Science  25 May 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5521, pp. 1465
  1. War of Words

    Dueling press releases this week broke the bipartisan calm that has pervaded the House Science Committee since Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) became chair earlier this year. In a 21 May statement, panel Democrat Joe Baca (CA) slammed President George W. Bush for failing to appoint a science adviser, noting that no previous president has ever waited so long (Science, 11 May, p. 1041). The release said that Ronald Reagan, the prior record footdragger, had appointed George Keyworth as his adviser on 19 May 1981.

    The next day, however, Boehlert complained that the Democrats had their facts wrong: Reagan nominated Keyworth on 1 July—a point the Democrats concede. “We used the wrong word,” says a Democratic staffer, explaining that Reagan “named” Keyworth as his pick in May but didn't file the official paperwork until later. Either way, says the staffer, the flap “only calls more attention to the fact that this White House isn't getting scientific advice on important issues.”

    As if to highlight the vacancy, a House appropriations committee this week cancelled a budget hearing on the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which the science adviser traditionally leads. According to a committee aide, OSTP said it was so short-staffed it didn't have anyone available to testify.

  2. Debate Not Depleted

    A new report from the U.K.'s Royal Society isn't likely to end the debate over whether soldiers have been sickened by radiation from depleted uranium (DU) munitions.

    Some U.S. and European soldiers say their cancers are a result of DU exposure during the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo conflicts. But a study released this week concludes that health risks from DU radiation are “for the most part low.” There are possible exceptions, however, including a likely higher risk of lung cancer in tank crew members who inhale the “impact aerosol” created when a DU shell pierces their vehicle's armor. But panel chair Brian Spratt, a microbiologist at London's Imperial College, says that more study is needed to pinpoint the risks from such close encounters.

  3. Germany's Space Future

    For the first time in nearly 2 decades, Germany has an official space policy. The plan, approved by the cabinet last week, commits $3.8 billion to space R&D over the next 4 years. But some researchers worry that homegrown science will be squeezed to accommodate international projects.

    The new policy will give Germany “the necessary planning security” to fund both national projects and long-term partnerships with the European Space Agency (ESA) and other nations, says Walter Kröll, chair of Germany's aerospace research center in Cologne. But critics note that the lion's share of the funds will go to ESA projects and the international space station, leaving just $150 million a year for domestic programs.

    Astrophysicist Wolfgang Hillebrandt, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, says that greater levels of support are needed so that German researchers “can participate in the science that is part of the ESA missions.”

  4. Reducing the Mortgage

    The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is moving to rein in the explosive recent growth of its $1.7 billion grants portfolio. NCI chief Richard Klausner told an advisory board this week that the number and size of NCI's extramural grants has been growing faster than the agency's budget, prompting at least two new rules. One limits researchers applying for renewals of 3- or 4-year grants to no more than a 20% increase (and he predicts most will get substantially less). The other will require the growing number of scientists seeking especially large grants—$500,000 or more—to enter a separate competition for a specified pool of funds.

    Klausner says the changes will help NCI, the largest member of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), make a smooth transition to the slower budget growth expected when Congress completes an NIH budget-doubling push in 2004. He noted that NCI's spending on grants grew 17% last year, compared to a 13.5% overall budget increase—growth that “cannot be sustained with anticipated funding,” he says. “Eventually, the numbers come back to bite you.”