Science  03 Nov 2000:
Vol. 290, Issue 5493, pp. 913

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  1. Moving On?

    Apparently disgusted by this year's uglier than usual budget fight, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), head of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says he may move on to other leadership responsibilities. The hint, dropped in several press interviews last week, has alarmed biomedical research advocates, who count Specter among the handful of key lawmakers who have successfully pushed to double NIH's budget by 2003.

    According to the Washington Fax newsletter, Specter said that “I don't expect to be on this subcommittee next year because of the futility of what we've done here.” The comment came amid highly partisan political wrangling that has stalled approval of this year's NIH bill, which reportedly includes a 15% increase for the $17.9 billion agency.

    Specter's departure would leave NIH spending panels in both the House and Senate leaderless, because Representative John Porter (R-IL), a major NIH booster, is retiring this year. Few of the potential replacements share either man's zeal for the cause, lobbyists say. But some caution against reading too much into Specter's comments, saying they could be designed to motivate supporters to lobby him to stay. Says one: It may be his “ ‘Tell me you love me’ dance.”

  2. Reform Light

    More than 3 years after Claude Allègre, France's former research minister, launched his ill-fated campaign to radically overhaul the basic research agency CNRS, the French government has approved a scaled-down version of his reform package (Science, 31 March, p. 2387). The Council of Ministers approved a decree on 25 October giving the 26,000-researcher organization greater scientific autonomy, especially by removing government appointees from its scientific advisory council. On the other hand, the minister strengthened the powers of the CNRS executive board, which answers to the government and decides broad-based research strategy. And for the first time, foreign scientists will be asked to join the CNRS's external scientific evaluation committee.

    Physicist Edouard Brézin, president of the executive board—whom Allègre had charged with carrying out the reform effort—announced that he will step down now that his work is done.

  3. Taking the Pledge?

    About 150 scientists—including prominent biologists—have so far signed an open letter calling on journal publishers to support an “online public library” that would give everyone free access to biomedical and life sciences articles that are at least 6 months old. Pat Brown of Stanford University and Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, are prime movers behind the letter, due to be delivered next May. The campaign faces a barrier, though: Private publishers haven't agreed to give the material away.

    To “encourage” publishers to donate, those signing the letter pledge to sever ties after September 2001 with journals that don't cooperate. “We will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to, only … journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports … within 6 months” of publication.” (See Publishers are still weighing their response.

  4. Fishy Genomes

    Hungering to sequence a genome a bit more substantial than those of the dozen microbes it is finishing this month, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California, has announced it will turn next to the puffer fish, Fugu rubripes. Known best as a Japanese delicacy with potentially lethal consequences if not prepared correctly, Fugu has earned acclaim among biologists because it has far less genetic material than most other vertebrates. Humans have 3 billion bases, the building blocks of DNA, while zebrafish have 1.8 billion; evolution has distilled Fugu's genome down to a mere 400 million. “Unlike zebrafish, [the puffer] probably hasn't undergone considerable gene duplication,” says Randall Moon of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

    Even so, “this will be [DOE's] single largest project,” says Trevor Hawkins, JGI's deputy director. He expects to have 95% of the sequence completed by March 2001—putting Fugu sequencing ahead of efforts to decode the genomes of the zebrafish and Tetraodon, a freshwater puffer. Fugu enthusiast Sydney Brenner of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, and colleagues elsewhere will then put on the finishing touches.