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Education Science

Argonne National Laboratory Shuts Down Online Ask a Scientist Program 106

itamblyn writes In a surprising decision, Argonne National Laboratory has decided to pull the plug on its long-standing NEWTON Ask A Scientist Program. NEWTON is (soon to be was) an on online repository of science questions submitted by school children from around the world. A volunteer group of scientists contributed grade-level appropriate answers to these questions. For the past 25 years, a wide range of topics ranging have been covered, including the classic "why is the sky blue" to "is there way to break down the components of plastics completely into their original form". Over the years, over 20,000 questions have been answered. According to ANL, the website will be shut down permanently on 1 March. There is no plan to make the content available in an alternate form or to hand over stewardship to another organization. When contacted about transferring the repository to another institution or moving to a donation model, the response from ANL was simply: "Thank you again for all your support for Newton. Unfortunately, moving Newton to another organization is not a possibility at this time. Thank you again for your energy and support."
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Argonne National Laboratory Shuts Down Online Ask a Scientist Program

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    The same questions over and over and over again, with no one bothering to search the 20,000 existing answers.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I've seen other more minor outreach efforts go down the tube in part because of that issue. Several colleagues of mine used to answer questions online in various places, including redit. But they would frequently get see the same questions over and over, and questions about topics that have been heavily written about. It gets a bit frustrating linking to a very well written answer or discussion of a question, and have people not only ignore linked content, but get indignant that you didn't rewrite and pa

  • Politics? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by milgram ( 104453 ) on Wednesday February 25, 2015 @09:24PM (#49133395)

    In my experience, events like this point to some petty internal political battle. It was great for people using it, and I assume there was minimal overhead to running the program, so "stupidity and greed" seem like the most likely course. Unfortunate. Maybe some bureaucrat had a KPI to reduce external facing servers software cost...

    • Re:Politics? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Wednesday February 25, 2015 @09:59PM (#49133585)

      In my experience, events like this point to some petty internal political battle.

      Another possibility is that this is the Washington Monument Syndrome []. This happens when an agency's budget is reduced, and rather than cutting the least important program, they cut the most visible program, in an attempt to get their funding restored.

      • Re:Politics? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by JanneM ( 7445 ) on Wednesday February 25, 2015 @10:13PM (#49133663) Homepage

        [...] and rather than cutting the least important program, they cut the most visible program, in an attempt to get their funding restored.

        Honestly, though, a qestion-answer service for school children probably does rank among the least important programs for a research lab. I very much doubt this is part of their written remit (as opposed to communicate their actual research to the public), and the people spending time at work answering the questions certainly get zero professional recognition for it.

        It does sound like a very nice, fun service. And I do agree that this kind of outreach is important. But if this is not part of what their funders want them to do, then it should come as no surprise if it's among the first things to go when money becomes tight.

        You want this kind of thing to continue? Make sure there's funding (and paid time) earmarked for doing it. In fact, that may be a good idea in general: add a small fraction (.1% or even less) to any research grant over a certain size for general science outreach. If it's part of your funding, that also removes the career obstacles toward doing outreach we too often have now.

        • Cant we just repost all of these to reddit? or some other forum? why dont they just dump the data in a damn .sql file and be done with it.
        • "You want this kind of thing to continue? Make sure there's funding (and paid time) earmarked for doing it."

          So let's see. A simple web-app with a database hosted on a crappy server computer somewhere.
          That's going to cost the whopping sum of what $50 a year to maintain right?

          I for one welcome our new fiscal watchdog overlords.

          • Re: Cost savings (Score:5, Insightful)

            by NoMaster ( 142776 ) on Wednesday February 25, 2015 @11:55PM (#49134103) Homepage Journal

            Simple web app: $1000
            Shared web hosting: $50/yr
            Managing a pool of postgrads, postdocs, researchers, and other subject matter experts to answer children's questions while fending off the Creationists, Tea-Partiers, and other assorted nutjobs who insist on being given equal access and status to teach the Truth to counter the Liberal Ivory-Tower Acedemic lies? Priceless...

          • Re: Cost savings (Score:4, Interesting)

            by JanneM ( 7445 ) on Thursday February 26, 2015 @02:36AM (#49134757) Homepage

            The time spent selecting questions, then answer them in a simple and understandable way is not free. Especially in a climate where even keeping a blog in your spare time is sometimes seen as a suspect frivolity that takes time from your research.

            • Ever heard of a brain break?

              (Of course you have. You're doing slashdot.)

              The idea that you can get better productivity out of scientists and engineers by preventing them from taking brain breaks in between their manic periods is ridiculous newbie MBA talk.

              • by JanneM ( 7445 )

                It is ridiculous of course. It is also a common attitude among PI's toward their postdocs and students, especially in high-profile, high-pressure labs.

                This letter from a PI to a worker made the rounds a few years ago. The PI claimed later it was a joke. It doesn't read like a joke, and the exact same attidude is not uncommon at all:


          • by dbIII ( 701233 )
            Web front end on existing infrastructure - a few hundred bucks per year.
            Someone like Dr Karl ( - priceless, but you've still got to pay a salary, and most likely not just for one person.
        • by s.petry ( 762400 )

          They said nothing will happen with the program. You can toss funds in a pot, but without knowing why it was shut down you are foolish to do so. People giving to the pot are going to want their money back at some point. We all know that stuff like this gets lost in the bureaucracy and may take decades to come up for air.

          I'm not being a downer, but a realist. Your answer could be to start your own site doing something similar and have a visible hand off policy in case you stop for some reason like NEWTON.

        • It's likely that they realized their question-and-answer format was replaced by Google.

      • I never knew that had a name, thanks. I think everyone has seen their local government threaten funding cuts to firefighters, emergency service (911, etc), parks, schools, and other popular services unless special bonds are passed.

        It certainly could be that, although another possibility is that Wikipedia and other online resources have essentially supplanted the need for such a service.

      • Perhaps the recent Congress shift to the wrong (since they're a federally funded organization) has been dabbling in the "We don't want this kind of scientific stuff going on on in OUR country, Kids will start believing that all oil all the time isn't sustainable oh my! And that Jesus riding a dinosaur isn't the way our " made it in a week universe" works.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      That's one good explanation. However, my first thought was that some muppet has sent a DMCA or copyright claim on some or all of the answers, they've taken the affected content out and shot it, THEN some middle manager said something like "We can't afford these; if we remove it all will they stop?" Alternatively, there's a patent troll who's managed to get "ask a question on a computer" through as a patent and they've been caught up in the ensuring tsunami of stupid.

      Can't the National Library of the US dema

  • It sounds to me like ANL pissed someone off, either a higher up at DOE, or in Congress.

  • Can anyone mirror the thing? Looks like the archives should be pretty easy to screenscrape and host/mirror: [] (The astronomy archive...)
  • The fact that they won't open source the data and make it available, which costs them nearly a big fuck you to the American people from our friends in the government. Is this part of their war on STEM?

    • Oh yeah nearly nothing, disk space, bandwidth, admins. Like you would have a clue what to do with any data they would release.

      • they have many, many heavy duty servers and big internet pipes already.

        just like their dropping mirrors for open source, it's a big fuck you to the taxpayer.

    • by camg188 ( 932324 )
      War on STEM? Chill.
      The site is copied on the Internet Archive as the previous post points out.
      The site is redundant. Students could get answers to most of the questions posted by using google.
      Searching for "Ask a Scientist" returns scores of similar websites.
      There are still lots of websites like
      The students still have teachers they can ask too.

      This site shutdown may be an inconvenience to folks that have it bookmarked but I wouldn't call it a war on STEM.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 25, 2015 @09:51PM (#49133527)

    And another recent article concerning ANL:

    "Public access to the Argonne National Laboratory Software Mirror was closed down as of 1 Feb 2015. ... Many Linux mirrors, not just all of Ubuntu." []

  • So who would like to prepare a torrent containg the site's content? I would definitely seed that.
  • Penis enlargement questions were probably getting old...
  • Everyone in Illinois should write their US Senators requesting that Argonne invite other institutions to take over this project or at the very least become the custodian of existing data on the condition that it be maintained as a publicly-available resource.

    Those in Illinois's 3rd Congressional District (where Argonne is) should also write their US House Representative.

    • by mysidia ( 191772 )

      Why just Illinois? This is a national laboratory funded by the US government. If there is a reduction in public services, then there should be a commesurate decrease in their funding by at least the value to the public of those services.

      • by davidwr ( 791652 )

        Your point is well taken, but the Congressman and Senators who represent the people who live in and around Argonne are much more likely to have the informal political "pull" to get things done quickly without the need for formal action on Capitol Hill than other House and Senate members.

        Other members to target would be those serving on or better yet those chairing the committees that do a lot of business related to Argonne.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Hm, it is the other way around. Our funding has been steadily decreasing and we were trying to keep doing as much as before hoping for better times to come. If the congress keeps at it with the axe as they are doing, soon national labs and US science in general will be cutting their major mission critical programs... What used to be scientific jewel other nations envied is underfunded so much, that some developing nations have better staffed and equipped reasearch facilities. And better transfer of results

  • Site has been mirrored (and is updating).
    Available at: http://newton.cranialthunder.c... []

    I hope this helps. Seems like a waste to let it just disappear.

    • by tibit ( 1762298 )

      That's nice, but I really don't understand the uproar. The quality of some answers is very poor, and the average quality of both answers and questions seems to be, well, nothing to write home about either.

  • The real cause... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anubis IV ( 1279820 ) on Wednesday February 25, 2015 @11:29PM (#49133989)

    Excised from the original reporting was this little snippet:

    Representatives for NEWTON indicated that there were a number of reasons for the shut down of the program. When pressed to provide examples, the group sighed in unison before saying, "ELI5."

    ELI5 is shorthand for the "Explain Like I'm 5" meme that has spread across the Internet in recent years. "We just can't compete with that," said one of the lead scientists in the program, referring to ELI5. "It used to be that we'd answer stupid questions from children because it encouraged the burgeoning scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to pursue their interests further, but with ELI5 teaching scientifically illiterate adults that it's okay for them to voice their stupid questions too, we simply can't keep up. We're spread too thin."

    When asked where individuals seeking answers should go for help, one researcher derisively suggested, "The ELI5 subreddit." Asked what they planned to do with their newfound free time, the group cast a few despondent looks towards one another before collectively breaking down in tears as they wept for humanity.

  • Public Domain (Score:5, Informative)

    by InfiniteWisdom ( 530090 ) on Wednesday February 25, 2015 @11:34PM (#49134007) Homepage

    Being work of the federal government, the site's content is not subject to copyright and is in the public domain. Anyone who wants can legally mirror the existing content. I'm making a copy as we speak.

    • It most certainly is copyrightable and IS unless specifically stated to be public domain, you just have additional rights as a citizen of the US because it was government work. It most certainly is NOT public domain to anyone not a US citizen, ever. The end result is that MANY but NOT ALL things the government does can be used freely by US citizens, but that doesn't make it public domain. You can't, for instance, legally transfer government work to a non-US citizen as that person/government/whatever does

  • by Anonymous Coward
    This kind of crap just reeks of their breed of retribution, for, you know, pointing out where the universe dares to contradict them.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Our teacher told me that the real reason for shutting down NEWTON is that there's really no single right answer to many of the questions asked. In addition many old answers are no longer valid or highly contested. NEWTON is no longer offering enlightenment and is becoming source of contention among many in our congregation.

  • "Plastics back into their original form..."

    Holy crap! Dinosaurs!

  • Congress cutting funding for non-military basic science.

    ObDisclosure: I work for a federal contractor, civilian sector, doing that, and we keep seeing budget cuts. So do other folks I know who work in the civilian sector, so I have direct evidence of my suggestion. I can also email friends who have friends who work there.

                          mark "but the Free Market really, really wants F-35's, they're *so* much more important than space, or
                                                        biomedical research, or basic physics...."

  • At least has the website.*/... []
    Just remember which date to click on. []

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