up equivalent speeds.

Image Credits: SpaceX

In terms of pricing, SpaceX says in the emails that the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per moth, plus a one-time cost of $499 initially to pay for the hardware, which includes the mounting kit and receiver dish, as well as a router with wifi networking capabilities.

The goal eventually is offer reliably, low-latency broadband that provides consistent connection by handing off connectivity between a large constellation of small satellites circling the globe in low Earth orbit. Already, SpaceX has nearly 1,000 of those launched, but it hopes to launch many thousands more before it reaches global coverage and offers general availability of its services.

SpaceX has already announced some initial commercial partnerships and pilot programs for Starlink, too, including a team-up with Microsoft to connect that company’s mobile Azure data centers, and a project with an East Texas school board to connect the local community.

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Erratum for the Report “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances” by R. Van Klink, D. E. Bowler, K. B. Gongalsky, A. B. Swengel, A. Gentile, J. M. Chase

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S. Rennie, J. Adamson, R. Anderson, C. Andrews, J. Bater, N. Bayfield, K. Beaton, D. Beaumont, S. Benham, V. Bowmaker, C. Britt, R. Brooker, D. Brooks, J. Brunt, G. Common, R. Cooper, S. Corbett, N. Critchley, P. Dennis, J. Dick, B. Dodd, N. Dodd, N. Donovan, J. Easter, M. Flexen, A. Gardiner, D. Hamilton, P. Hargreaves, M. Hatton-Ellis, M. Howe, J. Kahl, M. Lane, S. Langan, D. Lloyd, B. McCarney, Y. McElarney, C. McKenna, S. McMillan, F. Milne, L. Milne, M. Morecroft, M. Murphy, A. Nelson, H. Nicholson, D. Pallett, D. Parry, I. Pearce, G. Pozsgai, A. Riley, R. Rose, S. Schafer, T. Scott, L. Sherrin, C. Shortall, R. Smith, P. Smith, R. Tait, C. Taylor, M. Taylor, M. Thurlow, A. Turner, K. Tyson, H. Watson, M. Whittaker, I. Woiwod, C. Wood, UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) Moth Data: 1992-2015, NERC Environmental Information Data Centre (2018); .

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