News this Week

Science  16 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5742, pp. 1796

    ID Goes on Trial This Month in Pennsylvania School Case

    1. Constance Holden

    In 1925, John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution to Tennessee schoolchildren in “the trial of the century.” On 26 September, a court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, will look at the flip side of the controversy—whether a local school district can require that students be told about intelligent design (ID) as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

    The stakes are high: Although defenders of Darwin believe they have both the facts and the law on their side, a loss could be a disaster. “If we prevail, it's not going to be a knockout punch,” says Witold Walczak, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. But “if we lose, … you're going to see intelligent design taught in schools all across the country.”

    The suit was brought last December by 11 parents of children in the 3700-student Dover district after its school board, on a 6-3 vote, became the first in the country to instruct teachers not only to inform students of “gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory” but to tell them about “other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” Dover High School's seven biology teachers refused to play ball. So twice this year, in January and June, the district's top two administrators went around to biology classrooms and read a 1-minute statement explaining that Darwin's was only “a theory” (Science, 28 January, p. 505). They pointed students to books in the school library—in particular Of Pandas and People—that could enlighten them about ID.

    Squaring off.

    Brown's Ken Miller (right picture) and Lehigh's Michael Behe (above, center) are veterans of the evolution debate who are scheduled to testify.


    In their suit, the Dover parents claim that teaching ID is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The plaintiffs have lined up 25 possible witnesses, including experts in philosophy, theology, science education, and mathematics as well as two veterans of the ID wars, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller and paleoanthropologist Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley.

    The defense is now down to two scientists: Lehigh University biologist Michael J. Behe and Scott Minnich, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Neither would comment on the pending trial. Two prominent figures who agreed to be witnesses—Stephen C. Meyer of the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes ID, and mathematician William Dembski, a Discovery fellow—pulled out before they could be deposed, reportedly on orders from Discovery leadership. John West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture, would say only that there were “differences of opinion between lawyers.”

    But ID opponents think they know what's going on. “Discovery has been very cagey—they're worried about a big court defeat,” says Joseph Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the groups supporting the plaintiffs. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, says that the appearance of Dembski, editor of the latest edition of Of Pandas and People, would have allowed the plaintiffs to introduce the book into the trial and put ID front and center. Instead, Miller expects the defense to “present as small a target as possible,” arguing that “the board did not teach ID and that they didn't even endorse it.”

    Darwin's critics make much of a distinction between “teaching the controversy”—that is, highlighting what they see as scientific discrepancies in Darwinian theory—and teaching ID. “We oppose any effort to require teaching about ID. … We think that simply politicizes [intelligent] design,” says West, adding that Discovery is keen on teaching “scientific” criticisms of evolution. But Miller calls this point “a distinction without a difference. … ID is nothing except these arguments against evolution.”

    Although a win by the school board seems unlikely, all seem to agree it would be significant. “I believe school boards all across the country will, in the interest of good science, start mentioning intelligent design as an alternative theory,” says defense counsel Richard Thompson of the Christian-oriented Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

    Adding to the tension is a local school board race this fall. Seven pro-ID members of the nine-member board are running for election in November. They are being opposed by seven who believe ID is unscientific. Observers say the races are too close to call.


    Court Tightens Patent Rules on Gene Tags

    1. Eli Kintisch

    Slamming shut what Nobelist Paul Berg once called a genetic Pandora's box, a federal appeals court ruled last week that researchers cannot patent DNA strands that bind genes whose function is unknown. The ruling,* in a case brought by agbiotech giant Monsanto involving strings of corn DNA, puts an end to more than a decade of uncertainty about the patentability of a basic research tool.

    The roots of the case reach back to 1991, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH), based on work by J. Craig Venter, submitted the first of thousands of patent applications for gene-grabbing tools called expressed sequence tags (ESTs). The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) rejected the application, NIH chose not to fight, and subsequent applications for ESTs for which the underlying gene was unknown were put on hold or denied.

    Last week's 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upholds a 2001 ruling by PTO that Monsanto's application for corn ESTs fell short of the requirement that any innovation be “useful.” In its ruling, the court calls Monsanto's ESTs “only tools to be used along the way” in exploring an organism's genes. Inventions must have both a “significant and presently available [and] well-defined” benefit to receive a patent, it added.

    Getting an earful.

    Court tells Monsanto that its corn ESTs can't be patented.


    Although most pending patents on genetic sequences now include adequate information on function, according to PTO, observers were worried that a victory for Monsanto could restrict scientific inquiry, especially as the infringement exemption for basic research has come under recent fire. An amici brief filed by the National Academy of Sciences and several biotech and drug companies and medical societies raised the specter of infringement suits and other legal hurdles that could “preempt other scientists from entire fields of research.”

    In his dissent, federal Judge Randall Rader said the decision to set a high bar for patenting ESTs will harm research by denying deserved patents for early-stage “research tools [that] provide a cognizable benefit for society.” It also sets up a potential legal battle over the increasingly popular argument by some applicants seeking to patent new genes that usefulness should be based on homology—base-pair similarity with better-known genes. “I've seen pretty strong homology rejected on utility grounds,” says patent agent Sherri Oslick of McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP in Chicago, Illinois. “How much homology is enough?”

    PTO worked with Monsanto to arrange what both sides acknowledge was a test case. In 2001, PTO had rejected Monsanto's patent application for the ESTs because they lacked a “'real world' context of use.” Monsanto argued that several applications—including finding DNA regulatory regions called promoters—made the ESTs useful. But the appellate court said that Monsanto needed to lay out more “specific” uses: the identification of particular promoters, for example.

    Monsanto officials say the decision brings much-needed “clarity” to the issue, although the company may still request a rehearing before the appellate court. In the meantime, researchers can breathe easier knowing that the court has cleared away a potentially large obstacle to their bench research.


    Beaming to Itokawa

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa arrived at near-Earth asteroid Itokawa on 11 September after traveling 28 months on a beam of high-speed ions. Hayabusa's ion-drive engine is just one part of a technologically ambitious attempt to bring home the first sample collected from an asteroid.

    So far, the ion drive and the laser-guided autonomous navigation have worked flawlessly. During the next several months, a robot named Minerva will be deployed to the surface. There, it should hop around taking pictures, because the 0.6-kilometer-long Itokawa's gravity is too feeble—at less than one hundred-thousandth that of Earth—for wheels to work.


    Up to three times during the mission, Hayabusa itself will land momentarily to blast a sample into a collector for return to Earth in June 2007. That sample could finally explain why the most common type of asteroid looks different—spectroscopically more red—from the most common type of meteorite. Apparently, some sort of “space weathering” is reddening the surface of S-type asteroids. The NEAR Shoemaker mission to orbit another S-type relied on remote sensing and never quite nailed down the meteorite-asteroid connection (Science, 14 December 2001, p. 2276). Hayabusa could do it.


    China Science Foundation Takes Action Against 60 Grantees

    1. Gong Yidong*
    1. Gong Yidong writes for China Features in Beijing.

    BEIJING—As part of a campaign to improve ethical behavior among China's rapidly growing scientific community, the country's leading basic research agency has disclosed the names of three scientists being punished for misconduct. In the past 2 years, some 60 scientists funded by the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC) have been found guilty of misconduct, but the Web posting ( late last month is the first time that any names or institutions have been identified.

    “This is a good start to reverse the prevalence of scientific misconduct in China,” says Zou Chenglu, a biophysicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who follows misconduct issues closely. In December 1998, NSFC formed a 19-member committee of distinguished scientists to investigate allegations of scientific misconduct. Since then, the committee has opened files on 542 cases, most of them flagged by anonymous tipsters. More than 10% of them led to a finding of misconduct, from plagiarism to falsifying data on a grant application (see pie chart, below). Some 40 cases of misconduct were resolved last year without any public announcement. The second round includes 16 cases in which only the general nature of the misconduct was disclosed, plus the three in which detailed information was released.

    Under a 29-paragraph regulation published in April, the investigations committee has the right to circulate an internal notice of criticism or move it to its public Web site. “The main purpose of making public the scientific misconduct is not to expose the errors but to help the relevant scientists correct faults,” says Meng Hui, an official with the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has followed the issue closely. “For this reason, the privacy of those who have committed less serious misdeeds needs to be protected.”

    Assigning blame.

    Some 60 scientists funded by China's NSF have committed misconduct since 1999, the agency says.


    In the three cases detailed last month, the scientists have been ordered to reimburse the agency and are barred for up to 4 years from submitting new grant proposals. The agency was the sole body that conducted an investigation, and none of those found guilty elected to appeal the decision. Zou says that the facts must be “irrefutable” for the agency to act.

    The first case involves Su Bingyin, a neurologist at the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing. The committee concluded that Su added ghost researchers to his grant proposal, plagiarized material from other applications, and altered biographical information. At Jilin University, Cui Jianwei, a postgraduate student in accounting, was found to have lifted a thesis from the Web site of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, translated it into Chinese, and published it in a Chinese magazine. In the third instance, the committee found that Li Guibao, who resigned recently as director of the Water Environment Security Lab at China's Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research in Beijing, plagiarized material from another grant proposal. All three declined comment.

    NSFC was founded in 1986 and has an annual budget of $332 million. Last year, it received more than 40,000 applications and made about 8000 awards, with an average annual grant size of $9500 for single investigators. Shen Wenqing, deputy director of NSFC, says the agency is also on guard against unethical conduct among its reviewers and grants administrators as well as its grantees.


    Government Offers Pay Raise, but Demands Reform

    1. Andrey Allakhverdov,
    2. Vladimir Pokrovsky*
    1. Andrey Allakhverdov and Vladimir Pokrovsky are writers in Moscow.

    MOSCOW—The Russian government is offering scientists both carrot and stick in its long-delayed plan to reform Russian science, including the bloated and moribund Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). The carrot is a fivefold boost in a researcher's average monthly paycheck, to $1050. The sticks are the replacement of lifetime jobs with fixed-term contracts, limits on the amount of time scientists can work abroad, and mandatory retirement ages.

    Once a shining star of the Soviet system, RAS's fortunes have declined precipitously since the end of the Cold War, leaving many of its hundreds of institutes empty or rented out for office space. Many of the best researchers have emigrated, and some have taken other jobs as inflation has made their RAS salaries worthless. So this month's announcement by the Ministry of Science and Education is being hailed as an important step in restoring the academy's reputation. “The most important thing is Putin's proposal to substantially raise salaries. This is an essential breakthrough,” says former science minister Vladimir Fortov.

    Although the pay raises evoke the halcyon days of generous Soviet funding, the decision to limit researchers' ability to work abroad, to 3 months per year or less, stirs up less pleasant memories of the old regime. “They will sweeten the pill for researchers by raising their salary but then will tie them tightly to the motherland like peasants in the times of serfdom,” says human rights campaigner Alexander Podrabinek. RAS Vice President Gennady Mesyats dismisses such fears, telling a Moscow radio station that “the president told us when he met with us that there will be no return to old times.”

    Ministry officials say the new policy is simply intended to prevent scientists from earning two salaries. “A researcher must not get lost abroad for most of the time,” the ministry's Dmitry Livanov told the ITAR-TASS press agency. Adds Mesyats, “If a person goes to do experiments, for example to CERN or anywhere else, he gets his salary there. We do not pay him for this period.”

    Once the new salary increases go into effect by 2008, the ministry plans to introduce limited-term contracts and to assess all the staff at least once every 3 years. Highly valued researchers may get 5-year contracts, but only the most outstanding will be given open-ended contracts. “It will be necessary to put strict limitations [on contracts], as a mere increase of a salary may not lead to expected results,” Livanov says.

    The ministry also wants to cull older staff members by forcing lab chiefs to retire at age 60 and institution directors at 65. But there will be exceptions, says another RAS vice president, Valery Kozlov. “We do not plan to fire researchers at the pension age if they actively participate in the scientific life. But if a young researcher has lost interest in science, he will be laid off.”


    Europe Follows U.S. in Testing Drugs for Children

    1. Xavier Bosch*
    1. Xavier Bosch is a science writer in Barcelona, Spain.

    BARCELONA, SPAIN—The European Parliament approved a law last week that will compel drug companies to investigate whether new drugs will benefit children and submit results for consideration with drug applications. Researchers hope this will boost research into pediatric drugs and lead to a more formal drug authorization process.

    Between 50% and 90% of drugs used by adults have never been tested or licensed for use in children (from newborns to 18-year-olds). The result is that physicians treating the 100 million children in the European Union often prescribe off-label products or unauthorized drugs and so risk ineffectiveness or adverse reactions. The new law, passed on 7 September, aims to create a more rational approach; it mirrors the United States's “pediatric rule,” which encourages clinical trials in children and has stimulated the development of drugs designed specifically for children.

    Central to the new European legislation will be a 35-member advisory committee. Before any new drug can be approved, a company must submit a pediatric investigation plan to this Pediatric Committee and present the outcome of the research with any subsequent drug application. (The committee can approve waivers or deferrals of pediatric studies if, for example, the disease in question only affects adults.) The committee, administered by the European Medicines Agency (EMEA), will be independent of industry. “The critical piece in the jigsaw for the new regulation is the pediatric advisory committee to the EMEA. … I hope we get an expert committee of people with relevant skills,” says Bruce Morland, chair of the United Kingdom Children's Cancer Study group. The new regulation also calls for a network of clinical researchers and research centers, a database of ongoing and terminated pediatric drug trials, and a free scientific advice service for industry provided by EMEA.

    Assigning blame.

    Some 60 scientists funded by China's NSF have committed misconduct since 1999, the agency says.


    A child-centered approach “was absolutely necessary,” says clinical pharmacologist Josep-Maria Arnau of Vall d'Hebró University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain. Pediatric pharmacologist Gerard Pons of the René Descartes University in Paris says that the regulation “is very important not only in terms of public health but also in terms of economy, as an E.U. network for research of children's drugs should attract drug manufacturers to the E.U.”

    The new law, expected to get final approval from the European Council this year, also calls for the E.U. to provide funding to research drugs that are not patent protected. This Medicines Investigation for the Children of Europe program will aim to get off-patent drugs for children authorized, normally a difficult task because of the slim profits.

    As in the United States, drug companies can win a 6-month extension of their patent protection if they have carried out a pediatric investigation plan. The law “is a key opportunity for Europe's children and for Europe's pharmaceutical science base,” says Brian Ager, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.


    Another Hint of Planetary Marauders

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    As scientists accumulate evidence that something battered the inner planets 3.9 billion years ago, some say they are homing in on what did the pummeling. On page 1847, Robert Strom, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and colleagues present evidence that the massive cratering seen on Earth and its neighbors originated in the asteroid belt. “I've been working 35 years on this problem,” says Strom. “I was one of those who did not believe in a cataclysm. This has changed my view entirely.”

    The most obvious clues to the source of the so-called late heavy bombardment are the number of craters left behind and the sizes of the impactors responsible, as derived from crater size. Strom and his co-workers compiled Strom's published and unpublished crater counts from the most pockmarked planetary surfaces—such as the highlands of the moon. They did the same for younger, more lightly cratered areas, such as certain volcanic plains on Mars. They also calculated projectile sizes from crater diameters.

    A battering.

    Outer planets may have rattled the asteroid belt, showering the moon with impactors.


    Relatively more small objects hit the younger surfaces, they found, a size distribution that matches that of the near-Earth asteroids that have drifted in from the main belt more recently. That makes sense because the forces that nudge asteroids out of the belt today, such as the Yarkovsky effect driven by solar heating (Science, 13 August 1999, p. 1002), favor smaller objects.

    A bigger proportion of large impactors, by contrast, had cratered older terrains. As reported before, the breakdown of sizes matched the distribution seen in main belt asteroids. That indicated that a very different mechanism must have driven the ancient bombardment—one that did not discriminate between large and small asteroids.

    The group argues that the asteroids must have pummeled the inner solar system after a rearrangement of the outer planets. Perhaps Jupiter and Saturn teamed up to scatter asteroids gravitationally (Science, 3 December 2004, p. 1676), or Neptune and Uranus formed long after the rest of the planets. Such planetary shifts would have disturbed the planetesimals in the outer solar system as well as the main belt, they concede, but the weak, porous structure of icy planetesimals would have led to a different distribution of sizes from what they observed, says Strom.

    Cratering specialists suspect that Strom and his colleagues are on to something, but they say the case remains open. Outer solar system planetesimals “can't be ruled out without further testing and evidence” to show that their size distribution really would have been different, says William Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Strom “could very well be right,” he says, “but we have to be careful.”


    Pellegrino to Succeed Kass on U.S. Panel

    1. Constance Holden

    A presidentially appointed bioethics panel might be slipping out of the limelight as its outspoken chair steps down. He will be replaced by an elder statesman of the field who is expected to be more of a consensus-builder.

    President George W. Bush's decision to replace the 66-year-old Leon Kass with Edmund Pellegrino, an 85-year-old physician and bioethicist at Georgetown University, has some people wondering if the President's Council on Bioethics will assume more of a figurehead role. “I wouldn't be surprised if the council recedes into the background from now on,” says Daniel Perry, head of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in Washington, D.C. “Pellegrino is not the lightning rod that Leon was.”

    New chair.

    Catholic scholar Edmund Pellegrino will lead the President's Bioethics Council.


    Saying that “two [2-year] terms is enough,” Kass plans to stay on as a member even as he returns to the University of Chicago, where he's a professor on the Committee on Social Thought. Kass insists that there will be “no diminution of the role of the council” after Pellegrino takes over on 30 September. But Dartmouth College neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, one of the most outspoken members of the council, says, “there is word that some members may resign due to other duties and probably waning interest.”

    There seems little doubt that the 18-member council will be quieter under Pellegrino. “Leon defined this council,” says Kathy Hudson, director of the Johns Hopkins University Genetics and Public Policy Center. She expects that Pellegrino, renowned for his diplomatic skills, will “rein in the council's recent activist tendencies” and “boost public confidence in the objectivity of this important body.”

    The Jesuit-trained Pellegrino is universally applauded for his scholarship. “There isn't an award that he hasn't been awarded,” says Baruch Brody of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, including from groups that differ with him on matters such as abortion and when to withdraw treatment for the terminally ill. He's also held many administrative posts, including a 4-year stint as president of Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

    Although Pellegrino declined comment, his writings appear to place him in the same camp as Kass in opposing research cloning—what scientists prefer to call somatic cell nuclear transfer—and other technologies promising to “enhance” humans. Acquaintances predict Pellegrino won't have a problem with the workload, which Kass found to be a full-time job. And he'll do it the old-fashioned way: When Science tried e-mailing his office, an automatic reply explained that “Dr. Pellegrino does not use E-Mail.”


    To Escape From Quantum Weirdness, Put the Pedal to the Metal

    1. Adrian Cho

    If you want to disentangle yourself, hit the accelerator. That sounds like the thinking of a runaway groom racing away from the chapel, but it's also a surprising insight into the realm of quantum physics. Acceleration unravels a weird connection between widely separated particles known as “entanglement,” physicists calculate. The finding hints at a deeper connection between quantum mechanics and gravity.

    The result is surprising because it means that whether two particles are entangled depends on the motion of the observer, says Samuel Braunstein, a theorist at the University of York, U.K. An observer who is not accelerating may find that two particles are entangled, whereas an observer who is accelerating will find that the same particles are not. “I don't quite know how to eat that and be happy,” Braunstein says.

    When two particles are entangled, fiddling with one of them instantly affects the other, even if it's light-years away. Suppose Alice has one electron on Earth, and Bob has another on a planet orbiting Betelgeuse. The electrons spin like tops, and in principle they can be entangled so that if Alice measures hers and finds it spinning “up,” she'll know instantly that Bob's is spinning “down” and vice versa—even though both electrons spin both ways at the same time until Alice makes her measurement. By measuring her electron, Alice instantly forces Bob's to adopt the opposite spin.

    Previously, physicists had studied how entanglement is affected if Bob and Alice move at steady near-light speed relative to each other (Science, 10 January 2003, p. 185). They found that Alice and Bob will agree that the entanglement remains, although the details of the connection will change and may involve the particles' momenta. Acceleration affects entanglement more dramatically, report theorists Ivette Fuentes-Schuller of the University of Oxford, U.K., and Robert Mann of the University of Waterloo, Canada.


    By accelerating away from a black hole, Alice severs her quantum connection with Bob.


    Fuentes-Schuller and Mann, who are also affiliated with the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, imagined that Alice and Bob share pairs of photons from a source somewhere between them. The pairs of photons are entangled, so that if Alice spots a photon in her particle detector, she knows that Bob got one, too. If Alice does not get one, she knows that Bob didn't get one either. The same conditions apply to Bob. Suppose, however, that Alice accelerates away from Bob. Then Bob still finds that his measurements are perfectly entangled with Alice's. But Alice finds that her measurements are not completely entangled with Bob's, the researchers report in a paper to be published in Physical Review Letters.

    The asymmetry arises from the “Unruh effect,” which makes Alice see particles that Bob does not. As Alice accelerates ever closer to light speed, light from some parts of space can never quite catch up to her. That creates a “horizon” that cuts her off from part of the universe. At the same time, the vacuum roils with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop into existence and quickly annihilate themselves. For Alice, some pairs appear just at the horizon, in which case the antiparticle slips beyond it, while the particle zooms into bona fide existence. The additional particles entangle with the photons from the source and obscure the original entanglement, Mann says.

    The effect can obliterate the original entanglement entirely. If Bob falls into a black hole, he feels no acceleration and observes perfect entanglement with Alice. But if Alice fires a powerful rocket to accelerate away from the black hole and stay outside its “event horizon,” she sees no entanglement at all.

    Acceleration is linked to gravity through Einstein's general theory of relativity, so the result hints at a connection between gravity and entanglement, says Christoph Adami of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont. However, the tie between the two remains to be unraveled.


    An Islamic Science Revolution?

    1. Richard Stone

    Iran is pouring money into world-class facilities for biotechnology, particle physics, and astronomy. But growing tensions with the West threaten a scientific community just coming into its own

    TEHRAN—In a quiet suburb that seems light-years from the hubbub of downtown Tehran, Amir Mousavi beams with pride at a state-of-the-art gene gun for injecting DNA into cells. “It's a dream of many universities in Iran to have one,” says Mousavi, a molecular biologist with the National Research Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (NRCGEB). The lab has become a magnet for young talent, filling up with researchers who in other times might have left Iran to make their mark in science.

    The rising campus is a prime example of Iran's recent push to create oases of elite science. Other brick-and-mortar initiatives include the country's first world-class astronomical observatory, a linear accelerator, and a facility for international conferences. The sails of Iranian science have been filling with government support of several kinds—including a rapid expansion of foreign cooperation that embraces even “the Great Satan,” as the United States is still known in some circles here.

    But some fear that Iranian science may be heading into the doldrums. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ultraconservative who took office last month on a promise to restore the values of the Islamic Revolution, has yet to express his views on R&D, although he has named a mathematician as his science minister. If the new government attempts to roll back the social reforms begun by Ahmadinejad's predecessor Mohammad Khatami, academic freedom could become restricted, and science could suffer, says Shapour Etemad, director of the National Research Institute for Science Policy in Tehran. “The mood in the scientific community is very poor,” he says. Moreover, Iran's refusal to halt a nuclear fuel enrichment program may endanger collaborations with the West. Immunologist Mostafa Moin, an architect of scientific reforms in Iran and a presidential candidate who placed fifth in the first round of voting in elections last June, is concerned for the future. “All research is in danger,” he says.

    Thinking in many dimensions.

    Physicist Hessamaddin Arfaei is the nucleus of IPM's highly rated group of string theorists.


    Trials and tribulations

    What worries Iranian intellectuals most is a reprise of the scientific stagnation that followed the 1979 revolution. After a fundamentalist coup toppled the shah, universities were closed for 3 years, and many research projects wilted. The Cultural Revolution “rejected science as a product of the West or endeavored to promote an 'Islamic science'” focused on development, Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar of the école des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales in Paris wrote in the summer 2004 issue of Critical Middle Eastern Studies. That spurred an exodus of talented researchers. Hit hard were the prestigious Hamadan University and the Institute for Biochemistry and Biophysics in Tehran. Scientists who chose to stay, says Etemad, “often were suspected of being counter-revolutionaries.”

    During this dark period, the remnants of an elite group of mathematicians and theoretical physicists struggled to prevent an implosion of Iranian science. Meeting weekly for a “Tuesday Gathering” at the University of Tehran's Institute of Physics, the scientists “fought against the prevailing atmosphere and convinced the new generation to continue its efforts for the survival of scientific activity in Iran,” Khosrokhavar wrote. One safe haven was the Atomic Energy Center, the nerve center of Iran's efforts to develop nuclear power—and, some Western analysts contend, atomic bombs.

    The Tuesday Gathering lobbied the government hard to permit universities to train Ph.D.s. Its efforts paid off in 1988, soon after the Iran-Iraq war ended, when Sharif University of Technology launched Iran's first science Ph.D. program, in physics. Moin, appointed minister of culture and higher education in 1989, says he sought to breathe life into the largely moribund universities. Since then, undergraduate enrollment has shot up 10-fold, to nearly 1 million. “People are thirsty for higher education,” says Mohammad Javad Rasaee, dean of medical sciences at Tarbiat Modarres University in Tehran. Meanwhile, science spending has climbed steadily, from about 0.2% of gross domestic product in 1990 to 0.65% this year.

    Although few researchers have reached the highest echelons of their disciplines, Iran's scientific leaders say their community is coalescing. “Scientific output has skyrocketed since 1993,” Rasaee says. In 2003, scientists in Iran published 3277 papers in international journals, a 30-fold increase over 1985, placing the country well ahead of Pakistan and on par with Egypt. Since 2000, the number of international collaborations has risen threefold, with chemistry, engineering, and physics leading the pack.

    Iranian science has been bedeviled by shifting relations with the West. As higher education minister, Moin encouraged science students and faculty members to make a beeline for Western labs. NRCGEB's Mousavi, 36, is a star example. He won a Japanese government scholarship for his Ph.D. studies at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. After a postdoc stint, he turned down a job offer from the University of California, San Diego, to return to Iran. “Many scientists love their country and come back,” he says.

    However, many others have stayed abroad. “It's hard to attract people back to meager facilities and meager salaries,” says Yousef Sobouti, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences (IASBS) in Zanjan, a fast-growing center for graduate science education in the foothills of the Zägros Mountains, 300 kilometers west of Tehran. That has prompted worries that Iran's push for foreign training has shortchanged its own growth. “We came to the conclusion that this is not a safe way to develop science,” says Iran's deputy research minister Reza Mansouri.

    Home is where the lab is.

    Modern facilities at the National Research Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Tehran have persuaded some talented young biologists to stay in Iran.


    Bringing on big science

    The science ministry has tried to shore up a weak infrastructure by showering money on a handful of institutes founded after the revolution. One beneficiary is the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics (IPM) in Tehran. “We go after people who can build a field,” says Hessamaddin Arfaei, IPM's deputy director of research, who returned to Iran in 1979 after earning a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. His reputation as a top string theorist has enticed some of Iran's best young minds to work on the problem at IPM.

    The institute's main focus is particle physics. Since 2001, IPM has been sending researchers to CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva, Switzerland. “It took 10 years to get a green light” from the Iranian government to proceed with the collaboration, says Arfaei. IPM scientists are helping construct the Compact Muon Solenoid, a detector for CERN's Large Hadron Collider due to come online in 2007.

    The collider project is laying the groundwork for IPM's own dream: to start building an accelerator in the next decade that can infuse particles with 1 billion electron volts (GeV) of energy. Arfaei says such a machine “would allow us to do modern science,” such as looking for violations of charge-parity symmetry, which would confirm that matter and antimatter are not always completely equivalent. As a dry run, IPM has begun constructing a 10-million-electron-volt linear accelerator. “You could go and buy one of these in Europe,” Arfaei says. Instead, IPM staff members are devising superconducting magnets and other technologies on their own.

    As further preparation for the GeV accelerator, the institute, under a deal inked last month and awaiting formal approval by Parliament, will build magnets for boosting the power of the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan. IPM's longtime director Mohammad Javad Larijani, an influential conservative, is the brother of Iran's new nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. The institute should continue to fare well under Ahmadinejad, Etemad says.

    Astronomers, too, are about to reap a reward. The government has begun site selection for an $18 million observatory, likely to be dedicated to surveys for objects such as near-earth pulsars and extrasolar planets. Iranian astronomers began a campaign for the project in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 2004 that funds were allotted, thanks to a push from astrophysicist Mansouri. After specifications for the 2-meter optical and near-infrared telescope are drafted later this year, orders for components will go out to government factories.

    Looking outward.

    Yousef Sobouti says Iran's planned new observatory will provide opportunities for foreign collaboration.


    In the meantime, scientists are surveying four sites—Kashan, Kerman, Khorosan, and Qom—in the running to host the observatory. The scope should see first light by 2010. “After so many years, we'll finally be able to make world-class observations in Iran,” says Mansouri. The facility will create a wealth of new opportunities for foreign collaborations, adds Sobouti, an astrophysicist. “If you're in a position to offer something, you are in a position to be offered,” he says. Centuries ago, in the early days of Islam, astronomers in Persia and Central Asia were at the vanguard of their profession. “We hope that cuts ice with the new government,” says one scientist.

    The darling of Iran's previous administration was biotechnology. Its largess included Tarbiat Modarres University, which has sunk millions of dollars into its labs in the last few years. “There is nothing we cannot buy,” claims Rasaee. A recent purchase is a $1 million nuclear magnetic resonance x-ray fluorescence microscope. Biotech is so popular, Rasaee says, that 700 undergrads vied for five positions his lab, which recently succeeded in producing recombinant immunoglobulin from the Bactrian camel.

    The first fruits of Iran's biotech boom are ripening. The Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran has completed field trials of a genetically modified variety of local rice called tarom molai. Risk assessments and biosafety studies of the rice, equipped with the gene for making a Bacillus thuringiensis protein that's toxic to insects, are under way. At NRCGEB, meanwhile, the plant biotechnology group is conducting field trials of virus-resistant sugar beets and herbicide-tolerant canola, and the industrial biotech department is scaling up, in a new pilot plant, production of recombinant human growth hormone.

    In March 2004, NRCGEB's 170-strong staff relocated from cramped digs in downtown Tehran to the first of five wings of the new campus in Chitgar, 17 kilometers west of Tehran. When construction is completed, the institute will have onsite staff housing and childcare for a staff expected to grow fourfold, Mousavi says. NRCGEB is also the anchor of a budding science village. A short drive down Research Boulevard is a polymer research center, chemistry and forestry institutes, the botanical garden, and the agriculture faculty of Tarbiat Modarres.

    Gloomy outlook

    Iranian scientists have a love-hate relationship with the world's most powerful scientific nation, which Iran's theocracy has branded an archenemy. On one hand, Iran has more collaborative projects with the United States than with any other nation. On the other hand, sanctions imposed by the United States after the revolution have taken a toll on science.

    Sanctions forbid the direct sale of U.S.-made goods to Iran, impeding scientists here from obtaining certain specialized instruments and supplies. Although middlemen in places such as Dubai sell many of these items, their prices are inflated, and there is no after-sales service. “We train technicians to fix instruments,” says Rasaee. “But spare parts are a problem.”

    New impediments to Iranian scientists are restrictions the United States imposed after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks and informal barriers thrown up after President George W. Bush labeled Iran a member of the so-called axis of evil in 2002. Iranians must obtain U.S. visas in a third country, and they are harder than ever to get. Rasaee would have preferred to spend an upcoming sabbatical in the United States, he says, but “I'm not going to humiliate myself by applying for a visa and not getting it.” And one scientist says that at conferences, Westerners treat Chinese or Indian scientists with more respect than an Iranian with similar credentials. “Scientists endure many symbolic wounds due to their Iranian citizenship,” Etemad notes.

    Tradition and change.

    Akram Amani, a medicinal chemist and lab chief at the Pasteur Institute in Tehran, predicts that female scientists will continue to make gains.


    Iran must overcome internal constraints as well. Only recently have universities created postdoc positions, primarily as a mechanism to try out talented young scientists for junior faculty positions. “Nobody wants to let a good graduate go,” says Mohammad Reza Khajehpour, deputy director of IASBS, which has earned a reputation as one of the most productive scientific centers in Iran, publishing more papers per staff member than any other institute. At the same time, Iran's own strict visa regime sharply constrains the amount of time that any foreign researcher can work in Iran. “China and Malaysia have asked to send postdocs [to IASBS], but we can't take them,” Khajehpour says. And although the government has raised scientists' salaries, many observers say the national science budget, about $900 million, is not increasing fast enough.

    People are waiting to see whether Ahmadinejad, the new president, will change the science agenda. After a restructuring earlier this year, a new High Commission for Science, Research, and Technology now controls the science budget. The commission, chaired by the president and expected to meet in the fall, “will decide what will happen in science in the coming years,” says Rasaee. Few scientists believe that Ahmadinejad's new science minister, mathematician Mohammad-Mehdi Zahedi of Shahid Bahonar University in Kerman, will radically alter course.

    Rather, much hinges on whether the new government follows through on Ahmadinejad's vow to restore the values of the Islamic revolution, including greater segregation of the sexes. The ranks of women in academia swelled during Khatami's two terms: Of 28,000 scientists currently in Iranian universities, 5400 are women. Among the country's rising scientific stars is Akram Amani, a female lab chief at the Pasteur Institute in Tehran. Trained in medicinal chemistry in India, Amani returned to Tehran in 1996, just before Khatami came to power. She predicts that female scientists will continue to make gains under Ahmadinejad, who she says “did a very good job” as Tehran's mayor before becoming president. Others are pessimistic.

    One pervasive fear is that academic freedom could be eroded. “I don't think the universities and research institutes can defend themselves” if conservatives grow more assertive, says Moin, president of the Immunology, Asthma, and Allergy Research Institute in Tehran. Rasaee adds that “if scientists cannot speak openly, and they don't want to keep quiet, they will probably prefer to leave Iran.” Arfaei worries that funds for travel and hosting short-term visiting researchers may dwindle. “It could be like it was 20 years ago, when traveling abroad was a luxury,” he says.

    Not likely, says Mansouri, who is preparing to resign from the science ministry to pursue a sabbatical at McGill University in |Montreal, Canada. He sees a bright future taking shape in the Dasht-é Kavir desert. There, in the Khoranagh oasis near the city of Yazd, the science ministry is refurbishing a 4000-year-old citadel and caravansary for hosting international workshops. The idea was born several years ago, when Mansouri and some colleagues were longing for a science retreat like the Snowmass Conference Center in Aspen, Colorado. “We need to bring more scientists from abroad to Iran,” he says.

    Khoranagh is the centerpiece of a new organization, the Center for International Research and Collaboration, formed under an agreement between the science ministry and the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. The conference facility should be ready in about 5 years, Mansouri says. In the meantime, Iran's fragile scientific community will either continue to enjoy a renaissance or discover that, like the Khoranagh citadel, its vibrant days are already behind it.


    Attack of the Killer Jellies

    1. Richard Stone

    A vicious alien is wreaking havoc in the Caspian Sea, but governments have not approved deployment of the only weapon likely to stop it

    BANDAR-E ANZALI, IRAN—The invasion began 6 years ago, when an advance force slipped into the Caspian Sea. A massacre followed. Three-quarters of the zooplankton species in the southern Caspian were annihilated, sending a shock wave through the food chain that dealt the biggest blow to kilka, a favorite of Iran's fishing industry. The aggressor—one of the most feared and reviled invasive species, the comb jelly Mnemiopsis leidyi—had transformed the world's largest lake into a killing field.

    The voracious jelly seemed to be an unstoppable menace. But it has been stopped before—in the Black Sea. In the late 1990s, another comb jelly, Beroe ovata, put an end to Mnemiopsis's romp there by eating its cousins and bringing the population under control. Natural rivalry could be deployed against comb jellies again—except that in the Caspian, bordered by five nations, complex politics have thwarted the use of this silver bullet. Some decision-makers fear unexpected side effects, says ecologist Henri Dumont of Ghent University in Belgium. Yet with Beroe, he says, “we have a predator of Mnemiopsis that is such a specialized feeder that it is almost too good to be true.”

    Any delay in joining battle with Mnemiopsis is bad news for the Caspian, where environmental degradation and overfishing imperil sturgeons, prized for their caviar (see sidebar, p. 1806), and a virus has hammered the endangered Caspian seal (Science, 18 January 2002, p. 430). Because the Caspian is landlocked, pollution accumulates, magnifying its effects. “We were already losing genetic resources before Mnemiopsis came along,” says Ali Asghar Khanipour, director of the Guilan Fisheries Research Center in Bandar-e Anzali, a port on the southern Caspian coast.


    Black-and-white photos in the Guilan center's zooplankton lab pay funereal homage to the victims. “Some species have entirely vanished,” including several varieties of copepods and Cladocera, says center biologist Siamak Bagheri. Of these, he says, only Acartia is left in high numbers.

    The villain, rapacious and bioluminescent, can consume up to 15 times its body weight in a day. Within 2 weeks after birth, the hermaphrodite reaches sexual maturity and can produce thousands of eggs each day. Although its main food is zooplankton, Mnemiopsis also eats fish eggs and larvae. For time immemorial, it thrived in obscurity in its native waters off the East Coast of the United States. Then in the early 1980s, the jelly found its way to the Black Sea in ship ballast water. Its first bloom, in 1989, was overwhelming: As many as 800 million tons of Mnemiopsis overran the Black Sea that summer—800 times the total fish catch in the Black Sea that year. Fisheries were decimated (Science, 30 August 2002, p. 1482).

    The carnage continued until 1997, when Mnemiopsis's nemesis from back home arrived serendipitously on the scene, probably in ballast water. Beroe, which appears to prey exclusively on Mnemiopsis, quickly brought the monster to heel. By 2001, numbers had ebbed so low that researchers had trouble finding specimens for analysis, says Ahmet Kideys of the Institute of Marine Sciences in Erdemli, Turkey. “Turkey didn't have to do anything,” says Bagheri. “They were lucky.”

    Mnemiopsis stole into the Caspian, however, and an ecological nightmare began to unfold in 1999, when the comb jelly was first spotted by Iranian and Russian fishers. Researchers assume that Mnemiopsis had stowed away a year or two earlier in ballast water taken on in the Black Sea or the Sea of Azov by ships that later entered the Caspian via the Volga-Don canal.

    Natural-born killer.

    Beroe ovata are ferocious predators of another comb jelly, Mnemiopsis leidyi.


    The invasion was swift. Mnemiopsis “has spread everywhere in the Caspian,” says Naser Agh, director of the Artemia and Aquatic Animals Research Institute in Orumiyeh, Iran. Sampling has found more than 2000 individuals per square meter; they persist in high numbers for more than 6 months of the year, peaking in August. Although most comb jellies in the Caspian are less than 10 millimeters long—much smaller than those of the Black Sea—their appetites are by no means diminished.

    “It's been a disaster,” says Hossein Negarestan, senior marine ecologist at the Iranian Fisheries Research Organization (IFRO) in Tehran. With zooplankton biomass reduced 10-fold, Iran's kilka fishery has plunged from 85,000 tons in 1999 to 15,000 tons in 2004. Azerbaijan and Russia have reported similar drop-offs. There are worrying signs that the Caspian seal, which feeds on kilka, also may become a casualty. Pollution, hunting, and recent outbreaks of canine distemper virus have already reduced the seal population by 83% over the past 50 years. And with zooplankton hobbled, their phytoplankton prey are living it up. Phytoplankton blooms can be seen from satellites, says Kideys, now on a 1-year sabbatical at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy. “The consequences of such high levels of phytoplankton must be enormous,” he says.

    Fishers are reeling. The most valuable of the Caspian's three kilka species, anchovy kilka, has been hit hardest. Hauls are smaller, and catch quality is poorer. In Iran alone, losses exceed $125 million.

    To the rescue?

    In 2001, Kideys and others organized a research program to test whether Beroe could be introduced into the Caspian. Four years later, it's still unclear whether Beroe is up to the job. In 2002, researchers shipped Beroe from Turkey to Iran to try rearing the critter in Caspian water, the salinity of which is between a third and two-thirds that of Black Sea water. The international team had a narrow window to work in: Beroe is found in the Black Sea only in late summer, when Mnemiopsis numbers peak; it crashes in sync with its prey. Although adult Beroe could adapt to brackish Caspian water, they hardly bred. Things went better the next summer in Sinop, Turkey, when the team was able to coax Beroe into reproducing, albeit feebly, in Caspian water. The only way to discover whether it will flourish in the Caspian is to put it there, says Negarestan: “We can't replicate the Caspian environment in a laboratory.”

    Some environmentalists, however, have warned that Beroe, once in the Caspian, might seek out prey other than Mnemiopsis. To test this possibility, Negarestan and colleagues put the two comb jellies and the zooplankton Acartia in tanks in various combinations. “We found that Beroe doesn't feed on the zooplankton at all,” Negarestan says. And to his surprise, Acartia did better when cohabiting with Beroe than in the absence of either jelly. Researchers have also tested whether Beroe might carry unspecified pests into the Caspian. “Parasites die off, probably because of the change in salinity,” Negarestan says, whereas the bacteria profiles of the two seas are similar.

    Scientists first made their case for introducing Beroe at a February 2004 meeting in Tehran sponsored by IFRO and the Caspian Environment Programme, a World Bank and European Union initiative with representatives from the five littoral nations—Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan vetoed the project on scientific grounds. Then earlier this year, the researchers aired the proposal at the Commission of Aquatic Bioresources of the Caspian Sea, a forum for the five nations to manage stocks of seals, kilka, and sturgeon. Again, Kazakhstan objected, and the commission took a pass. “We have gone down two dead ends,” says Negarestan, who says action at the foreign ministry level, or higher, may be required for approval. Dumont, who chaired the meetings, says he's “frustrated” by the lack of action.

    Although this year the kilka fishery has rebounded slightly, it's unknown whether that means Mnemiopsis numbers have climaxed. Some in Iran whisper about taking matters into their own hands. “It's not easy to pass a border with a jar of comb jellies,” says Negarestan. And even if smuggling were successful, he says, “it's highly unlikely” that a fisher could adapt Beroe to the Caspian. But if frustration mounts, one of the littoral countries may well attempt an unofficial introduction. “It's something that a scientist could do,” Negarestan says.


    The Sturgeon's Last Stand

    1. Richard Stone

    RASHT, IRAN—In a cavernous hall packed with naval-gray steel tanks, a precious commodity is being enriched and multiplied. No, this is not a hitherto undeclared uranium facility in Iran's nuclear program: It's a breeding facility for Caspian sturgeons. Each tank is filled with fish of various ages, from fingerlings, a few centimeters long with crocodilian snouts, to meter-long juveniles. Here at the International Sturgeon Research Institute (ISRI) in the northern town of Rasht, scientists are refining techniques for rearing fingerlings that may give the ancient but threatened species a better shot at surviving in the open sea. “If something happened in the Caspian and a wild population was lost, we could reconstitute it,” says ISRI director Mohammad Pourkazemi.

    ISRI may get a chance to test that claim: Deteriorating spawning grounds and unbridled poaching have reduced sturgeon stocks to a shadow of what they were a generation ago. With disaster looming, the two biggest fishing nations—Iran and Russia—are sparring over how many sturgeon are left and how to divvy up a declining catch. Amid the bickering, a new survey suggests that the sturgeon's free fall is continuing.

    For most of the 20th century, Iran and the Soviet Union ran tight ships, at least on regulating sturgeon fisheries. The situation unraveled in 1991 when four Caspian states—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan—emerged from the Soviet collapse. Weak law enforcement and poverty along the Volga and Ural rivers, the northern spawning areas, have enabled poachers to take up to 10 times the legal catch. Despite the release of tens of millions of fingerlings each year, Caspian nations in 2004 caught only 760 tons of sturgeon, the smallest figure in a century, down from 26,600 tons in 1985.

    Proud father.

    Aquaculturist Hamid Reza Pourali cradles a young sturgeon at ISRI.


    Four Caspian sturgeon varieties—Russian, Persian, beluga, and stellate, or sevruga—supply 90% of the world's caviar. A fifth, the ship sturgeon, is so scarce that exporting its meat or caviar has been banned since 2002. Almost half of this year's caviar quota—51 of 105 tons—is Persian sturgeon, which mostly keeps to Iranian waters. Iranian officials attribute its relative robustness to government control of the caviar trade and zero tolerance for poaching.

    But the Persian's rise has come at the expense of its kin, throwing the ecosystem off kilter, asserts marine ecologist Arash Javanshir of the University of Tehran. Besides fishing restrictions, he says, what's needed is a restoration program by the Caspian states that targets all sturgeon and their spawning grounds and many other organisms as well.

    One big blind spot is that no one knows just how many of the living dinosaurs—the first sturgeon are believed to have lived 300 million years ago—ply the Caspian. Some experts, picking up on charges first leveled by the Wildlife Conservation Society 2 years ago, accuse Russia of exaggerating population sizes by low-balling the catch coefficient and high-balling the escape coefficient—the fraction of fish that are captured or are thought to escape capture on a sweep of the trawl net. “They produce statistics that are not in line with reality,” claims Ali Asghar Khanipour, director of the Guilan Fisheries Research Center in Bandar-e Anzali.

    The latest stock assessment, a monthlong exercise by Iranian and U.K. scientists that finished in early August, has not added clarity. For the first time, a camera was attached to trawl nets to try to better estimate the escape coefficient, but the water was too turbid. One stark fact was apparent, though, says Pourkazemi, a population geneticist: Sturgeon stocks are down 20% to 30% from last year.

    Time is running out. The last 2 years has seen a precipitous decline in breeders, suggesting that mature sturgeon are getting fished out. According to the head of one of the two hatcheries on the Ural River, the beluga's spawing ground, neither hatchery was able to catch a single female this year—a first. “If illegal catch and environmental deterioration continue at the same pace,” Pourkazemi predicts, “we will soon witness the extinction of sturgeon stocks in the Caspian.” ISRI's tanks, now brimming with more than 10,000 sturgeons, may well become a Noah's ark for this antediluvian beast.


    Is Katrina a Harbinger of Still More Powerful Hurricanes?

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Mounting evidence suggests that tropical cyclones around the world are intensifying, perhaps driven by greenhouse warming, but humans still have themselves to blame for rising damage

    Were New Orleans and coastal Mississippi victims of global warming? Greenhouse alarmists and the tabloids say yes, but until recently, most scientists would have answered no way. There was no evidence that global warming has had any effect on the planet's most powerful storms—dubbed hurricanes, typhoons, or cyclones depending on the ocean that spawns them.

    Now, however, a connection is emerging between warming oceans and severe tropical cyclones. On page 1844, meteorologists report a striking 80% increase worldwide in the abundance of the most powerful tropical cyclones during the past 35 years. The study lends support to another, independent study published just last month that found a similar intensification in the Atlantic and western North Pacific. At the same time, the tropical oceans have been warming, driven, most researchers agree, by rising greenhouse gases. “There's a strong suggestion of a link” between the growing greenhouse and intensifying tropical cyclones, says meteorologist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sole author of the earlier paper.

    But you still can't blame Katrina's damage on global warming, says Emanuel. There have been too few powerful storms striking densely populated coasts to declare with any confidence that intensifying storms are increasing the damage. And vulnerable coastal populations have swollen so much in recent decades that the increase in damage due to demographics is swamping any sign of increased damage due to storm intensification. But just wait until the second half of the century, he says.

    Global warming and tropical cyclones are naturally linked by the storms' appetite for heat. Tropical storms are heat engines that draw their energy upward from warm ocean water to drive their winds before expelling waste heat to the upper atmosphere. So warming the tropical oceans—in effect throwing more wood on the fire—might be expected to spawn more frequent or more intense tropical cyclones. To find out whether warming has done that, meteorologist Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and his colleagues examined satellite records of storms around the tropics, a history now 35 years long. The temperature contrast between a storm's eye and the adjacent cloud tops provides a gauge of maximum wind speed, as calibrated in the Atlantic and western North Pacific against direct measurements of wind speeds by storm-penetrating aircraft.

    Bad trend rising.

    The number of the most intense tropical cyclones is increasing worldwide.


    Webster and colleagues seem to have been one for two in their search for warming effects. They found no long-term trend in the number of storms per year, only natural ups and downs, even as summer tropical sea surface temperatures rose 0.5°C. In the North Atlantic, where hurricane numbers have surged since 1995, such variability arises from changes in the strength of warm ocean currents (Science, 1 July, p. 41). But the researchers did find a sharp increase during the past 35 years in the number of category 4 and 5 tropical cyclones, the most intense storms that cause most of the damage on landfall. Globally, category 4 and 5 storms climbed 57% from the first half of the period to the second.

    That growing proportion of tropical cyclones in categories 4 and 5 “is very consistent with my results,” says Emanuel. As he reported in the 4 August issue of Nature, he calculated the total power released during the life of Atlantic and western North Pacific storms (the Pacific spawns about five times as many storms as the Atlantic does) based on reported maximum sustained winds. Because of stronger winds and longer storms, this power dissipation index rose between 40% and 50% from the first half of the 45-year record to the second, in step with rising ocean temperatures. With two studies finding that the same trends correlate with sea surface temperatures in a half-dozen ocean basins, “it's fairly well established that the measure of hurricane intensity has been increasing,” says Emanuel.

    Perhaps predictably, that hasn't stopped other researchers from giving the two papers a guarded initial reception. Meteorologist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, notes inevitable reservations about such indirectly measured records. And modeler Thomas Knutson of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, says, “We would not have expected the signal [of storm intensification] to be detectable at the present time,” based on theory and his modeling of storms under a growing greenhouse. That, he says, prompts the question, “Are these trends real?”

    In any case, no one, including Webster and Emanuel, is claiming that these two positive results suffice to link global warming firmly to tropical cyclone intensification. Webster, for one, would first want to understand exactly how warming waters could trigger such a large response.

    Even if global warming is driving a real intensification of tropical cyclones, notes climatologist Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, Boulder, it shouldn't change anyone's plans. It's easy to see a rising trend in U.S. hurricane damage as people flock to the coasts, he says, and even the effects of the natural North Atlantic oscillation and of El Niño on hurricanes are recognizable in storm damage. But there's no sign of an effect of storm intensification. That's down in the noise and will be for many decades, he says.

    A beach house owner on the southeast U.S. coast has plenty to worry about from current storm hazards, Emanuel agrees. But anyone operating globally on a half-century time scale or longer, such as some insurance companies, should expect to see big changes later this century, he says. Then global warming can start taking the blame.


    Scientists Weigh Options for Rebuilding New Orleans

    1. John Bohannon,
    2. Martin Enserink
    1. John Bohannon is a writer in Berlin, Germany.

    As experts ponder how best to rebuild the devastated city, one question is whether to wall off—or work with—the water

    Even before the death toll from Hurricane Katrina is tallied, scientists are cautiously beginning to discuss the future of New Orleans. Few seem to doubt that this vital heart of U.S. commerce and culture will be restored, but exactly how to rebuild the city and its defenses to avoid a repeat catastrophe is an open question. Plans for improving its levees and restoring the barrier of wetlands around New Orleans have been on the table since 1998, but federal dollars needed to implement them never arrived. After the tragedy, that's bound to change, says John Day, an ecologist at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. And if there is an upside to the disaster, he says, it's that “now we've got a clean slate to start from.”

    Many are looking for guidance to the Netherlands, a country that, just like bowl-shaped New Orleans, sits mostly below sea level, keeping the water at bay with a construction of amazing scale and complexity (see sidebar, p. 1809). Others, pointing to Venice's long-standing adaptations, say it's best to let water flow through the city, depositing sediments to offset geologic subsidence—a model that would require a radical rethinking of architecture. Another idea is to let nature help by restoring the wetland buffers between sea and city.

    But before the options can be weighed, several unknowns will have to be addressed. One is precisely how the current defenses failed. To answer that, LSU coastal scientists Paul Kemp and Hassan Mashriqui are picking their way through the destroyed city and surrounding region, reconstructing the size of water surges by measuring telltale marks left on the sides of buildings and highway structures. They are feeding these data into a simulation of the wind and water around New Orleans during its ordeal.

    “We can't say for sure until this job is done,” says Day, “but the emerging picture is exactly what we've predicted for years.” Namely, several canals—including the MRGO (pronounced Mister Go), which was built to speed shipping in the 1960s—have the combined effect of funneling surges from the Gulf of Mexico right to the city's eastern levees and the lake system to the north. Those surges are to blame for the flooding. “One of the first things we'll see done is the complete backfilling of the MRGO canal,” predicts Day, “which could take a couple of years.”

    The levees, which have been provisionally repaired, will be shored up further in the months to come, although their long-term fate is unclear. Better levees would probably have prevented most of the flooding in the city center. To provide further protection, a mobile dam system, much like a storm surge barrier in the Netherlands, could be used to close off the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain. But most experts agree that these are short-term fixes.


    Experts are piecing together how the current defenses failed in order to help design a new system to protect New Orleans from future storms.


    The basic problem for New Orleans and the Louisiana coastline is that the entire Mississippi River delta is subsiding and eroding, plunging the city deeper below sea level and removing a thick cushion of wetlands that once buffered the coastline from wind and waves. Part of the subsidence is geologic and unavoidable, but the rest stems from the levees that have hemmed in the Mississippi all the way to its mouth for nearly a century to prevent floods and facilitate shipping. As a result, river sediment is no longer spread across the delta but dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. Without a constant stream of fresh sediments, the barrier islands and marshes are disappearing rapidly, with a quarter, roughly the size of Rhode Island, already gone.

    After years of political wrangling, a broad group pulled together by the Louisiana government in 1998 proposed a massive $14 billion plan to save the Louisiana coasts, called Coast 2050 (now modified into a plan called the Louisiana Coastal Area project). Wetland restoration was a key component. “It's one of the best and cheapest hurricane defenses,” says Day, who chaired its scientific advisory committee.

    Although the plan was never given more than token funding, a team led by Day has been conducting a pilot study since 2000, diverting part of the Mississippi into the wetlands downstream of the city. “The results are as good as we could have hoped,” he says, with land levels rising at about 1 centimeter per year—enough to offset rising sea levels, says Day.

    Even if the wetlands were restored and new levees were built, the combination of geologic subsidence and rising sea levels will likely sink New Orleans another meter by 2100. The problem might be solved by another ambitious plan, says Roel Boumans, a coastal scientist at the University of Vermont in Burlington who did his Ph.D. at LSU: shoring up the lowest land with a slurry of sediments piped in from the river. The majority of the buildings in the flooded areas will have to be razed anyway, he says, “so why not take this opportunity to fix the root of the problem?” The river could deposit enough sediment to raise the bottom of the New Orleans bowl to sea level “in 50 to 60 years,” he estimates. In the meantime, people could live in these areas Venice-style, with buildings built on stilts. Boumans even takes it a step further: “You would have to raise everything about 30 centimeters once every 30 years, so why not make the job easier by making houses that can float.”

    Whether that is technically or politically feasible—Day, for one, calls it “not likely”—remains to be seen, especially because until now, the poorest residents lived in the lowest parts of the city. Any decision on how best to protect the city in the future will be tied to how many people will live there, and where. “There may be a large contingent of residents and businesses who choose not to return,” says Bill Good, an environmental scientist at LSU and manager of the Louisiana Geological Survey's Coastal Processes section. It is also not yet clear how decisions about the reconstruction will be made, says Good, “since there is no precedent of comparable magnitude.” Every level of government is sure to be involved, and “the process is likely to be ad hoc.”

    Even with the inevitable mingling of science and politics, we still have “a unique chance to back out of some bad decisions,” says Good, who grew up in New Orleans. “I hope that we don't let this once-in-history opportunity slip through our fingers in the rush to rebuild the city.”


    Questioning the 'Dutch Solution'

    1. Martin Enserink,
    2. John Bohannon

    KRAGGENBURG, THE NETHERLANDS—Dutch scientists are making waves—literally. In a hangar here, researchers from Delft Hydraulics, a research and consulting institute, have built a 4-meter-wide slice of a dike at the end of a basin, used to mimic the North Sea crashing into the coast. Their goal: to test how different types of surface materials weather the thunderous onslaught.

    Even after a millennium of hard-won experience, the Dutch are still perfecting the art of dike construction. They have little choice. More than half of the country—including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and most of The Hague—lies below sea level and continues to sink, and the water is expected to rise as a result of climate change. Three major, often erratic, rivers compound the challenge. No wonder that many in the United States are wondering if the Dutch experience holds lessons for New Orleans.

    Safety first.

    The Delta Works, a response to the 1953 flood in the Netherlands, consists of a series of dams including a storm surge barrier across the Eastern Scheldt (right).


    Scientists in both countries agree that some of the technology developed here could be useful, and Dutch institutes and businesses are eager to help. But their offers come at a time when Dutch water management is increasingly questioned at home. Some scientists say the reliance on engineering prowess is not only ecologically harmful but has increased vulnerability in the long run. The national mindset shouldn't be exported without awareness of its downsides, cautions Toine Smits, a water management expert and professor at two universities.

    The Dutch, too, learned their lessons the hard way. On 1 February 1953, a severe North Sea storm combined with a spring tide burst through neglected dikes in hundreds of places, killing more than 1800 people and flooding 2000 km2 in the southwestern provinces. The answer, built over the subsequent 45 years, was The Delta Works, a series of dikes, dams, and other structures that closed off the major sea arms in the southwestern delta—destroying entire ecosystems in the process—and shortened the coastline by 600 kilometers. Dikes that protect the most densely populated areas of the country are built to withstand all but storms expected once every 10,000 years, says Delft Hydraulics director Huib de Vriend.

    Louisiana's geography is different, and no one is talking about damming the Mississippi Delta. Still, some Dutch solutions may work, says Bruce Good of the U.S. Geological Survey. After an intense political battle, for instance, the Dutch decided against permanently closing off one estuary; instead, the Eastern Scheldt was equipped with a “storm surge barrier” that shuts only in emergencies. Although pricey—the project cost more than $1 billion—a similar solution could be used to block Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico while saving its ecology.

    But in the end, protecting low-lying areas with dikes only is a “dead-end street” that should be avoided if possible, says Henk Saeijs, a former civil servant and professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam. When natural sedimentation stops and groundwater levels are kept low, the land sinks, requiring ever higher dikes and bigger pumps to get the water out. (“Pumping or drowning” is a national motto here.) Meanwhile, the illusion of safety lures people and investments, making future floods even more costly.

    Although there is no turning back for built-up areas, it's “utterly crazy” to keep urbanizing areas far below sea level, as is still happening in the Netherlands, Saeijs says. Instead, he advocates “embracing the water”—an approach in which floods are not a major problem because people live on mounds, in higher areas, or “floating cities.”

    But Han Vrijling, a hydraulics engineer at Delft Technical University, says that in most cases, giving the water its freedom is a “romantic” notion that's not compatible with a modern economy. Besides, “we shouldn't be too nervous” about ever-higher dikes towering over a sinking country, he says.


    Safer Alternative Could Replace Widespread Contaminant

    1. Robert F. Service

    WASHINGTON, D.C.— About 13,000 chemists, physicists, and engineers gathered here from 28 August to 1 September to discuss research with applications including environmental protection, national security, and future energy sources.

    Stain-resistant carpets, upholstery, and fabrics have a dark underside. A common coating that keeps them pristine has recently been found to break down into perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA or C8, a persistent compound that accumulates inside the body and has been fingered as a possible carcinogen. Manufacturers have been scrambling to come up with alternatives, but none could rival C8-producing stain fighters. At the American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting, however, chemists from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), unveiled an alternative that repels stains with the best of them but that breaks down into compounds that don't accumulate in the body.

    “It's a great step forward,” says Tim Kropp, a toxicologist with the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., who has closely followed C8 health concerns. Kropp notes that C8 is found in the blood of 96% of Americans and has been detected everywhere from the middle of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to embedded in Arctic ice. Animal tests have suggested that the compound is a potential carcinogen, although that has yet to be confirmed in people. Still, the persistence of C8 has persuaded Canada to ban some of the compounds that break down to form C8 in the environment. C8 is also an industrial solvent in its own right, and manufacturers have begun to switch to other solvents and phase out its use. But many researchers suspect that textile and paper coatings, which are ubiquitous, are the largest environmental source of the chemical.

    Green clean.

    New polymers resist stains without breaking down into persistent compounds.


    Current polymer fabric coatings owe their popularity to fluorine, an element that when added to polymers makes them strongly repel both water and oil. The polymers consist of a long hydrocarbon backbone bristling with innumerable fluorine-containing arms, each containing eight carbons. Over time, the arms can break off and react with oxygen to form C8. That compound has a combination of size and chemical behavior that makes it readily taken up in the body but difficult for the body to break down and eliminate, says Joseph DeSimone, a UNC-CH chemist who led the effort to develop the new alternative.

    DeSimone says that about 2 years ago, he and Paul Resnick, a polymer chemist formerly with DuPont and now at UNC-CH, noticed animal studies that suggested that fluorinated hydrocarbons with four instead of eight carbon atoms in the chains don't persist in the body. So they set out to make one with good stain-resistant qualities. Researchers at 3M had commercialized fluoropolymers with four carbons in the side chains for use as manufacturing solvents. But those compounds, the UNC-CH researchers found, did not repel water and oil as well as the longer chain compounds did. Part of the problem, DeSimone notes, is that the shorter side chains don't pack tightly around the hydrocarbon backbone. As a result, the backbone can more easily interact with oil and water, thereby making the chemicals less repellent.

    To get around this problem, Ji Guo, a Ph.D. student in DeSimone's lab, doctored the C4 side chains, outfitting each with an extra pair of hydrocarbon groups called methylenes. The methylenes, DeSimone says, encouraged the side chains to pack tightly together, making a more formidable barrier around the hydrocarbon backbone. Tests of the new materials showed that they repel oil and water almost identically to the longer-side-chained polymers, Guo says. But because the new coatings are made from polymers with shorter side chains, even if they break down over time, there is no way that they can generate C8. DeSimone says he and his colleagues have applied for patents on the new materials and have already had several discussions with textile manufacturers interested in the technology. Kropp says the new compounds must be tested to make sure there are no unforeseen problems. However, he adds, “it's always great to see scientists come up with an alternative to a problematic compound.”


    New Techniques Aim to Thwart Terrorists

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    WASHINGTON, D.C.— About 13,000 chemists, physicists, and engineers gathered here from 28 August to 1 September to discuss research with applications including environmental protection, national security, and future energy sources.

    In more than a dozen sessions at the ACS meeting dedicated to defense and homeland security, researchers presented technologies aimed at countering every imaginable terrorist threat—from devices for sensing explosives strapped onto the body of a suicide bomber to sensors capable of detecting microscopic quantities of biotoxins injected into a city's water supply.

    Not surprisingly, many talks focused on transportation security. The tools currently available to screeners at airports and subway stations—metal detectors, x-ray scanners, sniffer dogs, and manual pat-downs—can't detect explosives or nonmetallic weapons concealed inside luggage or on the body of a passenger. Two technologies presented at the meeting offer a solution to those problems, although they both have a way to go before they can be deployed.

    One, developed by David Sheen and his colleagues at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, uses electromagnetic radiation of millimeter wavelength to see through clothing and other barriers. Ranging between 30 and 300 gigahertz in frequency, these are the same microwaves used for applications such as wireless access to the Internet. Different materials on a person's body reflect them to varying degrees, enabling a computer to generate a three-dimensional image showing the outlines of concealed objects. Because the waves are nonionizing, “they do not pose any health risks,” Sheen says. The scan currently takes up to 10 seconds, during which the person must stand relatively still. Generating the image takes up to another 30 seconds. Sheen says his group is working to speed up the system.


    Millimeter waves spot plastic explosive strapped to a tester's spine (right).


    A similar technology described by Robert Barat, a chemical engineer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, uses waves of a shorter wavelength. Submillimeter (or terahertz) waves, familiar to radio astronomers, generate a spectrum when they interact with a material. They can also be transmitted farther than millimeter waves can. By harnessing those properties, Barat's group hopes to design scanners that would be capable of detecting weapons and bombs carried by a terrorist more than 5 meters away. The method “has the potential of not only showing the presence of a hidden substance but also of identifying the substance based on a transmission or reflection spectrum,” says Barat, who has yet to build a prototype. Jehuda Yinon, an expert on explosives detection at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, says the technology could be an invaluable tool for identifying suicide bombers in public places.

    Other talks spotlighted new biosensors for detecting chemical and biological agents. Their common goal is to sniff out smaller and smaller doses of toxins in the environment with greater speed and accuracy. For example, a new sensing technique described by Jeffrey Mason, a researcher at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., can detect as few as 500 molecules of cholera or botulinum in a sample. That's 1000 times more sensitive than existing techniques.

    The heart of the sensing device is a liposome—a molecular cylinder made up of lipids—with a DNA molecule encapsulated inside and a receptor molecule on the outside that attaches specifically to the toxin. The toxin molecules are first captured on a plate using antibodies that bind to the toxin. When the liposomes are added to this mix, the receptor molecules linked to them attach to the toxin as well. At the end of the assay, everything else is washed away, leaving only the liposomes that have been chained to the toxin molecules.

    The researchers then split the liposomes open with an enzyme to release the DNA molecules and tally them with a standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR)—in effect, using the DNA molecules as a proxy for the toxin. And because PCR can detect tiny amounts of DNA (by making many copies of DNA molecules present in a sample), the technique can sense extremely low concentrations of toxin. “What they've done is amplified the signal. It's really very clever,” says James Robertson, a research biologist at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia.


    New Routes Toward Practical Hydrogen?

    1. Robert F. Service

    WASHINGTON, D.C.— About 13,000 chemists, physicists, and engineers gathered here from 28 August to 1 September to discuss research with applications including environmental protection, national security, and future energy sources.

    Hydrogen makes a tantalizing fuel. Water is its only byproduct when burned or run through a fuel cell to make electricity. It's also the most abundant element in the universe. But the downside is that earthly hydrogen is almost always bound to other elements, and liberating it requires much more energy than it releases as a fuel. At the meeting, two separate teams reported novel approaches to extracting hydrogen from waste products that could bring a sustainable hydrogen economy a step closer.

    In the first, researchers from Pennsylvania and Georgia reported on a new catalyst that converts hydrogen sulfide (H2S)—an abundant contaminant in natural gas wells—to hydrogen gas (H2). In the other, researchers from Indiana revealed a new process for recovering H2 from silicon-based compounds, which could open the door to new ways of generating and storing hydrogen.

    Outsiders say it's too early to tell whether these approaches make economic sense. But they are “promising avenues,” says Joseph Sadighi, a catalyst expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    Raiding industrial waste for useful chemicals is nothing new. H2S is routinely converted to sulfur dioxide (SO2) as part of a process to generate sulfuric acid, a widely used compound in the chemical industry. But although that reaction turns the sulfur in H2S into a valuable commodity, it misses an opportunity to do the same for hydrogen by instead converting it to water.

    Cheaper gas?

    Converting waste into H2 could lower refining costs and spur a hydrogen economy.


    Using vanadium-based catalysts to convert H2S into SO2 can generate H2 instead of water, report Israel Wachs of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Andrew Gibson, who heads Gibson Technologies in Atlanta, Georgia. The conversion, Gibson explained, takes place in two steps. First, carbon monoxide (CO) reacts with H2S using a long-known reaction to generate H2 and another compound called carbonyl sulfide (COS), a toxic byproduct. The COS is then fed to another chamber, where it reacts with oxygen over a vanadium oxide catalyst to form SO2 and CO. The CO is then fed back into the first reaction to generate more H2.

    Unlike the current technology used to convert H2S to H2, which extracts the CO needed for the hydrogen-generating reaction from expensive natural gas, the new approach continually generates CO by breaking down the toxic COS. Gibson notes that the process not only might fuel a future hydrogen economy but also could reduce the cost of refining gasoline by supplying H2 needed to strip crude oil of sulfur.

    Purdue University chemist Mahdi Abu-Omar and colleagues offered a very different scheme for generating hydrogen. They discovered it while looking for novel catalysts to convert organic silicon-based liquids called organosilanes into silanols, a more valuable class of compounds used in the chemical industry. The researchers were working with rhenium-based catalysts, which they added to organosilanes and water. They found that the rhenium catalysts not only readily converted their organosilanes into silanols but also generated large amounts of H2. Organosilanes may make an attractive way to store hydrogen for later use in fuel cells, Omar notes, because both they and the silanol “wastes” are liquids and easy to transport.

    Abu-Omar acknowledges that the compounds are somewhat costly to produce and are generated industrially in only small quantities. At the meeting, Sadighi noted that related catalysts might also react with another silicon-based liquid, called PMHS, which is produced in large quantities as a byproduct of the silicone business. Turning this or other more abundant organic compounds into hydrogen could make hydrogen an even more tantalizing fuel.

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