Science  22 Jun 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5525, pp. 2229

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  1. Banking on Chemicals

    Gene hunters have GenBank. X-ray crystallographers have their Protein Data Bank. Now Harvard University chemist Stuart Schreiber wants chemists to have a bank of their own to store the wealth of information on new bioactive small molecules.

    The notion behind the aptly named Chembank, says Schreiber, is to collect a standard set of information on the way small biologically active molecules affect organisms. Chembank entries would cover both general effects, such as how a molecule might change a developing organism's appearance, and specific effects, such as how it might inhibit a specific protein kinase receptor. Chembank could also allow researchers to pinpoint common structural motifs in bioactive compounds—a feature that Schreiber believes could help synthetic chemists design more potent drugs with fewer side effects.

    “It is a terrific plan; it would be a very valuable database,” says Kevan Shokat, a chemical biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But he and other supporters won't know until August if the National Cancer Institute, which is currently reviewing Schreiber's idea, will back the project.

  2. Universities Fall in Line

    The government's controversial plan to privatize Japan's 99 national universities—and perhaps close or merge as many as two-thirds of them—got a big lift last week when the target population withdrew its opposition.

    The Japan Association of National Universities changed its stance after deciding that greater independence is the key to coping with changing demographics, says that group's chair, Makoto Nagao. The association's traditional view that every national university should emulate the others and be treated uniformly, he says, clashes with attempts to meet growing demands on universities to conduct advanced research and provide adult education and other types of real-world training.

    At the same time, Nagao remains concerned about local communities that might lose their national university. “Japan's future rides on the shoulders of education and research, and there should be more careful discussion over how to not jeopardize those functions,” says Nagao, who is also president of Kyoto University. The association hopes to be consulted as the government makes plans to implement privatization over the next few years.

  3. Going to Sea

    A prominent undersea explorer, a retired admiral, and a former top fisheries regulator are among the 16 people that President George W. Bush named last week to a new blue-ribbon Commission on Ocean Policy.

    Congress established the government commission last year after lawmakers concluded that U.S. marine policy—on issues ranging from fisheries conservation to sea-lane security—needed a fresh look. They hope the new commission, whose members were chosen by Bush and the leaders of the House and Senate, will follow in the footsteps of a similar 1960s panel that catalyzed a host of marine research and legislative initiatives.


    Among those chosen to serve are Robert Ballard, the undersea search wizard who has tracked down the Titanic and other sunken treasures; retired Admiral James Watkins, a longtime advocate of marine research; and fisheries scientist Andrew Rosenberg, a University of New Hampshire dean who until recently led the National Marine Fisheries Service. They and the other panel members are expected to meet for the first time within a couple of months, but a final report is at least 18 months away.

  4. Swiss Stem Cells Frozen

    Switzerland's main researcher funder, the Schweizerische Nationalfonds (SNF), has indefinitely delayed a bid to import human embryonic stem (ES) cells for research. The SNF last week told two Geneva University researchers that—despite a favorable scientific evaluation and positive recommendations from a legal expert and two ethics panels—it will not act on their 15-month-old request until a national bioethics panel debates the issue.

    The two researchers—Marisa Jaconi and Karl-Heinz Krause of the university's Louis Jeantet Laboratory for the Biology of Aging—told Science that they were pleased that their grant application, the nation's first to request the import of ES cells, had sparked public debate. But they worried that SNF's decision to ignore the positive reviews would “nurture irrational fears” and “unnecessarily” delay research.

    SNF officials, however, said they did not want to preempt “the political discussion about this project's ethical and legal aspects.” The bioethics panel is expected to take up the issue later this year.