Texan Mishap Not Reported
Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station has admitted to running afoul of federal bioterror rules after an employee last year contracted brucellosis, an animal disease that's high on the list of potential bioterror weapons. In a statement to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, made last week, the university acknowledged that it should have notified CDC a year ago about the incident, which came to light through a freedom-of-information request from the Sunshine Project, a watchdog group in Austin, Texas. A CDC investigation begun this week could result in fines and loss of federal funding.
The researcher was diagnosed with brucellosis in April 2006 after cleaning an aerosol chamber containing Brucella bacteria in a biosafety level 3 lab in February. TAMU says the researcher recovered after treatment with antibiotics. There are a few hundred U.S. cases of brucellosis each year, but human-to-human transmission of the pathogen is extremely rare. Sunshine Project Director Edward Hammond says the government needs to devise a system to actively track such accidents.
NIMR Eyes a Bigger Site
LONDON—The upcoming availability of a 1.5-hectare site in central London could end the controversy over government plans to relocate the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) from its famous suburban campus in the Mill Hill area to a 0.4-hectare site in downtown London. Critics had complained that the planned site was so small it would limit NIMR's science (Science, 4 February 2005, p. 652). In a letter earlier this month to NIMR staff, Colin Blakemore, director of the Medical Research Council (MRC), said the agency was now considering with “enthusiasm” a larger site next to the British Public Library that another government agency plans to sell. It's also near research hospitals, fulfilling MRC's desire for a revamped NIMR to focus on translational research.
NIMR's Robin Lovell-Badge, a critic of the planned move, agrees that the location near the library is more promising but warns that its cost could still end up shrinking NIMR. “The devil is in the details,” he says. Blakemore says that the new site has clear advantages, although he stresses that the original one, which used to house the National Temperance Hospital, is still acceptable. Blakemore says MRC's chances of getting the new site are unclear and so are its costs, but he hopes to have NIMR's future resolved before he steps down as MRC director in September.
Human--Not Martian--Error Cited
Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) went silent last November after orbiting the planet for 10 years, not from old age but because of a software error. A NASA investigative board report has concluded that the mission operations team sent a software update months before to the wrong part of the spacecraft's computer memory, wreaking havoc on the spacecraft after Surveyor received a routine command. An antiquated onboard fault-protection system subsequently misinterpreted the situation, and within 2 hours Surveyor had died of insufficient battery recharging.
Like other NASA missions extended far beyond their promised design lifetime, MGS had suffered reductions in its operations budget and staffing. “We didn't find that any decrease directly caused the anomaly,” said board chair Dolly Perkins of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. But she said, “It's beneficial to step back and see what risks from aging and changes in operations” might be developing. That lesson is being applied to all Mars missions as well as ones taking the better part of a decade to reach targets such as Mercury and Pluto.
Sensor Move Deemed Sensible
NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week restored a key environmental sensor to a long-awaited satellite demonstration mission due to be launched in 2009. But researchers are giving the move only one thumb up: The agencies haven't decided whether to restore the sensor, called the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite Limb (OMPS-Limb), to six planned satellites that make up the troubled National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).
OMPS-Limb, which will provide ozone-distribution data for environmental and climate studies, was knocked off the NPOESS demo and the main satellites to save money (Science, 16 June 2006, p. 1580). But in a March letter to the White House, House Science and Technology Committee leadership pointed out that the sensor for the demo had already been built and that it wouldn't cost any more to fly it on the demo.
Remote-sensing expert Berrien Moore of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, applauded the restoration of OMPS-Limb but also wants it on the NPOESS flights “as an operational sensor.” A House Science committee staffer says members will continue their push to make that happen.