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  • By: 
    Greg Miller
    Thursday, January 29, 2009 - 1:46pm
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    California marine scientists have encountered some rough seas lately, following the state finance department's decision last month to freeze all funding derived from the sale of bonds. That decision was a response to the state's dismal financial situation: A projected $40 billion budget deficit and sinking credit rating have scuttled the state's ability to sell bonds to raise capital for projects that include freeway repairs and library construction. Thanks to several conservation-minded propositions passed by California voters in recent years, these bond-funded projects include dozens of studies aimed at documenting and protecting the state's natural resources.

    Researchers were ordered to stop work immediately, says Rikk Kvitek of California State University, Monterey Bay, a principal investigator on a $20 million sea-floor mapping program funded by the state (see above.)  A major goal of the project is to create high-resolution digital maps to aid in establishing a statewide network of marine protected areas. "We had a 200-foot vessel that was collecting data along the north coast" when the stop-work order came through on 18 December, Kvitek says. "On the 19th, they had to just go into port." Kvitek has managed to find temporary funding so that 15 students and staff members in his lab can keep working on data analysis, but he says that money will last only 2 or 3 months.

    At the University of California, Santa Cruz, marine ecologist Mark Carr has already had to let four technicians go. Carr works on a state-funded project to monitor ecosystems inside and outside marine protected areas on the California coast. The goal of the $8 million, 8-year project is to collect baseline data that can be used to assess whether the protected areasContinue Reading

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    Daniel Charles
    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - 3:11pm
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    Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory announced today that they are investigating a mysterious case of beryllium contamination. Recent tests revealed that a storage building contained high levels of beryllium dust, which if inhaled can cause people to become especially sensitive to further exposure and eventually lead to lung disease. Officials could not pin down when the contamination occurred because the building, which has not been used for beryllium processing for many years, was last given a clean bill of health in 2001. Laboratory officials are notifying 1800 people who since that time either worked in or visited the building, in a part of the lab called Technical Area 41.

    The beryllium contamination was discovered through happenstance. Los Alamos spokesperson Kevin Roark says that a package arrived in Technical Area 41 late last year bearing a beryllium warning sticker. Because the package appeared to be damaged, safety officers tested it for beryllium residues. Those tests, however, revealed much more extensive contamination in the area.

    According to Roark, the tests found levels of beryllium dust as high as "a couple of hundred" micrograms per 100 cm2. This far exceeds the lab's limit, which is 0.2 micrograms per 100 cm2. A panel of experts convened by the U.S. National Academies concluded last year that any exposure to beryllium, no matter how small, can be hazardous, and studies have shown that some people are much more prone to beryllium sensitivity than others.

    The laboratory is offering to test everyone who spent time in that building, to see if they have developed beryllium sensitivity. The laboratory estimates that 2% of the 240 employees who worked in the area could have developed beryllium sensitivity, and that some of them might have become ill. The risk to those whoContinue Reading

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    Science News Staff
    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - 2:47pm
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    The Senate yesterday released its markup of the massive stimulus package, an $825 billion spending and tax bill meant to revitalize the U.S. economy. As with the draft released by the House of Representatives, the Senate package includes billions for federal scientific research. In many cases, the level of funding for research and related activities differs quite a bit from what the House wants. Here’s a first cut at the overall numbers, ranked roughly by increasing disparity. The House was voting today on amendments to its bill and is expected to pass it today or tomorrow; the Senate will then pass its bill. The two sides are hoping to pass a stimulus package by 16 February, President's Day.

    Stay tuned for further analysis agency-by-agency. Links to past coverage below, with agencies apart from NIH after the jump.

    National Institutes of Health
    House: $3.5 billion (includes $1.5 billion for extramural research, over 2 years, $1.5 billion for extramural facilities, and $500 million for on-campus buildings.)

    Senate: $3.5 billion ($2.7 billion split between director's office and the institutes, $500 million for on-campus buildings, and $300 million for extramural instrumentation.)

    Department of Defense (Biodefense)
    House: $900 million (including $430 million for BARDA and $420 million for pandemic flu vaccine development)
    Senate: $870 million (entirely for flu vaccine development)

    NOAA
    House: $1 billion (including $600 million for climate sensors and modeling, $400 million for habitat restoration)
    Senate: $1.2 billion (including $795 million for facilities and equipment, $427 million for restoration and maintenance)

    Department of Energy
    House: $41 billion (including $2 billion for the Office of Science, which supports U.S. physics, and $400 million for ARPA-E)

    Senate: $40 billion (including $430 million for Office of Science, $2.6 billion for energy efficiency and renewable-energy research)Continue Reading

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    Wayne Kondro
    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - 10:42am
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    Canadian scientists are afraid that the government's decision to cut funding to the main source of research grants will trigger a new brain drain to the United States.

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled a budget yesterday aimed at pulling the country out of the global recession. Although reducing funding to three government councils that provide grants to scientists, the budget includes $1.62 billion over 2 years to retrofit aging academic buildings as part of a $10 billion investment in all manner of infrastructure. But scientists say that the economic stimulus package moving quickly through the U.S. Congress provides so much support for research that Canadian scientists once again will be tempted to cross the border, offsetting gains made over the past decade as a result of faculty-recruitment programs.

    “That’s one of our worries,” says Claire Morris, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “You know how many people we attracted back with our Canada Research Chairs program. The flow can go both ways.”

    Under the proposed budget, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will see their budgets collectively reduced by an aggregate $113 million over the next 3 years. A breakdown of the blow each council must individually absorb in each year was not made available. Currently, the councils' respective base budgets are $597 million, $577 million, and $202 million.

    Harper's budget contains some initiatives that would cushion the blow to researchers, but they come with strings attached. It promises $488.5 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation to hold a research infrastructure competition by 2011, with the priority areas to be set by the federal industry minister. Similarly, it proposes to spend $71.2 million over 3 years for 500 new doctoral,Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Richard A. Kerr
    Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 4:19pm
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    The deep-sea scientific drilling ship JOIDES Resolution, the JR for short, has finally left the shipyards. The newly renovated vessel departed Singapore on Sunday, marking the end of an unprecedented 3-year hiatus in U.S. drilling.

    The demands of an exploration-crazed oil industry created a shipyard backlog that delayed the $130 million renovation of the 20-year veteran of scientific drilling for the better part of a year (Science, October 24 2008.) But on March 5, the ship is scheduled to set off from Honolulu on the first of a year’s worth of expeditions to sample the sea floor and monitor processes there.

    Things are looking up across the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, says David Divins of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C. March is also the scheduled return to action for the Japanese drill ship Chikyu, in the yards to repair damaged thrusters used to keep the ship over a drill hole.

    And plans are moving ahead for the JR to spend more time at sea than before, Divins says. IODP has funds for only 8 months of drilling, so the program is looking for oil companies to use the ship for drilling targets of shared interests. If that plan does not come together in time, Divins adds, South Korea has expressed interest in having the JR drill for exotic methane hydrates.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Martin Enserink
    Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 1:25pm
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    PARIS— Words can still sting. Incensed by a provocative policy speech delivered by President Nicolas Sarkozy last Thursday—and fed up with the frantic pace of reform—France’s researchers’ unions have threatened to go on strike indefinitely starting 2 February. Despite the warning, the government says it plans to forge ahead with the science and higher education reforms that have led to this war of wills.

    The strike's official purpose is to force a reversal of a recent decision, issued by governmental decree, to allow university presidents to decide how academic staff members divide their time between research and teaching. But the discontent is much broader. Unions and allied movements such as Sauvons la Recherche (SLR) and Sauvons l'Université are fiercely opposed to a raft of ongoing changes that move the country closer to an Anglo-Saxon system based on university autonomy and competitive funding rather than state control and lifetime employment for scientists.

    In his feisty speech—the official transcript is riddled with exclamation marks—Sarkozy lambasted the research system as "infantilizing and paralyzing," argued that French scientists aren't productive enough, and announced that after decades of failed attempts at change, radical reforms are now his government's top priority. "The forces of conservatism and immobilism have always triumphed," he said, "and that has to stop." He also said that the National Center for Scientific Research will essentially become a funding agency instead of carrying out research of its own, and he announced an 18-member panel to come up with a new National Research and Innovation Strategy. Sarkozy threatened that promised budget increases for university funding will go through only if the reforms are accepted.

    In a written reaction, SLR spokesperson Alain Trautmann said the speech was full of "lies and insults" and had created "shame and anger" among scientists. The unionsContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Sara Coehlo
    Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 10:38am
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    In a move that has drawn international protests, Leiden University in the Netherlands has responded to governmental budget cuts by firing a group of tenured evolutionary biology researchers. A petition protesting the dismissals questions why molecular biologists within the same department were spared, and some of the fired staff are vowing to bring lawsuits for the unexpected dismissals. 

    Like other universities in the Netherlands, Leiden is facing a smaller annual budget after science minister Ronald Plasterk’s decision last year to shift €100 million in research funding to the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, the main grant-giving institution in the country. By forcing scientists to compete for grants, the move aims to raise the Netherlands’ overall research quality. But the changes in funding are having an impact on the operational expenses of universities.

    In Leiden, the budget cuts have led to the dismissal of eight evolutionary biologists, including tenured professors, and the better part of the Department of Biology’s technical staff. The protest petition, circulating in the Netherlands and online, notes that molecular biologists within the same department will be unaffected and calls the favoring of that discipline over evolutionary biology an “alarming national trend.” More than 2000 people have signed the petition in its first 2 days, says its creator, Isabelle Olivieri of the University of Montpellier 2, president of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology.

    Frietson Galis (pictured, credit: Joris van Alphen), the president of the European Society for Evolutionary Developmental Biology,

    is one of the Leiden staff members who received a termination letter from the university shortly before Christmas. “Evolutionary biology is not in good shape in the Netherlands,” says Galis, noting that the dismissalsContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Eli Kintisch
    Monday, January 26, 2009 - 6:06pm
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    ScienceInsider can report that a 10-week, 300-km² experiment to create a massive bloom of algae in the Southern Ocean will begin tomorrow. Furor over the potential environmental impact of the project had threatened to shut it down. The experiment, known as LOHAFEX, is the world's largest geoengineering project to date; scientists aboard the German research vessel Polarstern (see photo) will create the bloom in a patch of sea about halfway between the southern tip of South America and South Africa using 6 tons of iron, roughly three times more iron than previous oceanography experiments have used in catalyzing the growth of algae. The goal of the experiment, led by oceanographers Victor Smetacek of Germany and Wajih Naqvi of India, is to characterize how the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean, closely monitored for 2 months, would respond to such a massive dose of iron. Some scientists, including Smetacek, believe the technique could be an important way to sequester carbon into the ocean and even to restore harmed ocean ecosystems. But earlier this month, environmentalists attacked the experiment as reckless.

    After the German Environment Ministry came under pressure from environmental groups, the German Research Ministry ordered that the experiment be put on hold while independent scientific reviews by non-German scientists were done. So scientists with the British Antarctic Survey and the French oceanography institute IFREMER examined the experiment and issued an assessment of the possible environmental impacts of the project. (The patch of ocean that the scientists will fertilize is roughly one-millionth the size of the rest of the ocean.)

    A spokesperson for the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., told ScienceInsider this afternoon that the experiment was deemed "acceptable” by the experts.The science ministry has found that "there are no scientific or legalContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
    Monday, January 26, 2009 - 3:39pm
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    In his first presidential radio address on 24 January, Barack Obama announced that the Administration's proposed stimulus package working its way through Congress would "triple the number of fellowships in science to help spur the next generation of innovation."  Universities and scientists love the concept, and more fellowships is something that researchers have long called for.

    But the tripling is a fuzzy goal.

    The White House provided a bit more clarity about the objective in an online fact sheet: tripling the number of undergraduate and graduate fellowships. What's not clear, however, is precisely how Obama wants to achieve that goal. Different U.S. agencies award thousands of fellowships to graduate students every year, in addition to a multitude of scholarships for undergraduate students. The National Science Foundation, for example, supports about 3000 Graduate Research Fellows; each fellow receives an annual $30,000 stipend for 3 years. The National Institutes of Health award about 15,000 doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships. The House of Representatives version of the draft stimulus package does not specify how much money NSF, NIH, and other science agencies will be expected to carve out from their portions of the boost the House wants to give them for scholarships and fellowships, besides $60 million for NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which is aimed at getting undergraduates majoring in science and engineering fields to become teachers.

    Regardless of the details, the announcement “is an encouraging sign,” says Debra Stewart of the Council of Graduate Schools. “It shows that the Administration gets what it takes to be competitive in this new economy.” Is she worried that more fellowships will lead to a glut of master's and Ph.D. holders who won’t find jobs if the current labor market woes continue into the future? No, says Stewart, pointing out that theContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Dennis Normile
    Monday, January 26, 2009 - 2:30pm
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    The Ebola-Reston virus, recently found for the first time in pigs in the Philippines, has now been confirmed to have infected at least one human. Scientists are relieved because the person did not get sick and is unlikely to have passed the virus to others. The virus is related to Ebola strains that have caused fatal hemorrhagic fever in humans in Africa. But Ebola-Reston has not caused serious illness in the two dozen people previously infected through contact with monkeys dying from the viral disease. Officials are concerned about finding the virus in pigs because the farm animals live in close proximity to humans and are thought to be "mixing vessels" where animal viruses mutate into forms dangerous to humans.

    The virus has been known to be circulating in the Philippines since 1989, periodically appearing in outbreaks fatal to monkeys. The virus was confirmed in pigs for the first time last fall, prompting a joint investigation by the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health. The person in the Philippines who was found to have the disease, announced jointly by the Philippine departments of health and agriculture on 23 January, remains healthy, and officials believe it extremely unlikely the virus was passed to other humans. The international and local experts are still trying to determine how the person got infected, if the virus causes illness in pigs, and if it is in wider circulation among pigs. Their findings will likely lead to recommendations to prevent pigs from being exposed to the virus.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Daniel Charles
    Friday, January 23, 2009 - 4:20pm
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    A new report from the U.S. National Academies warns that the country's top ranking in information technology research and development "is now under pressure" and could disappear within a generation. To prevent any slippage, the report says, the federal government should reform the patent system to make litigation less common, ease financial regulations that may impose special burdens on start-up companies, and fund research programs aimed at some of the field’s biggest challenges.

    Randy Katz, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-chaired the panel that wrote the report, says the country should “embrace” the globalization of R&D but also “take it as a challenge: How do you keep the U.S. a good place for innovation?” Katz suggests that one good place to start would be a 2002 law that imposed greater financial reporting requirements on public companies. The law, meant to increase accountability, has had the unintended effect of making it hard for many small companies to go public because of the additional cost of meeting the law's strict requirements on disclosure. Congress should consider reducing the law’s burden on small start-ups, he says.

    The government should also step into the yawning gap between purely academic research and industrial R&D, says Katz. He cites the High-Performance Computing and Communications initiative of the 1980s and '90s as a successful example of what he calls "programmatic research [that can] build communities of researchers that collaborate and also compete while pursuing a particular goal.” The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) no longer funds such research, notes another panelist, economist Steven Klepper of Carnegie Mellon University in Pitsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    What are the chances that the report, requested by the National Science Foundation, will shape the policies of the new Administration? Klepper says that NSF “doesn’t have the powerContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Daniel Clery
    Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 1:50pm
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    Europe is increasingly becoming a popular place to do science, according to a report released today by the European Union. But that's not due to any big funding increases from E.U. governments or industry. The report says that the research workforce in the 27 E.U. nations grew twice as fast as in the United States between 2000 and 2006, reaching 640,000 researchers, while also attracting more foreign researchers and more private R&D investment from the United States. During that same period, however, "R&D intensity"—research spending as a percentage of gross domestic product—pretty much stayed around 1.84%. That's a long way from the E.U.'s self-imposed Lisbon Goal—set during a meeting in the Portuguese capital in 2000—of reaching an R&D intensity of 3% by 2010.

    A breakdown by country, after the jump. 

    Things have not been uniformly stagnant across the E.U. Some 17 countries, particularly those that started with a low research intensity, made marked improvements, but the other 10 decreased, including science powers such as France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Although the overall amount of research spending increased over the 6 years, GDP also grew, leaving intensity flat-lined. Meanwhile, Japan increased its intensity from 3.04% to 3.39%, Korea from 2.39% to 3.23%, and China from 0.90% to 1.42%. (U.S. research intensity fell, from 2.74% to 2.61%.)
          
    The villain of the piece is European industry, which the report blames for not spending enough on R&D. That has long been a problem in Europe, which has a smaller research-intensive industry than some of its competitors. This has to change, E.U. research commissioner Janez Potočnik and Vice-President Günter Verheugen said in a statement, even though the current global financial situation makes it difficult. "In a time of crisis, it is not the moment to take a break inContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    John Travis
    Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 3:07am
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    At the end of 2008, a British court found four people guilty of conspiring to blackmail companies that work with an animal testing laboratory. Yesterday, those four, and three others who admitted to the charge, received stiff jail sentences ranging from 4 to 11 years, an outcome that scientists and research officials hope will strongly discourage other animal rights activists.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Robert F. Service
    Wednesday, January 21, 2009 - 3:01pm
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    The U.S. House of Representatives Technology Committee has reintroduced legislation to reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative and beef up environmental and health research related to nanotechnology. The bill is essentially the same one overwhelmingly passed by the full House last fall.

    It never made it though the Senate, thanks to the economic meltdown, the election, and the indictment of Ted Stevens (R-AK), which forced a shuffle of committee assignments among lawmakers in the Senate. Now the issue of how carefully the government should scrutinize nanotechnology will in large part be up to the new president.

    Even if the house nano bill had made it, it wasn't clear whether President Bush would have signed off. Administration officials lobbied successfully to have some provisions removed from the bill, which was reintroduced last week, such as the requirement for spending a specified percentage of NNI funds on environmental, health, and safety (EHS) research.

    But other controversial provisions remain, including the requirement to appoint an associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to be the coordinator—or, if you like, NanoTzar—for all EHS research across the 25 federal agencies that are part of the NNI.

    Another sore spot: The bill creates a standing advisory committee for EHS matters, stripping it away from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Even though PCAST has a higher profile, and thus is more likely to be able to bend the President's ear, they have less hands on expertise in nano-EHS research.

    So, now team Obama will have to decide soon whether they're comfortable with the House bill or to push for changes in the Senate.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Andrew Lawler
    Wednesday, January 21, 2009 - 12:42pm
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    Should the Iraqi government reopen its long-shuttered archaeology museum in Baghdad? An Iraqi minister says yes, and the head of the country's archaeology board says no. So on 11 January, the minister fired the board president.

    The trouble began 3 January, when Iraq's new minister of tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Juburi, made a surprise visit to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. He demanded that the museum be opened to the public by mid-February, say several Iraqi sources. The acting head of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), Amira Edan, argued against the minister's proposal, citing the uncertainty regarding Baghdad's security, says Donny George, former head of SBAH and now a professor in the United States, who spoke with Edan about the incident. When Edan was quoted in the Iraqi press shortly after opposing the minister's idea, the minister sent an 11 January letter accepting her resignation.

    Edan had previously offered to resign because she lacked the confidence of the ministry, but that offer had not been accepted, says another source close to her who requested anonymity. Neither the ministry nor Edan responded to requests for interviews. But several U.S. and Iraqi archaeologists say that the minister wants to reopen the museum, which contains priceless artifacts from the first cities and empires, to show that Baghdad's long period of urban violence is over.

    The ministry is controlled by a Shiite party eager to see U.S. troops depart Iraq. "If the museum is open, that is a message to the world that everything is fine and that the Americans can leave," says George. Unlocking the museum doors, he adds, "is a terrible thing to do." Another archaeologist close to Edan agrees that "this is all about political pressure."

    But one researcher familiar with the situation says that a limitedContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    John Travis
    Tuesday, January 20, 2009 - 12:52pm
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    Given how many problems the country faces, researchers in the United States will no doubt welcome this brief promise in President Obama's inauguration speech:

    For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

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  • By: 
    Richard Stone
    Monday, January 19, 2009 - 7:50am
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    BEIJING—Chinese scientists have long hungered for a news forum they could call their own: a magazine that would probe beyond the headlines of the latest findings and explore issues critical to their professional lives, such as the latest funding trends and which high-profile expats are coming home. They now have it: Science News (科学新闻), a biweekly that had its coming out party here on 16 January. (The publication has no relation to the long-running U.S. magazine Science News, itself now a biweekly.)

    China’s Science News debuted this month with a diverse collection of journalist-penned articles, including an investigation of pollution on the Songhua River in northeastern China and a feature on the Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST; Science, 4 April 2008, p. 34). Science News is borne of the establishment: Its publisher is the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Nevertheless, Science News’s editor, veteran science journalist Jia Hepeng, promises that his magazine will have an edge as his team of young journalists digs into shoddy science and shady funding practices. (Any skeletons in CAS’s closet, Jia acknowledges, may have to stay there.)

    Science News, available by subscription and on select newsstands here, will have an initial print run of 30,000 copies, with a target of 50,000 by year end.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Erik Stokstad
    Friday, January 16, 2009 - 6:31pm
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    The U.S. Department of Agriculture bills its Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) as "The World's Largest Most Diversified Agricultural Research Complex." Still, the place is a shadow of its former self—the scientific staff is down about 40% since its heydey in the 1950s—and it's in dire need of repair.

    There are some new labs on the campus, but the bovine genetics program and others make do in 1930s-era buildings that have never been updated. "They're doing First World science in Third World buildings," says John Peter Thompson, who heads NARA-B, a group that advocates on behalf of BARC. The stimulus package would come to BARC's rescue, plus provide upgrades for many of USDA's 100+ research facilities across the country.

    The funds are to the tune of $209 million, which falls short of the $315 million that USDA said it needed last year to catch up on deferred maintenance. A USDA official says the agency has started prioritizing its list.

    Fixing leaky roofs is hardly a bad thing, but what ag research advocates really want, of course, is more funds for science. Thomas Van Arsdall, director of the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, is trying to look on the bright side. "I don't really care about buildings," he admits. "But obviously if [stimulus funding] improves the lab, it would make for better science."Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Eliot Marshall
    Friday, January 16, 2009 - 6:10pm
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    Biomedical researchers will have the chance to apply for quick-hit, $1 million challenge grants as part of the funding that the National Institutes of Health is slated to receive under the proposed economic recovery package introduced yesterday by Democrats in the House of Representatives. Each institute and center at NIH would be asked to identify “real scientific challenges that they are facing,” according to Acting NIH Director Raynard Kington. “Scientists would apply through a relatively quick process, to receive $500,000 a year for 2 years, to make progress in designated areas.” The grants could be extended for a longer time, Kington says, “depending on funding."

    The challenge grants would be funded by a $1.5 billion pot for research created by the House bill. To avoid the boom-and-bust cycle that NIH has experienced in the past decade, half the money would be disbursed this year and the other half in 2010. "Funds will be allocated by competitive peer review to universities nationwide, as is current NIH funding, and to NIH intramural research," explains a report accompanying the bill. "Since NIH is currently able to support less than 20% of approved applications, it will be able to disburse this funding without delay through its regular grant cycles.”

    NIH was also given $1.5 billion for short-term renovation projects and equipment purchases at outside institutions it supports. NIH would receive a separate $500 million to refurbish its own facilities in Bethesda, Maryland, and satellite sites, half its current needs according to recent testimony before Congress.

    One biomedical lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous, says the House's plan for NIH was heavily influenced by President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, a group that included Francis Collins, former head of NIH’s genome institute, and Harold Varmus, a former NIH director who now heads the Memorial Sloan-Kettering CancerContinue Reading

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    Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
    Friday, January 16, 2009 - 4:17pm
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    The stimulus package adds $900 million to the biodefense gravy train, which has received billions in federal funds since 2001. About $420 million of the money would go to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response within the Department of Health and Human Services for developing and manufacturing vaccines to counter pandemic flu. Another $430 million would go to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a new HHS agency set up 2 years ago to protect citizens in the event of a terrorist attack involving biological or chemical agents. None of the new funds are expected to support basic research in biodefense, which might disappoint some scientists.

    While the biodefense enterprise is awash in cash, experts have repeatedly told the government that BARDA's $100 million annual budget is too tiny for its ambitious mission: developing and acquiring vaccines against a host of deadly infectious diseases. “The magnitude and the scale of the money needed for that task is enormous,” says Janet Shoemaker of the American Society for Microbiology. She says the inclusion of dollars for BARDA in the stimulus package is a sign that some members of Congress “want to keep it going and help it overcome the difficulties it has had in getting started.”Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jeffrey Mervis
    Friday, January 16, 2009 - 4:16pm
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    Cora Marrett has been appointed acting deputy director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, effective 18 January. She replaces Kathie Olsen, who has been reassigned to work in the Office of Information and Resource Management as a senior adviser. As a political appointee, Olsen had submitted her resignation to the outgoing Bush Administration and would have had to leave her post by 20 January. The move keeps her at NSF.

    NSF Director Arden Bement announced the job changes today in separate staff memos. He praised Marrett's "willingness to take on such an important leadership role" and said that Olsen would help improve NSF-wide management practices "in areas such as strengthening merit review and interdisciplinary research processes, workforce planning, Program Officer training and development, and succession planning."

    Marrett has been head of the education and human resources directorate since February 2007, her second executive management stint at NSF. Trained as a sociologist, she came to NSF from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she was a senior vice president for academic affairs. Her appointment takes effect on Sunday.

    Olsen has been deputy director since August 2005, coming from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she had been associate director and deputy director for science. She joined NSF in 1984 and went to work for NASA in 1997, where she served as chief scientist and later acting associate administrator for biological and physical research.

    From Marrett's NSF bio:

    Dr. Marrett has served as the Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources (EHR) at NSF since February 2007. During her tenure, she has led NSF's mission to achieve excellence in U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels and in both formal and informal settings. Dr. Marrett also served as the first Assistant Director for NSF's

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  • By: 
    Robert F. Service
    Eli Kintisch
    Friday, January 16, 2009 - 4:15pm
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    [Editor's note: the following text has been corrected in italics.]

    The only funds directed towards the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the House of Representative’s draft stimulus package is include $600 million specifically targeting satellite and sensor development. (It's a little ridiculous to use a word like "only" in that sentence, but in a $550 billion spending package ... see new text after the jump) But Terry Schaff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts says the funding for space based Earth monitoring could revolutionize ocean science as a whole if Congress were to pass it and the president signed the bill.

    The reason is that the skyrocketing costs of equipping and launching satellites has crippled the science components elsewhere within NOAA’s $3.9 billion budget. "This is a huge deal. If they can offload the satellite stuff with the stimulus package, that releases enormous budget pressure within the agency for other research at NOAA." Ocean and atmospheric researchers also stand to benefit from another pot of funds being doled out to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

    The House proposes to give National Institute of Standards and Technology $300 million for a competitive grant program aimed at creating new science and research buildings at colleges and universities. But the grants wouldn’t go just to support NIST-backed research, such as work on advanced atomic clocks. It would support all the missions of the Commerce Department, home to both NIST and NOAA. NIST first ran the competitive grants program last year, doling out three grants for a total of $24 million. Two of those, in fact, went for NOAA-type work on marine ecosystem sensing and an aquatic animal health facility. Only one went for a NIST-related center on quantum measurement. Ninety applications didn’t make the cut. SoContinue Reading

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    Jennifer Couzin-Frankel
    Friday, January 16, 2009 - 3:40pm
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    Facilities are a big focus of the House stimulus bill, the thinking being that scientific construction provides jobs now and offers intellectual investment for the future. Thus more spacious lab facilities may be on the way at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if the bill passes. Congress is proposing a $462 million boost for the agency, which currently has an $8.8 billion budget. The money would go to several new buildings planned long before the bill was written, as well as facilities currently under construction.

    An epidemiology research facility at the Atlanta headquarters, slated to be a sprawling 323,000 square feet, would get $71 million, while two CDC buildings in Chamblee, Georgia, would get $127 million each. One will be a research facility for birth defects, genomics, and other developmental disabilities, and the second will support chronic disease prevention, says Thomas Skinner, a CDC spokesperson. The rest of the money would be spent to replace facilities at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and to finish construction of an infectious disease lab in Fort Collins, Colorado.

    If the construction projects come to fruition, the buildings will be filled with existing CDC staff, many of whom are now working in labs built 40 or 50 years ago.  The money "will definitely allow us to complete our master plan" of revamping CDC's facilities, says Skinner.Continue Reading

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    Richard A. Kerr
    Friday, January 16, 2009 - 3:32pm
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    Yesterday's announcement of methane on Mars--a possible byproduct of life--could influence where NASA's next rover touches down, according to an agency official. One possible target is Nili Fossae, a once-water-rich area that had been in contention until its relatively high altitude put the kibosh on it.

    The years-long landing site selection process--open to any planetary scientist--had whittled down a list of sites to seven and then to four, all with the guidance of mission engineers. All of the finalists showed signs of once-flowing water or water-altered minerals. Nili Fossae was a favorite for its clays, which are products of water alteration. Scientists were to pass a single recommended site up the management chain for a final decision this spring by NASA Associate Administrator Edward Weiler.

    At yesterday's press conference, NASA's Mars program lead scientist, Michael Meyer, explained that Nili Fossae had been axed because its high altitude made landing problematic. But that was before NASA had to delay the Mars Science Laboratory, a classically ambitious mission whose high-tech instruments and landing system pushed its launch date back to late 2011. It was also before the methane discovery placed Nili Fossae close to one of three sources of the gas. "Adding potential landing sites is possible," said Meyer. "Nili Fossae is not ruled out."

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    Constance Holden
    Friday, January 16, 2009 - 3:18pm
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    Stem cell supporters are in a frenzy over the coming change in presidential policy and have been holding press conferences abrim with enthusiasm, if not content. But at a meeting today at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, D.C., held to release a report called A Life Sciences Crucible, some differences emerged on how the new Administration should proceed in normalizing stem cell research and sheltering it from the political winds that have buffeted it during the Bush Administrations.

    CAP wants President-elect Barack Obama to swiftly issue an Executive Order erasing the Bush restrictions, and for Congress to pass a bill that explicitly allows federally funded researchers access to human embryonic stem cell lines derived after August 2001.

    But Amy Comstock Rick, head of the patient-oriented Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, warned that it's important how the Executive Order is worded. Executive Orders can come and go, she noted, so this one shouldn't be used to spell out criteria for research. Rather, she said the order should simply put the whole subject "back where it belongs"--in NIH's capable hands. By the same token, she said, her group opposes passing a new law which she said would not be "conducive to flexible decision making."

    CAP is also calling for a special working group for clinical research using embryonic stem cells to be created within NIH's Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research disagrees with that, too. It's just another layer of national oversight on subjects that should be left to existing institutional oversight committees, said Rick. "Separate special structures" to oversee stem cell research still smack of political motivations.

    Looks like the shouting may have subsided in the world of stem cell politics, but it's far from over.Continue Reading

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