News at a glance: AI regulation, renewable energy, and Alzheimer's therapy – Science

Iran’s universities have become hotbeds of protests against the government—and violent crackdowns by police—in the wake of the death of a young woman detained by the country’s notorious morality police. The prestigious Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, for example—lauded as Iran’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology—erupted in protest on 2 October; eyewitness accounts describe professors linking arms to form a human shield to protect student protesters from police, who ended up arresting about 30. Similar convulsions have occurred at more than 100 Iranian universities, part of what may be the biggest challenge by Iranians to the Islamic clerics’ 43-year rule. More than 110 students had been detained as of 4 October; 1145 professors and lecturers from across Iran signed a statement condemning their arrests. The woman who died, Mahsa Amini, 22, was arrested on 16 September for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. She fell into a coma; police claim she suffered a heart attack but fellow detainees say she was beaten.
Americans deserve to be protected against artificial intelligence algorithms that are discriminatory or violate their privacy, says an AI “bill of rights” rolled out this week by the White House. The 73-page document lays out five core principles the tech industry and public officials should follow when using or regulating AI. But it is silent on how those principles should be implemented and how they would be enforced, and senior administration officials said there are no plans to turn them into specific legislation, as the European Union is contemplating. Marc Rotenberg, an AI ethics and justice advocate, calls the document “an important first step” toward a comprehensive U.S. policy on the use of this technology, which is increasingly used in law enforcement, health care, education, and other sectors of society. But Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, says the policy doesn’t go far enough. “We need to move past shouldism,” he says, “and tell people what they need to do, and by when.”
The most powerful millimeter-wave radio telescope in the Northern Hemisphere has been completed and was inaugurated last week. The Northern Extended Millimeter Array (NOEMA) is built on an existing set of six 15-meter dishes in the French Alps, to which six dishes have been added. The array, the world’s second largest after a giant telescope in Chile, can be reconfigured, spreading the dishes as far as 1.7 kilometers apart to sharpen its images. NOEMA forms a part of the Event Horizon Telescope, a set of radio telescopes around the world that images supermassive black holes. It will also be used to study interstellar gases and the formation and dynamics of galaxies and stars. It is run by the French national research agency, CNRS; Germany’s Max Planck Society; and Spain’s National Geographic Institute.
Researchers applying for grants from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science—the country’s single biggest funder of the physical sciences—must propose how the project will promote greater participation by researchers of color and other underrepresented groups, the office announced this week. These disciplines are among the least diverse in science; Black people earned just 0.5% of Ph.D.s in physics awarded by U.S. institutions from 1999 to 2020. The application’s Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Research Plan must go beyond describing the diversity efforts of the applicants’ institution, the agency says. For example, it could assign scientists from underrepresented groups to project leadership roles and dedicate some of the grant money to train and mentor group members. The requirement applies to new grants and renewals and to large and small teams. The Office of Science has recently unveiled other programs to advance diversity, including Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce, with $22 million dedicated this year for research at institutions including historically Black ones.
Solar and wind are the fastest growing sources of energy. Zero-carbon sources, which include hydro and nuclear, reached nearly 40% of the total in 2021. Generation is shown in thousands of terawatt-hours
Solar and wind power hit new milestones in 2021, jointly supplying for the first time more than 10% of all electricity generated globally. The two sources also accounted for three-quarters of all new electric-generating capacity installed that year as their costs dropped, according to a 21 September report from BloombergNEF, a research company. Advocates for reducing carbon emissions hailed the trends. Still, production of coal power also rose as economic recovery increased demand, drought cut hydropower, and natural gas prices rose, although the global increase was the smallest in 15 years. Worldwide, coal remained the largest single source of electricity in 2021. Half of the countries that pledged to phase out coal power at last year’s Glasgow, Scotland, climate summit instead reported that it grew in 2021.
The destruction wrought by Hurricane Ian in Florida last week endangered some research projects while enabling others to gather new data about these big storms. An environmental science lab on Sanibel Island, run by the nonprofit Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, lost part of its roof and remains without power. Before the storm struck, University of Florida researchers deployed sensors around Punta Gorda Airport, near Fort Myers, to study how building codes can help structures survive high winds. Other researchers drove vehicles equipped with cameras in the area to gather images of damaged buildings, for a project on storms funded by the National Science Foundation.
The pharmaceutical companies Biogen and Eisai last week announced that a monoclonal antibody treatment reduced cognitive decline by 27% in people with early stage Alzheimer’s compared with those on a placebo after 18 months. Lecanemab belongs to a class of therapies that break down or inhibit buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain, and is apparently the first to clearly subdue symptoms of the disease. But researchers also want to see more data from the clinical trial, which has so far been shared only by press release. Biogen and Eisai, which have applied for accelerated approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, say they plan to release more information in November. One question is why lecanemab seems to show promise when other therapies targeted at amyloid have failed to help patients. One theory is that the treatment targets “protofibrils,” protein strands that haven’t yet consolidated into plaques. If lecanemab is approved, it may prove demanding for physicians to administer: The therapy is given by infusion, and patients may need periodic imaging to look for side effects, such as small brain hemorrhages.
Chroniclers of ancient Greece helped create an enduring narrative that its victorious armies were composed of citizen-warriors. But new evidence suggests in at least one battle, they had help—from mercenaries recruited from far away in Europe and Asia. A research team identified foreign lineages through genetic analysis of fallen soldiers buried near Himera, a Greek colony in Sicily, after a winning battle in 480 B.C.E. against Carthaginian invaders. What’s more, the chemical composition of their bones shows many didn’t grow up near Himera, and the warriors’ good health in life suggests they had not been enslaved, the team reports this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The powerful melding of bioanthropological evidence with historical accounts suggests the mercenaries made a difference: Another group of Himeran warriors, buried 70 years later, all resembled each other in genetic and isotopic signatures—suggesting they fought on their own. They lost that later battle.
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