News this Week

Science  30 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5744, pp. 2142

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    NCI Head to Fill In at FDA After Crawford Resignation

    1. Jennifer Couzin,
    2. Jocelyn Kaiser

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), buffeted by scandals from the Vioxx withdrawal to the morning-after pill Plan B, endured more turbulence last week after its commissioner of 2 months suddenly quit. President George W. Bush further roiled the waters by tapping the leader of the country's war on cancer to be his temporary replacement.

    On 23 September, Lester Crawford, 67, a decades-long veteran of FDA, resigned, citing his age. Within hours, Andrew von Eschenbach, 63, who has headed the $4.8 billion National Cancer Institute (NCI) for 3 years, was named acting FDA commissioner. Cancer specialists and several FDA watchers immediately expressed concern over von Eschenbach's appointment.

    In particular, they worry about his plans to remain at the helm of NCI while overseeing FDA—a herculean task given the demands of each job, and one that could pose a potential conflict of interest. “I just don't know what [White House staff] were thinking,” says David Johnson, who served on FDA's oncology drugs advisory committee and is deputy director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) also questioned the decision, telling White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in a 26 September letter that leading FDA is “not possible … on a part-time basis.”

    Von Eschenbach, a urologic surgeon, has stirred controversy in the cancer research community by setting a goal of ending cancer deaths by 2015. He has also fostered FDA-NCI collaborations and expressed interest in speeding the approval of cancer drugs. His appointment to FDA was greeted enthusiastically by two drug industry trade groups.

    But some observers are puzzled by the president's decision to pick the head of another agency instead of someone within FDA, the traditional source for acting commissioners. “It strikes me as very odd,” says oncologist Richard Schilsky of the University of Chicago, who sits on NCI's board of scientific advisers. In February 2004, Bush made a similar choice upon the surprise resignation of Rita Colwell at the National Science Foundation (NSF), calling on Arden Bement of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to do double duty. Nine months later, Bement was nominated to lead NSF and, upon confirmation, resigned from NIST.

    Two hats.

    Cancer Institute chief Andrew von Eschenbach has taken on a second job.


    Ten scientists interviewed by Science questioned whether one leader, no matter how fluid a multitasker, can do justice to both organizations. In the short term, the arrangement could work, but “long term, I wonder whether it serves the best interests of all the constituencies,” says Michael Friedman, a former acting commissioner of FDA who is now president and CEO of City of Hope, a cancer hospital in Duarte, California.

    Even his former boss, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center president John Mendelsohn, worries about von Eschenbach's changing focus just as he hits his stride at NCI, which is trying to launch new initiatives while facing flat budgets. “It would be a shame to have him start all over on a new learning curve,” Mendelsohn says. Observers also suggest that the dual appointment poses a conflict of interest. Because NCI is a major developer of cancer treatments, “it's a little curious for him to hold both jobs,” says David Feigal, a former FDA devices official who is now a consultant.

    Schilsky, however, suggests that von Eschenbach could delegate NCI-related decisions to others at FDA. FDA spokesperson Julie Zawisza said von Eschenbach was not available for interviews before Science's deadline but noted that FDA is “looking very carefully” at possible conflicts of interest with respect to cancer drugs. “That will all be sorted out,” she said. As Science went to press, federal officials had not explained how von Eschenbach would split his time between the agencies.

    It's not clear when, or whether, the Bush White House will nominate a new FDA commissioner. Were von Eschenbach to remain in an acting capacity for long, he wouldn't be the first: Crawford sat in as acting head for 16 months before being confirmed by Congress in July. Since then, tensions between congressional Democrats and FDA have flared over the morning-after pill Plan B. In August, Crawford declined to decide whether Plan B could be sold over the counter. A week later, the head of FDA's Office of Women's Health, Susan Wood, quit, citing the agency's rejection of sound science in the Plan B case (Science, 9 September, p. 1671).

    Legislators from both parties are already highly critical of recent FDA actions. Once the White House picks an official nominee, they are likely to start asking some tough questions.


    Indians Embrace Science, But Can't Always Practice It

    1. Pallava Bagla

    NEW DELHI—The first comprehensive study of India's emerging scientific workforce reports growing student interest in science—but sobering news about employment opportunities.

    The India Science Report,* released this week, combines information from a massive public survey with data on the country's higher education sector. The $500,000 exercise, commissioned by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) and executed through the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi, identified 8.74 million science graduates (those with college-level education in science). Another 1.8 million persons have advanced scientific and technical degrees, including 100,000 with Ph.D. degrees.

    The welcome news, for Indian boffins worried about waning interest in science, is that the proportion of undergraduates pursuing science degrees has risen from 28.8% of the total enrollment in 1995-96 to 34.6% in 2003-04. Although the report's authors say that the reliability of the earlier data are questionable, the new data suggest that “the concerns about falling science enrollment in the country are misplaced.” The data encompass the country's 200 universities and 12,000 colleges, which together spend more than $6 billion a year on research.

    However, the same report raises a red flag about whether there are sufficient opportunities for those graduates to apply their knowledge. Some 22% of the country's jobless graduates hold science degrees, it reports, and a whopping 63% of those with advanced degrees but without jobs are in scientific fields. Although those percentages do not represent the unemployment rate for those categories of workers, it's still a troubling figure for a country that prides itself on being a burgeoning high-tech haven. “It's a wake-up call,” says INSA President Raghunath Anant Mashelkar. “At the same time India is being projected as the next big knowledge superpower, the employability of people trained in science is low.”


    Hurricane Rita Spares Major Research Institutions

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Scientists in Texas breathed a sigh of relief this week after Hurricane Rita weakened from its category 5 peak intensity and sidestepped Galveston and Houston. But the near-miss still allowed several major biomedical research institutions to field-test their procedures for weathering such a storm. “We really dodged a bullet on this one,” says Larry Donehower, who researches aging at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and lost thousands of mice to storm flooding in 2001.

    Rita did trigger an evacuation of the area, shutting down universities and NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and forcing Donehower and other investigators to protect their research materials and data. The anxiety was heightened by recent events in New Orleans, where flooding and power outages following Hurricane Katrina took a heavy toll on research samples and displaced many researchers (Science, 23 September, p. 1980).

    On the barrier island of Galveston, the site of one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history in 1900, pre-Rita worries focused on the University of Texas Medical Branch's (UTMB's) highly secure labs for studying deadly infectious agents such as viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever. “We've thought about this for a long time, obviously,” says Stanley Lemon, director of UTMB's Institute for Human Infections and Immunity. At biosafety level 3 labs and a smaller BSL-4 facility, researchers shut down experiments, autoclaved cultures, euthanized several hundred research mice, and fumigated labs, Lemon says. Samples were locked up in secure freezers plugged into backup generators and stocked with dry ice, and a skeleton crew waited out the storm. But Rita caused only minor damage to air handlers on the roof of a building with a shuttered BSL-3 lab. There will, however, be monetary “costs associated with shutting down experiments,” Lemon says.

    Fleeing Rita.

    Texans, including researchers, faced traffic jams as they tried to evacuate coastal areas.


    In Houston, research institutions bracing for Rita hoped they had heeded the lessons of tropical storm Allison. Flooding from that 2001 storm caused nearly $2 billion in damages at the Texas Medical Center and drowned more than 35,000 research animals at the complex's University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC) and Baylor College of Medicine (Science, 22 June 2001, p. 2226; 27 July 2001, p. 589).

    UTHSC has since installed submarine doors in its medical school building, and animal facilities are no longer on ground floors, says spokesperson Scott Merville. At Baylor, there are still basement vivariums, but they now have “multiple layers of submarine doors,” says President Peter Traber. The campus is also surrounded by a dike, with floodgates at entrances. Generators, once at ground level, now sit on higher floors.

    As it happened, Houston received less than 3 centimeters of rain, and Baylor suffered no damage—“not even a broken window,” says spokesperson Claire Bassett. “I was actually pretty confident we'd survive it okay,” says Donehower. His group taped windows, covered computers, and left as the campus evacuated. All but one of the five people in his group turned back, however, after spending up to 9 hours inching along jammed highways. Donehower was back in the lab on Monday, and, he said, “everything is slowly returning to normal.”


    Mutant Mice Reveal Secrets of the Brain's Impressionable Youth

    1. Greg Miller

    In the malleable young brain, neurons readily adapt to new experiences by changing which cells they connect to and how they communicate with those partners. As the brain matures, it loses much of this neural plasticity and becomes considerably more set in its ways. On page 2222, researchers describe molecular signaling that may bring the brain's impressionable youth to an end. The identity of these maturity molecules may also shed light on the long-standing question of why it's difficult for the mammalian central nervous system to repair itself.

    The researchers, led by Stephen Strittmatter of Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, report that the brains of mice lacking a protein found on most cortical neurons, the so-called Nogo receptor, can adapt to the loss of sight in one eye long after the brains of normal mice have lost this ability. The findings represent the most dramatic demonstration so far that this type of neural plasticity, which normally is restricted to a critical period early in life, can be extended well into adulthood, says Michael Stryker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “It's a very neat paper,” he says.

    The work provides compelling evidence that the Nogo receptor plays an important role in brain maturation, says Martin Schwab of the University of Zürich in Switzerland. Researchers have studied the receptor primarily for its suspected role in limiting nerve regeneration after spinal cord injury and stroke. The new finding may resolve the mystery of what the Nogo receptor does in the healthy nervous system, Schwab says, by pointing to a general role for the receptor in stabilizing neural circuitry.

    Stabilizing influence.

    Myelin (green) may inhibit neural plasticity in the adult cerebral cortex.


    In the current study, Strittmatter and colleagues recorded the electrical activity of neurons in the visual cortex of normal mice and ones genetically engineered to lack the Nogo receptor. In normal mice and other animals, the visual cortex is evenly divided, with half its area more responsive to stimulation of the left eye, and half more responsive to stimulation of the right eye. But if one eye is sutured shut early in life, the open eye acquires more cortical territory, and the deprived eye loses out. In mice, this cortical land grab can only happen during a critical period that ends about 30 days after birth. Eyelid suturing after this time has no effect.

    Not so, however, for mice lacking the Nogo receptor: When Strittmatter's team performed the eyelid suture on these mice 120 days after birth, well after sexual maturity, the rodents showed as much reorganization in their visual cortex as did normal mice sutured at 24 days. Similar experiments suggested that Nogo A, a component of the myelin insulation on neurons and one of several proteins that binds the Nogo receptor, is also a key player in inhibiting plasticity. A strain of mice lacking Nogo A exhibited plasticity in the visual cortex beyond the normal critical period.

    Previous work has suggested that neurons in the visual cortex acquire their myelin insulation at about the same time as the critical period closes. To Strittmatter, this suggests that myelination precipitates the end of the critical period. Nogo receptor activation by Nogo A could prevent plasticity by preventing axons, the armlike extensions on neurons, from sprouting new connections, he explains.

    “The conclusion that myelin is involved in locking down [neural] circuits is very exciting and … would finally provide a good physiological reason for why myelin is so chock-full of axon growth inhibitors,” says Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford University in California. That case is far from proven, however. Barres points out, for example, that studies in different labs have yielded conflicting results about the importance of Nogo signaling for blocking axon growth. Replicating the current findings in mice that lack myelin would provide stronger support for Strittmatter's hypothesis, he says.


    Proposed Fisheries Bill Falls Short, Critics Say

    1. Carolyn Gramling

    One year after the second of two U.S. commissions called for an overhaul of the nation's ocean policy, proponents are still waiting for that needed sea change. Instead, what they got was an updated fisheries bill with some promising language but few real teeth.

    The proposed legislation would reauthorize the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. It would set a 2-year deadline for halting catches of species clearly identified as overfished, permit regional fisheries councils to consider a whole-ecosystem approach to management, and create opportunities for scientists to become more involved in fisheries decision-making. “It's more definitive than the current law,” says William Hogarth, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, which unveiled the legislation last week. “We've got a document on the table that will spur discussion.”

    But those changes are less impressive than they sound, say critics. The bill doesn't mandate that regional managers follow a whole-ecosystem approach, nor does it require authorities to use the scientific advice they are offered. And the bill actually relaxes the existing mandate that overfished stocks be off-limits and allowed to rebuild for 10 years, notes marine scientist Carl Safina of Stony Brook University in New York. “My guess is that most congressional members will not understand the context in which this is a setback,” says Safina. “It will be spun and sold as if this is an improvement.”


    Administration bill isn't likely to restore the health of overfished Gulf of Maine cod.


    Marine biologist Ellen Pikitch is equally critical. “In my opinion, the bill does virtually nothing to advance ecosystem-based management in the U.S.,” says Pikitch, executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science in New York City and a member of the Pew Ocean Commission, which delivered its recommendations in June 2003, a year before the presidentially mandated U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy released its report. “It's necessary to mandate that the science be paid attention to,” she says. “[If it isn't], I don't have a lot of faith that any of these other measures are going to have any effect.”

    The bill received a cautious endorsement from retired Admiral James Watkins, who led the U.S. Commission, and the head of the Pew Commission, former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. Panetta says the legislation is, at least, an opportunity to “bring science into the issue.” Both men say they are teaming up to increase pressure on Congress to adopt the overlapping recommendations in their reports. The key to a successful ocean policy, according to Panetta, will be to move beyond crisis management by investing sufficiently in ocean and coastal research.

    The Magnuson-Stevens Act by itself can't solve all the problems facing the oceans, they say. What's needed is comprehensive legislation that coordinates both ocean and coastal issues. Anyone looking for a reason to change current U.S. ocean policy can point to Hurricane Katrina, says Watkins. That devastating storm exposed the lack of a coherent strategy to protect fragile coastal communities, he says.


    Indian Activists Release Disputed Report

    1. Pallava Bagla*
    1. With reporting by Erik Stokstad.

    NEW DELHI—Next week, an Indian advocacy group plans to release a massive report on biodiversity that the government commissioned but decided to shelve. It's the latest twist in a bitter battle over a 5-year study that the government once praised for its “highly participatory approach” and that outside experts see as a model for other nations.

    The 1300-page report, entitled Securing India's Future—Final Technical Report of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, was commissioned in 2000 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to look at how the country should manage its rich biodiversity. It concludes that “India's model of development is inherently unsustainable and destructive to biodiversity.” Needed improvements, it says, include more attention to the economic and human rights of traditional cultures and greater grassroots participation in government decisions that affect biodiversity.

    Last December, ministry officials told Indian legislators that the report, which was submitted to the government early last year, should not be released because its “numerous discrepancies, scientific inaccuracies, and implausible and unacceptable recommendations” would subject the government “to great embarrassment and invite international ridicule and criticism.” Shortly after, it wrote to Kalpavriksh, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Pune that has been a central player in the study, that the report “should not be published/distributed either in full or part thereof.”

    Seeing green.

    Managing India's rich biodiversity is a political flash point.


    But Kalpavriksh plans to defy that order and release the report. “I don't see how such recommendations can damage India's reputation,” says lead author Ashish Kothari, a sociologist working with the organization.

    The report is part of India's obligatory response as a signer of the Convention on Biodiversity. The Global Environment Facility put up $1 million for the study, conducted through the India office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Kothari says that more than 50,000 people around the country were involved in the report, which includes both action plans and background papers.

    UNDP's Jo Scheuer calls the process that produced the report “wonderful” and says it is regarded as an “international best practice” by the global biodiversity community. Ecologist Walter Reid, former director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (Science, 1 April, p. 41), says that the Indian exercise “is one of the few that's been taken seriously and had a chance of making a significant impact. It would be a real tragedy if it was not used.”

    Ministry officials declined further comment on the status of the report. Kothari says that the document to be released next week corrects a few dozen “factual mistakes” contained in the final version.


    Horse Flu Virus Jumps to Dogs

    1. Martin Enserink

    Mankind may be worried about a worldwide outbreak of influenza, but man's best friend is already in the midst of one. A dangerous flu virus originating in horses is spreading fast among U.S. dogs and may circle the globe, researchers say. Although the outbreak poses no direct threat to humans, “it's another example of what we fear most about flu viruses: They're always trying out new hosts,” says Michael Perdue, an animal influenza expert at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

    With very few exceptions, dogs seemed resistant to influenza, says Edward Kilbourne, a retired flu researcher at New York Medical College in New York City, who published rare evidence of a human flu strain infecting six dogs in New York in 1975.

    The current outbreak, described in a paper published online by Science this week (, came to light after 22 greyhounds developed a respiratory disease—and eight died—at a Florida racetrack in January 2004. Cynda Crawford, an immunologist at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, sent tissue samples from the infected dogs to Edward Dubovi at Cornell University, who isolated the influenza virus. A team led by Ruben Donis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, then typed and sequenced the virus and studied its spread.

    They found that it belongs to the H3N8 strain, which causes influenza in horses worldwide. Its sequence is 96% identical to that of other circulating H3N8 strains, suggesting that the entire virus jumped the species barrier, without reassorting with another strain first.

    Built for speed.

    A new flu virus, which first appeared among U.S. race dogs, is spreading fast among canines.


    It appears to be spreading fast. Last year, 14 greyhound racetracks in six U.S. states reported respiratory outbreaks; in 2005, 20 tracks in 11 states did. Although the team did not investigate every outbreak, it found evidence of H3N8 wherever it looked. The team also reports that almost 80% of 70 dogs with respiratory disease in veterinary clinics and shelters in Florida and New York state were infected.

    Based on archived serum samples from Florida race dogs, the team believes that the virus may have been in dogs at least since 2000; the very close resemblance among three dog isolates from 2003 and 2004 suggests that the virus made the jump only once. One mystery is why that happened only recently, because H3N8 has been found in horses for at least 40 years, says Thomas Chambers, an equine influenza expert at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Whatever triggered the leap, Donis says, nothing seems to stand in the way now of a panzootic: the animal equivalent of a pandemic. Perdue says current horse vaccines should be easy to adapt for dogs and may be available soon.

    Theoretically, the canine outbreak also gives the virus new chances to enter the human population. So far, there's no sign it has; nor has H3N8 been known to jump from horses to humans, Chambers says. The CDC researchers plan to test people who were in contact with sick dogs as soon as they have approval from an ethics panel. If any of them turns out to be infected—even asymptomatically—says Perdue, “that would raise a big red flag.”


    Neural Communication Breaks Down As Consciousness Fades and Sleep Sets In

    1. Greg Miller

    By using magnetic pulses to stimulate the brains of waking and sleeping volunteers, scientists may have gained an important insight into the age-old mystery of why consciousness fades as we nod off to sleep. In a report on page 2228, a research group at the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, concludes that as sleep sets in, communication between different parts of the cerebral cortex breaks down. Such communication is a likely prerequisite for consciousness, the team argues.

    Some, but not all, neuroscientists find the team's evidence compelling. The research “definitely tells us something about sleep and may have important implications for understanding the neural correlates of consciousness,” says Christof Koch, a cognitive neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

    Early neuroscientists assumed that consciousness wanes during sleep because the cerebral cortex simply shuts down. “In the last century, we had three Nobel Prize winners who thought that the cerebral cortex is completely inhibited during sleep,” says Mircea Steriade, a neuroscientist who studies sleep at Laval University in Quebec, Canada. Electroencephalography (EEG) and other methods have since ruled out that explanation, showing that the electrical chatter and metabolism of neurons in the cortex continues unabated during sleep. That left neuroscientists puzzling over why consciousness fades when the brain is still active.

    Giulio Tononi of UW has spent years developing a theory that the essence of consciousness is the integration of information. Communication between different regions of cortex might be one sign of this integration—and of consciousness, Tononi says. To test that idea, he and his team recorded electrical activity in the brains of six sleepy volunteers using high-density EEG. Before the subjects nodded off, the researchers stimulated a small patch of right frontal cortex with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a noninvasive method that uses magnetic pulses to induce an electrical current inside the head. The EEG record revealed how the neural activity triggered by TMS spread from the site of stimulation to other parts of the brain. The team repeated the experiment once the subjects had entered non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep. Noise-canceling earphones ensured that subjects couldn't detect the sound of the TMS magnet.

    Drifting off.

    Magnetically stimulating the brains of sleeping volunteers may provide clues about the nature of consciousness.


    When the subjects were awake, TMS elicited waves of neural activity that spread through neighboring areas of the right frontal and parietal cortex and to corresponding regions on the left side of the brain. During non-REM sleep, the same TMS stimulus only elicited neural activity at the site of stimulation.

    Tononi says the findings suggest that different areas of cortex do indeed stop talking to each other during non-REM sleep—a stage of sleep in which people often report little or no conscious experience on waking. An important follow-up, he says, will be to repeat the experiments during late-night REM sleep, when people report consciouslike experiences in the form of dreams. “We would predict a pattern which is much more similar to wakefulness,” he says.

    Linking cortical connectivity to consciousness makes sense, says Rodolfo Llinas, a neuroscientist at New York University. A key feature of consciousness is the ability to integrate many aspects of an experience into a single perception—combining red petals, rosy scent, and prickly thorns into the perception of a rose, for example. “To make an object in your head, to make one single cognitive event, you have to bind the activity of many cortical areas,” Llinas says.

    But not everyone accepts Tononi's conclusions. The experiments are “very elegant and pretty,” but their relevance to understanding consciousness is questionable, says Robert Stickgold, a neuroscientist who studies sleep at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “There are many, many differences in brain chemistry and physiology … between wakefulness, non-REM sleep, and REM sleep,” including differences in neurotransmitter and hormone levels and patterns of neural activity, Stickgold says. The change in cortical communication is yet another such difference, he agrees, but there's no convincing evidence that it's the key to fading consciousness.


    Simple Noise May Stymie Spies Without Quantum Weirdness

    1. Adrian Cho

    With the grand ambition of sending unbreakable coded messages, some physicists are using exotic tools—streams of individual photons and quantum mechanics—to shut out prying eyes. But a wire and a few resistors may convey a message as securely, says a physicist who has devised a simple and—he claims—uncrackable scheme. The idea shows that “classical” methods might compete with budding “quantum cryptography,” others say. “I believe in beautiful and simple ideas, and this is one of them,” says János Bergou, a theorist at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

    Take the hypothetical secret sharers, Alice and Bob: They transform a message into binary numbers and use a numerical “key”—a secret string of random 0's and 1's—to scramble and unscramble it. Quantum cryptography allows them to pass the key under the nose of an eavesdropper, Eve, because she cannot measure the condition of a particle without affecting it. So if Alice and Bob encode the key in individual photons, Eve cannot read it without revealing herself.

    Stealth technology.

    A simple wire and resistors may send data securely.


    But Alice and Bob might do just as well by measuring the electrical noise on the ends of a wire, says Laszlo Kish of Texas A&M University in College Station. In Kish's scheme, Alice and Bob have two resistors each, one with a big resistance and one with a small resistance. Each randomly connects one resistor or the other between his or her end of the wire and ground and measures the voltage between the wire and ground.

    On average, that voltage is zero. But electrons in the resistors jiggle about with thermal energy, so the voltage fluctuates, and the size of the fluctuations, or “Johnson noise,” depends on the resistances Alice and Bob choose. If both use the large resistance, the fluctuations will be big. If both use the small resistance, they will be small. And if one uses large and the other uses small, the noise takes an intermediate value.

    Eve can measure the fluctuations, too. But when the noise is at its intermediate level, she cannot tell whether Alice or Bob has chosen the large resistance unless she injects a current, which will reveal her presence, as Kish describes in a paper posted on the Web site and submitted to the journal Physics Letters A. So Alice and Bob can use the large-small pairs to generate the key.

    Making the scheme work over long distances may not be easy, says Weston Tew, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. And Bergou notes that if the wire itself has a sizable resistance, then the fluctuations should be slightly larger on the end with the large resistance, a fact Eve might exploit if she spies on both ends at once. Still, today's quantum technologies only approximate the uncrackable ideals, and Kish's idea suggests that simpler schemes might match their performance, says Julio Gea-Banacloche, a theorist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “The more I think about it,” he says, “the more I think that within limits it's workable.”


    Six Women Among 13 NIH 'Pioneers'

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The résumé of evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides of the University of California, Santa Barbara, proudly lists that she was a finalist in last year's inaugural competition for the 5-year, $2.5 million Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), even though she didn't win a penny. In fact, there were no women among the nine winners, an omission that triggered complaints of gender bias (Science, 22 October 2004, p. 595).

    What a difference a year makes. This week, Cosmides, 48, and five other women join an elite group of 13 scientists chosen for the 2005 Pioneer Awards,* which NIH Director Elias Zerhouni says are designed for “exceptionally creative scientists taking innovative approaches to major challenges in biomedical research.” The dramatic shift in gender composition was not a goal of the selection process for the second competition, says Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, who oversaw the competition. But, he says, NIH did make a very deliberate attempt to level the playing field.

    “Women, underrepresented minorities, and early-career scientists were especially encouraged to apply,” Berg says. Accepting only self-nominations (rather than institutional submissions) may also have helped remove any subtle advantages, he adds. He says NIH spent more time schooling its reviewers, who last year were overwhelmingly male, on the importance of looking for the best people with the most exciting ideas. Having fewer applications this year—some 840 compared with 1300 in 2004—also made the three-tiered review process go more smoothly, he notes. The result was not only a better gender balance but also a younger cohort represented by 35-year-old Nathan Wolfe, a tenure-track molecular epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who spends the majority of his time working with hunters at a Cameroon field station in search of zoonotic diseases in the early stages of adapting to humans.

    Award winners.

    Leda Cosmides and Peter Harbury are part of a baker's dozen whose proposals wowed NIH judges.


    For Cosmides, the award represents further affirmation for a field that she and her husband, John Tooby of Harvard University, helped establish in the early 1980s. “Those were tough years,” she recalls. “Something like this at the beginning of our work would have been a godsend. I can't say enough about what NIH is trying to do [with this award] to encourage novel work across disciplinary boundaries.”

    Stanford University neuroscientist Ben Barres, a vocal critic of last year's awards, says he was “deeply impressed by how NIH revamped the process this year.” As it happens, he also chaired the final round of face-to-face, 1-hour interviews on the NIH campus, at which he says “gender or race issues” never surfaced. But the quality of the science being proposed blew him away, he adds.

    Pehr Harbury worried that he'd blown his chances when his laptop swallowed his PowerPoint presentation during a cab ride to NIH. But the 40-year-old Stanford biochemist, who received tenure just last year, needn't have worried. Not only did his description of applying computer-generated small molecules to design a vast new class of potential drugs impress the NIH judges, but 1 day after winning a Pioneer Award, Harbury learned that he had also been awarded a so-called genius grant—and $500,000 with no strings attached—from the John T. and Catherine B. MacArthur Foundation.

    “I feel a little guilty,” he confessed. “I've been scraping along [NIH had rejected his first six single-investigator proposals, and he currently has one R01 for his six-person lab], and the MacArthur prize is for people having trouble getting funding. And now I have more money than I ever imagined.”


    What's Wrong With the Endangered Species Act?

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Congress is poised to revise a 1973 law that critics say hasn't worked and that defenders say needs to be strengthened. What has it done for the species on the list?

    The California gnatcatcher needed help. With more than 80% of its habitat gone by the late 1980s and populations plunging, the diminutive songbird that lives in coastal sage scrub in southern California seemed to birders and environmentalists to be a deserving candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

    The birds' decline was equally alarming to land developers, but for a different reason. Worried that invoking the act might put a stop to new housing and other development on valuable real estate, some developers challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS's) proposal in 1991 to list the gnatcatcher. And although they lost a 2-year court fight, their arguments shaped the 1993 decision by the government to grant protection to the bird.

    Specifically, federal officials drafted a rule that allowed some birds to be harmed as long as the developers participated in an innovative state planning program. The goal was to coordinate conservation of larger blocks of habitat and encourage conservation not just on federal land but also on private lands, where most of the birds are thought to live. But although the plan has lessened conflict, it didn't end it. Some environmental groups felt that developers were given too much leeway, and they successfully sued FWS again to win further protection for the gnatcatchers' habitat.

    And what has become of the gnatcatcher? Some 15 years after its plight was first addressed, biologists think it has a good shot at survival. But no one knows exactly how the bird is faring—or whether it has a better chance because of the listing.

    Such is the uncertain, conflicted world of the ESA. Passed in 1973, it's been called the strongest conservation law in the world. Yet it has serious flaws. The ESA forbids anyone from harming the gnatcatchers, for example, but it doesn't mandate helpful actions, such as enlisting landowners in a recovery effort. In addition, clear measures of success are hard to come by. Even when the law motivates conservation partnerships among public and private organizations, it's rare to know how much—or even whether—species are benefiting. At the same time, the act has upset private landowners and frustrated businesses. And never-ending legal battles have drained scarce resources from conservation efforts.

    Citing these and other problems, opponents say it's time to admit that the act has been a failure at helping species recover. Last week, Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA), chair of the House Resources Committee, introduced a bill that would substantially revise several provisions in the act. The goal, he says, is to ease the burden on landowners and businesses. “Without meaningful improvements, the ESA will remain a failed managed-care program that checks species in but never checks them out,” Pombo said in a statement, alluding to the fact that few species have graduated from the endangered list. “This bill will remove the impediments to cooperation that have prevented us from achieving real results for species recovery in the last 30 years.”

    Last refuge.

    Embattled by development, species such as the California gnatcatcher sometimes require flexible plans to encourage conservation on private lands.


    Environmentalists don't accept Pombo's assessment of ESA's performance. The fact that 99% of the 1268 species listed are still surviving, they say, shows that the act is taking care of business. They fear that many of Pombo's changes would weaken the act's ability to protect endangered species. “We were very disappointed” by Pombo's bill, says Jamie Rappaport Clark of Defenders of Wildlife, a former chief of FWS. “It will not only undermine species recovery but lead to more extinctions.”

    Clark and others want Congress to make the ESA more capable of putting imperiled species on the road to recovery. A large infusion of funds is vitally needed to help federal agencies clear up a backlog of pending listings, handle the vast amount of administrative work needed to implement a listing, and carry out on-the-ground conservation actions. Failing that, they say, legislators should at least streamline procedures for listing and improve the recovery planning process. “I'm not convinced that at this point we need to tinker with the act,” says ecologist Gordon Orians of the University of Washington, Seattle. “We need to put more money into it.”

    The long-awaited bill is on an extremely fast track. Pombo's committee approved the bill barely 24 hours after holding a hearing, and the entire House of Representatives could do the same as early as this week. That pace has irked moderate Republicans, who say they need more time to study the bill. The Senate is moving more slowly, however, and is not expected to take up a comparable measure before next spring.

    A growing backlog

    Enacted in 1973, the ESA amplified the powers of a similar law passed in 1966. It's intended to prevent landowners, private or federal, from doing anything—building a house or a road, logging a forest, etc.—that would harm a listed species. “It's an innately powerful law,” says Lance Gunderson of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “Some people call it the pit bull of legislation.” As a result, adds Dan Rohlf of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, “the ESA has put conservation on the table in a lot of places where it would never have been on the table.”

    Unfortunately, in many cases the action takes place in a courtroom. For opponents of the act, the first response to a proposed listing is typically a suit claiming that the scientific underpinnings for the FWS decision are weak. As of this month, FWS was engaged in 61 lawsuits related to various aspects of the listing process. It's also dealing with court orders in 51 other suits.

    Pombo and other opponents say they want to strengthen the scientific judgments upon which agencies act by requiring listings to meet more rigorous standards of evidence. They point to the 15 species that have been delisted after subsequent research revealed that populations were actually more robust than previously thought, and the 39% of listed species whose status is unknown (see data box, below). FWS now uses the “best available science” in deciding whether to list a species and determine its status; Pombo's bill calls for the Interior and Commerce secretaries to define what “best” means.

    ESA by the numbers.

    (Right) Opponents focus on declining species and data gaps, whereas proponents see good news in the number of stable and improving species. (Above) The government is falling further behind in listing new species despite the increasing threat. (Bottom) The budget for listing new species has risen much more slowly than funds to help those already protected.


    Environmentalists object to that change. They say such political appointees could set the bar prohibitively high, especially if little is known about a species. Congress intended the act to be precautionary, they say: When extinction is at stake, it's better to be safe than sorry.

    Despite that mandate, FWS has had a difficult time adding species to the list. A historical rate of listing roughly 40 species a year has fallen to only about 13 during the 4.5 years of the Bush Administration. The backlog is sizable, with 286 “candidate” species on the FWS waiting list. On average, these candidate species have been waiting for 17 years. And since 1973, 27 species have gone extinct while on this list.

    The current waiting list is likely just a fraction of the real backlog. According to NatureServe, a nonprofit clearinghouse for conservation biology, more than 9000 species in the United States are eligible for ESA listing. The waiting list could swell considerably if the agencies begin to put more emphasis on invertebrates and plants. “There are far more species at great risk than we think,” says James Carlton, a marine ecologist at Williams College in Massachusetts. “It is hard to be hyperbolic about that.”

    FWS readily admits that the magnitude of the backlog is a problem. But it pleads poverty as the main reason. In 2003, the agency estimated that just processing the candidate species would cost $153 million; yet it received $16 million for FY 2005 for all listing activities. That budget must also cover legal costs. In 2003, two-thirds of FWS's listing budget was spent on dealing with lawsuits and court orders. Environmentalists retort that the agency hasn't asked for what it needs. And delays matter. The prospects for recovery of a declining species become dimmer and more expensive over time.

    A rocky recovery

    For species that have been listed, proponents insist, the act is helping to stave off extinction. A prime example is the California condor, listed in 1967. It would never have survived without the legal protection and tens of millions of dollars provided by the act, says Michael Scott of the U.S. Geological Survey in Moscow, Idaho, who ran the program from 1984 to 1986.

    Only nine listed species have gone extinct, and many were effectively doomed by the time they were listed. It could have been worse: In 1999, Mark Schwartz of the University of California, Davis, made a back-of-the-envelope estimate that roughly 190 species would have gone extinct without the act.

    The act has been much less successful at helping species fully recover. Before species can be taken off the list, they must have healthy populations and adequate habitat. FWS has determined that nine species have reached that mark, all with threats that were relatively easy to address. For bald eagles, the biggest threat was DDT, which weakened their eggshells, and a 1972 ban on using DDT paved the way for their recovery.

    For most species, however, recovery is still a distant goal. In 2002, just 6% were improving, and only 2% have accomplished more than 75% of the goals spelled out in their recovery plans. Scientists pin that poor record on the precarious state of most species when they were listed and inadequate recovery actions, not ESA itself. “Recovery will require many more decades than the three that the act has been in existence,” says Michael Bean of Environmental Defense in New York City. Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, for example, which were listed in 1970, require 15 years or more to reach maturity and to begin reproducing once researchers release hatchings.

    The first—and the most controversial—step toward recovery, according to the act, is for FWS to designate so-called critical habitat. The law defines this as an area essential for helping a species recover. Critical habitat affects only the actions of federal agencies, which must consult with FWS or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) if a proposed action—a timber sale, say, or highway construction—will harm the critical habitat of a listed species. Yet many landowners still fear that designation will restrict their actions, delay projects, or decrease property values. Such disputes usually end up in court, tying the agency in knots and delaying other conservation actions.

    Going green.

    Plant lovers have boosted the flora on the list, such as the Robbins' cinquefoil, which was delisted in 2002. But there's less help for imperiled invertebrates.


    FWS and NOAA have been extremely reluctant to designate critical habitat. Since 1981, they have maintained that the process eats up time and money without providing any additional protection to listed species. The reason, they say, is that the ESA already prohibits harm to listed species, and that degrading the critical habitat amounts to the same thing.

    Although there's no doubt that species need habitat, the scientific evidence for benefits from officially designating critical habitat is not clear. Two studies that analyzed the same data in different ways have found that designation hasn't correlated with improved recovery. Environmental groups say that critical habitat does matter and point to a third paper, published in April in BioScience. In that paper, Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group based in Tucson, Arizona, and colleagues reported that species for which a designated critical habitat had been delineated for 2 or more years “were more than twice as likely to have an improving population trend in the late 1990s, and less than half as likely to be declining in the early 1990s.”

    The act requires FWS to designate critical habitat within a year of listing a species. But FWS rarely does because it feels that the designation is redundant. The missed deadlines have led to a series of successful suits by environmentalists, including a decision last year by a federal circuit court that the FWS interpretation of critical habitat needs to promote the recovery, not just the survival, of listed species. Rohlf of Lewis & Clark says that decision would add teeth to steps spelled out in recovery plans drafted by FWS, which are currently unenforceable. Pombo's bill would negate that ruling by repealing the statutes for critical habitat.

    Money matters

    Supporters say that the biggest obstacle to recovery for listed species is limited resources for implementing recovery plans—FWS documents that not only lay out the goals and methods for improving the population but also the amount of time and money the agency thinks will be required. In a 2002 Bioscience paper, Julie Miller of the University of Montana, Missoula, and colleagues found that birds and mammals were getting only about 50% of what had been recommended in recovery plans between 1989 and 1995, and that plants received just 20%. Boosting the current investment by about 25% for species on the list in 1999, they found, would have required almost doubling the recovery spending, from $350 million to $650 million. The study also found, as have others, that species that receive more dollars tend to do better.

    Pombo's bill wouldn't give agencies any more money. In fact, their budgets could shrink under a provision that would require agencies to compensate landowners for the fair market value of any development or other activity that the government vetoed because it would impact endangered species. The bill doesn't estimate the annual cost of such payments but specifies that the Interior Department must pay them. Suckling worries that these settlements could easily consume FWS's $143 million budget for its endangered species program.

    Slow progress.

    It took many years of conservation efforts before the populations of Kemp's Ridley sea turtle began to rise.


    Despite the disagreement about whether to compensate owners for lost opportunities, all parties agree that conservation efforts would be aided by boosting incentives for landowners to help recover species. More than half the species on the ESA list have at least 80% of their habitat on private lands. Although the act can prohibit property owners from harming a species, it can't force them to help by, say, removing an invasive species that is causing trouble. That's why in the last 10 years FWS has significantly expanded the use and funding of agreements called Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP). Since 1982, the number of these plans has risen to almost 500.

    HCPs allow the “take”—harming or killing of listed species—as long as the landowner has a plan in place for mitigating the effect. Some environmentalists support this approach, but others worry that the HCPs don't go far enough to bolster recovery efforts or even to monitor the status of species (Science, 13 June 1997, p. 1636).

    One controversial feature of the HCPs, in effect since 1995, is a “no surprises” clause that locks the current plan in place. Critics say it doesn't account for further declines or the discovery of additional endangered species. They would also like to see more oversight and proof that voluntary agreements help listed species. Supporters, in turn, complain that getting these agreements in place, and funded, is cumbersome and slow.

    Pombo's proposal would turn the “no surprises” policy into law and thereby increase the public's confidence in the certainty of the regulatory process. But the bill would ease regulations in some worrisome ways, critics say, for example, by allowing projects that might harm endangered species to go forward unless federal agencies object within 180 days. “The FWS couldn't possibly deal with all the requests” in that time frame without new resources, says Bean. “This runs the risk of foregoing the opportunity to constrain a whole host of development that could wipe out species.”

    Although the act is the most powerful tool available for halting actions that could harm species, it's become clear over 3 decades that its regulatory hammer isn't enough. Many environmentalists agree with Pombo that landowners must be encouraged to find new ways to protect species and lessen their reliance on litigation. But in making those changes, the bill would also weaken the act's regulatory authority. Opponents are hoping that the Senate will do less damage to those powers when it takes up the issue. But it seems unlikely that the final product, without cash to back it up, will significantly improve prospects for endangered species.


    Agencies Hope to Cash In on the Allure of Competition

    1. Eli Kintisch

    In the wake of the Ansari X Prize for space travel, U.S. science policymakers see prizes as a way to stretch tight budgets and uncover new talent

    When Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis in Paris in 1927, he did more than win a permanent place in aviation history. He also pocketed a $25,000 prize put up by a New York hotel owner for the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean.

    Three-quarters of a century later, the U.S. government has caught prize fever. Next week, teams from academia and industry will compete for a $2 million award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency is offering the prize for an autonomous robotic vehicle that can complete a rugged course in the U.S. Southwest. Twelve teams have signed up to face off in Mountain View, California, on 21 October for $100,000 in prize money from NASA for designing the best mechanical climbers and space tethers. This summer's massive energy bill created prizes totaling up to $15 million at the Department of Energy (DOE) for fundamental and applied energy research. And in June, the House of Representatives told the National Science Foundation (NSF) to dream up a prize program “to focus on high risk/high payoff research.”

    What's making U.S. lawmakers and federal officials so prize-happy is the chance to tap into the creative talents of a vast pool of techno-entrepreneurs they might not otherwise reach—and for relatively little cost. Cash prizes also give tight-fisted federal bureaucrats a chance to piggyback on the investment of others, as well as paying the piper only when—and if—a specific milestone has been achieved. That contrasts with a grant, in which the funds are disbursed ahead of time for something that may never pan out, or a contract, in which the government picks a person or institution to conduct research or deliver an agreed-upon product. “As opposed to the government looking into its crystal ball and choosing one [contractor] based on a bunch of technical proposals, this way it's more of a survival of the fittest,” says NASA official Ken Davidian.

    But as the idea wins support, some are asking whether prizes make sense for a basic research agency such as NSF. And others worry that they might put blinders on academic scientists by steering them toward defined challenges.

    Cash on delivery

    The renewed popularity of technology prizes owes a debt to airplane designer Burt Rutan, who won $10 million last summer for soaring into space on a privately funded craft. Whereas the public was enthralled by the drama and risk of that competition, federal officials admired its financial advantages. Teams spent anywhere from $100 million to $400 million competing for the Ansari X Prize, organizer Peter Diamandis told Congress last summer. And the beauty of the prize, he said, is that “we don't pay … a single dollar until someone does it.” The prize money came from space enthusiasts, corporate sponsors, and an innovative hole-in-one insurance policy.

    Off road, on campus.

    Cornell students hope to qualify Titan for this year's DARPA Grand Challenge Race.


    It's probably no surprise that DARPA, an agency with a reputation for taking fliers in pursuit of the latest military technology, is leading the way. In 1999, then-DARPA general counsel Richard Dunn led an effort to get permission from Congress to offer prizes as part of a larger campaign to loosen rules for defense research contracting. He says his goal was to broaden the agency's list of contractors to include “people out there that didn't want anything to do with the government.”

    DARPA officials say their first use of the prize, last year's autonomous vehicle race, proved the value of that approach despite the fact that none of the 15 vehicles traveled more than 11 km of the 229-km course across the Mojave Desert in California. DARPA chief of staff Ron Kurjanowicz says that having so many teams tackle the problem yields a wealth of ideas for technologies that might apply to the battlefield. One example: Some teams load their vehicles with detailed geographic maps, while others save on computing power and rely on sensors gathering data as they go.

    Industry participants say the prizes stimulate the development of potential new products as well as providing good public relations. John Schwartz, a spokesperson for Oshkosh Truck Corp., says the company's $2-million-plus investment in the DARPA race has enhanced an existing effort to develop cost-effective bolt-on systems that might one day operate robotic military trucks.

    NASA officials also wanted to expand their talent pool beyond tried-and-true contractors such as Lockheed and Boeing to include people like Flint Hamblin, a competitor in the climber challenge, who designs amusement park rides for a living. Washington, D.C., bureaucrats don't always know where to look for the next breakthrough, says NASA official Brant Sponberg. “No one was betting on Charles Lindbergh,” he says.

    Basic questions

    But skeptics—including some lawmakers—worry about possible unintended side effects of shifting federal resources into science and technology prizes. With the cost of the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina recovery adding to an already large budget deficit, every dollar put toward an open-ended prize means one less for a grant or research contract. “I don't see how the pool is widened,” says Molly Macauley of the nonprofit organization Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. Some brilliant scientists might lose out if the government curtails or drops an existing research program, she notes.

    Some legislators are also concerned about losing control over the purse strings if they allow an agency to craft an expansive prize program that may not be paid out for many years. For example, lawmakers are on the verge of significantly raising the current $250,000 cap on any one NASA prize, following a recommendation of a 2004 White House commission on space exploration. But Senate appropriators, pointing to the $12 million NASA has received for prizes, want additional details before handing over any more cash.

    “With money still unspent, there's no point in putting more money there,” says a Senate aide, “especially if the program has yet to be [better] defined.” Although other research programs also give agencies some spending latitude, former NASA aide Lori Garver points out that “Congress doesn't like you giving money out outside the appropriations process.” Funding more fundamental science with prizes could distort how academic scientists operate, says Neal Lane of Rice University in Houston, Texas, a former NSF director and science adviser to President Bill Clinton. Although DOE and NSF officials declined comment on the potential prizes they might offer, Lane says that goal-driven prizes could compel scientists to ignore truly odd findings if “the goal of the science [prize] is very narrow.” Even if prizes are a small fraction of research funding, he says, the distraction could deprive society of a discovery more important than any prize officials could dream up. A spokesperson for Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who, as chair of the House spending panel that oversees NSF, inserted the prize language for the foundation into a budget bill, says that's not the legislator's intention. Any prize, the aide argues, would simply allow NSF to “push for more innovation” alongside its traditional grants.

    But NSF's traditional academic clients may be left at the starting gate in any agency-sponsored competition if they can't afford the entry fee. “MIT doesn't give professors money to compete for prizes,” says Jeffrey Hoffman, an applied space scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Without start-up money, the average academic wouldn't have the flexibility to pursue new avenues of research.

    To prize advocates, the possible pitfalls pale in comparison with the potential benefits. The X Prize showed what a challenge and a jackpot can do for any field, they say, not just space flight. The prize “has captured a lot of people's imagination,” says Robert Simon, minority staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. For NASA's Davidian, the competition “was a proof of concept”; supporters hope the idea will now take flight.


    Researchers Tie Deadly SARS Virus to Bats

    1. Dennis Normile

    Since its emergence in 2002, the origin of the SARS virus has proved elusive. Now two teams suggest that bats may be a natural reservoir

    In the summer of 2003, two Australian researchers were pondering one of the mysteries of the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS): What animal had the virus come from? The new coronavirus had emerged in southern China in late 2002 and by the following June had killed 774 people, sickened more than 8000, and caused massive economic losses across Asia. An early finding of the SARS virus in masked palm civets sold at live animal markets proved a dead end when subsequent surveys failed to find the virus in either farmed or wild civets.

    “If we have the money to survey only one species, which one should it be?” Lin-Fa Wang, a molecular biologist at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, recalls half-jokingly asking Hume Field, a veterinary epidemiologist with the Queensland, Australia, Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries in Moorooka. They placed their bet on bats. Both scientists had studied the Hendra and Nipah viruses, which ultimately proved to have bat reservoirs. They had also learned that bats, which the Chinese eat as well as use in traditional medicine, are among the live animals sold in markets in southern China, providing a plausible route of infection to civets.

    Their hunch proved correct. Two groups have now independently identified bats as a natural reservoir of coronaviruses from which the SARS viruses that infected humans and civets likely emerged. Wang, Field, and colleagues at six institutions in Australia, China, and the United States describe their results in a paper published online by Science this week ( Susanna Lau and colleagues at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) published their findings online 16 September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “This is indeed a huge discovery for SARS epidemiology and emergence, and it's nice to have it confirmed in two labs nearly at once,” says Kathryn Holmes, a microbiologist who studies coronaviruses at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center at Fitzsimons.


    Close roosting, among other attributes, makes bats particularly well suited for incubating new diseases.


    The identification of a SARS virus reservoir will enable animal and public health authorities to introduce countermeasures, which will likely center on minimizing contacts between bats and humans and livestock. It's also the first step in figuring out how likely SARS is to re-emerge among humans. Although the SARS-like viruses found in bats and civets are similar to the SARS virus that infected people, there are some important differences. This could mean that the human SARS outbreak was the result of a rare mutation and selection event difficult to repeat. Or it could mean that an intermediate host is needed to bridge the gap between a virus adapted to bats and one capable of infecting humans. Another possibility is that a virus more similar to the one that infected humans is already being harbored by different species of bats or other mammals. Finding SARS-like viruses in bats “opens a door,” says Wang. “But there is still a lot to be done to provide enough data to assess the public health risk of a re-emergence of SARS,” he adds.

    The findings may have significance far beyond SARS. In just a little over a decade, viruses responsible for three deadly emerging diseases—Hendra, Nipah, and now SARS—have been traced to bats. Some suspect that bats may ultimately prove to be the reservoir for the Ebola and Marburg viruses, as well. Albert Osterhaus, a virologist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, says, “These findings indicate that we should give more attention to bats as sources of zoonotic infections.”

    Family relations

    In their hunts for an animal SARS reservoir, the two groups followed similar methodologies in gathering and analyzing blood samples and fecal and throat swabs. The HKU group sampled monkeys, rodents, and several species of bats in the hinterlands of Hong Kong. Although other animals proved negative, they found a SARS-like virus in 39% of fecal swabs collected from Chinese horseshoe bats. About 80% of serum samples collected from the bats showed antibodies to the virus, an indication of a previous infection.

    The team behind the Science paper went further afield, collecting samples from more than 400 bats representing nine species in several different bat genera and families from four far-flung provinces in southern, central, and northeastern China. The group also found large proportions of bats of three separate species within the Chinese horseshoe bat genus carrying antibodies to the SARS coronavirus. The group recovered five viral isolates from two of the same three horseshoe bat species and one species that did not produce any seropositive samples.

    Partial sequencing of the viral isolates recovered by Li and his colleagues shows that they are all closely related but are still more genetically diverse than the coronavirus isolates recovered from humans and civets. That, along with the wide geographical distribution, high proportions of bats carrying antibodies, and genetic diversity, are all “what you would predict to see in a natural reservoir,” says Wang.

    Although scientists are now convinced that horseshoe bats are natural reservoirs of SARS-like coronaviruses, several unknowns make it difficult to determine the risk of SARS re-emerging in humans. For one, the bat SARS-like viruses and the human and civet SARS viruses differ significantly in the genomic regions that code for the receptors that bind to cells in the host. Holmes says this may indicate that these newly discovered viruses cannot easily jump the species barrier and infect humans. The differences in receptors may also explain why both groups failed to get the bat SARS-like viruses to grow in a cell culture that supported the growth of the human and civet SARS viruses.

    But these are not reasons for complacency. Holmes notes that there could be additional animal reservoirs harboring viruses much closer to the one that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. Christian Drosten, a virologist who studies the SARS virus at the Bernhard-Nocht Institute of Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, warns that new SARS-like viruses could possibly find some compatible receptors within a human body and then mutate to adapt to its new host. “Unexpected things can happen in a real infection situation,” he says.

    Wide net.

    Jonathan Epstein and his colleagues collected samples from more than 400 bats from four widely dispersed provinces in China.


    It is also not clear how the SARS virus got from the bat or another animal reservoir to humans. Both groups speculate that bats passed the virus to civets or other animals in the wild or, more likely, in the live animal markets of southern China where bats are sold as food. “In the markets, there are lots of species at high densities all mixed together with humans; this is a recipe for pathogens spilling over from one species to another,” says Jonathan Epstein, a veterinary epidemiologist at Wildlife Trust's Consortium for Conservation Medicine in Palisades, New York, and a co-author of the Science paper.

    Both groups are continuing to try to culture the viruses they isolated from bats. This would allow in vitro experiments to determine if the new viruses can infect human cells or if they must go through changes first. The teams would also like to infect animals with the viruses to see if they produce SARS symptoms. If they do, that would be further proof that these coronaviruses are closely related to the virus responsible for the SARS outbreak. Both groups also intend to continue to search for other animals and bat species that might be harboring SARS-like viruses.

    Going batty

    The SARS virus is just the latest—but by far the deadliest—scourge traced to bats. The Hendra virus, which is suspected of going from bats to horses and then to humans, caused two human deaths in outbreaks in 1994 and 1995 in Australia. The Nipah virus first surfaced among pigs and then spread to pig farmers and butchers in Malaysia and Singapore in 1998, eventually killing 108 out of 265 identified patients. The virus was traced to fruit bats feeding in orchards near or within pig farms. During the winters of 2001, 2002, and 2004, the Nipah virus apparently jumped directly from bats to humans, causing a number of fatal cases of encephalitis in Bangladesh. Nipah has also been found in bats in Cambodia.

    Herwig Leirs, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, ticks off a long list of reasons why so many zoonotic diseases seem to originate in bats. To start, he notes that the genetic diversity of the more than 1000 species of bats creates numerous niches for viruses. Bats live from 5 to 50 years, which is much longer than most small mammals and “is useful for viruses seeking stable reservoirs,” he says. Many species roost packed together in clusters, making it easy for a virus to spread through a colony. Cave-sharing among different species also facilitates transinfection across species, which in turn increases the chances of viral recombination. Finally, says Leirs, some bats can fly up to 20 kilometers a day foraging, and some species are migratory. “Bats have the capacity of widely transporting a pathogen over a relatively short period,” he says.

    Holmes suspects that there is yet another advantage helping make bats “magnificent vectors” for emerging diseases. She says bats seem to be able to carry and shed a virus for a long time without getting sick and without clearing the infection. Other scientists say this capability remains to be confirmed. Meanwhile, notes Field, degradation of bat habitats is pushing them out of their ecological niches and “giving them greater opportunity for contact with humans and livestock.”

    To keep these SARS-like viruses at bay, “we need to control contact between bats and humans and bats and other animals,” says Shuyi Zhang, a zoologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Zoology and a co-author of the Science paper. He notes that China's southern Guangdong Province banned sales of live civets in consumer markets in the wake of the SARS outbreak. Zhang is hopeful governmental authorities will now take similar steps regarding bats.


    In the Line of Fire

    1. Richard Stone

    The question on everyone's mind at a recent meeting of scientists and sponsors was literally: How do we survive?

    AMMAN—Wissam Al-Hashimi, a senior geologist with Iraq's Ministry of Oil and vice president of the Arab Geologists Association, was looking forward to coming to Jordan for a conference on Iraqi science. Then the grim reality of Baghdad intervened: Late last month, the British-educated scientist was kidnapped from his home and held for ransom. His daughter scraped up tens of thousands of dollars—and paid—but her father was not freed. The family finally tracked him down 2 weeks ago. “They found him in a morgue with two gunshot wounds in his head,” says Moutaz Al-Dabbas, an environmental scientist at the University of Baghdad.

    In Iraq these days, science often takes a back seat to survival. But the spiral of violence didn't stop several dozen Iraqi scientists from gathering here last week for a meeting* to showcase applied projects that can contribute to the country's reconstruction. One new initiative was unveiled: a virtual digital library of journals and other scientific materials sponsored by the U.S. State and Defense departments. And a fund of several hundred thousand dollars for peer-reviewed projects by skilled Iraqis is in the works. “Our purpose is to keep them doing science, not just sitting idle,” says Abdalla Alnajjar, conference co-chair and president of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF), a nonprofit organization based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. But to the frustration of attendees, no one stepped forward with more substantial funds for Iraqi R&D.

    The corridors were filled with urgent questions, though—about how to help Iraqi researchers do science, and how to help them stay alive. At least 58 professors, 150 medical doctors, and dozens of scientists at institutes and ministries have been murdered since the Iraq war ended in April 2003, says Ahmed Moosa, an engineering professor at the University of Technology in Baghdad. Other Iraqi scientists corroborate his figures. “We feel there's a campaign to kill every scientist in Iraq,” says Nahi Yousif Yaseen, director general of the Iraqi Center for Cancer and Medical Genetics Research in Baghdad. Hundreds more have been held for ransom.

    Security is so poor that it prompted soul-searching at the meeting about whether grants that keep scientists in Iraq are even morally defensible. “I sometimes question the ethics of what we're doing,” admits conference co-chair Arian Pregenzer, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Any grants for work in Iraq “are keeping scientists in a war zone,” she says. “It's a terrible dilemma.”

    Starting over.

    Scientific labs, stripped by looters in 2003, are struggling to recover.


    Death trap

    The first shock hit Iraqi scientists after Saddam Hussein's fall, when an orgy of looting engulfed the country. Universities and research institutions were devastated. “They took everything,” says Yaseen, who founded the country's only cancer research institute in 1995. The looters made off with refrigerators, furniture, and electrical fittings. “All we had left was a damaged building,” he says.

    Iraq's interim government in late 2003 gave Yaseen enough money to buy secondhand equipment and pay his 72 staff members. Since then, among other accomplishments, they've established three cancer cell lines, including one from brain cancer. “The only scientific research center that's working well now in Baghdad is ours,” he boasts.

    But it's not clear how long the cancer center will last. One staff member was murdered last year, and in recent weeks Yaseen has received a blunt warning: several envelopes with bullets inside. “Somehow they think we're helping the American army,” he says. Four bodyguards protect him and escort his three children to school and university. Yaseen, who came to Jordan for the conference, says he calls home 10 or 12 times a day to check on his family. The stress is getting to be too much. He confesses that he is now looking for a job outside Iraq: “We have to leave—or we will face death.”

    All Iraqi scientists must watch their backs, but some appear to be more exposed than others. Mustansiriya University, with a campus in the heart of Baghdad, has been particularly hard hit. “Many professors have been killed there,” says Al-Dabbas. Earlier this month “five of my professors applied for 1-year sabbaticals,” says Ali Hassan Mahawish, dean of the College of Engineering at Mustansiriya. Last May, he says, a bomb on campus killed two students and maimed six others. Professors are growing wary of students elsewhere. At the University of Baghdad, many students have separated into Shia and Sunni cliques, says Al-Dabbas, who says it's potentially dangerous to appear to favor one group over the other. “If you give a low grade,” he says, “you're frightened that they'll kill you.”


    Nahi Yousif Yaseen, director of the Iraqi Center for Cancer and Medical Genetics Research in Baghdad, heads a 72-person staff.


    To the rescue?

    Efforts to engage Iraqi scientists in peaceful R&D began a couple of years ago. ASTF and Sandia's Cooperative Monitoring Center teamed up in August 2003 to seek out scientists, observe research facilities, and assess needs. Whereas the U.S. State Department at the time focused on weapons scientists, ASTF and Sandia embraced the whole research community. “We don't care where they used to work, what party they belong to,” says Alnajjar. “We seek out scientific expertise on a merit basis.” That impressed Iraqis. Until ASTF and Sandia came along, “we had no belief that anyone would come and help us. We were fed up,” says Munther Naman Baker, an engineering professor at Mustansiriya University who later was appointed director of ASTF's Baghdad office.

    After their reconnaissance, ASTF and Sandia ranked research priorities, matching the U.N.'s top three: public health, water quality, and the environment. “There is a meeting of minds,” says Seifeldin Abbaro, officer-in-charge of the U.N. Development Group for Iraq, which funded a signature $11 million effort to restore the southern marshlands.

    Next, ASTF and Sandia invited 20 Iraqis with promising ideas to a workshop in Amman last May where they worked with international collaborators to draft proposals for funding. That was a huge culture change, says Baker. Under the old regime, he says, “we did science on order of the state.” The proposals that emerged included a DNA fingerprinting unit, screening for post-traumatic stress disorder, assessing potable water supplies, and combating desertification.

    Applicants presented the finished proposals at last week's meeting in Amman. It's uncertain which ones will win funding. The U.K. government is considering bankrolling the DNA forensic science project, conceived by Ali Al-Zaag, dean of the Institute of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology at the University of Baghdad, and Hanan Malkawi, vice dean of the Faculty of Science at Yarmouk University in Jordan. Other projects are still waiting. Some U.S. officials at the meeting spoke privately of a fund being pulled together from a variety of U.S. government agencies by the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation. However, notes an official with the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit, “thousands of details need to be worked out.”

    One fully funded project was on display: the U.S. State Department's Iraqi Virtual Science Library (IVSL), a Web site ( with abstracts and full-text articles from thousands of journals, online course materials, and other information available free of charge to Iraqi scientists. Springer has donated access to its journals, and IVSL managers hope to acquire others at reduced rates. Sun Microsystems is donating eight servers and software, says a State Department official.

    The $340,000 initiative, managed by the U.S. National Academies, will be tested this fall at seven universities in Iraq. “The idea is to connect scientists and engineers through the literature,” says George Atkinson, science adviser to the U.S. secretary of state, whose office developed the project. At the outset, IVSL will be hosted on a Pentagon server. “We anticipate it being turned over completely to Iraq in the next few years,” Atkinson says.

    Academic citadel.

    The University of Baghdad, which suffered heavy losses after the invasion, is reportedly being divided into Sunni and Shia cliques.


    Fellowships will be on offer in another initiative that could allow 500 Iraqi researchers to spend up to 3 months abroad. Lab equipment and research materials, including textbooks, will be covered under the grants sponsored by Qatar, says Mohamed Djelid, director of UNESCO's Iraq office, which is managing the program. So far 48 researchers have been selected.

    A job-placement initiative run by the State Department's Iraqi International Center for Science and Industry (IICSI) is making modest headway. Now in its second year, IICSI has placed 30 of 120 former weapons scientists on its rolls in jobs in Iraqi ministries. The initiative's new director, Edwin Kilbourne, a toxicologist and anthrax investigator formerly with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, says IICSI will push harder to help former weapons scientists develop small businesses. It's a tricky proposition, he says: “They worry about whether their businesses are going to get blown up.”

    Managing IICSI has its challenges: Kilbourne can't visit the center, as it's located in a villa outside the so-called Green Zone that encompasses the U.S. Embassy compound. He can leave the Green Zone only with an armed escort, which would draw attention to IICSI—and make life more dangerous for scientists there.

    One high-profile project involving former weapons researchers aims to learn whether the looting of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center in April 2003 could pose a lingering health threat to the 100,000 people living in its vicinity. Some 200 barrels of “yellowcake”—uranium oxide—were stolen in the melee. Many were emptied and used for storing water or food, although 160 were recovered.

    Last June, a team led by Iraq's Ministry of Science and Texas Tech University collected nearly 300 soil samples near Tuwaitha. They will be sent for analysis to the International Radioecology Laboratory in Slavutych, Ukraine, an outfit whose primary task is to monitor the environment around the destroyed Chornobyl nuclear reactor. (A U.S. agency is evaluating a request for funding the analysis.) Next, researchers will collect blood samples from people who may have been exposed to risky levels of radioactivity, including employees of the science ministry who helped corral the yellowcake barrels.

    Lingering risk.

    Researchers aim to study exposure to drums from the Tuwaitha nuclear center.


    Still waiting

    Despite months of preparation, the Jordan conference organizers were unable to draw serious funding offers, leaving scientists and organizers frustrated. Some U.S. officials say they are embarrassed by how little their own government is spending on Iraqi R&D and how little of that reaches Iraqis: The lion's share of the money for the IVSL library, for example, will be spent in the United States, and nearly 50% of IICSI's budget goes to security. Alnajjar, who has spent months trying to wring funds from wealthy Gulf nations, says he is “disappointed with the Arab countries.” He also blames international organizations for a paralysis born from waiting for a “postconflict” calm. “You can't just sit and wait for this to happen,” he says.

    Others such as Jafar Dhia Jafar, who led Iraq's nuclear program under Saddam Hussein and now lives in Dubai (see sidebar), place the blame close to home. Jafar believes that Arab countries would respond if a plea came from the Iraqi government rather than from ASTF. If the government were to ask for assistance, Jafar believes that the Arab League would call a special meeting to discuss support for Iraqi scientists.

    In the meantime, Pregenzer, an architect of the ASTF-Sandia initiative, says she and her colleagues are rethinking their strategy. One new emphasis, she says, will be to “get Iraqis more engaged in ongoing reconstruction efforts and other internationally funded projects in the Middle East.” This could help those who are sticking it out as long as possible for the sake of the next generation, including the 3 million university students. “We don't want to leave them in the streets to be enticed by terrorists,” says Moosa.

    Some, however, may be better off getting out of the country. Moving scientists to a safe haven could give them “a chance to rejuvenate,” Pregenzer says. “The goal is that they come back.” One possibility, she says, is the new Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance. The public health and early-warning network could easily place a few Iraqis in Jordan or Egypt, Pregenzer says: “These sorts of things don't cost a lot of money.” Jafar, speaking from personal experience, worries that such a strategy could backfire in the long run: “If scientists go out of the country, once they settle down it will be difficult to uproot them and send them back.”

    Iraqi scientists say it's a heart-wrenching decision to forsake their homeland. Baker, for one, is planning to leave Baghdad in the coming weeks to take a university position in Jordan. If it were his decision alone, he says, he might stay. But concerns for his family's safety trump patriotism. “Every day,” he says, “is worse than the last.”

    • * The International Conference to Engage Iraq's Science and Technology Community in Developing Its Country, 18-20 September.


    Profile: Jafar Dhia Jafar

    1. Richard Stone

    AMMAN—He was Saddam Hussein's chief nuclear bomb maker, but he never managed to make a bomb. Now he's living in self-imposed exile in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, working as general manager of a company that's bidding for contracts to help rebuild Iraq. Jafar Dhia Jafar still commands respect from his peers despite the fact that he was a former key adviser to Saddam Hussein. That much was evident last week when they met him at a conference here on Iraqi science. The urbane 63-year-old high-energy physicist also impresses Western experts who worry that his knowledge of nuclear weaponry may appeal to Iran or other countries suspected of pursuing nuclear arsenals. “Jafar is one of the great senior statesmen of Iraqi science,” says Alex Dehgan, who ran the Coalition Provisional Authority's program for former weapons scientists.

    Jafar holds strong views on the reconstruction of postwar Iraq and the plight of his colleagues there, arguing that Iraqis must take the lead in restoring the nation's infrastructure (see main text). In a wide-ranging conversation with Science, Jafar revealed how close Iraq was to developing a nuclear bomb and discussed the future of science in his shattered homeland.

    The making of a weaponeer

    Jafar grew up in Baghdad and attended university in the United Kingdom, where in 1965 received a Ph.D. in high-energy physics from the University of Birmingham. He was a member of the team that did the first experiments on NIMROD, a 7-GeV proton synchrotron at the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

    He returned to Iraq in 1966 to take a position at the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission. At the time the Soviets were building a 2-MW thermal research reactor at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center for medical and basic science projects. Jafar headed the physics and reactor departments there but returned to Europe in July 1970 for a stint at Imperial College London and 5 years at the European laboratory for particle physics (CERN) near Geneva. David Websdale, a physicist at Imperial College London, worked with Jafar at CERN and recalls being impressed with a prototype detector for K+ mesons Jafar designed. Jafar was respected “as a talented physicist,” says Websdale, who last had contact with him in the late 1970s. And Jafar was a “popular guest at bridge evenings.”

    A fateful invitation came in April 1975, when Saddam, then Iraq's vice president, recruited Jafar to return to Tuwaitha. Iraq had just embarked on a nuclear race with its longtime rival, Iran. In 1976, Iraq signed a $400 million deal with France and acquired among other facilities a research and testing reactor, Osirak, that ran on highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. Although the French managed the fueling of Osirak under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, experts pointed out that plutonium would be produced during normal operations and could be diverted for weapons use. Jafar insists, however, that “it was still a peaceful program.”

    In a brief period of calm, in 1977, Jafar attended a conference on nuclear science in Iran. It was clear then, as it is today, that Iran was intent on learning how to process uranium for fuel, Jafar says: “They wanted to have a complete fuel cycle.” He says he has no special insights into whether Iran aims to develop a bomb, but he believes that an Islamic country in the Middle East has as much right to have nuclear weapons as Israel does.

    Jafar's path veered in a new direction as it became intertwined with that of a young nuclear chemist, Hussain al-Shahristani, who had joined Tuwaitha in 1975 to work on neutron activation analysis. “We were good friends in the office but hardly saw each other outside the labs,” says Jafar. “Shahristani is a devout Muslim, but I am not.” In the turmoil that followed the 1979 revolution in Iran, Saddam, then president of Iraq, began rounding up and executing Shias.

    Al-Shahristani was arrested in early December. “He was apolitical,” Jafar says. “I thought for the first day or two it was all a mistake.” Jafar wrote a letter to Saddam appealing for his release. There was no reply. In the meantime, he visited al-Sharistani's wife to try to reassure her; her home was being searched by security forces. Jafar became worried for his own family and decided to send his two sons to boarding school in England, where his British-born wife was receiving medical treatment.

    A week or so later Jafar says he wrote another memo to Saddam about al-Shahristani, after which he was promptly arrested by the Mukhabarat intelligence service. “They probably thought I was preparing to leave the country.” He was held for 20 months, although he was never tortured or even questioned, he says—unlike al-Shahristani, who Jafar later learned had been tortured from his first day of custody. With Saddam's human rights record at its most dismal in the early 1980s, Jafar says, “Shahristani is lucky that he wasn't executed.” Al-Shahristani escaped from prison during the Gulf War in 1991 and is now deputy speaker of Iraq's new parliament.

    Jafar Dhia Jafar.

    Starting a third career.


    Jafar was released in September 1981 and returned to Tuwaitha. Iraq was already at war with Iran, and in June, Israel had bombed Osirak. Jafar insists that the nuclear program adopted military objectives “as a reaction to the bombing,” to build up Iraq's defenses. He says: “Many of us were convinced that without a military-oriented program, you couldn't have a peaceful nuclear program in the Middle East.”

    The French refused to rebuild Osirak. Jafar set out to enrich uranium without a reactor as a clandestine bomb effort got under way. An attempt to separate isotopes using gas diffusion sputtered, and experiments on isotope separation using lasers “came to nothing,” he says, as Iraq could not build or buy sufficiently high-powered, tuned lasers. Jafar was told that equipment purchases could not raise a red flag. “We had to play with these conditions. It was difficult to develop a new technology completely on our own.” But his lab-scale R&D on electromagnetic isotope separation succeeded in 1985.

    The next phase was a pilot plant completed in 1987, after which Iraq started building production-scale units at the Tarmiyah site. Eight out of 140 were in place by the Gulf War, when the program had grown to 8000 people. “We were producing everything indigenously.” Plans called for two new production units a month, with completion expected in 1992 or 1993. The units would perform optimally if low-enriched uranium were used; 4 tons of LEU would yield more than 100 kilograms of HEU per year, enough for several warheads. Bomb design started in 1988 and was proceeding in parallel, Jafar says, with a test anticipated by 1994.

    “In the meantime,” he says, “things happened”—such as the Gulf War, followed by intrusive U.N. inspections. The very first inspection team visited the Al Jazeera plant near Mosul, where “yellowcake”—uranium oxide—was processed into uranium dioxide, which in turn was converted into uranium tetrachloride, the feed material for electromagnetic isotope separation. “They deduced what was going on,” Jafar says. “We declared everything, more or less, in July 1991. Saddam ordered the equipment destroyed by the Republican Guards. It was impossible to carry out any kind of program after that.” Jafar insists that the program was not restarted after U.N. inspectors left Iraq in 1998.

    That accords with the assessment of IAEA inspectors, who after conducting 237 inspections at 148 locations in the 3 months leading up to the 2003 war stated in an April 2003 report that they “did not find in Iraq any evidence of the revival of a nuclear program”—although they noted that they did not have the time to complete their review before the war began. Jafar scoffs at prewar claims that Iraq was still pursuing the bomb—including the discredited charge that it was trying to buy uranium ore from Niger. The United States and the United Kingdom, he claims, “had to concoct a nuclear threat.”

    Picking up the pieces

    After the 1991 Gulf War, Jafar was enlisted as leader of a shock brigade overseeing Iraq's reconstruction. The first task was to rebuild the oil refineries. The director of the damaged Daura refinery said that the plant could be up and running by the end of 1992. He was asked to tap resources from throughout the oil ministry and from Petrochemical Project 3, the code name for the nuclear program. “A refinery is a piping job. We had 40 teams of welders, while the Daura plant had two,” Jafar says. Within 2 months Daura was on line.

    The speed and efficiency of the reconstruction in 1991 offers lessons for the current situation, says Jafar, who took charge of repairing the electricity sector. Before the Gulf War, Iraq had 9776 MW of installed capacity; in the wake of the war's aerial blitz, capacity stood at 750 MW, Jafar says. Through ingenuity and the ability to call upon an army of workers—thanks in part to the omnipresent threat of imprisonment for those who didn't follow orders—the national grid was back up by June at more than half prewar capacity. Jafar's successes pleased Saddam, who made him a personal adviser from August 1992 until the fall of the regime. Although Jafar last conducted his own research in the early 1980s, he kept active in the scientific community, serving as vice president of the Iraqi Academy of Sciences.

    Jafar fled Baghdad on 7 April 2003 during the Coalition invasion, crossing into Syria and going to Dubai. There, Jafar says he submitted to questioning by U.S. and U.K. intelligence agents. “My objective was to show them that they committed a grave mistake by invading Iraq under false pretences,” he says.

    He later co-founded Uruk Engineering Services, a Dubai firm that competes for reconstruction contracts in Iraq. Uruk has completed work on the refurbishment of a power station and is competing for a contract to develop the Zubair gas field in southern Iraq.

    Although Jafar's current work is peaceful, nonproliferation experts say it's paramount that U.S. officials keep him on their radar screen. “The U.S. has a tremendous opportunity to obtain his input and benefit from his prestige,” says Dehgan. “Perhaps even more compelling, the dangers of not engaging him may hold severe penalties for our regional security.”