Science  07 Apr 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5463, pp. 25

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  1. Weightless Watchers

    NASA has long studied the effects of weightlessness on the human body, knowing that sending people to Mars would expose the crew to the deleterious effects of microgravity for months and even years. But a new report from the National Research Council urges NASA not to forget the hardware. The panel, chaired by engineer Ray Viskanta of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, calls for an extensive new research program aimed at understanding how gravity's absence affects fluids, flames, and flow controls—and thus fire-prevention, power-production, and sanitation systems critical for a safe flight.

    NASA microgravity chief Eugene Trinh praised the soon-to-be-released study: “We've looked at this piecemeal, but this puts it all together.” But the panel also complains that “territoriality” at NASA centers is getting in the way of existing research, which it describes as “poorly communicated” and sometimes duplicative. And it concludes that such problems pose a major stumbling block to implementing the report's recommendations. But Trinh believes the agency is “doing a very good job,” although he says it will take the criticism seriously.

  2. Money Talks

    Scrambling to keep up with the debate over genetically modified crops, several big ag biotech companies this week unveiled a public relations campaign “based on objective scientific research.” A new Council for Biotechnology Information may spend as much as $50 million a year on ads, speakers, and a Web site to counter what a spokesperson calls “inaccuracies” in the media and to “create a public dialogue.” The sponsors are Aventis CropScience, BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, and Zeneca Ag Products Inc.

    The council is still looking for a director, says Dan Eramian of the Biotechnology Industry Organization of Washington, D.C., which will serve as its home. But organizers have already recruited several heavy hitters to the group's advisory board, including former Health and Human Services chief Louis Sullivan and Nobel Prize biologist James Watson.

    Biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., thinks the council's efforts will “backfire.” More publicity, he says, will only help his cause.

  3. Costly Benefit?

    An ounce of prevention may still be worth a pound of cure, but a new vaccine may cost Americans more than it saves them, according to a study published 15 March in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

    The recently approved vaccine Prevnar wards off seven strains of bacteria that cause ear infections, pneumonia, blood infections, and meningitis. Vaccinating infants could save more than $750 million in medical expenses, missed work, and other costs, according to researchers at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. But the vaccine's cost will outweigh savings if it exceeds $46 per shot, the researchers say. The vaccine's manufacturer, American Home Products of Madison, New Jersey, intends to charge $58 per dose.

    Prevnar may still be a good deal in spite of the bottom line, says pediatrician Tracy Lieu, lead author of the study. “It would prevent a lot of suffering,” Lieu says, “and it's not easy to put a number on that benefit.”

  4. Ready to Rumble

    Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA, below), head of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) budget, says he is ready for a “knock-down, drag-out battle” over legislation to endorse taxpayer funding of research on stem cells derived from human embryos. But at a hearing last week, NIH officials—who agree with Specter's position—fumbled a bit when their champion asked for some ready-for-prime-time sound bites he could use to press his case.

    Last year, Specter and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) inserted language into NIH's spending bill that would have clarified government support for the controversial research, but they agreed to withdraw it after antiabortion lawmakers threatened to stall the bill. In return, Specter got a promise from Republican leaders that he would get substantial time on the Senate floor this year to debate the issue.

    With that clash possibly just weeks away, Specter asked NIH officials to remind listeners “why stem cells from embryos are so valuable.” But after Gerald Fishbach, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, produced two responses that were too unwieldy for political wordplay, a visibly agitated Specter took another tack. Could NIH leaders, he asked, take pen in hand, “sharpen up the answer, and provide it to me in writing?”

  5. New Blood

    Following its history of finding new leadership within, Stanford University this week tapped Provost John L. Hennessy to take over as president beginning 1 September. Hennessy, who succeeds Gerhard Casper, is expected to place the university in a strong position to reel in donations from supporters who have struck it rich in neighboring Silicon Valley.

    Hennessy, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is also a Silicon Valley entrepreneur; he founded MIPS Technologies, which specializes in microprocessors. He was also instrumental last year in securing a $150 million donation from Netscape founder Jim Clark, who worked down the hall from Hennessy when both were Stanford professors. As president, Hennessy's early priorities are expected to include expanding interdisciplinary research and ensuring affordable housing for faculty and students.

    Initial reaction to the pick was glowing. “I'm thrilled,” says Richard Zare, a Stanford chemistry professor and former chair of the National Science Board. Hennessy's experience in academia and high-tech, Zare says, made him “the obvious natural choice.”

  6. Too Cautious?

    In what many view as a victory for science, a U.S. court last week slammed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for proposing tighter guidelines for safe drinking water than its scientists thought necessary.

    The case is the first test of draft risk guidelines that use molecular data to assess whether low doses of a substance can cause cancer. After reviewing studies suggesting that tiny doses of chloroform—a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorinating water—are harmless, EPA scientists in 1998 proposed increasing the goal for maximum tap-water levels from 0 to 300 parts per billion. But under pressure from environmentalists, the agency nixed the change. The Chlorine Chemistry Council sued, claiming EPA had violated a law that requires it to base decisions on the best science.

    On 31 March, a federal judge agreed, finding that EPA “openly overrode” the scientific evidence. Toxicologist Jay Goodman of Michigan State University in East Lansing says the ruling should be “a wake-up call to EPA,” which now plans to reevaluate its stance.