Science  23 Jan 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5657, pp. 447

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  1. Royal Society Says Panel Needed for Bioweapons Treaty

    LONDON—The U.K.'s Royal Society (RS) this week called for the creation of an independent scientific body that would help give teeth to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The treaty, which came into force in 1975, has been called a paper tiger because it failed to prevent signatories such as the Soviet Union and Iraq from pursuing advanced weapons programs. Negotiations over a protocol to strengthen the treaty bogged down in 2001.

    The RS argues that a science panel could advise governments on developing new countermeasures to threats and improving approaches for verifying treaty compliance. But the idea may be ahead of its time. With nations nowhere near a consensus on how to fortify the treaty, diplomats may have little use for scientific advice. Says one analyst, “The climate is just not ripe.” The next treaty-review conference is set for 2006.

  2. Scientists Trek to South Dakota to Push Homestake

    Some physicists and politicians are trying to rescue a drowning plan to convert an abandoned South Dakota gold mine into the world's deepest underground laboratory. State Governor Mike Rounds (R) last week announced that he had signed a long-delayed deal with Barrick Gold Corp. to transfer its flooding Homestake mine in Lead to state ownership, protecting the company from legal liability. A team of scientists led by Jordan Goodman, physics department chair at the University of Maryland, College Park, traveled to the state this week to help drum up support for the plan, which must be approved by the state legislature.

    In 2001, physicists launched an ambitious effort to transform Homestake into a $300 million state-of-the-art buried lab for astrophysics and other experiments that need shelter from cosmic radiation. The push all but died last year, after efforts to negotiate a transfer agreement stalled and the company announced that it was turning off pumps that kept the century-old mine dry (Science, 6 June 2003, p. 1486). That led some key scientists to abandon the idea and back competing sites in Washington, Minnesota, and California.

    Homestake backers hope the new deal will resuscitate support. They note that a National Science Foundation advisory panel has already endorsed the South Dakota mine as the best available option. But the agency is probably years away from deciding whether it wants to push for any underground laboratory, and Congress is even further from funding one.

  3. GAO to Investigate NIH Consulting Rules

    Troubled by possible conflicts of interest at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), three House Democrats want the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) to examine the extent of consulting at NIH and its disclosure policies.

    A December Los Angeles Times story described millions of dollars in consulting fees paid by companies to some high-ranking NIH researchers and suggested that the deals often posed conflicts of interest (Science, 19 December 2003, p. 2046). NIH is now reviewing its policies and was scheduled to discuss them this week at a Senate hearing.

    In a 16 January letter to GAO, Henry Waxman (D-CA), John Dingell (D-MI), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) also ask the agency—Congress's investigative arm—to see how NIH's procedures compare with those of other science agencies and evaluate how NIH is responding to the furor kicked up by the media coverage. GAO is likely to take on the study, but its reports typically take months or more to complete.

  4. UNC, NIEHS Plan Environmental Gene Bank

    Environmental health researchers are hoping to enroll 20,000 volunteers in a new DNA biobank aimed at ferreting out links among genes, toxic exposures, and disease.

    The project, announced last week by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC), will recruit patients from university clinics. Unlike some other large biobanks in Iceland and elsewhere, the registry will collect only subjects' blood, not health information. But coded names and addresses will be retained so subjects can later be invited to participate in clinical studies, says Perry Blackshear, NIEHS director of clinical research. Researchers at NIEHS and UNC are particularly interested in studying genes suspected to play a role, for example, in repairing DNA, metabolizing toxicants and drugs, and modulating responses to air pollutants. Outside researchers can also apply: “We plan to make it available to all noncommercial investigators,” Blackshear says.

    In an 8-month pilot project with 600 patients, about 80% agreed to donate their DNA. Based on that, it could take just 2 to 4 years to build the repository, Blackshear says, at a cost of under $1 million.