News this Week

Science  06 Apr 2007:
Vol. 316, Issue 5821, pp. 30

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    Turnover at the Top, but Problems Persist at the Smithsonian

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi
    Yellow ties take charge.

    At the Smithsonian, Christián Samper (top, left) has replaced Secretary Lawrence Small (top, right); Ira Rubinoff (lower, left) has stepped in for David Evans as undersecretary for science.


    When Lawrence Small abruptly resigned as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution last week, you could almost hear the staff's collective sigh of relief. Although Small shored up the Smithsonian's sagging finances during his 7-year term, his departure signaled an end to the internal audits, the harsh press coverage, and congressional outrage over high executive salaries and exorbitant personal expenses—such as first-class tickets for a Hawaiian vacation.

    The turnover also hinted at better times for the Smithsonian's 500 researchers in locations from Panama to Massachusetts. Many think science didn't fully benefit from Small's fundraising, which focused on “bricks and mortar” improvements. They are encouraged that scientists have been made interim leaders.

    The Board of Regents, which oversees the Smithsonian's activities, picked the 41-year-old director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, biologist Christián Samper, as acting secretary. This move is fueling hopes that Samper, or someone with a research background, might take charge long term. In another big change, David Evans, who oversaw Smithsonian science for 4 years under Small, also resigned last week. Ira Rubinoff, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, has stepped in as his temporary replacement. Paul Risser, a botanist and chair of the University of Oklahoma Research Cabinet, will be the new acting director of the natural history museum.

    Although it's too soon to tell what this will mean for the institution's programs, the new leaders are speaking in a way that's bound to please scientists. In the past, “the whole issue of infrastructure and facilities has received a lot of attention,” Samper said in an interview. “I want to strengthen the programmatic side—the scholarship and science.” Rubinoff says his goal is to get “more balance” among the institution's priorities, suggesting a closer look at research objectives and not a single-minded emphasis on refurbishing museums. Among the staff, “there were a lot of smiling faces this week,” says William Fitzhugh, a Smithsonian archaeobiologist.

    Unfinished business

    Although the new leaders may be more in tune with research, it will be difficult for them—or anyone—to launch programs while maintaining the Smithsonian's sprawling conglomeration of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities.

    The U.S. Congress foots about 70% of the Smithsonian's bills, but increases in this federal allocation have not kept up with costs, in particular the demand for finishing new museums and repairing old ones. Small helped bring in a lot of private money—about $1 billion during his term—for this quasi-federal institution. But most of it was not for science. Scientists have looked elsewhere for research support, with mixed success.

    The harsh reality is that money is still tight, and the Smithsonian is groaning under the weight of its obligations. “Our biggest need is still facilities,” says Roger Sant, chair of the board of the Summit Foundation in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. “When your backlog [of obligations] is $2.3 billion, it's hard to say anything is going to get a greater amount of attention.”

    The bricks-and-mortar problem dates back to the 1980s when then-Smithsonian Secretary Sidney Dillon Ripley built eight museums and set up seven new research programs, few of which were fully funded by Congress. When Small came on board, the Smithsonian's finances were in a shambles, and construction projects were underfunded. “The place really did need fixing,” says Sant. In addition to raising money, Small, a well-connected banker, got the National Museum of the American Indian and a new branch of the National Air and Space Museum up and running; he also began repairing bad heating systems and solving other infrastructure problems. But “he seemed to lose sight of the important research role of the institution,” says Peter Raven, head of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

    Belt-tightening measures did away with an internal grants program and research fellowships. An ever-larger percentage of congressional funding—which remained flat—had to cover mandatory expenses, such as salaries and shortfalls in the infrastructure budget. At the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2-year delays affected both a new spectrograph and a new infrared camera for the Multiple Mirror Telescope—both deemed key improvements by the scientific community.

    Early in his tenure, Small angered scientists when he called for a reorganization that would have separated the exhibits from the research programs and closed a conservation research center in Front Royal, Virginia, and a materials research lab in Suitland, Maryland (Science, 13 July 2001, p. 194). The fuss prompted the Board of Regents to appoint an 18-member commission that in 2003 presented Small and Evans with almost 100 recommendations for changes. Since then, “the Smithsonian has made a huge amount of progress,” says Jeremy Sabloff, the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist who chaired that commission.

    The threatened research centers survived and appear to be on firm ground. There is now money for fellowships and new blood in charge at the zoo, the natural history museum, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland, and the SAO.

    Samper has turned the natural history museum around since he took over in 2003, hiring young curators to replace about a dozen retirement-age staff members who had stayed in place to help out their departments. Botany, for example, brought in new people for the first time since the early 1990s.

    The natural history museum has received some $70 million in outside funds in the past 4 years, most for exhibits but some for research. There are now two endowed chairs, one in ocean sciences and one in human origins. Furthermore, “we've had a great infusion of attention to the mechanics of doing good science here now,” says Fitzhugh.

    Nonetheless, problems persist. “A lot of the scientists, like myself, think we have a long way to go,” says Warren Wagner, a botanist at the natural history museum. Small did not push for a major research initiative during his tenure; it's been more than a decade since the Smithsonian budget included one. SAO, for example, is looking for $60 million as its contribution to the Giant Magellan Telescope but has yet to even get the request on the funding wish list the Smithsonian sends to the White House. The one science initiative in many years to become part of the institution's budget proposal—for a global environmental observatory focused on forests in 2008—was nixed last year by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

    SERC has made up for a decline in direct support from the Smithsonian's federal budget over the past 10 years by seeking grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies. But these sources could dry up. It's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the long-term studies so crucial to distinguishing climate change from normal variation in the environment, notes SERC Director Anson Hines.

    Researchers say what the Smithsonian really needs is a spokesperson who will lobby Congress and the White House more strongly. “We must articulate very well why our science is important,” says Samper. It's not enough to win backing for individual projects; the research enterprise needs a champion, says Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin: “There are some things you can [easily] raise money for … exhibits and flashy research, but not for the preservative in jars of fish.” He and others think a scientist, or at least a scholar of some sort, needs to be in charge.

    But Board of Regents members are wary. “In the best of all worlds, you want a great scholar,” says philanthropist Eli Broad. “But you want someone also [who] can rally the troops and can get the resources over and above what the government provides. It's a tough job.”


    Design Flaw Could Delay Collider

    1. Adrian Cho

    A magnet for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) failed during a key test at the European particle physics laboratory CERN last week. Physicists and engineers will have to repair the damaged magnet and retrofit others to correct the underlying design flaw, which could delay the start-up of the mammoth subterranean machine near Geneva, Switzerland, from November until the spring of 2008. That would eliminate a 1-month “engineering run” with which physicists had hoped to shake the bugs out of the machine before shutting down for the winter, when power becomes prohibitively expensive.

    Laboratory officials aren't giving up hope just yet, however. “We are pretty well along on finding a fix that can be implemented in the tunnel without having to bring [the magnets] up to the surface,” says CERN's Lyndon Evans, who leads the construction of the accelerator. Only the damaged magnet will have to come out of the tunnel, he says.

    The faulty magnets are designed to focus the LHC's beams of protons just before they collide. The beams will run through three such quadrupoles on either side of each of four collision points spaced around the 27-kilometer ring. The LHC's four massive particle detectors will sit at the collision points.

    Quick fix.

    Researchers must modify focusing magnets like this one in place to keep the project on schedule.


    Designed and built at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, the magnet failed when researchers tried to pressurize its cylindrical casing to 25 times atmospheric pressure. The test was supposed to simulate the buildup of helium gas during a “quench,” an event in which the superconducting wire in the magnet temporarily loses its superconducting properties and starts acting like a giant heating coil, boiling the liquid helium coolant that fills the volume between magnet and casing. The pressure pushed the innards of the magnet through the cylindrical container like a piston as a key support broke. The support was not designed to take a lengthwise push, says Stephen Holmes, an accelerator physicist at Fermilab.


    Faulty support was not designed to resist a force pushing the magnet's innards through its casing.


    “It's better to catch it now than a year from now when the LHC has its first quench,” Holmes says. But, he adds, “we should have caught this before we got this far.” Researchers at Fermilab and CERN already have ideas for modifying the magnets and will meet at CERN at the end of the month to finalize the plan and start the fix.

    The schedule for starting the LHC in November was already extremely tight. Workers have lowered all but a handful of the LHC's 1624 main magnets into the tunnel and are busy connecting the equipment. Even so, they are currently about 5 weeks behind schedule and pushing to catch up, Evans says. “If it goes into 2008, then there is no question of having an engineering run and 3-month shutdown,” Evans says. “We'll have to do without it.”


    Attosecond Laser Pulses Illuminate Fleeting Dance of Electrons

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Like a prisoner trapped behind the wall of a fortress, an electron faces a huge barrier in escaping the confines of an atom. Yet when hit by a burst of intense light, it can set itself free in just a few hundred attoseconds (10−18 s), thanks to a quantum-mechanical phenomenon known as tunneling. In essence, it seeps through the barrier—the binding energy that normally holds it in place. Now, for the first time, scientists have seen this blindingly fast escape act happen in real time.

    Looking in.

    In the Garching experiments, atoms in the cylindrical chamber were blasted with attosecond pulses and laser waves.


    This week in Nature, Ferenc Krausz of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, along with researchers in Austria and the Netherlands, reports watching electrons in neon atoms burrowing their way to freedom. The team says the findings—made possible by the use of 250-attosecond pulses of ultraviolet (UV) radiation—confirm theoretical predictions about the tunneling process.

    The researchers also report using tunneling itself to image the acrobatics of electrons jumping from one orbital to another in neon and xenon atoms that have been excited by light. The work shows how “the powerful tools of attosecond science” can be used to understand atomic-level phenomena, says Paul Corkum, a physicist at the Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences in Ottawa, Canada, who did not take part in the work.

    To produce attosecond UV pulses, researchers bombard a cloud of neon atoms with a short burst of laser light that wrenches an electron out from deep inside the atom and smashes it back toward the atomic core. The most energetic photons emitted in this process are filtered out to yield a UV burst lasting a few hundred attoseconds.

    In their experiment, Krausz and his colleagues trained an attosecond pulse as well as the laser wave used to generate it toward a second chamber of neon atoms. First, the attosecond pulse yanked electrons out from the atoms' inner shells to their outer edges, preparing the atoms for ionization and the electrons for escape. The laser wave then took them the rest of the way.

    When the laser's oscillating electric field reached its peak, it suppressed the atom's binding potential—in effect, thinning the wall holding the electron in. At precisely those points in the laser's oscillation cycle, which lasted several hundred attoseconds, the researchers saw a marked increase in the number of ionized atoms in the chamber as the outer electrons tunneled their way through the lowered binding potential.

    In other experiments, the researchers used tunneling to probe the intra-atomic dynamics of neon and xenon atoms. In the xenon study, they blasted atoms with an attosecond pulse powerful enough to knock an electron out of the element's innermost shell, causing electrons in the outer shells to rearrange themselves in an adjustment known as Auger decay. By targeting the atoms with the laser wave and noting how the number of ions created by tunneling changed over time, the team was able to trace the details of the Auger decay.

    Researchers say the ability to control atomic-scale motion of electrons would have numerous applications. “Even simple-seeming processes such as laser surgery have attosecond phenomena at their core that have never been resolved,” says Corkum. In the longer term, Krausz says, such work could lead to better compact x-ray light sources for biological imaging and radiation therapies.


    Hobbit's Status as a New Species Gets a Hand Up

    1. Ann Gibbons

    PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—The diminutive human who lived on the Indonesian island of Flores 18,000 years ago has been called many things: a pygmy, a diseased Homo sapiens, a hobbit. Now, in a report that was the talk of the Paleoanthropology Society's annual meeting here last week, a postdoctoral researcher claimed that the shapes of the fossil's wrist bones are so primitive that it cannot be H. sapiens. “It is definitely not a modern human. It's not even close,” paleoanthropologist Matthew Tocheri of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., said in his talk. Although some critics still think the bones could be those of a diseased H. sapiens, others who heard Tocheri's report were persuaded. “It's the most convincing evidence so far that it really is something different,” says paleoanthropologist Carol Ward of the University of Missouri, Columbia.

    Get a grip.

    A study of hand bones suggests that the hobbit was a primitive species.


    The roughly 1-meter-tall skeleton has sparked heated debate. Its discoverers claim it as a new species of human called H. floresiensis, whereas critics argue that the tiny skull belonged to a modern human suffering from a disease such as microencephaly, which leads to a small head.

    When Tocheri first saw casts of the hand bones at a lecture last fall, he was struck immediately by their primitive shape. In his Ph.D. dissertation from Arizona State University in Tempe—which he is defending this week—he used three-dimensional imaging to analyze an innovation in the modern human hand. Living people and our most recent ancestors possess a complex of five bones that mesh together to ease stress on the wrist when the hand is used forcefully, for example in pounding large tools or in precision work. Neandertals had this derived shock-absorber complex, too; it is first seen in the hand of an 800,000-year-old human ancestor, H. antecessor, from Atapuerca, Spain.

    But the bony complex is not found in apes or earlier human ancestors, including H. habilis, which lived 1.75 million years ago in Africa. That species did use tools, but the shape of its hand bones does not distribute force away from the base of the thumb and across the wrist as efficiently as in modern humans.

    Tocheri got permission to study high-quality casts of the Flores bones, which were made for Stony Brook University biological anthropologist William Jungers. What Tocheri saw confirmed his impression that three bones in the wrist closely resembled those of an ancient hominid, not modern humans.

    Tocheri ruled out that the primitive hand bones were altered by disease because their distinctive shape develops in the first trimester, long before deformation from most diseases begins later in pregnancy or after birth. He also says known diseases do not reproduce the primitive bone shapes. “This is not pathological,” Tocheri said. That fits with emerging evidence from the long limb bones, which show no pathology either, says Jungers (Science, 19 May 2006, p. 983). “The sick-hobbit scenario is wrong,” he says.

    But until the hobbit bones can be compared with a wrist of a microencephalic human, some remain unconvinced. “The wrist bones don't look like those of a normal modern human, but how can we rule out that it's a pathological modern human until we get comparative evidence?” asks paleoanthropologist Robert Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

    Although much work has focused on the fossil's chimp-sized skull (Science, 2 February, p. 583), the new skeletal data are proving convincing to many. Says lower-limb expert Henry McHenry of the University of California, Davis: “It clinches it for me that [the Flores fossil] was not modern.”


    Chemistry Reports Warn of Eroding American Research Lead

    1. Robert F. Service

    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—The outlook for United States scientific leadership remains cloudy with a chance of showers. That's the gist of two new reports* the National Research Council released last week on the future of U.S. research in chemistry and chemical engineering, both of which were detailed here for the first time at the semiannual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

    The first report warned that American preeminence in chemistry research is slipping away as the country grapples with declining numbers of homegrown doctoral degrees in chemistry and the rise of competition from Western Europe and Asia. The second predicted sunnier skies for U.S. leadership in broad areas of chemical engineering research, although it warned that the heavy emphasis on biology, nanotechnology, and other hot fields in research spending threatens to undermine less-sexy areas of the discipline.

    Brain drain.

    Falling numbers of homegrown Ph.D.s are one of several signs that U.S. preeminence in chemistry research is threatened.


    The new reports are the latest in a series of disturbing forecasts for U.S. scientific leadership. The strongest warning came from a 2005 report from the National Academies that claimed the United States faced a “gathering storm” of dwindling educational performance and lackluster federal commitment to basic research, particularly in the physical sciences (Science, 21 October 2005, p. 423).

    Although the United States remains the single strongest country in a variety of measures of chemistry research, the trends are largely pointing in the wrong direction, says Charles Casey, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who chaired the chemistry report. Today, for example, U.S. researchers publish only 18% of the papers in the field, down from 23% a decade ago. Over that same period, the output from Asian countries other than Japan tripled and is now on par with the U.S. output.

    In education, the clouds appear even darker. According to panel member Sylvia Ceyer, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the number of chemistry Ph.D.s awarded to native-born students has sunk roughly 25% since 1970. Universities have made up the difference with foreign students, who now earn nearly half of all chemistry Ph.D.s awarded by U.S. universities. But Ceyer warned that as industry jobs continue to move overseas and visas remain tight in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the percentage of foreign-born Ph.D. chemists who have chosen to stay in the United States has declined slowly but steadily over the past 5 years. The upshot: “The U.S. will remain a leader in chemistry for the next 5 years,” Ceyer says. “But the U.S. lead will continue to shrink as the chemistry world becomes flatter and more competitive.”

    Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, says that although such trends are cause for concern, the situation isn't yet dire. “I think it would be a mistake to read too much into these trends,” Wrighton says. “We need to keep in mind that the United States is still the world leader.” Although the new reports didn't offer solutions, Casey says the Bush Administration's competitiveness initiative, which aims to double U.S. physical sciences research over 10 years, is a step in the right direction. “From the chemistry perspective, it will help tremendously,” Casey says.

    • * Benchmarking the Research Competitiveness of the United States in Chemistry; Benchmarking the Research Competitiveness of the United States in Chemical Engineering.


    Indonesia to Share Flu Samples Under New Terms

    1. Dennis Normile

    Indonesia has agreed to resume sharing samples of the H5N1 avian influenza virus with the World Health Organization in return for a promised rewrite of WHO's rules governing the use of donated viral samples. The new “Terms of Reference” for handling viral samples, which will be hammered out over the next several months, may include a clause giving countries that provide flu samples more control over how and whether WHO can pass the virus on to third parties, such as companies making vaccines. Indonesia had halted sharing its samples over concerns that it would not have access to any H5N1 vaccine ultimately produced (Science, 23 February, p. 1065).

    Shots for tots.

    Indonesia's Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari (left) wants vaccines to protect citizens against bird flu in return for sharing H5N1 samples.


    Although health officials and scientists are happy that Indonesia will once again provide flu samples, some worry about a possible new precedent. “My concern is that if this rule [takes effect], some country may in the future refuse to share the viruses or vaccine seed virus strain outside” the WHO network, jeopardizing vaccine production, says Masato Tashiro, director of the WHO Collaborative Center for Influenza Surveillance and Research in Tokyo.

    For more than 50 years, the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network has collected seasonal flu viruses and provided vaccine seed viruses to drug companies. Virtually all the vaccines produced have been used in advanced countries in temperate zones to fight seasonal flu.

    WHO took the same approach in dealing with H5N1, which so far has primarily affected developing countries in tropical and subtropical Asia. Indonesia, which has the highest number of human H5N1 fatalities—at least 63 so far—ceased sharing its samples of the virus with WHO in January. Indonesian officials said they feared the country would not be able to afford a vaccine or get a share of limited supplies in the event of a pandemic. At a meeting in Jakarta organized by WHO to resolve the impasse on 26 and 27 March, Siti Fadilah Supari, Indonesia's minister of health, called the current scheme “more dangerous than the threat of an H5N1 pandemic itself.”

    Under an interim agreement, Indonesia will again provide samples, which WHO's reference labs watch for mutations that might suggest the virus is mutating into a form more easily transmitted among humans. In return, WHO will request Indonesia's authorization before sharing any samples beyond i ts labs, according to David Heymann, head of WHO's pandemic influenza efforts. Tashiro, a participant in the Jakarta meeting, says a similar provision may be written into the new terms of reference for all countries that provide virus to WHO.

    Heymann says WHO already has an initiative that would ensure developing countries a share of a pandemic vaccine when it is produced, by providing them either stockpiles of vaccines or an advance purchase agreement. The initiative, he hopes, will “provide the reassurance developing countries need to continue sharing viruses.”


    Appointee 'Reshaped' Science, Says Report

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Environmental groups have long vilified Julie MacDonald, the Bush Administration's point person at the Interior Department on endangered species. Last week, their complaints got some support from the agency's in-house watchdog, who has concluded that the political appointee played fast and loose with research.

    A report by the inspector general's (IG's) office found that MacDonald not only has been “heavily involved” in editing scientific documents by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) but also leaked some of that confidential material to industry groups. Next month, Congress will hold hearings on her actions.

    MacDonald is a civil engineer who previously worked on endangered species issues for the California state government. Since 2004, she has been deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. The IG's report was sent last week to Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), now chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, who had received an anonymous tip that MacDonald had “bullied, insulted, and harassed” FWS scientists to alter biological reports about endangered species. The findings, which haven't been publicly released, were first reported by the New York Times.

    The report documents, for example, how MacDonald told agency scientists to lower the status of tiger salamanders in California from endangered to threatened (Science, 10 September 2004, p. 1554)—a decision that was later tossed out by the courts. It also quotes the former director of the FWS Endangered Species Program saying that “MacDonald regularly bypassed managers to speak directly with field staff, often intimidating and bullying them into producing documents that had the desired effect.”

    Although the IG found nothing illegal in MacDonald's actions, the report says she violated the federal code in two ways. She leaked internal agency documents to lobbyists for the California Farm Bureau Federation and other groups. And she appeared to give those lobbyists preferential treatment—a charge that MacDonald denied to the investigators. (The Interior Department declined to comment on the report, calling it a personnel matter, and MacDonald has not made any public statements.)

    Rahall says that next month's hearing will be “a sweeping review on whether politics is infiltrating decisions” about endangered species. The issue may also come up during the Senate confirmation hearing of Lyle Laverty, director of Colorado's Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, whom the White House on 23 March proposed to be MacDonald's boss. The job has been vacant since November 2005.


    An Asian Tiger's Bold Experiment

    1. Dennis Normile

    As Singapore embarks on a billion-dollar second phase of its makeover as a research hub, critics wonder whether the island nation is really getting its money's worth


    Some Singaporeans are asking how a massive investment in biomedical talent and facilities will play out.

    SINGAPORE—From the crest of a low hill in a southern corner of this island state, Philip Yeo makes a sweeping gesture toward a scientific Emerald City: nine gleaming new research buildings teeming with more than 1000 biomedical scientists. “We've gone from nothing to this in 5 years,” says Yeo, chair of Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR), a government agency that runs Biopolis, as the campus is known.

    Thanks in no small measure to Yeo's wizardry at winning government support and wooing overseas talent, Biopolis has put this tiny Southeast Asian nation on the biomedical research map. As one indicator of success, the number of papers produced at the flagship Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) zoomed from 82 in 2000 to 165 in 2006, according to Thomson Scientific. Citation rates rival those of institutions with longer histories. Other Biopolis centers are still coming up to speed. But in building up a research capacity from scratch, boasts Yeo, “no other country has ever moved so fast.”

    That claim has a number of prominent backers. What's happened in Singapore in just 5 or 6 years “is pretty darn remarkable,” says Edward Holmes, formerly dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). By comparison, says Holmes, deputy chair of Singapore's Biomedical Research Council, it took San Diego 40 years to become a biomedical hub. The research enterprise has progressed “beyond my wildest expectations,” adds molecular oncologist Edison Liu, director of the Genome Institute of Singapore.

    But some now question whether A*STAR is heading in the right direction. Late last year, in an opinion piece in the influential Straits Times newspaper, Lee Wei Ling, head of Singapore's National Neuroscience Institute, wrote that “if the present approach is followed without modification, a coherent body of research and success in a series of related fields is unlikely to develop.” Among other things, Lee is skeptical of the reliance on imported scientific talent and believes the overall effort lacks a coherent focus. Her article triggered a rare spectacle in this prim city-state: a public debate over research and development (R&D) policy waged in dueling editorials and opinion pieces.

    Yeo brushes off the criticism. “I'm not very good at listening,” he admits. “My forte is getting things done.” But the debate has raised questions about when Singapore can expect to receive an economic payoff from the 2 billion Singapore dollars ($1.3 billion) spent so far on building and staffing Yeo's field of dreams. And A*STAR can expect closer scrutiny as it embarks on the $1.3 billion second phase of its biomedical initiative: another batch of institutes with links to hospitals to extend the research to patients.

    Getting things done.

    Biopolis visionary Philip Yeo says he is too busy to listen to critics of Singapore's biomedical strategy.


    Whale hunting

    In June 2000, Singapore unveiled a National Biomedical Science Strategy to make this research area a central pillar of a knowledge-driven economy (Science, 30 August 2002, p. 1470). The first phase called for creating a public research infrastructure that would generate discoveries, train personnel for big pharma R&D, spin off start-up firms, and generally build up local expertise in biomedical sciences.

    Tapped to implement the strategy was Yeo, an engineer with a Harvard University MBA who was named chair of the National Science and Technology Board, which became A*STAR. A career civil servant, Yeo is credited with having led Singapore's drive into semiconductors and specialty chemicals while chair of the Economic Development Board. A colleague describes Yeo's lifestyle as “ascetic” and giving new meaning to the word “workaholic.” He is relentlessly cheerful, peppering facts and numbers with wisecracks.

    When the biomedical strategy was launched, Singapore had a single life sciences institute, IMCB, affiliated at the time with the National University of Singapore, plus a center on pharmaceutical technologies under the Economic Development Board. A*STAR took charge of both and created three more institutes, building Biopolis to house them. To staff the labs, Yeo started luring scientific stars from abroad, in some cases spending years to fill a strategic post.

    A big catch early on was Liu, imported in 2001 from the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, to head Singapore's newly minted Genome Institute. Researchers there quickly made their mark, becoming the first in the world to sequence the SARS virus at the height of that crisis in 2003.

    Since then, Liu has been joined by an array of world-class scientists. For example, David Lane, renowned for his work on the p53 tumor suppressor gene, is on a sabbatical from the University of Dundee, U.K., to head IMCB. In addition to an international standing, Lane brought to the job wide-ranging contacts and industrial acumen—in 1996, he founded Cyclacel Pharmaceuticals, which is developing novel cancer drugs. Lane says the contacts are important for an institute so distant from established research centers of the United States and Europe. And his Cyclacel experience helps when exploring interactions with pharma executives.


    Yeo lured others to Singapore by dangling irresistible research opportunities. Nancy Jenkins and Neal Copeland, a wife-husband team of mouse geneticists, say they opted for Singapore to escape tightening budgets and restrictions on consulting work at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. In the United States, says Copeland, “there wasn't a lot of new money to do new things.” At IMCB, he says, they are assured of generous funding for their work developing mouse models for human cancers, and they're encouraged to interact with companies.

    Yeo has also imported heavyweight administrators to run institutes and develop policy. The roster includes the husband-wife team of UCSD's Holmes and Judith Swain, who was the university's dean of translational medicine; Philippe Kourilsky, former president of the Pasteur Institute in Paris; and George Radda, former chief of the U.K.'s Medical Research Council.

    Yeo calls these senior figures “whales” who have schools of ambitious young researchers—“guppies”—trailing in their wakes. So far, roughly 75% of the 500 or so Ph.D.-level Biopolis researchers are foreigners. Aiming for a 50-50 balance among A*STAR's institutes, Singapore plans to send abroad and fund some 1000 students to earn undergraduate to Ph.D. degrees at top foreign universities by 2015. The full ride costs more than 900,000 Singapore dollars ($590,000)—his “million-dollar kids,” Yeo says. The presence of senior scientists in Singapore, Lane adds, ensures that scholarship students “will continue to have outstanding mentoring when they come back here.”

    Building a research effort from scratch has made it easy to create institutions with complementary aims, says Lane. “In most countries, the rivalries between institutions can hold them back from working together in a successful way,” he says. Another Singaporean strength is a small, pragmatic government to oversee the initiative, argues Yeo, who professes disdain for bigger and messier democratic systems. “Look at how the guys in California are fighting [over plans for] stem cells,” Yeo says. “Nothing is moving!”

    A*STAR claims to be nearing its economic goals of generating 25 billion Singapore dollars ($16.4 billion) in biomedical manufacturing and 15,000 jobs in the sector by 2015. Last year, manufacturing output hit S$23 billion, having almost quadrupled in the past 6 years. Biomedical employment grew 3.9% to reach 10,571. The agency figures that investment commitments in 2006 will add 1800 jobs when facilities come online. And private spending on biomedical R&D in 2005 reached 35% of the nation's total R&D spending, up from 28.5% in 2001.

    A voice in the wilderness

    Not everyone buys that rosy picture. Lee's broadside in The Straits Times last November questioned the strategy of hiring “foreign stars and then letting them decide for themselves what areas of research to engage.” She criticized the initiative as lacking coordination and called for a lead agency to take control and identify niches in which Singapore could excel. Examples she gave included hepatitis B, liver and stomach cancer, autoimmune diseases, and head injury. “Smaller countries with limited resources have to be more focused on how those resources are used,” Lee wrote.

    The critique carried particular weight in Singapore, given Lee's membership in what one researcher refers to as Singapore's “ruling family.” She's the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's revered first prime minister.

    Lee's piece “created a stir in the entire A*STAR community,” says IMCB's Copeland. But neither A*STAR nor Yeo made a formal response. So a week before A*STAR held its annual press briefing on the biomedical initiative on 6 February, Lee repeated her claims in an interview with Reuters. Not surprisingly, questions about Lee's comments dominated the briefing. At the time, Yeo said that he intended to “just ignore” criticism from “one voice in the wilderness.” And he mocked Lee's recommendations. Childhood vaccinations have vanquished hepatitis B among Singaporeans, Yeo says. And rather than spend money on head-injury research, he told Science, “it would be cheaper to give every child a crash helmet.”

    Lee declined to comment further, writing in an e-mail to Science, “The points have been put across to the small number of individuals I was targeting.” Her views have gotten oblique support from Ting Choon Meng, a physician and founder of medical device maker HealthSTATS. In a January Straits Times article, Ting argued that Singapore's researchers are “putting the cart before the horse” by overlooking the practical payoffs of research. “As a nation and as individuals, we have begun to showcase our innovations. But we may still end up not fully reaping the rewards of our IP ideas,” he wrote.

    Yeo may have little time for critics. But his star scientists, perhaps more used to defending science policies, are keen to make the case that research in Singapore can be both globally significant and locally relevant. “Everybody agrees, it's a small place and you need to focus,” says Copeland. But “people are focusing,” he says. Cancer is one target, and a majority of Yeo's recruits work on themes related to cancer. Swain adds that as translational medicine extends to work with patients, it is imperative to align with local needs. One example is gastric cancer, which for genetic and dietary reasons is prevalent in Asia.

    Whether the initiative is giving the economy the desired kick is trickier to assess. Singapore had big pharma investment before the initiative: Production at drug company plants reached S$6.4 billion in 2000. And most observers agree that pharma investment would have continued to grow even in the absence of the biomedical strategy. A*STAR officials counter that their bootstrapping efforts have boosted the value of the manufacturing, moving from simple molecules to biologics: drugs cultured from living cells. And they maintain that the growing pool of trained researchers is attracting additional interest from big pharma. Within the last few weeks, GlaxoSmithKline opened a $13 million medicinal chemistry outfit at Biopolis that will double the firm's research corps in Singapore to 60; and Eli Lilly announced a 5-year, $150 million plan to boost its drug-discovery efforts in Singapore in part by tripling its R&D staff to 150.

    Last November, the World Bank published a report examining how six Asian cities—Bangkok, Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo—are seeking new strategies for economic growth. World Bank economist Shahid Yusuf says that he and co-author Kaoru Nabeshima are impressed at how quickly Singapore has put together an infrastructure resembling that of San Diego and other hot spots. But he notes that research budgets are rising across Asia, and other rivals have biotech strategies. “When all of them get into this business, how will that affect the others' prospects?” he asks. As for Singapore, which has invested more heavily than others in biotech, Yusuf says, the questions are: “How much longer do they need to wait, and will [the returns] be large enough to provide a major engine of growth for Singapore?”

    Yeo dismisses the report. “I don't believe World Bank people are competent to make recommendations to Singapore,” he says.

    Safe for now

    In the wake of the debate touched off by Lee's article, Singapore's leaders have signaled their confidence in the National Biomedical Science Strategy. Most recently, in a 14 February speech unveiling the fiscal 2007 budget, Second Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, “It is too early to evaluate the results of our R&D initiatives. But from [the Ministry of Finance's] perspective, I am satisfied that this is a good use of public funds.”

    That's A*STAR's reading as well. It's forging ahead full-speed with phase two. A pair of new centers, the Institute for Clinical Sciences and the Singapore Immunology Network, will link bench researchers and staff at local hospitals to pursue clinical studies. The Ministry of Health is developing programs to enable clinicians to devote part of their time to research. And it plans a new medical school in cooperation with Duke University.

    Swain, head of the Institute for Clinical Sciences, believes Singapore's unique mix of Indians, Malays, and Chinese “could be a competitive advantage” for studies of how different ethnicities respond to drugs. One disadvantage, however, is a small population size. Alan Colman, CEO of ES Cell International, says his firm is likely to go to the United States or Europe with their cardio stem cell therapy when it is ready for trials.

    Whether Singapore can sustain its rapid development in biomedical science is another open question. Much may depend on the success of Biopolis managers in keeping senior scientists rooted to the island. Lane says he will move back to Dundee at the end of 2007, although he plans to spend “considerable time” in Singapore for research and to advise A*STAR.


    One looming uncertainty is whether Biopolis can continue on its present trajectory without the energy of Yeo, who stepped down as A*STAR's chair on 1 April. Yeo is not going far, however. He will chair an arm of the Ministry of Trade and Industry that promotes small and medium-sized businesses. He will also serve as a policy adviser to the prime minister.

    Striding across the hill near Biopolis, Yeo doesn't sound as though his interest in biomedicine is waning. He points to two just-completed Biopolis buildings now being fitted out for new labs. Nearby, several low-rise buildings will soon be demolished to make way for a Biopolis daycare center. A bit farther, cranes are topping out the two towers of Fusionopolis, a S$550 million Biopolis clone in which A*STAR is gathering six institutes that work on information and communications technologies. Yeo can't contain his enthusiasm. “Come back in another few years and see what's here,” he says.


    Hard Data on Hard Drugs, Grabbed From the Environment

    1. John Bohannon

    Fieldwork in new and fast-growing areas of epidemiology requires wads of cash and a familiarity with sewer lines

    Hot money.

    Researchers are gathering currency across Europe and testing its cocaine content.


    BARCELONA—It's almost midnight when Fritz Sörgel and Verena Jakob walk into a chic cocktail bar. Still on the early side, the place is barely beginning to fill with the typical clientele of young, hip Spaniards. Installing themselves on low couches, the pair scan the drinks menu. “What I really want is a piña colada,” says Sörgel with feeling. Returning from the bar, he looks defeated. “Only daiquiris.”

    You probably wouldn't guess that Sörgel and Jakob, environmental chemists who have been working since dawn, are still on the job. Indeed, despite the tragic absence of piña coladas, Sörgel gets what he's really after: Spanish bills in exchange for a crisp German €100 note. Jakob carefully squirrels away the change in a plastic tube. With the final sampling of the day done, they breathe a sigh of relief.

    “It's so stressful always having to worry about the money,” says Sörgel, director of the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research in Nuremberg, Germany. He's referring to the brick of new German bills worth €30,000 ($40,000) that Jakob, his Ph.D. student, has been carrying in a secret pocket under her shirt since they arrived in Spain a few days ago. (If it goes missing, the institute is out of luck, says Sörgel.) In a few days, they will have exchanged all of the German euros for Spanish ones. Back at the lab in Germany, they'll extract the chemical residues that have adsorbed to each bill—a process that destroys the money, but more on that later. Among the thousands of compounds that can be detected, Sörgel is looking for one: methylbenzoylecgonine, better known as cocaine.

    It's been known since the mid-1980s that cocaine residue contaminates paper currencies, but Sörgel and others are taking advantage of a natural experiment that began in 2000 with the simultaneous introduction of the euro currency across Europe. Each country's circulating stock of bills is becoming contaminated with cocaine at a different rate.

    Measuring cocaine on the money is part of a new effort to study the phenomenon of illicit drug use by turning to the environment. Epidemiologists have struggled to get a quantitative view of drug use for decades. But the traditional data—tons of drugs seized, the number of people seeking treatment for addiction, drug-related mortality, and responses to drug-use questionnaires—are biased and patchy, says Roberto Fanelli, a toxicologist at the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, Italy. By interrogating the environment rather than the people, he says, “you can obtain data in real time” that are not only objective but also “rather affordable.”

    Follow the money

    Money has a peculiar life of its own. When not folded into a wallet or crumpled in a pocket, the typical €20 bill can pass between hundreds of hands for about a year before getting recycled at a bank. In this time, it moves through every part of society, from the wealthy to the unemployed. But where most scientists see a symbolic unit driving social phenomena, Sörgel sees a cotton-paper filter ideal for sponging up chemicals. And because of the way that electrons are strung on cocaine's carbon frame, he says, it “binds perfectly to the fibers.”

    One explanation for the widespread contamination of paper currency is that cocaine is often snorted up the nose through rolled-up bills, and that sorting machines in banks cause cross-contamination. “We really don't know for sure yet,” says Sörgel, but the evidence so far supports this story. In a typical sample of bills from European banks these days, he finds that the majority of euros carry detectable amounts of cocaine. Among the contaminated bills, about 1 in 20 is typically loaded with around 10 micrograms of cocaine, while the rest usually have a hundredth of that. (These amounts are minuscule compared with the typical 100-milligram line that goes up a nose.)

    For 7 years, Sörgel has been playing the part of the annoying tourist, buying bottles of water with €100 bills in every European country, building a continent-wide map of cocaine use. There have been some close shaves on this trip, such as when Jakob was suspected of shoplifting because of a suspicious lump under her shirt—which was the money. (Sörgel managed to talk his way out of that one.)

    Banks have at times been suspicious when Sörgel asks to exchange wads of bills for his “study of cocaine,” but they also have been extremely helpful. The entire project would have been a nonstarter if a German bank had not agreed to redeem the entire €30,000 after laboratory testing. The cocaine is detected using a device called a mass spectrometer, but the first step is a methanol bath to extract the chemical residues. That makes the bills look crisp and clean at the end, but it also loosens the metallic foil used to check against counterfeit money. Sörgel exchanges the bills for crisp new money, and the bank recycles the treated bills.

    Although Sörgel's study of money is the biggest and longest-running, it is not the only one. Parallel projects are under way elsewhere in Europe, and the collective data are adding up to a worrying picture. In Ireland, for example, “people have been in denial that there's a cocaine problem,” says Jonathan Bones, an environmental chemist at Dublin City University (DCU). But he and fellow DCU chemist Brett Paull have been finding some of the highest levels of cocaine contamination on euros from Dublin's banks. In one case, 100% of a sample of 45 bills was coated in cocaine. They have recently analyzed a sample of 75 bills and again found them all to be contaminated.

    The main advantage of using money is that it's quick and dirty: Instead of running around an entire country to get data, “the money does it for us,” says Sörgel. Paull is confident that his data are at least a “warning light” that Ireland has a serious drug problem, but he says that many unknowns make it difficult to translate the data into quantitative statements about drug use. He and Bones are trying to nail some of them down. For example, to put a rate on the natural degradation of cocaine on money, Paull and Bones are spiking euro bills with varying amounts of pure cocaine and incubating them under controlled conditions.

    One encouraging fact is that the rank of average amounts of cocaine found on euros from different countries roughly matches the ranking of national drug problems by the E.U.'s traditional survey-based statistics. Spain is in the lead, followed closely by Italy, with Ireland now catching up.

    But tracking contaminated money is only one part of the epidemiology story. After cocaine enters the nostril of a drug user and messes with the brain's chemistry for about an hour, it is modified by enzymes in the liver and washed out of the blood by the kidneys. You can guess where it ends up next.

    The sewers don't lie

    One morning last month, Sörgel and Jakob went high up on a narrow, winding road in the Sierra Nevada mountains, dodging villagers and wood-hauling donkeys to reach the pristine, presumably cocaine-free snowmelt streams that feed the Spanish city Granada to the south. At a small bridge over a glassy brook, they dangled a plastic-lined net into the water, bringing up two samples that Jakob sealed in bottles and labeled. From there they sampled their way back down to Granada, following the Genil River as it wends through suburban sprawl, arcs through the city center, and there meets the two municipal wastewater treatment plants. For their final samples, Sörgel dipped right into the output of one of these plants, a trickle in a scummy gulley.

    Sörgel aims to administer a drug test to the entire city. The metabolic byproduct of cocaine, benzoylecgonine, is chemically unique in the environment and breaks down slowly. Using the mountain stream water as his baseline, he can estimate the amount of cocaine that passes through the entire population. Repeating the procedure at intervals should reveal drug consumption in a fixed geographic area in full detail, from seasonal dips to weekend spikes.

    Check the source.

    Researchers in Spain aim to drug-test an entire city.


    Fanelli pioneered this technique in a 2005 study of water from the Po River near Milan. His group was studying the persistence of legal pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment, he says, “but then we realized that we could detect other drugs as well.” It is “completely proven” that cocaine can be detected in the environment, he says, and now the more difficult task is “how to use these data for drug epidemiology.” Translating a minute and fluctuating signal in the environment to its ultimate source requires many assumptions, he says, “such as the percentage of the cocaine that is metabolized in the body and the amount that is degraded before it reaches the sampling site.”

    European researchers say they are putting the technique on firm experimental ground. Sörgel notes that about a ton of cocaine is seized annually in Germany, a country thought to have a “moderate” drug problem compared to others in Europe. Based on his sampling from rivers and wastewater at 29 locations across Germany, he estimates that Germans now consume on the order of 20 tons of cocaine per year. Sörgel's data suggest an upward trend, and indeed, the country's traditional indicators of drug abuse have all increased in recent years. “The methods are working,” he says.

    Fanelli has now hunted for cocaine residues in the wastewaters of London and of Lugano, Switzerland, a popular party destination for Italian tourists. He estimates that London's daily cocaine consumption is on the order of 1 kilogram for every 1 million people. He says this “reasonably translates” to cocaine use among 4% of Londoners 15 to 30 years old. Official estimates put that figure at 2%. “So we know we're close to the real figure,” he says. Fanelli's team found similar per capita cocaine loads in Lugano's wastewater, but there they also extended the sampling over several months, revealing the variation by day of the week. Monday was consistently the low point of cocaine consumption, says Fanelli, whereas weekends were typically 30% to 40% higher than the weekday average, and sometimes double that.

    U.S.-based researchers are hot on the trail as well, but some are running into barriers. Jörg Rieckermann, an environmental chemist at San Diego State University in California, has won a research grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation to survey cocaine contamination in wastewater. He selected San Diego for his analysis, but the city has forbidden him from taking samples.

    Controversy has been brewing since September 2006, when city politicians learned that a representative of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) wanted samples of San Diego's wastewater. ONDCP press secretary Jennifer de Vallance said that the study started about a year ago and is costing the office about $20,000. Samples have been collected from about 100 participating wastewater facilities across the United States, she says, generating about 500 samples, which are being analyzed at the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in Rockville, Maryland. Others have heard about ONDCP's project. “People from the White House contacted me soon after my 2005 study of the Po River,” says Fanelli. “They plan to sample wastewater from 100 sites and publish a report.”

    If public concerns can be overcome and these methods can be scaled up to monitor “several thousand” wastewater treatment plants across a country, says Fanelli, “sewer epidemiology” will become a field in its own right. But several technical hurdles must first be cleared. For one, researchers use slightly different methods. Whereas Sörgel uses upstream river water for control samples, Fanelli uses sterile, deionized water. “Those differences can have significant effects on the results,” says Sörgel, so “standardizing the methods is critical.”

    Beyond the lab, sewer epidemiologists will need the help of social scientists to draw meaningful conclusions from their data. Computer models already track shifts in crime patterns, income, and pollution in large urban centers—as well as the daily flow of water through pipes and sewers. Plugging in environmental drug data could allow researchers to “score” communities in terms of “drug-abuse levels,” says Barbara Tempalski, a social geographer at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research in New York City. And hunting for correlations between drug load and other social, public health, and economic factors may reveal useful risk predictors that so far have been obscured by the noise in the available data. “Finding the hot spots of drug consumption can let us focus resources in the right places,” says Fanelli.

    “I have no doubt that these data are meaningful,” says Norbert Frost, chief drug epidemiologist at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon, Portugal, “but we must bring this to the next level, where the techniques are standardized and producing peer-reviewed reports.”

    The first formal opportunity to compare notes will come later this month. Frost is gathering a small group of international drug-abuse researchers from various fields in Lisbon on 16 April to discuss environmental drug monitoring, the first meeting of its kind. It will be “an open discussion,” says Frost, covering everything from analytical techniques to integration with the social sciences.


    The World Through a Chimp's Eyes

    1. Jon Cohen

    A novel meeting assembled the world's leading thinkers about chimp culture, tools, cooperation, reasoning, and other heady topics

    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—It's not every day that a scientific meeting opens with a roomful of eminent researchers pant-hooting like chimpanzees, but then “The Mind of the Chimpanzee” conference held here at the Lincoln Park Zoo last week marked a rare occasion in itself. For only the third time in 20 years, the zoo hosted a meeting that brought together researchers who study chimpanzees in the wild and in the laboratory. And surprisingly, it was the first one to focus solely on the cognitive abilities of our nearest animal relatives. “It's amazing,” said pioneering field researcher Jane Goodall, one of approximately 300 participants at the meeting. “We're talking about things now that I couldn't talk about in the '60s. We couldn't even talk about the chimpanzee mind because chimpanzees didn't have one.”


    The meeting, held from 23 to 25 March, covered a broad range of topics from cooperation and communication to tool use and culture, experimental design, and conservation of this endangered species. “It's a whole different quality of science from the exciting cowboy era of maybe 2 decades ago,” said Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard University who for 20 years has studied wild chimps in Uganda's Kibale Forest. “It's a sign of a maturing field. You have technical brilliance and tremendous innovation in a wide range of areas.”

    The cumulative effect of the talks—many of which included videos that few people had seen—powerfully demonstrated that new insights are continuing to redraw the dividing line between “us” and “them.” And one clear theme emerged from the blending of laboratory and field studies: More effort than ever is being made to perceive the world the way that chimpanzees do, as opposed to simply asking how closely their behavior mirrors our own.

    Beyond compare

    After the zoo's Elizabeth Lonsdorf, a conference co-organizer, kicked off the meeting by having the participants give each other a “proper chimp greeting,” she introduced Kyoto University's Tetsuro Matsuzawa, one of the few researchers who studies both wild and captive chimpanzees. Matsuzawa's talk kept the audience participation level high, eliciting loud “oohs,” “ahhs,” and guffaws. Matsuzawa described the numerical skills of a chimpanzee named Ai and her son Ayumu, who live at the university's Primate Research Institute in Kyoto. Building on work he first reported in Nature 7 years ago, he showed videos of Ayumu using a touch-screen monitor to select the randomly displayed numbers 0 through 9, in ascending order. He then repeatedly performed a more difficult variation on this task, in which the numbers were masked with white blocks shortly after they were flashed on the screen. “No one can do this,” he said, proving the point with a hilarious clip of his graduate students failing the exercise with only four masked numbers. “Our common ancestors might have had immediate memory, but in the course of evolution, they lost this and acquired languagelike skills,” posited Matsuzawa.

    As difficult as it is to assess a chimpanzee's memory, researchers similarly have a shaky handle on how they communicate with each other. “There could be a whole 'nother level of chimp communication that we don't have the capability of understanding,” said psychologist Lisa Parr, who studies chimpanzee facial expressions at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

    Parr described an objective metric she has helped develop called the Chimp Facial Action Coding System to understand better what they are saying to each other with their expressions. “People have only looked at peak-intensity expressions,” says Parr, such as the bared teeth that have been compared to the human smile. “Expressions are graded in intensity and force. No one has looked at whether those have meaning.”

    In a similar vein, Katie Slocombe of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, U.K., has begun parsing chimpanzee vocalizations to see whether they have meanings that we have yet to recognize. “It's a very neglected area of chimpanzee cognition,” said Slocombe. “Up until now, everyone's been so dismissive. They say, 'It's stimulus-response; it's hardwired; it's boring.' I don't think that's the case.”

    As Slocombe and Klaus Zuberbühler reported in the February 2005 Journal of Comparative Psychology, they analyzed vocalizations she recorded during aggressive interactions between 14 chimpanzees at the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda. They found that aggressors and victims gave distinct screams. Slocombe is now planning to do what she said will be the first ever “playback” experiments in the wild of recorded screams. Similar studies in monkeys have revealed that they use calls to identify specific predators. “Vocalizations can tell us a lot more than we currently think,” said Slocombe.

    Cultural sensitivities

    In chimpanzee research circles, incendiary debates revolve around the degree to which the animals cooperate, reason, teach, imitate, and have culture. The debates burn on because there are no firm answers, but presenters at the meeting offered intriguing clues to some of these riddles—and urged their colleagues to keep a chimp-centric view when designing experiments.

    Kyoto University's Satoshi Hirata showed videos of a cooperation test he designed with captive chimps. He placed fruit in a hole in the ground, and then covered it with large stones. Chimps failed to work together to move the stones, but when he placed himself in the experiment, a chimp solicited his help—possibly because it knew he would not compete for the food. In a different test that required two chimps to pull ropes cooperatively and move a plank holding food close enough for them to reach, they would cooperate but never solicit help. When he stood in the room, one of the chimps came and took his hand, again soliciting his help. “Experimental arrangements should be considered very carefully,” he said.

    Many researchers have long assumed that chimpanzees in the wild cooperate when they hunt for red colobus monkeys, one of their favorite meats. Harvard University's Ian Gilby said think again—and see it through chimp eyes. In a study he conducted at Kibale Forest, he found that “impact” males that were good hunters attracted other males. “Is it collaboration or byproduct mutualism taking advantage of key hunters?” asked Gilby. “Impact males may act as a catalyst for hunting.”

    Researchers face equally vexing conundrums when they try to tease out cultural (that's what others in the community do) versus ecological (that's what the environment dictates) determinants of tool use. Matsuzawa and Tatanya Humle famously reported in 2002 that chimps in Bossou, Guinea, used sticks of different lengths to dip for ants based on the risk of being bitten—suggesting ecological rather than cultural roots. Now there's a deluge of new observations of unique tool use at recently developed field sites that are sure to trigger yet more investigations into cultural versus ecologically determined behaviors.


    Crickette Sanz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, described three different large communities of chimpanzees she has extensively studied with her husband, David Morgan, in the Goualougo Triangle in the Republic of Congo. Aided by 18 remote video cameras, Sanz and Morgan have documented 22 different tool uses since 1999, including various types of honey gathering, termite fishing, and leaf-sponging for water. “Crickette has done a marvelous job of looking at tool use in a systematic way,” said Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa, Ames, who recently received much attention for describing chimpanzees' use of spears to trap bush babies at a site she has developed in Fongoli, Senegal (Science, 23 February, p. 1063).

    Goualougo and Fongoli are two recently developed field sites that Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews, included in an update of what's known as the Collaborative Chimpanzee Cultures Project. In 1999, Whiten, Goodall, Wrangham, and colleagues published a landmark paper in Nature, “Culture in Chimpanzees,” that focused on six field sites, documenting 39 different behaviors (most of which were tool use) not due to ecological forces. Since then, said Whiten, the number of sites has doubled, and researchers have documented 571 potentially unique behaviors. “Fifty years ago, we knew nothing about wild chimpanzees,” said Whiten, praising the “richness and complexity” of the data at the meeting. “Look at us now.” No one vocalized in response, but the human facial actions—smiles and nods—spoke volumes.


    Experimenters Agree: You Can Cross Off Flowing Crystals

    1. Adrian Cho


    It was exciting while it lasted, but the claim that crystalline solid helium can flow like the thinnest liquid has seeped away. Such bizarre “supersolidity” would have been perhaps the strangest manifestation of quantum mechanics among things bigger than atoms and molecules. Alas, experimenters now agree that crystalline helium itself does not budge. Instead, the resistance-free “superfluid” flow emerges as helium atoms wend along faults and defects in the crystal.


    Eliminate defects such as the grain boundaries visible in this photo, and solid helium won't flow.

    CREDIT: S. SASAKI ET AL./SCIENCE 313, 1908 (2006)

    “The hypothesis that fits all the experiments is that the crystal does not support superfluidity and that any experiment that shows flow can be explained by remnant disorder” in the crystal, says John Reppy, a physicist at Cornell University.

    Flowing helium crystals have been on shaky ground for a while. The first signs of the element's supersolidity emerged in 2004 when Moses Chan of Pennsylvania State University in State College and Eunseong Kim, now at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, set a small can of solid helium twisting back and forth on the end of a thin shaft (Science, 1 July 2005, p. 38). Below a certain temperature—a few ten-thousandths of a degree above absolute zero—the frequency of twisting suddenly increased, indicating that some helium atoms had let go of their brethren and were standing stock-still. That could happen only if they slipped through the crystal without any resistance.

    Some theorists quickly argued that such flow was simply impossible in an orderly crystal. Instead, they said, it likely arose from more-conventional superfluid liquid helium percolating through defects in the crystal. That interpretation was bolstered last year when Reppy and Cornell's Ann Sophie Rittner reproduced the effect but found that it went away if they gently heated the crystal to eliminate defects, a process called annealing (Science, 24 March 2006, p. 1693). However, Chan and colleagues countered that they saw no evidence that annealing stanched the flow.

    Now, Chan and colleague Anthony Clark, Reppy and Rittner, and Keiya Shirahama and colleagues at Keio University in Yokohama, Japan, all have managed to shrink the apparent flow by annealing their crystals. What's more, all reported that they can increase the signal by freezing helium quickly to make defect-laden crystals consisting of many tiny grains. In fact, Reppy and Rittner found that up to 20% of the atoms can flow in such a helium snowball.

    The concordance of results shows that defects are the key ingredient. “It will probably change the direction of research,” Chan says. Norbert Mulders of the University of Delaware in Newark says experimenters can expect a little gloating from their theorist colleagues. “They will absolutely love it,” Mulders says. “They can run around for a couple of years saying 'We told you so!'”

    Precisely how the disordered solid flows remains unclear. Theorists Lode Pollet and Matthias Troyer of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich presented simulations confirming that atoms can glide along the boundaries between grains without resistance. But some experimenters argue that flow along grain boundaries cannot account for the streaming of 20% of the atoms.

    The bigger question may be, will researchers continue to pursue the phenomenon? “Clearly, this is a real effect,” says Sébastien Balibar, an experimenter at the école Normale Supérieure in Paris. “This is really very new physics, even if it isn't the spectacular idea originally proposed.” But the messy details of defects may not generate as much excitement as the prospect of an oh-so-cool flowing crystal.


    Ultrashort Laser Pulses See Inside the Body

    1. Adrian Cho


    Energetic x-rays zip through flesh and set the standard for quickly seeing inside the body, but flashes of gentler visible and near-infrared light can also reveal what lies under the skin. Using laser pulses a few millionths of a nanosecond long, Warren Warren, a chemist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues can trace biomolecules such as melanin within tissue to make a three-dimensional image of their microscopic distribution. The new technique might be used to detect without biopsy a type of skin cancer called melanoma.

    “This is absolutely first-rate work,” says David Jonas, a chemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “The very small level of signal they can detect is very impressive, and that seems to be the key to making this useful for medical applications.”

    Red and near-infrared light can pass through flesh, which is why your fingers glow luridly when you hold them over a flashlight. You cannot make out the insides of your fingers, however, because the light scatters off inhomogeneities in flesh, obscuring the details. To get around that problem, Warren and his team used light pulses a few femtoseconds long and exploited subtle interactions between the light and material that vary in a nonlinear way with the intensity of the light.

    Researchers can trace a fluorescent substance by scanning a sample with tightly focused femtosecond pulses whose wavelengths are two times too long to trigger the fluorescence. Because of the mismatch, a target molecule fluoresces only when it is tickled simultaneously by two photons, which will happen only where the light is most intense. By monitoring the fluorescence while moving the laser's focal spot through the sample, researchers can map the target substance. A commercial system already images skin using such two-photo fluorescence.

    But the fluorescence technique has drawbacks, Warren says. Many biomolecules, such as melanin, fluoresce only weakly, and light from the fluorescence itself scatters within the flesh. So Warren and his team instead measure the amount of light absorbed by specific substances. For example, they apply pulses of two different colors chosen so that when a melanin molecule absorbs a photon of the first color, it will more readily absorb a photon of the second color as well.


    A new laser technique (left) reveals details of melanoma ordinarily seen with biopsy. Snap judgment. Jake Fontana took his string-pulling rig outdoors to gain insight into catastrophic failure.


    The amount of absorption is still tiny, however, and to see it, the researchers employ another trick. They make the intensity of the first color's pulses oscillate up and down and check whether this causes the absorption from the second beam to vary in a similar way. That technique enables them to convert a tiny intensity variation into a much clearer frequency signal. To make the conversion, they track the pulses of the second color as they are reflected from the sample. They break the entire train of pulses into its component frequencies. The tiny oscillation then shows up as an additional frequency.

    The technique lets researchers detect absorption of as little as one 10-millionth of the original pulses. “We're trying to look at processes where there's just barely enough signal so that you can access them using less average power than a laser pointer,” Warren says. Jonas says that “by being able to detect such small effects, you're able to get the power down enough that you'd feel safe having this done to you.”

    Warren presented an image of a melanoma removed from human skin that showed the telltale streaks and clumps of accumulating melanin. As a step toward clinical applications, he and his colleagues have proposed a trial in which they will analyze irregular moles in patients that doctors intend to remove shortly anyway.


    Pulling Strings to Untangle Catastrophe

    1. Adrian Cho


    About the simplest experiment imaginable may yield insights into calamitous events such as the sudden failure of cables on a suspension bridge. Taking a break from work on liquid crystals, physicist Peter Palffy-Muhoray and graduate student Jake Fontana of Kent State University in Ohio spent a few months tugging on string to see how the force required to break it varied with its length. Their preliminary results fit a model based on a gambling puzzle that stumped Daniel Bernoulli and other mathematicians in the early 18th century.

    Snap judgment.

    Jake Fontana took his string-pulling rig outdoors to gain insight into catastrophic failure.


    “Rare events are by their very nature hard to find but also extremely important because they can lead to catastrophe,” says Mark Warner, a theorist at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. “You have to find a system in which you can explore a large range of [length] scales, and a long string seems to be just the thing.” Size plays a key role in failure: A big rock is typically weaker than a small one because it has longer cracks.

    The string experiment embodies the tricky mathematics of the Petersburg paradox, a game in which a gambler's winnings inevitably fall far short of his reasonable expectations. After paying an entry fee, the player flips a coin until it comes up heads. If he tosses tails once before that happens, he gets $2. If he tosses tails twice, he gets $4. With every additional tails, the payout doubles. In principle the average winnings are infinite, so a gambler ought to pay any amount to play. In reality, however, the game never pays out more than a few dollars.

    That's because the average is inflated by extremely rare events. For example, although the chances of flipping 25 tails in a row are just 1 in 33,554,432, the payout for such a run is also a whopping $33,554,432, which still drives the average winnings up. The paradox can be avoided by recognizing that, in any finite number of tosses, such runs are so improbable they should be ignored. If the game is repeated until the coin has been tossed 100 times, there probably won't be a run of more than six tails, and even that would pay out only $64.

    To apply this scheme of ignoring exceedingly improbable events to string, Palffy-Muhoray and Fontana assumed that the string would break wherever unspecified defects accumulated. These accumulations corresponded to runs of tails in the coin tossing, and on average, they should make any long stretch of string infinitely weak. Discounting the improbable accumulations, however, shows that a finite string has a strength that decreases in a particular way as its length increases—namely, with the logarithm of the length.

    To test this model, the researchers pulled on strands of thread and fishing line ranging from a millimeter to a kilometer long—stretching the longer lengths along a bike path. Their logarithmic prediction fit the data better than two other well-studied models: one that treats the string as a chain and assumes an exponentially decreasing distribution for the weakness of the links, and another that focuses on how stress is shared by fibers in a multifiber line.

    Others have probed how strength varies with length for the short fibers used in composite material, but few have examined extremely long ones, says William Curtin, who studies theoretical mechanics at Brown University. “It's a nice data set,” he says. Curtin cautions that the relation should depend on the specific microscopic structure of the line. “There's not a universal form” for the length-strength relation, he says.

    Fontana says he enjoyed the chance to work outdoors, but the experiment still had its trials. “The most stressful part was trying to keep people on the path from hitting the string, trying to be as polite as possible,” he says. The researchers hope to pull even longer strings, perhaps using pulleys to wrap them back on themselves.