Science  17 May 2002:
Vol. 296, Issue 5571, pp. 1215

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  1. Dimming Its AURA

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to let the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. (AURA) run two major observatories for another 5 years despite criticism of AURA's long-term planning.

    Last week NSF's governing board gave the green light to a contract with AURA to manage the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (below) and the National Solar Observatory. In the first-ever competition for a prize worth up to $216 million, AURA bested Research Corp., a private foundation in Tucson, Arizona, and the Universities Research Association Inc., which runs Fermilab for the Department of Energy.


    Last year a National Research Council report faulted AURA for not preparing the groundwork for two instruments deemed essential for the field's progress: the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope and the Large-Aperture Synoptic Survey Telescope. NSF has told AURA that it must do better at helping the U.S. community plan the next generation of telescopes.

    “We have made it clear to AURA that this is not a carte blanche renewal,” says Robert Eisenstein, the outgoing NSF assistant director for mathematics and physical sciences (see p. 1219). An external advisory committee will provide “an added level of scrutiny,” he says.

  2. Wait Till Next Month

    France has a new team of ministers overseeing research and higher education. But their tenure could be short-lived if the Socialists, as some analysts predict, win next month's parliamentary elections and replace them with their own appointees.

    Researchers are keeping a close eye on the new health minister, Jean-François Mattei, a geneticist and parliamentary deputy from the Marseilles area. Two years ago Mattei mobilized researchers for a petition campaign against patenting of genes (Science, 23 June 2000, p. 2115), but he has also upset scientists by advocating strict limitations on human embryo research. Meanwhile, François Loos, a relatively unknown engineer and industry manager who helped run President Jacques Chirac's campaign, has been given day-to-day responsibility for French science within a new superministry for education and research headed by philosopher Luc Ferry.

    “We are just holding our breath,” says one Paris-based biologist about the upcoming elections.

  3. Patented Cells

    An ethics advisory group last week recommended that the European Commission (EC) oppose patenting embryonic stem (ES) cell lines unless they have been modified for specific industrial applications. The European Group on Ethics' proposal, if adopted, would put the EC at odds with U.S. policy, which granted a patent covering both the technique the University of Wisconsin's James Thomson used to derive ES cell lines and any lines thus derived. Stem cell policies vary widely across Europe.


    A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which holds the patent on Thomson's derivation technique, says WARF is reviewing the panel's report but adds “the European Union seems to believe that [our ES cell lines] occur in nature. This is not the case.”

    The panel argues that unmodified lines derived from ES cells “are so close to the fetus or the embryo from which they have been isolated” that patenting them represents “commercialization of the human body.” The panel also backed the use of “compulsory licenses” in situations where the public good required access and proposed a European Union registry of unmodified ES cell lines.

  4. Innovation Plus

    Brazil is preparing legislation to strengthen ties between academic scientists and industry. Although both sectors support the idea, neither thinks the proposal will turn the country into a technological powerhouse.

    The plan, drafted by the Ministry of Science and Technology, would allow universities for the first time to license discoveries to industry, give companies access to public research facilities, and provide greater protection for intellectual property. “We want to give universities greater flexibility,” says the ministry's senior executive, Carlos Américo Pacheco.

    Roberto Nicolsky, a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and head of a high-tech business coalition, would like the bill to go further and subsidize companies willing to take risks. And the president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science says the government's priorities are askew. “We must first strengthen our infrastructure of basic and applied research,” says biochemist Glaci Zancan.

    Pacheco agrees that reforms in basic science are needed. “But we cannot wait for them,” he says. In the meantime, he says, the proposal is “a huge advance for public universities.”

  5. Eisenstein Leaves NSF

    The head of the National Science Foundation's biggest directorate surprised colleagues last week by stepping down from the job. Sources say he felt he had lost the confidence of NSF director Rita Colwell.

    Robert Eisenstein, assistant director for mathematics and physical sciences (MPS), announced that he plans to spend the next 12 months on professional leave at CERN, Europe's particle physics laboratory near Geneva. A nuclear physicist, the 60-year-old Eisenstein joined NSF in 1992 and has served for 4 1/2 years as head of MPS, a $920 million program that funds several large facilities as well as providing grants to individuals and groups.

    “His departure leaves MPS with a big hole to fill,” says chemist Billy Joe Evans of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, chair of the directorate's advisory committee. “Bob has done a great job, and his departure was totally unexpected.”

    NSF officials declined to comment on Eisenstein's decision. But Evans says that NSF deputy director Joseph Bordogna told the committee that the agency “is moving toward having a 5-year term limit for [assistant directors].” According to Evans, Bordogna also noted that NSF's widespread use of rotators—academics who come to Washington for a few years—strengthens NSF's management by allowing it “to change course quickly.”

    Eisenstein, who remains on NSF's payroll, called his NSF stint “a wonderful scientific opportunity.” At CERN he will join a team planning the installation of Atlas, one of four detectors for the Large Hadron Collider.

  6. Next Up

    The longtime director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has agreed to do double duty for the beleaguered parent organization.

    Last week, Smithsonian Institution secretary Lawrence Small named Ira Shapiro as the new interim undersecretary of science, a job embroiled in controversy since Small announced his plan last spring to reorganize Smithsonian research. Shapiro succeeds Dennis O'Connor, who is headed for the University of Maryland (Science, 12 April, p. 235).

    A search committee will hunt for a permanent replacement for O'Connor, who has also served as acting director of the National Museum of Natural History.