ScienceScope

Science  08 Nov 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5596, pp. 1153
  1. Break for Beluga

    There's fresh hope for the world's largest freshwater fish. Last month, the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned the five nations bordering the Caspian Sea from exporting the meat or caviar of the beluga sturgeon for the rest of 2002. Conservationists criticized the body for lifting a similar ban earlier this year (Science, 22 March, p. 2191). Its latest decision came after Caspian states failed to present a coherent picture of sturgeon stocks and how the fish can be harvested sustainably. The states are now scrambling to make a case for 2003 quotas.

    Moves are afoot to protect the beluga indefinitely. Last July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed listing the beluga as an endangered species, which would end the legal import of beluga products into the United States, the biggest consumer. More than 50 scientists backed the move in a 28 October letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton. FWS has up to a year to decide but is under pressure to make an emergency ruling before the spring harvest.

  2. Nod for Nonlethal

    “Nonlethal weapons” might seem a misnomer after Russian security forces killed 118 people with an incapacitating gas in a besieged Moscow theater last month (see p. 1150). Still, similar weapons, aimed at knocking people or equipment out without killing, are a potentially valuable tool for the U.S. military, according to a National Academy of Sciences report released this week. Research in the area should be stepped up, according to the study, which was commissioned by the Marine Corps and the Navy.

    Nonlethal weapons include a broad array of compounds and technologies, from foul-smelling gases and slippery foams to microwaves that knock out ships. The panel, chaired by Miriam John, vice president of Sandia National Laboratories' California Division, says such weapons are needed by a modern military increasingly focused on preventing terrorist attacks, enforcing embargoes, and peacekeeping—all while trying to minimize casualties.

    But critics say the report comes close to encouraging violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The panel does acknowledge that some nonlethal weapons skirt the treaty. But Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., says the report's discussion of the pact is “confusing at best and sophistry at worst.”

  3. U.S. Signs Gene Pact

    In an about-face, the Bush Administration has signed a genetic resources treaty it once opposed. Last week in Rome, the United States signed the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which calls for free exchange of the seeds stored in the world's publicly owned “gene banks.”

    Last year, U.S. officials said that they were “precluded” from signing the treaty because it restricts the patenting of genes from seed banks, a position that might conflict with U.S. law. In addition, the U.S. wanted the freedom to block seed transfers to nations, such as Cuba, that are subject to economic sanctions. But agricultural researchers and biotech and seed companies affected by the treaty argued that U.S. officials “should be at the table” when seed-transfer rules are drafted, said Peter Bretting, a manager of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Plant Germplasm System.

    The Senate must ratify the treaty once Administration officials hammer out details and submit it for a vote.

  4. Court-Ordered Silence

    A federal judge in San Francisco has temporarily blocked the U.S. Navy from deploying a new sonar system, siding with environmentalists and researchers who say its powerful sound pulses could harm whales and other marine mammals.

    Navy engineers have spent decades designing the new SURTASS LFA sonar, which uses low-frequency sound to detect submarines hundreds of kilometers away. But plans to deploy the system have become entangled in controversy, as other types of military sonar have been linked to whale deaths (Science, 26 January 2001, p. 576). In July the Navy agreed to limit the sonar's use to offshore and nonpolar areas. But the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups challenged the deal, saying that regulators had downplayed the sonar's threat.

    On 31 October, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte agreed, ordering both sides back to court on 7 November to discuss ways to better balance environmental and military concerns. Observers say the case could mean greater scrutiny for other groups—from the oil industry to marine scientists—that use sound to probe the ocean.

  5. Heavy Objections

    Some public health advocates want the Bush Administration to remove a controversial researcher from a lead-poisoning advisory panel. But the Administration isn't budging.

    More than 60 groups last week asked Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson to remove William Banner of St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from the panel, which advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to prevent childhood lead poisoning. They note that Banner has testified on behalf of lead paint producers in legal proceedings, arguing that blood lead levels up to seven times the current federal standard don't harm children (Science, 25 October, p. 732). That record makes Banner's appointment “an egregious slap in the face to sound science informing the CDC,” says Eileen Quinn, deputy director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

    The appointment of pediatric hematologist Sergio Piomelli of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, who believes that the current federal blood lead standard is too strict, has also ruffled feathers. Piomelli told Science that a lead industry representative called to say, “‘We would like to nominate you,’ and I said, ‘Sure.’” But he stresses that he fought the lead industry for years to remove lead from gasoline.

    HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce says both appointees are “highly qualified.” Critics promise to keep a close eye on future appointments to the 20-member panel.

  6. Unhappy Wait

    French scientists will have to wait at least another year to see if the conservative government will fulfill a campaign promise to increase the nation's research budget. Despite a petition signed by more than 5000 researchers—including Nobel laureates Georges Charpak and François Jacob—the National Assembly voted 5 November to decrease the 2003 budget by 1.3% over current levels. The same day, research minister Claudie Haigneré announced that she plans to ask for a 4% boost in 2004.

    Chemist Henri-Edouard Audier of the École Polytechnique near Paris, who launched the petition campaign, is not impressed. “Madame Haigneré only made this announcement after we sent the petition to the press,” he says, adding that French scientists intend to “keep up the pressure for the entire next year.”

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