ScienceScope

Science  26 May 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5470, pp. 1313
  1. Late Hit

    Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chair of the House Science Committee, reduced a senior National Science Foundation (NSF) official to tears last week when he banned her from testifying about science education. “Your conduct is insulting to this committee,” he bellowed at a mortified Judith Sunley, NSF's chief education officer. “I'm giving you an F and excusing you for the day.”

    Sensenbrenner's gag order was triggered by NSF's failure to heed a committee policy requiring witnesses to submit testimony at least 24 hours in advance. The purpose, says committee spokesperson Jeff Lungren, is to give staff and members time to prepare questions. Instead, a copy of Sunley's two-page statement arrived a few minutes before the start of the 17 May hearing on H.R. 4271, a bill that would expand NSF's role in precollege science and math education (Science, 21 April, p. 419).

    That statement, the product of negotiations between NSF and the White House, expressed support for the bill's intent but offered caveats. “Ironically, [the White House] thought our original draft was too supportive,” says one NSF official. Even without NSF's verbal endorsement, the committee is expected to approve the legislation. But its chances of going any further this year are slim.

  2. Elusive Goal

    A heavily touted promise to eradicate polio by the end of this year won't be met, world health officials admitted last week. Speaking at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said that obstacles ranging from armed conflict to a temporary vaccine shortage will foil the organization's best efforts in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, regions where the disease is still active.

    Noting a current $300 million shortfall in the campaign's budget, Brundtland also urged leaders in high-risk countries to remain committed to an effort that has made considerable progress. Some 190 countries are now free of the disease, and even the Indian subcontinent reports that the number of cases plummeted from 25,711 in 1988 to 1866 last year. But Uton Muchtar Rafei, WHO regional director for Southeast Asia, warns that up to 10% of the target population remains out of reach because of a growing birthrate, a transient population, and insufficient supplies of the oral vaccine.

  3. Hot Air?

    When Congress ordered the federal government 4 years ago to sell off its massive helium gas stockpile by 2005, some scientists got a sinking feeling. They worried that the result could be shortages which would hamper a host of research-related technology efforts, from the development of fiber-optic cable to magnetic-resonance imaging systems. But a National Research Council report released this week says the end of the federal monopoly on the element is unlikely to affect users—in science or industry. Even so, the report calls for the government to explore new ways to locate supplies of the gas, improve storage systems, and search for substitutes.

  4. Cash to Burn

    The wildfire that scorched the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico disrupted research and reduced some offices to rubble—but it may yield a hefty consolation prize from Congress. The Senate last week added $85 million to a defense spending bill to help the lab rise from the ashes that followed a controlled parkland burn that ran amok. The House is expected to follow suit.

    The lab's 7000-person workforce is “almost completely” back on the job after 2 weeks off, says associate lab director Tom Meyer. And despite the destruction of dozens of employee's homes and about 30 chemistry offices in temporary trailers, officials say fears of harmful releases from stored waste have so far proven unfounded. Spectrometers and other equipment are still being checked for smoke damage.

    Meanwhile, lab officials are making recovery plans, including how to spend $26 million for environmental restoration that is part of the defense bill. First on the agenda are measures to handle excess runoff from denuded watersheds, which could be hard hit by approaching “monsoons.” Still, fire damage may pale in comparison to the wounds—in morale and hiring—inflicted by recent allegations of Chinese spying at the lab. Says physicist David Campbell of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, former head of the lab's Center for Nonlinear Studies: “The spy stuff was much more devastating.”

  5. Counting on NIF

    The true cost of building the world's largest laser is proving elusive. Earlier this month, Department of Energy (DOE) officials admitted that the cost of building the troubled National Ignition Facility (NIF) at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory would nearly double, to $2.1 billion (Science, 5 May, p. 782). This week, however, a leaked government accounting study pegged the cost at $3.6 billion for an instrument that will shoot 192 laser beams at a BB-sized target. The experiments are aimed at developing fusion energy and modeling nuclear weapons without actually testing them. Livermore officials, however, say the bigger number includes R&D projects that aren't directly tied to NIF's construction.

    The true size of the overrun has implications for other programs. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) is vociferously resisting any attempt to rechannel cash from his state's Sandia and Los Alamos labs to NIF. And he will use his power as head of the Senate Energy Committee, which oversees DOE's budget, to block any shift, Domenici vowed to the Albuquerque Journal: “It's not going to happen while I'm chairman.”

  6. Rat Race

    The rat will be the next target of publicly funded gene sequencing efforts in the United States, Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), told his advisory council this week.

    Until recently, no researcher would have considered taking on the burden of another mammal's genome while jammed sequencing centers worked through the human and mouse. But high-throughput labs in Massachusetts, Texas, Missouri, and California have added machines and increased their capacity some 10-fold, says Robert Waterston, director of the center at Washington University in St. Louis. Now their output, plus that of Britain's Sanger Centre, is “enough to do a working draft of a mammalian genome in 4 to 5 months,” Waterston told the council. As a result, the NHGRI-funded centers want to sequence the rat, mouse, and human genomes in parallel—if NHGRI and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute can carve out funds from the still undecided 2001 budget.

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