News this Week

Science  31 Aug 2001:
Vol. 293, Issue 5535, pp. 57
  1. ASTRONOMY

    Academy Panel Opposes U.S. Funding Shake-Up

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A blue-ribbon panel has rejected a White House suggestion that U.S. astronomy programs be consolidated within NASA. Science has learned that the panel's report, due out next week, will instead suggest greater collaboration among federal agencies and other stakeholders as the way to preserve U.S. supremacy in the field.

    The 11-member panel from the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies, dominated by university astronomers and led by retired aerospace executive Norm Augustine, was set up in April at the request of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Its charge stems from long-simmering concerns about whether the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) budget can support a growing list of facilities, coupled with a dramatic rise in NASA funding for space-based research. There are also fears that critical areas, from astrophysical theory to balloon research, are falling victim to a lack of cooperation between the two agencies. “The trends are worrisome,” OMB examiner Marcus Peacock told the panel in June, “and could be detrimental to the overall health of the field.”

    But OMB's idea of consolidating U.S. astronomy funding within NASA has been panned, sources say. Instead, the report is expected to suggest that astronomers be given a larger voice in advising NSF's mathematics and physical sciences directorate, that NSF and NASA work more closely together, and that both agencies coordinate with other U.S. groups, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and private institutions. Although Augustine declined to discuss specifics, he said that the panel received a strong message from the community that “better coordination would be helpful. … The key issue is how to accomplish this in a constructive fashion.” Adds one astronomer, “We need a fundamental culture change. And somebody has to crack the whip.”

    The landscape of U.S. astronomy has changed dramatically in the past 2 decades. Once a minor player, NASA now accounts for nearly three-quarters of individual research grants in astronomy. Nearly 30% of all small grants in astronomy now go to research related to the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. During the same period, private funding to build ground-based telescopes has increased significantly.

    Icy partnership.

    New panel recommends more joint efforts like Boomerang, a NASA-NSF balloon project in Antarctica, and links to private-sector facilities like the Keck Foundation's twin Hawaii telescopes.

    CREDIT: PHIL MAUSKOPF, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS, AMHERST/BOOMERANG TEAM

    NSF has been unable to keep pace with that rapid growth, with astronomy's share of its overall budget declining from 6% in the 1970s to 5% today. As a result, “funds for the independent observatories are at subsistence levels,” warned Joseph Miller, director of the University of California observatories, in testimony to the panel. “Without significantly more [money], U.S. leadership … will rapidly decline.” Riccardo Giacconi, head of Associated Universities Inc. in Washington, D.C., and former director-general of the European Southern Observatory, agrees. “The U.S. has dominated optical astronomy since 1945, and only now are Japan and Europe challenging that supremacy,” he says, arguing that it is time for U.S. institutions to work together.

    The division of labor between NSF and NASA also has created some gaps. Work on astrophysical theory to interpret space-based observations receives little support from NASA because it's not related to a particular mission. And NSF managers focus on ground-based data. Scientists who gather data from balloons soaring as high as the upper atmosphere have also been left hanging, despite a call for greater funding in the NRC's influential 2000 decadal report. Balloon missions return so much less data than NASA's massive observatories that they get slighted by NASA, which oversees the effort, says Jonathan Grindlay, an astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “This orphan program is slipping into the backwater.”

    NASA and NSF have worked together in some areas, researchers are quick to acknowledge. A balloon effort called Boomerang combined NASA and NSF money to gather cosmic microwave background data above Antarctica, and the two agencies coordinated observations of Supernova SN 1987a. But White House officials such as Peacock want more cooperation.

    Astronomers told the panel that there are good reasons for preserving both programs. “The NSF and NASA cultures are incompatible,” says Maria Riecke, a researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson. NSF's hands-off, research-driven academic approach contrasts sharply with NASA's industrial and top-down philosophy, say she and other researchers, who add that two funding pots allow for greater creativity. “It's a great benefit for U.S. science to have a discipline supported by more than one federal agency,” adds Robert Eisenstein, head of math and physical sciences at NSF. “We approach things differently [than NASA], but those differences are healthy.”

    Although the panel recognizes the value of diversity, it nevertheless will recommend that all the players—DOE and private groups as well as NSF and NASA—cooperate formally, perhaps through a joint advisory committee. “The idea is to set up a process that the agencies will buy into,” says one researcher. Once the report is out, however, it will be up to White House officials to crack the whip to implement those recommendations.

  2. STEM CELL LINES

    NIH's List of 64 Leaves Questions

    1. Constance Holden

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has publicly posted the names of 10 companies or research groups in possession of 64 human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines that the U.S. government says meet its new criteria for federal funding. But many are in early stages, and scientists suspect that far fewer will prove to be of research quality.

    The names were posted on 27 August following a whirlwind week of consultations, by phone and in person, with what NIH officials call “the derivers.” And there are some surprises. One is a San Diego, California, company, CyThera, set up less than 2 years ago, that claims to have nine ES cell lines. Researchers there are trying to develop pancreatic islet cells for treatment of diabetes. “We're not at the point of providing materials yet for researchers,” says company co-founder Jonathan Jones of Northwestern Medical School in Chicago.

    Another surprise came from India, where NIH located two groups. The first is at Reliance Life Sciences in Mumbai, which makes new blood products; the other is at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Reliance earlier hesitated to confirm having any human ES cell lines; after NIH posted its list, a spokesperson told Science that it was company policy to wait until NIH had publicized the lines.

    SOUCE: NIH

    In a statement issued with the list, NIH reported that all 64 lines—which must have been derived before 9 p.m. on 9 August—“show characteristics of stem cell morphology.” NIH said the lines have undergone several population doublings, and most have demonstrated all the protein markers “known to be associated with human embryonic stem cells.”

    But observers believe that NIH has established a low threshold of acceptability. For example, Göteberg University in Sweden is listed as having 19 lines. But researcher Peter Eriksson had earlier stated that he only had five, adding later that 12 colonies were less than 3 months old and not yet ready to be called cell lines.

    NIH has promised to supplement the list with more extensive information on the scientific quality of the cells—including details on how they were cultivated, growth characteristics, and evidence of pluripotency (their ability to grow into any of the more than 200 human tissue types). But it won't be involved in accessibility issues. “Once they're posted, NIH is basically out of it in terms of brokering,” says Judith Greenberg, who's in charge of setting up the stem cell registry.

    The ramifications of the Bush policy will likely become clearer at an all-day hearing on 5 September called by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. But so far, the biomedical community seems happy with how NIH has handled the issue. “I have to say I think they've done a wonderful job,” says Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

  3. HUMAN SUBJECTS

    Court Rebukes Hopkins for Lead Paint Study

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Maryland's top appeals court last week issued a scathing indictment of a study run by an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University involving children exposed to lead-based paint in their homes. The ruling, which compared the study to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, dealt another blow to Hopkins, which is already under fire for its oversight of human subjects research. Federal officials are now investigating. Stunned health researchers say the ruling could restrict the enrollment of children in nontherapeutic studies.

    The court's decision centers on a study in the mid-1990s to determine the effectiveness of different levels of lead abatement from homes in Baltimore. Two mothers in the study, run by the Kennedy Krieger Institute, filed suit, complaining that they weren't completely informed of the risks and were denied prompt information about high lead levels in their children's blood and homes. Lower courts dismissed the case, but on 16 August, the appeals court ruled that it should go to trial. The study was “inappropriate,” the appeals decision says, adding that the Johns Hopkins ethics board that reviewed it “abdicated [its] responsibility” to protect subjects. This is the latest of several problems with trials at Hopkins, including the death this spring of a volunteer in an asthma study and controversy over a cancer drug trial it sponsored in India (Science, 10 August, p. 1024).

    The lead investigator of the lead paint study, Marc Farfel, and a Kennedy Krieger official vehemently defend the research, although they note that the facts cannot be fully examined until the case goes to trial. “This was ethical [research],” says Kennedy Krieger president Gary Goldstein. The Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Human Research Protections is now investigating the study, says HHS spokesperson Bill Heal.

    Kennedy Krieger launched the “Repair and Maintenance Study” with a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The study aimed to evaluate cheaper alternatives to the $20,000 per house needed for full lead abatement. The investigators helped landlords apply for grants and loans for lead paint cleanup strategies. Some of the 108 homes were occupied when the study began; in other cases, landlords were encouraged to rent to families with young children. Investigators then measured lead levels in dust and children's blood over 2 years. Families were offered incentives to participate, such as T-shirts and $15 payments for answering questionnaires. Johns Hopkins' institutional review board (IRB) approved the protocol.

    The suit claims that researchers waited 9 months to share test results showing that one child had developed blood levels of 32 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL)—“highly elevated,” according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards, which say that 9 μg/dL is safe. Baltimore lawyer Kenneth Strong, who represents the mother, says that the child now has learning disabilities. The second mother charges that she was given test results showing that lead dust levels in her home were low, but not results collected by a different, experimental method showing higher levels. Her child had blood lead levels as high as 21 μg/dL.

    Although a lower court found that Kennedy Krieger had no legal obligation to notify the families of the test results, the appeals court disagreed. It also faulted the strategy because it “enticed” families to “potentially lead-tainted housing.” “It can be argued that the researchers intended that the children be the canaries in the mines,” wrote Judge Dale R. Cathell and five other judges. (A seventh judge dissented from the opinion, but agreed that the case should go to trial.) The research, they conclude, “presents similar problems as those in the Tuskegee” study in which African-American syphilis patients were monitored but not offered treatment.

    The decision finds that Hopkins' IRB advised the researchers to tweak the design to get it approved and that IRBs in general “are not designed to be sufficiently objective.” In Maryland, the decision says, parents should not be allowed to let their children participate in “nontherapeutic research … in which there is any risk of injury or damage” to health.

    The appeals court's scathing indictment surprised other lead-poisoning researchers, who say they have conducted similar studies on lead abatement and that this study was important. The neurotoxic metal is “already out there in hundreds of thousands of older homes,” notes Bruce Lanphear of the University of Cincinnati. “We don't really have any other system” to study cleanup techniques, Lanphear says.

    Too risky.

    Studying families' exposure to lead paint in old homes was “inappropriate,” a Maryland court says.

    CREDIT: ARTHUR S. AUBRY/PHOTODISC

    Pioneering lead researcher Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh acknowledges, however, that with such environmental studies “the ethical issues are complex.” The key element, he says, is the study's “stopping point” at which study subjects are advised to visit a doctor if their lead level is elevated. University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan agrees: “You better be watching day to day.” He agrees with the court's conclusion that the study's informed consent form didn't fully lay out the risks, although he thinks the comparison to Tuskegee goes too far.

    Even more critical than the rhetoric, researchers say, is the court's conclusion that children should not be included in trials that don't have a therapeutic benefit. That troubles University of Kansas Medical Center bioethicist Mary Faith Marshall, who believes that “the court didn't quite get how research works.” She argues that nontherapeutic research can have indirect benefits, and that the U.S. human subject protections system seeks to balance all risks and benefits. “The court is just wrong,” adds Mark Barnes, a health law attorney at Proskauer Rose in New York City. However, the decision is “binding law” for institutions in Maryland, Barnes says. Indeed, Johns Hopkins is now “looking at the opinion very carefully” to see if it will impact ongoing and future studies that might fall into this category, says spokesperson Joann Rodgers.

    Ironically, Caplan notes, this restrictive ruling comes just as children's health advocates and federal agencies are encouraging researchers to include more children in drug trials and study childhood environmental risks. It also comes at a time when concerns about patient protections are at an all-time high, Caplan says: It's “another arrow” launched at the struggling IRB ethics review system.

  4. SUPERCONDUCTIVITY

    C60 Enters the Race for the Top

    1. Robert F. Service

    In the mid-1980s, the discovery of 60-atom carbon spheres (C60) and high-temperature superconductors came as two major surprises. Now an international trio of researchers led by physicist Hendrik Schön of Lucent Technologies' Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, has combined these two feats. In a paper published online this week by Science(http://www.sciencexpress.org/), Schön's team reports that by placing a crystal of C60 spiked with other compounds in the heart of a transistor, they can turn it into a high-temperature superconductor capable of conducting electricity without resistance up to 117 kelvin (K).

    “This is huge,” says Art Ramirez, a condensed matter physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. C60-based transistors spiked with new compounds might well superconduct at higher temperatures, perhaps even at room temperature, Ramirez says. Moreover, the crystals that Schön's team created are far easier to craft into electronic components than the standard high-temperature superconductors made from copper oxide-based ceramics, a property that could pave the way to new high-speed computers based on the technology. “This is what people have been trying to do all along” with high-temperature superconductors, Ramirez says.

    This week's report follows up a discovery that Ramirez, then at AT&T Bell Labs, and colleagues made in 1991. The researchers found that crystals made of the soccer ball-shaped C60 molecules would superconduct at 18 K if they were spiked with alkali metals to make them better conductors of electrons. Superconductors can also work by conducting positively charged “holes,” which are essentially electron vacancies in a material. In the late 1990s, Schön and his colleagues began to suspect that they could push the threshold temperature for superconducting (called the critical temperature, or Tc) higher if they could coax the C60 to conduct holes instead of electrons. Doing so, they and others determined, would increase a property in the material known as the density of states, the number of charges the material can harbor at key energy levels. That number is closely tied to the superconducting temperature.

    Warming up.

    Spacing out C60 crystals with other molecules nudged them toward room-temperature superconductivity.

    ILLUSTRATION: C. SLAYDEN

    Boosting the number of holes in C60 was difficult. The traditional strategy of doping the material with other compounds—in this case, ones that added holes—made the C60crystal fall apart. But last year, Schön and Bell Labs colleagues Christian Kloc and Bertram Batlogg hit upon a novel solution: building a transistor around the crystal and using its charge-carrying ability to flood the crystal with holes. The scheme worked. As the trio reported in the 30 November issue of Nature, the C60 transistor started superconducting and kept it up at temperatures as high as 52 K.

    This week's report, which more than doubles that record, shows that Schön and his colleagues had another trick up their sleeves as well. This time they added another way of increasing the material's density of states: expanding the distance between individual C60 molecules in the crystal, a property known formally as the material's lattice constant. C60 has a lattice constant of 14.15 angstroms. “If you expand the lattice, the density of states becomes larger and the Tc increases,” says Schön.

    According to Schön, Kloc—the group's crystal grower—tried numerous additives and ultimately hit on two compounds, trichloromethane and tribromomethane, that did the trick. The former expands the lattice constant to 14.29 and the latter to 14.45. The compounds hiked the material's density of states, touching off an exponential increase in Tc.

    That huge jump bodes well for researchers, Ramirez says. “They need to expand [the lattice constant] to something like 14.7, and that will be room temperature.” So far, nobody knows whether any additive will push C60 to that magic number without making the crystal fall apart. But now that the word is out, other groups are sure to try their luck. “This is a footrace now,” Ramirez says.

    Even if C60 proves not to be a room-temperature superconductor, it could still have a big impact on applications. Ceramic superconductors are “extremely difficult” to fashion into transistors and other electronic components, Ramirez says, because the interfaces where they join with other materials typically harbor imperfections that trap electric charges moving through the devices. The problem can be overcome by growing devices one atomic layer at a time. But that's difficult and costly.

    Organic materials appear far more forgiving, Ramirez says: “With essentially a shoestring effort, [Schön's team] gets incredible device quality and performance.” Because superconducting electronics are extremely fast and are ideal for detecting minute magnetic fields, a new supply of C60-based superconducting devices could revolutionize fields as disparate as high-speed computing and medical imaging. For researchers of all stripes, that would be another welcome surprise.

  5. LONGEVITY

    Hints of a 'Master Gene' for Extreme Old Age

    1. Evelyn Strauss

    As children, siblings fight over their toys, and even as they age, many are reluctant to share. But for sisters and brothers who have reached age 90 or more, what they share—their DNA—may be key to why they've lived so long. Preliminary evidence, published in the 28 August issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that genetics plays a major role in the ability to survive to extremely old ages.

    “If it turns out to be true, it's really important for gerontology,” says George Martin, a pathologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. Indeed, if the results hold up, they promise to overturn some ideas about the mechanisms of aging—and they might eventually provide clues about how to slow the process.

    For decades, researchers have fiercely debated whether the extreme longevity that clusters in some families stems from purely environmental factors or also has genetic roots. And if the fountain of youth has a genetic component, researchers have wondered, does it stream from hundreds or thousands of genes or very few?

    Thank the genes?

    These siblings may share a “booster rocket” that lets them blast past age 90.

    CREDIT: RICK KOZAK

    Several groups have identified human genes and regions of mitochondrial DNA that might make small contributions to longevity. In these studies, scientists have picked candidate genes or sequences and then compared the frequency of different variants in long-and shorter lived people. Using this method, they've found, for example, that forms of some genes such as ApoE predispose their bearers to cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's—and thus increase mortality—whereas other versions protect against these same maladies. In addition, studies of model organisms have identified single genes that can dramatically lengthen life-span (Science, 6 April, p. 41). But until now, no one has conducted an open-ended search designed to pick up any genetic region that confers exceptional life-span in humans.

    To unearth a genetic basis for longevity, Thomas Perls, a geriatrician at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Louis Kunkel, a molecular geneticist at Children's Hospital in Boston, and their colleagues studied 137 sets of extremely old siblings—308 individuals in all. Each set included one person who was at least 98 years old and any brothers or sisters who were at least 91 and 95, respectively. Siblings share, on average, half of their DNA. So, to identify regions that might confer longevity, the researchers searched for shared stretches of DNA present at a frequency higher than expected by chance. This process led them to a hefty tract on chromosome 4.

    That a single region of DNA emerges in a study of only several hundred people suggests it is “a master gene”: one that contributes significantly to longevity, says immunogeneticist Claudio Franceschi of the Italian National Research Center on Aging in Ancona. Genes that make only small contributions would require much larger sample sizes to detect, he explains.

    Leonid Kruglyak, a geneticist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, agrees: “Before this, you could argue that a lot of longevity in families was due to environment, not genes. If [the result] holds up in future studies, it suggests that there is a genetic component—and that a single gene contributes a great deal.”

    Perls suggests that extreme longevity—living 20 to 25 years longer than average—requires “a substantial genetic advantage.” Such an advantage would include freedom from genes that predispose to disease as well as “genetic booster rockets,” as Perls describes them: genes that slow the process of aging and decrease susceptibility to all age-related diseases.

    Experts caution, however, that the Harvard group's data lie at the edge of statistical significance. Because the results are “right on the borderline,” says Kunkel, “you really can't believe the data fully until they are replicated by another study.”

    Thomas Kirkwood, a gerontologist at The University of Newcastle in the U.K., says he likes the group's approach: “Family studies to look for genes that associate with human longevity are definitely the way to go.” But he cautions that “the evidence in this analysis is too flimsy to warrant getting very excited.” Not only is the statistical significance low, he says, “but the statistical assumptions used to generate it have not been verified.”

    Although the work is preliminary, David Burke, a mouse geneticist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says the Harvard study represents a significant advance, because it points toward an area for further exploration: “There are a lot of papers looking at the process of aging in a variety of experimental organisms, and that's great. But any time we can get information about humans, that's extremely valuable.”

    Perls, Kunkel, and their colleagues are scouting out more long-lived siblings so they can repeat the study. At the same time, they've started a company, Centagenetix, that is trying to find the gene or genes of interest. Hundreds lie in the suspect region, and all are vying for candidacy, says Kunkel. None of the genes implicated in aging by model organism studies reside in the area, so a winner could represent a new physiological pathway or a different member of a pathway already identified, he says.

  6. DINOSAUR MOTION

    Did Saurian Predators Fold Up on Turns?

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Want to run like a dinosaur? Step into David Carrier's lab at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and strap yourself into his dinosuit. With 2 meters of weighted planks balanced on your hips, you'll get a feel for how a carnivorous dinosaur called a theropod might have maneuvered its stretched-out frame.

    Carrier's team has already strapped several students into the contraption and put them through their paces. Their conclusion: Large Mesozoic predators weren't track stars. In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Carrier and graduate students Rebecca Walter and David Lee argue that massive tails and bulky heads would have kept theropods from turning on a dime—and that could have made rugged terrain inaccessible or hindered their ability to catch prey. Other experts aren't so sure, noting that theropods excelled as top predators for 120 million years and differed from their human stand-ins in key ways. But even skeptics say that Carrier's creative approach to dino motion has given them things to consider. “This is one of those bits of incredibly delightful goofiness that I wish I'd thought of,” says Jim Farlow, a paleontologist at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne.

    Carrier, a comparative physiologist, suspected that rotational inertia might have caused problems for theropods. When a graduate student joked about testing the idea by dressing up like Barney, a purple dinosaur on a children's TV show, Carrier immediately hit on an idea: Design a pack that would give a person the mass distribution of a similar-sized theropod. He and his crew measured the rotational inertia of a small plastic toy model of Allosaurus, then scaled it up to a 90-kilogram human. By constructing a backpack with horizontal beams jutting fore and aft, they increased the rotational inertia more than ninefold, into theropod territory.

    New twist.

    Experiments with a weighted frame show that some large dinosaurs had trouble turning.

    CREDIT: D. CARRIER

    The first test was to turn while jumping up in the air, à la basketball star Michael Jordan. Five grad students recruited from the biology department found that they could twist only 20% as far as when they jumped while wearing control backpacks with weights close to their backs. Next, nine grad students ran at top speed through a flat slalom course of six 90-degree turns. Their average velocity dropped to 77% of control runs. When the students had to place their feet in particular spots—to mimic turning on rough ground—their time fell to 65%. “It makes a tremendous difference,” Carrier says. “As soon as you put the pack on, you're clearly compromised.”

    Large theropods would have suffered even more, Carrier says. Rotational inertia increases much faster than muscle strength as animals get larger, increasing the chance of stumbling, among other liabilities. “Those animals would have a hard time changing directions,” Carrier says, “and the problems would have gotten worse and worse as they got bigger.”

    Faced with such challenges, Carrier suggests, theropods compensated by repeatedly evolving shorter tails, smaller bodies, porous vertebrae, and even fewer teeth. More controversially, Carrier and his colleagues propose that theropods rarely walked or ran with their trunks and tails horizontal, as most paleontologists imagine. Instead, the Utah scientists envision the back arched, tail raised high, and forelimbs tucked back against the body. This jackknife posture would reduce rotational inertia by half, they say.

    Not everyone is ready for such an about-face. “It's a completely impractical way of walking,” says dino-locomotion expert Don Henderson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The proposed posture, he argues, would reduce the mechanical advantage of the caudifemoral muscle, which attached to the tail and helped power the legs. Several other features of large theropods would have helped them deal with their rotational inertia, he says. Large toes and broad feet provided added leverage to tilt the body, and weight concentrated over the hips kept them relatively more compact than smaller dinosaurs.

    And then there's the tail. Farlow points out that theropod tails, unlike lumber, could bend. Used as counterweights, he says, tails could have helped the dinosaurs tack more sharply. Carrier concedes that the tail is important—he decided not to rig up a motor-driven tail to prevent injuries—but says that it would have helped a dinosaur reorient its head by less than 60 degrees. Despite qualms, some other heads are beginning to turn. “They've made a good first stab at estimating turning performance,” says John Hutchinson, a graduate student studying theropod locomotion at the University of California, Berkeley. “That's a step forward.”

  7. PALEOECOLOGY

    How Grasses Got the Upper Hand

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    A slow dwindling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during the past 100 million years is the common explanation for the sudden worldwide surge in the abundance of tropical and subtropical grasslands 7 million or 8 million years ago. As CO2 levels slid below a critical threshold in the late Miocene epoch, the story goes, tropical grasses seized the ecological advantage from shrubs and trees because the molecular machinery by which grasses photosynthesize is particularly well adapted to taking up the essential gas at low levels. The rise of the grasses might then have driven the evolution of hoofed mammals well adapted to graze on them.

    But loose ends keep appearing. The latest, as reported on page 1647 of this issue, points to moisture, not just CO2, as pivotal in the emergence of low-latitude grasslands. It also clouds the crystal ball for researchers trying to get a handle on future global change.

    The new study, by organic geochemist Yongsong Huang of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and colleagues, compares the relatively recent ecological histories around two lakes to see which plants gained the upper hand. Since the peak of the last ice age, the two regions have experienced the same increase in atmospheric CO2 levels but very different climate changes.

    One of the two lakes, Alta Babícora in the northern Mexico state of Chihuahua, was brimming with water 13,000 to 21,000 years ago, judging by microfossils found in a mud core recovered from the lake bottom. From the same mud, Huang and his colleagues isolated distinctive long-chain hydrocarbons derived from the leaf wax of land plants carried into the lake. By measuring the carbon isotopic composition of these leaf hydrocarbons, they were able to gauge the ratio of land plants like shrubs and trees to tropical grasses.

    The tropical grasses tend to use a different photosynthetic process: the so-called C4 pathway rather than the C3 pathway. It's the C4 pathway that lets grasses concentrate CO2 within their cells and outcompete C3 plants for this essential compound. As a result, C4 plants also produce organic matter richer in the heavier carbon isotope than do shrubs and trees. About 18,000 years ago, a relatively wet climate around Alta Babícora supported a predominance of C3 plants, according to the carbon isotopic analysis of leaf wax hydrocarbons. But after the end of the last ice age, weather patterns shifted, the lake level fell—reflecting a drying of the region—and C4 plants such as grasses came to predominate.

    Molecular herbarium.

    Specific plant-leaf molecules preserved in the bottom muds of this Mexican lake recorded a shift toward grasses since the last ice age.

    CREDIT: S. METCALFE/UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH

    More than 2000 kilometers to the southeast, under the same declining CO2 levels, the postglacial weather shift tended to make the region around Lake Quexil in Guatemala wetter rather than drier. As the region moistened, the C3 plants that had held a slight edge over C4 grasses rose to an “overwhelming predominance,” according to Huang and his colleagues. The two sites experienced the same change in CO2 levels, but the C4 pathway that gives an advantage to grasses under low CO2 levels can also give them an edge in a drier climate, which turned out to be decisive at the drying Alta Babícora.

    Huang extrapolates from the important role of climate 20,000 years ago to explain what might have happened in the Miocene 5 million to 20 million years ago. Although C4 photosynthesis no doubt evolved in response to the long-term CO2 decline during the past 100 million years, argues Huang, “to say CO2 is the only driver [in the Miocene] for C4 expansion is probably not correct. Low CO2 [levels were] not enough. Aridity probably was also very important.”

    Geochemist Jay Quade of the University of Arizona in Tucson agrees that “CO2 is not the only explanation” for the Miocene shift to C4 grasses. Quade was one of the authors of the 1997 Nature paper by geochemist Thure Cerling of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and colleagues that proposed the CO2 decline as the proximate cause of the global expansion of C4 grasses. The postglacial shifts found by Huang and colleagues are “pretty robust,” Quade says, and they stress “the complexity of the control” of C3 or C4 dominance. Whether climate or CO2 is foremost “is a matter of emphasis,” he says.

    The complexity of other aspects of the grasslands story has increased lately as well. Paleoceanographer Mark Pagani of Colorado State University in Fort Collins points out that recent analyses of records of Miocene CO2—his own study of marine organic matter as well as research on sedimentary boron and the abundance of fossil leaf pores—suggest that CO2 levels were already low by the time of the Miocene and did not decline markedly during that epoch. And paleontologist Christine Janis of Brown says that her recent work with colleagues on the fossil record of mammals that browsed on C3 vegetation versus those that grazed on C4 grasses isn't consistent with the theory that the shift to C4 grasses triggered a burst of mammal evolution, at least not in North America. Their analysis of the fossil record shows that the major shift from mostly browsers to mostly grazers had already occurred there by 10 million years ago, well before the sudden expansion of grasslands 8 million years ago.

    With atmospheric CO2 levels now on the rise, such complexities could make it harder for scientists to predict which regions will have the greener pastures in the centuries to come.

  8. SCIENCE ON THE INTERNET

    Mysterious E-Photos Vex Paleontologists

    1. Erik Stokstad

    A dinosaur with a strange, bristly tail set paleontologists abuzz last week after grainy photographs of the fossilized creature began crisscrossing the Internet. Scientists yearn to know more about the fossil—which may have been smuggled out of China—and examine the specimen firsthand. But the tantalizing e-mail attachment said nothing about its whereabouts, and the few who know aren't telling. “It's not how I want to do science,” says a frustrated Larry Witmer of Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens.

    The beast in question is a psittacosaur, a primitive horned dinosaur that grew to between 1 and 2 meters long. What makes this specimen unique is a tuft of what look like long, hairlike filaments on the end of its muscular tail. The significance of the filaments is not clear, but at their most profound they might represent an ancestral characteristic of all dinosaurs. “If it's real it would be very unusual and interesting,” says Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

    Sneak preview.

    Unauthorized photos of mystery fossil inspired illustrations of bristle-tailed psittacosaurs in a new book.

    Speculation began around 20 August, when Michael Schmidt, a fossil dealer in Edmonton, Alberta, forwarded color photos of the specimen to some members of the DINOSAUR Internet mailing list. Schmidt says he obtained the pictures from a partner in France who knows both the buyer and seller and who wants to remain anonymous.

    Paleontologists are viewing the fossil cautiously in light of doctored specimens that have been illegally exported from China in the past, such as Archaeoraptor (Science, 22 December 2000, p. 2221). The psittacosaur appears to have come from western Liaoning Province in China, an area with a wealth of feathered dinosaurs and other exquisitely preserved fossils about 125 million years old (Science, 12 January, p. 232). Paleontologist Zhou Zhonghe of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing believes that the psittacosaur was smuggled out of China a few years ago. Apparently, the specimen was prepared in an Italian museum, but negotiations to return it to China broke down, Zhou says. It's now rumored to be in a German museum.

    Probably because of its shadowy history, no researcher has formally described, or even announced, the specimen at a conference or in the literature. Photographs surfaced a few years ago at a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology but were only shown discreetly to a few people in the hallways. One of the viewers, paleoartist Luis Rey of London, included the hairy tail in his illustrations of psittacosaurs in Extreme Dinosaurs, a book published this month. “I'm trying to call attention to this specimen, to see if we can release it from its jail,” Rey says. “It's such an important specimen, and we can't see it except as clandestine material.”

    Paleontologists who are now seeing the photos for the first time are exasperated. “All we have are pixely JPEGs that we're all trying to zoom in on and not seeing anything,” Witmer says. But until the mysterious fossil comes to light, he says, all he and his colleagues can do is try not to think about it.

  9. INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

    Blue LED Inventor Sues Former Company

    1. Dennis Normile

    TOKYO—The Japanese engineer whose breakthrough research led to a blue light-emitting diode (LED) and a blue semiconductor laser has sued his former employer for a share of the profits from his invention. Shuji Nakamura, now a professor of materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is seeking $16 million from Nichia Corp. of Anan, Tokushima. Observers here say it reflects a trend among scientists to gain greater recognition for their achievements.

    Nakamura stunned the materials science community in 1993 with his blue LED and built on that work to produce a blue semiconductor laser (Science, 21 March 1997, p. 1734). Because of its short wavelength, a blue laser promises to quadruple the amount of data that can be stored on compact discs. Blue LEDs, when combined with red and green LEDs to produce white light, could eventually supplant conventional light bulbs. Nakamura worked at Nichia for 20 years before leaving for the United States in 1999.

    Fired up.

    Shuji Nakamura thinks researchers deserve more credit —and cash.

    CREDIT: D. NORMILE

    Japanese patents are granted to the researchers who made the discovery. But a clause in the law allows individuals to transfer their patent rights to a corporation in exchange for undefined—and typically nominal—compensation. Although Nakamura was awarded more than 80 patents related to blue LEDs and lasers, his suit focuses on one patent covering a new method of chemical vapor deposition used in making the LEDs and lasers. Nakamura says he received $170 for transferring the rights to this patent, the basis for the company's sales of gallium nitride-based LEDs, which he estimates at $400 million last year. Privately held Nichia does not release financial details.

    Since leaving Nichia, Nakamura has repeatedly criticized the low level of recognition and poor salaries of researchers in Japan. “What I want to say with this lawsuit is that Japanese researchers should get reasonable compensation,” he says. Last December, Nichia sued Nakamura, North Carolina State University, and Cree Inc., a rival maker of blue LEDs for whom Nakamura was consulting, in U.S. court, claiming patent infringement and trade secret theft.

    Nakamura's suit, filed 23 August in Tokyo District Court, is one of half a dozen or so filed in the last several years by researchers seeking greater compensation for their efforts. Katsuya Tamai, a professor of intellectual property law at the University of Tokyo, says that the suits reflect a gradual breakdown of Japan's traditional lifetime employment system and a shift toward basing pay and promotions on performance rather than seniority. In turn, employees are increasingly going to court if they feel they've been treated unfairly. Although researchers have won all of the suits, the awards have been small.

    Still, the legal battles have not gone unnoticed by leading companies, which have responded by creating incentive programs. Sony Corp. researchers, for example, can earn up to $16,000 in bonus payments for key patents. Eisai Co., a pharmaceutical firm, pays researchers 0.05% of sales for the first 5 years a drug is on the market. “Companies will have to put such programs in place or see their best researchers leave for the competition,” Tamai says.

  10. DRUG PRICING

    NIH Report Knocks Tax on Blockbusters

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Trying to recoup profits from big-money drugs that it helped to develop is a bad idea that would hinder drug innovation, according to a new report* from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The public is already getting a fair return on its investment, say NIH officials, who nevertheless have proposed a better way to track the agency's initial investment in such drugs.

    Under current laws, researchers and their institutions may collect royalties on patents derived from federally funded research as an incentive to commercialize discoveries. Last year, amid growing concern over the high price of drugs, the Senate asked NIH to reexamine its role in the development of “blockbuster” drugs with annual sales topping $500 million (Science, 27 April, p. 614; 8 June, p. 1797). One of the most vocal critics, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), asked NIH to come up with a plan “to ensure that taxpayers' interests are protected.”

    Probing a list of the 47 Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved blockbuster drugs, NIH's Office of Intramural Research found four that were developed with NIH support—the cancer drug Taxol; Epogen and Procrit, used to treat anemia; and Neupogen, a chemotherapy drug (see table). But when NIH floated the idea of taking a cut of royalties on these drugs, it “met with strong resistance from the academic community,” which viewed it as “a tax” that “would undermine the research enterprise,” the report says, by discouraging inventors and reducing support for tech transfer offices. Most of the money that universities collect from licenses goes to pay inventors and operate these offices.

    The 20-page NIH report, issued last month, echoes the views of academic research chiefs, who say that it's critical to keep this private income flowing. “NIH did a very careful and thoughtful job [on the report],” says David Korn of the Association of American Medical Colleges, one of several academic and industry groups that provided NIH with input.

    Any attempt to recoup royalties could also stifle industry interest in federally funded technologies, the report finds. It points to the checkered history of NIH-industry cooperative agreements known as CRADAs, whose popularity with companies in the 1980s plummeted after NIH added a “reasonable pricing” clause in 1989 requiring profits to be shared with the public. The number of agreements rebounded after 1995, when then-NIH director Harold Varmus agreed to drop the clause.

    Although NIH is making an important contribution to drug development, the report suggests several ways to inform the public better about its investments. The authors found it difficult, for example, to assemble a paper trail from various agencies on the four blockbuster drugs. The report recommends a new Web database with information from grantees on any FDA-approved drugs they have helped to develop. It also proposes a gathering of government, industry, and academic experts for a “thoughtful dialogue on the appropriate returns to the public.”

    Wyden, who is chair of the science subcommittee of the Commerce, Science, and Space Committee, hopes to hold a hearing on the report as soon as next month and is seeking input from other groups, including consumers. An aide says the senator agrees with NIH on the need for more data.

  11. MEDICINE

    Rethinking a Vaccine's Risk

    1. Jon Cohen

    Worried about rare but severe side effects, 2 years ago Wyeth pulled from the market a new vaccine that prevents a major cause of diarrhea. Now the medical community is questioning that risk-benefit calculation

    Two years ago, the manufacturer of a vaccine to prevent rotavirus infection—a diarrheal disease that kills up to 800,000 children worldwide each year—pulled the product off the market. Researchers had linked it to a rare but dangerous bowel obstruction called intussusception. Analysts calculated that the vaccine was too risky, and their argument carried the day. But the scientific and ethical controversy continued to smolder, and now it is springing back to life.

    Two new studies suggest that the risk-benefit calculations in 1999 may have been in error, intensifying questions about the decision to withdraw “RotaShield,” as the vaccine is called. The stakes are high—not just for North America, where the vaccine was briefly available, but for developing countries, where most rotavirus deaths occur.

    The new findings will occupy center stage at a meeting set to begin on 5 September in Rosslyn, Virginia. Convened by the U.S. National Vaccine Program Office, which coordinates federal immunization efforts, and its National Vaccine Advisory Committee, the 3-day gathering will reassess RotaShield's risks and benefits. Several researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), where the vaccine was first developed before being licensed to industry, are delighted. “A pause in the use was appropriate, but now that we know more about it and have a better sense of what the risks are, we need to reexamine the decision,” says John La Montagne, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

    The reaction is decidedly more cautious at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NIH's sister institution in Atlanta, Georgia, which first uncovered problems with the vaccine. “I think it would be very difficult to initiate a national program with this vaccine,” says CDC epidemiologist John Livengood, who sees substantial problems with the new analyses.

    Whatever the United States decides, its action will likely have a far-reaching impact. “There's a sense that the vaccine has to be approved for use here or it won't be touched by anyone overseas,” says La Montagne. Yet the risk-benefit calculations are strikingly different for rich and poor countries.

    Although rotavirus sends 55,000 U.S. children to the hospital each year (20 to 40 of whom die), for most it only causes a mild diarrhea. Livengood notes that North Americans have so many safety nets that some physicians view RotaShield as “a convenience vaccine.” But in developing countries, as many as 1 in 200 infected children die, mainly from dehydration due to the diarrhea that the virus causes. Those countries can't afford the lifesaving rehydration therapy used to treat the disease, and for them, La Montagne and others conclude, RotaShield could provide a “tremendous benefit.”

    Sounding the alarm

    NIAID's Albert Kapikian began developing the vaccine 20 years ago by combining parts of rotavirus strains from humans and rhesus macaques. Efficacy trials in the United States, Finland, and Venezuela demonstrated that this live, “reassortant” virus vaccine could safely prevent severe diarrhea in up to 91% of immunized children. RotaShield came to market in the United States in October 1998, and many expected that it would soon make inroads against the disease worldwide. But 9 months later, after reports indicated an unusually high number of cases of intussusception among vaccinated children, the CDC recommended that clinicians stop administering RotaShield. A little-understood bowel obstruction that primarily afflicts infants, intussusception can usually be corrected with a barium enema, but it sometimes requires surgery and, if left untreated, can be fatal. No intussusception deaths, however, have been attributed to RotaShield.

    As intussusception cases mounted among vaccinated children, RotaShield's manufacturer, Wyeth Lederle Vaccines of Radnor, Pennsylvania, voluntarily withdrew the vaccine from the market in October 1999. In the 22 February 2001 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine(NEJM), Livengood and his CDC colleagues published a detailed analysis of children who received the vaccine, concluding that RotaShield caused 1 case of intussusception for every 4670 to 9474 infants vaccinated. In the United States, this would amount to between 361 and 732 cases of vaccine-caused intussusception each year.

    RotaShield's target.

    This electron micrograph shows particles of rotavirus, which causes a diarrhea that kills many children worldwide.

    CREDIT: SPL/PHOTO RESEARCHERS

    Those alarming estimates are now being called into question by analyses performed by two separate research groups, one led by NIAID's Lone Simonsen and the other by Hwa-Gan Chang of the New York State Department of Health in Albany. In the July issue of Pediatrics, Chang and his colleagues (two of whom work at CDC) reviewed 9 years of hospital discharge records in New York state to tally how many children were diagnosed with intussusception. In the 9 months that RotaShield was used, they found 81 cases, only three more than found during the same 9-month period in the preceding year. These three “excess cases,” Simonsen says, “seemed to be less than you'd expect based on CDC's initial estimates of risk,” which predicted 12 excess cases in New York state. “We thought that study was interesting but not powerful enough to answer the question,” Simonsen says.

    Simonsen, whose results are in press at The Lancet, says that she doesn't want to discuss her data in detail until they are published. However, she did present the data in May at a meeting of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and in her talk there she reported that her team analyzed hospital discharge data from several states (The Lancet paper looks at 10), comparing the vaccine period to the five preceding years. Like the New York group, she failed to find a significant number of excess cases of intussusception in the vaccine year.

    Charles Weijer, a physician and bioethicist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says it is “absolutely fascinating” that data from new studies with large cohorts suggest no added risk or a risk that's smaller than expected. “It's really vindicating for the people who invested their lives in the development of this very important vaccine.” Kapikian adds that the CDC's risk estimates have steadily dropped since the problem first surfaced. He suggests that the apparent risk could fade away. “I think it will be seen as a compelling story: Was there really any increase in intussusception in children in the United States?”

    Still, the new reports agree that vaccination is linked to the bowel disorder. “All these cases occurred in the weeks following exposure,” explains Simonsen. When a population is analyzed for a year's time, the temporal link between the vaccine and intussusception does not increase the total number of intussusception cases.

    How can this be? No one has a good explanation, but Simonsen and other researchers say it is possible that by some unknown mechanism, the vaccine merely “triggered” intussusception in children who would have developed it in any case during their first year of life. In essence, then, the vaccine advanced the age of onset. Another theory suggests that rotavirus itself causes intussusception, as researchers in Japan first reported in 1978. If this is right, as Toyoko Nakagomi of Japan's Akita University explained in an NEJMletter written in response to the CDC's report last February, the vaccine might, on balance, prevent more cases of intussusception than it causes.

    Livengood and his co-authors challenge these assertions. They contend that there's no evidence—or even a plausible mechanism—to support the triggering thesis. And several studies have argued against a link between rotavirus itself and intussusception, noting, for example, that rotavirus infections peak at specific times of year in different regions of the United States, but intussusception cases do not.

    The strength of both the Simonsen and Chang studies is that they look at large cohorts over long periods of time. Yet Livengood stresses that they share a weakness: Unlike the study published in NEJM, neither had information about individual children's vaccination status, so they could not link specific cases of intussusception to RotaShield. Livengood further notes that he has misgivings about these studies, because the CDC's Piotr Kramarz and co-workers did their own cohort study, published last April in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, that also relied on hospital discharge data. A close examination of individual medical records and the hospital discharge data, cautions Livengood, revealed many discrepancies.

    One fundamental problem compromises all the studies so far: Researchers have only crude estimates of how much intussusception occurs naturally in the United States. This makes it difficult to determine the precise impact of the vaccine on intussusception, especially because the condition occurs so infrequently. (Estimates suggest about 1 case per 2000 children.) Researchers also disagree about how many doses of RotaShield went into children, which also alters the various models.

    Even though different assumptions have led researchers to conflicting conclusions, Simonsen predicts that the studies ultimately will converge on an understanding of the links between intussusception and RotaShield. “These studies go together like a cocktail, and by learning what we can from all of these studies, we learn the bigger picture,” she says.

    Kapikian, the main driving force behind the vaccine, is frustrated that the debate continues to focus on U.S. concerns. He and others complain that high, early estimates of the intussusception risk have tainted a vaccine that could save a half-million children each year in the developing world. Harry Greenberg, who developed the vaccine with Kapikian and now is an executive at Aviron in Mountain View, California, agrees: “The [warning] bell needed to be rung immediately,” he says, but people forgot that these were just “preliminary data.”

    Even the CDC's Livengood agrees that it may well make sense to use the vaccine in countries where many children are dying from rotavirus infections. “The cost-benefit equation in developing countries would be very, very positive for that vaccine,” says Livengood. But at a World Health Organization meeting last year that gathered researchers from several developing countries to discuss rotavirus vaccines, Kapikian says he learned that politics stood in the way: “The concern was that the [negative] press would be devastating.”

    Even if the consensus were to shift in favor of using the vaccine, it's not clear that Wyeth would want to manufacture it now. “Our own surveys of Wyeth affiliates and local health experts in developing countries suggest that the product profile of RotaShield would not be acceptable,” says Peter Paradiso, who heads Wyeth's RotaShield R&D team. Some researchers are hoping that Wyeth might be nudged into action by a favorable decision in the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the federal group that recommends whether vaccines should or should not be used. It will conduct a review in October, and Wyeth has given conflicting signals about how it might respond.

    Vaccine developer.

    NIAID's Albert Kapikian produced the modified virus used to vaccinate against rotavirus.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF ALBERT KAPIKIAN/NIAID

    Although two other companies—Merck and GlaxoSmithKline—have rotavirus vaccines in large human trials, Kapikian says that he's not sure either will make it to market, and he notes that both might cause intussusception, too. NIH, he says, may have to seek a new partner to license his vaccine. “The big tragedy is that as we talk, children die,” says Kapikian. “And we'll continue talking for another 5 years before a new vaccine even has a chance of becoming available.”

  12. STRUCTURAL BIOLOGY

    Brazil Network Sees the Light

    1. Cassio Leite Vieira*
    1. Cassio Leite Vieira is a science writer based in Rio de Janeiro.

    Brazil hopes to make a name for itself in structural biology with talent and facilities that build on its sequencing of economically important genomes

    RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL — When Brazil decided to build up its genome sequencing capacity in the late 1990s, officials knew that the country didn't have the firepower to compete with the industrial giants. So it chose a niche—indigenous plants and bacteria—that was important to Brazil's public health and economy. The strategy worked: Last year its scientists made news by completing the first public sequence of a plant pathogen, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which causes a disease that attacks citrus trees and other important crops.

    That triumph has given it the confidence to stake a claim on the next frontier, that of functional genomics. Brazil is betting that its modest assets—a new structural biology network linked to the only synchrotron in the Southern Hemisphere—will be enough to produce the desired gains and give it a toehold in this expanding and already crowded field. Earlier this month, prominent scientists from around the world gathered* outside Säo Paulo to tour the facility and learn more about the network. But they warned government officials that the road ahead will be difficult.

    “In today's competitive science, nobody is in a comfortable position,” says Johann Deisenhofer, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in chemistry and a researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “Brazil appears to be on its way to participate in the scientific competition, but it has a way to go.”

    The Structural Molecular Biology Network encompasses 16 labs in the state of Säo Paulo. Set up this spring, the network is already expanding, with plans to extend an invitation next month to labs across the country to compete for one of 10 new sites. “First of all, we want to improve Brazil's capabilities in this area by contributing to the development of human resources,” says Rogerio Meneghini, a biochemist and director of the Center for Structural Molecular Biology in Säo Paulo, which coordinates the network.

    But the goal of creating a critical mass is quite ambitious, admits physicist Glaucius Oliva, conference organizer and a member of the network. “When the Brazilian genome program was started about 4 years ago, our country had a community of sequencing experts,” says Oliva, a professor at the University of Säo Paulo. “All we had to do was toss out the seed and wait for the results to flower.” The data bank contains a sizable portion of the sugarcane plant genome as well as the entire genomic sequences of X. fastidiosa, which attacks orange trees, and Xanthomonas axonopodis pv. citri, which causes the so-called citrus canker. In contrast, notes Meneghini, there are only about 20 structural biologists in all of Brazil.

    The network is receiving $3.2 million over 4 years from Säo Paulo's Foundation for the Support of Research (FAPESP), the richest and most successful research agency in Brazil. The money will go for materials and equipment, with the expectation that industry will provide additional funds as part of its support for relevant projects. “It would be very helpful if the funding were higher,” says conference speaker Wayne Hendrickson, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Columbia University. “On the other hand, what it's important to do—as always when one has limited resources—is to focus appropriately. The focus that is emerging in Brazil is the one of tropical disease, which remains quite specific to the economic, social, and health situation in Brazil.” Among the early targets will be proteins related to malaria, hepatitis B, and variants of HIV that are prevalent in Brazil.

    Meneghini's center is set up to do the cloning, purification, and crystallization of proteins. The center is part of the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS), a first-generation, 1.37- giga electron volt machine with room for 24 beamlines. The lab, with 10 beamlines now in operation, recently spent $1.5 million on two new nuclear magnetic resonance machines dedicated to protein analysis. Outside observers say that the components are in place for an impressive program but that more resources will be required.

    “The facilities [at LNLS], especially the biological laboratories, are first-rate and not much different from U.S. labs,” says Deisenhofer. “The [Brazilian] synchrotron is small in comparison with the third-generation machines in Europe, Japan, and the U.S., but it is a good focal point for a growing community in structural biology.” Adds Hendrickson, “At this moment, [the machine] is not as strong as it needs to be in order to be competitive. But the abilities are here [to characterize proteins] in the same way the country has become competitive in sequencing.”

    Meneghini notes that FAPESP plans to invest another $3.5 million for upgrades that can deliver the high-intensity, hard x-rays needed for protein analysis and, in time, beam resolution comparable to the most powerful light sources in the world. In the meantime, network officials are drawing up a list of specific target proteins, much of which will be kept confidential because of the probable commercial value. “If a protein shows promise,” says Meneghini, “we are going to patent first, then publish.” He also promises to move quickly: “We'll have our first results by the end of the year.”

    • *The Seventh International Conference on Biology and Synchrotron Radiation, Säo Pedro, 30 July-4 August.

  13. ECOLOGY

    Defending Deadwood

    1. Kevin Krajick*
    1. Kevin Krajick is the author ofBarren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North American Arctic.

    Decaying trees turn out to play crucial roles on both land and sea, starting chains of biotic interactions and providing oases of nutrients in the ocean's barren abyssal plains; removal of dead trees may threaten ecosystems

    Out in the deeps of the southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, tuna captains have started to follow floating logs washed from faraway continents. Off the California coast, other fishing captains use sonar to look for piles of sunken wood. They are after more than the lumber: It turns out that the nutrients and housing provided by deadwood can fuel whole ecosystems of bacteria, worms, and bivalves, on up to commercial-size fish. People who fish—top predators on this weirdly dislocated food chain—are not the only ones on the trail of deadwood: Scientists on land and sea are coming to appreciate the central roles that dead and decaying trees play in forests, streams, estuaries, and the oceans. New studies show that forest animals like bats rely on them much more than anyone had realized and that even stream organisms like salmon depend on logs to help shape their environment.

    Recognizing the value in this once-overlooked habitat, scientists have stepped up their scrutiny, sponsoring deadwood conferences and Internet sites.* The Wood in World Rivers conference, held last year in Corvallis, Oregon, drew more than 100 papers from 14 countries strictly on deadwood in water. “The message is, if you want live things, you need dead trees,” says Torolf “Torgy” Torgerson, an entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station (PNWRS) in La Grande, Oregon. Humans, however, are putting the sting back into tree death: By taking too many dead or destined-to-be-dead ones for their own uses, they threaten many ecosystems.

    If a tree falls …

    Left unlogged, forests can be breathing necropolises, with decay providing all sorts of biological niches. As far back as the 1920s, researchers realized that dead trees provided nesting hollows for some forest animals, but no one knew how much more they offered. Major research started only in the 1980s, when loggers were wiping out the remnants of many old-growth forests and it became clear that creatures such as salmon and spotted owls were in trouble.

    Recent Forest Service studies show that in virgin tracts, fully dead standing trees, or “snags,” may number 75 or 100 per hectare and stand 40 years or more. When they fall to become logs, big ones may last 300 years: A study co-authored by Torgerson found 400-some linear meters per hectare in old conifer stands.

    The first to feast on sick trees are fungi, the main decomposers, followed by bacteria, yeasts, mites, and nematodes. Then the biotic chain lengthens further. In long-term Forest Service studies, PNWRS research biologists Catherine Parks, Evelyn Bull, and others have found that 80-some animals in the Pacific Northwest alone need deadwood, starting with the powerful pileated woodpecker. The holes it drills in ailing but still-standing trees shelter not only the bird itself but also a cycle of “secondary cavity nesters,” which need tree holes but cannot dig themselves. This makes the pileated woodpecker a keystone species, with dependents including nuthatches, chickadees, bluebirds, and swifts. As more space opens, mammals come: squirrels, fishers, martens, woodrats, then black bears. A study by Bull in the Winter 2000 issue of Northwestern Naturalist shows that nearly half of black bears have their cubs or rest in rotted-out tree cavities.

    Not just any rotting tree will do: Most creatures need big, old ones with plenty of room for rot, says Parks. A mycologist, she studies fungal heart rot, which eats large living trees from the inside out and provides the protected temperature and humidity-regulated spaces many animals need. One obligate heart-rot dweller is the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which nests only in longleaf pines in the southeastern United States.

    Beach tree.

    Dead trees and driftwood serve as a perch for shore birds; underwater, such wood serves as a home for wood-gnawing shipworms (above).

    CREDIT: NIGEL J. H. SMITH/ANIMALS ANIMALS

    Discoveries about such secret chambers keep turning up. Until the mid-1990s, for example, most bats were assumed to live in mines and caves, but recent studies have shown that many actually roost and nest in abandoned woodpecker holes or on the undersides of loose bark on aged trees. Biologist Michael Rabe of the Arizona Game and Fish Department in Phoenix reported in the Fall 1998 Journal of Wildlife Management that he had radio-tracked eight bat species to bark crevices on 150- to 300-year-old ponderosa pine snags in Coconino National Forest. In one tree, he counted 984 Arizona occult bats. Mammalogist Carol Chambers of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff recently discovered the first known nesting colonies of the tiny Myotis auriculus bat, in rot pockets in gambel oaks; these oaks were considered useless “junk” trees, notes Chambers.

    Once a snag falls, a new phase begins. Rodents use logs for shelter and protected travel; owls often lurk near the ends. PNWRS biologist Keith Aubry says that many amphibians need humid, woody debris for feeding, reproduction, and hiding. “In forests where [people] take [the debris] away, some species may wink out eventually,” he says. Logs also support huge colonies of carpenter ants—which supply a full 97% of the all-important pileated woodpecker's diet and are black bears' second most important food source (after plants), according to another study by Bull, in press at Northwest Science.

    Conventional wisdom holds that woody debris also recycles nutrition to the forest floor to grow new trees—but new studies show that things don't necessarily work as supposed. Seedlings of many species do sprout almost exclusively on “nurse logs,” crumbly masses in the last stages of decay. However, Cindy Prescott, a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has measured nutrient flows in Rocky Mountain forests and found that logs release mostly unusable carbon; 95% of key ingredients like nitrogen and phosphorus come from leaves and needles. The hidden reason for nurse logs, she says, is that pathogenic fungi in the soil wipe out almost all seedlings, but the fungi cannot survive in deadwood. “The logs are vital, but not for the reason we thought,” says Prescott, whose study appeared in the October 1999 Canadian Journal of Forest Research.

    Dead in the water

    Land managers once thought that deadwood clogging streams and rivers was a hindrance not only to human navigation but also to the life cycles of fish; now they are finding exactly the opposite, at least for the fish. “Deadwood shapes almost everything in a stream,” says James Sedell, national water coordinator for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., and co-author of From the Forest to the Sea, a seminal 1994 book on the subject.

    Many papers at the Wood in World Rivers meeting showed that vast amounts of wood enter streams via windthrow, bank erosion, landslides, and logging. And once in streams, the wood may stay a long time. In the February issue of Bioscience, aquatic scientist Robert Naiman of the University of Washington, Seattle, documented a Sitka spruce stuck in Washington's Queets River for 1500 years; river logs in Tasmania have been dated to 4000 years. Furthermore, Naiman says his ongoing studies in South Africa suggest that riparian forests would literally not exist without streamside tangles of dead trees, which collect sediment and provide protection from floods so that plants can start again in washed-out sections.

    In-stream wood, along with the leaves, needles, and sediment it traps, also provides substrate and food for aquatic fungi, algae, and invertebrates. That starts a food chain that biologists now believe may provide up to half the food for fish in some streams. (Few invertebrates eat the wood itself—they don't have the enzymes—but they graze on slimes covering it.) What's more, studies from the Northwest show that small dams and waterfalls made by trees provide up to 80% of the deep pools in small-to medium-sized streams, features needed by salmon to rest, hide, and forage in.

    Still standing.

    Dead trees may stand for decades, providing homes to birds and mammals such as these Australian flying foxes.

    CREDIT: K. ATKINSON/ANIMALS ANIMALS

    Once wood drifts to estuaries, it may strand in marshes to provide perches for kingfishers, eagles, and other avian predators, says Charles Simenstad, an aquatic scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, who presented work at the conference. And once wood hits salt water, it encounters another new phenomenon: marine invertebrates that, unlike their freshwater cousins, eat wood ferociously. Along with pill bug-like gribbles, there are at least 175 known species of shipworms—actually clams, which sport shells with nasty teeth and bodies that may trail nearly a meter through the tunnels they carve.

    Until now there has been plenty for them to eat. Recent dredging off the mouth of Northern California's Eel River by oceanographer Marie de Angelis of Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, shows that many large pieces of submerged driftwood, often the debris of logging, roll along the bottom during winter storms. Farther out, sizes get smaller, but volumes bigger; at 400 meters, she has found “woodpiles” —large depressions loaded with sunken wood fragmented by abrasion and worms; she dredged enough in 10 minutes to fill a small truck.

    These woodpiles are biological hot spots. Dredging and underwater photography show that wood borers throw out powder and feces used by many other creatures, which in turn attract a halo of predatory limpets, snails, and small fish; and big fish eat little fish. Tuna especially often follow large driftwood, which may float for 5 years and go thousands of kilometers, says Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an expert on floating objects with the Seattle oceanographic firm Evans-Hamilton. “One piece can develop its own movable ecosystem weighing tons, including birds and sharks,” says Ebbesmeyer. The proof is in the catch: Some captains have lately taken to putting radio beacons on driftwood or even hauling in their own artificial logs, made of masses of bamboo, if there are no natural ones to attract fish.

    A surprising amount of this drift sinks to the deep-sea floor, where specialized communities lurk as far down as 8000 meters, awaiting the blessed rain. First documented in detail in the early 1980s by the late Harvard marine biologist Ruth Turner, these communities include a subfamily of wood-specialized bivalves, Xylophaginae. By dropping wood packets off New York's Long Island, Turner showed that by some unknown method these mollusks home in within weeks on the otherwise barren sea floor, boring quarter-sized holes and soon attracting a huge secondary community.

    This discovery was regarded as a curiosity until the past few years, when others began suspecting that deep-sea wood acts as a sort of missing link to animals at deep-sea hydrothermal vents and cold seeps. Marine biologist Craig Smith of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, has begun studying sunken wood and other scattered organic troves like whale skeletons and kelp, and he has found that some denizens there are related to—or the same as—those on vents. “Wood may act like islands for them to hop from one far-flung vent to another,” says Smith.

    Some wood-associated organisms appear to use the same metabolic pathways as vent organisms, with bacteria breaking down matter to make hydrogen sulfide, which then is used directly or indirectly by a spectacular complex of fungi, protists, snails, tubeworms, and bivalves. DNA studies of the wood-dwelling mussel Idas washingtonia suggest that it may be the ancestor of the major vent mussel subfamily, according to work by Smith and his collaborator Daniel Distel of the University of Maine, Orono. In an article published last February in Nature, they suggest that wood that washed down continental slopes may in fact have been an evolutionary steppingstone, providing oases that allowed mussels to eventually colonize vents and seeps.

    With humans rapidly razing forests, though, the reign of deadwood may be ending. Giant natural rafts that once clogged most rivers—in 1816 Louisiana's Atchafalaya had one 16 kilometers long, with upright 20-meter trees sprouting on it—have long ago been cleared for navigation. In the United States, the old-growth forests that supplied them are 95% gone; salvage harvesting of stumps, logs, and even driftwood is doing away with the debris.

    Since deadwood's significance started becoming clear, managers have made some attempts at repair and preservation. Old longleaf pines are now scarce in the Southeast, so Parks of PNWRS is trying to make young ones rot inside, by injecting fungi. States have started requiring loggers to leave a certain number of snags and logs per acre and preserve a narrow, uncut strip along waterways. And after a century of pulling wood from rivers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is anchoring artificial piles of it in select places in the Pacific Northwest, at great expense. Fish and birds have been shown to colonize some of these habitats, but no one is sure how much is needed for recovery. “Given the growing human population, we can probably never put back enough,” says the Forest Service's Sedell. “But we ought to try. So much depends on it.”

  14. METEORITICS

    A Meteoriticist Speaks Out, His Rocks Remain Mute

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    After 40 years of searching meteorites for the solar system's origins, John Wood believes that his field faces a dead end—but he offers a way out

    The prestigious Harold Masursky Lecture should have been an uplifting look at chondrites, the most common type of meteorite, from one of the field's leading practitioners, John A. Wood of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And predictably, Wood began his plenary talk at last year's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference with a review of 19th century studies. They described curious millimeter-sized blobs of rock encased within chondrites and now called chondrules as “drops of a fiery rain” that froze just as the solar system was forming. Wood moved on to what chondrules say about how the solar system formed from a disk of gas and dust 4.6 billion years ago. Then he lowered the boom.

    “We still don't understand what the meteorites are trying to tell us,” Wood told hundreds of his colleagues assembled in the main gymnasium of NASA's Johnson Space Center south of Houston. “I personally wonder whether we ever will. There's just no convergence.”

    In the 40-plus years Wood has plied his specialty, geologists and geophysicists have figured out that the continents move, and astronomers have learned how stars are formed, he said. But his field's near-exclusive focus on deciphering chondrites' composition on ever finer scales “has not worked,” he declared, “and it won't work.” Understanding how the oldest rocks in the solar system formed from the early nebula of dust and gas will require meteoriticists to merge their crabbed analyses of chondrules with a big-picture understanding of how stars form that is being developed by astrophysicists. A grand theory is the only way to make progress, he argued.

    Chondrite pessimist.

    John Wood despairs that after 2 centuries of dissecting chondrite meteorites, meteoriticists aren't getting any closer to understanding them.

    CREDIT: J. A. WOOD

    “That talk upset a lot of people, especially students,” says his first student, Harry McSween of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who heard “a senior person saying that what we do is a waste of energy, that this is an unresolvable problem. I thought it was too negative, too.” The talk was “an unmitigated disaster,” recalls Glenn MacPherson of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who admits to having been discouraged a few years ago, too, but no longer. “We have a way to go, but I think we're making progress.”

    The birth of blob studies

    All would agree that progress in the study of chondrites by chemists and geologists has come in fits and starts. Wood reviewed that history in his talk as well as in a profusely illustrated, self-published version of his presentation that he distributed this spring to 150 colleagues. (The editor of the field's leading publication, Meteoritics and Planetary Science, had asked Wood to submit a manuscript, but the two of them could not agree on its format.) Wood reminded his listeners that 19th century scientists were dissecting chondrules and divining their basic nature before such prominent figures as Thomas Jefferson had even accepted the idea that meteorites fall from the sky. Two hundred years ago this coming year, English chemist Edward Howard reported to the Royal Society of London that four rocks found as nearby as Wold Cottage, England, and as far away as Benares, India, were all composed of the same four curious components: millimeter-sized spherules, later named chondrules, that constitute 50% to 80% of the mass of chondrites; nickel-containing grains of metal; a mineral now recognized as iron sulfide; and an earthy material or matrix that bound it all together. Faced with the question of how such similar rocks could be found so far part, Howard concluded that they had come from space.

    Wood's next “meteorite hero” was English gentleman scientist Henry Clifton Sorby, the first person to study a rock by looking through a wafer of it thinned to the point of transparency. Given his familiarity with steel smelting in Britain, Sorby recognized the high-energy origin of chondrules from their form and crystalline structure. They “were originally detached glassy globules, like drops of a fiery rain,” he wrote in 1877. Indeed, research since 1950 would show that some type of material had been heated to 1500° to 1800°C and then cooled rapidly. Sorby had an idea how it happened, too. He suggested that “meteorites are the residual cosmic matter, not collected into planets, formed when the conditions now met with only near the surface of the sun extended much further out from the centre of the solar system.” In his manuscript, Wood asked plaintively, “Have we come much farther than this today?”

    The field fell into a lull in the first half of the 20th century, but that changed after World War II. Harold Urey moved to the University of Chicago in 1945 after helping build the atomic bomb and single-handedly started the field of cosmochemistry. In 1957, Wood, a graduate student in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), stumbled on a collection of 19th century meteorite thin sections across town at Harvard University. He was hooked.

    “I was immensely curious to know how the earth formed,” he recalls in his manuscript, “and the textbooks and my profs had been no help at all.” Wood was joined in meteoritics by people “who were skilled in a whole new galaxy of instruments and techniques that could be used to investigate these objects,” he says. Those techniques have since evolved into instruments such as the time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometer, the multicollection inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, and ion microprobes that allow the precise determination of both chemical and isotopic composition of spots just a few micrometers across.

    Mystery rocks.

    Chondrules (loose and in place) were once millimeter-sized molten droplets, but no one knows what melted them.

    CREDITS: J. A. WOOD

    This high-tech attack on chondrites has yielded a bounty of increasingly detailed information. Chondrites are now divided into four classes and 12 subclasses by mineralogy and chemistry. Chondrites are known to be chemically similar to the sun. Their chondrules remained melted for days, not the millennia that subterranean magma stays fluid, and cooled quickly—over hours to days—but more slowly than if each blob had been alone in empty space. Some were heated repeatedly. Rims enclosed them after formation, some while they were still hot. The rims have a composition similar to that of the matrix. Chondrules have a stunningly narrow size distribution, as if somehow sieved repeatedly.

    The field has also made room for the less abundant, calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions (CAIs) that may have formed a couple of million years before chondrules. These centimeter-sized chunks of rock are loaded with isotopic traces of radioactive elements that burned out before the solar system stopped forming. There are even presolar grains in the matrix that survived without alteration after forming around other stars. This steady stream of chondrite data will keep flowing next month in Rome at the annual meeting of the 1000-member Meteoritical Society, where more than 100 presentations will dissect chondrites and their components.

    No grand theories

    Wood, for one, is having second thoughts about the data flood. “I'm getting pretty old [69 years], and you tend to take stock of what you've accomplished in your life,” he says. Lately, “I've felt there's an intellectual challenge that the community, including myself, hasn't met. I don't think the answer is in the chondrules. They've had the living daylights studied out of them. The ratio of understanding to data has gotten completely out of hand. There's too much taking of data for its own sake. Some people can crank out data and be happy; I guess I have always been a person more interested in understanding things than collecting data.”

    A number of researchers agree with Wood about chondrite science being swamped by details. “Like other scientists, we spend a lot of time contemplating our navels,” says McSween, who took up studying other meteorites, including those from Mars, shortly after completing his dissertation and hasn't missed chondrites. “We lose sight of the context of the samples we're looking at.” Carl Agee, who directs the processing of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, agrees: “One of the problems with mineralogists and petrologists is we can get bogged down in the details.” What's needed, Wood says, is “a unifying paradigm, and there just isn't one.”

    A simple head count would seem to support Wood's contention. In 1999, Alan Rubin of the University of California, Los Angeles, listed 14 published ways that chondrules could have formed, from condensation of nebular gases (first proposed in 1949) to gamma ray bursts (proposed in 1999). And it's grown since then. One of the latest ideas is that shock waves thought to have spiraled through the nebula might have blasted planet-forming planetesimals, melting the material ablated off the planetesimals into chondrules. “There are people who believe chondrules formed by impact” among planetesimals, adds Wood. “I don't believe it for a minute, but that such ideas can be entertained shows how little we understand.”

    Although Wood is certainly the most outspoken pessimist on the subject, he's not the only one out there. “I would say very little has changed in chondrite research over the past 15 years,” says cosmochemist David Kring of the University of Arizona in Tucson, Wood's last student. “A tremendous amount of work has been done. It's just that it doesn't look like they're making progress on fundamental questions.” Planetary scientist Michael Drake, also at the University of Arizona, likens the current chondrite dispute to the debate about the moon's origin that ran for 15 years after Apollo astronauts returned pieces of the moon. Then the idea of a giant impact splashing material off the early Earth to form the moon caught hold and is now the consensus among lunar researchers. “We haven't had the equivalent of the giant impact theory in chondrules,” says Drake.

    Even so, most meteoriticists fiercely defend their contribution to science. Rubin cites better data on the sizes of chondrules, their rate of cooling, and their compositions as evidence of “substantial progress in the last 20 years.” Astrophysicist Larry R. Nittler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) adds high-precision oxygen isotope measurements on the scale of 10 micrometers and the discovery of traces of the now-extinct radionuclide beryllium-10 as additional achievements. McSween sees “a lot of wonderful discoveries” such as the recognition of relic presolar grains and estimates of the amount of relatively volatile elements lost from chondrules. Such advances have led to “a fairly broad consensus on a number of points,” says Rubin, including chondrules' repeated heating and sometimes incomplete melting, their brief time at their highest temperatures and rapid cooling, and their formation in different areas of the nebula.

    Rubin would thus whittle down his list of 14 mechanisms to just three: nebular lightning, energy flares from the sudden realignment of the young sun's magnetic field lines, and shock waves of some sort. Lately, though, he's not sure if electrical discharges in the nebula could ever have gotten stronger than they are in a good aurora, much less lightning.

    A call for astrophysics

    Wood is unimpressed. “They're confusing the means with the end,” he says. Making a more precise oxygen isotope measurement on a tinier bit of chondrule is not progress, he says. He likens the collection of such facts to trying to construct a building by throwing together bricks without an overarching plan.

    Wood exhorts his meteoritic colleagues to adopt a top-down, inductive approach, starting with astrophysics. Forming chondrules in the solar nebula means “you're now in the astrophysical regime,” Wood says. Most “people who talk about models of chondrule formation are not astrophysicists. Most astrophysicists have much bigger fish to fry than what happened in the early solar system.” What's needed are astrophysical models that could be tested with the geochemical data, he says, much the way bricks might be fit into the steel framework of a modern building. Wood comes by such astrophysical predilections by way of an early interest in astronomy—he minored in it at MIT—and long exposure to scores of astrophysicists at CfA rather than to the geologists most meteoriticists see in their university settings.

    Not everyone is optimistic about Wood's astrophysical approach. He “is one of the few petrologists who have tried to understand chondrules by immersing themselves [in the astrophysics],” says Rubin, “which is laudable. But it isn't realistic to assume many mineralogists and petrologists will be able to do that. Everyone isn't near as bright as John Wood.”

    How hard it is to bridge the gap between meteoritics and astrophysics became obvious at the 1998 Protostars and Planets meeting held in Santa Barbara, California, says astrophysicist Alan Boss of DTM. Offered the chance to hear the meteoriticists discuss what meteorites had to say about solar system formation, most of the astrophysicists “voted with their feet” that morning and hit the beach. “We're not as ignorant of each other as we were 20 years ago,” says Boss, “but there's a long way to go.”

    One recent theory of chondrule formation suggests that convergence may yet be possible, even incipient. Proposed in 1996 by astrophysicists Frank Shu and Hsien Shang of the University of California, Berkeley, and cosmochemist Typhoon Lee of the Institute of Earth Science in Taipei, the X-wind theory relies on the searing heat close to the violent young sun to melt material on the inner edge of the nebular disk. The powerful “wind” seen to blow away from the poles of young stars would scatter chondrules to the asteroidal belt (Science, 20 June 1997, p. 1789). “Shu did a really magnificent job of trying to research the meteoritic literature and the properties of chondrules that needed to be satisfied by a model,” says Wood. But there was little response from meteoriticists. “Many meteoriticists are not given to trying to interpret data and [are] suspicious of people who do,” says Wood.

    That could be changing as more astrophysically inclined researchers like Nittler and Boss take up chondrite origins. Entering a new field “has been a lot of fun,” says Shu. “We're getting more attention from the meteoriticists than when we first started, when everybody thought it was crazy.” Meteoriticists still aren't convinced that chondrules formed close to the sun, but they are increasingly allowing that CAIs may have formed by the X-wind mechanism. CAIs' isotopic signature, especially their traces of extinct beryllium-10, suggests that heavy solar radiation of the sort close to the sun is the source of short-lived radionuclides, rather than a nearby supernova as once assumed. But perhaps more important than a possible sign of real progress, says Boss, is that Shu—“a big name in star formation”—provides astrophysicists with “a stamp of approval” to work in meteoritics.

    Wood plans to follow his own advice to synthesize the data. “I thought I might spend a year or two giving that a try, seeing whether I can break the logjam.” He's not optimistic, however: “The answer will probably be no, but I'm going to give it a shot.”

  15. MARCO BAGGIOLINI

    Riding Off Into an Alpine Sunset--Or Sunrise

    1. Robert Koenig

    Marco Baggiolini, a leading chemokine scientist, is leaving his institute with the hopes of turning an obscure Swiss region into an academic attraction

    BELLINZONA, SWITZERLAND— During the Renaissance, a trio of castles looming above this city guarded three alpine crossroads connecting Milan with northern Europe. Today, Marco Baggiolini is hoping to transform his scenic but sleepy hometown and its Italianate environs into a different sort of crossroads: one that connects Swiss and Italian higher education. It's a formidable undertaking, as the region is far removed—not so much in distance as in intellectual firepower—from Europe's traditional academic bastions.

    For the cosmopolitan immunologist, embarking on this quest has involved a difficult scientific sacrifice: retiring from a major institute in Bern to devote his golden years to the fledgling University of Italian-speaking Switzerland (USI), also called the University of Lugano. “Instead of relying entirely on the big universities in northern Italy and the rest of Switzerland,” Baggiolini says, “we are starting to build our own system. It's a tremendous challenge.”

    Baggiolini, 65, made his name by unraveling some of the fundamental properties of chemokines, proteins that help the body mediate immune responses by coaxing neutrophils and other white blood cells to a site of inflammation or infection. The work established him as “a dominant and driving force in the field of chemokine biology,” says Steve L. Kunkel of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Baggiolini has also explored a range of other facets of leukocyte immunology. “Rarely,” says Kunkel, “is one scientist so accomplished in diverse areas.”

    Now Baggiolini is hoping to turn the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino into an academic attraction. After 18 years as director of the University of Bern's Theodor Kocher Institute, Baggiolini is retiring this month to devote all his energies to USI. He helped build USI from scratch starting in 1996 and, with like-minded scientists and local officials, wooed two research centers to Ticino: the privately funded Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Bellinzona and the Swiss Center for Scientific Computing, part of Zürich's renowned Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Manno. Both have attracted topflight directors: immunologist Antonio Lanzavecchia, from the former Basel Institute for Immunology, will head the biomedical institute, while the computer center is led by physicist Michele Parrinello, co-developer of the Carr-Parrinello method for analyzing electron systems and until recently director of the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart. “After so many years in the shadows,” says Baggiolini, “Ticino is starting to attract top people.”

    Powerhouses.

    Marco Baggiolini hopes to put the University of Italian-speaking Switzerland on the academic map.

    CREDITS: (TOP TO BOTTOM) USI; R. KOENIG

    Immune to failure

    Baggiolini started out as a postdoc at Rockefeller University in New York City before spending a dozen years in Basel as a lab chief at the pharmaceutical firm Sandoz, which has since merged into Novartis. He returned to academia in 1983 to direct the Kocher. There, he played a crucial role in the landmark 1987 discovery of interleukin-8 (IL-8), found independently that year by a team at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). IL-8 “helped answer a century-old question of how neutrophils are selectively recruited to sites of acute infection and inflammation,” says NIH's Phil Murphy. More broadly, the discovery foretold the master role that chemokines are now known to play in both innate and adaptive immune responses.

    At the Kocher Institute, Baggiolini and his team, working in a relaxed atmosphere characterized by 18th century oil paintings on his office walls and Verdi operas echoing through his lab, had a hand in identifying several of the 50 or so known chemokines, determining cell targets, signaling pathways, and disease associations. “Others have stood on his shoulders to discover major and unsuspected functions of chemokines,” says Murphy, who notes that Baggiolini's work spurred drug programs based on chemokine and chemokine receptor targets against diseases such as AIDS, asthma, and multiple sclerosis. “Like all great scientists,” says Murphy, Baggiolini “has a knack for focusing on key questions at the right time.”

    But his most pressing questions are no longer scientific. Standing on the roof of a former hospital in Lugano, where USI's faculties of economics and communication science are housed, Baggiolini—his conversation peppered with Italian, French, English, and German phrases—gestures toward a busy construction site on the campus of USI, which hopes to double its student body (now 1800) over the next few years. Ironically, the immunologist is not trying to establish a natural sciences campus, partly because the university lacks the resources to outfit labs that could compete with those at major research centers.

    Instead of the typical rigid Swiss bureaucracy, Baggiolini has implemented a U.S.-style flexibility. Professors are hired on 4-year renewable contracts, students are charged a modest tuition— instead of virtually nothing, as at other Swiss public universities—and the degrees parallel the U.S. bachelor's and master's degrees. Nevertheless, some Swiss academics are skeptical that USI will make it into the top ranks of Switzerland's universities. As one skeptic predicts, “Attracting topflight students from elsewhere will be tough.”

    It will take determination to prevail against such attitudes. Baggiolini has the right stuff, his admirers insist. He's “an inspired leader,” says mathematician Hans Buehlmann, a former president of ETH Zürich. His “diplomatic skills are the prime reason for the excellent atmosphere and the spirit of pioneership which one encounters everywhere in the young university.”

    Asked if he is hanging up his lab coat for good, Baggiolini smiles. He enjoys his new career as an administrator, he says, “but I enjoy my research, too, and I don't plan to give it up.” A couple of his research groups from Bern have set up shop in Lanzavecchia's institute. Baggiolini plans to spend some of his spare hours there, he says, just a few blocks from where he was born.

  16. Reintroducing the Intro Course

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Physicists are out in front in measuring how well students learn the basics, as science educators incorporate hands-on activities in hopes of making the introductory course a beginning rather than a finale

    Bonnie Simon, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, didn't relish taking a year of introductory physics. But the nutrition major needed the course to get into medical school. “I expected to memorize formulas and plug in numbers,” she recalls —the same kind of unenlightening busywork that she says made high school physics a waste of time.

    Instead, she found herself engrossed in—and mastering—the subject. Her teacher was using an innovative workbook, called Tutorials in Introductory Physics,* that required her to make predictions, observe, and discuss. “It forced you to understand,” Simon says, recalling how she wired light bulbs into simple circuits to figure out the relation between voltage and current. “You really got an ‘Aha!’ feeling.”

    Hands-on.

    Use of Workshop Physics means all labs and no lectures for these Dickinson College students.

    CREDIT: A. PIERCE BOUNDS/DICKINSON COLLEGE

    Simon isn't the only student to feel the effects of the workbook. Created at the University of Washington, Seattle, a longtime powerhouse in physics education research, the tutorials have been extensively tested in physics departments across the country. In fact, physicists have led the way in rigorously evaluating and implementing a range of reforms to intro courses. Chemists are hot on their heels, while most biologists are still trying to decide what belongs in an intro course. This summer astronomers joined the fray, hoping to improve one of the most popular intro science courses for nonscience majors.

    Figuring out what works is vitally important to the country, say U.S. educators. Each year, hundreds of thousands of U.S. students get their only exposure to science in an intro class—and most leave without understanding how science works or with any desire to take further courses. “How well we do in intro courses will ultimately decide how well we do in reforming undergraduate science,” says Jeanne Narum of Project Kaleidoscope, a network of education reformers based in Washington, D.C.

    Identifying the problem

    Although introductory courses all present a subject for the first time, they come in many varieties—from a single course that fulfills a distribution requirement to a three-course sequence for majors. But too many instructors, say reformers, still engage in the stalest form of pedagogy: nonstop lectures to hundreds of faceless students who sit and listen passively. Supplementing the lectures are textbooks thick with facts and figures and thin on concepts and process. End-of-the-chapter homework problems and cookbook labs are solved by “plugging and chugging” numbers into equations. All of it leaves biologist Dan Udovic of the University of Oregon, Eugene, wondering: “Where did we ever get the idea that we could teach science in large lecture halls?”

    The current reform movement goes back to the 1980s, when mathematicians recognized that calculus courses weren't serving the needs of many students. Physicists soon reached the same conclusion. The most recent self-examination is being done by astronomers. The sense that Astronomy 101 “is not doing what it should” led Bruce Partridge, an astronomer at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and education officer of the American Astrophysical Society, to convene two unprecedented strategy sessions this summer for 35 department heads or other leaders from large research universities. They agreed that the intro course should focus more on critical thinking skills and less on details valuable only to the few students who would end up majoring in the field. By early next year, Partridge hopes to turn these ideas into a set of guidelines for improving intro courses.

    One idea that the astronomers are gravitating toward is the principle that students understand a concept better if they construct it themselves, step by step, rather than being told what it is and asked simply to remember it. This so-called active learning has become a popular strategy for reforming all manner of introductory courses, from asking students to predict the outcome of a hypothetical situation to sharing information in labs and group discussions.

    Forceful measures

    But do these approaches work? Data are lacking on whether active learning actually increases the number of students who choose careers in science or broadens support for science among the general population. At the same time, several studies suggest that it can improve student attitudes toward science. For example, a consortium of chemistry instructors called ChemLinks/Modular Chem found that 94% of students engaged in active learning at 13 institutions had more confidence in their ability to do science, compared with 56% of students who completed a traditional intro course. And Andrei Straumanis, now a postdoc at Sandia National Laboratories, says that active learning reduced dropout rates by 38 percentage points in a large organic chemistry class at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

    The most common way to gauge the success or failure of efforts to reform the intro course is to see how thoroughly students digest the material being taught. But traditional measures can be misleading if they don't require students to understand the material. In a traditional intro chemistry course, for example, Mary Nakhleh of Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, found that about half of the students who solved test problems couldn't explain the underlying concepts. Traditional tests may hide that fact, warns John Moore of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

    So Moore, Nakhleh, and a handful of other researchers have tried to come up with more accurate tools, based on extensive interviews with students. “These tests are not trivial to design,” says physicist Edward “Joe” Redish of the University of Maryland, College Park. One of the most widely used is the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), the first version of which was published in 1985 by physicist David Hestenes of the University of Arizona in Tucson. The FCI is a battery of 29 multiple-choice questions that explore Newtonian mechanics. Although some researchers have questioned whether high scores actually demonstrate improved understanding, the test shook up the physics community when it revealed that even top students retain misconceptions about important concepts. “The FCI got people to pay attention to the fact that their students weren't learning [the key concepts] in intro courses,” says David Sokoloff, a physicist at the University of Oregon, Eugene. For example, a basic point in introductory physics is that every force has an equal and opposite force. But the FCI shows that most students, even after hearing a lecture on that topic, still think that a hefty Ford Navigator will exert a greater force on a Toyota Corolla during a collision. (The much lighter Corolla, however, will experience greater acceleration—and more damage—because it has less mass.)

    More is better.

    The greater amount of active learning in Workshop Physics seems to increase understanding, too.

    SOURCE: E. REDISH AND R. STEINBERG, PHYSICS TODAY (JANUARY 1999)

    The FCI has also shown that active learning improves student understanding (see figure). A 1998 analysis of 6542 students in 62 introductory courses at several universities, community colleges, and high schools found that students upped their scores on the FCI by an average of 48 percentage points after completing courses that emphasized active learning. Students in traditional courses improved by only half as much, reported Richard Hake of Indiana University, Bloomington, in the American Journal of Physics. A 1999 study by Jeff Saul (now at the University of Central Florida in Orlando), Richard Steinberg (now at the City College of New York), and Redish found that students at 14 schools who have completed a traditional intro course answer about half of the questions correctly on the FCI. Student scores rise to 60% when instructors “teach to the test” in these courses, spending extra time explaining the Newtonian concepts covered on the inventory. They reach 70% when the traditional problem-solving recitations are replaced with Tutorials in Introductory Physics.

    Students perform even better in an intensive class that emphasizes active, inquiry-based learning. Workshop Physics, a course designed by Priscilla Laws and colleagues at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, features 6 hours a week of hands-on labs and no lectures. All three of the department's lab rooms were designed so that students face each other in small groups (see picture). Students who have taken this kind of course typically answer up to 85% of the questions correctly on the FCI.

    Building up the ranks

    The use of the FCI and other assessment tools has helped physics educators be leaders in evaluating undergraduate curriculum reform. “Nothing in the biological sciences can compare to it,” says Oregon's Udovic, who developed a test to evaluate changes he and colleagues made to their large introductory biology course. “We have a ways to go to come up with a conceptual instrument that everyone agrees on and that could be used in a standardized way.”

    Physics reformers emphasize that coming up with multiple-choice assessment tests like the FCI requires a basic research program that must focus first and foremost on identifying student difficulties with a subject. One reason for physics' head start is an increasing flow of scientists into the field. A pioneering program in physics education research begun in the 1970s by Lillian McDermott at the University of Washington has spawned similar research groups in physics departments across the country, including the Maryland group begun in 1993. “We have decided education research is too important to leave to anyone else,” says Redish.

    One on one.

    Physics educators such as the University of Maryland's Joe Redish (at right) often evaluate videotaped interviews to figure out what lessons stump students.

    CREDIT: MARTY KATZ

    Graduate students in these groups take the same advanced courses as other doctoral students, but their research investigates how students learn physics. They get jobs, too: The number of tenure-track jobs in physics education research has risen from just five in 1996 to 35 last year. “It's great to have someone in our building who knows the findings about the best ways to teach physics to college students,” says condensed matter theorist Susan McKay, chair of the physics department at the University of Maine, Orono, which recently hired physics education researcher Michael Wittmann. Physicists also have an inherent advantage in assessing student understanding: Physics 101 is based much more on first principles than, say, introductory geology. “Most of physics is about reasoning,” Laws says. “It's closer to the fundamentals of science.” It's more difficult to assess understanding in fields that are heavy on content rather than fundamental relationships. “Biology and chemistry instructors,” Laws says, “have a much more daunting task.”

    That isn't holding them back, though. Assessments of biology and chemistry students have found that active learning techniques enrich introductory courses in those fields, too. Not every study has found a statistically significant difference, but the few meta-analyses suggest overall improvements in learning. And most reformers say that qualitative assessments such as interviews and analysis of student writing back up that conclusion. “The whole picture reveals a vast improvement over what was happening before,” says biologist Marshall Sundberg of Emporia State University in Kansas.

    Biologists have the advantage of their own sugar daddy. Since 1988, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, has given away $154 million for undergraduate curriculum development and laboratory improvements, largely for introductory courses. But the results haven't produced any breakthroughs (see sidebar on p. 1609).

    In chemistry, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1995 gave out $10 million to five consortia of universities and colleges to support various approaches, including student-led workshops, weeks-long modules that focused on teaching chemistry through hot-button societal and environmental issues, and Web learning (see sidebar on p. 1610). “We're all still struggling with” what works best,” says Chris Bauer, a chemist at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. “The significant thing is that now there's a huge network of chemists who have become involved in these reform projects,” says NSF's Susan Hixson.

    What those chemists and other reformers ultimately want are intro courses that do more than simply serve as gatekeepers for science majors. They would like to get all students to think scientifically. It worked for Simon, now a senior who plans to apply to medical schools next fall. One day she found herself thinking about Newtonian mechanics while gazing out at traffic. “I feel that I really know physics well,” she says. “It helps you with figuring out things in life.”

    • *Tutorials in Introductory Physics, Preliminary Edition, Lillian C. McDermott, Peter S. Shaffer, and the Physics Education Group, University of Washington (Prentice-Hall Inc., 1998).

  17. Information Overload Hampers Biology Reforms

    1. Erik Stokstad

    The biology department of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, readily agreed to revamp its introductory course to add more principles and remove a few facts. But the consensus dissolved when the faculty began to discuss what to leave out.

    “We had faculty members counting how many lectures there were on each topic,” recalls molecular biologist James Gentile, then department chair. “If there was one on chloroplasts, there had to be one on mitochondria as well.” Faced with a stalemate—and several hundred thousand dollars from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to spend—a compromise was struck: Add a new course that focuses on concepts and retain the old course.

    That 1997 skirmish reflects the difficulties facing biology reformers who try to improve introductory courses. In addition to the mind-boggling diversity of the field, from molecules to ecosystems, biology also lacks an encompassing professional organization that can help impose order, like the American Chemical Society with its enormous general meeting and its well-read Journal of Chemical Education. In addition, soaring enrollments shield biologists from the pressure felt by their colleagues in the physical sciences, who see reform as the key to reversing a downward trend in student interest.

    The movement isn't lacking for money. Over the last 13 years, HHMI has dropped $154 million into 225 biology departments to improve the curriculum and upgrade labs. Those grants, an amount that dwarfs efforts by any other major player, have allowed educators to create or significantly improve more than 3200 biology courses. And HHMI has deliberately avoided being too prescriptive. “I don't know that there's a single model that would work for everyone, or even for most [departments],” says HHMI program officer Steve Barkanic, who encourages programs to describe their vision and what they need to achieve it.

    Although HHMI's munificence has built what biologist John Jungck of Beloit College in Wisconsin calls a “fabulous infrastructure” for undergraduate research, he says the grants haven't promoted systemic change nor generated the “intensity of discussion” that followed the National Science Foundation's initiatives in chemistry and mathematics. HHMI “hasn't had as much impact on the pedagogy as I would like to see,” Jungck adds, noting that large lectures are still a hallmark of introductory biology courses at most major research universities.

    Reformers aren't giving up, however. This month the National Research Council sponsored a 3-day meeting in Colorado to explore the undergraduate biology curriculum, including the role of mathematics, physics, and chemistry in introductory courses. Its forthcoming report, due out next summer, will be a “major catalyst for conversation,” predicts Gentile, who helped organize the meeting.

  18. Reading, Writing, and Chemistry Are Potent Mix

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Orville Chapman of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), thought that getting his introductory chemistry class to write about the subject would help students understand the material better. But he didn't want to read and grade hundreds of essays each week. Borrowing a page from scientific peer review, Chapman and UCLA colleagues decided to have students grade each other's papers using a computer program, called Calibrated Peer Review (CPR). Four years later, more than 16,000 students in chemistry, biology, economics, and other departments at more than 100 institutions have used the writing technique to learn more about their subjects.

    The process begins with an essay assignment. Students submit a brief essay on the question—say, the role of nitrogen compounds in ozone destruction—and file it on a Web site (cpr.molsci.ucla.edu). The program then asks the student to read and grade three essays of varying quality that were written by an instructor; it's a test to measure their ability to judge style and content. Those who need more training are given more sample essays.

    Once they've passed that step, the students evaluate three papers written by peers. Finally, they grade their own essay. Each student gets a report summarizing the comments of other students.

    Preliminary evaluations show that students in chemistry and biology classes score on average 10% higher on midterm and final exam questions related to topics studied using CPR than on topics taught by traditional methods. “That's a profound gain in learning,” says Arlene Russell, a chemist and education researcher at UCLA. “When you review someone else's work critically, you start thinking about [the topic] differently.”

    The program gets high marks from other faculty members. “It's just extremely well conceived, very carefully put together,” says Steve Watton, a chemist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who used the program with graduate students to test its value within smaller groups of more advanced students. “My hope was to get them to think a little harder about what we try to teach them.” Next spring Watton plans to incorporate the technique into his introductory course.

  19. Making Room for Diversity Makes Sense

    1. Camille Mojica Rey*
    1. Camille Mojica Rey writes from San Carlos, California.

    Successful diversity programs level the playing field for women and minorities by addressing their needs and teaching undergraduates the unwritten rules of academic science

    SAN FRANCISCO— As part of her doctoral studies in public health at Harvard University, Alissa Myrick spent this month collecting blood samples from malaria victims in Senegal. Using the latest molecular biology techniques, Myrick hopes to understand drug resistance in the parasite that causes the disease. But Myrick, 25, says she would not be working on the problem—or have even completed a bachelor's degree in biology—if not for a University of California (UC), Berkeley, program that targets women and underrepresented minorities in the sciences.

    The Biology Scholars Program (BSP), she says, helped her cope with a sense of isolation that otherwise might have driven her out of the sciences altogether. “When you're one of three African Americans in your class,” Myrick says, “it affects how you react to the class and how students and faculty react to you.” And BSP is not the only program that has made great strides in helping minority undergraduate science majors at majority institutions. Others include the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), which has had considerable success over the past decade, and Yale University, which has also developed a comprehensive program.

    Although she remains one of a precious few female minorities in science, Myrick is living proof that well-designed and properly implemented undergraduate diversity programs can produce women and minority scientists knowledgeable about the system training them. She's learned the ropes from people like John Matsui, BSP's director, who says that a generation of studies has identified the key elements of a successful program: relevant and timely academic advice, a community environment, strong mentoring, and early involvement in research.

    If U.S. higher education knows what works, then why are undergraduate institutions failing to churn out more diverse groups of scientists? According to the National Science Foundation, only a third of the minority students who begin in the sciences wind up graduating with a science or engineering degree. And, although blacks and Latinos make up nearly 25% of the U.S. population, they earn only 13% of U.S. science and engineering bachelor's degrees and 7% of doctoral degrees. The overall numbers for undergraduate women are better but still fall far short of matching their majority status on campus: They receive only 11% of engineering degrees and 24% of degrees in the physical sciences.

    Success, says Matsui, lies in “how we go from general description to implementation.” The steps themselves are no great mystery, he and others say. An institution must be committed to putting an effective program in place—and overhauling one that isn't working. Given that support, program faculty and staff must then do two things: take a student-centered approach to the delivery of services and give students what Matsui calls “system smarts”—tools to navigate a campus's academic system and scientific community. “The goal is not to change the system or make an alternative one, but to help students get the most out of what is available,” Matsui says.

    Institutional readiness

    To fill the scientific pipeline with more minorities, experts say, individual institutions must begin by lining up support from all sectors of campus. At UC Berkeley, that commitment includes office space within the heart of undergraduate scientific activity and financial support. Sixty to 90 freshmen and transfer students are admitted to the BSP every year. Its 450 current students—about 60% minority and 70% women—require easy access to the program staff and to one another if they are to keep from getting physically or academically lost in the shuffle of a large campus, Matsui says. (Sophomores and juniors are occasionally admitted to the program but need a recommendation from a current BSP student.)

    In addition to space provided by the dean of biological science, the UC Berkeley administration has also picked up salaries for several key program personnel. This kind of institutional support follows impressive results: The program graduates minority students with a biology degree at the same rate as Asian and white students, and at twice the rate of minorities not in the program. Matsui credits prominent faculty members and top campus administrators with providing the political clout to get the necessary space and other resources.

    The Meyerhoff Scholars Program has enjoyed similar support from the top at UMBC. It was founded by two charismatic leaders, the late Michael Hooker, then UMBC's president, and Freeman A. Hrabowski III, a mathematician and vice provost who succeeded Hooker in 1992. “We also had some of the most prestigious scientists on campus involved since the beginning,” Hrabowski says.

    With that kind of backing, the Meyerhoff program has helped UMBC become one of the leading producers of African-American students who then earn medical degrees and science doctorates. More than 1500 students apply to enter the program every year, of which 50 are chosen. Since 1996 each class has included about 15 majority students, their presence due in part to a court ruling that broadened the eligibility requirements.

    One important feature of the Meyerhoff program—and others like it—is its departure from the cookie-cutter schedule of classes recommended to all incoming freshman science majors. “Start with the existing skills of the students in math and reading, and determine what they need,” Hrabowski advises. For example, the program recommends that first-year students limit themselves to two courses in math and science even though most are eager to take more. In addition, program students who have earned Advanced Placement credit in calculus and physics are strongly advised to take the courses anyway. And participants who receive a C are encouraged to repeat the course. “We want students to build a base of knowledge that they can use to become successful in upper-level courses and beyond,” Hrabowski explains.

    The generous scholarships—$15,000 a year for 4 years—are another key element in the Meyerhoff program, helping to retain talented students who might otherwise forsake the rigors of a science major because of economic necessity. “It may be possible [in some majors] to work on the outside at an unrelated job and still do well in school,” Hrabowski says. “But in science it's almost impossible.”

    Research ready.

    Alissa Myrick credits the UC Berkeley program with putting her on track for a Harvard Ph.D.

    CREDIT: GRAHAM GORDON RAMSAY

    System smarts

    Successful programs must also introduce students to what is likely an unfamiliar culture. Many students of color, for example, come from cultural traditions that frown on questioning authority. That trait puts them at a disadvantage in a world that expects students to speak out and defend their positions. At Berkeley, Matsui teaches a course called “Studying the Biological Sciences: An Introduction to the Culture of the University and the Culture of University Science.” The required course, which occasionally includes non-BSP students, provides a map that tells students “how the university is organized and how science is done on their campus,” Matsui says.

    Students learn, for example, that science—both the study and practice of it—is done in groups. Myrick, a member of BSP's first class in 1992, recalls not being invited to join any of the study groups in one class—until she earned one of the top grades on the midterm. “It may not be overt racism, but people tend to form groups with people who are similar,” Myrick explains. “Or it may be that people make assumptions that minority students in science classes are not going to be at the top of the class.” In addition, BSP gave her the confidence and contacts to form her own study groups.

    At Yale University, study groups are the cornerstone of the Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) program. From 20 to 25 students are accepted into the program each year. The required help sessions, each taught in conjunction with a particular course, do not involve doing homework assignments. Instead, paid upper-level undergraduates and graduate students guide discussions of difficult concepts facing students in their biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science courses. Facilitators also help students learn how science is done on campus.

    The program replaced an earlier effort that Yale officials decided didn't go far enough. “The old model was about generating interest,” says STARS co-director and neurogeneticist Robert Wyman about the former program, which paired first-year students with graduate students for 1 year. It ended in the mid-1990s.

    STARS doesn't ignore the cultural aspects of doing science, either. As the program's academic director, chemistry professor Iona Black encourages STARS students to participate in a program-supported internship as early as the summer after their first year. During their lab experience, students take Black's “Introduction to Scientific Reasoning” Course. It teaches them how to collect, analyze, and present data, raising their confidence for lab courses and research experiences. These are skills that majority students often get at top high schools.

    The course also allows Black to express her high expectations for them and to form a personal bond. “They have to know that you believe they can be successful and that help is there when they face a roadblock,” Black says. Adds Wyman, “Her particular style is one of tough love. She doesn't let the students get away with anything. Yet they know she cares.”

    Black also spends time carefully matching students with potential mentors. She is always on the lookout for cultural differences that have the potential to sabotage a student's progress. For example, Black says that she stresses the inevitability of making mistakes, driving away the unfounded belief among many minority students that they must be perfect to be credible. “Their natural instinct is that they should not make any mistakes,” she says. “But everybody goofs in the lab; you just have to own up to it and learn from it.”

    Combining a student-centered approach with the teaching of system smarts can reduce the importance of the “random factor” —that serendipitous conversation or chance meeting in a hallway—that most scientists of color say played a major role in the earliest stages of their career. The Yale, UC Berkeley, and UMBC programs are also trying to spell out what they have done so that other schools can replicate their success: Hrabowski and his colleagues, for example, have published a detailed description of their methods, including statistical analyses of their outcomes.

    Last month, UC Berkeley opened the Faculty Center for Leadership in Educational Access and Diversity to support graduate students and faculty members who want to conduct research aimed at increasing diversity in their disciplines. “The institution must be willing to recognize the value of developing practical means to removing social and cultural barriers,” says Gregory Aponte, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Science and Toxicology and director of the new center. “Research related to providing educational opportunities and equity should carry the same weight as research in a person's own field.” Among the first projects supported by the center will be research on the success of BSP.

    Although that work is expected to heighten awareness of the issue and identify practical steps that UC Berkeley and other universities can take, Wyman believes that it is important for diversity programs to remain flexible. “I don't think we should ever look for a final formula,” he says. “You've got to keep studying it.”

  20. Europe Seeks to Harmonize Its Degrees

    1. Robert Koenig

    European officials hope that standardizing practices will make each country's system of higher education more competitive in a global student market, without sacrificing quality

    PRAGUE — Prague's historic castle was an appropriate setting for a meeting this past spring of Europe's top education officials. The topic was the future of higher education in Europe, and the castle—a majestic but confusing maze of structures that inspired Franz Kafka's classic novel about modern alienation and bureaucracy—served as a metaphor for the Kafkaesque labyrinth facing students who want to transfer degrees or credits between colleges in different European nations.

    Europe has some of the world's oldest, and best, universities. But efforts to unify higher education standards have always played second fiddle to powerful regional and national sentiments. That is slowly changing, however, as national parliaments wrestle with recent promises by government ministers to provide undergraduates with a relatively harmonized system of degrees, credits, and requirements.

    “Student mobility is a driving force for quality in higher education, because the best universities benefit,” says Thomas Östros, Sweden's education and science minister and co-chair of the Prague meeting (Science, 25 May, p. 1465). “We need to make our higher education systems more attractive to students from elsewhere in Europe and around the world.” Students themselves agree: The National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), which represents students in 35 countries, has long campaigned for easier mobility—of students, degrees, and scholarships.

    The concept of a “European Higher Education Area” that was discussed in Prague has its roots in a 1998 meeting in Paris of education ministers from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Two years ago, in Bologna, the ministers agreed to move toward “easily readable and comparable degrees”—including bachelor's and master's degrees in most fields. Other goals include standardizing a system of transferable credits; establishing “quality assurance” networks to vet each other's degrees and credits; and easing the movement of students and researchers across national borders.

    The changes, if adopted, would have a profound impact on higher education in many European countries. At German universities, for example, the first degree earned by undergraduates remains the Diplom, which lies somewhere between a U.S. bachelor's and master's degree. In Britain, most undergraduates get a U.S.-style bachelor's degree in 3 years. And Belgian students first earn a 2-year degree, called a “candidat,” before spending another 2 years on a “licencie” degree. “At the moment, there are more higher education systems than there are countries in Europe,” says Guy Haug, the chief adviser to the European University Association, a newly formed organization that represents both European universities and their rectors. “A single country can have up to 100 different academic qualifications.”

    That variety often foils science and mathematics majors who want to spend part of their undergraduate years in another country. “There are so many different requirements and rules that transferring can be a nightmare,” says Martina Vukasovic, who studies astronomy at the University of Belgrade.

    The plethora of national languages is another obstacle. Although English may have replaced Latin as the de facto lingua franca of science, it is still not the language of undergraduate instruction at most European universities. The exception is within the United Kingdom and Ireland, where universities are swamped with applicants. “We had to slow the influx of international students” in response to complaints by politicians that Irish students were losing out, says Art Cosgrove, president of University College Dublin.

    Educators disagree over the extent to which their institutions should embrace English. Josef Koubek, rector of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague, says English could be “the working language” of universities as long as classes are also taught in the nation's native language. But French education minister Jack Lang decries such cultural homogeneity. “Europe should be proud of its multiple languages,” he argues. “It should refuse the dominance of a single language.”

    Students often are caught in the middle of the debate as they seek greater mobility without abandoning their native language. Take Manja Klemencic of Slovenia's Maribor University, a communications science major. Fluent in Slovenian and English, she will attend Finland's Vaasa University this fall, taking classes in English. “Even though English instruction helps students like me, I still think that Europe is all about diversity and that it would be a mistake to promote one language as a lingua franca,” she says.

    Whatever the language of instruction, educators say that comparable courses at different universities should be of similar quality. That will require some sort of accreditation system that all nations recognize. The continent's rectors, meeting in Spain in March, threw their weight behind the idea of a pan-European accreditation process, but the education ministers aren't yet willing to take that step. Instead, they called for greater collaboration within the existing body on quality assurance that includes representatives of national accreditation agencies but has no real power at a European level.

    Although Sweden, Italy, and some other nations are already far along, parliaments elsewhere are still debating reforms in their higher education systems. Major efforts under way in France, Germany, and Austria would be consistent with the Bologna goals. And Östros feels that, despite disagreements on accreditation, participants at the Prague summit “made strides toward the goals of stimulating mobility and encouraging more reforms in higher education.”

    Jacob Henricson, a Swedish student who heads ESIB, is not quite as optimistic. He worries that too many rectors and government officials view students as simply “consumers of a tradable service” and has pleaded with them to remember their real constituents. “Students have to be partners in this reform process,” he says, “because we are the people it affects the most.”

  21. Student Research: What Is It Good For?

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    More and more undergraduates are working in labs and out in the field. But what's the point? After decades of blind faith, educators are finally beginning to investigate what makes for a good research experience

    Andrea Martin took off for Jamaica's Discovery Bay after completing her junior year at the College of Wooster. But the geology major wasn't there to have fun in the sun after a grueling academic year. Instead, she and two other Wooster students spent 10 days collecting 125,000-year-old pieces of coral reef and rhodoliths. Then they lugged them back to Ohio to begin independent study (IS) projects on characterizing the change in sea levels during the last interglacial warming period.

    Martin loved the long, hot days prying fossils from the carbonate formations under the watchful eye of Wooster geology professor Mark Wilson, who has analyzed a well-dated erosion surface in the Bahamas from the same period. She hopes to earn a doctorate in paleontology or sedimentology and then become an academic. “I can picture myself as a professor at a place like Wooster,” she says. But it wasn't the crystalline waters of the Caribbean, or the fact that she attends one of a handful of U.S. colleges where undergraduate research is a requirement for graduation, that sold her on the discipline. “I've wanted to be a geologist since the fourth grade,” she says, “starting with the ‘rock hound’ program at my elementary school. When it was time to go to college, I looked for schools with strong geology programs. I didn't find out about the IS requirement until after I had applied.”

    When educators talk about the value of undergraduate research, they often cite students like Martin and programs like Wooster's. Many working scientists have fond memories of undergraduate days spent in the field or in the lab—including Wilson, who graduated from Wooster in 1978 and came back because he liked the way the school blends undergraduate teaching and research. And the ranks of undergraduate researchers are growing: A recent survey of 136 liberal arts colleges found that the number of students engaged in some type of research had risen by 70% in the past decade, while those pursuing more intensive summer projects had grown by 40% (Science, 13 July, p. 193).

    Rocky start.

    Wooster geology students Jerome Hall, top, and Sara Austin explore an exposure of broken coral, shells, and carbonate sand in Jamaica.

    CREDIT: MARK WILSON

    Undergraduate research is equally popular among the major research universities. “Research is the lifeblood of our institution, and it's a good way to connect our faculty and students,” says Hank Dobin, associate dean of the college at Princeton University, which requires all seniors to conduct a research project. It's even become a cottage industry: Undergraduates have started several journals in recent years to showcase their work and to learn the nuts and bolts of scientific publishing (http://www.jyi.org/).

    But what do students get from doing research? Would present-day scientists have chosen different careers if they hadn't done research as undergraduates? And how do their scientific achievements stack up against those of colleagues who missed the opportunity? The answers aren't clear, because thorough evaluations are only now getting under way. “As an assumption, undergraduate research makes logical sense. But we have no idea what students actually learn from it,” says Elizabeth VanderPutten, an education program manager at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds millions of dollars' worth of undergraduate research projects every year. “At the same time, it stands to reason that a poorly structured experience may be worse than none at all.”

    Defining a good experience

    Educational researchers David Lopatto and Elaine Seymour are hoping that a 3-year, $650,000 grant from NSF will help answer some of those questions. Lopatto, a psychologist at Grinnell College in Iowa, and Seymour, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, are interviewing students and faculty members at four top-rated liberal arts schools—Harvey Mudd College of Pomona, California; Wellesley College in Massachusetts; Hope College in Holland, Michigan; and Grinnell. The schools were among a group of 10 that NSF honored in 1998 for their success in integrating their twin responsibilities of research and education. They also help to stock the scientific pipeline: A greater percentage of undergraduates at Harvey Mudd—nearly half—go on to earn science Ph.D.s than at any other school in the country, for example.

    The project, begun last summer, aims to identify key features of “good” research experiences, as well as create a survey instrument that other schools can use to measure their own efforts, says Lopatto. He suspects that “the benefits of undergraduate research will be related to a university's commitment.” But the study isn't perfect, he admits. It lacks the usual control group, because “you can't go to a school and say we picked you because you're a failure” at providing research opportunities for undergraduates. And no follow-up is planned: Once the project ends in 2003, each school will have to track its own students if it wants longitudinal data.

    Sheldon Wettag, provost of Harvey Mudd, says he expects the NSF study “to validate the importance of an undergraduate research experience,” and he predicts that the results “won't change things much for us.” A research-based “capstone experience” is a graduation requirement at Harvey Mudd, and Wettag says that the school has begun to encourage all students to become involved earlier in their undergraduate careers and to push sophomores into summer research projects. “We think that the sooner they get engaged, the more likely they will be to pursue science and to be more productive on their senior project,” he says. Still, he acknowledges that “we haven't thought much about how to make [research] a good experience.”

    Southern exposure.

    The lagoon at Discovery Bay, Jamaica, is an idyllic setting for students working at the nearby marine lab.

    CREDIT: MARK WILSON

    One of the few studies that has been done on the purpose of undergraduate research came up with mixed findings. A June 2000 report to NSF on its 15-year-old Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program found a lack of consensus on goals and how to measure them. “It means different things to different people,” says the principal author, Chip Story of SRI International, a research and consulting firm in Menlo Park, California. Visiting 12 of the more than 500 schools that had received NSF grants during the last decade to host students, Story found great variations in how the programs were carried out, who they served, and why institutions and students participated. At one site, Story says, students did no research at all; instead, they listened to speakers and planned visits to professional meetings and conferences. Many students see it as a way to bolster their résumés, he says, while some schools use it mainly as a recruiting device. At the same time, he noted that every school judged its program to be “successful” and that panels of outside NSF reviewers have repeatedly called for an expansion of the REU program.

    Administrators at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a small state school in Southern Maryland, recently did their own cost-benefit analysis of the value of undergraduate research. In 1996 faculty members voted to require a research-based project of all seniors starting with the class of 2002 and began sponsoring them on a voluntary basis. But last year they changed their minds, modifying the rule to leave the choice up to individual departments. Ten chose to keep the requirement, including all the natural science programs, while 10 made it optional. “They didn't realize that it would take up so much time and be so difficult,” says Lorraine Glidden, associate provost and a professor of psychology, explaining the vote, “or that some students would not be well prepared.”

    Even with an incentive—faculty members receive a one-course credit for every six projects that they supervise—many faculty members seem to view it as more of a burden than a benefit. Asked on a survey to rate its value to their professional development, faculty members gave the projects a 3.6 on a scale of 1 to 9. The mean score for all questions on the survey was 7.1. At the same time, students felt very positive about the experience, giving it a near-perfect 8.5 when asked how much they had learned. An internal evaluation concluded that “faculty assess it as a very positive experience for their students but mixed for themselves. They value the mentoring relationships but recognize that there is some trade-off in their own scholarship and creative work.”

    Doing the unexpected

    Wilson has a much more positive view of his own experiences with undergraduate research. He says Wooster has prescribed an IS project for so long—since 1948—that the concept is ingrained in everything he does. “When I look at my research, I think first of how students can connect to it,” says Wilson, who has published on evolutionary paleoecology in leading journals. “And when we are teaching, and students ask questions, the tag line is often, ‘That would make a good IS project.’ I think that people who wonder what a student can do are missing a big opportunity. They can do extraordinary things.”

    The IS project prepared him well for graduate school, says Wilson, who earned a Ph.D. in 1981 from the University of California, Berkeley. But he doesn't favor making it a requirement at all undergraduate institutions. “It's a huge investment in time and money,” he says. “And faculty have to be active researchers for it to be of value. I think it would be very hard [for a school] to start from scratch if it didn't already value student research.”

    Martin's visit to Jamaica didn't change her career intentions, as she was already hooked on paleontology before she headed south. But it may have reinforced her choice. “It's my most favorite subject,” she says. “The idea of seeing the past, and then trying to piece together how everything lived back then, is just incredible. It's what I want to do with my life.”

  22. China Broadens Training for Elite Students

    1. Ding Yimin*
    1. Ding Yimin writes for China Features in Beijing.

    Beijing University is testing the idea of a Western-style liberal arts education on a select group of undergraduates. If it works, officials hope to give all students a chance to find their way before specializing

    BEIJING — China's prestigious Beijing University will launch a pilot class next month to test the idea that a liberal arts education is more beneficial to students than a narrowly focused course of study. The radical approach runs counter to a half-century of specialization in Chinese higher education. If successful, it will be extended to all students—a giant step beyond concurrent reforms at some of the country's leading universities that focus only on the cream of the crop (see sidebar on p. 1616).

    Trendsetter.

    Zhu Qingzhi leads undergraduate reform efforts at Beijing University.

    CREDIT: JAMES ZENGHUANG/CHINA FEATURES

    The pilot class at Beida, as the university is commonly known, is the latest attempt by university officials to reform a system imported from the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Based on a planned economy, the old system forced students to pick a major before taking the fiercely competitive college entrance examination, and it followed a well-defined curriculum with few, if any, electives. Upon graduation, students were then assigned jobs.

    But that system is incompatible with modern China, says Zhu Qingzhi, vice director of the university's Office of Education Administration. The government can no longer provide job opportunities to all college graduates, he notes, and a market economy has given students more career options, including postgraduate studies in a field of their choice. “The pilot class project represents a new trend of the undergraduate education reform in China,” he says. The new program is named Yuanpei after Cai Yuanpei, the university's first president; the name also means “basic training” in Chinese.

    The test class of 100 students was chosen from among this year's entering class at Beida and is expected to be divided equally between the natural and social sciences. The students will be allowed to register for courses from all the school's departments and will graduate when they have obtained the required number of credits. They can wait until the middle of their second year to declare a major, with help from faculty advisers—another new concept for Chinese higher education.

    New path.

    Beida students in the pilot program will have more course choices.

    CREDIT: REN YUE/CHINA FEATURES

    This is a sharp break from the path followed by the other students, who must take almost all their courses in a given field and meet rigid graduation requirements set by their departments. Zhu hopes to get permission to form a new College of Arts and Sciences to oversee this stream of students. “We want to give students more time to find out what they really want to learn and choose the specialties most interesting to them,” says Zhao Dunhua, director of the philosophy department.

    Students in the Yuanpei program will also be allowed to study at their own pace. Instead of the current 4-year path, students will be given from 3 to 6 years to complete their degrees. But some restrictions still apply. No student will be allowed to take more than 25 credits per semester (150 are needed to graduate), and the university will not provide housing for those who spend more than 4 years on campus.

    Of course, the ability to choose is worthless unless students have viable options. That will require creating a set of core courses in all fields, says Niu Dayong, deputy dean of Beida's graduate school and head of an expert research group that developed the new strategy of undergraduate education in Beida. These courses, which would range from the natural and social sciences to literature and art, would help students develop new thinking styles. Officials at Beida began offering some core courses last year, and this fall they hope to have 100 of them. Building up the curriculum will allow them to open the gates to expanded participation. “We plan to double and triple the number of enrolled students targeted for [the] new credit system next year, and the year after next,” he says.

    In creating the pilot class, Beida officials hope to avoid the mistakes of a previous experiment aimed at providing 120 natural science majors a year with a greater appreciation for related fields. Instead, departments used it as an opportunity to force-feed students more basic courses, leaving them with little time for electives or independent research. The university ended the natural sciences class in 2000, although a parallel class continues in the social sciences. “I know that I would have learned more than other students if I had continued, but it was just too much to handle,” says Yang Guang, a mathematics major in the 1999 class who returned to his department after 1 year because of the burden of taking so many courses from other departments.

    Zhu hopes that creating a College of Arts and Sciences will eliminate the competition among departments that doomed the special class. “The management of the pilot class is vital to the success of the whole project,” he says. The college, if successful, will also take responsibility for managing a new system of awarding credit for postgraduate classes.

    Indeed, the growth of postgraduate studies is a driving force behind the move to broaden the undergraduate experience. Whereas the size of the freshman class at Beida has held steady at about 2500 for the past decade, the number of postgraduates has almost quadrupled, from 852 students (721 master's and 131 doctoral) in 1990 to 3203 students (2386 master's and 817 doctoral) this year. This expansion should move China's higher education system closer to the U.S. model, with a broader education for undergraduates and professional or specialized training for postgraduates, says Zhao Kaihua, retired former director of the physics department and an advocate for undergraduate educational reform. Beida's physics department has already reduced the number of subfields, he says, to better prepare students for today's fast-changing world.

    The pilot class will move this trend a step farther. “We hope that the pilot class will help Beida establish a system that can better meet the needs of economic development,” says Zhao.

  23. Other Schools Go First With Narrower Approach

    1. Ding Yimin

    Beijing University's efforts to improve undergraduate science instruction borrow heavily from reforms carried out by another top-tier school, Nanjing University. Among the first group of universities to bring major changes to their education systems, Nanjing formed an intensive training center in 1989 to give talented students a deeper foundation in basic research by encouraging cross-disciplinary interactions.

    “We try to give students opportunities to choose,” says Lu Dexin, director of the Nanjing center. “During the freshman year, they study almost the same subjects in the basic sciences [as do other students]. In their second year, they can choose courses from different areas of basic sciences. In the third year, they can decide which classes they want to take in their majors. And in the fourth year, they enter research groups and do research and study under the guidance of their advisers.”

    Students are also encouraged to get involved with research, including the unusual opportunity to volunteer to join a research team as first-year students. The university has also given juniors and seniors at the center the special privilege of using expensive equipment in the university's laboratory.

    Tsinghua University, China's top-rated technology school, has also taken a page from Nanjing's book. In 1998 officials started a special class for talented first-year students already enrolled in the departments of physics, mathematics, and chemistry. The students follow a prescribed group of courses during the first 2 years, mainly in physics and mathematics. As sophomores they each begin to tackle a specific topic and join a research group to gain some practical experience. “We ask teachers to give students more time to raise questions in class,” says Gu Binglin, director of the physics department and dean of the graduate school.

    Hu Jian, a junior in the class, agrees that the pedagogy is different. “Our teachers told us that there are no dumb questions about science,” he says. “They encourage us to ask about anything.”

  24. Online, On Campus: Proceed With Caution

    1. Kathryn Brown

    Faculty members who have taken their courses online report a net gain in student achievement. But online instruction isn't cheap or easy, and those without tenure may want to think twice before taking the plunge

    There are pleasant ways to start the day. Then there's organic chemistry (o-chem). Even worse, there's the o-chem that so many students know: complex calculations at 8 a.m., in an auditorium with 200 other students, three times a week. “It's a horrible class,” admits Patricia Shapley, a chemist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

    So Shapley has developed another way to teach o-chem: online. The morning routine has been replaced with a more student-friendly schedule—one evening lecture, which students can attend either in person or online, and a weekly meeting with a teaching assistant, also in person or in cyberspace. The course, last offered in the fall of 2000, is as rigorous as ever: It still consists of three lessons and a quiz each week. But hypertext links offer background material for the perplexed and advanced texts for the quick learners, and course-management software lets Shapley track who logs on for lectures and homework sessions. Fewer students dropped the class in midstream than in previous years, she noted, and test scores improved considerably. “I think the students learned more and retained it better,” she says.

    Despite all the buzz over online education, courses like Shapley's are still avant-garde. E-companies have yet to conquer the traditional ivory tower, and in the world of undergraduate science, in particular, the true Internet pioneers are likely to be veteran faculty members like Shapley who have turned to technology to improve the educational experience for their students on campus. For those who do take the plunge, the results can be rewarding: The students gain flexibility, in-depth lessons, and sometimes even more interaction.

    But the Net is not for every class, nor every instructor. Web-based courses take time and money to develop. Labs are another problem. Future scientists need to gain experience at the bench, not just on the computer. And many instructors, particularly those on the tenure track, often lack the time to redesign classes with Net content. “There's a big gap between the hype over online education and the reluctance of many faculty members to adopt it,” remarks David Passmore, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who helps direct multimedia technology development.

    Late-night lab work

    Debate over Internet-based instruction is nothing new. Physicist Michael Thoennessen of Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing and colleagues were criticized for proposing an online homework system in the early 1990s. “Some thought students would lose out on personalized instruction if a computer even offered homework problems,” Thoennessen recalls. In fact, he notes, the opposite happened. MSU's “computer-assisted personal approach” allowed teaching assistants to spend less time grading assignments and more time working with students face-to-face at the physics help center.

    Today, most faculty members still use the Net mostly as a dressed-up handout for homework problems, a reading list, or course schedules. But an increasing number are getting more ambitious. Deanna Raineri, a molecular biologist at UIUC, saw the Internet as a way to breathe life into her undergraduate biology class. “Here I was standing in front of this big class with static overheads and hand signals,” recalls Raineri. “My premeds were cruising, but a lot of the class was really struggling. Wouldn't it be better if kids could visualize all this biology?”

    With the help of a student programmer, she began developing animations of interacting molecules, first off-line and then online. The student response was “overwhelmingly positive,” she says, and the animations also seemed to help them grasp lecture ideas better. “It took me by surprise to see what a difference it made,” Raineri says.

    The next step for Raineri was virtual labs. They typically follow a similar lab done live and allow her to reinforce the lesson. For instance, in a campus lab, students use restriction enzymes and run gels to characterize DNA. Later, online, they use similar techniques to diagnose a hypothetical disease and explore the issue of genetic testing. “They get a lot of practice at data interpretation, which is something the class lacked before,” Raineri says. Today's students also score better than their predecessors on quizzes covering applied questions, she adds.

    Others, too, are discovering the value of the Internet as a dry lab. Years ago, Duane Sears, a tenured professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, used to pass around 3D glasses to his students before firing up the slide projector for shots of molecules. When a better view of the 3D structures emerged, he designed a computer lab that allows students to log on, day or night, to manipulate and study them.

    “I've always tried to give students new problems, new situations that require them to really apply what they've learned,” Sears says. “It's not practical to have all these undergraduates in the lab, trying to solve the 3D structures of proteins or the kinetic analysis of enzymes. The Internet allows us to duplicate the thought process behind this kind of work.”

    Developing the new lab did steal from time for research, Sears admits, but he thinks the benefit to students is worth the sacrifice. “I feel that students are being shortchanged when they don't understand how science works,” he says. “And in biology, there simply aren't enough resources to provide the experience our students need to gain that appreciation.”

    Online limits

    Finding the time for such trade-offs isn't easy, however, and professors are divided on who should lead the way. “I would never recommend that assistant professors try to do this, because they need to be publishing,” says Shapley, who received tenure in 1991. “If you're tenured, you can afford to spend a little more time.” Raineri, a non-tenure track employee whose job includes curriculum development, echoes that sentiment: “My suggestion to tenure-track faculty is not to do this right now, but to concentrate on research and teaching.” But Sears doesn't like the fact that junior faculty members “are highly discouraged from developing online teaching tools because of the time involved.” He favors incentives for all faculty members to explore the value of the Internet in teaching.

    The Internet brings other challenges as well, notably intellectual property questions, software headaches, and, at the most basic level, cost. A guidebook released in April by the National Education Association warns that online undergraduate courses are almost always more expensive than live teaching for all but the largest lecture classes. This summer, with no profit in sight, Temple University shut down Virtual Temple, a spin-off company created 2 years ago. In his published agenda for Temple, president David Adamany noted that “no one has yet found a way for online learning to be economically viable.” Adds Thoennessen, “the main motivation for using the Net should be to improve education, not to make it cheaper or easier on the instructor. Even if you use the Internet, instructors are still critical, particularly to explain advanced material.”

    Educators are also trying to figure out what works online. Some students flock to online chat rooms, for instance, whereas others prefer the somewhat more private form of ordinary e-mail. Moreover, not all students are comfortable learning online. “Even when I'm teaching online, I give the students a choice to attend lectures live,” Raineri notes. She and others believe that large lecture classes may offer the richest rewards for Net-based learning, because smaller courses already offer more chances for one-on-one communication.

    If there is one domain in which the Internet has barely made inroads, it's the classic undergraduate lab. Dissecting a worm, running a gel, squinting at a color reaction—these workaday tasks are the stuff of science majors. And although online labs can share the basics of science, computers can't teach you how to brew uncontaminated media or finger a pipette just so.

    It's the here-and-now nature of experiments that makes science classes so hard to teach online, says Frank Mayadas, a program director with the Sloan Consortium, a group of higher education institutions offering online programs that are funded by the New York City-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “You can't transfer the whole physical lab experience to the online environment,” Mayadas says. “The labs are difficult.”

    Members of the consortium are trying to solve that problem. Electrical engineer John Bourne of Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts, who is principal investigator for the group, says one idea is to have students log on to remotely controlled instruments that allow them to build a circuit, say, or mix a solvent. This kind of chemical engineering course is already under development at Illinois. At the University of Washington, Seattle, Robert Franza, director of the Cell Systems Initiative, leads an information technology team that hopes to produce a wireless tablet PC. It will be somewhat like a personal digital assistant, on which students can build digital proteins, jot down notes in class lectures, or brainstorm with others —anytime, anywhere. “Most people think of ‘online’ as tethering people to a box and a seat,” Franza says. “We think the future looks different.”

    No matter how the future unfolds, tech-savvy students are likely to insist on being plugged into the Internet. After Raineri added virtual labs to her molecular biology course 3 years ago, her scores on student course evaluations skyrocketed. “They want more of this, and in the years to come, they may demand it,” she says. For Sears and other Internet pioneers, that means feeding a grassroots movement until it spreads like the Internet itself.

  25. MIT Offers World-Class Courses, for Free

    1. Kathryn Brown

    Major universities may hesitate to teach undergraduate science online, but they seem ready to cash in on continuing education. A growing number of schools—including Columbia, Duke, Stanford, and New York University—hope to profit from online courses, typically targeted to working adults. Businesses such as the University of Phoenix Online and eCollege also contribute to the estimated $4 billion e-learning market. Now, in the midst of all this enriching education, one school has announced plans to teach the world—for free.

    This spring, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it would post lecture notes, course outlines, or other teaching material for virtually every class offered, free of charge. MIT's so-called “OpenCourseWare” Web site could debut within 2 years, including content from 500 classes. Within a decade, MIT officials say, over 2000 courses could be posted online. The effort is the first of its kind for a university.

    “There's a sense that universities are losing their direction by getting too involved in e-commerce,” says Harold Abelson, an MIT computer scientist helping to develop OpenCourseWare. “The Web was invented for the sharing of scientific research, and this initiative is really about sharing. MIT plans to use the Internet as a way to disseminate the stuff from which our courses are made.”

    OpenCourseWare is the brainchild of an MIT council on education technology that wanted to use the Net to enhance teaching. Abelson, part of the council, compares the future Web site to a monograph series or expanded course catalog. The site will not offer actual courses or class credit; instead, it will provide raw information for anyone with an urge to click and learn. “Undergraduate education really draws on a collaborative enterprise, and our hope is that students and faculty can learn from each other,” Abelson says. Perhaps other schools will follow suit, he adds, building a new way to communicate science and teaching.

    That wouldn't surprise Frank Mayadas, a program director at the Sloan Consortium. “Over time, we'll see significant progress,” Mayadas says. “There's a lot of room to grow.”

  26. Are We Having Fun Yet? Joys and Sorrows of Learning Online

    1. R. John Davenport*
    1. R. John Davenport, a former Science intern, is a staff writer for Science's Science of Aging Knowledge Environment.

    Web classes offer students and instructors great flexibility and a chance for more focused interaction. But cyberspace can also be a lonely place

    WASHINGTON, D.C.— Wrist deep in ground-up spinach leaves and rubbing alcohol, I'm wondering if some of my fellow online students have ignored the instructions not to directly mix vinegar and bleach. The hands-on lab—and the potential for disaster—enlivens an otherwise lonely and at times frustrating online introductory biology course. I'm learning on the Web, but I'm not loving it.

    In May, my editors asked me to write a first-person account of taking an online undergraduate science course with a lab component. Finding one isn't as easy as it sounds (see sidebar on p. 1620). But eventually I settled on one offered by the University of California, Berkeley, Extension program.

    Within minutes, I had charged the $475 tuition and $50 “fee” on my credit card and enrolled in the four-credit semester-long X19 Introductory Biology with Lab. A link to an online bookstore soon made me the electronic owner of a textbook, two CD-ROM virtual laboratories, and a lab kit —and drained me of another $236. That's about par for costs per unit for an in-state Berkeley undergrad, but substantially less than for a nonresident. Just 3 days later the book and CDs arrived, although the lab kit was on back order.

    Hands-on at home.

    Virtual learning gets real with use of lab kits.

    CREDIT: A. STONEBRAKER

    Eager to get started, I went to the course Web site. There I was greeted by a written introduction to the class and the friendly (virtual) face of my Harvard-trained instructor, Monica Ranes-Goldberg. She was available via e-mail, as well as through a message board and chat room where we could post assignments and communicate with our peers. (Although the course was billed as cooperative and interactive, I would end up communicating much more frequently with my instructor than with other students. Indeed, I spent 3 days diligently checking the chat room without hearing from a single classmate.)

    With 6 months to complete the one-semester course, I set to work. My first “assignment” was to post an autobiography. Although I hid my true intentions for taking the class, others spoke freely of their motives. A Wyoming high school student felt ready for college material. A premed student needed one more lab class. An investor wanted the scientific dope on biotech stocks. And a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy had decided to cram biology into a busy schedule.

    The course was divided into 14 units emphasizing biology at the cellular level: basic biochemistry, cell structure, metabolism, genetics, cell division, and molecular biology. Assignments for each unit included posting a brief review or summary of a Web site related to the topic at hand; “wet” and virtual labs, reports of which I would e-mail to the instructor; and quizzes and problem sets. The core knowledge for each unit was contained in the textbook and lecture notes written by the instructor. Chapter quizzes written by the textbook publisher offered a convenient way to test my progress—after a week's worth of calls to get a Web site password that should have come with the book.

    CD-ROM activities brought alive the concepts presented in the textbook and notes. Some of the exercises were informative, such as changing the size and shape of a virtual cell to learn about surface area and volume or studying the effect of changing adenosine triphosphate concentration and food supply on a computer model and animation of cellular respiration. But one lab was an exercise in dull repetition: Using a virtual spectrophotometer and a selection of five indicator dyes, I was supposed to test more than 10 compounds. And each of the more than 50 trials subjected me to animation that lasted several seconds.

    Boredom wasn't the only challenge. The spectrophotometer lab produced reams of data that resisted export for analysis. Other exercises didn't allow me to manipulate parameters necessary to answer the questions, and the instructions for the simulations were overly vague. Subtle flaws in the resources became incredibly frustrating: One CD-ROM listed questions in such a way that you couldn't read them while doing the “experiment” and you couldn't cut and paste them into a word processing document to answer them.

    But learning on the Web does have its advantages. I could set my own pace, delving into harder or more interesting topics and skating over material that I, with a Ph.D. in chemistry, already understood. That freedom also requires online students to be self-motivated. (Speaking of which, honesty compels me to disclose that, although I did well on the quizzes and labs I completed, job responsibilities forced me to drop out before the final.)

    Eager to escape from learning biology on a computer monitor, I jumped at the chance to do some “real” science in my kitchen. But halfway through Unit 3, and already one lab behind, I realized that my lab kit was still on back order. Phone calls to the bookstore yielded daily assurances that the $32 kit would be in stock “today or tomorrow.” Fortunately, the lab manual revealed that the kit contained only four items—pH test paper, test tubes, medicine droppers, and dialysis tubing. A visit to the Georgetown University chemistry stockroom provided me with most of what I needed for only $18, and after a return trip to “borrow” some yellowing dialysis tubing I was all set.

    The labs were simple, consisting of pH measurements of bleach and vinegar solutions, popping beet cells with pH, and extracting plant pigments from spinach using rubbing alcohol and separating them on coffee filters using nail polish remover. But the concepts were well illustrated, and doing experiments in my own kitchen reminded me of how science is integrated into everyday life. It also let me get my hands dirty—the whole point of doing science, to my thinking.

    Besides the obvious appeal to students whose lives don't allow for an on-campus experience, online classes also provide alternatives for instructors. Ranes-Goldberg says it helps her to juggle a career and a family. “Sometimes I grade quizzes in the middle of the night if I'm having trouble sleeping,” she says. And having self-paced students relieves the burden of having to grade 30 versions of the same lab report or quiz at the same time. The rewards are also different. “I find I have more personal contact” with each student than in a traditional classroom, she says. Still, “I wouldn't want to give up traditional teaching. There is a certain excitement that goes along with being in a classroom.”

    I agree. My passion for science stems from the infectious enthusiasm of a professor in my introductory chemistry class. I don't think he could have conveyed that same level of excitement in silico. But on the other hand, how else could I have done paper chromatography in a Snapple bottle on my kitchen counter?

  27. Online Science Offerings Are Hard to Reel In

    1. R. John Davenport*
    1. R. John Davenport, a former Science intern, is a staff writer for Science's Science of Aging Knowledge Environment.

    It's lonely out there in undergraduate cyberscience. Online education may be booming, but my search for a Web-based natural sciences course with a lab component revealed that the world's premier universities offer meager scientific content in their online fare.

    For starters, most online classes are not listed in a university's general course catalog but instead reside in units typically labeled as extension, distance learning, or continuing education programs. And the science choices are not bountiful. Harvard University offers a computational biology class, but most of its classes are in computer science. Stanford offers a selection of professional development courses for engineers and computer scientists, but no basic science courses. Yale hopes to enter the Web learning game later this year as part of a consortium. Across the pond, Oxford offered only three classes, including one on local history.

    That left private ventures, often in partnership with universities. The completely virtual Cardean University (found at UNext.com) emphasizes business, and OnlineLearning.net (http://www.onlinelearning.net/), a consortium between Houghton Mifflin and several education institutions in California, offers only a handful of courses in introductory mathematics and physics in contrast to a hearty fare of business, computer, and education classes. Fathom.com, a consortium founded by Columbia University that includes both U.K. and U.S. institutions, has a flashy Web site and a fair number of biology offerings. But most courses are in the applied sciences—soil chemistry, biotech and agriculture, and dietary supplements. The Global Education Network (http://www.gen.com/), a Web-based company founded by professor Mark Taylor of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and investment banker (and Williams alumnus) Herbert Allen, offers liberal arts courses taught by professors around the country, but none are in the core sciences.

    The Electronic Campus of the Southern Regional Education Board (http://www.electroniccampus.org/) looked more promising, with a healthy selection of science classes at institutions throughout the southern United States. After eliminating those tied to the normal academic term—a nonstarter for me—I found a candidate that fit my tight schedule: a geology class with a lab offered through the University of Georgia, Athens. Visits to other university sites revealed two other possibilities: an oceanography class through the University of Washington, Seattle, and a marine biology class from the University of California (UC), Berkeley. However, the UC class appeared to require a visit to the UC campus, and the oceanography class was already full.

    That left geology. After failing to navigate the board's registration protocol, I turned to the University of Georgia's Web site, where I learned that the class was actually being offered by Georgia Southern University. Two weeks after registering, however, I received a phone call telling me that I could enroll in the lecture portion but that the lab portion was still a work in progress. When I asked for alternatives, a “student representative” helpfully suggested turf grass management.

    Things looked bleak. But a week later, a serendipitous search on the UC Berkeley Web site turned up an introductory biology class, complete with lab (see main text). Touted as the equivalent of a semester-long, lower division biology class, the university extension class included “wet labs” to be done at home.

    Success at last. But my education had already begun. Even before starting the course, I was already much more savvy about how to seek undergraduate cyberenlightenment.

  28. Open University: A Pioneer Presses On

    1. John Pickrell*
    1. John Pickrell is a former Science intern writing from Hertfordshire, U.K.

    After more than 30 years and 2 million satisfied customers, the U.K.'s Open University still leads the way in providing students with a quality science education at a distance

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.— Every time that Judith Lawton sees the indelible potassium dichromate stain on the freezer door, it reminds her “of all the effort I put in” to earn a general science degree from Britain's Open University (OU). The 53-year-old Lawton works for the local tax authority. But her addictlike compulsion to learn about science carried her through 6 years of mixing solutions in her sink, examining fossils, dissecting pig hearts, and using a broomstick to approximate the distance to the moon. And OU was more than happy to be her supplier.

    “At the end of the [academic] year, you feel relief that the pressure is off; you start thinking about gardening and spending more time with your family,” says Lawton, who received her degree last fall and is thinking of going further. “But it's not long before you start to get withdrawal symptoms and begin wondering when the next shipment of course material will arrive.”

    Founded in 1969, the Open University has provided a made-to-fit education to some 2 million students. Despite having no entry requirements and no student campus, it ranks in the top third of British institutions based on level of research activity and— according to a survey last year in The Daily Telegraph—10th overall in the quality and scope of its teaching and research. “No other facet of the British educational system has been so successful” at delivering a quality education to so many students interested in returning to school, says Harold Kroto, a Nobel laureate and chemist at the University of Sussex in Brighton.

    Bright future.

    OU scientists are based at the institution's research campus and headquarters in Milton Keynes.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF OPEN UNIVERSITY

    Science is one of six faculties—the others being technology, education, mathematics and computing, arts, and social sciences. With some 25,000 students a year, the faculty caters to more science students than any other U.K. university. The average, part-time student spends $5700 to take a degree that lasts a minimum of 6 years. A comparable degree at a normal university could run $30,000 or more over 3 to 4 years.

    Study comes via correspondence texts, radio and TV programs, multimedia material, home experimentation, occasional group tutorials, and weeklong summer schools at other universities around the country. A few courses have a small Web component, and two computer courses are taught online. The OU provides “a robust combination of the technological and the human,” says John Daniel, a former vice chancellor now working at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris. The mix is enriched with online conferencing and a network of 300 local study centers for phone and group tutoring. The school's administrative headquarters are at Milton Keynes University, an hour's drive north of London.

    The University of the Air, as the OU was known in its embryonic stages, was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson. “The existing system of higher education was very elitist and riddled with gaps in provision,” says Steve Swithenby, the school's dean of science. Although Wilson envisaged adults studying at home via a consortium of existing universities, pent-up demand and the BBC's desire to expand its educational broadcasting led to a new institution.

    OU had a rocky ride in its formative years, say faculty members. “We had our enemies,” says Mike Bullivant, an OU chemist at Milton Keynes, notably a cynical press and hostile academics with grave doubts about the efficacy of distance education. “People laughed when we said we were going to teach science,” says Daniel.

    The twin challenges facing OU officials were a diverse student body, including those whose high school education did not prepare them for university, and their far-flung geographic locations. OU's response was to build a curriculum that begins with a broad overview of the scientific method. “The OU proved that you could take difficult scientific concepts and explain them so that a student without any background in science could learn and apply them,” says Geoff Peters, the OU's acting vice chancellor. It also allows students to pick and choose courses from many disciplines, in contrast to the narrow path followed at a bricks-and-mortar institution (see table below).

    Academics concur that it's tough to teach science at a distance. “Our students do have less lab experience,” Bullivant admits. To overcome that handicap, the school has developed a highly sophisticated set of home kits. A typical kit in geology, for example, includes fossils, rock and mineral sections, and a polarizing microscope with which to examine them, along with geological maps and a hand lens. OU researchers have even found ways to augment the experience by asking students to collect geographical data. “We decided to take advantage of the fact our students were spread across the country,” says Steven Rose, who directs neuroscience at OU.

    Over the years, students have measured everything from the levels of sulfur dioxide in the air to local moth diversity in their neighborhood. The data have generated scientific publications and have been aired on television, says Rose. There are limits to home experimentation, however. “In chemistry we used to send out huge lab kits, but we can no longer do this due to health and safety legislation,” says Bullivant.

    The home kits are slowly being replaced by virtual experimentation, Bullivant says, mainly in the form of videos and CD-ROMs. And although a typical laboratory experience might include watching computer-generated simulations of magma flow or a video demonstrating the reactions of the alkali metals, these are not just passive experiences. “Students are expected to make observations, take measurements off the screen, and produce lab reports,” says Bullivant.

    The majority of OU students are between ages 25 and 45, although students as old as 96 have enrolled for courses. Most already hold jobs, and although there are no good data on how many move into scientific fields, evidence abounds that they use their degrees to move up the corporate ladder. Members of the armed forces, nurses, teachers, and prisoners are overrepresented in the student pool, and OU's annual intake of 6000 or so disabled students is more than any other institution of higher education in Europe, says Bullivant. OU provides such students with audio or Braille versions of printed material and transcripts of broadcast material, as well as sign language interpreters, lip speakers, and note takers.

    The OU's reach extends far beyond the English Channel with 24,000 overseas students, the bulk of them in Europe. In 1999 OU officials set up the United States Open University, a smaller, independent sister institution with courses that are tailored to the U.S. market. It does not yet have a science faculty. “Science is not the place to start, as it is very resource intensive,” says Peters.

    Past present.

    The school's first graduating class in 1973 (top) began a tradition that continues today at locations across Europe.

    CREDITS: (GRADUATION PHOTOS) OPEN UNIVERSITY

    The university has benefited enormously from its unique relationship over the years with the BBC. “We were pretty difficult to avoid in the early days, when there were only three [TV channels],” says Peters. And officials have nurtured those ties carefully to adapt to the changing times. “As far as science is concerned, the TV material is now used as our shop window, to attract potential students,” says Bullivant. “Now, it's far easier and cheaper for us to send programming out on video.” One of the OU's recent offerings was a program called Rough Science—soon to be broadcast in the United States—where academics, including Bullivant, were dumped on a barren Mediterranean island and asked to complete a series of science-based challenges such as making soap from the natural resources at hand (Science, 22 June, p. 2247).

    The decision to embrace research is another factor in the OU's success. “A university education requires exposing people to where science is achieved,” says Kroto. “Science is not just knowledge but also a set of approaches to uncover new knowledge. This can't be taught by someone who doesn't do research.”

    Rose says he wouldn't have accepted a post at the new university without the opportunity and funding to start up his own lab, maintain his research, and employ students and technicians. “Research had to be an integral part of the OU,” he recalls. “We needed practicing scientists to prove we were at the forefront.” OU scientists spend roughly the same amount of time teaching and doing research as their colleagues in traditional universities.

    Daniel says that OU's future definitely includes Web-based material, but not as a substitute for its traditional tools. “Students often don't have the [necessary] quality of computer or Internet connection,” he says, citing figures showing that fewer than half of U.K. homes have PCs, and some of those lack Internet access. Even so, the school is investing time and money in tailoring its offerings to the Web and hopes to become a leader in online instruction, too. Daniel also believes that technology must be accompanied by the human element. “New providers [of distance education] often forget that a lot of the purpose of adult education is to create intellectual stimulation,” says Daniel.

    That's certainly the case for Lawton, who plans to pursue a master's degree from OU in communicating science. She says that her courses were filled with “mind-blowing experiences” such as probing a lily pollen grain under the microscope and seeing its “truly wonderful intricate nature.” OU officials have fed that “rush” for more than 3 decades, and they see no signs of a slackening demand.

  29. Online Science Is a Stretch for Asia

    1. Dennis Normile

    Asian mega-universities are providing rural populations with an opportunity for postsecondary instruction. But most have been unable to deliver the type of scientific and technical training that is vital to developing nations

    TOKYO— Indonesia's Universitas Terbuka boasts of having the world's largest student body. But its 530,000 students don't ever meet. Instead, they are scattered across the Indonesian archipelago. Thailand's Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU), with 220,000 students, is in the same league, part of a boom in distance learning over the past few decades that has swept through many developing countries in Asia.

    Faced with a surging demand for higher education, these nations see distance learning as an economical alternative to more bricks-and-mortar university campuses. But these resulting mega-universities, generally seen as a vital complement to conventional universities, lack one vital component: With the exception of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL), few offer science or engineering majors. Indeed, only a handful offer any technical courses at all.

    These universities have avoided science and engineering courses for good reasons, says John Daniel, assistant director-general for education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris and the author of Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media, a book on global distance learning. “It is difficult to provide the experimental component,” he notes. In addition, “science is more challenging to teach at a distance, because you have to take the new student gradually and carefully through mathematical and scientific background.” Finally, tight budgets don't allow for much in the way of lab equipment and facilities.

    These logistical and financial hurdles have proven too high for even the region's best distance learning universities. Daniel calls STOU, which began with correspondence teaching, “the most successful of the larger mega-universities” and notes that its textbooks and other printed learning materials have been adopted by many of the country's conventional universities. But aside from some technical offerings in areas such as public health and agricultural extension work, STOU does not offer science and engineering majors.

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    Somchin Sutavarak, vice president of planning for STOU, agrees with Daniel that the difficulty and expense of providing for laboratory work is a major problem. Building a network of laboratories would have been prohibitively expensive, he notes, and even using laboratories at conventional, primarily urban universities would not have helped STOU's target population, which is scattered throughout the country's vast rural areas. “It is doubtful that students could learn pure science courses efficiently,” Sutavarak says about the school's decision not to provide comprehensive scientific training. A final factor is salaries too low to lure potential faculty members away from the private sector.

    The same refrain is heard across the region. Malaysia's Multimedia University, located in the new city of Cyberjaya south of Kuala Lumpar, offers business management courses partly over the Internet. But science and engineering students “need to attend classes for practical reasons,” says a university official.

    Despite the challenges, STOU is now studying the feasibility of establishing a school of engineering. Officials hope to identify which engineering disciplines are most in demand and which would be most amenable to distance education, including the necessary laboratory work.

    That problem was solved early on by OUSL, which since 1987 has offered a full range of degree programs in the natural sciences and engineering. The school opened in 1980, and E. M. Jayasinghe, dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, says establishing science and engineering programs was a priority for OUSL, because “the conventional universities cannot admit all the qualified, eligible students.”

    Sri Lanka has some logistical advantages over its larger brethren. At 19,000, its student population is a much more manageable size. The island is just 430 kilometers north to south, with the vast majority of the population concentrated at the southern end. This places most students within a short trip to three strategically located study centers where OUSL maintains its own laboratories. OUSL is able to maintain laboratories and staff to run them thanks to the backing of the government, which provides about 75% of OUSL's annual budget. In comparison, Thailand's open university depends on student fees for most of its revenue, getting only about 20% of its annual budget from the government.

    At OUSL, science and engineering students work primarily on their own, using textbooks. But laboratory work, under the direction of OUSL instructors, is an integral and compulsory part of many courses. It's also offered on a flexible schedule, to avoid conflicts with work and other responsibilities.

    The university awards 200 or so bachelor's-level science degrees each year, along with some 20 engineering degrees. That's only a tiny fraction of the 12,000 degrees awarded annually by the country's universities in all fields, although Open University officials also point to the several hundred certificates and nondegree diplomas that they award each year in fields such as computer programming and medical laboratory techniques that allow students to advance in their careers. The school also offers some master's degree programs, although the numbers are rather small.

    Even such modest scientific offerings are enough to make officials at other Asian open universities jealous. But a lack of money and a large target population pose a formidable challenge to providing science to a mass audience.

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