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With Earth’s Largest Telescope Threatened, Its Homeland Rallies

Worlds largest single-dish radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Worlds largest single-dish radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Photograph by Universal Images Group via Getty Images

(Hear Nadia Drake interviewed live about the Arecibo telescope on Science Friday from Public Radio International, on Friday June 10 at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST.)

SAN JUAN and ARECIBO, Puerto Rico — Francisco Cordova just started his job as director of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radio telescope. But at a public meeting on day two of his new post, he was already facing the iconic telescope’s potential demolition.

At meetings June 7 in San Juan and Arecibo, students, scientists, observatory staff and community members spoke about what would be lost in terms of science and education if the observatory were to close, an outcome that no one in attendance seemed to find acceptable in any way. As the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, Arecibo is famous for searching for distant galaxies,  gravitational waves, and signs of extraterrestrial life.

The meetings gave the community a chance to speak directly to representatives from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. science agency responsible for deciding Arecibo’s fate, and which is now facing tough choices thanks to flatlined budgets.

“It’s a concern, but I know we will find a way,” Cordova says.

The Arecibo Observatory, easily recognizable from feature films and a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial life, may not be around much longer due to funding.
The Arecibo Observatory, easily recognizable from feature films and a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial life, may not be around much longer due to funding.

Cordova, like many Puerto Ricans, visited Arecibo when he was a kid. Back then, he was struck by the facility itself, with its 900-ton platform looming above a dish stretching 1,000 feet across. “To be able to come here and help out and help lead what’s going to be the future—it’s exciting because it gives me the opportunity to make a difference,” Cordova says.

The meetings were not particularly well attended, and notably absent were many local government officials, including the Arecibo mayor—observations that prompted some to question how well NSF had publicized the meetings.

At the start of the meetings, NSF officers quickly reminded everyone that no decisions about Arecibo’s future had been made.

“We’re not here today to announce the closing of Arecibo, or the reduction of any funding whatsoever,” said Ralph Gaume, Arecibo program officer within the agency’s Astronomical Sciences Division. But, a dismal federal funding climate means NSF needs to cut funding “for a number of its astronomical and geospace science facilities,” he said.

Unfortunately, it looks like those facilities include Arecibo. A number of recent review panels, charged with evaluating and prioritizing various NSF observatories, have recommended significantly reducing funding for the observatory. Currently, NSF provides $8.2 million annually for Arecibo, and $3.7 million comes from NASA, which funds the study of potentially Earth-destroying asteroids.

So, losing the bulk of NSF money would effectively shut down the observatory.

That’s why two weeks ago, the agency released a notice of intent to investigate the environmental impacts of potential Arecibo futures—a process required before any federal facility can be decommissioned. The notice identified five possibilities, ranging from continuing current operations, which now looks unlikely, to dismantling the telescope and returning the site to its natural state. Other options involve finding funding partners or mothballing the telescope so that it could be resurrected if funding reappears.

Losses for Science

One could argue that this all makes a fair bit of sense, given squeezed resources and reports dating back to 2006 that recommend prioritizing Arecibo below other observatories, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.

Trouble is, scientists argued at the meetings, those reports are mostly old, outdated, and don’t take into account the current scientific landscape.

“A very important thing to remember is that the scientific context for those reports has changed,” said Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Ransom pointed to the recent announcement that gravitational waves had been directly detected—a huge discovery. Arecibo plays a crucial role in detecting gravitational waves, said Xavier Siemens, chair of NANOGrav, the experiment using the telescope to search for those waves.

“We are now at a time when we have reached unprecedented sensitivities and expect to make a detection soon,” Siemens said. “Arecibo is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, and a lack of access to this instrument would cripple our observatory.”

The Arecibo Observatory, as seen on Google Earth.
The Arecibo Observatory, as seen on Google Earth.

Qihou Zhou, from Miami University, also argued that the observatory’s work in the atmospheric sciences is crucial to understanding long-term changes in Earth’s climate. While surface temperatures can exhibit significant local variations, reliable indications of a warming climate hide in the upper atmosphere.

“As the surface temperature rises, the upper atmosphere cools,” Zhou said, noting that Arecibo’s data set spans 50 years, an almost unheard-of amount of time. “Clearly, the longer the data set is available, the easier it is to discern any long-term change. Continuous operation of Arecibo is important to understand climate change and our space environment.

And then there’s that whole issue of killer asteroids and comets. Arecibo’s radar capabilities are vastly superior to any other facility on Earth, and allow scientists to efficiently characterize potentially destructive impactors. That’s important for lessening environmental impacts to planet Earth as a whole, Arecibo’s planetary radar lead Patrick Taylor said.

NASA says it will continue to fund this work at Arecibo as long as NSF operates the telescope.

“If it is closed, NASA will continue to have planetary radar capability with its own Goldstone facility, a part of its Deep Space Network,” wrote Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, in an email. “However, the Goldstone Solar System Radar is not as powerful as Arecibo’s, so it will not have quite the same range into space as Arecibo.”

Educational Casualties

Science isn’t the only concern at Arecibo. In fact, the majority of people at the meetings discussed the role the observatory plays in inspiring and training Puerto Rican students, some 20,000 of whom visit the site every year.

Though it’s hard to quantify, the value of inspiration and education is not insignificant, especially considering how underrepresented Hispanic students are in the sciences.

As evidence, several students involved in the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy spoke about how important their time at the observatory was, and how this pre-college program gave them hands-on research experience that continues to affect their lives.

“I can say that AOSA has had a great impact on my life,” said Adriana Lopez, a 14-year-old space academy alum. “Always, in my life, I’ve been fascinated with space, and it has led me to join several camps, but none of them have affected me like AOSA. This academy provided me with skills not even my own academic institution did.“

Luisa Zambrano, a graduate student who’s not only using Arecibo data in her dissertation but is involved in running the space academy, said that 100 percent of academy students that have graduated from high school are now in college. Further, she said, among the more than 150 students that have come through the program, “we’ve been able to maintain almost even male:female ratios—which is very unusual for science. Especially among Hispanics.”

That’s not all.

“Over the last five years, we have had 24 Hispanic students or teachers,” said Robert Minchin, Arecibo’s radioastronomy lead and summer internship supervisor. That might not sound like a lot, he said, but it’s more than the typical graduating class at a U.S university.

“It’s not possible to give someone a research experience if you’re not doing research,” Minchin said.

If You Build It, They Will Come

In addition to its important role in science and education, Arecibo is also a prized local resource, community members argued. And it doesn’t make  sense to assume its cultural value can be maintained if science shuts down.

“Tourists wouldn’t come to the site to see a hole in the ground where the telescope used to be. Students wouldn’t be inspired by a telescope that is not there anymore,” said Joan Schmelz, deputy director of the observatory. “The science inspires the kids that come to the observatory and the tourists who come to visit.”

Arecibo's radar is used to image and project the orbits of near-Earth objects.
Arecibo’s radar is used to image and project the orbits of near-Earth objects.
Photograph by Tony Acevedo

That Arecibo plays a role in bringing tourists to the area is undeniable: As many as 100,000 visit each year. It also brings scientists and their families, and provides jobs for the local community.

It may also help preserve the local landscape. That somewhat surprising comment came from Miguel Sarriera, an attorney from the town of Quebradillas, on the island’s northern coast. Restrictions on AM, FM, and TV transmissions within a four-mile radius of the telescope, he said, have effectively prevented development and indirectly protected the naturally beautiful forests carpeting the regions karst terrain.

“If there is no observatory, these prohibitions are irrelevant,” he said. “The indirect environmental benefits that they currently represent will be no longer available.”

The Next Steps

Though no decision has been made yet, there are many roadblacks on the route to completely dismantling the telescope.

Among those is Arecibo’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which was approved late last year after former observatory director Robert Kerr pushed to have it included. And as one might expect, destroying a nationally significant historic site isn’t simply a matter of coming in with a big enough bulldozer. Various legislation requires that NSF assess and resolve any adverse effects its actions might cause, and take care “to minimize harm to any National Historic Landmark that may be directly and adversely affected by an undertaking.”

The agency hopes to wrap up this process by next summer. Caroline Blanco, NSF’s assistant general counsel, says the agency intends to publish a draft environmental impact statement as early as this fall. That will be followed by another public comment period, and the final report will be published in the spring of 2017. After another comment period, the agency will make its final decision.

“We anticipate that decision will be issued at some point in the summer of 2017,” Blanco said. “Ambiguity in the target dates is largely due to the fact that this is a public process and we cannot at this juncture anticipate what the public comments will be and how we will respond to them.”

That may not sound particularly fast, but it’s the equivalent of an eyeblink when you consider the pace at which federal agencies normally rumble along.

“The timeline is aggressive,” Cordova says. But that’s not necessarily bad. One of the frustrations Cordova is already experiencing comes with not knowing when or if the observatory will close: It’s impossible to plan and invest in upgrades, for example, when the telescope’s expiration date is a mystery.

“This has been going on for how long now?” Cordova asks. “We need to have an honest conversation and say, this is the long-term plan, this is going to be the long-term strategy, this is the long-term commitment from NSF – if it’s $1 million, if it’s half a million, whatever they’re going to say — let’s work together so that we can put a realistic plan together. Let’s not kid ourselves.”

(Instructions for submitting written comments to NSF about Arecibo’s fate, accepted through June 23, can be found here.)

Note: My dad is a former director of Arecibo Observatory.

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Uncertain Future for Earth’s Biggest Telescope

The Arecibo Observatory, easily recognizable from feature films and a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial life, may not be around for much longer. A harsh funding climate is forcing the National Science Foundation to make some hard decisions about which facilities to keep around. (NSF/Wikimedia)

(Hear Nadia Drake interviewed live about the Arecibo telescope on Science Friday from Public Radio International, on Friday June 10 at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST.)

Tucked into a sinkhole in the Puerto Rican jungle, the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope scans the skies for signs of distant galaxies, elusive gravitational waves, and the murmurs of extraterrestrial civilizations nearly 24 hours a day. For more than a half-century, whether those waves traveled to Earth from the far reaches of our universe or much closer to home, the Arecibo Observatory has been there to catch them.

But the enormous telescope, with a dish that stretches 1,000 feet across, may not be around for much longer.

On May 23, the National Science Foundation, which funds the majority of Arecibo’s annual $12 million budget, published a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement related to the observatory’s future.

That might sound innocuous – after all, isn’t it a good idea to study the context in which our science facilities exist? Yet it’s anything but benign. Putting that environmental assessment together is a crucial step NSF needs to take if it plans to yank funding from the observatory and effectively shut it down.

“It appears that NSF is following the formal process established, in part, by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, for decommissioning of a federal facility,” says Robert Kerr, former director of the observatory. “The good folks at Arecibo are scared to death.”

The decision to close Arecibo hasn’t been made yet, but the move follows an ominous drumbeat of similar announcements and reports that have accumulated over several years, most urging NSF to send its resources elsewhere. Now, options for Arecibo’s future range from continuing current operations to dismantling the telescope and returning the site to its natural state. It’s a decision NSF hopes to make — with input from the public — by the end of 2017, says Jim Ulvestad, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences.

Above the 1000-foot dish, a 900-ton platform is suspended from three tall towers. The platform's height varies by about a foot as temperatures rise and fall. (Nadia Drake)
Above the 1000-foot dish, a 900-ton platform is suspended from three tall towers. (Nadia Drake)

The most extreme option, which could include explosively demolishing the giant dish, might affect such things as ground water, air quality, and ecosystems – thus the importance of studying the environmental impact of potential futures, especially ones that involve shutting the telescope’s eyes.

“On a practical level, the telescope would in time — perhaps a short time, given the tropical site — become very unsafe,” says Cornell University’s Don Campbell, a former observatory director. “Short of permanently guarding it, deconstruction would be necessary.”

Not surprisingly, this notice of intent is causing significant concern among astronomers and the local community. Arecibo is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world; and despite its age, it’s still involved in world-class science, like the search for gravitational waves. Importantly, it also helps boost a sagging local economy, and has inspired many Puerto Ricans to pursue science and think about the mysteries of the universe.

“Puerto Rico feels a sense of ownership and pride for the observatory,” says Emmanuel Donate, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Georgia who started a petition to keep the observatory funded. “I consider using it, especially in person as I’ve been doing the last couple weeks, one of the highlights of my life and a tremendous personal honor.”

A Tropical Icon

Construction at Arecibo began in 1960, when – among other things – the U.S. government wanted to find out if Soviet ICBMs could be detected using charged particles in their atmospheric wakes. The telescope didn’t work well at first, but after a few upgrades it was the most sensitive cosmic radio wave detector in the world. That’s not it’s only trick, though: In addition to collecting photons from space, Arecibo is also capable of sending radio waves into the cosmos, a talent scientists use to scrutinize potentially catastrophic asteroids on Earth-crossing orbits.

The Arecibo Observatory, as seen on Google Earth.
The Arecibo Observatory, as seen on Google Earth.

In the intervening decades, Arecibo has been involved in loads of top-notch science, including work that was awarded a Nobel Prize. But it’s also become a recognizable symbol of humanity’s quest to understand our place in the cosmos (my dad, a former observatory director, used Arecibo to send Earth’s first intentional postcard to the stars in 1974), and is a semi-frequent character in popular films and TV series, including The X-Files, Contact, and GoldenEye.

To say the telescope is iconic is not an overstatement.

 Stormclouds on the Horizon

But a frustratingly flatlined budget is forcing the National Science Foundation to ration its resources. To do that, NSF relies on a somewhat contorted process of soliciting input from external reviews and panels, federal advisory boards, and the National Research Council’s decadal surveys, which prioritize science goals for the coming decade.

“NSF, like most federal science agencies, has much more worthy science proposed to it than it is able to fund,” Ulvestad says. “Within the constraints of its resources, NSF responds as well as possible to those community and governmental science priorities and recommendations.”

The most recent decadal survey, published in 2010, prioritized science requiring new facilities instead of experiments that could be conducted at places like Arecibo. That survey, in combination with the dismal funding situation, is what’s causing NSF to look for facilities to dump.

Arecibo's dish is suspended above the floor of the natural depression it sits in. Beneath it, fields of shade-tolerant plants grow. (Nadia Drake)
Arecibo’s dish is suspended above the floor of the natural depression it sits in. Beneath it, plants grow like crazy. (Nadia Drake)

Despite its iconic status, Arecibo is an easy target – newer, shinier telescopes are coming online, and it’s got a relatively small number of users compared to optical telescopes across the United States, many of which are individually less expensive to run.

Over the past decade, multiple panels have called for severe reductions in funding for the observatory, starting with a 2006 NSF review that recommended finding alternative sources of cash for Arecibo. “The [senior review] recommends closure after 2011 if the necessary support is not forthcoming,” the report says. “This raises the important question of the cost of decommissioning the telescope, which could be prohibitively large.”

That review was followed by a 2012 assessment of the facilities funded by NSF’s astronomical sciences division. While somewhat less gloomy – the committee recommended keeping the observatory in NSF’s portfolio – the 2012 panel suggested revisiting Arecibo’s funding status later in the decade, “in light of the science opportunities and budget forecasts at that time.”

NSF followed that review with a 2013 letter saying it would begin studying the costs and impact of decommissioning the giant telescope – a matter that would be complicated by the telescope’s history and location in a region of high biodiversity, “thus these reviews should be started as soon as practicable.”

The cloudy outlook intensified this year, when NSF’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee urged the agency to proceed with divestment “as fast as is practical.” That was quickly followed by another NSF review that advised a 75% reduction in funding from the agency’s Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences division (AGS), slashing contributions to atmospheric research from $4.1 million to $1.1 million.

And now, the sky is looking dark indeed.

“The timing of the federal register announcement in juxtaposition with the AGS review is being received by most as the final death sentence for Arecibo,” Kerr says.

Ulvestad says that before any such decision is reached, communities that rely on the observatory will have an opportunity to share their concerns. On June 7, the first of these meetings will take place in Puerto Rico, and a public comment period is open until June 23. After the results of the draft environmental impact statement are released, a 45-day public comment period will follow.

And then? Either the storm will hit or it won’t.

“To be fair to the NSF, AST and AGS are reacting to a very difficult budget situation — no significant increase in several years and none forecast,” Campbell says.

Scanning the Cosmos

Looking down at the dish from above. (Nadia Drake)
Looking down at the dish from above. (Nadia Drake)

Now, Arecibo’s projects include detecting mysterious bursts of radio waves coming from far, far away, testing cosmological models by studying small galaxies in the local universe, and studying those potentially planet-killing asteroids – as well as the moons of distant planets.

“There is much concern, not just in the small bodies community, but in the planetary science community as a whole regarding the future of Arecibo,” says Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Chabot chairs NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, which published a report earlier this year urging NASA to continue supporting the observatory, in the name of preserving “the nation’s science and security interests.”

Among astronomers, perceptions are that NSF’s move to decommission Arecibo has been gaining momentum as challenges from new facilities arise. One potential thorn in Arecibo’s side is ALMA, the ultrasensitive array of radio telescopes recently completed in the Chilean Atacama. Some scientists speculate that with continued resources devoted to ALMA, NSF could be looking to share the relative wealth and spend its money on something other than radio. And that might make sense, especially given that China is nearly done constructing a single-dish radio telescope that will be larger than Arecibo. Called the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, the behemoth could possibly open its eyes this fall, though real science observations won’t begin right away.

Despite its size, FAST won’t necessarily be more sensitive than Arecibo, and it won’t have a built-in radar, which can be used to give the most accurate orbital information for asteroids which might impact the Earth.

Cornell University’s Jim Cordes points out that newer facilities don’t necessarily have to replace older, high-quality telescopes, especially when those older facilities still provide unique capabilities. They can be complementary, he says, pointing out that scores of similar optical telescopes exist in tandem, such as the two nearly identical Keck telescopes at the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. “It’s sort of like there’s a disconnect in the way people think about radio telescopes and optical telescopes,” Cordes says.

More importantly, Cordes notes, some experiments actually require multiple extremely sensitive telescopes. One of these, called NANOGrav, uses Arecibo and a telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia to search for gravitational waves. The project does this by observing pulsars, spinning stellar corpses that act as astronomical clocks. As these dense, dead stars rotate, they emit beams of radio waves that can be detected from Earth; gravitational waves, similar to those detected earlier this year by the LIGO collaboration, sweep through and disrupt the signals coming from those spinning clocks in observable ways…as long as a sharp set of eyes is paying attention.

“NANOGrav’s goal is to open a gravitational wave window that parallels what LIGO did so spectacularly,” Cordes says, noting that the two experiments look for waves produced by wildly different cosmic collisions. “The NANOGrav band is as different from the LIGO band as radio waves in the FM band are different from the X-rays used by your dentist. A full understanding of the universe requires instruments that sample all frequencies.”

Losing Arecibo would mean losing the ability to precisely monitor half of NANOGrav’s roughly 50 pulsars. “This will push back detection by a few years, at a time when we are almost there,” says NANOGrav chair Xavier Siemens, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

A scientist who shall remain anonymous once described empirically testing whether a motorcycle could be ridden up the catwalk to the telescope's platform. The answer is yes, which will not come as a surprise to James Bond. (Nadia Drake)
A scientist who shall remain anonymous once described empirically testing whether a motorcycle could be ridden up the catwalk to the telescope’s platform. The answer is yes, which will not come as a surprise to James Bond [note: this is the roof on the catwalk]. (Nadia Drake)
A National Inspiration?

It seems clear that Arecibo won’t go down without a fight, but it’s not exactly clear what form that fight will take. Interestingly, former observatory director Robert Kerr threw one punch by beginning the process for listing Arecibo as a national historic site.

“It was entirely my intention that the National Historic Registry be an impediment to site closure,” he says, adding that “others assisting with that application may have had other motivations, such as enhanced tourist appeal.”

And NASA, which funds the planetary radar experiments at Arecibo, also may have something to say about NSF shutting down the facility. It’s also possible that another institution, or someone with enough spare cash might decide to step in.

“I hope that they do find another institution to contribute to the costs but it will depend on the conditions,” Campbell says. “The alternative is grim for science, for Puerto Rico and, especially given Puerto Rico’s current situation, for the Observatory’s local staff. The staff are an incredible hard working and supportive group.”

Indeed, generations of Puerto Ricans have visited the observatory, in addition to those who have worked, studied, and lived there.

“I grew up in the city of Arecibo, I grew up knowing that in the mountains south of the city great science was being done,” says Pablo Llerandi-Román, a geologist at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. For Llerandi, science became more than just a subject in school when he visited the observatory as a student and talked with the researchers on site. “If Arecibo shuts down,” he says, “A major aspect of my arecibeño and Puerto Rican scientist pride would be lost.”

Carlos Estevez Galarza, a student at the University of Puerto Rico, says he hopes Puerto Ricans will one day be as celebrated for their commitment to science as they are for their passions for arts and sports – and he thinks the observatory plays an important role in that.

“The Arecibo Observatory and its staff were the only ones who believed in me, when no one did,” Galarza says. He worked as a student research assistant at the observatory, studying Mars, and has since presented his work at international conferences and submitted his first paper to a science journal.

“The most important thing about my experience at the Arecibo Observatory is that I found my purpose,” he continues. “There are many talented Puerto Rican students who deserve the chance that I had.”

One of those students is still in high school. Now 16, Wilbert Andres Ruperto Hernandez wanted to be an astronaut as a kid – and he wanted to get some hands-on experience in science and engineering. So he enrolled in the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy, which offers high school students the opportunity to design experiments, then collect and analyze data. Now, Hernandez says, he wants to study mechanical engineering or space sciences in college, and has discovered a yearning to understand how the universe works – something that emerged while working with and talking to scientists at the observatory.

“The fact that we have yet to discover and learn more about ourselves, where we live in and all the things that surround us, motivates me the most to investigate and study these fields,” he says. “Being part of Arecibo Observatory and AOSA has been the greatest experience in my life.”

Around sunset, Arecibo comes to life with the stubborn songs of coqui frogs. (Nadia Drake)
Around sunset, Arecibo comes to life with the stubborn songs of coqui frogs. (Nadia Drake)
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The Science of Big Science

Science is getting bigger. Just about every scientific discipline — astronomy, conservation, drug development, genetics, neuroscience, physics — is organizing massive collaborations of researchers in the name of reaching massive goals. These so-called Big Science efforts have big budgets, big lists of participating institutions, big press coverage, and big pronouncements. Big Science isn’t new (the term was around in 1961, if not before), but it does seem to be getting more popular.

Take a project that readers of this blog are probably familiar with: the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which the world first heard about in February when President Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address. The projected budget of BRAIN is $3 billion over 10 years, which will be divvied out by three federal agencies and several nonprofits. The project made headlines in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and every other major news outlet. Its goal, according to Obama, was to “unlock the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.” Could there be a larger project?

And BRAIN is just one of an increasingly long list of expensive, collaborative science projects. The Big Question, of course, is whether the Go-Big strategy is more effective than the typical model of funding individual labs.

Two commentaries came out last week about collaborations in biomedical sciences. One of them, about big-ticket neuroscience projects such as BRAIN, focused mostly on the expected payoffs of these efforts. The other, about medical research consortia, puts forth a more novel idea: that we need to treat the process of Big Science itself as a science. Creating a monster consortium might be trendy, but it’s not the right strategy for every scientific goal. Researchers need to figure out when, exactly, the approach is likely to be effective — and when it’s not.

It’s worth talking about why Big Science is popular and why it has the potential, at least, to do good. It’s hot partly because of the global economic crisis. Federal agencies (in the U.S. and many other countries) are giving out fewer and fewer grants to individual scientists. Big Science, though, is more resilient to cutbacks because its big teams can create a lobbying force, and make their pitch directly to legislators and the popular press. “Publicly high profile, sustained, big-project funding is an effective way of championing a discipline,” says Paul Matthews of Imperial College London in one of the new commentaries, published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. “Pulling together a new level of public and political support for science demands an exciting vision.”

Matthews gives another (less cynical) reason Big Neuroscience is useful: It makes it easier to share data and ideas across disciplines and institutions. “There is so much in the present system that creates barriers between investigators and institutions and that slows (or even impedes) free flow of information,” he writes. Christof Koch, another contributor to that commentary, seems to agree. “Neuroscience is a splintered field, with circa 10,000 laboratories worldwide pursuing distinct questions with a dizzying variety of tools,” writes Koch, Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. And each of those labs is in an intense competition to publish in top-tier journals. “To gain a competitive edge…hard-grained structural or functional information is hoarded and rarely made accessible online.” Researchers who belong to consortia, he argues, aren’t subject to the same financial and time constraints.

What experts don’t seem to agree on, though, is whether these big projects actually produce new, revolutionary ideas, or instead are more suited for the implementation of established ideas. Henry Markram, leader of the €1 billion, 86-institute Human Brain Project, obviously believes in group insights. “We are hampered by the general belief that we need an Einstein to explain how the brain works,” he writes in the Nature Reviews Neuroscience commentary. “What we actually need is to set aside our egos and create a new kind of collective neuroscience.”

Others point out, though, that the most famous successes in Big Science — the Human Genome project, the moon landing, the Manhattan Project — were essentially engineering projects, not basic discoveries. Take the Large Hadron Collider, an enormous particle collider that the European Organization for Nuclear Research built over 10 years in order to find the elusive Higgs particle. “It tested a hypothesis rather than developing it,” Matthews writes (in the paragraph directly following Markram’s Einstein comment, no less). “Recall that it was Peter Higgs — a single creative scientist — whose theory ‘discovered’ the Higgs boson.”

It’s not just this handful of scientists who quibble over the best way to set up consortia, or whether to set them up at all. The BRAIN announcement, for example, spurred all kinds of backlash from neuroscientists (on Twitter, in the blogosphere, and in traditional news outlets).

But rather than argue about whether these projects are useful or not, why not study the question rigorously and systematically? That’s the premise of the second new commentary, published in last week’s Science Translational Medicine and provocatively titled, “Curing Consortium Fatigue.”

The authors, Magdalini Papadaki and Gigi Hirsch, are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Biomedical Innovation. You can tell they come from the business world; the commentary is littered with terms like “the innovation lifecycle”, “success-enablers”, and “synergistic initiatives”. Jargon aside, the ideas seem pretty smart to me. The first step in making a good Big Science project, they say, is to take a hard look at what’s worked in the past. “Understanding how and when various models of funding, intellectual property management, and leadership, for example, have proven useful can provide exemplars to inform how we design new collaborations,” they write.

But wait, you say. Surely people who put these giant, expensive things together have already done lots of logistical assessments? Not so much, according to Papadaki and Hirsch. “Despite the recent collaboration proliferation, little research has been conducted to assess the effectiveness of these alliances or to identify successful characteristics that can be applied to future ones.”

I’m all for Big Science and its lofty aims. But with funding in such short supply, perhaps it’s time to take some pointers from Big Business.

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So Science…Might Have Gotten It Wrong. Now What?

Last week, I wrote about a scientific paper that was published in the elite journal Nature in 1995. Within a couple of years, the findings of said paper were called into question by several other papers in different journals. As of today, nearly two decades since the original came out, nobody has replicated it. And yet, it’s still sitting there in the literature, still influencing others. It’s been cited nearly 1,000 times.

Some readers were angry with my post, arguing, for example, that “science’s self-correcting paradigm works over decades”. Indeed, that was my point. Science’s self-correction is generally very slow — perhaps, as many argue, too slow.

This week I learned about an unfolding scientific debate that’s got me thinking again about the challenge — the impossibility? — of swift and sure scientific correction. What does it mean when one group of researchers, or even two or three groups, can’t replicate a particular scientific finding? Does that necessarily mean it’s wrong? At what point should a scientist give up on a new idea for lack of supporting evidence?

That unfolding debate started in late 2011, when Chen-Yu Zhang’s team from Nanjing University in China found something pretty wild: bits of rice RNA floating in the bloodstreams of Chinese men and women. That might not seem so strange; rice was a primary ingredient of their diets, after all. But RNA molecules are pretty fragile. So the discovery shocked and intrigued many biologists.

“It’s just a very neat new physiologic mechanism,” says Ken Witwer, a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “How is it that a small RNA, or any RNA, could survive this trip from the mouth, with all these enzymes in saliva, down into the stomach, with the acidic environment there, and make it all the way into the gut, to the point that it could cross over into the blood? What form would this RNA have to be in to make that journey?”

Even more provocative: Zhang’s study also showed that in mice, those same tiny pieces of plant RNA — dubbed microRNA or miRNA, and made up of just two-dozen nucleotides, or letters of code — can shut down a gene involved in cholesterol uptake.

The study had big implications for medicine and our food supply. For instance, it suggested that researchers might be able to design oral RNA drugs for a host of diseases, “one of the holy grails” of the field, Witwer says. The data also provided evidence, at least according to a press release issued by Zhang, that miRNAs are “essential functional molecules” in Chinese herbal remedies. Finally, some people — like the author of a controversial* column published in The Atlantic — used the study to argue that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are harmful to eat (despite loads of evidence to the contrary). (Update 7/9:  See below a response from the author of that column.)

Andres Rodriguez, via Flickr
Andres Rodriguez, via Flickr

So the paper made its media splash. And in the 21 months since its publication, the work has been cited in 42 other papers, according to Web of Knowledge.

A few of those could be considered replication studies. In one, David Galas of the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute, in Seattle, performed genetic sequencing of human blood samples and found low levels of miRNA from many species, including bacteria, fungi, insects, and plants. Galas’s team detected the same specific rice miRNA that Zhang had — dubbed miR-168 — albeit at far lower levels than Zhang had.

Two other follow-up studies were bankrolled by agricultural giant Monsanto (which, it must be said, sells GMOs and thus has a big stake in claims that they’re dangerous). The Monsanto researchers combed through large datasets of genetic sequences obtained from mammals, chickens, and insects, looking for any trace of plant miRNAs. They found them in some of the datasets, but again, at very low levels. And sometimes the data didn’t make sense — they found miR-168, for example, in animals that had never eaten food containing miR-168, suggesting that it could have been the result of a contamination, Witwer says. “We know that pollen has miRNAs in it, and depending on the time of the year, maybe we have more pollen contamination, even in our best labs, than at other times.”

The July issue of RNA Biology adds two more skeptical papers to the mix. In one of them, Witwer’s team fed monkeys a Silk fruit and protein shake, which happens to contain high levels of miR-168 and other plant miRNAs. The researchers tested the animals’ blood for miRNAs before the feeding and 1, 4, and 12 hours after the feeding.

The scientists used the same method that Zhang’s group had: polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which allows researchers to identify specific segments of DNA or RNA by copying them over and over again, and then fluorescing the copies. When Witwer’s team used PCR to find miRNAs in the smoothies, the results were sensitive and consistent. But when looking at the monkeys’ blood, the PCR data were much more variable. “We weren’t completely confident in the accuracy of the method,” Witwer says.

So his team repeated the experiment using a newer and more precise type of PCR, called droplet digital PCR. This time, they again saw a lot of variability in the blood data, and no consistent differences between the samples taken before and after the animals ate the shakes. Witwer’s conclusion: Plant miRNAs probably don’t transfer into our blood after digesting it, at least not in quantities anywhere near what Zhang’s group had reported.

In the other new paper, Stephen Chan of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that healthy athletes did not carry detectable levels of plant miRNAs in their blood after eating fruit chock-full of those molecules. The scientists also couldn’t find this kind of transfer in experiments with mice and bees. “We conclude,” the paper states, “that horizontal delivery of microRNAs via typical dietary ingestion is neither a robust nor a frequent mechanism.”

Forest Wander, via Flickr
Forest Wander, via Flickr

So what do all of these studies say about this particular finding, and more generally, about science’s self-correcting process?

Less than two years after the original paper came out, at least five studies have followed it up. And in my (utterly non-expert) judgment, it seems like none of them meaningfully replicate Zhang’s paper. (Zhang has not responded to my request for comment; I will update the post if/when he does. Update, 7/8: Zhang has responded to my request for comment; see his full response at the bottom of this post.)

The studies are consistent in finding very low levels of plant miRNAs in people and a variety of other species. Witwer says that’s enough evidence of a non-result to move on from the whole idea. “I’m willing to help out if someone’s organizing an attempt to replicate something, but I’m probably not going to devote my lab to answering more questions on this issue,” he says. “We’ve convinced ourslves that we’re not seeing anything here.”

Others, though, aren’t ready to drop it. Galas, whose paper found miR-168 in low levels in human blood, says the only thing we know for sure is how difficult the question is to study. “The major result is that miRs are difficult to measure accurately,” he says. What’s more, he says, Witwer’s feeding experiments aren’t necessarily damning because their specifics differ from the original Zhang paper.

For Galas, the current data only makes the question more worthy of study by the RNA community, not less. “This is a an important topic to get pinned down — the potential for new biological phenomena is significant.”

This story helps explain why science’s self-correction process can’t be super-quick. It takes time for evidence to accumulate and show clear trends. That said, scientists could be better at making that correction process more efficient. One step, Witwer says, is transferring published data into public repositories that can be easily shared with the scientific community.

As Witwer reported in February, less than 40 percent of studies reporting microRNA sequencing data submitted that data to public databases. More interesting: The scientists who did share were more likely to have high-quality papers. The only paper in the analysis to be retracted, by the way, was one that did not share its raw data.

“I think that science can be self-correcting,” Witwer says, “but it requires people to do that correcting.”

*That column was rightfully struck down by science bloggers Emily Willingham and Christie Wilcox, and because of their posts, the author eventually amended it. The self-correction of the blogosphere is just a tad faster than the self-correction of science, eh? (UPDATE 7/9: The author of the column says his re-write had nothing to do with the bloggers; see his full comment here.)

UPDATE #1 (7/4): Also, just noticed that the incomparable Willingham beat me to this story a couple of weeks ago! Go check out her post at Forbes.

UPDATE #2 (7/8): Dr. Zhang sent me a lengthy letter in response to my request for comment about Dr. Witwer’s new study. You can read that (in .pdf form) by clicking here.

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So Science Gets It Wrong. Then What?

mendelIt’s hard to think of a scientist whose reputation is more squeaky-clean than the shy Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. His story invariably begins in the abbey garden, where from 1856 to 1863 he bred thousands of pea plants and painstakingly counted how traits pass from one generation to the next.

His data showed that many features are inherited in predictable ratios: dominant traits, like round seeds, are passed to three out of four daughter plants, whereas recessive ones, like wrinkled seeds, go to just one in four. Mendel discovered how genes work before anybody knew that they existed.

The ideas behind Mendel’s experiments are sound, but according to an infamous statistical analysis, the good friar fudged data to fit his pre-existing notions. In 1936, R.A. Fisher of University College London argued that Mendel’s tallies of traits — claiming, for instance, that 5,474 daughter seeds were round and 1,850 wrinkled — were too spot-on for the expected 3:1 ratio to be true. “The data of most, if not all, of the experiments have been falsified so as to agree closely with Mendel’s expectations,” Fisher wrote. In other words: Mendel was either presenting a choice subset of his data, or cooking the books outright.

A few years ago, statisticians in Portugal re-analyzed Mendel’s data and Fisher’s calculations, and suggested that Mendel was guilty of an unconscious and systematic bias, rather than fraud*. Whether Mendel cheated or not, there’s no question that fudges and mistakes and transgressions happen in science. So, fellow science-lovers, should we be worried about this?

Scientific misconduct has existed since the beginning of science — to surprisingly little fanfare. The scientific establishment tends to brush these cases under the rug with the claim that science is self-correcting. The argument goes something like this. If, as in Mendel’s case, fudged data uncovers or bolsters a real phenomenon, then there’s no harm done. Outright fraud is rare, and its impact, if any, is short-lived. If an experiment can’t be replicated, then its refutation will soon be published, and the original, flawed idea fade away into obscurity.

That’s certainly a comfortable position. Too bad it’s not exactly true. The scientific record is not so easily corrected.

A fascinating essay went up last week on Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks retractions, or the formal withdrawals of scientific studies from journals. For a scientist, retracting a study is kind of like a kid writing VOID on top of a birthday check. Except, with many retractions, it’s more like voiding a check long after the money’s been deposited and spent. Once a study enters the scientific literature, it gets read by many people and cited in many other studies. If it’s retracted a few years later, no one’s likely to notice. The check’s already cleared.

So back to this new essay. In it, cancer biologist David Vaux recounts when, in 1995, a new paper on organ transplantation came out in the prestigious journal Nature. Vaux was so impressed by the results that he wrote about them in a commentary (which Nature calls a “News and Views”) for the same issue of the journal. And after that, his lab started working on the same biological process. “Little did we know,” Vaux writes, “that instead of providing an answer to transplant rejection, these experiments would teach us a great deal about editorial practices and the difficulty of correcting errors once they appear in the literature.”

Long story short, Vaux’s team was not able to replicate the paper’s results. They tried, and failed, to publish their rebuttal in Nature. It was published in another journal, and within a couple of years, another group  published a similar rebuttal in Nature Medicine. But still, Nature wouldn’t budge. Fed up, Vaux made a somewhat crazy move: He retracted his own News and Views piece. Go read his essay to get his full account. His retraction appeared in 1998, and still no one has replicated the other team’s findings.

This is not an isolated incident. Retraction Watch’s raison d’être is based on that fact. Some of the many comments on the post are also telling:

Peer007: I feel Vaux’s pain. I spent two years and four submissions before Nature was willing to publish a piece of correspondence highlighting major technical problems in a Nature paper. As both us and the original authors agreed on the technical problems (but differed in how they affect the interpretation of the experiment), this should have been a much less painful experience. Nature simply was not interested in setting the record straight. Shameful.

littlegreyrabbit: What you describe is not rare or unusual in the slightest, it is what many excellent and productive careers are built on. Don’t upset the apple cart.

arthurdentition: It seems like high impact Journals today are in the same position as the catholic church in recent years with regard to sexual abuse…Why can’t these journals get that and start respecting their target audience; rational, highly educated and articulate adults who know that it cannot all be true.

Peer007: The published literature is fallible. Putting fraud aside, mistakes will be made, controls omitted, variables unaccounted for, and incorrect conclusions will be drawn. It is inevitable. Journals, in my opinion, need to adjust their posture to account for the fact that all papers are a work in progress, and be more receptive to publishing corrections, correspondence, and (worse case scenario) retractions.

Right: Scientists are fallible. And in this age of increasingly intense competition for funding, researchers are arguably more likely to unintentionally mess up and/or cheat than ever before. Recent surveys have found that about 1 percent of all scientists seriously misbehave, and upwards of 20 percent commit questionable offenses, such as ignoring inconvenient data points, stealing others’ ideas, or publishing the same finding more than once.

But I don’t like it when scientists blame the federal budget for misconduct. It may be part of the problem, but not the solution. If we want the public to better understand the scientific process — and perhaps equally important, to trust the scientific process — then errors of any kind must be talked about and dealt with, swiftly and transparently.

Fortunately, scientific misconduct has been getting more attention in the past few years (hence the success of Retraction Watch). In 2010, a group of 340 individuals from 51 countries published the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity, the first international statement of principles meant to guide governments and institutions in setting sound policies. The leader of that group, Nicholas Steneck, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of Michigan, says the most important audience for these efforts is the new generation of scientists. “It’s vitally important that we make young researchers aware of the problems, and also aware of where they’re likely to get pressures and how they can resist,” he told me in 2011.

R.A. Fisher, the statistician who put a spotlight on the inconsistencies in Mendel’s plant data, had a similar message for young scientists: Check, and re-check, and then scrutinize the data.

“In spite of the immense publicity it has received, [Mendel’s] work has not often been examined with sufficient care to prevent its many extra-ordinary features being overlooked,” Fisher wrote. “Each generation, perhaps, found in Mendel’s paper only what it expected to find.”

*Update: Others have also questioned the attacks against Mendel. On Twitter, Leonid Kruglyak pointed me to this example from 2007: http://www.genetics.org/content/175/3/975.full.