Science  06 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5659, pp. 743

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  1. IOM Reviews NIH Centers

    Funding research centers rather than single-scientist grants is a good way to tackle some biomedical research problems, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) needs a more rigorous process for launching new extramural centers, concludes a new Institute of Medicine (IOM) review.

    The congressionally requested report grew out of concerns that lawmakers are mandating too many new centers for specific diseases. The panel took a broad look, finding that $2.4 billion, or 9% of NIH's budget, supports some 1200 centers ranging from resource providers to clinical research projects. And NIH starts many centers on its own, such as those planned in Director Elias Zerhouni's new Roadmap for cross-institute research.

    Centers “are an attractive mechanism” for team science, concludes the IOM panel, which was led by Ronald Estabrook, a biochemist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. But NIH needs an “explicit” process, criteria for setting them up, and outside panels for resolving disagreements between the agency and Congress, it says. Regular reviews should also consider whether centers are really preferable to individual grants, says Estabrook: “Nobody ever goes back and says, ‘Is this better than or worse than R01s?’”

  2. DOE's Competitive Schedule

    The Department of Energy (DOE) last week set deadlines for competing the management contracts for a slew of its national laboratories. But to give potential bidders time to prepare, it extended some contracts for up to 2 years.

    The University of California (UC) won a 1-year extension of its contract to manage the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. DOE says it will pick a permanent manager by early 2005. UC hasn't yet decided if it will compete to keep that contract or one for leading the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which also faces a 2005 deadline. DOE, meanwhile, hasn't set a date for competing UC's third contract that expires in 2005, for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

    An East Coast site is also up for grabs next year: the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia. In 2006, bidders will have a shot at Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and the Ames National Laboratory in Iowa.

  3. Plan Unfit, Lawmakers Say

    Two congressmen are protesting rules that would force government researchers to go an extra mile. Representatives Tom Davis (R-VA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) last week asked the Bush Administration to withdraw new rules that require members of the Public Health Service's Commissioned Corps to pass a fitness test—including a 2.5-kilometer run—and participate in emergency deployments to win promotions.

    The 6000-member corps includes more than 1200 epidemiologists and other researchers in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). They have uniforms, and one-third are on “active duty” to respond to health emergencies. Last fall, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson drew criticism from corps members, lawmakers, and other Bush Administration officials for his plan to improve corps readiness (Science, 3 October 2003, p. 49). But few, if any, of their suggestions made it into final rules released 22 December 2003. The plan “appears to ignore valuable input from our nation's public health leaders,” Davis and Waxman wrote to Thompson last week, urging him to drop the fitness requirement and make other administrative changes.

    Thompson has yet to respond. Waxman, meanwhile, says he'd like some answers by 20 February

  4. Pakistan Sacks Nuclear Legend

    NEW DELHI—Pakistan's government has fired the founder of its atomic weapons program in the wake of charges that he sold nuclear know-how to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan was removed as adviser to the prime minister, a largely ceremonial post, after an investigation concluded that he and other senior nuclear scientists had aided the transfer. The government is reportedly weighing criminal charges against Khan, who led Pakistan's main weapons laboratory until 2001 (Science, 23 March 2001, p. 2297).

    Khan's supporters say that President Pervez Musharraf is bowing to international pressure, and many observers doubt that the transfers could have taken place without government or military participation. “The transfer [would be] impossible without explicit permission from the security apparatus that constantly surrounds the nuclear establishment,” says Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of high-energy physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. Government officials, meanwhile, are taking a hard line: Research minister Atta-ur-Rahman told Science that “under no circumstances will [nuclear] technology be allowed to flow out in a clandestine manner.”