Science Funding Prioritizes Past Success—and That’s a Problem

Read the full story at Pacific Standard.

In an era awash in data, scientists have begun to analyze something they’ve never really looked at before: science itself. Abstract though that may sound, the science of science could have an oddly practical application, at least in theory—namely, providing funding agencies like the National Science Foundation with a better idea of which research proposals will work and which won’t. That objective takes on special significance, what with the future of science in the United States decidedly uncertain—but it probably won’t work, a new essay argues. Indeed, insisting otherwise could hinder the progress of scientific research.

Democratic databases: science on GitHub

Read the full story at Nature.

Launched in 2008 to assist software developers, GitHub now boasts some 15 million users and is an increasingly popular site for researchers to share, maintain and update scientific data sets and code (see ‘Growing influence of GitHub’). GitHub is “the biggest revelation in my workflow … since I started writing code”, says Daniel Falster, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “When we started using GitHub, it was just amazing. We now use it in everything that we do.” Falster’s Biomass and Allometry Database, which aggregates various measures of plant size from 176 studies, is stored on the site. So is the Open Tree of Life project, which aims to compile different published phylogenies to build one master ‘tree of life’. It uses GitHub to store data files and publication records, and to accept new data sets from third parties.

The Impact Formula: New Evidence on the Factors that Lead to Breakthroughs

Read the full post at Study Hacks.

Earlier this month, a group of researchers from Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s circle of network scientists published an important paper in the journal Science. Its nondescript title,  “Quantifying the evolution of individual scientific impact,” obfuscates its exciting content: a massive big-data study that dissects the publication careers of over 2800 physicists to determine the combination of factors that best predicts their probability of publishing high impact papers.

How much can studies of one region tell us about another?

Read the full story at EnvironmentalResearchWeb.

What similarities does a windswept field of wheat in Western Siberia share with a wheat crop in the midwestern US “corn belt”? Will fertilizers produce comparable yield increases for both fields? Will the irrigation methods used by American farmers work for Russians too? And what impact would government farming subsidies have in each of these places?

Many land-based research projects are specific to a small region, but now a study has developed a method to match up similar land-types around the world, enabling researchers to transfer the benefits of their local knowledge to a multitude of sites.

Scientists of the Corn

Read the full post from U.S. EPA.

Wandering through a corn field, you might find stillness, quiet, order, perhaps a tassel-lined sky. At our corn field at the Oregon State University Vegetable Research Farm, you will find a hydraulic drill and a team of EPA staff from Oklahoma’s Ground Water and Ecosystems Restoration Division.  The crew brought two hydraulic drills in a semi-truck to Corvallis, Oregon, to bring to life a study that had taken a year to plan.

I met them at the corn field, armed with pastries and the excitement of knowing that all the planning, site searching, relationship building, corn planting, and a host of other activities had been successful. The results of the study will help us understand how nitrate moves into groundwater.

We’re Sensing a Change in Water Monitoring: Introducing the Arsenic Sensor Prize Competition

Read the full post from U.S. EPA.

Interested in helping protect our nation’s drinking water? EPA and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) are joining forces to launch the Arsenic Sensor Prize Competition for the development of new technology to detect arsenic in water…

The first phase of the Arsenic Sensor Prize Competition is scheduled to be launched in fall 2016. Entries will be judged and cash prizes will be awarded to winners. If you are interested in receiving notifications about the Arsenic Sensor Prize Competition, email with “Arsenic Sensor Prize Competition” in the subject line to join the email list. The official prize competition announcement will be posted on

DOE commits more than $1.7 million to help commercialize promising Argonne-associated energy technologies

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced Tuesday that it is committing more than $1.7 million in funding to help Argonne National Laboratory and research partners move multiple promising energy technologies to the marketplace.

The awards are part of the first Department-wide round of funding from DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF), which is awarding nearly $16 million to support 54 projects at 12 national laboratories involving dozens of research partners.

The Technology Commercialization Fund is administered by DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions, which works to expand the commercial impact of DOE’s portfolio of research, development, demonstration and deployment activities. Projects that will benefit from this round of funding fall in two areas:

  • Projects for which additional technology maturation is needed to attract a private partner
  • Cooperative development projects between a lab and industry partner(s) designed to bolster the commercial application of a laboratory-developed technology

All projects selected for the Technology Commercialization Fund will receive an equal amount of non-federal funds from lab partners to match the federal investment.

“Deploying new clean energy technologies is an essential part of our nation’s effort to lead in the 21st century economy and in the fight against climate change,” said Lynn Orr, DOE’s Under Secretary for Science and Energy. “The funds announced today will help to accelerate the commercialization of cutting-edge energy technologies developed in our national labs, making them more widely available to American consumers and businesses.”

The five Argonne-associated projects are:

Application of Resin-Wafer Electrodeionization Technology in Biorefineries ($600,000; in partnership with ZeaChem, Inc., Lakewood, Colo.)

Argonne and ZeaChem will work to improve the processing of biomass-based feedstocks into biofuels and chemicals.  A team led by Argonne chemical engineer YuPo Lin and biochemical engineer Seth Snyder developed the resin wafer electrodeionization (rwedi) technology, a process for producing clean energy that is cost-effective and reduces waste and energy use.

Argonne’s patented technology allows for the efficient separation of salts and acids from aqueous streams. Typically, these separations require neutralizing agents; the Argonne process uses electricity instead.

ZeaChem is developing biorefineries to commercialize production of cellulosic biofuels and renewable chemicals by bacterial fermentation technology. In the collaboration with Argonne, ZeaChem will use rwedi in its pilot-scale facility to clean up the cellulosic sugars that are fed to the fermenter and to recover the renewable chemical products from the fermenter.

“The implications of rwedi are exciting,” Snyder said. “Commercial production of cellulosic biofuels and renewable chemicals could decrease our carbon emissions while creating U.S. manufacturing jobs.”

The goal of the project is to obtain pilot-scale process performance so that ZeaChem can evaluate whether rwedi helps the company achieve its commercial targets.

“Rwedi could have a significant impact on the efficiency of multiple steps in the biorefining process” said Tim Eggeman, CEO and President of ZeaChem. “We look forward to seeing the scale-up performance.”

Ultrathin Nanoparticle Membranes to Remove Emerging Hydrophobic Trace Organic Compounds in Water with Low Applied Pressure and Energy Consumption ($150,000; in partnership with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

A recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raises grave concerns over organic contaminants in U.S. coastal waters. In particular, emerging trace organic contaminants (TrOCs) in the water supply present a tremendous challenge for water treatment because the existing technologies to remove them are not cost-effective.

The goal of the collaboration with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is to create a prototype membrane device with an engineered molecular coating capable of removing TrOCs in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

Argonne, in collaboration with the University of Chicago, has recently developed ultrathin nanoparticle-based membranes with robust mechanical properties. Compared with commercial filters, these new types of filters have the potential to operate at low applied pressure with minimum energy consumption.

“We are excited that the grant will allow us to develop a new type of nanomaterial-based filtration membrane, completely different from the traditional polymer-based systems, to solve a challenging problem in water filtration,” said Xiao-Min Lin, an Argonne nanoscientist and a lead researcher on the project.

Argonne and MWRD will also collaborate with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and the Prairie Research Institute — both at theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — to evaluate the performance of the membrane filter.

Advanced Manufacturing of Ultra-High-Density Interposers ($250,000; in partnership with the International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research, Osceola County, Fla.)

The collaboration between Argonne and the International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research (ICAMR) will be aimed at improving device connections in systems needed to produce the next generation of sensors.

The work will focus on silicon interposers, a critical component for electrically connecting the multiple integrated circuits needed to make sensors with many functions.

ICAMR will contribute tools and facilities to conduct the research, including work at its state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing facility set to open next spring in Osceola County, Fla.

Graphene Coating for Dry Gas Seal Applications ($579,852; in partnership with John Crane Inc., Morton Grove, Ill.)

Argonne and John Crane Inc. will jointly develop an industrial-scale process for forming superlubric coatings based on a graphene-nanodiamond solution.

The technology will be applied to the dry gas seals of gas compressors and similar equipment, thereby reducing friction in the seals and reducing the leakage of toxic and greenhouse gases through worn seals.

“Industries are always interested in path-breaking ideas coming from national labs, but they don’t necessarily have enough funds to invest to take it to the next level,” said Argonne nanoscientist Anirudha Sumant, a lead researcher on the project. “This DOE program is an excellent vehicle to bridge this gap.”

By improving the reliability of sealing systems, there is considerable opportunity to decrease emissions associated with seal failures, reduce maintenance costs and improve productivity.

“This collaboration will propel gas-sealing technology to a new platform,” said Ali Erdemir, an Argonne Distinguished Fellow and a lead researcher on the project.

“This is an important initiative by DOE to raise the Technology Readiness Level of the science that has been developed at the national laboratories,” added Mostafa Beik, a business development executive at Argonne who helps manage the collaboration with John Crane, Inc.

UNCD-Based Electron Field Emission Source for Accelerator Applications ($150,000; in partnership with Euclid TechLabs, Gaithersburg, Md.)

Many of the synchrotron facilities around the world — which operate 24/7 — have very complicated and time-consuming procedures for replacing electron sources when they fail, making a long time between failures highly desirable. It is also highly desirable that these electron sources can consume less power, work for a longer duration and withstand variation in vacuum environment without reducing performance.

In this project, Argonne and Euclid TechLabs will develop an electron source based on field emission from nitrogen-incorporated ultrananocrystalline diamond, or (N)UNCD.

“This will greatly accelerate our efforts in developing robust, energy-efficient and economically viable electron sources for electron accelerators,” Sumant said.

“A great collateral aspect of this funding and development will be the commercial availability of UNCD-based electron sources for other high-value commercial applications, including electron microscopy and space propulsion systems,” said Beik, who manages the commercialization of this technology with outside partners. “We are currently exploring with other commercial partners the use of this technology for those applications.”