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  • By: 
    Eliot Marshall
    Thursday, August 27, 2009 - 5:34pm
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    A controversial U.S. research project on Gulf War illness got word yesterday that the government plans to end its support because of managers’ “persistent noncompliance and numerous performance deficiencies.” The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced a decision to opt out of the study in a press release yesterday.

    The study’s principal investigator is epidemiologist Robert Haley at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Haley declined comment, referring questions to the UT Southwestern press office. Yesterday UT officials released a statement saying that they “were surprised to learn” of the government’s action. The brief statement says that UT officials “regret the VA’s unilateral decision not to renew the contract,” adding that “we strongly disagree with the VA’s characterization of the facts.”

    Haley and UT Southwestern were the beneficiaries of an unusual federal contract that fulfills an earmark in a law passed by Congress in 2005, providing “not less than $15 million” for Gulf War illness studies. It envisioned a 5-year, $75 million project but allowed the government to reconsider the contract each year. VA was about to enter the 3rd year. According to an audit by the VA inspector general, about $8 million had been spent at UT by the end of January 2009. This summer, after the inspector general delivered a negative report, VA decided to redirect the remaining funds away from UT Southwestern to studies of fibromialgia and chronic fatigue syndrome among Gulf War vets.

    Haley has been investigating evidence that military personnel during the first Gulf War in 1991 who were exposed to toxins, natural hazards, or medications designed to block nerve agents suffered neural problems as a result. Most researchers who have looked into this have not found a connection, but Haley has. In addition, Haley is developingContinue Reading

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    Jeffrey Mervis
    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 - 4:57pm
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    The National Science Foundation is about as likely to become a leader in innovation, says inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, as a sumo wrestler is of fitting into a tutu. Speaking this morning to a distinguished group of scientists and educators, Kamen delivered a blunt message: Don't try to do innovation yourself. Instead, give little guys like me the resources to get the job done, and then get out of the way.

    A 2000 winner of the National Medal of Technology, Kamen spoke to a subpanel of NSF's governing body, the National Science Board, that is looking into "preparing the next generation of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] innovators." The task group heard from prominent academics and policymakers about the characteristics of successful innovators and entrepreneurs, the current state of U.S. education, and the paths and barriers to success. After Education Secretary Arne Duncan received a standing ovation for a talk in which he encouraged everyone to "raise the bar" and to "break the rules" on how schools are run and teachers are trained, Kamen brought them back to earth.

    Large organizations, by their very nature, can't be innovators, Kamen explained. "But that's okay. Consistency is often a good thing, and NSF is very good at what it does." Instead of trying to change its stripes, Kamen suggested, NSF should leverage its money by supporting efforts like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a student robotics competition Kamen began in 1992 that has grown into an international extravaganza through corporate backing. Acknowledging his "self-serving" message, Kamen told the panel: "We don't need you to pay scientists and engineers to become classroom teachers. They are already working [on FIRST] for free. All we need is for the teachers to get paid the same stipend to work withContinue Reading

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    Greg Miller
    Monday, August 24, 2009 - 4:09pm
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    Under intense pressure to save money, the University of California (UC) announced last month that all faculty and staff members who receive even a fraction of their salaries from state funds will be furloughed. But any researchers hoping to minimize the impact on their lab work by taking furlough days on teaching days appear to be out of luck.

    A letter from Lawrence Pitts, UC's interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, sent to UC faculty members on Friday announced that faculty furlough days will not occur on days when faculty are scheduled to lecture, hold office hours, or otherwise spend face time with students. "Asking the faculty to carry a full teaching load during furloughs is a large request, but in my mind is justified by the University’s paramount teaching mission," Pitts writes in the letter, which has been posted on several blogs, including that of UC Davis evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen.

    Eisen predicts that UC's decision will be unpopular with many of his colleagues, but allows that it may be the right thing to do politically. UC students and their families are already paying more for less: the university raised student fees by 9.3% for this academic year and has eliminated some classes in an effort to cut costs.

    And in a state where unemployment just reached a post-World War II record 11.9%, public sympathy may be in short supply for faculty who until recently earned an average $109,333 a year.Continue Reading

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    Pallava Bagla
    Monday, August 24, 2009 - 1:00pm
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    NEW DELHI—Indian scientists point to a search for water ice above the moon's north pole, conducted with the United States on 20 August, as a sign that India's lunar craft Chandrayaan-1 is functioning well.

    India's first lunar satellite had trouble earlier this year with a fine guidance mechanism. But last week Chandrayaan-1 and the U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, both now orbiting the moon, were brought within 30 kilometers of each other. Then they synchronously beamed their radars at the Erlanger crater, which is permanently shaded from sunlight, to look for evidence of water.

    It was "a unique and complex experiment performed with precision," says G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization in Bangalore. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, principal investigator for radar instruments on both spacecraft, says "we will soon have an abundance of data." Finding water is the key for future colonization of the moon.

    Image Credit: ISRO/NASA/JHUAPL/LPIContinue Reading

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    Jon Cohen
    Friday, August 21, 2009 - 3:30pm
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    The virus causing the swine flu pandemic has spread to turkeys in Chile, slowed its spread in people in the Southern Hemisphere and in the United Kingdom, and is thriving in human populations in Alaska, Maine, and Japan. Drug companies are having difficulty growing the influenza A (H1N1) 2009 virus, which means that a vaccine against the disease will be in short supply this fall. So the novel H1N1 virus is behaving just as unpredictably as scientists predicted it would, said U.S. health officials at a press briefing today. “The behavior of this virus is still uncertain,” said Jesse Goodman, deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, repeating what has become this pandemic’s mantra.

    Having a vaccine supply to protect people from the virus—which is no more virulent than seasonal flu but, in an unusual twist, mainly causes severe disease in younger people—remains the most pressing issue. At this point, the U.S. government expects manufacturers to deliver 45 million to 52 million doses of the vaccine by mid-October, said Jay Butler, head of the H1N1 task force for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is only about one-third of the amount that CDC earlier expected would be ready by then, although Butler stressed that more should become available each week, adding up to 195 million doses by the end of the year. “Everybody is doing the best they can to get as much vaccine available as soon as possible,” said Butler, “so the numbers can be subject to change.”

    Bill Hall, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, told ScienceInsider that four of the five companies it contracted to make the vaccine have taken “longer than expected” to make the viral antigen needed for the final product. In addition to growthContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Dennis Normile
    Friday, August 21, 2009 - 11:11am
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    TOKYO—Research involving human embryonic stem (ES) cells will become easier in Japan as a result of new ethical review requirements that take effect today.

    Previously, research groups had to get approval for each project involving human ES cells from their own Institutional Review Board (IRB) and then from a national committee under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, Sports, and Technology. This two-step process took 3 months or more, frustrating researchers trying to keep up with a fast-moving field. Even simply adding members to a research team required this dual approval.

    The new policy drops the national level review requirement. Institutions must still inform the ministry of each project. "But the researchers can start work as soon as the project is approved by the IRB," says Junichi Iwata, deputy director of the ministry's office of bioethics and safety.

    The changes put more responsibility in the hands of team leaders and their IRB, says Shin-ichi Nishikawa, a stem cell researcher at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe. Groups planning to derive human ES cells still need both institutional and national reviews of their plans and there are strict requirements for informed consent by embryo donors. Nishikawa, who chairs the education ministry's review committee, says continuing scrutiny of ES cell derivation is warranted because of concerns about handling tissue "with the potential to become a human being." So far only two Japanese groups have been authorized to derive human embryonic stem cells; one group has actually done so.

    Nishikawa says some 30 groups have permission for 50 or so projects involving human ES cells. Many researchers are now focusing on induced pluripotent (iPS) cells, which can be derived without sacrificing an embryo. One of the last researchers to go through the two-stage approval process was Shinya Yamanaka, theContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Friday, August 21, 2009 - 11:01am
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    The most prominent open-access biomedical research publisher—that is, the Public Library of Science (PLoS)—has launched an "experimental" site for posting raw preprints of papers on hot topics. PLoS Currents (Beta) debuted today with a set of papers on influenza. Although the four papers don't break much new ground, the contributors include top virologists Peter Palese and Edward Holmes, who will also screen submissions for subsequent influenza posts. (Other themes for future Currents will have appropriate high-level screeners.)

    Google appears to be hosting the site, and the National Institutes of Health has set up a new archive for the papers and other "rapid research notes" submitted through publishers. In a summary of the project , PLoS chair and co-founder Harold Varmus explains that the expectation is that the papers will later be published in peer reviewed journals. Varmus proposed an archive of unreviewed papers 10 years ago when he was director of NIH, but it got shot down.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Thursday, August 20, 2009 - 3:53pm
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    New National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has recruited a former aide to be his chief of staff.

    Kathy Hudson now runs the Genetics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., which she founded in 2002 at Johns Hopkins University. The molecular biologist was Collins's policy director for part of his tenure as head of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH.

    Besides serving as the NIH chief's top lieutenant, Hudson says she hopes to liaison with the Food and Drug Administration on overseeing genetic tests. Pushing for regulation of those tests was a large part of her center's work, and she says, "I'm optimistic that we're actually going to see some of those changes occur." Although she's filled out the paperwork, Hudson is still waiting for an official offer. The previous director, Elias Zerhouni, never filled the position.

    Hudson is leaving the genetics center as its main funder, the Pew Charitable Trusts, winds down its support this fall. The center's number of full-time staff members has shrunk since January from a dozen to around seven, says Joan Scott, now deputy director, who will succeed Hudson. The center's focus will likely expand from policy to moving genetic tests into the clinic, Scott says.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Constance Holden
    Thursday, August 20, 2009 - 3:29pm
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    A Christian group has filed a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health alleging that the Obama Administration's stem cell policy violates federal law, reports the online newspaper Kansas Liberty.com.

    The suit was filed in the federal district court in Washington, D.C., by James L. Sherley, an adult stem cell researcher at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Theresa Deisher, R&D director at AVM Biotechnology in Seattle, Washington. It is supported by, among others, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a group that encourages adoption of left-over embryos from fertility clinics. Sherley, it may be remembered, is the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who went on a hunger strike in 2007 to protest a lack of faculty diversity after he was denied tenure.

    The complainants assert that federal policy, which allows the use of human embryonic stem cells but not their derivation by federally-funded scientists, violates the Dickey-Wicker amendment, a provision in the NIH appropriations law which prohibits federal grantees from doing research on human embryos. Federal guidelines  "authorize public funding of research that depends upon and, indeed, requires the destruction of living human embryos," the group reasons.

    Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C., says the suit hasn't "a chance in hell" of succeeding. A similar suit was filed last March in the Maryland U.S. District Court by Nightlight and others.Continue Reading

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    John Travis
    Thursday, August 20, 2009 - 11:13am
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    Working with Thomson Reuters, whose Web of Science database tracks scientific publications, the Times Higher Education has conducted an analysis showing that journal article retractions have increased ten-fold over the past 2 decades. The publication provides the data in a table, and quotes several commentators speculating on an explanation for the rise—greater scrutiny by journals and a growing pressure to publish are among the theories.Continue Reading

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    Erik Stokstad
    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 3:28pm
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    A group of top whale researchers is arguing that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA should reexamine a major regulation designed to reduce collisions between ships and highly endangered North Atlantic right whales. New research, they say, emphasizes that the current zones of speed limits are not as extensive as they should be. NOAA says it is already beginning to evaluate the effectiveness of the regulation.

    Only about 300 to 400 right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) still ply the waters of the North Atlantic. As they migrate up and down the eastern coast of North America, passing many major ports, some whales get tangled in fishing gear and others occasionally get hit by ships. Experts say these risks threaten the survival of the species.

    In 2006, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service proposed to set a 10-knot speed limit for ships travelling within 56 kilometers (30 nautical miles) of major ports, so that any collisions would be less likely to kill whales. The agency based its recommendation on a database of right whale sightings. But after objections from the shipping industry, the agency settled on a buffer zone of 37 kilometers (20 nautical miles).

    In the new paper, a group led by Rob Shick, a postdoc at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, examined different data—locations of two female right whales tracked by satellite in 2000 as they migrated along the eastern seaboard. The whales sometimes swam further than 37 kilometers offshore. They team used a statistical model to figure out what depth of water and distance from shore the whales seemed to prefer. Bottom line: "There's a larger swathContinue Reading

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    Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 2:35pm
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    More than two dozen pathologists have left the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington, D.C., to form a new company that will offer the same pathology consultation services as the 150-year-old institute.

    AFIP is expected to close by 2011 under a federal plan to shut down several military bases around the country including the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus, where AFIP is located. The company, which originally called itself AFIP Laboratories and has renamed itself American International Pathology (AIP) Laboratories following a protest from institute officials, will be headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, and will begin operations next month.

    Evan Farmer, the director of the company and a former AFIP fellow, told The Washington Post that the company's goal is to provide a new home for the institute's expertise. But AFIP officials say that a new Congressionally-mandated Joint Pathology Center, administered by the Department of Defense, will replace the institute after its closure.Continue Reading

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  • Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 11:37am
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    Students and faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley, had a chance yesterday to air concerns about a major change in the status of diversity programs within the College of Engineering. But while Dean Shankar Sastry said he welcomed their input, he made it clear that his decision earlier this summer to fold the long-running Center for Underrepresented Engineering Students (CUES) into a revamped Engineering Student Services (ESS) office is a done deal.

    "The decision to reorganize has been made," Sastry told some 60 people who attended a town hall meeting on campus. “I know that people are worried about change," he said, adding that "we will continue to have meetings like this." He also announced the formation of a faculty-student task force, to be headed by electrical engineering professor Ruzena Bajcsy, to provide ongoing advice.

    Audience members pressed Sastry for details about why the change was being made and why he thought the new structure would benefit students. And they weren't happy with the answers they received. “I heard a lot of opposition from the students present and less-than-direct answers to many of their questions,” said Anne MacLachlan, a senior researcher at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education and the final speaker in the 90-minute dialogue.

    Sastry said that integrating the programs under CUES into ESS would help address a 40% drop since 2005 in the number of minorities and women entering the college. “I’d like to be able to make sure that the underrepresented student part of student advising is not an island. I’d love to bring it in a little tighter with the faculty and students of the college. …That is the biggest single reason to bring it in,” he said. Acting ESS Director Kristen Gates said that the college hoped to offer new programsContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Monday, August 17, 2009 - 8:59pm
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    The new director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) laid out his priorities today, spending his 1st day on the job speaking to his staff and reporters. Physician-geneticist Francis Collins said he plans to emphasize five "themes," including health care reform and translating research into medicine. Collins also sought to allay perhaps the biggest concerns about his nomination last month by President Barack Obama, saying that he will protect investigator-initiated science and that his religious interests will not influence how he runs the agency.

    Collins, who in 2008 stepped down after 15 years as director of NIH's genome institute, spoke publicly about his ideas for the first time since his name surfaced as the leading candidate to head the agency. In a town hall meeting with NIH staff, he said he now has an "exciting, daunting, and perhaps the most amazing job that anybody could ever ask for." He assured his audience that "the mainstay" will be the individual investigator; anybody who thinks otherwise "need look no further" than the genome institute's intramural program, where research is "driven by ideas" and where he will keep his lab.

    At the same time, large biology projects are one of Collins's five priorities. He will promote high-throughput technologies in areas that are "poised for this kind of approach," such as gene transcription and autism studies. He expects to emphasize translational research, such as a new NIH program to develop drugs for rare diseases. The three other themes are health care reform, including research comparing treatments, which he said NIH "should embrace"; global health; and "empower[ing] the biomedical research community," which he said includes sustained funding, encouraging young investigators, and funding innovative research.

    Collins said that "job one" is dealing with what happens when the $10.4 billion that NIH receivedContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jeffrey Mervis
    Monday, August 17, 2009 - 9:33am
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    Unhappy students and faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley, are expected to jam a campus town hall meeting this afternoon to hear the dean of the college of engineering explain why he's dismantling a model program for underrepresented minorities and women.

    In announcing the change last month, Dean Shankar Sastry said he hopes that melding the Center for Underrepresented Engineering Students (CUES) into a new Engineering Student Services (ESS) office will actually strengthen the college's efforts to promote diversity. The center’s three employees were told last month that their contracts would not be renewed, effective 30 September.

    Although the university is under severe financial pressure, engineering officials say the reorganization is not being done for budgetary reasons and that ESS will not be jettisoning any staff positions. Karen Rhodes, head of marketing and communications for the engineering college, says that the school’s “yield”—the percentage of students deciding to enroll in the fall after being accepted in the spring—is much lower for incoming minority engineering students than it is for the campus as a whole. She says a study by an outside consultant also found that many engineering students were dissatisfied with the current level of services being offered. "We need to become friendlier and in tune with what they want,” says Rhodes.

    In addition, the school has seen a sharp decline in the overall percentage of minorities in its entering class—from 11% in 2004 to 6% this fall. That "alarming trend," says Rhodes, has led the college to "rethink our approach to serving underrepresented minorities."

    However, supporters fear that the needs of minority students and women will get lost in the reshuffle. A precursor of the center was begun in 1981, and its cluster of activities—which include a summer bridge program, undergraduate researchContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Erik Stokstad
    Friday, August 14, 2009 - 6:07pm
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    Restoring national forests to prepare them for climate change and to protect water resources will be the overarching goal of U.S. forest policy, Tom Vilsack, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), announced today. USDA includes the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 78 million hectares of forests and grasslands.

    In a speech in Seattle, Washington, Vilsack emphasized that climate change is putting stress on forests through increased fires, disease, and outbreaks of destructive insects. Restoring forests, by removing excess wood for example, will help them better resist climate stress.

    Water quality is also a top goal. Just over half the water supply in the United States comes from forests on public and private land. Some 66 million people in 33 states drink water that comes from land managed by the Forest Service. Trees help regulate the flow of streams and prevent soil erosion that reduces water quality.

    "The message was a good one," says forest ecologist Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, Seattle. "It is what the Forest Service needs to be doing now: restoring the functionality of these forests and preparing them for climate change." Franklin says the task will require restoring past cuts to the Forest Service's staff and budget.

    Dominick Della Sala of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy in Ashland, Oregon, also supports the new vision. "It's really encouraging to hear an emphasis on water," he says, especially as climate change impacts water supplies. "The conflict over timber will pale in comparison to the conflict we'll see over water."

    But Della Sala hopes that Vilsack will emphasize the ability of old growth forests to store carbon from the atmosphere. "If Vilsack is serious about climate change, those forests should be managed for optimal carbon sequestration."Continue Reading

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    Andrew Lawler
    Friday, August 14, 2009 - 5:00pm
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    The chair of a blue-ribbon panel reviewing the U.S. human space program briefed senior Obama Administration science officials today on what's expected to be a frank assessment of NASA's choices. The panel, led by Norman Augustine, held its final public hearing on Wednesday and has promised to give presidential science adviser John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden its report by the end of this month. Administration sources say the panel will lay out several policy options ...

    One option would extend the shuttle beyond its scheduled expiration in 2010 and continue to operate the international space station well into the next decade rather than shuttering it by 2016. That would mean delaying a new launcher and putting on hold the lunar base proposed by President George Bush in 2004.

    The panel also may recommend boosting NASA’s annual budget, now $18 billion, by $3 billion to $4 billion. The extra money would allow NASA to complete the shuttle replacement vehicle and rocket that would be used to travel to and from the moon—although likely later than the 2020 date proposed by Bush.

    A third option is to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid rather than to the moon. Those sources say the panel has concluded  that a human flight to Mars is too expensive to contemplate in the near term.

    Administration officials think that any large budget increase for NASA is unlikely given the tight fiscal environment. But the White House has said that the panel's findings will shape its 2011 budget request to Congress in February. To stay on that schedule, NASA must submit its preliminary budget next month for review by the White House Office of Management and Budget as early as October. The budget request typically remains secret until its release, but one AdministrationContinue Reading

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    John Travis
    Friday, August 14, 2009 - 1:14pm
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    According to Times Higher Education, lower than expected inflation rates have U.K. research councils considering whether they can legally demand that grantees return some money to the councils.

    New grants awarded in the 2008-09 financial year, for example, were increased to a cash limit calculated using an annual inflation rate of 2.7 per cent.

    For the 2009-10 financial year, the inflation rate on new awards is 1.5 per cent to reflect the current figure.

    But Times Higher Education has learnt that Research Councils UK has sought legal advice on whether it can retrospectively apply today's indexation rates to ongoing grants.

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    Elizabeth Pennisi
    Thursday, August 13, 2009 - 3:11pm
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    The Smithsonian Institution has tapped an academic administrator to take over as Under Secretary for Science, a job that entails overseeing a $300 million annual budget and about 1800 scientists, postdocs, and associated staff. Eva Pell, senior vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, will start in January, filling a slot that’s had interim directors since David Evans left suddenly in April 2007.

    A plant pathologist, Pell, 61, has focused on understanding the effects of ozone and other types of air pollution on vegetation during her 35 years at Penn State. She took on the vice president and dean’s job in 2000 and in 2006, she pushed for the development of six cross-disciplinary institutes, including ones in the life sciences, energy and environment, and social sciences. That experience aligns well with the present intentions of the Smithsonian, says Pell, as there's now a push for more interdisciplinary efforts among its museums and research units. She also is responsible for technology transfer operations for the university.

    Pell's experience in Washington, D.C., includes serving on panels and advisory boards for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the departments of Agriculture and Commerce, and the National Science Foundation.

    In a statement, Pell said she is “excited and humbled” by the opportunity to help steer Smithsonian science. Pell will face a challenging transition from the university setting. The broad range of science practiced at the Smithsonian, as well as its unique nature as a semi-government, non-profit organization, could take some getting used to, says Scott Miller, deputy under secretary for science. The Smithsonian's eight research units include the National Zoo, the National Air and SpaceContinue Reading

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    Erik Stokstad
    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 - 6:01pm
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    President Barack Obama awarded the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 people today, including two scientists. Geneticist Janet Davison Rowley of the University of Chicago identified a chromosomal translocation as a cause of leukemia. In lauding Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University for his work in theoretical physics, Obama got a few chuckles.

    Citations after the jump.

    Dr. Janet Davison Rowley was the first scientist to identify a chromosomal translocation as the cause of leukemia and other cancers - considered among the most important medical breakthroughs of the past century.  After enrolling at the University of Chicago at age 15, she went on to challenge the conventional medical wisdom about the cause of cancer in the 1970s, which had placed little emphasis on chromosomal abnormalities.  Her work has proven enormously influential to researchers worldwide who have used her discovery to identify genes that cause fatal cancers and to develop targeted therapies that have revolutionized cancer care.  The United States honors this distinguished scientist for advancing genetic research and the understanding of our most devastating diseases.

      

    Persistent in his pursuit of knowledge, Stephen Hawking has unlocked new pathways of discovery and inspired people around the world.  He has dedicated his life to exploring the fundamental laws that govern the universe, and he has contributed to some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time.  His work has stirred the imagination of experts and lay persons alike.  Living with a disability and possessing an uncommon ease of spirit, Stephen Hawking's attitude and achievements inspire hope, intellectual curiosity, and respect for the tremendous power of science. 

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    Phil Berardelli
    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 - 12:43pm
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    Astronomers are making good progress discovering and tracking large asteroids that could hit Earth, but they won't meet the goal set by Congress without dedicated funding, according to a report released today by the National Academies' National Research Council.

    Congress directed NASA in 2005 to begin a program to locate and track the orbits of at least 90% of all Earth-crossing objects 140 meters in diameter or greater that might devastate a whole city. The program was supposed to reach this goal by 2020. Last year, Congress asked for a progress report.

    The committee notes in an interim report that two previous and three existing efforts at observatories funded by NASA have already found more than 6000 near-Earth Objects (NEOs), but that they won't be able to meet the 90% goal, particularly in the case of objects as small as 140 meters in diameter. The main reason: The Administration has not requested money for that phase of the program to proceed, nor has Congress appropriated any.

    One or two new facilities are needed, the panel concludes, as well as continued operations by the giant Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico, with its unmatched ability to determine object size and track orbits. That won't happen, the report continues, unless new funding is made available. The panel did not recommend a specific amount needed to meet the 2020 goal.

    The final report, due by the end of the year, will offer suggestions on how to better detect NEOs, how to assess the threats, and what if anything can be done about them.

    Note: This item has been revised to correct the previous description of funding.

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    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Monday, August 10, 2009 - 4:33pm
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    The long-time director of an ambitious children's health study at the National Institutes of Health has changed jobs in the wake of an internal report suggesting that officials deliberately concealed the ballooning costs of the project.

    Mandated by Congress in 2000, the National Children's Study (NCS) plans to follow the health of 100,000 children from before birth through to age 21. Several months ago, officials at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) revealed that the price tag for the study, long estimated at around $3 billion over 25 years, could actually reach $6 billion. NIH Acting Director Raynard Kington put the full study on hold until a pilot is completed and ordered a review.

    That was not the end of the matter, however. A recent report from the NIH Office of Management Assessment, the agency's internal auditing office, suggests that NICHD staff deliberately left out the "indirect," or overhead costs, of the study in their estimates, according to a source who has seen the report. Lawmakers are not happy about NIH's lack of candor. Last week in a report accompanying a spending bill for NIH's 2010 budget, a Senate panel said it "consider[s] this withholding of information to be a serious breach of trust." Unlike its House of Representatives counterpart, the Senate panel did not set aside the $194 million for NCS that the White House requested; instead the Senate will decide the funding level, "if any," when it meets with the House to reconcile the two bills.

    Meanwhile, on 10 July, NCS's first director, Peter Scheidt, stepped down to become an advisor to NICHD Director Duane Alexander. As yet unknown is whether there will be more fallout from this accounting problem. But one rumor circulating in Washington, D.C., is that Alexander, whoContinue Reading

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    Elizabeth Pennisi
    Monday, August 10, 2009 - 4:12pm
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    A new type of technology has sequenced a human genome in a month and for less than $50,000 worth of reagents, according to a report today in Nature Biotechnology. But this step toward fast, cheap genomes doesn't spell the end for large sequencing centers.

    Human genomes produced to date have all required many instruments running in parallel and have cost up to $500,000 per genome, says Stephen Quake, a biophysicist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and founder of Helicos Biosciences of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The HeliScope Single Molecule Sequencer is the first commercial single-molecule sequencing instrument, so called because it does not require the production of millions of copies of the target DNA for the analysis. Instead, DNA is cut into small pieces and mounted at very high densities in a flow cell, where a very sensitive camera monitors the step by step addition of bases for each sequencing reaction.

    In the new paper, Quake (left) and colleagues report how the machine generated enough data to cover the 3-billion base human genome 28 times over. That sequence data consisted of short stretches of sequences 24 to 70 bases long, which were compared with the reference human genome sequence in public databases to piece together Quake’s own genome.

    The demonstration brings “plug and play” sequencing one step closer to reality, wherein individual labs will be able to do what today is accomplished primarily in large sequencing centers. “This is the main coming out party for the Helicos machine,” says Jeffery Schloss of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

    However, the machines cost $1 million. That’s severalContinue Reading

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    Eliot Marshall
    Friday, August 7, 2009 - 5:24pm
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    David Kappos, IBM's former vice president and chief patent attorney, has been approved by the Senate to be the new director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Kappos easily cleared a nomination hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on 29 July and received a final approval today to become Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property. He has had extensive experience in international law, having served in Japan for many years as IBM's top intellectual property executive for Asia. Among other challenges, he joins an agency with a growing backlog of applications and declining revenue, as documented recently in the blog Patently-O.Continue Reading

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    Robert Koenig
    Friday, August 7, 2009 - 3:58pm
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    Thomas Frieden, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has decided to dismantle a key component of former CDC Director Julie Gerberding’s controversial reorganization of the Atlanta-based agency. In a memo sent to CDC staffers on Friday, Frieden said he will “remove … from the CDC’s structure” the four Coordinating Centers—for infectious disease, health information, health promotion, and environmental health—that had been established as part of Gerberding’s restructuring, started in 2005.

    While the centers' functions will be preserved, Frieden told staffers that “the current organizational structure is not best suited to meet the agency’s mission.” He based his decision on the recommendations of an internal panel which said that CDC can operate more efficiently with fewer layers of management. The Coordinating Center structure had been unpopular with many at CDC because it diminished the influence of national centers under its umbrella.Continue Reading

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