Science  14 Nov 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5648, pp. 1129

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  1. U.N., E.U. Make Moves on Embryo Research

    The United Nations has delayed for 2 years a vote on a controversial international agreement to ban human cloning. The European Parliament, meanwhile, is expected to soon vote on whether the European Union should fund related embryo research.

    The 6 November vote by a U.N. legal committee represents a setback for the Bush Administration and about 50 nations, which have been pushing for an international agreement to ban all forms of human cloning. More than 50 Islamic nations, however, asked to postpone any vote until 2005, saying that the 191-member U.N. was too deeply divided. The proposal passed on an 80-79 vote, with 15 abstentions.

    Next week, the European Parliament is expected to be the scene of a similar battle. It will consider a European Commission (EC) proposal to fund embryo studies, including the derivation of new stem cell lines, under the $20 billion Framework 6 program, which will support basic and applied research across Europe for the next 5 years. But several member states, including Germany and Austria, have protested that their funds should not be used to fund research that their governments have outlawed at home.

    Parliament's vote will be largely symbolic because the final decision rests with the E.U.'s 15-member Council of Ministers, which will meet on 27 November. Enough “no” votes or abstentions by embryo research opponents could derail the EC's proposal. Even that outcome would not be a definitive victory for embryo research opponents, however. After a current E.U. moratorium on embryo research ends in December, the E.U. would be free to fund related studies.

  2. E.U. Told to Focus on Space

    The European Union needs a plan for space R&D—and some cash to go with it, says a new report. Traditionally, the E.U. has not gotten directly involved in space projects. But demand is growing for continentwide efforts, such as an upcoming 30-spacecraft global positioning constellation being built in cooperation with the European Space Agency. To guide future projects, the E.U. needs a rolling 5-year road map for space research and technology development, says the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive body. It also calls for E.U. space spending to grow by as much as 4.6% annually.

    At least one nation, however, is cautious about the proposal. “Funds are not unlimited, [so the E.U.'s] activities must be well focused,” the British National Space Centre warned in a statement.

  3. Missouri Switcheroo

    Environmentalists are crying foul over a last-minute Bush Administration decision to replace a panel of some two dozen scientists working on a highly charged study of the Missouri River. For a decade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has improperly operated a series of Missouri dams, helping barge operators but harming endangered species. But despite losing a lawsuit this year, the corps has resisted changes.

    The latest chapter began when a judge scheduled a March hearing on pending lawsuits. To prepare, the corps filed a biological assessment for review by FWS. On 29 October, the FWS reviewing team was pulled off the job by a Department of the Interior (DOI) official, who picked two top FWS officials to head a new team.

    Critics worry that DOI is fishing for an answer that will please the corps. But DOIspokesperson Hugh Vickery says the agency is “going to go wherever the science leads us.”

  4. U.K. Panel Blasts Government's Secrecy on Security R&D

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—British legislators have uncovered a catalog of shortcomings in the U.K. government's antiterrorism research effort. The government has adopted an “unnecessary level of secrecy” in pursuing security research, concludes a critical report* released last week by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

    Home Secretary David Blunkett prevented government witnesses from appearing before the panel, the report says, and the government has blocked publication of material already in the public domain. “We suspect that the government's reasons have less to do with security and more to do with … avoiding embarrassment,” the panel, chaired by Ian Gibson, concluded. In a robust response, the Home Office rejected that charge and accused Gibson's panel of “straying beyond its remit” by pursuing questions that could damage national security.

    The panel also called for the creation of a Centre for Home Defence with a $33 million R&D budget focused on strengthening efforts to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks, particularly those using chemical, biological, or radioactive materials. It could also determine which restricted defense R&D data could be of value to academic researchers and disseminate it. The Home Office said it would respond to these and other recommendations “in due course”—perhaps after tempers subside.

  5. Congress Probes Harvard Molecular Lab Contract

    A House panel has broadened its probe of financial management at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to include ties between former National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Richard Klausner and Harvard University. In a 10 November letter, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce asked NIH for a slew of documents relating to a $40 million, 5-year subcontract awarded in 2002 to Harvard chemist Stuart Schreiber to create a molecular target laboratory. The deal raises “serious appearance issues as to fairness and favoritism,” says the 16-page letter from committee chair Billy Tauzin (R-LA) and James Greenwood (R-PA), who chairs an investigations subpanel.

    The two lawmakers allege that Klausner was involved with the molecular lab competition at a time when he had recused himself from NCI's dealings with Harvard because he was one of the university's presidential candidates. They also question that right after he left NCI in September 2001, Klausner received consulting fees from Infinity Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a Schreiber spinoff company. The committee has also asked Harvard, Infinity, and SAIC, a government contractor involved in the deal, to cough up documents.

    Klausner denies any role in Harvard's winning the molecular lab contract: “There was a strict separation between me and the decision-making process,” he told Science.

  6. Good and Bad News From Iraq

    Scholars are celebrating the recovery of two important artifacts looted from the Iraq Museum in April. But they also are mourning the death the same day of one of the nation's leading antiquities experts.

    The missing artifacts—a massive 4500-year-old Bassetki statue and the 2700-year-old Nimrud brazier—were found on 3 November in a field outside Baghdad, according to John Russell, a Boston archaeologist working for the U.S.-led coalition in the Iraqi capital. The two items were among 30 “most wanted” artifacts missing from the museum.

    News of the finds, however, was overshadowed by the death of Rabi'a Mahmud Sami al-Qaisi, president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, in an auto accident in Jordan. “His loss is a terrible blow to efforts to revitalize the Iraqi antiquities service and to reopen the Iraq National Museum,” says Russell. A permanent replacement has not been named.