Random Samples

Science  14 Nov 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5648, pp. 1145

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  1. Homeward Bones

    British research museums could soon be packing up and sending some of their most prized possessions back to their countries of origin. Last week a government panel concluded that aboriginal peoples should be able to reclaim human remains held by museums, from artwork that incorporates human hair to mummified bodies. The museums should consult aboriginal groups on every item of human remains to see if it should be repatriated, says the panel, made up of nine academics and museum administrators.

    Researchers are worried about both the logistics and the impact on collections. “There could be critical pieces lost,” says Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge. “We have 18,000 specimens. This has the makings of a bureaucratic nightmare.”

    The panel was created after Australian Prime Minister John Howard pressed British Prime Minister Tony Blair to return the remains of Australian aboriginals collected during colonial times and housed in British museums. The government is expected to consider legislation on the issue next year.

  2. The Heat's on for Vintners

    Global warming could shake up the geography of wine-growing regions around the world, according to research presented this month at the Geological Society of America's meeting in Seattle, Washington.

    Temperature and length of growing season set the balance between sweetness and acidity in grapes and determine each variety's unique bouquet. A group at Southern Oregon University in Ashland led by Gregory Jones ascertained, from analysis of 50 years of weather and wine-tasting data from 27 wine-producing regions, that about 30% of the improvement in ratings is the result of rising temperatures.

    Applying climate-change models for the next 50 years to the 27 regions, the team found that the Rhine Valley in Germany is likely to benefit from global warming because its current cool temperatures sometimes retard grape ripening. But a rise of almost 3°C could damage productivity in optimal growing regions such as Bordeaux, Italy's Chianti, and Washington state, says Jones.

  3. Giving the Peace Institute a Chance

    Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), chair of the Committee on Appropriations, helped gain congressional passage this month of President George W. Bush's $87 billion supplemental spending package to fund the military presence in Iraq. But although Republicans fought to prune the bill of earmarks, Stevens managed to slip in $10 million for one of his favorite causes—the U.S. Institute of Peace.

    Republicans rejected an earlier proposal by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to earmark $13 million for peace efforts. But in the final Senate-House conference on the bill, Stevens unexpectedly proposed $100 million for the institute. Why that sum? Observers noticed Stevens perusing a brochure on the institute's proposed $100 million building, and some wonder if he confused its construction needs with its programmatic ones. His spokesperson says no.

    The peace institute, created in 1984, does work on the ground in war-torn regions. Stevens's gift hikes its budget by 60%, to $27 million, and allows it to implement a plan to reduce strife, strengthen the legal system, and train local leaders in Iraq. “It's a huge step forward in our capacity to work in conflict zones,” says institute official Daniel Serwer.

  4. A Hard Road to Mental Health

    Although black Americans have worse health than whites, they actually suffer less from depression than any other ethnic group, according to several major studies. They also have a much lower suicide rate than whites. Now a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has proposed that some bad habits have a protective effect emotionally for blacks despite the physical toll they take.

    Experts have theorized that blacks' well-being is bolstered by social structures such as church and extended families. But James Jackson thinks that many bad health habits developed in response to stress—namely smoking, drinking, drugging, and overeating—may also stave off depression and anxiety.

    Jackson presented his theory last month at the annual meeting of the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. The evidence: Among blacks subjected to major life stresses, those who engage in one or more bad health behaviors are less than half as likely as clean livers to develop major depression. “No one's ever looked at that because it's so controversial,” says Jackson.

    Alan Kraut, head of the American Psychological Society, praises Jackson for taking on “intractable issues. … He's pushing us all to think about old problems in new ways.”

  5. Gangbusters

    Two years ago, Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest and his Guatemalan graduate student Tomás Barrientos started a sustainable tourism and development project in Cancuén, Guatemala, to help local villagers preserve their Mayan heritage. Their efforts yielded an unexpected and rich payoff last month when informants from the village, working with Demarest and Barrientos, helped Guatemalan authorities recover a rare 8th century stone altar looted from the site of a Mayan palace.

    Tomás Barrientos helped recover a stolen Mayan altar.


    “Four village elders came to me in the middle of the night,” says Demarest, a researcher at the Nashville, Tennessee, school, “and told me that a woman had been beaten by men in ski masks who were searching for an altar.” He tipped off Guatemalan authorities, who launched a 6-month undercover operation leading to the arrest of the looters. The monument will be displayed at Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology after its restoration.

    “The local Mayans are usually very suspicious of government authority,” says Barrientos. “But they increasingly see archaeological sites as a potential resource to improve their lives.”

  6. Awards

    Euro excellence. Four Europeans and one Argentinian are the first winners of the Marie Curie Excellence Awards from the European Union (E.U.). The $50,000 research awards are part of a broader initiative to retain scientific talent.

    The prizes, open to any scientist who has received at least 1 year of E.U. training and mobility support, honor British biophysicist Paola Arimondo, 33; Dutch physicist Daniel Bonn, 36; Italian electronics engineer Marco Dorigo, 42; Spanish biochemist Luis Pubull, 44; and Argentinian physicist Fernanda Cugliandolo, 38.

  7. In the News

    · State geological surveys and research centers are inhospitable places for women entering the profession. A new analysis shows that women earned 25% of U.S. geoscience Ph.D.s awarded in the past decade but captured only 8% and 17%, respectively, of new jobs at state surveys and research centers. Academic institutions offering tenure-track positions were gender-neutral, however.

    · The National Audubon Society has established the Kalpana Chawla Fund for Environmental Stewardship in memory of the Indian-born Columbia astronaut. The $300,000 fund will be available for conservation projects around the world.

  8. Collections

    Extended shelf life. For 22 years Pam Alderson ran the medical library at Mount Sinai Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. And when the 97-year-old teaching hospital closed unexpectedly in 2000, she helped pack up the collection—which took up 400 square meters and filled 1100 boxes—and reassemble it 10 minutes down the road at a nonprofit she and two colleagues created to preserve the hospital's educational legacy (www.mtsinai.org/ccit).

    But without a school or hospital affiliation, the collection draws few customers. So Alderson is putting it up for sale, hoping to catch the eye of a new research institution—or a wealthy benefactor. “I'd love for somebody to buy it and digitize the entire contents,” she says about the collection, which includes 250 journal titles and books going back to 1960.

    The cost could be prohibitive, says Mary Case of the Association of Research Libraries in Washington, D.C., not to mention the effort required to get the necessary permissions. “I can't imagine somebody doing that,” she says.

    But Alderson, who has already benefited from one selfless act—the hospital's doctors bought the collection at a fire-sale price to keep it intact—is optimistic about another. And she's got a personal stake in the sale: “We'd like to use the proceeds as an endowment for our organization.”

  9. Nonprofit World

    A richer blend. The new head of the Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) has big plans to grow the enterprise both scientifically and geographically.

    Nancy Gray, a fuel chemist, takes over the West Kingston, Rhode Island-based nonprofit that sponsors the meetings after serving as membership director for the American Chemical Society. Gray says she expects to add over 15 new sessions to the organization's current list of 173 annual meetings by expanding beyond classical biology, chemistry, and physics. “Now we are getting proposals involving a mix of scientists with very different backgrounds,” she says, from pharmacology and plant physiology to metallic chemistry and chemical engineering.

    Gray also hopes to hold meetings in Central America and elsewhere. Since its first overseas conference in Italy in 1990, GRC has conducted meetings in Hong Kong, Japan, France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.