Science  24 Sep 1999:
Vol. 285, Issue 5436, pp. 2041

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  1. Triana Troubles

    A blistering internal critique of NASA's Triana satellite project, which would beam back video and data on the whole Earth, has infuriated NASA officials. NASA Inspector-General (IG) Roberta Gross last week concluded that Triana's changing mission, from inspirational to scientific, and increasing costs—from $50 million to more than $75 million—demand a reassessment.

    NASA officials fear that the report's timing—it was released just days before this week's expected Senate vote on Triana funding—sounds the project's death knell. “I question the urgency to issue the report in such a hurry,” says Ghassem Asrar, NASA's earth science chief. Other officials complain that Gross overstepped the IG office's traditional focus on fraud.

    But Triana's Republican opponents on Capitol Hill (who view the mission, inspired by Vice President Al Gore, as a waste) embraced the findings. They have already convinced the House to kill the spacecraft's funding; NASA officials fear the Senate will follow suit.

  2. Czechmate?

    Many Czech scientists will face a day of reckoning next year, after their government launches an evaluation of its universities and ministry-run institutes (Science, 27 March 1998, p. 2033). But the Ministry of Health is shaking up scientists already: It intends to fold its research institutes into university-based hospitals, to the chagrin of affected scientists. The move “will ultimately harm biomedical research,” says Jiri Zavadil of the Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion (UHKT) in Prague.

    Health Minister Ivan David recently announced plans to dissolve up to 12 institutes and shift staff to hospitals by the end of this year, arguing the move would improve clinical research. But scientists at UHKT and three other institutes fear the debt-laden hospitals will deprive them of scarce research money. “We are concerned about what will happen once we become part of the huge money-losing hospitals,” says UHKT director Petr Jarolim.

    Eyeing the drama is the Czech government's R&D council, which will begin its review early next year with help from foreign scientists. But the council can't make the ministry hold off, says Vice Chair Josef Syka: “We can only pressure them to do the reform in a proper way.”

  3. Distance Learning

    Agency directors are supposed to go to any length for their boss. But most aren't called on to travel as far as National Science Foundation (NSF) chief Rita Colwell, who last week flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, to accompany President Clinton as he visited the agency's staging facilities for Antarctic trips. Clinton attended the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Auckland and got a 2-hour tour from Colwell of the International Antarctic Research Center before giving a speech on Antarctica's environmental value. “I was pleased with his keen interest in the science there,” says Colwell.

    After a state dinner, Colwell climbed aboard Air Force One for the long flight home. Did she use the time to push NSF's 2001 budget request now being prepared? Well, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta had already signaled the president's strong support for research, she diplomatically said (Science, 17 September, p. 1827). And the end of a 5-day tour may not be the best time to lobby, she added: “To be honest, most people slept on the plane.”

  4. Thumbs Down

    In an embarrassing retreat, the Department of Energy (DOE) has withdrawn a controversial $100,000 grant that critics charged would support discredited “cold fusion” studies.

    In June, after physicist Edwin Lyman of the nonprofit Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C., and some DOE researchers challenged the science behind a concept for transforming radioactive waste into harmless byproducts, DOE officials said they were reconsidering the peer-reviewed award to nuclear engineer George Miley of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Science, 23 July, p. 505). Miley said his experiment was not cold fusion—which seeks to spark nuclear fusion at room temperatures—but this month six new reviewers recommended that DOE spend its money elsewhere.

    Miley couldn't be reached for comment. But DOE officials say the episode will prompt changes in its Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), touted for using top-notch reviews. Promises NERI manager John Herczeg: “We'll be taking a closer look from now on.”