Science  07 Dec 2001:
Vol. 294, Issue 5549, pp. 2069

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  1. Pluto Power

    NASA says it doesn't have the money, and the White House insists it won't back the mission, but Congress is getting its way—for now. The space agency last week chose a team led by Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and the Applied Research Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, to start designing a spacecraft for a 2006 flight to Pluto.

    The push to go to the solar system's farthest planet comes from Congress, which allocated $30 million for the flyby in the recently approved 2002 NASA budget. Underlining the importance of politics, APL director Richard Roca praised the work of “avid space science supporters, such as Senator Barbara Mikulski [D-MD],” who leads the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget. But the Administration continues to insist that there's just not enough money for a launch, presaging another showdown next year.

  2. No New Toys

    Geophysicists hoping to unveil parts of “the most complete, highest resolution, digital topographic map of Earth” at next week's meeting of the American Geophysical Union will probably have to contain their excitement a few more months. In the aftermath of 11 September, the Defense Department's National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) has “requested” that NASA not release any of the data returned by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM, below), in which NIMA was a major partner.


    After almost 2 years of processing the 10 terabytes of data, researchers had topographic maps of Oregon, California, and the Philippines' Mount Pinatubo volcano ready to show their colleagues how geologic hazards such as landslides, coastal erosion, and volcanic mudflows can be better understood and anticipated. NIMA is “talking to NASA about how to start releasing the data,” says SRTM deputy project scientist Tom G. Farr of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “They're just trying to be cautious, to do the right thing. I don't think it'll be longer than a few months”—just long enough to spoil the holiday fun.

  3. War's First Casualty

    The British government wants to stop publicizing the locations of U.K. labs working with genetically modified (GM) organisms. In October, the government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) temporarily stopped releasing a list that pinpointed government, university, and commercial labs doing GM research on grounds that terrorists might use the list to locate ready sources of virulent superbugs. And last month, the HSE proposed to permanently strike labs working with potential bioweapons from the public list. If parliament agrees, the agency would release a sanitized version in January.

    Observers disagree on whether the censorship is a good idea. “Any other position would be irresponsible,” says Tom Loeffler of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, a grant-giving body. But because “GM organisms currently pose little more threat than existing ones,” delisting the labs does little to improve security, says Alastair Hay, a bioweapons expert at the University of Leeds. Clever readers, he adds, can discover out what labs are doing by trolling through journals.

  4. Wayward Brains?

    Scientists at the U.K.'s Institute for Animal Health (IAH) have come out swinging against two government-sponsored audits that conclude that they mixed up cattle and sheep brains in a high-profile study. The IAH had carried out a 4-year investigation into whether Britain's sheep flock was infected with “mad cow disease.” But last October, an independent laboratory reported that sheep brain samples used in experiments actually came from cows, calling the study's results into question (Science, 26 October, p. 771).

    The audits, made public last week, blame the fiasco on IAH's poor sample labeling and record keeping. But they produced “no clear evidence” for mistakes at IAH, argues institute chief Chris Bostock. The samples originally came from another government facility, he notes, meaning a mix-up or contamination could have occurred either before the IAH took custody or after it sent out the tissues for independent analysis.

    IAH researchers complain that auditors spent just 1 or 2 days visiting their lab in Edinburgh, where much of the work was done, and did not interview the scientists who first worked with the samples. Says one IAH staffer: “Everybody is furious at the way this has been handled.”