ScienceScope

Science  02 Apr 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5411, pp. 21
  1. Delayed ... or Dead?

    A federal judge has ruled that the National Park Service must complete an environmental review before it can move ahead with a controversial bioprospecting contract. Government analysts say the ruling is a temporary setback for the precedent-setting deal, which allows Diversa, a San Diego biotechnology firm, to harvest plants and microbes from the park's hot springs in exchange for a $175,000 payment and royalties on any products it develops (Science, 13 March 1998, p. 1624). But one plaintiff's attorney believes the decision—handed down last week by Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.—is a death knell for any arrangement of this kind because Lamberth cast doubt on the government's claim that parks are “outdoor laboratories” available for commercial research. A coalition of nonprofits will soon be back in court seeking to ban such deals outright, promises Andrew Kimbrell of the Washington-based International Center for Technology Assessment. Unless Congress changes the law, he asserts, federal parks should remain off limits to profit-driven bioprospectors.

  2. All Too Human

    Indian scientists hope emerging guidelines for research on human subjects will help reduce the risk of ethical problems. Jarred by the realization that the government regulates studies using animals more heavily than those involving people, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) last year began a review of 20-year-old human research guidelines that women's groups and others say need to be updated.

    Last week in New Delhi, the council completed a quartet of public meetings on a 100-page draft of the new guidelines, which tackle everything from transplant rules to the thorny problem of obtaining informed consent from subjects in a country where illiteracy is widespread. Finalizing new “clear-cut and mandatory guidelines” would help researchers avoid trouble, says Kamal Hazari of Mumbai's Institute of Research in Reproduction. But guidance alone may not be enough, some researchers say. New national legislation that imposes penalties on violators may be needed to put some teeth into the guidelines, which the ICMR hopes to finalize this summer.

  3. Cold War Antidote

    Russian Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov boycotted a biannual rap session with Vice President Al Gore last week to protest the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, but his absence didn't stop officials from the two countries from finalizing an agreement to exempt joint research from Russian taxes.

    Tithes on scientific equipment imported to Russia have riled both sides. “Once in awhile supplies are confiscated and held for ransom,” says a U.S. participant in last week's Gore-Primakov Commission meeting. The border troubles delay projects and force Russian scientists to pay duties or bribes. The new agreement—in principle—should eliminate the problem.

    Also laid at the meeting were tentative plans to expand cooperation on emerging disease surveillance, supercomputer research, and high-energy physics. However, a U.S. overture for more bilateral Arctic research got a chilly reception.

  4. No Contest

    Scientists opposing a controversial data-access proposal appear to be headed for a lopsided win in an unusual skirmish—even as their opponents are raffling off prizes to gain allies.

    Acting on legislation pushed by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in January released a controversial proposal to require taxpayer-funded researchers to hand over their raw data to anyone who files a request (Science, 12 February, p. 914). The agency gave the public until 5 April to comment, sparking a furious letter-writing campaign both for and against the proposal. Last month, rule opponents—including most scientific societies—were alarmed to discover that the other side was ahead in the comment contest, in part because it was offering a creative incentive: People who used the Junk Science Web page (www.junkscience.com/) to write to OMB could win a subscription to an environmental policy newsletter or the electronic Wall Street Journal. But the tide has turned in the last few weeks: The 1600-and-counting comments OMB has received so far are running 4 to 1 against the rule, says the Washington-based American Association of Universities. Whether the landslide will persuade OMB to rewrite the proposal, however, won't be known until later this year, when it must finalize the rule.

  5. 2010 or Bust

    With researchers expected to finish sequencing the Arabidopsis genome sometime next year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is already contemplating a more challenging goal for the next decade—understanding the function of every one of the plant's 20,000 to 25,000 genes.

    Extracting that information could lead to improved yields for crops and other commercially important plants. But it will cost “at least as much” as NSF's existing plant genome project, currently $50 million a year, says Mary Clutter, the agency's biology chief. And a report due out soon from an NSF-funded workshop held last fall concludes that it will take a decade of research and training to do the job right.

    Officials previewed the idea last week before the National Science Board, NSF's oversight body. They have dubbed the effort Project 2010 in preliminary talks on next year's budget request. Says Clutter: “This is something we definitely want to do. The only question is when.”

  6. Data Dump

    A new initiative may soon allow academics to sift through mountains of data collected by Canada's statistics agency. Currently, only employees of Statistics Canada have access to the trove of confidential surveys that the agency conducts in areas like health and education. To share this statistical wealth with university scientists and data-hungry policy-makers, the agency and Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council want the government to spend up to $10 million a year to set up 10 centers where specially designated researchers could crunch the numbers.

    The proposed Social Statistics Research System would give $230,000 annually to interdisciplinary teams to produce reports on everything from health care to immigration. Such quantitative studies could help Canada “restructure our social policy,” says J. Douglas Willms of the University of New Brunswick's Atlantic Centre for Policy Research. Before the keys to the data kingdom are handed out, however, the government must approve a funding plan, which will be submitted formally this fall.

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