Science  13 Apr 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5515, pp. 185

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  1. ALMA Matters

    Astronomers' hopes of building a giant 64-dish radio telescope have taken a big international step forward. Japan last week joined North America and Europe in the consortium planning the $550 million Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), planned for Chile's Atacama desert.

    In the mid-1980s, astronomers in North America, Europe, and Japan independently started planning such arrays, which will probe the formation of stars and galaxies. North America and Europe officially combined their efforts in 1997. Last week's resolution means scientists from 15 countries on four continents are now working on ALMA, making it “truly a world telescope,” says Norio Kaifu of Japan's National Astronomical Observatory.

    The next challenge is building it. The Bush Administration has not included any construction funds in its 2002 budget request (see p. 182), although Japan's education ministry has given ALMA a green light, and Europe hopes to keep pace. If the money begins flowing by the end of 2002, scientists say ALMA could be operating by 2010.

  2. Depressing Difference

    Eighth-grade students from Naperville, Illinois, a wealthy suburban district nestled between Fermilab and Argonne National Lab, learned last week that they lead their peers around the world in understanding science. Their urban counterparts 30 minutes away in Chicago city schools, however, rank with the likes of Iran and Tunisia near the bottom of the list. The results were part of an exercise in which 13 state and 14 local U.S. school districts compared themselves to 38 countries that took the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1999.

    National educators hailed the “courage” of big-city school superintendents like Chicago's Paul Vallas to spend $75,000 on what was a predictable academic drubbing, given the socioeconomic advantages of districts like Naperville. “These results make the gap visible and therefore attackable,” thundered Education Secretary Rodney Paige. Sitting next to National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell, whose agency has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade trying to improve science and math in big-city schools, Paige declared that the reforms have produced “islands of excellence, but that isn't good enough.”

    The next version of the global test will be administered in 2003.

  3. Fishing for Change

    Fisheries scientists are bracing for what could be a stormy passage through Washington, D.C. Congress last week began work on renewing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a 25-year-old law that aims to protect marine life from overfishing.

    The law, however, has produced spotty results, experts told the House Resources Committee at a 4 April hearing. “For the fourth year in a row, the number of fish stocks that are [already] overfished, experiencing overfishing, or both has increased,” noted Lee Crockett of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which unites more than 100 science, environmental, and fishing groups. To reverse that trend, he and other advocates say Congress needs to strengthen the law—from improving habitat protection requirements to placing stricter limits on the killing of nontarget species.

    Some fishing industry groups, however, say lawmakers should give existing rules—last updated in 1996—more time to work. Current law, they note, has already helped some fisheries, including New England cod and scallop populations, rebound from disaster. Expect to hear plenty from both sides over the next year, as Congress is likely to take its time weighing the arguments before acting.

  4. GMOs Thai-ed Up

    Thailand has become the first Asian country to ban the release into the environment of genetically modified crops. The 3 April decision orders the agriculture ministry “to halt all genetically engineered crop field trials” and to set up a panel of scientists, farmers, and consumers to draft a biosafety law.

    The action would halt ongoing field trials of Bt cotton by Monsanto, although a Bangkok spokesperson says that the government has not yet notified the company. First-year results of its Bollgard variety were “very promising,” she added.

    Jiragorn Gajaseni, head of Greenpeace's Southeast Asia office, hopes the decision will “encourage [other Asian countries] to follow suit.” In 1999 the Thai government banned the import of genetically modified seeds for commercial cultivation but allowed imports for research purposes.