ScienceScope

Science  15 Mar 2002:
Vol. 295, Issue 5562, pp. 1991
  1. Southern Light

    Spain is joining the synchrotron club. The science ministry last week approved building Spain's first major facility for probing three-dimensional structures. Plans call for breaking ground next year on the $110 million, 2.5-gigaelectron volt radiation source to open in 2008 near the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). The new center—proposed by a UAB-led team in 1997—will have room for up to 160 research teams, planners say. And it will be open to scientists from across southern Europe, notes Andreu Mas-Colell, head of the Catalán government's research department, which will split the project's cost with the national government.

  2. Protein Probes

    Biologists who use small molecules to explore how proteins work—an approach known as “chemical genetics”—will soon have a major new resource. The National Cancer Institute has just awarded a $40 million, 5-year contract to Harvard University for a Molecular Target Laboratory. The facility, to be headed by Stuart Schreiber, will be an outgrowth of Harvard's 4-year-old Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology. It will develop tools such as protein arrays and build a public database that will catalog up to a million small molecules—synthesized by Harvard and other labs—that block or interact with proteins.

    The high cost of the robotics, protein assays, and other tools needed to systematically screen sets of molecular probes has prevented chemical genetics from taking off, notes chemist Brent Stockwell of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “It's not an easy method to implement; this will make it more accessible.” Harvard's Rebecca Ward says it's not yet known when the data will go online.

  3. Getting to Basics

    The U.S. government should fund only basic research that is of high quality, is relevant to government missions, and meets clear performance goals, according to draft guidelines released earlier this month by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (see www7.nationalacademies.org/gpra). Although no researcher argued with that holy trinity at a recent National Academy of Sciences workshop on the criteria, many wondered about exactly how they will be used to decide which programs deserve cash—particularly when it comes to high-risk research that is bound to stumble. Maybe, OMB's Sarah Horrigan suggested, the guidelines should include “a way to reward scientific failure.” That and other changes could be included in OMB's next draft, due out later this year.

  4. Tower Study Pushed

    Engineers last week told the House Science Committee that it will take several years and at least $40 million to fully understand why the World Trade Center buildings collapsed after the 11 September terrorist attacks—and how other skyscrapers might be made safer.

    Researchers began studying the fall of New York City's 415-meter-tall landmarks even before the dust had settled. But their investigations were hampered by bureaucratic infighting and lack of timely access to the site, witnesses told the committee. Despite such travails, a government-sponsored panel is set to issue a preliminary report next month. It is expected to conclude that jet fuel from the hijacked airliners ignited fires that weakened steel beams, causing the collapse. But panel head W. Gene Corley said more study is needed to understand “an event of this magnitude and complexity.”

    CREDIT: CORBIS SYGMA

    National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) chief Arden Bement said his agency—the government's expert on fire science and building materials—is already planning studies that would examine everything from steel dynamics to sprinkler-system design. Science committee chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and other lawmakers have asked the White House to fund NIST's plan quickly. Bush Administration officials have yet to respond, although they have approved the concept.

  5. Victory Procured

    French scientists have won their long battle against byzantine government rules for procuring laboratory supplies. Research minister Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg announced last week that he had convinced the finance ministry to jettison the guidelines, which forced researchers to get competitive bids and special approval for even relatively small purchases, such as cartons of test tubes (Science, 12 March 1999, p. 1613). Lab directors can now spend nearly $80,000 annually on a product without triggering a bureaucratic paper blizzard.

    “We have won the battle,” says Betty Felenbok of the Institute of Genetics and Microbiology in Orsay, who led a reform campaign that included a petition signed by 5000 scientists. “It is truly a happy ending.”