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News at a glance: Bumble bees that play, risky fungi, and Java Man's fate – Science

In a major milestone for Iran’s scientific community, astronomers announced last week that the $25 million Iranian National Observatory (INO) is operational. They said the resolution of the first images—showing Arp 282, a pair of galaxies some 319 million light-years from Earth—was better than expected. Iranian scientists first proposed building the INO 2 decades ago, and to complete it, they had to surmount hurdles that few colleagues elsewhere face: sanctions that curtail high-tech imports and visa restrictions limiting their travel abroad. Among other science goals, the 3.4-meter optical telescope on top of Mount Gargash will help fill a geographic gap in a global network that studies fleeting phenomena such as gamma ray bursts to try to pinpoint their locations and unravel their physics. Engineers have yet to install the first science instrument, a high-quality imaging camera. Operators hope to forge international collaborations to install additional instruments, assuming any sanctions restrictions can be resolved.
Viruses and bacteria hog the limelight for public health threats, but last week the World Health Organization (WHO) published its first-ever list of “priority pathogens” that are fungi. Several of the 19 fungi species that present the greatest threats have developed resistance to treatments in the four classes of antifungal medications now available. As a result, treatment can require prolonged hospital stays and second-line drugs that are expensive and highly toxic. Diagnostics for these fungi must improve, too, the report says. The top four fungi threats are Aspergillus fumigatus, Candida albicans, C. auris, and Cryptococcus neoformans, according to a WHO survey of clinicians and researchers. They ranked the threats based on criteria including antifungal resistance, the role of infections in patient deaths, and available diagnostics. The report calls for more R&D funding and strengthening labs to do surveillance.
Indonesia has asked the Netherlands, its former colonizer, to return fossils of an original specimen dubbed Java Man, an early hominin unearthed in East Java in the 1890s and today named Homo erectus erectus. The remains, which include a skullcap, tooth, and thighbone, are the most famous items on a list of treasures Indonesia wants back. The inventory, sent to the Dutch government this summer and published by Dutch newspaper Trouw on 18 October, contains mostly cultural items, including a dagger used during a collective suicide in Bali. But Indonesia also seeks the return of 40,000 fossils dug up by paleoanthropologist Eugène Dubois, whose discovery of Java Man, one of the first “missing links” between apes and modern humans, caused a sensation at the time. The Dubois collection is owned by the Dutch government and managed by Naturalis Biodiversity Center, a museum in Leiden, where the fossils are still being studied by scientists from around the world, a museum spokesperson says. A commission will advise the government on whether to honor Indonesia’s request.
Researchers were training bumble bees to roll wooden balls to a goal when they observed a previously unknown behavior: Some bees spontaneously rolled the balls even without a reward. The scientists have now concluded in new experiments that the repeated manipulations of these balls for no apparent purpose is a form of play. The finding is a first for any insect species, although an earlier study observed wasps appearing to play fight with one another. As with mammals and birds, younger bees played more than older ones, the team reports this week in Animal Behaviour. Samadi Galpayage, a Ph.D. student at Queen Mary University of London who led the study, says the finding indicates a level of cognitive sophistication in bees that she hopes will encourage policies to protect them.
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) said this week that papers in its journals must use the acronym JWST instead of the James Webb Space Telescope’s full name because of concerns about the namesake’s background and NASA’s dismissal of calls to rename the telescope. Webb led the agency during the 1960s and the early years of the Apollo program. Evidence found since he died in 1992 suggests that while a Department of State employee during the 1950s, Webb helped start purges of gay men from the federal workforce. In 2021, months before NASA launched the telescope, its official historian and an outside expert reviewed archives regarding Webb’s role. But NASA did not release the findings and later that year said it had found no evidence requiring a name change. In its 24 October statement about the acronym, RAS called “dismissing employees for their sexual orientation … entirely unacceptable.” It also endorsed a request by the American Astronomical Society for NASA to open its archive to an independent historian with expertise in LGBTQ+ history to investigate Webb’s role.
A U.K. research organization began inviting participants this week for an ambitious, long-term health study that aims to enroll 5 million people by 2025 to improve the early detection of many common and rare diseases. The organization, Our Future Health, will partner with the National Health Service on the project, the largest of its kind globally. The venture has received £79 million in government research funding and aims to raise £160 million from charities and life science companies. Participants will provide blood samples and physical measurements, answer a questionnaire, and give consent for researchers to access their health records. The team expects that from 2023, it will be able to warn participants of early signs of disease and develop new diagnostic tools. The researchers hope these changes will help reduce health care costs and burdens on health care systems.
A new venture capital fund is betting that a partnership with a leading marine research center will help create valuable new ocean technology companies that will fight climate change. Last week, Brian Halligan, who made a fortune in software, announced the launch of Propeller, a $100 million investment fund that is one of the first of its kind. The fund is partnering with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in hopes of commercializing scientific discoveries and technological advances made by WHOI researchers. “We want to turn [WHOI] into an engine for creating startups,” much like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Halligan told The Boston Globe. The partners released few financial details, but said potential commercialization targets for this “blue economy” include creating seaweed farms to remove carbon dioxide from seawater and finding environmentally sensitive ways to extract minerals from the sea floor.
A prominent Peruvian archaeologist whom the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) ejected after he was investigated for sexual harassment sued the academy and its president this month for defamation. The plaintiff, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, was ousted in 2021 in one of the first such actions by the academy since it updated bylaws in 2019 to permit expulsions for documented misconduct violations. Castillo Butters’s lawsuit, filed this month in a federal court in Washington, D.C., seeks $5 million in damages from the academy and NAS President Marcia McNutt. (McNutt served as editor-in-chief of Science from 2013 to 2016.) The filing does not specify what statements Castillo Butters views as defamatory. In 2020, his institution, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, concluded there was evidence he sexually harassed people. But it did not sanction him because the alleged harassment occurred before it adopted a policy authorizing such discipline. Castillo Butters, who denies the allegations, won a defamation lawsuit in Peru this year against one of his accusers, who has appealed.
The 2020–21 academic year saw 4% fewer science Ph.D.s awarded by U.S. universities compared with the preceding year, the largest annual drop since 1999, according to data released last week by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The decline was greatest in the physical and life sciences—8% and 6%, respectively. (Their decline was even greater—12% and 7%—when compared with 2018–19, the last full year before the pandemic began.) These fields largely require in-person work, and it’s not clear how many students delayed graduation because of laboratory shutdowns, travel restrictions, and other pandemic-related challenges—and whether the easing of pandemic constraints will trigger a rebound.
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