Science  05 Sep 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5638, pp. 1303

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  1. U.K. Engineering Dearth?

    The United Kingdom could face everything from power blackouts to water problems unless the government boosts the number of engineers in training, warns a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

    The study, released this week, says that not enough engineering students are completing their degrees. “Current low standards in basic mathematics and physical science education are having direct repercussions on the capacity of engineering undergraduates to meet the demands of their course,” it says. Engineering's share of undergraduate enrollments has shrunk by half in the last decade and 46 university programs have closed, it notes.

    To reverse the trend, the academy recommends improving math and physical sciences teaching; increasing pay for Ph.D. students, postdoctoral researchers, and lecturers; recruiting more women into engineering; and incorporating business courses into engineering programs. As Science went to press, the government had not responded to the report.

  2. Japanese Budget Proposal Heavy on Science

    Japan's Ministry of Education has released a long list of science spending wishes for its 2004 budget. But the government isn't likely to turn all the dreams into reality.

    The budget plan, for the fiscal year that begins next April, would push life sciences spending up a healthy 26%, to $775 million (not including salaries). The blueprint includes $68 million for the first year of a 5-year Genome Network plan, which will try to unravel the interactions among genes, transcription factors, and proteins. It also requests $21 million for a new initiative to turn basic cancer research results into practical prevention measures, diagnostics, and therapies. The ministry also wants to boost spending on information technology by 41%, to $81 million, to fund the development of next-generation computer simulations and high-speed networks.

    The government is likely to approve far smaller budgets later this year, according to an official at Japan's Council for Science and Technology Policy. The Ministry of Finance had encouraged all ministries to aim high for science-related spending, he says, with the understanding that actual amounts would be negotiated downward. Still, the field of “science and technology is being treated very well,” he says, given that other sectors are anticipating cuts.

  3. Academy Leaders See Harm in Prosecuting a Plague Expert

    The prosecution of a prominent plague researcher could harm U.S. efforts to shore up its bioterror defenses, the heads of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) warn in a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

    Last January, federal prosecutors charged Thomas Butler of Texas Tech University in Lubbock with lying to investigators about the loss of plague vials in his laboratory and improperly transporting samples (Science, 24 January, p. 489). Some researchers have risen to Butler's defense, charging the government with overreacting. Butler faces up to 75 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

    But Butler isn't the only one who will suffer, NAS chief Bruce Alberts and IOM head Harvey Fineberg say in their 15 August letter to Ashcroft. “Other scientists … may be discouraged from embarking upon or continuing crucial bioterrorism-related scientific research,” they write. They urge the government to seek a resolution “that serves both the needs and ends of justice and the protection of the public.” Butler's trial is scheduled for October.

  4. Judge Blocks Navy Sonar Plan

    A federal judge has blocked the U.S. Navy from fully deploying a controversial sonar system that some researchers charge could harm whales and other marine life. Last week's ruling in San Francisco, California, will force the Navy to negotiate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other conservation groups over when and where it can test and use the system during peacetime.

    The Navy has been developing the low-frequency active sonar, which is designed to spot distant submarines, for more than a decade. But last October NRDC and its allies won temporary restrictions on plans to field the system, arguing that federal environmental studies were flawed. In part, they pointed to cases in which whale strandings followed Navy exercises using a different type of sonar (Science, 8 November 2002, p. 1155). The new ruling makes the restrictions permanent, although the Navy could field the system in the event of a war.

    Marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the plaintiffs, says the ruling shows that “the science is clear: Intense active sonar can kill whales, porpoises, and fish.” The Navy, meanwhile, says it is reviewing the decision and will continue to fund research into the mystery of how, exactly, ocean-borne noise can harm certain organisms.