ScienceScope

Science  28 Jul 2000:
Vol. 289, Issue 5479, pp. 521
  1. Martian Gamble

    NASA and the White House are locked in a quiet but intense struggle over the future scale of Mars exploration. NASA space science chief Ed Weiler this week intended to announce plans to send a single lander to Mars in 2003, rather than a single orbiter, in the wake of two mission failures in the past year (Science, 10 March, p. 1722). But NASA abruptly canceled the 24 July press conference after senior officials insisted on considering sending two landers, according to Administration officials. Agency managers and Mars researchers argue that sending two spacecraft will reduce risk. “There were two Viking landers and orbiters,” says one scientist. “When it really matters, double up.”

    But doubling up means a heftier price tag, and the White House is loath to ask Congress for more Mars money in 2001 and future years. “It's big bucks,” says one Administration manager. The White House may still approve two landers—but on the condition that NASA cut current programs to pay for an expanded Mars effort. That would be bitter medicine for an overall space science effort already strapped for cash.

    NASA chiefs must move quickly. The larger program would require more planning, and NASA had already set a 1 August decision deadline to ensure that it could meet the 2003 launch date. Yet NASA won't know its 2001 budget—which is still stalled in Congress—until fall, while the 2002 budget request won't be released until next year. So if the agency wants two landers, it may have to gamble that there will be money to do it. Says one Administration manager: “We're playing a high-stakes game.”

  2. Into the Finals

    California Governor Gray Davis last week named the six academic teams that are still in the running for $300 million in state funds to set up new research institutes, along with a five-member panel that will pick the three winners this fall (Science, 26 May, p. 1311). The judges, led by Scripps Research Institute president Richard Lerner, will choose among multi-institution teams proposing new centers focusing on systems biology, agricultural genomics, information technology, nanosystems, biomedicine, and the social impacts of information systems. Eleven teams had entered the competition.

  3. Rephrase the Question

    The overhead that the federal government pays for universities to subsidize research done on campus is an incendiary topic, capable of infuriating Congress and deposing college presidents. So perhaps it's not surprising that two reports issued this week generate more heat than light.

    The first, by RAND's Science and Technology Policy Institute (http://www.rand.org/), estimates that universities are shortchanged from $700 million to $1.5 billion a year in a $15 billion portfolio of federally funded academic research. It also argues that any government attempt to force universities to pick up even more of their so-called indirect costs could shrink research efforts.

    Unfortunately for presidential science adviser Neal Lane, who assigned RAND the study, Congress in 1998 had asked the White House for a report on ways to reduce indirect costs, including a comparison of university rates with those charged by industrial labs. So after Lane saw a draft version this winter of the RAND report, he quickly ordered up a study by his own Office of Science and Technology Policy. That brief report takes a more neutral tone by, for example, laying out the pros and cons of four options to further cut overhead costs.

    Legislators are especially interested in whether the system favors wealthier universities, says a Senate aide. “But we need to read the reports before we decide whether to propose any changes,” he says. Both reports, however, complain that there are insufficient data for a meaningful analysis and urge the government to make more information available.

  4. Staying or Going?

    France's giant basic research agency, the CNRS, may soon have a new leader. The 3-year term of its current director-general, physicist Catherine Bréchignac, expired 18 July. But as Science went to press, the government had yet to decide whether to renew her mandate. The holdup is due to a disagreement between French President Jacques Chirac, who wants to keep Bréchignac, and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who wants to dump her, according to the daily Le Figaro. If Bréchignac goes, potential replacements include the directors of two research centers in the Paris suburbs: biologist Pierre Tambourin, head of the GENOPOLE research complex in Evry, and mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, chief of the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies in Bures-sur-Yvette. A decision is expected by early August.

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