Science  13 Aug 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5686, pp. 929

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  1. Federal Ethics Office Faults NIH Consulting Practices

    A government review of the ongoing ethics controversy at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found significant lapses in the agency's past procedures, according to a press report.

    In a 20-page analysis, Office of Government Ethics (OGE) acting director Marilyn Glynn charges NIH with a “permissive culture on matters relating to outside compensation for more than a decade,” according to excerpts in the 7 August Los Angeles Times. OGE reportedly found instances in which NIH lagged in approving outside consulting deals or did not approve them at all, and it concluded that some deals raised “the appearance of the use of public office for private gain.” The report, addressed to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), also questions whether NIH officials should oversee the agency's ethics program given this spotty record. (As Science went to press, OGE and HHS had not released the report.)

    However, the report does not recommend a blanket ban on industry consulting, according to an official who has seen it. And strict new limits proposed by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni—including no consulting by high-level employees—are consistent with the report's recommendations, says NIH spokesperson John Burklow. “We're confident that the strong policies we are developing, in addition to the steps we have already taken, will address the issues identified. We look forward to working with OGE as we finalize these policies,” Burklow says.

  2. Biopharming Fields Revealed?

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) may have to disclose the locations of biotech field trials in Hawaii after losing a round in court. The USDA issues permits for field trials of biopharmaceuticals—drug and industrial compounds produced in plants—and other genetically modified crops, but it considers the locations confidential business information. The agency is also worried about vandals.

    The decision is part of a case that Earthjustice filed against USDA last year on behalf of environmental groups, arguing that field tests haven't been adequately assessed for environmental safety. Last week, a federal district court judge ruled that the field locations must be revealed to the plantiffs to assess potential harm, but gave USDA 90 days to make a stronger case against public disclosure. USDA says it is studying the decision, and Earthjustice expects the agency to appeal.

  3. Hubble Space Telescope Loses Major Instrument

    One of the four main instruments on the aging Hubble Space Telescope has failed, due to an electrical fault in its power system. It will take several weeks to determine whether the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) is truly deceased, but officials have slim hopes of recovery, noting that even a shuttle repair mission couldn't revive it. “It doesn't look good,” says Bruce Margon, the associate director for science at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

    STIS, which splits incoming light into its component colors, is particularly useful for studying galaxy dynamics, diffuse gas, and black holes. Although STIS measurements account for nearly one-third of this year's Hubble science portfolio, Margon says that the telescope still has plenty of work it can do. “It will be no effort at all to keep Hubble busy,” says Margon, although it is a “sad and annoying loss of capability. … It's a bit like being a gourmet chef and being told you can never cook a chicken again.”

  4. Britain to Consider Repatriating Human Remains

    The British government is requesting public comment on a proposal that could require museums and academic collections to return human remains collected around the world. Department for Culture officials last month released a white paper ( recommending that scientists identify how bones or tissues became part of their collections and seek permission from living descendants to keep identifiable remains for study. It also calls for licensing institutions that collect human remains.

    Indigenous groups have long campaigned for such measures, saying that anthropologists and others have collected remains without permission. But some scientists worry that the move could harm research by putting materials out of reach and lead to expensive legal wrangles over ownership. Society needs to “balance likely harm against likely benefit,” says Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage in London, adding that “older human remains without a clear and close family or cultural relationship” are probably best left in collections. Comments are due by 29 October.