# ScienceScope

Science  12 Aug 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5737, pp. 999
1. # Discovery Home Safe

To NASA's immense relief, the space shuttle Discovery arrived safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California 9 August after a 2-week mission to the international space station. But there is little time for celebration. Agency engineers are scrambling to solve the recurring problem of loose foam on the shuttle's external tank, which threatens the orbiter's delicate tiles. Although some observers inside and outside NASA speculate that the shuttle might never fly again, managers say they can fix the problem in time to meet a tight September launch window. Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin will begin a major lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., to win support for his postshuttle transportation plan, expected later this month (Science, 22 July, p. 540).

2. # NIH Ethics Procedures Criticized

A review has found “vulnerabilities” in the way the National Institutes of Health (NIH) monitors scientists' outside consulting work.

Since February, NIH scientists have been under a ban on industry consulting while the agency puts new ethics procedures in place. The 72-page report by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general looked at outside activities approved for 174 senior employees between 2001 and 2003. Employees submitted “limited information” on their outside work, often forgetting forms or supervisors' signatures. But ethics officials fell short, too: 28% of activities were approved only after they began, for example.

3. # Bottom-Dollar Sequencing

The U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute is betting on researchers to massively shrink the cost of sequencing large genomes. This week, it awarded more than $25 million to nine teams to develop technologies such as nanopores and molecular sensors that will speed the deciphering of DNA. The goal is a “$1000 genome” that will put sequencing machines into most labs and many medical clinics by the next decade. “We are ahead of schedule,” says George Church of Harvard University, who has developed a sequencer that uses a microscope and other off-the-shelf equipment (Science, 5 August, p. 862).

4. # Uzbeks to Scientists: Hit the Silk Road

An international conference devoted to the disappearing Aral Sea has fallen victim to a Soviet-style freeze. In an 11th hour snub to the European Union, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Uzbekistan last week refused to grant visas to participants in the Aral Sea Basin Water and Food Conference, scheduled for early next month in Tashkent. Relations between Uzbekistan and the West have soured since May, when the government suppressed an uprising in the eastern city of Andijan and blocked an independent inquiry.

The scuttled conference was to cover issues such as managing scarce water supplies and growing salt-tolerant crops in the exposed lakebed of the Aral Sea, which has shrunk by 75% since the 1960s (Science, 18 February, p. 1032). The topics are “of uttermost importance,” says John Lamers, a senior researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany, who was to chair a panel on agriculture. MFA said the conference had not been approved by the Uzbek Cabinet; the rebuff prompted the sponsor, INTAS, a Brussels-based fund that supports science cooperation with the former Soviet Union, to pull the plug after being unable to arrange an alternative venue.

5. # Report Seeks Delay on Waste

The Department of Energy (DOE) should wait before sealing radioactive waste tanks at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a National Academies panel said in an interim report last week. For years, activists tried in court to force DOE to rid the weapons-building site's 51 underground tanks of all nuclear waste. DOE has argued that permanently sealing some waste in place with grout can be environmentally sound and cost-effective, and last year lawmakers gave it the authority to do just that.

But the congressionally mandated report says that postponing permanent closure on hard-to-clean tanks would have “no effect on near or long-term risk” and could give researchers time to improve cleanup methods within a decade. DOE, which calls it unwise to postpone tank closures to wait for new technologies, was unable to provide the panel with many of the requested documents, citing internal reviews. But panel members hope to have some of that information in time for their final report due in January, which will examine cleanups in Washington state and Idaho as well.