Science  06 Apr 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5514, pp. 27

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  1. Seeing Stars

    Indian scientists are dismayed by government plans to sanction Vedic astrology as an academic discipline. The University Grants Commission (UGC) is soliciting proposals from universities to “rejuvenate the science of Vedic astrology,” which uses Hindu teachings and planetary alignments to plumb earthly events.

    “Heaven knows we already have a surfeit of dross floating around our country,” says Yash Pal, a retired astrophysicist and former chair of the UGC. “I hope no self-respecting university would ask to start such a department.” Many believe that the directive comes at the behest of India's science and higher education minister, Murli Manohar Joshi (right, with Hindu priest). Joshi is a physicist and ardent student of ancient Indian texts.


    UGC chair Hari Gautam defends the initiative, saying that it calls for “professional courses designed to produce certified professionals.” He says that 70 to 80 universities have shown interest in starting the courses, which would begin in July.

  2. Stem Cell Review Set

    In a move likely to fuel political tensions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this month will conduct its first ethical review of human pluripotent stem cell lines. The review, which will determine whether a researcher followed ethical guidelines in deriving the cell lines, is a key step toward winning government funding for research involving the cells (Science, 1 September 2000, p. 1442).

    Many antiabortion groups, however, are pushing the Bush Administration to bar funding for such studies because the cells are derived from human embryos or fetal tissue. White House officials say they hope to decide the issue by early summer.

    In the meantime, NIH is beginning to review proposals. Officials had hoped to begin in December, but no scientists submitted applications in time. At least three groups met a more recent deadline, NIH director Ruth Kirschstein told Science last week. NIH has not released their identities, but Martin Pera of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, confirms that his team, which has developed several stem cell lines, is in the mix.

    NIH's new Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Review Group (HPSCRG) will hold a public meeting on 25 April to review the applications. The agency plans to announce the meeting, and the names of HPSCRG members, on 10 April.

  3. Together Again

    Exploring Mercury will be an international affair after all. The European, Japanese, and U.S. space agencies announced last week that they will coordinate the operations of two spacecraft headed for the planet in 2004 and 2009. The deal ends European grumbling over U.S. plans to go it alone to Mercury.


    Under a plan announced 30 March at a meeting of the European Geophysical Society in Nice, France, NASA's $300 million Messenger orbiter may serve as an advance scout for Bepi Colombo, a $440 million Euro-Japanese mission that includes two orbiters and a lander. Researchers say the arrangement will help them get the most out of Bepi Colombo's instruments, including sensors that will probe the planet's surface and magnetic field. Details, however, still need to be decided. Marcello Coradini, the European Space Agency's coordinator of solar system exploration, says the partners “want to establish a working group as soon as possible to enhance the science return from both missions.”

  4. Chattering Class

    Both the executive branch and Congress need to spend more time and money analyzing the U.S. government's $90 billion investment in R&D. That's the preliminary conclusion of a 2-year study by the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation.

    The report, led by board chair Eamon Kelly, proposes such new wrinkles as a 5-year science plan, updated annually, as well as the revival of something akin to the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which was killed in 1995. Kelly, an economist and former president of Tulane University in New Orleans, believes that the government also needs to do a better job of tracking the economic payoff from current investments, laying out possible trade-offs, and comparing U.S. results to those of the rest of the world.

    The board will hold a symposium in late May to discuss the 20-page report, entitled “The Scientific Allocation of Scientific Resources.” It's available at