News this Week

Science  08 Nov 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5596, pp. 29
  1. TOXICOLOGY

    Questions Swirl Over Knockout Gas Used in Hostage Crisis

    1. Martin Enserink,
    2. Richard Stone*
    1. With reporting by Andrei Allakhverdov and Vladimir Pokrovsky in Moscow.

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K., AND WASHINGTON, D.C.—More than a week after the dramatic predawn raid that ended a hostage crisis in a southeast Moscow theater, scientists were still speculating about the exact nature of the gas that subdued the Chechen terrorists but also killed 118 hostages. As this issue of Science went to press, experts were dubious about the official Russian explanation, which is that the gas was a derivative of fentanyl, an opiate. And evidence was emerging that at least one other compound might have been in the deadly concoction. Hopes for a clearer picture—barring further glasnost from Russian authorities—are now riding on toxicological analyses on Western hostages.

    The stakes for identifying the gas, or chemical cocktail, are substantial, as it could herald a new era in the use of so-called nonlethal weapons in antiterrorism and riot control. “It's a harbinger of what is to come,” says Malcolm Dando, a chemical and biological weapons expert at the University of Bradford, U.K. The unprecedented rescue operation is also likely to focus attention on the ambiguities in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the 1997 treaty that bans the development, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons while allowing for the use of chemicals in law enforcement. A review conference on the treaty will be held in The Hague next spring.

    In a throwback to the Soviet-era practice of shrouding disasters in secrecy, the Russian government initially refused to identify the chemicals pumped into the air-conditioning ducts of the theater in the early morning of 26 October. Pressured by victims' families and foreign officials, Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko on 30 October described the gas as a substance “based on” fentanyl, an opiate widely used as an anesthetic and for pain relief. With little further information available, however, experts started their own detective work, deducing clues from reported symptoms and, in a handful of cases, examining foreign hostages treated outside Russia.

    Some observers say that Russia's fentanyl claim is credible. “Fentanyl was certainly looked at in the 1990s as an incapacitant,” says Dando. “It was not chosen by chance,” adds Georgii Livanov, chief toxicologist at the Health Committee in St. Petersburg, Russia. If applied properly, aerosolized fentanyl or a derivative should affect a patient for only a few minutes, Livanov says, after which “the agent would rapidly and completely decompose.”

    Deadly effect.

    Gas pumped through ventilator shafts quickly overcame hostages and their captives. Russian authorities said it was based on fentanyl (bottom), but some experts are doubtful.

    CREDIT: (TOP) DMITRY LOVETSKY/AP

    Others doubt, however, that a fentanyl derivative alone could have delivered such a hammer blow. Although fentanyl “is many times stronger than morphine,” the anesthetic is “unlikely to have the knockdown effect described,” says chemist Ronald Sutherland, an expert on the CWC at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. “It worked very, very fast; it just amazes me,” says Richard Sullivan, U.K. director of the nonprofit Council for Emerging National Security Affairs.

    Indeed, researchers in Munich say they have evidence that at least one other compound was used in the rescue. Blood and urine samples taken from two German patients who were flown to Munich within 24 hours of the raid have shown traces of halothane, a decades-old anesthetic gas that has been replaced by more modern successors in the West but is still widely used in Russia. One of the patients, an 18-year-old female, might have inhaled halothane while on a respirator in a Moscow clinic after the raid, says toxicologist Thomas Zilker of the Technical University in Munich, but the other, a 44-year-old man, “never saw a ventilator.”

    Other factors point to halothane as a component of the gas, says Joseph Miller, a pharmacologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Halothane has a sweet smell and, if common coloring agents are added, a bluish-gray color, both of which were reported by hostages. (However, Veniamin Khudoley, chief of genetic toxicology at the Russian Ministry of Health's Institute of Oncology in St. Petersburg, believes that description could apply to a fentanyl-based gas.)

    The German team didn't look for fentanyl derivatives because there are hundreds of them, and testing for all of them would have quickly depleted the available blood and urine samples, says forensic toxicologist Gustav Drasch of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. But if Russian authorities name a specific derivative, or other credible information surfaces, the team will try to confirm its presence, he says.

    Meanwhile, the German patients' clothes and shoes have been taken to the German Federal Criminal Police Office in Wiesbaden, says Drasch, where they will be tested for residues. Because fentanyl derivatives are solid compounds, Drasch says, there's more hope of recovering traces of them from clothing than from the human body, where they are quickly metabolized. The U.K.'s Ministry of Defence also revealed plans to sample blood from three former hostages, although it's unclear whether it will make its findings public.

    Some scientists believe that a far more potent compound was used. One candidate, Sutherland says, is etorphine, a derivative of morphine used by veterinarians to tranquilize elephants, rhinos, and other large animals. A dose of etorphine—estimated to be 1000 times as potent as morphine—large enough to knock out people in seconds would be close to the dose that would send someone into a coma and respiratory collapse, Sutherland says.

    The fentanyl explanation is also challenged by Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist and former employee of the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in Moscow. Mirzayanov, who moved to Princeton, New Jersey, after blowing the whistle on Soviet chemical warfare research in the early 1990s (Science, 25 February 1994, p. 1083), claims his former institute is the only one in Russia with a research program in this area—and it never worked on derivatives of fentanyl. Indeed, when Mirzayanov contacted former colleagues back at the institute after the raid, “they all had to laugh” about the government's explanation, he says. Mirzayanov speculates that the Russians used a derivative of BZ, a powerful incapacitating agent that the U.S. military weaponized in the 1960s and 1970s. Mirzayanov's former institute had a supply of the compound that could be deployed immediately, he says. But Miller says BZ and related compounds are unlikely candidates because they are hallucinogenic, a symptom not reported by the hostages.

    Meanwhile, experts disagree strongly on whether the use of the gas—or even its possession by Russian authorities—violated the chemical weapons treaty. The treaty allows the use of chemical agents for “law enforcement, including domestic riot control,” and it requires member states to declare which substances they hold for those purposes. Some argue that the treaty's intent was to allow use of only a limited number of so-called riot control agents, such as tear gas. “There's no way in hell” the Russian operation would be permitted, claims Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a group based in Austin, Texas, that opposes research on so-called nonlethal weapons in the United States. But others disagree. “I don't think they violated anything,” says Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, an expert in biological and chemical weapons.

    If anything, the debate “shows that the treaty needs some work,” says Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. Tucker believes that the United States has refrained from criticizing Russia for using the gas because—apart from the fact that it needs support in its standoff with Iraq—it is operating in the gray zone itself. The Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is funding studies of nonlethal weapons, including “calmatives” such as Valium and Prozac (Science, 2 August, p. 764). Earlier this week, the National Research Council released a study recommending an expansion of that program (see p. 1153).

    Yet although scientists criticize the Russian government for not being forthcoming about the nature of the gas, most agree that they had little choice but to use it. “At the end of the day, was there an alternative?” asks Sullivan. “There was no other way.”

  2. ASTRONOMY

    California Astronomers Eye 30-Meter Scope

    1. Robert Irion

    The creators of the world's largest optical telescopes have set their sights on something bigger—much bigger. Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and the University of California (UC) hope to raise private money to build a telescope with a mirror 30 meters across. Caltech president David Baltimore announced a design study for the telescope as a centerpiece of a new fundraising campaign on 25 October, but Caltech and UC administrators haven't yet agreed on how best to proceed toward a venture that could cost $700 million over the next decade.

    The mammoth observatory, dubbed the California Extremely Large Telescope (CELT), would sport a segmented mirror three times as wide as the ones on each of the twin Keck Telescopes in Hawaii. The ninefold boost in light-gathering area would give CELT the power to trace virtually the entire history of galaxy formation in the universe and peer deeply into regions where stars and planets arise. Two years ago, U.S. astronomers identified such a facility as their top ground-based priority to complement other powerful tools—notably the James Webb Space Telescope, the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

    Star-studded teams in the United States and Europe are pitching competing visions of giant telescopes to their government agencies (Science, 18 June 1999, p. 1913). However, CELT's goal of obtaining purely private funding—and the team's nifty design work to date—might give the California group an edge. “CELT certainly has the momentum and the attention of the rest of the community,” says Matt Mountain, director of the Gemini Observatory and its twin 8.1-meter telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. “They have the bit between their teeth.”

    Indeed, CELT's backers would like nothing better than to jump out of the gate as they did when the privately funded Keck Observatory opened on Mauna Kea a decade ago, years before any other huge telescopes existed. The same key players at Caltech and UC are in place, spearheaded by Keck designer Jerry Nelson of UC Santa Cruz. “This is the partnership we want,” says Caltech astronomer Richard Ellis, director of Caltech Optical Observatories.

    Really big glass.

    The California Extremely Large Telescope's 1080-piece mirror would dwarf one of the Keck Telescope mirrors.

    CREDIT: CELT

    The current blueprint for CELT pushes Nelson's iconic honeycomb-mirror design to a grand scale. Instead of 36 hexagonal mirrors as in each Keck telescope, CELT would use 1080 mirrors acting as one smooth surface. CELT's 1.0-meter mirrors would be easier to make, polish, and handle than Keck's 1.8-meter units, and they would also be less prone to sagging and other distortions.

    Nelson feels confident that building such a fly's eye is within reach. However, giving it a clear view of the heavens will take optical wizardry. A 30-meter telescope will gaze through such a wide cylinder of atmosphere that astronomers must compensate for turbulence in many places at once. Caltech astronomer Richard Dekany and Nelson's team at the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Adaptive Optics in Santa Cruz envision a system of seven lasers arrayed in a ring to spark artificial stars in a layer of sodium atoms 90 kilometers high. Ultrafast computer processors would analyze the stars' wiggles and adjust the flexible surfaces of additional mirrors near the observing instruments, erasing the blurs.

    “Correcting distortion in the volume of our entire field of view is a huge complication,” Nelson says. “At Keck we sort of knew about it, but we didn't think about it during the design.” In contrast, nearly one-third of CELT's projected budget would pay for adaptive optics alone. That investment is worth the risk, Ellis notes: “We'll resolve areas of the sky equivalent to what Hubble sees in each imaging pixel and get detailed spectra of those regions. That's a phenomenal advance.”

    Another key issue is where to build the observatory. The long-range development plan for Mauna Kea allots a site for a giant telescope on the volcano's northern shield, but the viewing conditions there might not be as good as at the now-crowded summit. Moreover, notes Caltech astronomer S. George Djorgovski, native groups in Hawaii might fight such a prominent addition. “Mauna Kea may not be politically viable,” he says.

    Under consideration are sites in dry northern Chile, both near the coast and in the high Atacama Desert. Djorgovski heads a group working with the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) to conduct “vigorous site testing” at unnamed locations in Chile. Astronomers also are studying clear-weather spots in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.

    None of this will matter unless Caltech and UC raise the money, starting with about $70 million for a detailed design study. Caltech's description of CELT in its $1.4 billion campaign announcement focused only on its own role, ruffling some feathers at UC. However, UC administrators won't make a public statement about CELT until the institutions sign a long-delayed legal agreement.

    UC's chancellors endorse CELT, but, according to astronomers, they fret about its cost when the vicissitudes of the California state budget put pressure on donations for other needs. With federal funds for astronomy in similar straits, the solution might involve some hybrid of CELT and a U.S.-funded Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope through NOAO, says Mountain. “People are hopelessly optimistic about how many of these things they're going to have,” he says. “We may struggle to operate more than one.”

  3. FOOD AID

    Zambia Rejects GM Corn on Scientists' Advice

    1. John Bohannon

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—In a stunning decision, the government of Zambia last week rejected thousands of tons of corn donated by the United States because it is likely to contain genetically modified (GM) kernels. The refusal leaves an estimated 2.9 million people at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. But it turns out that the government was only following the advice of its own experts: Science has learned that a delegation of Zambian scientists and economists, after completing a fact-finding tour of labs and GM regulatory offices in South Africa, Europe, and the United States, urged the government to reject the corn. The delegation's final report, which was expected to be released earlier this week, concludes that the U.S. corn should be refused on the “precautionary principle” because studies of the health risks of GM foods “are inconclusive.”

    It was a message that the Zambian government apparently wanted to hear. After a national GM debate on 10 August, President Levy Mwanawasa declared his intention not to allow GM food to be distributed in Zambia. Last week's decision means that of the six southern African nations reeling from drought-induced famine since 2001, only Zambia has categorically rejected U.S. food donations, the bulk of which is corn. The largest donor to the stricken region by far, the United States has promised to provide half of the 1 million tons of food required to feed people in southern Africa until the March 2003 harvest. But because GM and non-GM corn are stored together in the United States, donations cannot be certified as non-GM. Swaziland has accepted unprocessed U.S. corn, whereas Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Malawi have accepted it on the condition that the kernels are first milled into flour to prevent farmers from growing GM crops.

    Drought.

    Zambian farmer inspects dried corn.

    CREDIT: CHRISTINE OSBORNE/CORBIS

    The corn donated by the United States, which Mwanawasa has labeled “poison,” is likely to include kernels from strains engineered to produce a protein from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that's toxic to insects. In the 6 years that Bt corn has been consumed worldwide, no adverse health effects have been reported, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Seeking to get that message across, the U.S. Agency for International Development sponsored the GM fact-finding mission by seven Zambian experts.

    But the Zambian delegation, led by Mwananyanda Lewanika, science adviser to Mwanawasa, took a dim view of Bt corn. Its report notes that the long-term effects of the modified corn have not been studied. The report also warns that antibiotic-resistance genes present in the altered strains could in principle be incorporated into the genomes of gut flora and promote drug resistance. “There is no scientific consensus on GM,” Lewanika claims. “The first concern is that Zambia does not have a biosafety framework that would regulate the introduction of GM organisms.”

    Many observers have expressed chagrin at this stance. “The Zambian government has disregarded the scientific evidence,” Richard Boucher, chief spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, said in a statement on 30 October. The Zambian rejection of GM food is based on “pseudoscience,” says Channapatna Prakash, a plant geneticist at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Prakash speculates that economic rather than health risks motivated the Zambian decision, referring to the possible loss of Europe—which is friendlier to non-GM products—as a food export market if GM crops are planted in Zambia.

    Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Zambia will now be more difficult, says Richard Lee of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), which is trying to arrange for neighboring Zimbabwe to accept at least part of 15,000 tons of U.S. corn in Zambian warehouses in exchange for non-GM corn. WFP had intended to use the U.S. corn to feed 2.5 million Zambians for 3 weeks. According to a conservative scenario from the World Health Organization, at least 35,000 Zambians will die of starvation by March 2003 if more food is not provided.

  4. FISHERY SCIENCE

    Poor to Feel Pinch of Rising Fish Prices

    1. Dennis Normile

    TOKYO—The first major attempt to project global supply and demand for fish has confirmed what many have long suspected: Rising prices are likely to drive fish out of the reach of growing numbers of poor people who rely on the sea for their protein. But, with several fisheries on the verge of collapse, some analysts believe that the study's dire projections—presented last week at the launching of a global research initiative on fisheries science and policy—might in fact be too rosy.

    The analysis, by agricultural economists in Penang, Malaysia, and in Washington, D.C., models fish supply and demand to 2020. Under the most likely scenario, it says, prices for salmon and other high-value fish would rise 15%, and prices for low-end fish such as milkfish and carp would increase by 6%. Fish meal prices, it estimates, would jump 18% to satisfy rising demand for feed for cultured, carnivorous high-value fish (below).

    “The consequences [of current trends] could be dire, depending on whether supply gains are feasible,” says Mahfuzuddin Ahmed, a co-author of the study, which was done by the Penang-based WorldFish Center and the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute. But a continuation of those gains—which have produced a sixfold rise in total fish catch since the 1950s—is doubtful, says his boss, center director Meryl Williams, because three-quarters of the current catch comes from fish stocks that are already overfished, if not depleted. “Those [who study] the population dynamics of fisheries would probably be pessimistic” about supplies, she says.

    Sinking feeling.

    An important source of protein for the poor, fish is likely to be more expensive in 2020 under any of three scenarios.

    SOURCE: IFPRI IMPACT MODEL, JULY 2002

    Fish now account for about 7% of the total food supply, according to the center, and are the primary source of protein for roughly one-sixth of the world's population. Yet fish consumption is generally overlooked in food supply models, which focus primarily on cereals and legumes. Scientists hope to correct that oversight with Fish for All, an initiative to develop science-based policy alternatives for world fisheries. Scientists, environmentalists, and industry representatives from 40 countries gathered in Penang last week for a meeting to launch the effort, led by the WorldFish Center, formerly known as the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources. Both the fish center and the policy institute are part of the World Bank-funded Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

    The increased demand will arise primarily in developing countries, Ahmed's model assumes, where rising incomes are leading to a more diversified diet. But the vagaries of international markets might make it harder for those populations to keep fish on the tables. Under the study's most optimistic scenario, in which sustainable aquaculture is focused on the needs of the poor, lower value food fish prices could drop 12%. But prices would rise 35% if both natural and commercial fisheries collapsed.

    Williams hopes that Fish for All will generate policies that stave off the worst-case scenario. “It's intended to be a nonpolitical platform for bringing the best minds together” to address fisheries issues, she says. First steps could include better statistics on catches and consumption and studies of how climate change might affect fisheries.

  5. TECHNIQUES

    A New Window on the Cell's Inner Workings

    1. Erica Goldman

    Biologists can take beautiful pictures of whole cells and, at the other extreme, outline the molecular structure of single proteins. But they have not had a good way to look at midsized objects within a cell—organelles in the range of 5 to 10 nanometers, such as actin filaments that cleave a cell in half or the protein-packaging Golgi apparatus. Now, researchers have opened a window on such structures with a technique called cryoelectron tomography (cryo-ET), which combines flash-freezing of whole cells with automated electron scanning to create three- dimensional images of intact organelles.

    Cryo-ET bridges a “resolution gap,” explains technique pioneer Wolfgang Baumeister of the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany, noting that it does not require staining, fixation, or disruption of the cell membrane. “The traditional staining and drying techniques” used to examine cells for several decades have been known to introduce confounding structures, says biologist Holger Stark of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. “Using cryo-ET to study the cell in its natural environment will enable cell biologists to clearly distinguish between real structures and artifacts,” Stark says.

    Actin unveiled.

    Cryo-ET reveals part of the macromolecular structure of a cell in this composite illustration.

    CREDIT: O. MEDALIA ET AL., SCIENCE 298, 1209 (2002)

    Baumeister's group reports on page 1209 a “major proof of concept,” as cell biologist Dorit Hanein of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California, describes it. Baumeister's use of cryo-ET to image a network of actin filaments in the highly motile cells of the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum enables the first structural measurements of actin's geometry in the intact cell. “I think it is really exciting, just wonderful,” says Hanein. “We knew how actin and myosin interacted in the test tube, but that didn't answer the question of how they look in the cell.” Seeing what cryo-ET can do to image actin in an undisturbed cell, she says, “really opens [our] eyes” to what might be possible as the technique improves further.

    Cryo-ET works much the same way as medical tomography, such as computerized tomography and positron emission tomography scans, with penetrating beams of radiation used to create image slices. Whole cells are vitrified or flash-frozen and are then mounted on an apparatus that automatically moves through a range of tilt angles, enabling the cell to be sliced like a pie. At each angle, a thin region is exposed to a beam of electrons, yielding a two-dimensional image that is recorded as digital data. A computer assembles the 2D data into a composite 3D image. Then pattern recognition software uses the imaged structure to locate the corresponding organelle in another cell. Although the concept has been around for more than 3 decades, Baumeister explains, only recently have technical advances enabled researchers to obtain data quickly enough to prevent the electron beam from damaging cell structures.

    Cryo-ET will make possible new analyses of cell structure. Baumeister's group, for example, hopes to create a 3D map of all the organelles in a eukaryotic cell and use it to create the first integrated link between atomic-level images (from nuclear magnetic resonance and x-ray crystallography) and cell-level images from light microscopy. Such studies will allow placement of atomic-scale-resolution protein structures within the spatial context of a whole cell, says microscopist Esther Bullitt of the Boston University School of Medicine. Cryo-ET will also help fill gaps in our knowledge of cell movement, says cell biologist Marcus Fechheimer of the University of Georgia, Athens. In the field of cell motility, genetic studies of molecular interactions have “far outpaced” research on “ultrastructure,” he explains, but researchers have not been able to visualize how the cell architecture changes as a result of genetic tampering.

    For structural biologist Kenneth Taylor of Florida State University, Tallahassee, “the biggest application at the moment for cryo-ET will be to determine the 3D structure of cellular organelles that cannot be easily isolated intact.” The technique shows particular promise for imaging any organelle that can be found in the thin margins of the cell, he says, such as the Golgi apparatus, microtubule organizing center, cilia, and flagella.

    The Baumeister lab has shown that cryo-ET is feasible, says Taylor, and, as the technique gains adherents, it will undoubtedly become more accessible to a larger number of labs. “There will be an explosion in cryo-ET in the next 10 years or so,” predicts microscopist Timothy Baker of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “It will be a major player in cell biology, no doubt about it.”

  6. U.S. BUDGET

    Smithsonian Science: Vote of Confidence

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi*
    1. With reporting by Andrew Lawler.

    A year ago, the Smithsonian Institution, home to 16 museums and six research centers, was in danger of losing one-third of its 2003 research funds in a bruising encounter with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The Administration had decided that the National Science Foundation (NSF) should manage $35 million of the Smithsonian's portfolio. But scientists objected, the transfer to NSF was shelved, and last week two national panels concluded that the whole idea was a big mistake.

    A quasi-federal agency established in 1846, the Smithsonian relies on the federal government for 57% of its annual expenses, including funds for research centers that carry out studies ranging from plant systematics to astrophysics. OMB last year wanted to shift funds for three of those centers to NSF: the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). The budget agency argued that scientists at these centers should compete for grants like nongovernment researchers do and that NSF would do a better job of peer review.

    Research relief.

    Two panels advised that Smithsonian science budgets should remain intact.

    CREDIT: JAMES P. BLAIR/CORBIS

    When this proposal was leaked in December 2001, Congress, the Smithsonian, and independent scientists objected loudly. OMB backed down (Science, 7 December 2001, p. 2066). In return, the Smithsonian agreed to ask the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to look into how its appropriation might best be spent.

    Both panels released reports last week saying, in effect, “Don't fix what isn't broken.” They endorsed the status quo because they “were just so impressed by” the Smithsonian's scientific research, says NRC panel member Anthony Janetos of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C. He says research is “one of the real gems” of the institution. Like other panel members, Janetos thinks cutting the direct federal support would be devastating. The NRC report concluded that “it would probably lead to the demise of much of the Smithsonian's scientific research program.”

    Rather than give Smithsonian scientists an unfair competitive advantage, the NRC and NAPA panels argue, federal appropriations keep them on par with their academic colleagues. Three-quarters of the funding pays for salaries, and most of the rest pays for maintenance, administration, and other routine costs. Researchers still need to get some outside funding to do their work. The fact that Smithsonian researchers compete successfully for outside grants—they won 325 in 2001—indicates the excellence of the science they do, the reports conclude. “The staff is doing very well competing on the outside,” says Cornelius Pings, former president of the Association of American Universities and head of the NRC committee. And that should allay OMB's fears about the quality of the work, he adds. However, NRC did call for more extensive, periodic reviews of research by outside experts.

    The panels also uncovered some problems. “The numbers associated with scientific research at the Smithsonian were a little confusing,” says J. William Gadsby, NAPA director of management studies. “We had difficulty sorting things out.” For example, figures provided by Smithsonian leaders often didn't match those provided by the science centers themselves. David Evans, the Smithsonian undersecretary for science, agrees it is a problem and hopes that a newly installed accounting system will remedy it.

    The reports “are ringing endorsements” of Smithsonian scientists, says CfA's director, Irwin Shapiro. Adds STRI's director, Ira Rubinoff: “Hopefully this will allow us to go on and do our work.” Even so, they and their colleagues must wait to see whether the White House follows these recommendations in its 2004 budget.

  7. BIOBANKS

    Population Databases Boom, From Iceland to the U.S.

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Countries and health providers are following Iceland's path and combining health and genetic data on large populations. They promise to deliver “personalized” medicine, but will they?

    In August, residents of the dairy country of central Wisconsin received an unusual invitation from their local health care provider: an opportunity to donate their DNA for research. If they sign up, they will give blood and talk with a clinic staffer about their family disease history, diet, and exercise habits. The projected 40,000 participants will also give researchers extraordinary freedom to use this information—including details of their genetic makeup—to probe the complex interplay between genes, environment, and disease.

    Once researchers have amassed a bank of blood samples, they will scan each subject's DNA for telltale markers of increased risk for various diseases. Ultimately, these data will be combined with the participants' electronic health records in a powerful new type of database. With a touch of a few keys, says Michael Caldwell, director of the Marshfield Medical Research Foundation, which will run the study, researchers will be able to mine the confidential data for links between genes, lifestyle factors, and illness. Caldwell's team hopes to find disease genes that have so far proved elusive and to sort out tricky epidemiologic questions, such as how much a particular combination of genes and exposures—sunlight, say, or drinking alcohol—is likely to raise the risk of cancer or heart disease. “The consensus is that such databases will be the key to unlocking the genetic basis of common disease,” Caldwell says.

    The project puts the medical clinic in Marshfield, Wisconsin, population 19,000, at the cutting edge of the new “genomic” medicine. It is in the vanguard along with countries such as Iceland and the United Kingdom, which believe that these new population databases are a sure-fire way to better health care. If the databases can find more disease genes and quantify risks, doctors believe they can then give patients personalized treatments and prevention plans. But ferreting out these links, say researchers involved, requires huge DNA collections, bigger than any gathered to date—some projects aim to sample a million people—plus long-term health data on each person who donates his or her DNA.

    That's a dangerous combination, say some ethicists. They worry that data won't remain confidential and suggest that companies, which will play a role in some projects, should not be allowed to profit from people's genetic heritage. Indeed, Iceland's decision to give one biotech company, deCODE Genetics, exclusive rights to the nation's health records ignited a firestorm of controversy 4 years ago that continues even now.

    Heartland biobank.

    This volunteer's DNA will go into a database to be probed by the Marshfield Clinic, which plans to study gene-environment interactions among residents of central Wisconsin.

    CREDITS: MARSHFIELD CLINIC

    And although many geneticists agree that these databases will yield a plethora of useful information, it is not clear that they will deliver on their most ambitious promises. “It's still mostly hype,” says Stanford Law School ethicist Henry Greely. Nobody knows for sure, for instance, that bigger studies will be more successful at pinning down disease risks than previous, smaller studies. Researchers are also split on the best way to design population databases. “There are many, many opinions and not a lot of hard facts about this field,” says human geneticist David Altshuler of Harvard Medical School in Boston and the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    But that's not dampening enthusiasm. Encouraged by their native scientists, a half-dozen countries—as well as some U.S. health care providers—are laying plans to compile health information and collect DNA from a broad swath of the population. All are grappling with similar scientific and ethical issues.

    From families to populations

    Small DNA studies sufficed when the target was easier: a single gene that, when mutated, triggers a rare inherited disorder such as Huntington's disease. Common disorders such as arthritis or stroke—believed to be caused by defects in multiple genes in combination with lifestyle factors such as diet and smoking—pose a trickier challenge. Because each gene contributes just a small amount to overall risk, it emits a weaker signal, confounding efforts to find it. To compensate, researchers need to study genetic profiles of many more people and also incorporate information on phenotype, or health data.

    One of the best-known ventures is Iceland's deCODE Genetics, which 5 years ago made the startling announcement that it proposed, under a contract with the Icelandic government, to put the health records of all 270,000 citizens into a single database. This health information—coded so it could not easily be traced back to individuals—would then be combined with Iceland's detailed genealogy and genetic data collected from volunteers. Under deCODE's 12-year license, drug companies could access the data for a fee; access would be free to academic researchers for “noncommercial” projects. Icelanders wouldn't learn their test results; the main benefit, supporters argued, was that the project would boost the country's economy.

    Researchers within and outside Iceland strongly objected. Perhaps the most contentious issue is that the project relies on “presumed consent”: Government health records on every citizen are included in the database unless individuals specifically request otherwise. After safeguards were added to ensure privacy—for example, two government-appointed bodies will oversee encryption of data for research and database operations—the country voted to approve the project. About 7% of the population has opted out of the study.

    Maverick.

    DeCODE's Kari Stefansson started the trend in population databases.

    CREDIT: GINO DOMENICO/AP

    DeCODE can't begin uploading medical records until it passes a final hurdle, expected next year: an outside expert's test of the database security system, says Icelandic health official Gudridur Thorsteinsdottir.

    But in the interim, the company has compiled proprietary genetic data on a large chunk of Iceland's population by embarking on more traditional, although still ambitious, gene hunts for specific diseases. Through referrals from clinicians, deCODE researchers have identified 80,000 volunteers for these disease studies and have analyzed, or genotyped, their DNA (tagging at least 1000 markers on each genome). Already, the company says it has mapped or identified genes involved in arthritis, stroke, schizophrenia, and many other diseases and it is beginning to publish these findings.

    Once the full database is ready, it can be used for new types of studies. “You will begin to see correlations you couldn't before,” claims deCODE CEO Kari Stefansson—for example, whether a gene for diabetes also predisposes a carrier to hypertension or stroke.

    Because Iceland's population is relatively homogeneous and has unique genealogical data, its power to find new genes might never be matched, says geneticist Stephen Warren of Emory University in Atlanta. But findings in Iceland won't necessarily apply directly to other ethnic groups and more diverse populations.

    Beyond Iceland

    Iceland's experience has informed the design of other population databases, such as one in Estonia. In September, the government-founded, nonprofit Estonian Genome Foundation began collecting DNA samples from 10,000 volunteers age 16 year and up. This 3-year pilot project, funded with $2.5 million by EGeen International, a U.S.-based company, will rely on a health questionnaire rather than medical records. Project founder Andres Metspalu of the University of Tartu, Estonia, who eventually hopes to enroll 1 million of the country's 1.4 million people, says that organizers have taken great pains to educate the public and allay ethical concerns. Participants can ask to see their genetic profile. And by feeding back to participants data that can be used in health care, Metspalu says, the project will give benefits “back to the people.”

    Giving back.

    Andres Metspalu notes that Estonia's population database project will let participants see their own genetic profile.

    CREDIT: ESTONIAN GENE BANK

    The U.K.'s Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust charity are planning to spend $66 million on a large cohort study with 500,000 volunteers (Science, 3 May, p. 824). “We're very different from Iceland in many ways,” says Tom Meade of MRC.

    Starting in 2004, BioBank UK plans to gather examination and interview data from volunteers 45 to 69 years old and then track them for at least 10 years. By starting with middle-aged volunteers—who aren't promised any direct benefit—the researchers expect to see enough cases of specific diseases to verify and quantify links with candidate genes. Access to BioBank UK will be open to “any bona fide researcher with a good idea,” says Meade.

    “I think it's a very exciting project,” says cancer geneticist Nathaniel Rothman of the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI). He says with 500,000 samples, BioBank UK will be the largest population database in the world, and it will draw on resources—such as participants' national health care records for prescription histories and comprehensive disease registries—that are “just not available in the U.S.”

    To the east in Latvia, researchers in June got parliamentary approval for a planned pilot database. Even scientists in Germany, which has been wary of some areas of genetic research, are contemplating an Estonia-like project, says Spiros Simitis, an ethics law professor at the University of Frankfurt. Researchers in Quebec are seeking funding for a $19 million, 5-year project that would initially enroll 50,000 adults, says Claude Laberge of the University of Laval in Quebec City. And Singapore is taking the first steps toward a population database with five new disease registries and a linked cancer tissue databank (Science, 30 August, p. 1470).

    Pros and cons

    Proponents believe these databases will be a gold mine for improving health care. Identifying the genes involved in common diseases will eventually yield new treatments, they say. And quantifying genetic risks—for instance, how much a certain combination of mutations ups the risks of cancer—could help patients decide whether to have invasive procedures, such as a colonoscopy. Companies could use these databases to design drugs suited for an individual's genetic profile.

    Some of these goals are out of reach today, database designers concede. Finding new disease genes, for instance, requires scanning the entire genome for markers. But the cost—10 cents per marker, when 50,000 markers per person might be needed—is prohibitive, says Metspalu. He and others are banking on technological advances—at least a year away—to lower the cost to 1 cent per marker, as well as a new kind of genome map that will reduce the number of markers needed.

    Yale geneticist Kenneth Kidd sees another obstacle: The databases will be only as good as the individual clinical or exposure information they contain. “The quality of diagnosis is a sine qua non of doing these kinds of studies,” Kidd says. “Are these individuals going to be well worked up?” Opinions vary over whether a routine exam and a patient's health record are sufficient, or whether more detailed measures are really needed—such as insulin metabolism tests to study diabetes.

    Harvard epidemiologist Walter Willett has a more fundamental complaint. “We already know that most variation in human disease is due to diet and lifestyle factors,” he says, and quantifying how the risks vary with one's genetic makeup usually won't change the solution: encouraging healthier lifestyles. Willett worries that the zeal for genomic medicine will divert resources from prevention (Science, 26 April, p. 695).

    Willett is also part of a camp that argues that new population studies could be reinventing the wheel, because existing studies with DNA samples could provide similar information (see table). Funded by NCI, he and colleagues are pooling data from many large cohort studies, such as Harvard's nurses and physicians studies and EPIC, a European cancer study; the combined database will have more than 1 million DNA samples for cancer research. True, there are hurdles to studying additional diseases: Participants might have to be tracked down for fresh DNA samples or new informed consent. But Willett thinks that these efforts, as well as new population databases, should be supported.

    View this table:

    And 4 years after deCODE sparked international debate on population databases, ethical questions still loom large. One issue is “how much of a blanket consent you can create” for studying unspecified diseases, says Wylie Burke of the University of Washington, Seattle. Meade says there is “still a lot of discussion” about whether BioBank UK participants should be able to give consent only for specific diseases. Estonia and Marshfield will rely on ethics review boards to decide if new informed consent is needed to undertake potentially controversial studies—on behavior, for instance.

    Despite claims to the contrary, some critics charge that privacy is still not assured. Jane Kaye, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, U.K., says that although Iceland's data system is “quite tight,” BioBank UK has not yet outlined a plan that will adequately protect data. The role of companies, which is still in flux, remains contentious: The advocacy group Human Genetics Alert, for instance, is opposed to allowing companies to patent findings from BioBank UK.

    Biobanks, American style

    Genomics leaders in the United States think the benefits of population databases will likely outweigh these risks. But federally funded projects are still in the early planning stages. At the National Institutes of Health, officials are thinking about a project like BioBank UK but even bigger, says Lisa Brooks of the genome institute there: “Something that looks at a lot of people and a lot of diseases. Something that's big and pretty comprehensive.”

    The obvious way to create a large population database in a country without a national health care system is to work with health care providers, as Marshfield is doing on a small scale, says Stanford geneticist Neil Risch. Indeed, in some ways, the Marshfield Personalized Medicine Research Project is out in front, because Marshfield Clinic—whose research foundation is conducting the study—already has electronic health records on more than 1.2 million patients and began collecting DNA samples this fall. Patients won't learn their results, but they will help advance health care in general, the clinic tells donors. The project has strong support in Wisconsin, where the state has contributed $2 million of $3.8 million in initial funding. Although the nonprofit clinic expects to patent discoveries, it will funnel any profits back into research or donate them. Companies will not be directly involved: “The hope is to keep funding in the public domain and have this become a national resource,” Caldwell says.

    Bottleneck.

    The cost of sequencing DNA samples like these has to drop considerably before gene-discovery studies in large populations will be affordable.

    CREDIT: MARSHFIELD CLINIC

    Some other health care providers are also moving ahead on their own: The Mayo Clinic is building a database of the health records for 4 million of its patients and members; it plans eventually to add genetic data stored in the clinic's many tissue banks. A research database is also “in the early discussion stages” at Kaiser Permanente's division in Northern California, which has 3.1 million members, says Kaiser Permanente epidemiologist Cathy Schaefer.

    But U.S. researchers are proceeding cautiously, wary of running into the controversy that Iceland's deCODE and other projects have encountered. Says Risch: “We're not going to have many opportunities. It will be very expensive, and it really needs to be done right.”

  8. BIOBANKS

    Private Biobanks Spark Ethical Concerns

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    As countries and health care providers rush to create huge new databases linked to genetic data (see main text), an increasing number of companies in the United States are amassing large, entirely private, “biobanks” of DNA and tissue samples. The companies either use this material themselves or sell it to drug companies or academic researchers for studying diseases, say, or tailoring drugs to individuals.

    The companies assure donors that their privacy and interests will be protected, but some bioethics experts caution that such safeguards are hard to verify. Companies aren't necessarily subject to regulations, notes Mary Anderlik, a bioethicist at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, and “it's an extremely spotty area.”

    “The main issue is whether people [who donate samples] know what they're getting into,” says George J. Annas, a law professor at Boston University.

    One of the biggest commercial biobanks is Genomics Collaborative Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which claims to have health data and tissue and DNA samples from 120,000 people from all over the world. The firm maintains links with donors so it can update its “gold standard diagnostics,” says medical director Kevin Krenitsky, but donor identity is not revealed. The company works with physicians to recruit patients to donate samples; Ardais Corp. of Lexington, Massachusetts, which also boasts 120,000 samples, contracts with major medical centers for disease tissue. Another company, DNA Sciences Inc. of Fremont, California, has collected 3000 of its 18,000 DNA samples from volunteers recruited through a Web site.

    These companies say they provide secure data systems for ensuring patient confidentiality and voluntarily follow federal rules for protecting human subjects. But Anderlik says these procedures are often shrouded in secrecy. Some private biobanks, for example, consider key documents such as consent forms proprietary. And if companies go bankrupt, critics contend, tissue and DNA samples might be sold to practically anybody. Last year, for example, a court in Japan auctioned off a human cell collection that a scientific society had used as collateral on a loan.

    Some U.S. states have laws specifying ethical standards for using DNA samples, but federal regulations are a “patchwork,” Anderlik says. She favors federal licensing of biobanks, with an exception for short-term collections for specific studies. Iceland enacted such a law in 2000, but no such legislation is pending in the U.S. Congress.

  9. PROFILE: BRIAN TUCKER

    Bracing for the Shocks of the Future

    1. Kathryn Brown

    From Ecuador to Nepal, a geoscientist leads a hands-on crusade to help city dwellers survive earthquakes

    The news photos from San Giuliano di Puglia were heart-wrenching: a rainbow of backpacks brightening the cold ground; piles of concrete rubble strewn amid unscathed apartment buildings. Until last week the litter was an elementary school. Then an earthquake struck southern Italy, leveling the building and killing dozens of its youngest pupils.

    To Brian Tucker, the horror was all too familiar. He spends his days trying to stave off such disaster. Tucker heads GeoHazards International (GHI), a nonprofit group that helps the developing world brace for earthquakes. With a staff of five and a few phones based in spartan offices above a tuxedo rental shop in Palo Alto, California, GHI has taught masons how to strengthen schools in Quito, Ecuador, and in Katmandu, Nepal. The group has counseled community leaders about quake risk across Latin America and Asia. And there is plenty of risk: Over 85% of the world's quake-prone cities are in developing countries, often overlooked by researchers.

    At 57, Tucker, a seismologist, looks like a softer version of actor Anthony Perkins. He's tall and lanky, with a sharp nose, brown eyes, and short hair in need of a comb. Tucker chooses his words carefully, although his voice cracks with enthusiasm. Colleagues call him a dreamer with a practical streak. “Brian is completely committed to the safety of people we'll never know,” says L. Thomas Tobin, a GHI adviser and earthquake consultant in Mill Valley, California.

    That commitment has begun to pay off. In September, Tucker was named a MacArthur Fellow, winning a $500,000 genius award for his work at GHI. Still, Tucker describes his success as “a very slow creep.” And there have been surprises along the way. “When I started, I felt I could do this because I knew something about seismology in California,” Tucker says. “That took me about a tenth of the way.”

    A formula for success

    Tucker's journey began 27 years ago, with a cup of tea. In 1975, while a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he studied quake prediction with Soviet scientists in Tajikistan. One afternoon, he visited a Tajik villager at home. Sitting inside the adobe house, Tucker noticed telephone pole-like posts supporting each corner—a uniquely sturdy design. “My dad was a real kook, and he thought houses should be built this way,” his friend shrugged.

    In fact, the posted house had withstood a 1949 quake that crushed neighboring homes with snow and rock. Impressed, Tucker quizzed his Tajik friend: How would he build a house now? The startled reply: “In the traditional way, of course! I'm not nuts.” That exchange, Tucker says, convinced him that earthquake defense is about belief as much as building codes: “The moment was seared into my brain.”

    Catalyst for change.

    Seismologist Brian Tucker left research to save lives in developing countries.

    CREDIT: GEORGE NIKITIN/AP

    Tucker brought that lesson to his next job, a 7-year stint heading the geohazards program for what is now called the California Geological Survey. While he was improving quake readiness at home, however, his thoughts often traveled. “Year after year, conference after conference, my colleagues and I would shake our heads and say, ‘Gosh, the real problem is in developing countries,’” Tucker says. “I was almost 45 when I began to think I'd spend the rest of my life saying, ‘Somebody should help these people.’”

    Finally, disaster jolted Tucker into action. In the winter of 1988, an earthquake struck Armenia, killing over 30,000 people. A year later, a comparable temblor—the 1989 Loma Prieta quake—hit the San Francisco Bay area. It killed 66. Haunted by the asymmetry, Tucker left his job, enrolled at Harvard University to learn public policy and business basics, and then leased a San Francisco loft. “I sat on the floor of this office loft,” Tucker recalls, “with no furniture, carpet, or phone, thinking, ‘What have I done?’” His wife was expecting their first child.

    So Tucker got busy. In 1993, with a staff of two and a promise of $200,000 in annual funding from the OYO Corp., a Japanese technology firm, he launched GHI. Its kickoff project took place in Ecuador's capital, Quito, a city of about 1.5 million. Like Tucker, the city's mayor was a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School and welcomed an earthquake study.

    In Quito, GHI discovered a formula for success. At first, the project made only modest gains. Tucker and his collaborators did some basic seismology and engineering: Evaluating soils, building styles, potential ground shaking, and other factors, they estimated Quito's damage if a quake hit. Before a crowd of cameras, the mayor lauded GHI's results and announced a new quake-response office. And that was it. “We soon realized all we'd done was create another bureaucrat,” Tucker says.

    They needed a new strategy. “We decided to become like the Godfather, making them an offer they couldn't refuse,” Tucker says. In 1995, GHI returned to Quito, publishing a report with the names, addresses, and photos of the city's most vulnerable schools—along with a list of simple repairs needed to shore up the buildings. Happy to become heroes, local politicians jumped at the suggestions. “Before the project was half over,” Tucker says, “we had money committed by the city and the World Bank to strengthen several schools.” Since then, GHI has brought the “Godfather principle” to every project.

    By the numbers

    There have been other lessons. In Katmandu, GHI learned how to inspire everyday people. Invited to a village by Amod Dixit, head of Nepal's National Society for Earthquake Technology, Tucker's team confronted a poorly built two-story school. The cheapest solution: Bulldoze the building and fly in plywood. But Tucker resisted. “Our job is not just to build safe schools,” he notes. “That wouldn't be teaching people how to help themselves in the future.”

    Instead, GHI offered to pay a third of the cost to strengthen the school, if village masons agreed to work cheaply and local businesses donated materials such as steel and paint. They did. Together, the team retrofitted the school building, tying the walls together, wrapping them in steel mesh, and strengthening the roof. “Earthquake preparedness is so simple that even Nepal, one of the weakest economies of the world, can afford it,” says Dixit. “Brian helped us prove it.” The former king of Nepal awarded Tucker a medal for his efforts.

    A year later, Tucker returned to the village. Visiting with the masons, he learned that homeowners had begun seeking their services, hoping to build or modify houses more safely. That, collaborators say, illustrates GHI's lasting contribution. “Working as a catalyst, Brian and GHI wake the people, giving them the first push, encouraging them, showing the way,” says Vitaly Khalturin, a senior research associate at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. “He works for the future.”

    Pitching in.

    Working with donated labor and supplies, GHI helped a community strengthen this school in Katmandu, Nepal.

    CREDIT: GEOHAZARDS INTERNATIONAL

    No matter what the location, GHI brings the same basic technology. To explore a city's quake risk, GHI calculates its “earthquake lethality potential,” or the probable number of lives that would be lost to a temblor, and then finds ways to reduce it. Better buildings and emergency plans are key. “Our end product is not a published report or a meeting,” Tucker explains. “It's a higher number of kids studying in safe schools in our target city.”

    To test its method on a broader landscape, GHI recently spearheaded an 18-month pilot project—the Global Earthquake Safety Initiative—comparing quake risks and solutions in 21 vulnerable cities, from Tokyo to Santiago, Chile. The international effort, involving a dozen earthquake scientists, city teams, and the United Nations Centre for Regional Development, painted starkly realistic scenarios. According to the analysis, for instance, collapsing buildings would cause most of the deaths in a Delhi, India, earthquake; however, in San Salvador, landslides would cause far more casualties.

    Tucker wishes others could see the logic of quake safety. “When I was a kid, nobody wore a seat belt,” he says. “People wouldn't stand for that today. Well, I look forward to the day when people won't stand for the buildings we see in Katmandu.” According to GHI's pilot project, a schoolchild in Katmandu is 400 times more likely to die during an earthquake than a child in Kobe, Japan.

    And the stakes grow ever higher, as cities swell. GHI estimates that 60 cities in highly seismic zones now house at least 2 million people. Most are in developing countries. There, developers hastily build housing for booming populations, often neglecting safety codes. And there are more pressing concerns, including widespread hunger and poor health. “All this technical work we've studied in California doesn't touch the real problems overseas,” says Laura Dwelley-Samant, a GHI project director. “How does earthquake preparation compare, say, to life-threatening diarrhea?”

    Even after a disaster, improvements come slowly. Last year, a magnitude 7.7 quake ripped through western India, claiming over 20,000 lives and destroying or damaging 1 million homes, mainly in cities. “Much has been [said] about urban vulnerability since then,” says Manu Gupta, co-director of New Delhi's Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society. “There is very little that has actually been done.”

    But that could change. In September, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded GHI a 3-year, $15 million grant to assess quake risks and solutions in 20 major Indian cities. The USAID budget, Tucker says, includes money for safety measures—a key component to the project's success. Similarly, GHI has won a USAID grant to improve quake safety in three Central Asian republics.

    These grants—and the recent $500,000 MacArthur prize—are also key to GHI's shoestring budget, points out seismologist James Brune of the University of Nevada, Reno, a GHI adviser. “Brian wouldn't have much hope of going to [the National Science Foundation] or [the U.S. Geological Survey] to get funding for these projects,” Brune says. “He's saving anonymous lives.”

    But Tucker says the MacArthur prize's prestigious reputation is the real reward. “The people who get the most visibility for working on earthquakes in the U.S. don't get tenure or bonuses doing what we do,” he says. “So we've been viewed as this eccentric, hippie bunch of do-gooders. That the MacArthur people value what we're doing is exhilarating.” And as GHI presses ahead, its value is sure to grow.

  10. EUROPEAN RESEARCH

    Framework 6 Debut Prompts Calls for a Better Approach

    1. Giselle Weiss,
    2. Gretchen Vogel*
    1. With reporting by Lone Frank in Copenhagen and John Bohannon and Philipp Weis in Cambridge, U.K.

    Momentum builds for a European Research Council as the European Union prepares to launch its next 5-year plan for applied research and training

    Bernhard Stauffer, a physicist at the University of Bern, Switzerland, is heading off this week for another 3 months' drilling into the Antarctic ice. The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) hopes to increase understanding of the world's climate—assuming it avoids the problem of stuck drill bits that has halted previous efforts. It's also “one of the few real European projects,” Stauffer adds, bringing researchers from Switzerland, the U.K., Germany, France, Norway, and five other countries together on the ice sheet.

    As harsh as conditions are at the bottom of the world, EPICA's biggest threat is not the extremes of cold and weather but the shifting political winds in Brussels. Every 5 years the European Union's research program that funds a large part of EPICA, known as Framework, reinvents itself. A new multibillion-dollar budget is adopted, and staff devise new research priorities and new funding mechanisms. Although EPICA has widespread support, Stauffer and his colleagues say they would feel more comfortable being judged in a process that prizes scientific merit above all else. That sentiment is fueling a drive for a new pan-European organization, run by scientists, that would support basic research without political interference.

    Every new Framework program brings with it a chorus of complaints. And the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), which is being feted in Brussels next week in advance of its 1 January start, is no exception. “They are always changing rules, forms, emphasis, [moving from] networks to I-don't-know-what,” says Thomas Stocker, Stauffer's boss at Bern and co-leader of the Swiss contribution to EPICA. Researchers say that applying for and running projects impose huge administrative burdens, that the required multinational collaborations are unwieldy and inefficient, that funding decisions are distorted by political pressures, and that large swaths of basic research are ignored.

    None of those complaints is new. But this time there's an alternative model in the wind. Last month 200 research managers gathered in Copenhagen to discuss establishing a European Research Council, an entity that would fund knowledge-driven basic research selected by peer review. “If you listen to scientists, they always repeat the same criteria: They want an independent body; … they want it to be science-driven,” says Christoph Mühlberg, who coordinates European cooperation for Germany's research council, DFG.

    View this table:

    Every reincarnation of Framework is bigger, richer, and more ambitious. FP6 has a budget of $17.5 billion, 17% more than its predecessor, and received 12,000 “expressions of interest”—suggested projects that help mold its research themes—from researchers. The research must be geared toward boosting Europe's economy—hence its bias toward applied research—and it must not duplicate the work of national research councils. Although the amount seems large, it accounts for barely 5% of nonmilitary research funding across the 15 member nations.

    The structure of FP6 seems to accentuate the trend toward bigger, more complex collaborations. FP6 will aim to pool European expertise in a particular field by gathering all the top groups into “networks of excellence.” In addition, “integrated projects” will have multimillion-dollar budgets and well-defined methods and goals. These ideas “are good instruments to coordinate research in Europe,” says Jean-Luc Clément, director of international affairs for France's CNRS research agency.

    Framework is widely credited with getting researchers across Europe talking to each other. Its Mobility program—which seeks to make it easier for researchers to move from country to country—is “one very, very positive trait,” says Kai Simons, director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden.

    But researchers are less enthusiastic about the large, joint projects. Framework has an “infatuation with networks,” says Gottfried Schatz, head of the Swiss Science and Technology Council, an advisory body. One problem with them, says Stocker, is that “the more people around a table, the less efficient [the enterprise] becomes.” Another problem is that the groupings are often forced. Large networks “demand a new degree of cooperation between groups that are by definition competing with each other,” says Frank Gannon, executive director of the European Molecular Biology Organization.

    Researchers have also become increasingly frustrated by what they see as the influence of politics in the granting decisions. Susan Gasser, a molecular biologist at the University of Geneva, says she refuses to sit on E.U. review panels because they “review proposals, only to have the final decision be a political one.” Adds Peter Gruss, president of Germany's Max Planck Society, “The handling of grants is clearly not a bottom-up, science-directed mechanism.”

    Many researchers say a new body, free of political influence, is needed to support basic, blue-sky research. “Europe needs to come closer, sooner or later, to the U.S. National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health,” says Patrick Aebischer, president of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

    In Copenhagen, researchers discussed the idea of having national funding bodies place a portion of their budgets into a central pot, although many worried that this mechanism would not provide enough money. There was also a proposal to give half of the Framework budget to an independent research council, maintaining the rest for more applied Framework-style projects. But such a scheme would require rewriting E.U. rules and hacking through a thicket of bureaucracy.

    Despite these unanswered questions about funding, the organizers of the Copenhagen meeting called on researchers to lobby their own governments for the necessary changes to E.U. research policy. “The idea of a European Research Council is unstoppable,” says Gruss. “It will come.”

  11. PALEOCEANOGRAPHY

    Inconstant Ancient Seas and Life's Path

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Seawater composition has changed over geological time, geochemists now realize. Has biological evolution changed along with it?

    What could the geophysics of Earth's deep interior have to say about the evolution of life? The two disciplines might seem to be a world apart, but a paper in this issue of Science (p. 1222) could help link them together. The new work confirms that the chemical composition of the world ocean has swung back and forth during the past half-billion years. Those oscillations, likely driven by the varying tempo of plate tectonics, might have helped trigger a number of important evolutionary events. Among them: the explosion of shell-bearing animals in the Cambrian period, the outpouring of chalk that created the White Cliffs of Dover, and the resurgence of massive coral reefs of recent geologic times.

    Geochemist Heinrich Holland of Harvard University, who has long been skeptical that the oceans were so variable, is now convinced. “There have been very significant changes in seawater” during the past 500 million years, he says. The details remain to be worked out, but several researchers are now sketching out a picture of how rock and life might have interacted through seawater chemistry in a sort of global-scale “geobiology.”

    The new evidence for inconstant seawater comes from the skeletons of fossil sea urchins. Previous signs of compositional changes came from analyses of concentrated seawater that was trapped in microscopic pockets in salts deposited in ancient evaporating seas. Geochemist Tim K. Lowenstein of the State University of New York, Binghamton, and his colleagues analyzed the brine of fluid inclusions from nine evaporites of various ages. Last year they reported the results: two broad oscillations during the past 550 million years in the relative proportions of magnesium and calcium, both major constituents of animal shells and skeletons. The seawater ratio of magnesium to calcium (Mg/Ca) was high 550 million years ago, just before the Cambrian explosion of shelled animals. It dropped precipitously into the Paleozoic era, rose to another peak in the Permian period 275 million years ago, fell again into the hothouse Cretaceous of 120 million years ago, and rose to modern high values—a cycle of roughly 275 million years.

    Nine samples covering a half-billion years left some room for doubt, however. So sedimentologist Tony Dickson of the University of Cambridge, U.K., turned to another sort of chemical record. When echinoderms—such as sea urchins—build their calcium carbonate skeletons, they take up magnesium in proportion to its abundance in seawater. Dickson sorted through 103 fossils using scanning electron microscopy, looking for ones whose ornate, finely preserved microscopic skeletal structure suggested that nothing had altered the fossil's chemical composition. Twenty-eight samples from 18 different time intervals, stretching back 525 million years, fit the bill.

    Oceanic ups and downs.

    Analyses of mineral-trapped ancient seawater (vertical bars) and marine fossils (blue dots, from red-stained fossil, bottom) show seawater composition swings in time with sea-floor hot-spring effects on seawater (green line).

    CREDITS: J. A. D. DICKSON

    Dickson's resulting seawater Mg/Ca changes broadly match those derived from Lowenstein's fluid inclusions. And, helping clinch the case, geochemists Juske Horita of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Heide Zimmermann of Harvard, and Holland report in the 1 November issue of Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta that they see the same “double oscillation” in fluid inclusion analyses of their own and those in the literature.

    Oceanographers are sure to debate the reasons behind the cyclical changes in seawater composition, but most agree that the answer will involve a link between plate tectonics and the percolation of seawater through the hot rocks of the midocean ridges. Ever since the 1977 discovery of hot springs along the crest of the volcanic midocean ridges, oceanographers have presumed that chemical reactions between seawater and hot ridge rock would influence seawater composition. The rock removes magnesium from seawater, for example, and releases calcium.

    The flux of midocean ridge brine into the world ocean should wax and wane along with the midocean ridges: The more ridges there are and the faster they produce hot, new ocean crust, the reasoning goes, the more chemically altered brine will be produced. Plates drifting on the deep churnings of the mantle have repeatedly merged into a single supercontinent that eventually breaks up. When supercontinents rule, the total length of midocean ridges in the world is at a minimum; when the continents are dispersed, with midocean ridges separating them, total ridge length peaks. Researchers can trace the ebb and flow of the midocean ridges in the rise and fall of sea level: The more extensive the ridges, the higher sea level will rise, like the bottom of a bathtub being pushed up.

    In 1996, geochemist Lawrence Hardie of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has worked with Lowenstein, put all this together in a model in which the hot, mineral-laden brine of midocean hot springs controls seawater composition. Using past sea level variations as a proxy for hot-spring fluxes, Hardie's model showed the Mg/Ca ratio rising and falling through the past half-billion years (the Phanerozoic eon), much as the evidence from fluid inclusions and fossils now suggests. “Everything fits together so beautifully in this story,” says geochemical modeler Robert Berner of Yale University. “I would like it to be right; it makes sense.” Berner and others caution, however, that there might be a bit more to changes in seawater than changing hotspring fluxes. Changes in the input of river-borne minerals, for example, look significant, says geochemist Fred T. Mackenzie of the University of Hawaii, Manoa. And estimates of the magnitude of past sea level changes are shrinking.

    Although most researchers might be willing to accept that the vagaries of plate tectonics may in large part drive oceanic chemistry variations, the suggestion that chemistry variations have influenced the path of evolution is more controversial. Twenty years ago, P. A. Sandberg of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, pointed out that the carbonates precipitated from seawater without the assistance of living organisms had alternated between two crystalline forms. The observed variations in seawater Mg/Ca now explain that alternation, because abundant magnesium favors one form over the other. In 1999 Hardie and Johns Hopkins paleontologist Steven Stanley took the next step, proposing that the swings in the Mg/Ca ratio had acted as evolutionary gatekeepers. Corals and mollusks that build massive reefs came and went through the Phanerozoic, they said, depending on whether particular taxa were equipped to deal with a new Mg/Ca ratio.

    Likewise, carbonate-producing nanoplankton that have been prevalent in the seas since 140 million years ago produced massive deposits of chalk—like the White Cliffs of Dover—only when the low Mg/Ca ratio favored them, 60 million to 100 million years ago. Hardie and Stanley also see signs of “evolutionary osteoporosis” setting in following the nanoplankton's heyday: Smaller, thinner, spindly carbonate encased the nanoplankton as the Mg/Ca ratio rose and calcium concentrations declined. High calcium might have had the reverse effect 545 million years ago, geochemist Sean Brennan of the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia, Lowenstein, and Horita suggested last week at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Denver. They reported a tripling of calcium as measured in fluid inclusions from the late Precambrian into the Cambrian, just when animals first began forming calcareous shells in the Cambrian explosion of life.

    “It's a really interesting idea,” says paleontologist David Jablonski of the University of Chicago, “that ocean changes could drive these major turnovers” of marine animals or even facilitate shelled animals' bursting on the scene. The trick, he says, will be refining the patterns of evolutionary and ocean change so that cause and effect can be firmly linked. Then geophysics and life might be joined for good.

  12. THEORETICAL PHYSICS

    Constructing Spacetime--No Strings Attached

    1. Adrian Cho*
    1. Adrian Cho is a freelance writer in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan.

    Move over, string theory. In the ongoing quest to meld quantum mechanics and gravity, an alternative theory aims to steal the stage

    Space isn't smooth, and time doesn't flow. Regardless of what the rest of the world might think, physicists shed those illusions decades ago. To them, space and time are really two aspects of a single, stretchy thing called spacetime, which, thanks to the Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics, roils with tiny fluctuations measuring a few billion billion billion billionths of a meter. So when seen up close, spacetime resembles a frothy “quantum foam.”

    This foaminess has hamstrung physicists striving to explain how the universe sprang into existence and why it appears the way it does today. To tackle these questions, researchers need a single theory that accounts for everything from the frenetic quantum interactions of elementary particles to the grand gravity-driven motions of stars and galaxies. Unfortunately, attempts to marry quantum mechanics and the theory of gravity bog down in the foam, and even the leading candidate for a “theory of everything”—string theory—sidesteps the sticky froth.

    Over the past 15 years, however, a few physicists have plowed headlong into the quantum foam. They've concocted a theory that precisely describes spacetime on the smallest length and time scales. Loop quantum gravity, as it is called, is the first theory that directly reconciles the minutiae of quantum mechanics with Einstein's general theory of relativity, which describes gravity as the warping of the very fabric of spacetime. It also predicts that space comes in discrete chunks, so that there is a smallest possible area and smallest possible volume. Just as matter is made of atoms and elementary particles, space consists of tiny indivisible bits.

    Loop quantum gravity is very much a work in progress. Critics say that it sometimes gives quirky results, and even its enthusiasts acknowledge that many rough edges still need to be sanded down. But it's worth the effort, they say, because it takes them places where the more popular string theory doesn't go. Whereas string theory begins by assuming how spacetime stretches and twists, loop quantum gravity builds the “geometry of spacetime” from scratch. That's a crucial feature of any fundamental theory of quantum gravity, says Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. Come what may, he says, “it's hard to imagine that there could be a consistent formulation of quantum gravity that doesn't include these results.”

    Making a connection

    Since the 1950s physicists have struggled to develop a quantum-mechanical theory of gravity. In the quantum theories of all the other forces—electromagnetism, the strong force that binds the atomic nucleus, and the weak force that causes radioactive decay—physicists assume that infinitely smooth spacetime is filled with quantum fields that describe particles, such as photons or electrons. They imagine small ripples in these fields, calculate the interactions between them, and add up the results for ripples of all lengths. For gravity, however, the ripples are in spacetime itself, and when their length sinks below the size of the “bubbles” in the quantum foam, the standard approach starts churning out mathematical gibberish in the form of nonsensical infinities.

    String theory provides a way around such blowups. First formulated in the 1980s, the theory assumes that every fundamental particle is really a tiny loop known as a superstring. Because the strings are long enough to stretch over the fluctuations in the spacetime foam, awkward infinities do not arise. To the strings, spacetime looks relatively smooth.

    Yet string theory still suffers from a fundamental weakness. In the theory, the strings move in a spacetime whose shape has been chosen from the beginning, as if they were actors on a previously constructed stage. A truly fundamental theory of gravity, everyone agrees, would build the stage itself. In the vernacular, the theory should be “background independent,” and string theory is not.

    Loop quantum gravity, in contrast, takes dead aim at background independence. The theory got its start in 1986, when Abhay Ashtekar of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, found a novel way to write Einstein's equations for gravity. Imagine an ant scurrying across the surface of an invisible apple. As it moves around to the far side of the fruit, its head appears to reverse direction. In principle, by tracking the direction of the ant as it wanders all over, a clever observer could determine the shape of the fruit. Thinking along similar lines, Ashtekar reformulated Einstein's equations for gravity in terms of a “connection”: a recipe for transporting direction-indicating vectors through spacetime. “This transport encodes all the information about the physical geometry,” Ashtekar says.

    With Ashtekar's formulation, theorists could write down quantum- mechanical gravity equations that did not require a background as an input. But researchers still had to solve the equations to determine the quantum states that would tell them what spacetime looked like. In the late 1980s Smolin, Ted Jacobson of the University of Maryland, College Park, and others discovered whole families of these solutions.

    Spin network.

    In loop quantum gravity, area-conveying links connect little chunks of space.

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM J. C. BAEZ/UC RIVERSIDE

    The solutions describe slices of space, each frozen at a fixed time. A single solution resembles a Cubist's dot-to-dot drawing. Each description, or state, consists of many nodes, interconnected by simple links (see figure, above). “You can view the nodes as chunks of space and the links as paths that tell you which chunks talk to each other,” says Carlo Rovelli of the Center for Theoretical Physics in Marseille, France.

    The lengths of the lines mean nothing. What matters are numerical weights attached to each line. Multiples of 1/2, the numbers add up at the nodes according to certain arcane rules—for example, 1 and 3/2 can add to 1/2, 3/2, or 5/2. Because the same peculiar arithmetic applies to angular momenta of particles in ordinary quantum mechanics, physicists call the arrangements spin networks. But in loop quantum gravity, the numbers actually denote the area separating different bits of space, Rovelli says. As a result, area can come only in discrete amounts, just as any sum of money can be counted out in a whole number of pennies. Thus, the spin networks tell theorists how to put space together, one little patch at a time.

    Trouble on the horizon?

    With this detailed description of space in hand, loop quantum gravity researchers decided to put their theory to a grueling test: calculating the amount of information trapped inside a celestial phantom known as a black hole.

    An ultradense object can warp spacetime so severely that it creates a hole from which nothing—not even light—can escape. The edge of this abyss is known as an event horizon. As a black hole slurps matter and radiation, it also consumes information about the universe. Physicists know from general thermodynamic principles that the amount of lost information—or entropy—should, quite bizarrely, equal 1/4 of the area of the black hole's event horizon. In the past few years, researchers have shown that loop quantum gravity also predicts this equality—a signal success for the theory.

    Or is it? Ironically, string theorists point to just this calculation as a sign that loop quantum gravity isn't quite complete. Loop quantum gravity researchers have to adjust a particular physical quantity to get the 1/4, they point out, whereas string theory predicts it without any fiddling. That precise agreement represents string theory's biggest success so far, says Brian Greene of Columbia University in New York City, because it strongly suggests that string theory contains the right physical variables to be the true theory of quantum gravity. “There's a damn good chance that it's all there,” Greene says.

    Loop quantum gravity researchers counter, however, that their calculations apply to any type of black hole—always with the same value of the adjustable parameter—whereas the string theory calculations employ weird hypothetical black holes unlike any found in our universe. “That's what string theorists never tell you,” says John Baez of the University of California, Riverside, “just as people working on loop quantum gravity don't go out of their way to say that you need to worry about this free parameter.”

    Meeting in the middle

    Despite their differences, both string theorists and loop quantum gravity researchers say they hope that their two approaches will merge someday to the benefit of all. But which will absorb which? String theorists, who outnumber their loop-quantum-gravity counterparts roughly 10 to 1, say that their theory's potential to unify all the forces of nature in a single quantum theory gives it the edge. “String theory is a much more ambitious project, so I don't see all of string theory being incorporated into loop quantum gravity,” says Gary Horowitz of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Loop-quantum-gravity researchers, however, hold that string theory can only be an approximation to a more fundamental background-independent theory like their own. “There is a plausible background-independent approach to string theory, and that grows out of loop quantum gravity,” Smolin says.

    Cause and effect.

    To put the “time” into spacetime, researchers must show how one spin network evolves into another.

    ILLUSTRATION: C. SLAYDEN

    But loop-quantum-gravity researchers must still solve some fundamental problems. Because spin networks describe only space, researchers have to expand the theory to describe full four-dimensional spacetime. To do that, they're studying spin foams, latherlike objects that extend spin networks into another dimension. But no one is sure exactly which foams are the right ones, or how to superimpose them to produce our frothy, uncertain universe.

    Meanwhile, researchers are looking for ways to put the theory to an experimental test. If loop quantum gravity is correct, then as light rattles through chunky spacetime, its speed might depend on its wavelength—contrary to Einstein's dictum that the speed of light is constant. The tiny effect might show up in observations of bursts of gamma rays coming from the farthest reaches of the cosmos, because the more energetic gamma rays would arrive first. If it's there, the difference should be observable with NASA's Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, a satellite scheduled for launch in 2006. If so, our first indirect glimpse of the building blocks of spacetime could be right around the corner.

  13. Resuscitating Asia's Damaged Heart

    1. Andrew Lawler

    After 2 decades of war, chaos, and fundamentalism, Afghanistan is reopening to archaeologists. But looting, mines, and lagging foreign support are putting the brakes on researchers' plans

    KABUL—In a walled park overlooking the dusty ruins and bustle of Afghanistan's capital, a dozen men and women are searching on their hands and knees for ruins of another sort.

    Children splash noisily in a nearby public swimming pool, seeking relief from the late-summer heat, as the team of German archaeologists along with Afghan colleagues and students excavate waterworks from a more graceful era. The octagonal 18th century pool they are uncovering was once part of an elaborate hillside royal garden in which the first Moghul emperor is buried. As digs go, this one is modest: a single long trench, a short 3-week campaign, and no surprising artifacts. But in another sense, it is momentous. This excavation is Afghanistan's first legal dig in more than 2 decades.

    Hollow victory.

    After decades of fighting, Kabul's Institute of Archaeology is just a shell.

    CREDIT: A. LAWLER

    A Soviet invasion and civil war, capped by harsh fundamentalist rule, has long excluded this country from archaeology's mainstream. But last year's overthrow of the Taliban reopened the borders to foreign scientists and provided hope for a new generation of Afghan researchers. Sadly, they cannot simply pick up where they left off in the late 1970s. During a recent visit to important archaeological centers around Afghanistan, Science found the country's once fine network of museums ransacked. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of important sites have been plundered and are still being systematically looted. The once respected community of Afghan researchers remains dispersed, their institutions in ruins; those who remain are focusing on survival rather than research. And foreign donors, despite extravagant promises, have been slow to respond to the crisis.

    But Afghanistan exerts a powerful pull on archaeologists. “There are so many important sites there; it is the junction of Iran, India, China, and the world of the nomads,” says Paul Bernard, an archaeologist with France's CNRS research agency in Paris who led many expeditions throughout the country. “It's the vital bit in the middle of the jigsaw puzzle of Asia,” adds Norman Hammond of Boston University, who co-authored a study of Afghan archaeology just before the 1978 Soviet invasion.

    Since then, archaeologists have more thoroughly explored neighboring countries, mapped ancient trade routes, and generally put Afghanistan into a wider context. “Before, there was just this strange classical connection with Greece,” says Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. But recent Bronze Age finds suggest that the north might have been a center of early civilization contemporary to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt (see sidebar, p. 1198). Looters have lately unearthed Buddhist cities in the east of the country which were part of kingdoms spreading the religion as far east as Japan in the first centuries A.D. To the south, unexcavated mounds are thought to hold answers about the reach and scope of the Indus River Valley civilization in the third millennium B.C. This potential wealth of scientific data has many archaeologists itching to return, although most remain wary of the dire conditions.

    And there is no shortage of local enthusiasm for archaeology. The classrooms and halls of Kabul University were filled with students studying history and archaeology during a recent visit, and the new government is eager for outside researchers to start work. “We welcome foreign excavators,” says Farid Haidari, an official with the Ministry of Culture and Information, which authorizes digs. So far, the foreigners who have trickled in have been impressed. “I was totally overwhelmed and positively surprised,” says Ute Franke-Vogt of Berlin's German Archaeological Institute. She led the roughly $200,000 dig at the walled park, called Bagh-e-Babur, in Kabul—an effort designed largely to acquaint Afghans with modern scientific techniques and to provide them with basic supplies such as computers, tents, and excavating equipment. “It was quite easy to do our work.”

    Starting over.

    Germany's Ute Franke-Vogt presents Afghan researchers with donated equipment.

    CREDIT: A. LAWLER

    Outside the relative security of the capital, however, the challenges are formidable. Even the area around the ruined Institute of Archaeology building—a scant 10 kilometers from Kabul—is said to be heavily mined, although one former Afghan scientist, Zemaryalai Tarzi, who is now at the University of Strasbourg, France, says he did manage to reach the institute last month to retrieve several tons of pottery shards. Armed bandits roam the cratered roads linking the handful of large cities, fresh water is often difficult to obtain, and major portions of the countryside have yet to be demined. “My Afghan colleagues don't walk around a lot,” says Franke-Vogt. Given the mine problem, she adds, “you could never do a full survey of the country.”

    Deskbound.

    Institute of Archaeology Director A. Wasey Feroozi lacks money and bureaucratic pull.

    CREDIT: A. LAWLER;

    Fear and suspicion

    Afghanistan, though poor and fractured today, has a richer past than almost any place on Earth. More than 4 millennia ago, lapis lazuli made its way from the mountainous northeast to distant Sumeria in modern-day Iraq. Alexander the Great's armies introduced coins and new artistic styles. The Silk Road, a trading route from Italy to Japan, brought Roman glass and Chinese ceramics; Genghis Khan brought destruction. It was also a marketplace of ideas. Zoroastrianism spread west from here, and centuries later a revitalized Buddhism spread east. Islamic rulers created a rich artistic and intellectual life and took their religion, poetry, and architecture southeast through the Khyber Pass to the Indian plains.

    The local inhabitants and the traders, soldiers, nomads, pilgrims, and priests who traversed this harsh desert and mountain country left behind one of the world's most complex weavings of human culture, reflected in Buddhist figures in Greek robes and Chinese- influenced Hindu statues. Some Afghan tribes continued to use coins stamped with Alexander's profile as late as the 20th century, but it wasn't until the 1920s that archaeology began to uncover the long-hidden ingredients in Afghanistan's mixing bowl. Led by French researchers, who secured a monopoly on digging for several decades, scientists amassed a wealth of data and artifacts from a stunning cross section of history, from Paleolithic tools to fine Islamic pottery.

    Charting destruction.

    All of Afghanistan's major museums were looted, as were the country's major archaeological sites, including at least two previously unknown Buddhist towns. Above, Afghanistan's past includes a bewildering array of cultures and empires stretching back thousands of years.

    CREDITS: A. LAWLER; (TOP) ILLUSTRATION BY TERRY SMITH

    Some of that material collected in the half-century before the Soviet invasion survives in Paris's Musée Guimet, the Afghanistan Museum in Bubendorf, Switzerland, and other places safely beyond Afghan borders. But most of it was held either in the National Museum in Kabul or in the regional museums. The destruction of the Kabul collection is well documented (see p. 1202), but the fate of the regional museums and their collections has been unclear until now.

    At Herat, an ancient city near the Iranian border, empty display cases sit outside the locked and abandoned museum. A broken stone fish lies beside the padlocked door, testament to the Taliban decree that human and animal representations are blasphemous. “The Taliban broke the statues, but we have some books and pictures,” says Mohammad Fayuq, an official with the provincial cultural heritage office.

    Hard place.

    The ministry's Mohammad Qadeer Qadrdan says foreign support is slow in coming

    CREDIT: A. LAWLER

    At Kandahar—a corruption of the name Alexander—the museum is equally bare and desolate. “It was all taken away, some by the mujahideen, and then the Taliban took the rest,” says Mohammad Shoaib Waba, deputy governor of Kandahar province. The ruins of nearby ancient Kandahar also appear heavily damaged by fighting during the civil war.

    Between Kandahar and Kabul lies Ghazni, a city that has undergone many transformations. Once a thriving Buddhist center, it later became the capital of the 11th century Ghaznavid kingdom—which first took Islam to India—and then a ruin after Genghis Khan passed through. Ghazni officials said that the museum here was badly looted, and one official unwrapped a checkered kaffiyah kept in his desk drawer to show the jumbled pieces of an ancient terra-cotta Buddha. But a few artifacts escaped the destruction. Giovanni Verardi, an archaeologist at the University of Rome, gained access to the locked museum building for several weeks in September and discovered numerous boxes with intact Buddhist sculpture in the chaotic mess.

    Other museums—such as Balkh in the north and Jalalabad in the east—were also looted, Afghan and Western sources say. But some material, as in Ghazni, will doubtless reemerge. Some cultural heritage officials “are very afraid of telling people of the real situation,” explains Verardi. “They are suspicious and fear the mullahs” who might object to exhibition of human and animal forms.

    Archaeological sites outside the large cities have also been badly pillaged, says A. Wasey Feroozi, director of the Institute of Archaeology, which is now housed in a Kabul villa. “Our highest priority is to stop illegal excavations in Afghanistan,” he says. “Many important sites—even in Kabul Province—in the last decade have been illegally excavated by [military] commanders with the cooperation of some foreigners.”

    For example, a rich Buddhist site outside Ghazni called Tepe Sardar was shorn of its exposed buddhas and monastery remains by the Taliban, and the hill was turned into a military post with machine-gun emplacements. Guards remain, although the Ghazni governor maintains that the current soldiers are there to protect the site from looters.

    Such protection is rare. Ai Khanum—a principal city of the Bactrian empire, which arose after Alexander—has been almost completely annihilated by looters. “Even the shards were destroyed” when looters stole the shelves they were stored on, says Bertille Lyonnet, a CNRS archaeologist in Paris who worked the site in the 1970s. The Buddhist complex of Hadda near Jalalabad, known in antiquity as the city of 1000 stupas, or domed shrines, was devastated during a battle between Soviets and locals. “It's totally destroyed,” says Feroozi. Even halting plundering in the area around Kabul is impossible, he adds, without funds for guards or help from the police or army.

    Forbidden.

    The Taliban smashed this ancient stone carving in Herat.

    CREDIT: A. LAWLER

    Slow-motion rescue

    At an emergency meeting in Kabul in late May, archaeologists, preservationists, and government officials from around the world agreed on a plan to start rebuilding Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Foreign governments pledged a total of about $7 million to restore the shattered National Museum, rescue damaged artifacts, and consolidate endangered sites.

    But behind the optimistic press releases, the plan is in trouble. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Afghan officials complain that many of the grand promises have not been met. “I have no money, though every country says ‘I will give you some,’” says Mohammad Qadeer Qadrdan, director of the Ministry of Culture and Information's historical monuments section. “The major problem now is getting donor governments to come through with their funds,” adds Jim Williams, a UNESCO official based in Kabul. For example, Greece pledged $750,000 for a new roof and windows to be installed at the museum this summer, but with winter closing in, work has yet to begin. This delay infuriates representatives from other organizations, who say the museum project is critical for housing the endangered collections. Greek officials declined to comment.

    Other nations have honored their pledges. Italy has already allocated $500,000 of its promised $800,000 for work on the minarets of Jam and Herat—with the balance to come next year—and has promised a total of $3 million. Germany will provide $875,000 in 2002, a portion of which was used for the Bagh-e-Babur dig and to donate equipment. UNESCO's Christian Manhart says Germany intends to match that amount next year. And Switzerland set aside $130,000 for Jam. The U.S., by contrast, so far has only set aside $37,000.

    Japan, which is particularly interested in the Bamiyan Valley with its Buddhist heritage, is spending $700,000 on that region (see p. 1204), and it might double that figure. And France, which has had a long-standing archaeological relationship with Afghanistan, intends to roof a 9th century mosque in Balkh; it also recently set up a French mission based in the country led by Roland Besenval, a respected archaeologist with extensive experience here. Their first task, says CNRS's Bernard, is to reopen an archaeological library in Kabul that once was Central Asia's finest.

    Some of this government funding is being channeled to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are also bringing their own resources to the table. The Geneva-based Aga Khan Trust for Culture, for example, pledged $5 million for a variety of heritage projects. Wealthy individuals are also getting involved, such as Japanese artist and administrator Ikuo Hirayama, who recently visited Kabul and Bamiyan to determine where to put a substantial amount of money. “He's now planning to build a research institute in Kabul, specializing in archaeology, culture, and traditional art,” says Kazuya Yamauchi, an archaeologist at Japan's Wakao University who traveled with Hirayama.

    This piecemeal approach, however, has sown a good deal of confusion and backbiting. A few Afghan officials complain that German money for survey work at Bagh-e-Babur was funneled to the Aga Khan Trust rather than to their government. UNESCO officials complain that some NGOs refuse to coordinate their efforts, whereas NGO representatives accuse UNESCO of being too slow and bureaucratic. “Coordination is a problem; everyone is trying to guard their own projects,” sighs A. W. Najimi, a consultant with the Aga Khan Trust. “And everyone is trying to attract donors.”

    Meanwhile, Afghan officials are trying to put their own house in order. In August, the government folded the Institute of Archaeology, which had been part of the moribund Academy of Sciences, into the Ministry of Culture and Information. “It's a bad idea,” says Feroozi, who worries that the ministry won't understand the need for research. But he hopes the move will pave the way for a budget that will allow him to protect important sites—and eventually to dig again.

    That eagerness is palpable. “I'm amazed by their desire to work and to learn under such difficult circumstances,” says CNRS's Lyonnet, who this spring helped reorganize the chaotic collection of pottery shards in the basement of the National Museum. That desire extends to a new generation. Assmatullah Osmani, an archaeology professor at Kabul University, estimates that one in 10 of the 500 students who have just begun their studies in the arts and sciences departments are interested in pursuing history and archaeology.

    Some got their first taste of practical experience this summer in Bagh-e-Babur. Such experience is critical for a country where an entire generation was denied education and where textbooks and other educational equipment are scarce. “In this field, you have to show how to do things anyway, not teach from books,” says Franke-Vogt, who worked with 30 Afghan students and researchers. “And we are developing a very good collaboration.” She returned last month to Kabul to continue the dig. That modest start is the first step to placing Afghanistan back in the center of the Central Asian puzzle.

  14. Unanswered Questions of Afghan Archaeology

    1. Andrew Lawler

    The Soviet invasion in 1978 put an abrupt brake on many promising lines of inquiry in Afghanistan. Here are a few of the areas researchers hope to revisit with their new access:

    • At the time of the Soviet invasion, Viktor Sarianidi of Moscow's Institute of Archaeology, among others, had just found intriguing evidence of substantial settlements in the country's north, near the Amu Darya River—the ancient Oxus—during the 3rd millennium B.C. Further digging in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan revealed similar patterns. When those republics became independent in the early 1990s, more researchers rushed in to examine the new culture, which was awkwardly dubbed the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex. (Bactria is in modern Afghanistan, Margiana in today's Turkmenistan.)

      With a distinctive architecture of high walls and turrets, intricate metal work, cylinder seals, and ceramics, this complex “had everything that Mesopotamia had except literacy,” says Harvard University archaeologist C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky. During its heyday from about 2200 B.C. until 1700 B.C., “this really was at the level of civilization,” he adds.

      Lost and found.

      Police recovered this Buddhist head looted from a vast site near Harwa.

      CREDIT: CHAPIUS PATRICK/GAMMA

      Some Russian researchers believe that the settlements were the source of one or maybe two waves of Aryan invasions of India, although many scholars are skeptical of this theory. Further excavations in Afghanistan could provide critical data and even pinpoint the heartland of this civilization, which sprawled across the vast Asian steppes and has echoes as far away as Susa in western Iran and in the northwest of China.

    • In eastern Afghanistan near Harwa, looters have uncovered rich sites dating from the Buddhist kingdoms in the early centuries A.D. Border guards recently intercepted a host of Buddhist objects from the 2nd to 5th centuries A.D., and their source was traced to a remote part of Logar Province southeast of Kabul. Earlier this fall, archaeologist Giovanni Verardi of the University of Rome visited the site, which he says is full of imposing and well-preserved two-story buildings, towers, and sacred precincts. Although looters—who some officials say were working with the blessing of the Taliban—have dug passageways through the mound, causing extensive damage, Verardi says that much remains to be excavated. “It is an enormous site, covering an entire valley of around 30 square kilometers,” says Jim Williams of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), who recently visited the area.

      Two soldiers have been dispatched by the provincial governor to guard the vast site, but Verardi notes that they likely will have little effect. The local area is under control of what he calls a “powerful personage,” a euphemism here for an opium smuggler with a private army. Legal digs here would face other hurdles, such as the extreme isolation of the site, adds Verardi. John Francis of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., says that his organization has asked Verardi to submit a research proposal for site excavation.

    • Other sites that have come to light through looting, according to Williams, include one north of Kabul near Kapisa, once the center of a powerful kingdom led by Kanishka. Kanishka is credited with transforming Buddhism, which was dying in India, into a dynamic religion centered on the figure of the Buddha himself, who previously had been represented by symbols such as a wheel. The revitalized Buddhism spread rapidly north and east on the Silk Road to China and Japan. How this took place, and in what political context, is still not well understood. By the 5th century A.D., these Buddhist Afghan kingdoms were destroyed by Hindu incursions from the east and by Arab armies carrying their new creed of Islam. Scholars are excited about the prospect of new data on this era.

  15. Fate of Tilya Tepe Remains a Mystery

    1. Andrew Lawler

    KABUL—Ask the whereabouts of one of the most dramatic archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, and Afghan government officials start to look uncomfortable. In 1978, at an ancient grave site in the country's far north, Soviet archaeologists turned up more than 20,000 gold artifacts ranging from small plates to elaborate crowns and weighing a total of 22 kilograms. These objects, known as the Tilya Tepe find or the Bactrian treasure, were worked between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100 in unique styles echoing cultures between Greece and China. Although Kabul is rife with rumors on its location, the collection's fate remains a mystery.

    Golden days.

    This 2000-year-old gold clasp mixes Greco-Roman and Siberian-Altai styles.

    CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY

    Some fear that the important find is irretrievably lost, along with the Begram ivories, exquisitely carved objects in a Hellenistic and Indian style, and the marble statues and elaborate jewelry from Ai Khanum, where Alexander the Great is thought to have wed Roxanne, the daughter of a local chieftain.

    The Tilya Tepe gold was brought to Kabul shortly before Soviet tanks rolled into the city. Omar Khan Masudi, director of the National Museum, says that the Soviets promptly turned over the find to Afghanistan's Institute of Archaeology, which shortly after gave the artifacts to the museum. In 1991, as mujahideen factions closed in on the capital, the collection was transferred to the relative safety of the city center, where it was briefly shown that July to the diplomatic corps. “After that, we don't know anything about it,” Masudi says.

    Other Afghan officials and knowledgeable Western sources say that the gold was secreted deep in a steel vault in Kabul's presidential palace, and that it was there when the Taliban captured the city in 1996. Still others say it was taken north with the retreating army, hidden in the Ministry of Culture and Information, or melted down by the Taliban. Afghan officials decline to say if the material is still here, and the topic clearly makes them uneasy. Although some objects resembling pieces from the collection have appeared on the international art market, none have been identified as part of the Tilya Tepe find. And Masudi notes that the mound itself might have yielded treasure to looters in the intervening years. The Soviets, he says, “opened six graves, and there must be more. It was wintertime, and they didn't follow it up.”

    Viktor Sarianidi, the archaeologist from Moscow's Institute of Archaeology who led the original dig, recently wrote that “we know nothing definite” about the fate of the Tilya Tepe finds and urges a worldwide campaign to search for and preserve the objects.

  16. To Dig or Not to Dig?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Archaeologists and cultural heritage experts are struggling with how and when to reopen excavations amid security and storage concerns

    KABUL—In the late 1970s, Afghan archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi believed that he had pinpointed the site of a huge, long-buried Buddha in the famous Bamiyan Valley. But in 1978, before he could start digging, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, and a year later Tarzi was smuggled out of occupied Kabul in the trunk of a car. The defeat of the Taliban last year was his dream come true. Last month Tarzi, now a professor at the University of Strasbourg, France, was back searching again in this mountainous area north of Kabul.

    The dig was cut short by local politics—Bamiyan's military commander ordered Tarzi to halt work after only 3 days. Many cultural heritage experts breathed a sigh of relief. They feared that the planned excavation was too risky and ambitious. But Tarzi says that Bamiyan's government has invited him to return next summer, and he won't be alone. Foreign archaeologists are plowing ahead with dig plans for next year: Tarzi and maybe a Japanese team at Bamiyan, an Italian team at Jam in the central mountains, a German team at Kabul's Bagh-e-Babur, and possibly French teams in the north and west.

    Denied access for 2 decades, archaeologists are understandably excited about returning. But many international experts worry about the rush. They argue that it is much too early to start excavating at important sites like Bamiyan in a country that remains politically unstable, strewn with mines, and woefully lacking in storage facilities. “It's madness,” says Nancy Dupree, a longtime expert on Afghanistan's cultural heritage who lives in neighboring Pakistan. “Once you dig, people will loot. After excavating for 3 months of the year, you go away, and you leave it laid bare.” Paul Bernard and Bertille Lyonnet, archaeologists with France's CNRS research agency based in Paris, worry that digging is a distraction from more pressing tasks, such as restoring the museum and educating researchers. Adds an irritated Michael Petzet, president of the Paris-based International Council on Monuments and Sites: “Everything underground should be left underground. Let's preserve what's left rather than dig up anything new.”

    Tarzi responds that if professionals don't dig first, the looters will. “It's important to anticipate and get there before the looters,” he says. And although many researchers question the wisdom of launching major excavations, most concede that going ahead with a small number of carefully chosen professional digs makes sense. At Jam, for instance, extensive looting is well under way in an area never touched by archaeologists (see p. 1201). Well-known sites such as Ai Khanum in the north—a Greco-Bactrian metropolis—already are devastated by plundering. And a series of stunning new finds from Afghanistan's long Buddhist era have recently come to light as a result of looting (see sidebar, p. 1198). In the Kabul region, Dupree acknowledges that salvage work is desperately needed where new construction threatens many important sites.

    Under fire.

    A guard watches over this ancient Buddhist site—30 square kilometers in extent—in eastern Afghanistan, only discovered because of looters.

    CREDIT: CHAPUIS PATRICK/GAMMA

    Such excavations—if done thoughtfully—could begin the vital work of building trust with local villagers, through the hiring of workers and guards providing much-needed employment, and by restoring a sense of common heritage. In the past, notes Giovanni Verardi, an archaeologist at the University of Rome, there was never large-scale looting here. In this light, “the assistance of foreign missions likely would be useful.”

    Provincial governors and officials at the Ministry of Information and Culture, which is in charge of authorizing digs, are eager for the return of foreign researchers. “Afghan authorities would like to go back to the prewar situation as soon as possible, for political and ideological reasons that are very understandable,” says Verardi. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) official Jim Williams in Kabul, Information and Culture Minister Sayed Raheen Makhdoom wants to use the foreign efforts to discourage illegal excavations and provide an antidote to the nation's massive loss of cultural heritage.

    Regional leaders also are encouraging. Powerful Herat chief Ismael Khan urged a UNESCO delegation in August to help stabilize the famous 15th century Musalla complex, considered the height of Islamic architecture. Mohammad Shoaib Waba, deputy governor of Kandahar, and Haji Hassadullah Khalid, governor of Ghazni, told Science they would welcome back foreign archaeologists. Both provinces are rich in ancient sites.

    But the decision to dig or not to dig is a luxury affordable only to foreigners. Although Afghan archaeologists doubtless will be invited to participate in others' work, they won't be starting their own digs. Institute of Archaeology chief A. Wesey Feroozi says he hopes that after 3 years or so, he can restart excavations. Until then, “there's just not the money.”

  17. Leaning Tower Poses a Technical and Political Challenge

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Saving a 12th century Islamic tower in central Afghanistan from floods, looters, and roads is no simple task

    JAM—Standing at the base of this strange tower, which rises like some ancient Islamic rocket from a remote valley in central Afghanistan, an angry knot of men argue in three languages over its fate. Unknown to the West until the 1950s, the Minaret of Jam has miraculously survived earthquakes, Genghis Khan, and a flood this spring that nearly toppled the intricately decorated 12th century structure.

    Keeping it from collapsing, however, is not easy in a country plagued for 2 decades by poverty, war, and chaos. Crowding together in the relentless August sun, local villagers and aid workers insist that they need roads to bring food and medicines into this impoverished region. But visiting officials from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Kabul government insist that these roads—which would likely pass close to the minaret in the narrow valley—could easily damage it. They also privately fear that road building will accelerate looting of the area by providing looters access to mechanized tools. After long haggling, a temporary compromise is struck: All roadwork must cease within 1 kilometer of the minaret until a more detailed plan can be worked out.

    The complicated negotiations during the UNESCO mission are a microcosm of the wider struggle in Afghanistan to honor and rescue its cultural heritage while reviving the economy—and to resolve differences without resorting to the ubiquitous Kalashnikov assault rifles. “Human relations are very delicate in Afghanistan,” explains Andrea Bruno, an Italian engineer and UNESCO consultant who has long experience at Jam.

    High point.

    The Minaret of Jam marks the pinnacle of Ghorid architecture.

    CREDITS: A. LAWLER

    Just the fact that there are negotiations is a sign of progress here. When Bruno visited in 1999, mujahideen and Taliban forces faced each other across the narrow Hari River, which divides the valley. Leaders from the two sides halted their fighting long enough to share tea with him for 45 minutes, but there was no negotiating. “After tea, they went back to fighting,” he recalls. Bruno was there because erosion from the Jam River, which feeds into the Hari, was threatening the minaret, which stands at their confluence. Built late in the 12th century, the minaret soars 65 meters above the valley—taller than NASA's space shuttle. The tower features elaborate lacelike brickwork that characterizes architecture from the Islamic Ghorid empire, which was centered here and reached as far as Delhi. Elaborate Kufic script encircles the tower in aquamarine.

    The minaret came to the attention of scholars only in 1957, when a French and an Afghan researcher examined the structure. “The sight of this giant decorated tower is just magical,” wrote Andre Maricq, the French archaeologist. Its purpose is unknown, but suggestions include a ceremonial gateway to the Ghorid homeland, a victory tower, and part of a mosque long vanished. Or it could mark the site of the legendary city of Firuzkoh, the Ghorid capital, which was destroyed by the Mongols and has never been located. But all remains speculation, as no archaeologist has dug near the minaret.

    Teamwork.

    Italy's Andrea Bruno (right) and Afghan colleagues huddle over rescue plans.

    CREDIT: A. LAWLER

    The erosion and the pronounced lean of the tower alarmed Bruno and UNESCO officials. Once the fighting eased in 2000, UNESCO asked the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage to shore up the banks of the rivers with huge metal baskets, or gabions, filled with stone. They were just in time: On 14 April this year, a flood roared through the valley, carrying tons of debris. “Without the [gabions], the minaret would have been destroyed,” says Gulagha Karimi, who heads a local body dedicated to the tower's preservation.

    Bruno says that the next step is to examine the minaret's foundations, which lie about 5 meters below the ground, to determine its stability. A geologist did some preliminary work in August, and a UNESCO team accompanied by four Afghan engineers is now at Jam to take exact measurements of the tower's slight lean, which Bruno and others fear has increased in recent years. During the winter, Bruno and an expert on Italy's own leaning tower in Pisa, Giorgio Macchi of the University of Pavia, will examine the data before starting work in earnest next April. Once the engineers understand the tower's foundations and exact position, they will propose how to strengthen the fragile minaret.

    Meanwhile, the local, provincial, national, and nongovernmental organizations involved must come up with a new road plan, including where to put a bridge to span the Hari River. The prospect of more road building worries Bruno, who notes that widespread looting in the valley has intensified since 1999. Karimi says that the diggers have found wooden doors, necklaces, and dishes buried near the site. He says he saw one necklace that sold for thousands of dollars.

    Work on a road up and down the Hari River, as well as the Jam road, has made “systematic excavation” of the area by looters possible, Bruno says. “They want to build a road to find stuff,” he insists. But if archaeologists can move quickly, Bruno predicts that the results will be dramatic. “Jam will be more important than Bamiyan,” the famous Buddhist site east of here. University of Rome archaeologist Giovanni Verardi tentatively hopes to conduct a small excavation near the minaret in April.

    And international recognition has finally arrived. UNESCO this summer designated Jam a World Heritage Site, the first in Afghanistan, which confers at least paper protection to the minaret and the area surrounding it. Any new structure built nearby—roads or buildings—must undergo strict review. A short digging campaign and paper rules of distant bureaucracy, however, might do little to prevent looting. “There are so many valuables; you just can't stop it,” says Karimi.

    One piece of good news for Jam supporters is the backing of Ismael Khan, famed warlord, governor of Herat province, and arguably the single most powerful man in Afghanistan. Although Jam technically is not in his province, it is within his control. He told Bruno and other UNESCO officials in a 15-minute audience at his heavily guarded compound that he was worried about the monument's stability and added that the organization's efforts “are good news for us.” In a land where raw power is still an important currency, those words might be worth all of UNESCO's paper.

  18. 'Then They Buried Their History'

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Years spent on the front line of a civil war have made a shambles of Afghanistan's once-incomparable National Museum

    DARULAMAN—On a frosty February afternoon last year, a group of senior Taliban officials accompanied by a squad of armed religious guards pulled up outside the nearly gutted hulk of the National Museum, a bumpy 10-kilometer drive from Kabul's center. They asked to see the storeroom, where much of what remained of the building's once proud collection of artifacts was held in safekeeping. When unsuspecting employees opened the padlock and swung open the metal door, the visitors began searching for statues.

    Reincarnation.

    A museum worker pieces together an ancient Buddhist statue that was smashed by the Taliban last year.

    CREDIT: CHAPUIS PATRICK/GAMMA

    Then the destruction began, as the horrified staff looked on. “From afternoon until evening they broke statues,” says Omar Khan Masudi, the museum's new director. “A few days later, they came back, and they followed the same procedure. They came back many times.”

    That terrifying time was only the last in a series of blows to one of the world's best collections of Central Asian art, artifacts, and research documents embracing an enormous range of ancient cultures. The museum was both chief repository for the fruits of 60 years of excavations and national display case: Neolithic female figurines, stone Hindu goddesses in togalike robes, intricate ivories combining Indian, Greek, and Chinese styles, gold coins from the time of Alexander the Great, and troves of early Islamic art, as well as an extensive library and a basement full of tens of thousands of pottery shards spanning 10 millennia.

    The collection was well protected while the Soviets controlled Kabul in the 1980s. But the fierce civil war that followed placed the venerable building in a hotly contested battleground between rival factions. In the spring of 1993, a rocket exploded into the roof, gutting the upper floors. That autumn, a second rocket slammed into the basement containing artifact storerooms. In between, soldiers and their leaders took turns stealing what they could carry, including 40,000 ancient coins that made up one of the world's most important coin collections. Museum staff who braved crossing mujahideen lines to go to work were often pulled out of their cars and beaten.

    Hardship doesn't generally impress archaeologists, who often work long days in terrible conditions. But the handful of Western and Japanese researchers who have recently visited the museum have come away astonished and moved by Masudi and his team of 60 dedicated workers, most of whom have gone for long periods without pay and even now earn only about $40 a month. Masudi himself, who this year was promoted from deputy to director, left his job last year in protest against the Taliban actions and was reduced to selling potatoes to survive.

    Now he is trying to glean international support to rebuild the museum, rescue endangered objects, and educate his staff. A graduate in history and geography from Kabul University, he has worked in nearly every position at the museum during the past 24 years. A tall, lean, dapper man with gentle eyes and a courtly manner, Masudi describes himself as “52 or 53 years old.” During a recent interview with Science, he spoke of the museum's trials while workers a few meters away quietly pieced together the shattered remains of a small Buddhist terra-cotta altarpiece.

    Fresh start.

    Masudi, the museum's new director, is picking up the pieces.

    Exposed.

    The National Museum is still without a roof as winter approaches.

    CREDITS: (TOP TO BOTTOM) A. LAWLER; CHAPUIS PATRICK/GAMMA

    Q: How large was the collection, and how much was looted?

    A: We had more than 100,000 pieces, and unfortunately about 75% were looted during the civil war. When we returned [in 1996], we started work registering the remaining objects with the help of SPACH [The Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage], took photographs, and packed a portion of them and sent them to the Kabul Hotel—the security situation in the city center was better than here. After the Taliban took over [later that year], the first 4 years were good. They sought to keep the objects in the museum. But unfortunately, in the last year they decided to destroy statues and other articles.

    Q: Were the objects at the Kabul Hotel destroyed too?

    A: Yes. They had been transferred to the [Culture and Information] ministry during hotel renovations.

    Q: But you saved some material, both at the museum and ministry?

    A: Yes, but it was very difficult. Some of my colleagues assured the Taliban that some boxes didn't contain statues. Another method was to put the statues under other things [in boxes] so they couldn't see what was underneath. Another way was to hide some statues underneath artifacts they had already searched. We told the Taliban that these objects are part of our history, that nobody was worshipping these statues, and that those of us working in the museum were responsible for keeping these statues safe.

    Q: Do you have a list of those things destroyed and rescued?

    A: Our documentation office was on the upper floor, and it was completely burned. But we saved some catalogs.

    Q: What are your priorities now?

    A: We have to do so many things. The Greek government is ready to pay for the rehabilitation of the building. Now we are awaiting those funds. We have to recreate our restoration department; we have no chemical materials. We need to organize a photography department. We need the help of many, many countries. Most of our objects are damaged. For the past 15 years, we have had no chance to treat our artifacts. But the big problem is this building. We've had no electricity or running water for 10 years.

    Q: Some foreign governments want to help build a museum in the city center. Does this make sense?

    A: The current site is not very good: It is small, it's not in good condition, [and] it is far from the city. And the palace across the street, it was the Defense Ministry. We should not be sitting beside the Defense Ministry! It is very necessary to have a building in the center of the city. But we need to fix this building first. If we wait for the new one, it will be 2 or 3 or 4 years. But our remaining objects in the meantime can be treated and fixed here. We can't wait.

    Q: Do you have money now?

    A: Just to pay salaries. But last year, during the Taliban regime, we went for 4 months without salaries. Most people who worked here had business on the side. Myself, I sold potatoes. We worked [here] from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., then in the afternoon [we] worked in the bazaar.

    Q: Despite not being paid, you and your staff kept coming to the office?

    A: We should work. We are responsible. We are happy with our work. We should work a lot. But we are happy the government now gives us a monthly salary.

    Q: How do you feel about the past decade?

    A: This has been a very sad time for everybody, not just for me and my colleagues, but for every Afghan. First you heard of people burying their children; then they buried their history. This was bad news for me and my colleagues and for all educated people, in Afghanistan and in the world.

  19. Buddhas May Stretch Out, If Not Rise Again

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A UNESCO team finds that at least the larger of the destroyed Buddhas could be salvaged, although the smaller one is mostly powder

    KABUL—Monks took decades to carve the enormous Buddhas that for more than 1500 years greeted travelers to the Bamiyan Valley. But they disappeared in a few brief seconds in a scene etched on the world's consciousness. When the Taliban regime dynamited the magnificent statues in March 2001, to comply with their strict ban on human or animal representations, experts assumed the destruction was absolute. But an international team of scientists and engineers who visited the site last month found to their surprise that enough pieces remain of the larger Buddha to reassemble the shattered statue—at least on the ground. Once the winter snows of the Hindu Kush begin to melt next April, workers will start sorting through the debris, as well as reinforcing the two giant niches where the Buddhas once stood watch, and rescuing the few ancient murals left on the walls of caves surrounding the site.

    Fallen giant.

    The largest of Bamiyan's Buddhas lies in a heap under spotlights.

    CREDITS: CHAPUIS PATRICK/GAMMA

    This preliminary effort will likely take 3 years and cost $1.5 million, according to Christian Manhart of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), who led the team. The Japanese government has already pledged $700,000 and might double that grant. Only after the project is complete can the national and provincial government face the controversial issue of whether to rebuild one or both of the massive statues. How much that would cost is anyone's guess.

    For the 15 centuries since they were carved from the rock face, the statues have weathered many storms. Although pockmarked with bullet holes, shorn of much of their faces, and devoid of the bright polychromatic hues that originally adorned their surface, the 38- and 55-meter-high Buddhas dominated the fertile valley of Bamiyan—until the Taliban came along. Now UNESCO and the Paris-based International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) are trying to assess the damage. During its early October visit, the expedition, which included archaeologists, mural specialists, and structural engineers, made the first comprehensive assessment of the site. “There's much more left of the Buddhas than we thought,” says ICOMOS chief Michael Petzet. “Some reports were that there was only dust and rubble.”

    Pieces of the large Buddha, especially, are for the most part still salvageable. “All the fragments are still there. You could lay them out on the ground rather easily,” Petzet says. Reports of trucks shipping fragments of the Buddhas—with Taliban complicity—to Pakistan for sale on the antiquities market were “absolutely wrong,” he says.

    The smaller Buddha, however, did not fare so well. “Much of it has turned to powder,” says Manhart. A large section—10 by 20 meters—of the smaller Buddha's niche was virtually hanging in midair during the team's visit and “could fall anytime,” Manhart adds. Stabilizing the niches will involve grouting, anchoring struts, or some combination of the two. In the short term, ICOMOS arranged to repair a drainage system on the cliff top, built by India in the 1970s, to reduce water penetration.

    Under a UNESCO contract, the organization is also hiring a guard to provide at least minimal security for the site. But that precaution is too late for most of the murals that once covered the walls of 25 caves near the niches. Japanese experts on the mission who had surveyed the collection in the 1970s estimated that only 15% to 20% of the murals survived the civil war and Taliban depredations. The remainder have either been destroyed or removed and sold. Those that survive are blackened by fires and require meticulous cleaning.

    And the looting apparently has continued even after the overthrow of the Taliban last year. Petzet says that several wall paintings have vanished since then, based on reports of what survived when the Taliban left. According to Manhart, UNESCO intends to fit secure doors on those caves to ensure their protection.

    Whether to rebuild the statues in their niches is a hot-button topic. The ethnic Hazaras in the Bamiyan region and some wealthy Japanese are keen on reconstruction, but officials in Kabul and archaeologists and preservationists abroad are quietly skeptical. One compromise might be to create an outdoor museum with the Buddha remains laid out on a platform on the ground and covered by a roof for protection from the elements, says Jim Williams, a UNESCO official based in Kabul.

    Caved in.

    Looters have stolen most of Bamiyan's ancient religious paintings

    CREDITS: CHAPUIS PATRICK/GAMMA

    Meanwhile, there won't be any work at Bamiyan during the harsh winter, where temperatures drop to −30°C. But scholars will be scrambling to dig up as much information on the Buddhas—including measurements and photographs—as they can from other sources. Petzet's organization tentatively plans a workshop in Munich, Germany, later this year to bring together specialists from many universities to pool existing data before the snow melts. The ancient monks of Bamiyan would undoubtedly be pleased at the efforts being made to honor their creations.

Log in to view full text

Via your Institution

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution