Science  30 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5744, pp. 2145

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  1. Congress Tackles Conflicts of Interest at FDA

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    U.S. senators last week unanimously agreed that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must do more to limit conflicts of interest on its advisory panels. But unlike their counterparts in the House of Representatives, who have sought an end to FDA waivers that allow individuals with conflicts of interest to serve on these panels (Science, 17 June, p. 1725), the senators have taken a more lenient view.

    The measure, led by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), would require that FDA publish conflicts of interest on its Web site along with reasons for any waivers. In addition, Durbin and two colleagues—senators Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA)—asked the Government Accountability Office to examine how FDA selects advisory committee members. Advisory committees play a crucial role in determining whether drugs and devices for everything from cancer to heart disease should go on the market.

    Ideally, anyone with industry ties ought not to vote on approving medical products, says Jerry Avorn of Harvard Medical School in Boston, but he notes that there are “gradations of allegiance” to pharmaceutical companies.

  2. Carbon Capture Probed

    1. Paul Webster

    Storing carbon dioxide underground is an effective but expensive option to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a detailed report released this week. In recent years, scientists have studied whether industrial CO2 emissions could be socked away in vast geologically formed underground reservoirs. Geological storage could hold 80 years' worth of current CO2 emissions, says Bert Metz, co-chair of the working group that issued the new report. Local health and environmental risks would be minor. And the carbon will stay there, as the report finds underground carbon retention “likely” to exceed 99% over 1000 years.

    But the report confirms long-standing worries that the storage option is expensive compared to reducing emissions through increased use of known technologies such as wind power. Metz says a CO2 capture system would cost between 1 and 5 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity. “There are cheaper ways” to reduce carbon emissions, says Metz. Experimental large-scale CO2 geological storage projects have been established in Norway, Algeria, and Canada.

  3. Academic Grants at Issue

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    A House committee wants to know whether university scientists are misusing research funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Last week, representatives Joe Barton (R-TX) and Ed Whitfield (R-KY) of the Committee on Energy and Commerce asked the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services to examine how NIH grantees are spending their money. A second letter sought an investigation into overcompensation of graduate students at state universities following allegations of such practices at the University of California.

    The congressional request follows a half-dozen settlements by universities in cases involving charges of misuse of federal funds over the last 2 years. Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, Cornell, and others have made payments ranging from $2.4 million to $6.5 million after charges of falsifying time accounting, diverting money from one grant to another, and spending grant money on patient care. All settled with the Department of Justice without admitting wrongdoing. In August, the Wall Street Journal chronicled the Cornell case in a story, piquing the House Committee's interest.

    NIH hasn't changed its oversight of grants because of the settlements and doesn't expect the probe to turn up much, says Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH deputy director for extramural research: “We don't think we have a lot of problems.”

  4. U.K. Stargazers: Save the Leap Second

    1. Michael Schirber

    Astronomers in the United Kingdom are fighting a proposal before to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to abolish the venerable leap second. Leap seconds, added once every 500 days or so, keep high-precision atomic clocks from running ahead of solar time, which is gradually falling behind as tidal friction slows Earth's rotation. Clock resetting happens irregularly, says U.S. delegate Ronald Beard of the Naval Research Laboratory, and could potentially affect systems for air traffic control or economic transactions. But astronomers, led by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), say the leap seconds are integral to the programs that align telescopes and track satellites, so a change would require an expensive overhaul. “Otherwise, you could point your telescope in the wrong place,” says Mike Hapgood of RAS. In November, ITU will debate the proposition, but a final decision could take years.