News this Week

Science  08 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5864, pp. 708

You are currently viewing the .

View Full Text

Log in to view the full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution


    Kenyan Scientists Endure Violent Unrest, University Closings

    1. Robert Koenig
    Ethnic clashes.

    Youth gangs run amok (left) after burning houses in a Nairobi slum last month. The political violence struck hardest in the capital and in western Kenya.


    Deadly ethnic clashes in Kenya over the past month, sparked by a disputed presidential election and tribal tensions, have closed public universities, disrupted numerous field research projects, and caused the postponement or cancellation of several scientific conferences in the normally peaceful East African nation. But progress in mediation efforts offered hope this week that the tensions can be defused.

    More than 900 people have died and a quarter-million have been driven from their homes—mainly in western Kenya's Rift Valley and in Nairobi's slums (see map, below)—as a result of the violence that has struck the country since President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the election, which opposition candidate Raila Odinga has alleged was rigged. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan helped mediate a framework agreement on 1 February, but clashes continued in some areas, causing some institutes to scale back or even cancel projects that required risky travel.

    “There have been phenomenal problems with field research and logistics,” says entomologist Christian Borgemeister, director general of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Africa's leading center for the study of insect vectors. The unrest, he says, has had “a severe impact” on research projects at the center's Mbita Point Field Station at Lake Victoria—a hot spot of ethnic strife—and some of ICIPE's 300 staffers have lost their homes or are sheltering refugees.

    Although the worst violence has struck southwest Kenya, riots in Nairobi have also disrupted field projects. Demographer Alex Ezeh, executive director of the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, says the unrest led him to “postpone indefinitely” parts of a longitudinal demographic and health surveillance system in two Nairobi slums.

    In part because of Kenya's traditional stability, Nairobi is a major center for pan-African research organizations, which have been riding out the storm. Geologist Judi Wakhungu, executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi, says, “Our major concern is safety.” Although the center's researchers have not been hurt, she says, “our agendas and work plans have been disrupted by postponing activities until calm is restored.” The International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, whose field researchers investigate livestock maladies and help develop vaccines, has temporarily “reduced its field projects in Kenya as a result of security concerns,” says spokesperson Susan MacMillan.

    Agricultural research centers have been especially hard hit. Last week, a gang of armed youths drove an estimated 500 employees, including some scientists, from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, northwest of Nairobi.

    Although rumors have flown that international organizations might leave Nairobi if the civil strife continues, a spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Programme, which employs about 350 staffers at its world headquarters there, says no such plan is being considered. “Nairobi is an important research hub; it would be a disaster for any of the major institutes or organizations to move because of this,” says Mohamed Hassan, a Sudanese mathematician who is president of the Nairobi-based African Academy of Sciences, which is also committed to keeping its headquarters in Kenya.

    Kenyan university administrators were trying to gauge when they might resume classes. Private colleges were open, but students had not yet returned this week at most public universities. Physicist Frederick N. Onyango, vice chancellor of Maseno University in the hard-hit Nyanza Province, told Science that classes there won't be started until April. “The main reason is the violence in the city, which has destroyed the shops of university suppliers,” he says. Although many lecturers are on leave, some research laboratories are still functioning. At Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kakamega in western Kenya, rioters armed with machetes used gasoline to set afire three hostels rented by university students. Meanwhile, officials at Moi University in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret reported that some agricultural research had been disrupted.

    At the University of Nairobi, “systems are at the moment functioning minimally,” says Benson Estambale, who directs the school's Institute of Tropical and Infectious Diseases. Even so, the university's College of Health Sciences resumed classes in late January. “We hope things will cool down soon,” says pediatrics professor Nimrod O. Bwibo.

    Outside scientists who conduct research in Kenya are taking a careful look at the situation. Ecologist David Harper of the University of Leicester, U.K., who heads the Earthwatch Institute's Lakes of the Rift Valley project, says he hopes for a quick settlement, but if violence continues in Naivasha and Nakuru—troubled cities near lakes being studied—his research groups have the option of shifting focus temporarily to other Rift Valley lakes. So far, foreign medical assistance and research programs in Kenya have continued despite community disruptions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, evacuated eight of its American researchers and their families—as well as about 40 of the 900 Kenyan staffers—from the Kisumu field research station to Nairobi. But the facility's director, epidemiologist Kayla Laserson, said Monday that she planned to return this week to supervise vaccine trials and research projects. Kenya is home to the CDC's largest overseas presence.

    The Annan-led mediation entered a crucial phase this week, with both sides calling for an end to the violence and opposition leader Odinga asking for foreign peacekeepers. Researchers hoped for an early resolution that would restore Kenya's reputation for safety. Says Estambale: “We are traumatized and not believing what has gone wrong” in recent weeks.


    Lifting the Veil on Traditional Chinese Medicine

    1. Richard Stone*
    1. With reporting by Li Jiao in Beijing.

    DALIAN, CHINA—Genome, proteome, metabolome … herbalome? In the latest industrial assault on nature's biochemical secrets, a Chinese team in this seaside city is about to embark on a 15-year effort to identify the constituents of herbal preparations used as medications for centuries in China.

    The Herbalome Project is the latest—and most ambitious—attempt to modernize t raditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The venerable concoctions—as many as 400,000 preparations using 10,000 herbs and animal tinctures—are the treatment of choice and often the only recourse for many in China. In the 1970s, TCM tipped off researchers to qinghaosu, a compound in sweet wormwood whose derivatives are potent antimalaria drugs. But TCM's reputation has been blackened by uneven efficacy and harsh side effects, prompting critics to assail it as outmoded folklore. “TCM is not based on science but based on mysticism, magic, and anecdote,” asserts biochemist Fang Shi-min, who as China's self-appointed science cop goes by the name Fang Zhouzi. He calls the Herbalome Project “a waste of research funds.”

    Hoping to rebut TCM critics, Herbalome will use high-throughput screening, toxicity testing, and clinical trials to identify active compounds and toxic contaminants in popular recipes. “We need to ensure that TCM is safe and also show that it is not just qinghaosu,” says Guo De-an, who leads TCM modernization efforts at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica and is not involved in Herbalome. Initial targets are cancer, liver and kidney diseases, and illnesses that are difficult for Western medicine to treat, such as diabetes and depression.

    The Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP), one of the biggest and best-funded institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, won a $5 million start-up grant to develop purification methods; the Ministry of Science and Technology is reviewing the project with a view to including it as a $70 million initiative in the next 5-year plan to start in 2010. A planning meeting will be held at a Xiangshan Science Conference—China's equivalent of a Gordon Research Conference—in Beijing this spring.

    Several TCM power players have thrown their weight behind the initiative. “It's the right time to start this project,” says chemist Chen Kai-xian, president of the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Herbalome should appeal to pharmaceutical firms, as it could identify scores of drug candidates, says Hui Yongzheng, chair of the Shanghai Innovative Research Center of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

    In many parts of the world, traditional medicine recipes are handed down orally from one generation to the next. But in China, practitioners more than 2000 years ago began to compile formulations in compendia. Although in major cities Western medicine has largely supplanted TCM, many Chinese still believe in TCM's power as preventive medicine and as a cure for chronic ailments, and rural Chinese depend on it. “For most of us, when we feel unwell, we want to take TCM,” says chemist Liang Xinmiao of DICP.

    Medicine man.

    Liang Xinmiao's Herbalome Project aims to identify active ingredients and toxins in thousands of traditional Chinese preparations.


    Since the Mao Zedong era, the government has strongly supported TCM, in part because it was too expensive to offer Western medicine to the masses. It remains taboo for Chinese media to label TCM as pseudoscience. “Criticizing TCM is unthinkable to many Chinese and almost like committing a traitorous act,” says Fang.

    Proponents insist that TCM has much to offer. But for every claimed TCM success, there are reports of adverse effects from natural toxins and contaminants such as pesticides. Dosages are hard to pin down, as preparations vary in potency according to where and when herbs are harvested. Quality can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and from batch to batch. “That's why many people don't trust TCM,” says Guo. In the modernization drive, quality control is a paramount concern.

    Herbalome intends to take modernization to a whole new level. The initiative is the brainchild of Liang, who believes many TCM recipes are effective. “The problem is, we don't know why it works,” he says. The main hurdle is the complexity of the preparations. As an example, Liang shows a chromatograph of Hong Hua, or “red flower,” a preparation applied externally for muscle pain. In many samples chemists deal with, one peak usually represents one compound, Liang says. But for Hong Hua, each peak is many compounds, and fractionating these yields more multicompound peaks like nested matryoshka dolls. Hong Hua is composed of at least 10,000 compounds, says Liang: “We know only 100.”

    Faced with such complexity, “we must invent new methodologies,” says Liang. “This is the battleground of the Herbalome project.” For starters, his 45-person team at DICP is developing new separation media. Herbs will be parsed into “multi-components”: groups of similar constituents. To determine which substances are beneficial or toxic, his group plans to devise Herbalome chips in which arrays of compounds are screened for their binding to key peptides. The expanded Herbalome project would involve researchers at many institutes in China and abroad.

    Herbalome has potential pitfalls. One is a concern that Western companies will develop blockbuster drugs—and walk away with the spoils—by modifying compounds identified by the project. To counter this possibility, says Guo, “we're encouraging scientists not to rush to publish and do structure modifications [to identify drug candidates] first.” Teams would then apply for patents on groups of similar structures.

    Not all practitioners embrace TCM's demystification. “Some are afraid that the traditions will be lost,” says Chen. But Hui says that modernization is necessary “to reconcile the knowledge-oriented, deductive process of Western medicine with the experience-oriented, inductive process of TCM.” Fang has a different take: “Can you marry astrology and astronomy, alchemy and chemistry? It never works.”

    Hui insists that TCM can coexist wi th Western medicine. Liang hopes his Herbalome project will prove Hui right.


    Exotic Disease of Farm Animals Tests Europe's Responses

    1. Martin Enserink

    BRUSSELS—A race against the clock is on at farms in northern and central Europe. The question: Can bluetongue, an exotic insectborne viral disease that unexpectedly popped up here in 2006 and expanded aggressively in 2007, be stopped in 2008? For the past year and a half, manufacturers have been scrambling to produce a vaccine against the particular viral strain, called serotype 8; a handful are ready. But as a recent meeting* here showed, a number of logistical, scientific, and political problems still threaten to hobble the fight.

    It's unclear, for instance, whether the tens of millions of vaccine doses needed, preferably as early as May, can be delivered in time. Countries are also still pondering their vaccination strategies and which vaccine to use. The debate is complicated by a fundamental and, for the moment, unanswerable question: Can bluetongue still be wiped off the map entirely, or has climate change created such favorable conditions that the disease is here to stay?

    Bluetongue, of which 24 different serotypes exist, is transmitted by Culicoides, or biting midges. The virus causes high fevers and swelling of the face, lips, and tongue. Sheep are most susceptible; mortality rates vary widely, by strain and location, but may reach 10% or more. Other ruminants—including cattle and goats—can be infected as well. The disease, for which no treatment exists, is not transmissible between animals.

    Virgin territory.

    Northern and central Europe had never seen bluetongue before a major outbreak of serotype 8 took off in 2006. Southern Europe is home to five other serotypes.


    Until 10 years ago, bluetongue was barely known in Europe. The virus was found primarily in tropical and subtropical zones in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. But starting in 1998, serotypes 1, 2, 4, 9, and 16 moved from Africa and the Middle East into southern Europe. The biggest surprise came in 2006, when serotype 8, presumably originating in sub- Saharan Africa, caused outbreaks in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Scientists had no idea the disease could gain a foothold there, because the best-known vector, C. imicola, doesn't occur at this latitude; recent studies suggest that local species such as C. obsoletus make just as good vectors, however.

    The serotype 8 outbreak has dwarfed the previous incursions in southern Europe, both in geographic spread and in number of infected animals. Last summer, the virus spread to eight new countries. Unless drastic measures are taken, 2008 promises to be “disastrous,” says Peter Mertens of the Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright, U.K. Belgium lost 15% of its sheep last year, he says; if the same happened in the United Kingdom, home to 34 million sheep, “that's a lot of dead animals.” The disaster could rival the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, he adds.

    Open your mouth.

    Sheep are the bluetongue virus's main victims.


    Although bluetongue vaccines are available, every strain requires its own vaccine, and some of them carry risks. The first vaccines against bluetongue were live, attenuated viruses, many of them produced by Onderstepoort Biological Products in South Africa, where several serotypes of bluetongue are endemic. Such vaccines are made by growing a virus in cell culture or eggs for many generations until it is weakened enough not to cause disease. They are easy and cheap to produce in large quantities. Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy have all used them in the past 8 years, in most cases successfully. But a vaccine against serotype 16, which France used to battle an outbreak on the island of Corsica in 2004, turned out to be pathogenic and transmissible by midges.

    Live vaccines have also been linked to higher abortion rates and decreased milk production, which is why the European Food Safety Authority has recommended that countries use a new generation of inactivated (killed) vaccines. Five companies have now developed killed vaccines against serotype 8.

    Whether they can avert disaster this year remains to be seen. Most countries have hesitated to order massive amounts of the vaccine. As of last week, only the United Kingdom and the Netherlands had ordered 22.5 million and 6 million vaccine doses, respectively, from Intervet, a Dutch company. Yet the vaccine takes some 5 months to produce, says a spokesperson for Intervet; countries that order now won't have the vaccine by May, when the virus could start rearing its head again. There could be critical shortages—and painful questions about how to distribute a short supply—if countries don't order soon, warns Declan O'Brien, managing director of IFAH, a Brussels-based industry group.

    Countries' slow response is a result of bureaucratic rules—most procure vaccines through time-consuming competitive contracts—and questions about how to use the vaccine. In theory, it's possible to wipe serotype 8 off the northern European map, says Eugène van Rooij of the Central Veterinary Institute in Lelystad, the Netherlands. But that would require an extremely rigorous, multiyear vaccination campaign in each country; it's no use for Germany to go for elimination if, say, Switzerland and Belgium do not. Nor is it clear that the costs of such an operation would outweigh the benefits in reduced disease and mortality.

    Complicating matters, an elimination plan would probably work only if vaccination became compulsory—but farmers are divided on that question, says Klaas Johan Osinga, vice chair of the animal health and welfare working group within COPACOGECA, an international farmer's organization in Brussels. Although sheep farmers—especially those in affected areas—are eager to vaccinate, cattle farmers, who have not been hit as hard, tend to be more wary of a vaccination campaign.

    As a result, “everybody is sort of looking at each other,” Van Rooij says. The most likely result is that a vaccination campaign will aim to reduce disease rather than eliminate it altogether from northern and central Europe. Still, the European Commission hopes to achieve at least 80% coverage, a threshold that past experience suggests will all but halt spread of the disease. The commission has offered to cofinance national vaccination campaigns, provided they try to reach that 80% target.

    Also under debate is whether countries should consider using live vaccines if companies can't produce enough of the killed variety. “I wouldn't be keen on using them,” says Mertens. But Vincenzo Caporale of the World Organisation for Animal Health in Paris, who helped develop a live vaccine while at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale in Teramo, Italy, says that by ruling out such vaccines prematurely, northern Europe is exposing southern Europe to unnecessary risks of serotype 8 invasion.

    Even if the spread of serotype 8 is halted this year, that may not be the end of the story. In a 2006 paper in Nature, Mertens and colleagues proposed that global warming has created more favorable conditions for European Culicoides populations and the virus. That might mean the continent is in for a lot more trouble. “There are 24 serotypes. If one of them can survive in northern Europe, then who knows what will arrive next,” says Mertens.

    • *“Conference on Vaccination Strategy Against Bluetongue,” 16 January.


    Prizes Eyed to Spur Medical Innovation

    1. John Travis

    MAASTRICHT, THE NETHERLANDS—If the World Health Organization offered a $10 billion award for a malaria vaccine, would that persuade major pharmaceutical companies to go after the prize? Could a $100 million prize encourage development of a reliable, cheap, and fast diagnostic assay for tuberculosis? And would those monetary awards prove to be the cheapest, or fastest, way to achieve such medical innovations?

    Provocative questions such as those were at the core of a 2-day workshop* here last week addressing whether prize incentives can stimulate the creation of new drugs and therapies. For some speakers, prizes offer a chance to spur medical research on neglected diseases, including those that strike people in developing nations who can afford little health care. Others took a more radical view: A national or global medical prize scheme could eliminate drug patents, stimulate drug development, and lower escalating health care costs. “A prize is a [research] incentive, the same way a monopoly is an incentive,” says James Love, director of the think tank Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) in Washington, D.C.


    Noting the long history of scientific and technological prize contests, James Love argues that a national scheme of awards for medical innovations should replace drug patents.

    View this table:

    Cosponsored by KEI and UNU-MERIT, a research and training center run jointly by United Nations University and Maastricht University, the workshop drew several dozen economists, intellectual-property specialists, public-health officials, and drug-development experts to discuss a concept that's attracting more attention. For example, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has introduced a bill, the Medical Innovation Prize Act, written with Love's help, that would replace medical patents with an estimated $80 billion annual award fund. Although the bill is unlikely to go anywhere now, Sanders hopes to get a Senate hearing this year to publicize the concept. “There is growing interest and political feasibility for trying prizes in a variety of contexts,” says Stephen Merrill of the U.S. National Academies, who recently examined how the U.S. National Science Foundation could set up a prize system to stimulate innovation (Science, 26 January 2007, p. 446).

    Prize contests have long been used to steer efforts toward particular discoveries or technological accomplishments, and they're becoming popular again (Science, 30 September 2005, p. 2153). One well-known early success was the British government's 18th century prize to find a way for seafarers to gauge longitude. More recently, the $10 million Ansari X Prize for a private, reusable, crewed spacecraft prompted an estimated $100 million to $400 million in space-flight research before Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne won it in 2004.

    Although perhaps not as prevalent as technology competitions, medical prizes are attracting sponsors. Pierre Chirac of Médecins sans Frontières said at the meeting that his group was considering an award for the desperately needed TB diagnostic test. And in 2006, Prize4Life, a nonprofit group founded by a patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), announced a $1 million prize for a biomarker that can track the fatal disease's progression—a key for any drug development. Prize4Life hopes to launch two more contests, including a $2.5 million prize for a treatment that proves effective in a common mouse model of ALS.

    Such modest awards pale in comparison to the mammoth prize system Love advocates through the Sanders bill. Financed annually with 0.6% of the United States's gross domestic product—about $80 billion at the moment—the Sanders plan would give annual awards to medical innovations based on the health impact for the nation—assessed using a measurement known as quality-adjusted life years that gauges improvements in life expectancy. Instead of the government granting patents to a company, a board that would include business and patient representatives, as well as government health officials, would each year judge any new products and award their developers a share of the fund.

    At the Maastricht meeting, intellectual-property specialist William Fisher III of Harvard Law School argued that prize schemes have some advantages. Patents, said Fisher, guide medical research away from vaccines, which may require at most a few doses per person but arguably have the most health impact, and toward treatments for the rich and the development of “me-too” drugs, copies of an already successful drug with just enough differences to be patentable. “Prizes can offset all three” of those biases, he says.

    PhRMA, a trade group in Washington, D.C., that represents pharmaceutical and biotech firms, has strongly criticized the Sanders bill as a step toward socialized medicine. And yet it is intrigued by new incentives, if the patent system stays intact. “It's an interesting idea to add prizes for neglected diseases to the existing system,” says Shelagh Kerr of PhRMA, who attended the workshop.

    Prize incentives are, however, unlikely to sweep the medical research world. Philanthropic and patient groups may offer new awards, but governments may be more cautious. “We're no longer in the Longitude Prize era. We pay scientists many millions to do research,” says David King, former science adviser to the U.K. government. “How do you decide how much money to award?” adds economist Aidan Hollis of the University of Calgary in Canada, noting that governments typically don't know in advance what social value a medical treatment will have.

    The workshop itself offered an ironic morsel of evidence that prizes are not perfect incentives. Organizers offered a €1500 award for the best paper on using monetary prizes to stimulate private investment in medical research, but no entries have been submitted thus far. The contest has now been extended to mid-April.

    • * “Medical Innovation Prizes as a Mechanism to Promote Innovation and Access,” 28–29 January.

  5. U.S. BUDGET 2009

    A Science Budget of Choices and Chances

    1. Jeffrey Mervis*
    1. With reporting by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, Jennifer Couzin, and Andrew Lawler.

    In his final year, President George W. Bush has submitted a request for 2009 funding with few new wrinkles--and with probably little chance of being adopted.

    In his final year, President George W. Bush has submitted a request for 2009 funding with few new wrinkles—and with probably little chance of being adopted

    Budgets are about choices, U.S. presidential science adviser John Marburger told reporters this week as he explained what his boss is asking Congress to support in 2009. And what President George W. Bush has chosen for science funding is exactly what he has requested for the past few years: Give a big boost to agencies that support the physical sciences, flat-line basic biomedical research, and put NASA between a rock and a hard place.

    The betting in Washington is that the Democratic Congress won't grant a lame-duck Republican president his wish, and that it is likely to delay approving any part of the Administration's overall $3.1 trillion budget request for the fiscal year that begins on 1 October until after the November elections. But in the meantime, the president's support for some disciplines at the expense of others has left science lobbyists uncertain about how to react. As Robert Berdahl, president of the 62-member Association of American Universities, puts it: “Question: Is the president's [2009] budget good or bad for the vital research and education that is performed by America's research universities? Answer: Yes.”

    View this table:

    The big winners are the three agencies that are part of what the Bush Administration has labeled the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). The $6 billion National Science Foundation (NSF) would receive a 13.6% jump, the Department of Energy's (DOE's) $4 billion Office of Science would get a 17.5% hike, and the $500 million core research programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would get a 22% bump. The large boosts compensate for double-digit increases that were in the cards for all three agencies in 2008 until a last-minute budget deal erased most of their gains (Science, 4 January, p. 18), prompting the early termination of some experiments and scheduled layoffs at two DOE national laboratories.

    There is bipartisan agreement about the value of a healthy science budget. “The president is right that basic research included in his American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) is important to our economy and our future,” says Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), chair of the House Science Committee. But Gordon is very unhappy with some of the choices made along the way, including what he sees as miserly increases in several education programs at NSF, the lack of proposed funding for a new high-risk research agency at DOE that he championed, and the Administration's repeated attempts to eliminate technology and manufacturing programs at NIST.

    Biomedical organizations lament not just the lost research opportunities but also the impact on the next generation of scientists. “This is a real deterrent for any young investigators who were holding out hope that biomedical research was a viable career path,” says Robert Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. “They have their answer today.”

    Marburger disagrees that a flat budget means a gloomy future for biomedical researchers. “Frankly, I think that an argument can be made that better management [of NIH] can bring about much better productivity even with flat resources,” he says. “The private sector does it all the time.” And he says that those who advocate 6% annual growth for NIH to capitalize on its 5-year doubling that ended in 2003 will have to wait their turn. “It will be necessary to increase biomedical research in the future, but it's important that we first fix this problem in the physical sciences.”

    Not all the physical sciences are treated equally in the president's 2009 budget, however. The head of research and engineering at the Defense Department, John Young, successfully lobbied the White House for a 17% boost in basic science, to $1.7 billion, after activists complained that the military shouldn't have been left out of the 3-year-old ACI. But NASA's science chief, Alan Stern, didn't fare nearly as well: His $4.6 billion portfolio received only a 1% increase.

    Despite the negligible growth, Stern sees room for a long-stalled mission to the outer planets as well as an ambitious multibillion-dollar flight to retrieve a sample from the surface of Mars. Agency officials hope to decide by the end of this year whether to send the outer-planets spacecraft to the Jupiter or Saturn system by the end of the decade. Past plans to send a large robot to Jupiter's moon foundered on high cost estimates that proved beyond NASA's means, and Stern says the Mars community may have to forgo other missions if it wants to focus on a sample return.

    The moon also shines brightly in Stern's effort to encourage lower cost missions. One payload set to orbit in 2011 would study the moon's atmosphere for a mere $100 million. But these and other missions will never get off the ground, he warns, unless project managers keep a tight rein on costs.

    A similar policy of no cost overruns at NSF has left a $331 million Ocean Observatories Initiative high and dry after it was pulled from the queue of major new facilities pending a final review later this year. “It was a big surprise to us,” says Steven Bohlen of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. “NSF had given us every indication that we were ready to go” after the agency completed a preliminary review of the project in December. NSF Director Arden Bement says it's impossible to know a project's true costs until all aspects have been vetted, although he admits that delays will inevitably drive up the price. “It's a balancing act,” he says. “We also need to follow our rules.”

    For NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, the first rule is “for NIH to keep its pipeline of new investigators up.” He says his proposed 2009 budget should allow him to achieve that goal even if it means a slight drop in success rates for grant applications. And speaking as the head of an agency treading water, he reminds his constituents that the situation could be worse: The overall discretionary budget for NIH's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, declines by 3.1% in the president's request. Small consolation, indeed.

  6. U.S. BUDGET 2009

    A Broken Record?

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    U.S. researchers have reason to feel ambivalent as they ponder the Bush Administration's boom-and-bust legacy toward science.

    Feast and famine.

    Overall federal spending on research hasn't kept up with inflation since 2004 despite the continuing growth of the budget in current dollars.


    When you're hungry, it can be hard to remember an earlier era of plenty. And meager rations are more difficult to swallow if they come after promises of a feast. U.S. researchers may well be feeling such nutritional ambivalence as they ponder the Bush Administration's legacy toward science.

    When presidential science adviser John Marburger proclaimed this week that the president's 2009 budget request to Congress (see main text) was “wonderful” for science, it marked the seventh consecutive year that he has delivered the same verdict. But the facts he used to buttress his argument in 2008 are quite different from those he marshaled in 2001 after George W. Bush took office.

    One constant is that each year the overall request for federal research and development (more than half of which goes to developing weapons) sets a record—at the same time the rest of the domestic budget is being reined in. The 2009 request of $147 billion is up from $95 billion in the 2002 request. But the ingredients have changed, especially within the $29 billion for basic research.

    The centerpiece of the president's first research budget was a 14% hike at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH); in contrast, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) was given only a 1.3% increase, and the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science was slated for a reduction. Fast-forward to the 2009 request, and it's DOE and NSF laying claim to double-digit increases, with NIH standing pat. In fact, the physical sciences were out of favor until the president's 2007 budget request packaged large increases for NSF, DOE science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology under the rubric American Competitiveness Initiative.

    If enacted by Congress, the request for NIH would mark its sixth year of declining budgets in real terms after a 5-year doubling that ended in 2003. That turnabout has led to prolonged howls from a biomedical community wondering if it might have been better off with steady increases rather than a cycle of boom and bust. And the big proposed boosts for NSF and DOE, although welcomed, don't erase the sting from a string of broken promises by the Administration and Congress—made first to NSF in 2002 and then to both agencies last summer—to put their budgets on the same doubling path that NIH enjoyed.

    In fact, NSF's budget this decade may be a microcosm of how science as a whole has fared during the Bush years. After a windfall at the end of the Clinton Administration, NSF recorded solid gains for three straight years before suffering a drop in fiscal year 2005. Apart from a last-minute boost last year after the new Democratic majority took office, NSF's budget in the second Bush term has lost ground to inflation.

    Republicans and Democrats alike say they want to do better. But until those words are replaced with new dollars, science agency officials will hope for the best while they prepare for the worst.

  7. U.S. BUDGET 2009

    Near-Term Energy Research Prospers

    1. Eli Kintisch

    The recent rapid growth at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory reflects the strong support in Congress for research aimed at tackling global warming by making near-term adjustments to the country's existing energy sources.

    Business is booming at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, DOE's flagship facility for greening the nation's energy supply. Its budget has skyrocketed by 80% in the past 2 years, to $378 million. In addition to hiring more than 100 scientists, the lab has launched programs to integrate windmills into the nation's electrical grid, broadened work to facilitate solar panel manufacturing, and beefed up its biofuels research. “Everybody's busy; we're expanding,” says Robert Thresher, who manages the lab's wind energy science program.

    Although the president's 2009 request would keep research dollars at NREL steady, its recent rapid growth reflects the strong support in Congress for research aimed at tackling global warming by making near-term adjustments to the country's existing energy sources. NREL gets most of its money from DOE's $1.5 billion office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), which has received boosts of 27% and 18% in the past 2 years. At the same time, legislators have rejected increases of similar magnitude requested for the past 2 years by the president for DOE's $4 billion Office of Science, which typically funds research that is less likely to provide immediate answers to the nation's energy problems. Undeterred, President George W. Bush has asked for 17.5% more for the Office of Science in his 2009 budget.

    Filling the hopper.

    The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is expanding work on biofuels.


    “I'm happy that EERE got a big boost [in 2008], but there are mid- and longer term research priorities that need to be attended to,” says Nobelist Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Other energy researchers also lament the zeroing out in 2008 of a $150 million contribution to the $6 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor being built in Cadarache, France. The project, to design and build a prototype fusion reactor, represents a field whose goal of a cheap, sustainable source of energy has remained stubbornly out of reach for decades.

    Most scientists believe that the United States should invest in both near-term research on existing energy sources and long-range research to develop new ones, and DOE Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach says that Congress is making a mistake by not recognizing the importance of both approaches. “Without transformational [basic] discoveries, we don't have a very hopeful future” in energy, he says.

    Aides on Capitol Hill say that Congress wound up embracing near-term energy projects because it was the right thing to do—and because legislators allocated limited funds to the most pressing needs. “There was no thinking ‘Oh, we're doing this in solar, but we're not doing that,’” says an aide to Representative Pete Visclosky (D-IN), chair of the House panel that funds DOE. Emphasizing near-term over long-range research was difficult, says the aide, but it was a “conscious priority decision when you're in an energy crisis.” The aide noted that U.S. government spending on applied energy research is only 40% of 1978 levels.

    Legislators last year did agree to protect DOE's down payment on three $125 million bioenergy centers that combine academic-style genomic studies with industrial chemical engineering to find new biofuels. (DOE wants $75 million more for them in 2009.) And Orbach has reintroduced a program intended to bridge the divide—proposing $100 million in collaborative, multiscientist basic research funds in areas including energy storage, solid state lighting, and the computational analysis of underground CO2—after canceling it when his 2008 budget fell far short of expectations (Science, 1 February, p. 554).

    One likely flash point in the 2009 budget is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which an influential 2005 National Academies' panel recommended as a way to support “out-of-the-box transformational research” in energy. Congress created the office last year, but DOE didn't request any money for it in 2009, as Orbach says the work would be “duplicative.” Although he's not an appropriator, House Science and Technology committee chair Bart Gordon (D-TN) has pledged to push for 2009 funding for what he sees as a “small but aggressive” agency.

    Although DOE spends $4 on long-term, fundamental physical science for every $3 on near-term, more applied energy research, the Bush Administration made a failed attempt to grow the latter in this week's budget request. Science has learned that the White House quietly asked DOE staff last summer to propose a roughly $500 million research initiative that could be packaged as DOE's contribution to climate change. What DOE submitted called for, among other things, innovations for existing and futuristic coal and nuclear plants, CO2 sequestration studies, and expanded efforts to develop renewables.

    In the end, however, White House budget officials slashed it by $343 million after questioning DOE's argument that research in coal and nuclear was likely to result in the biggest payoff in reducing carbon emissions. The Office of Management and Budget's funding levels “severely undermine … the President's stated policy on climate change,” shot back Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman in a punchy 29 November 2007 letter. In the end, the White House put $200 million of DOE's increase into coal research and kept funding flat for renewables. Those levels “will help achieve a more secure and reliable energy future,” says Bodman.

  8. U.S. BUDGET 2009

    NIH Hopes for More Mileage From Roadmap

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    The Roadmap, which gets an 8% bump in President George W. Bush's 2009 request for the National Institutes of Health (see main text), remains Director Elias Zerhouni's signature effort to give patients a better chance of enjoying the fruits of basic research.

    While the budget of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has languished for the past 5 years, one piece of the $29.3 billion agency—the NIH Roadmap—has taken off. Since its creation in 2003, the transinstitute initiative has grown to a half-billion-dollar-a-year program. And the Roadmap, which gets an 8% bump in NIH's 2009 request from President George W. Bush (see main text), remains Director Elias Zerhouni's signature effort to give patients a better chance of enjoying the fruits of basic research.

    On the rise.

    The Roadmap accounts for a small but growing share of NIH's budget.


    Some biomedical researchers love the Roadmap's emphasis on tools, translational research, and the opportunity to collaborate and stretch their wings. Others slam it, claiming it takes funding away from single-scientist, hypothesis-driven research. Congress has embraced the idea as a way to give the NIH director more control over the 27 institutes and centers by making it a permanent part of the agency.

    The Roadmap has three main components—basic science, clinical, and research teams—comprising some 40 programs. They range from interdisciplinary training grants to the Molecular Libraries Initiative, a major project to develop chemical probes. The latter, says Elizabeth Wilder, acting associate director of the NIH Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives, is an example of something whose “scope and size” exceeded the budget of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which otherwise might be a good home for it. The Roadmap is meant to be an incubator for projects that would eventually be adopted by an institute or terminated.

    Supporters say some of the Roadmap's technology-intensive projects are already paying off. The 10 teams involved with the molecular libraries have found dozens of useful probes for studying basic biology and disorders such as Gaucher disease and schistosomiasis, says pharmacologist Bryan Roth of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who was part of a review panel last year. The effort has also set an example for other academic screening programs.

    Some researchers have questioned the Roadmap's emphasis on big biology at the same time success rates for individual investigator-initiated R01 grants have plummeted. Zerhouni's answer is that the Roadmap constitutes only 1.8% of NIH's budget, that it funds many R01s, and that it has not shifted funds away from unsolicited research grants.

    Other Roadmap pieces include the Pioneer Awards, given out on the basis of the track record of an investigator rather than for a specific project. Although the program has won praise for channeling a sliver of NIH's budget into high-risk research, the selection process was tweaked after women were shut out of the first round of nine winners (Science, 22 October 2004, p. 595). Other Roadmap ideas have required honing, too. NIH solicited proposals for translational research centers, for example, before deciding to use the money instead to revamp its clinical research support program.

    In 2006, when Congress reauthorized NIH's programs, it enshrined the Roadmap by including language creating a permanent “common fund.” But the law caps the fund's size at 5% of the overall NIH budget and limits its annual rise to no more than the rate of biomedical inflation.

  9. U.S. BUDGET 2009

    Earth Gets a Closer Look

    1. Eli Kintisch

    President George W. Bush wants Congress to beef up what scientists have called an anemic federal effort to scan Earth's atmosphere, land, and oceans from space.

    Better sense.

    A pilot satellite to be launched in 2010 will carry key climate sensors.


    In his last year in office, President George W. Bush wants Congress to beef up what scientists have called an anemic federal effort to scan Earth's atmosphere, land, and oceans from space. That's cheered researchers who rely on satellite-based remote sensing for a variety of studies, including monitoring global change, although they say more needs to be done.

    The 2009 budget requests for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration propose two new satellites to quantify soil moisture and ice sheets and the proposed restoration of instruments removed from the troubled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program (Science, 31 August 2007, p. 1167). They closely follow several recommendations of the decadal study on earth observing issued last year by the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academies, which called on the government to commit roughly $7 billion through 2020 to “renew its investment in Earth-observing systems.”

    Overall, NASA wants to spend $910 million over 5 years on five missions culled from a list of 15 in the decadal survey, with $103 million proposed for 2009. They've named two: a Soil Moisture Active-Passive mission, proposed for a 2012 launch, to help quantify soil's role in the global carbon cycle and help predict landslides, and ICESat-II, for 2015, which would measure the depth of ice sheets—crucial to calculate and forecast sea-level rise and forest canopy heights. NASA hasn't determined how much it will spend on each. In all, it's “a solid down payment on the recommended program,” says biogeochemical modeler Berrien Moore of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, co-chair of the survey. “Looks like they listened to us somewhat,” says climate modeler Warren Washington of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Even so, fellow NRC panel co-chair Richard Anthes of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, also in Boulder, notes that NASA's proposed funding levels for Earth sensing are less than half the decadal recommendations.

    Scientists are also applauding the Administration for beginning to address the impact of changes to NPOESS made when the Pentagon restructured the program in 2006. Agency officials said last week that they want to restore, at least in part, three of six sensors that had been stripped from the $12.5 billion program. The most recent step involves a sensor that would measure the reflected radiation from Earth, a crucial factor in quantifying global warming (ScienceNOW, 1 February). Agency officials propose replacing that sensor with a slightly less capable one for a pilot mission, called NPP, that is set for launch in 2010. “NPP's become a gap filler,” says David Ryan of Northrop Grumman, which is building NPOESS.


    Can the Upstarts Top Silicon?

    1. Robert F. Service

    Several nascent technologies are improving prospects for turning the sun's rays into electricity. The success of any one of them could mean a big boost for solar power.

    Several nascent technologies are improving prospects for turning the sun's rays into electricity. The success of any one of them could mean a big boost for solar power

    Gold standard.

    Silicon solar cells dominate the market, but new competitors are rising fast.


    These are bright days for backers of solar power. The exuberance that previously pumped up dot-coms and biotech companies migrated in 2007 to solar energy, one of the hottest sectors in the emerging market for clean energy. Last year, solar energy companies around the globe hauled in nearly $12 billion from new stock offerings, loans, and venture capital funds. And although the markets have taken a bath in recent weeks due to investor fears about a coming recession in the United States, enthusiasm for solar's future remains strong. The industry is growing at a whopping 40% a year. And the cost of solar power is dropping and expected to rival the cost of grid-powered electricity by the middle of the next decade (see figure, below).

    Heading for parity.

    Solar electricity still costs about five times as much as electricity from coal. But many experts expect economies of scale could close the gap by 2015.


    Still, there are clouds overhead. Solar power accounts for only a trivial fraction of the world's electricity. Silicon solar panels—which dominate the market with a 90% share—are already near their potential peak for converting solar energy to electricity and thus are unlikely to improve much more. A typical home's rooftop loaded with such cells can't produce enough power to meet the home's energy needs. That limitation increases the need for large-scale solar farms in sunny areas such as the American Southwest, which are far from large population centers. The bottom line is that the future of solar energy would be far brighter if researchers could make solar cells more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity, slash their cost, or both.

    That's just what a new generation of solar-cell technologies aims to do. A raft of those technologies was on display here* late last year, as researchers reported how a broad array of recent advances in chemistry, materials science, and solid state physics are breathing new life into the field of solar-energy research. Those advances hold out the promise of solar cells with nearly double the efficiency of traditional silicon-based solar cells and of plastic versions that cost just a fraction of today's photovoltaics (PVs). “It's a really exciting time [in solar energy research],” says chemist David Ginger of the University of Washington, Seattle.

    In the past few years, Ginger and others point out, solar researchers have hit upon several potential breakthrough technologies but have been stymied at turning that potential into solar cells able to beat out silicon. “The next couple of years will be important to see if we can overcome those hurdles,” Ginger says. Although most of these novel cells are not yet close to commercialization, even one or two successes could dramatically change the landscape of worldwide energy production.

    Minding the gap

    Beating silicon is a tall order. Although the top lab-based silicon cells now convert about 24% of the energy in sunlight into electricity, commercial cells still reach only 15% to 20%. In such traditional solar cells, photons hitting the silicon dump their energy into the semiconductor. That excites electrons, kicking them from their staid residence in the so-called valence band, where they are tightly bound to atoms, into the higher-energy conduction band, where they lead a more freewheeling existence, zipping through the material with ease. But if photons don't have enough energy to push electrons over this “band gap,” the energy they carry is lost as heat. So is any energy photons carry in excess of the band gap. Given the sun's spectrum of rays and the fact that only certain red photons have the amount of energy that closely matches silicon's band gap, single silicon cells can convert at most 31% of the energy in sunlight into electricity—a boundary known as the Shockley-Queisser limit.

    Engineers can boost the efficiency with a number of conventional strategies. One is to layer several light-absorbing materials that capture different portions of the solar spectrum—for example, by having one cell that absorbs mostly blue photons, while others absorb yellow and red photons. But such “tandem” cells are expensive to produce and thus are currently used primarily for high-end applications such as space flight.

    But there may be other ways to capture more energy from the sun. One strategy that has drawn a lot of attention in recent years is to find materials that generate multiple electronic charges each time they absorb a photon. Traditional silicon solar cells generate just one. In them, a layer of silicon is spiked with impurity atoms so that one side attracts negatively charged electrons, while the other attracts positively charged electron vacancies, known as holes. Most light is absorbed near the junction between the two layers, creating electrons and holes that are immediately pulled in opposite directions.

    In 1997, however, chemist Arthur Nozik of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, and colleagues predicted that by using tiny nanosized semiconductor particles called quantum dots to keep those opposite charges initially very close together, researchers could excite two or more electrons at a time. A paired electron and hole in close proximity, they reasoned, increases a quantum-mechanical property known as the Coulomb interaction. The greater this interaction, the more likely it is that an incoming energetic photon with at least twice the band-gap energy will create two electron-hole pairs with exactly the energy of the band gap—instead of one electron-hole pair with excess energy above the band gap, the other possible outcome that quantum mechanics allows. At least that's how Nozik and his colleagues see it. Several other models of multiple-electron excitation exist, and theorists are still debating just what is behind the effect.

    Four years ago, researchers led by Victor Klimov of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico reported the first spectroscopic evidence showing that multiple electron-hole pairs, known as excitons, were indeed generated in certain quantum dots. Nozik's team and others have since found the same effect in silicon and other types of quantum dots. And according to calculations by Nozik and NREL colleague Mark Hanna, the multiple exciton generation (MEG)-based solar cells hit with unconcentrated sunlight have a maximum theoretical efficiency of 44%. Using special lenses and mirrors to concentrate the sunlight 500-fold, they predicted, could boost the theoretical efficiency to about 80%—twice that of conventional cells hit with concentrated sunlight.

    But reaching those higher efficiencies isn't easy. “One big hang-up is that no one has yet shown that you can extract those extra electrons,” Nozik says. To harvest electricity, researchers must first break apart the pairs of electrons and holes, using an electric field across the cell to attract the opposite charges. That must happen fast, as electrons in excitons will collapse back into their holes within about 100 trillionths of a second if left side by side. If those charges can be separated, they must hop between successive quantum dots to find their way to an electrode, again without encountering an oppositely charged counterpart along the way. Unfortunately, the organic chemical coatings used to keep quantum dots stable and intact push the particles apart from one another, slowing down the charges.

    New generation.

    Art Nozik believes arrays of quantum dots (inset) could lead to highly efficient solar cells.


    Still, Nozik's group seems to be making progress. At the Materials Research Society meeting, Nozik reported preliminary results on solar cells made with arrays of lead selenide quantum dots. In such cells, a layer of quantum dots, and their organic coats, is spread between two electrodes. According to Nozik, spectroscopic studies indicate that two or three excitons are generated for every photon the dots absorb. And the researchers managed to separate the charges and get many of the electrons out, boosting the efficiency of the solar cells to about 2.5%, up from 1.62% from previous MEG-based cells.

    To boost that efficiency further, Nozik says, one key will be to pack quantum dots closer together and in more regular arrays, making it easier for electronic charges to hop from one dot to the next to the electrodes where they are collected. Nozik's group is already experimenting with strategies for doing that, such as shrinking the organic groups that coat each dot and keep them separated from one another. Another needed improvement will be to find quantum dot materials better at generating multiple excitons. Nozik's lead selenide dots, for example, must be hit with about 2.5 times the energy of a single excited electron to generate two excitons, meaning that extra energy is wasted. In the November 2007 issue of Nano Letters, however, Klimov and his colleagues reported that dots made from indium arsenide generate two excitons almost as soon as the energy of the incoming photons exceeds twice the band gap.

    Other groups are hoping to use quantum dots as steppingstones to cross the band gap in conventional semiconductor materials. The idea is to seed a semiconductor with an array of quantum dots, which will absorb photons that have too little energy to raise electrons above the band gap. The photons would excite electrons in the quantum dots to an intermediate level between the valence and conduction bands, then a hit from a second low-energy photon would boost them the rest of the way into the conduction band.

    Theoretical work by Antonio Luque of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain suggests that such cells could achieve a maximum efficiency of 63% under concentrated sunlight. But here, too, the potential has been hard to realize. In practice, adding quantum dots to materials such as an alloy of gallium arsenide seems to cause more losses than gains; the quantum dots also seem to attract electrons and holes and promote their recombination, thus losing the excess energy as heat.

    Last year, Stephen Forrest and Guodan Wei, both of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, suggested a way around that problem: designing energetic barriers into their solar cells that discourage free charges from migrating to the quantum dots. At the meeting, Andrew Gordon Norman of NREL reported that his team has managed to grow such structures. The cells didn't outperform conventional GaAs cells, because too few quantum dots were packed into the structure to absorb enough low-energy photons to offset recombination losses. But Norman says he's working on solving that problem.

    A silver lining

    Many of the approaches to boosting the efficiency of solar cells require expensive materials or manufacturing techniques, so they are likely to increase capital costs. Some groups are exploring low-cost alternatives: light-absorbing plastics or other organic materials that can be processed without the expensive vacuum deposition machines most inorganics require. Unfortunately, organics waste much of the incoming light because they typically absorb only a relatively narrow range of frequencies in the solar spectrum. The key to boosting their efficiency, some groups believe, could be precious metals.

    A layer of tiny silver or other metal nanoparticles added to a solar cell encourages an effect known as surface plasmon resonance, in which light triggers a collective excitation of electrons on the metal's surface. This causes the nanoparticles to act like antennas, capturing additional energy and funneling it to the active layer of the material to excite extra electrons (see figure). At the meeting, electrical engineer Peter Peumans of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, reported that when he and his colleagues added a layer of silver nanoparticles atop a conventional organic solar cell, they increased the efficiency of the device by 40%. Even though the overall efficiency of Peumans's devices is still dismally low—less than 1%—Ginger says the big jump in efficiency is “very promising.”

    Better reception.

    In an organic solar cell, sunlight frees an electron (−) and an electron vacancy, or hole (+), which migrate to the border between different materials and then to oppositely charged electrodes (left). Adding metal nanoparticles (right) increases the light absorption and the number of charges generated.


    Peumans notes that the silver nanoparticles work best when placed at the interface between two semiconducting layers in organic solar cells, one of which preferentially conducts electrons, the other, holes. In organic solar cells, excitons must migrate to just such an interface so that they can split into separate charges, which are then steered to opposite electrodes.

    Other researchers have found in recent years that they can increase the efficiency of their organic solar cells by expanding the surface area of this interface. Instead of having flat layers lying atop one another like pages in a book, they create roughened layers that interpenetrate one another, a configuration known as a bulk heterojunction. Last year, researchers led by physicist Alan Heeger of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported that they could use low-cost polymers to create tandem bulk heterojunction solar cells with an overall energy conversion efficiency of 6.5% (Science, 13 July 2007, p. 222). At the time, Heeger said that he expected that further improvements to the cells would propel them to market within 3 years.

    Researchers are pursuing several strategies to improve these cells. One approach that may pay off down the road, Peumans says, is to incorporate metal nanoparticles into the random surface in these solar cells. That's not likely to be easy, he adds. But it may be possible to outfit the nanoparticles with chemical tethers that encourage them to bind to tags designed into the interface of the material. In theory, Peumans says, that would offer researchers the best of both worlds.

    In addition to improving solar cell efficiencies, researchers and companies are also working on a host of technologies to make them cheaper. Nanosolar in San Jose, California, for example, has spent millions of dollars perfecting a new roll-to-roll manufacturing technology for making solar cells from thin films of copper indium gallium selenide atop a metal foil. Although they haven't reported the efficiency of their latest cells, they began marketing them in December 2007. Konarka, another roll-toroll solar cell company in Lowell, Massachusetts, is working on a similar technology with plastic-based PVs. Other groups, meanwhile, are pushing the boundaries on everything from replacing quantum dots with nanowires that can steer excited charges more directly to the electrodes where they are harvested to using modified ink-jet printers to spray films of quantum dots and other solar-cell materials.

    For now, there appears to be no shortage of ideas about creating new high-efficiency, low-cost cells. But whether any of these ideas will have what it takes to beat silicon and revolutionize the solar business remains the field's biggest unknown. “There are a lot of ways to beat the Shockley limit on paper, but it's difficult to realize in the real world,” Nozik says. So far, it's not for want of trying.

    • * Materials Research Society meeting, Boston, Massachusetts, 26–30 November 2007.


    MESSENGER Flyby Reveals a More Active and Stranger Mercury

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    The latest images from the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, released last week at a NASA press conference, demonstrate that there's more than one way for a big chunk of rock to evolve.

    It seems there's more than one way for a big chunk of rock to evolve


    WASHINGTON, D.C.—The untrained eye might have trouble distinguishing the latest images from Mercury—released last week at a NASA press conference here—from countless images of Earth's moon, but don't tell that to Sean Solomon. Mercury “was not the place we expected,” says Solomon, principal investigator of the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. “It was not the moon.” The first close look at the innermost planet in 33 years and the first look ever at one-third of it revealed a new side to the innermost planet: much more volcanism than seen before, deeply excavating impact craters, and—unique in the solar system—“The Spider.”

    The Mariner 10 spacecraft last flew by Mercury in 1975, returning images suggesting that lava once flowed across the surface, at least in places. But volcanism “wasn't accepted by everyone,” says imaging team member Louise Prockter of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Now, “there's very little doubt there has been widespread volcanic resurfacing of Mercury.” She pointed to impact craters hundreds of kilometers across with floors so smooth that they must have been partially filled by lava (below, left, double pair in lower left; below, right, concentric pair lower right). Team member Robert Strom of the University of Arizona, Tucson, also found that the side of Mercury seen by Mariner 10 turns out to be more heavily cratered by impacts than the side seen for the first time by MESSENGER. That means that lava has flooded the MESSENGER side even more extensively than the other side. “There's been a lot of volcanic activity on Mercury,” says Strom.

    The moon has its volcanic flooding, too—witness the dark “seas,” or maria, that shape the man (or woman) in the moon—but MESSENGER found a mercurial variation on such light-dark patterning. Caloris is a huge—1550-kilometer-wide—impact basin glimpsed by Mariner 10 but now seen in its entirety by MESSENGER (above, in false color, brighter spot in upper right of disk). On the moon, such giant impact basins were often filled with dark lava to form maria, but Caloris has the opposite pattern. Its interior is lighter and is surrounded by a darker ring. Perhaps the Caloris impact excavated deep, lighter-colored rock and left it at the surface without flooding it with lava, says Solomon, director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C. Including smaller craters with distinctive dark rims, “we've got a variety of natural drill holes into Mercury's interior,” says Solomon.

    Then there's The Spider (below, center). More than 50 troughs radiate from near the center of Caloris where a 40-kilometer-wide crater has formed. Whether the crater has anything to do with the radiating troughs, Prockter can't say; no one has ever seen anything like The Spider. One possibility is that the formation of Caloris somehow created a plume of molten rock that rose beneath the basin's center, bulging the basin floor upward and cracking the crust to form the troughs. The crater would then have been an accidental impact. MESSENGER returns in October for another look at Mercury on its way to entering orbit in 2011.

    New views.

    MESSENGER revealed craters smoothed by volcanic flooding (left and right) and a cryptic feature dubbed The Spider (center).


    Berkeley Hyenas Face an Uncertain Future

    1. Greg Miller

    Long studied for their unusual anatomy and behavior, the world's only research colony of spotted hyenas faces a funding crisis.

    Long studied for their unusual anatomy and behavior, the world's only research colony of spotted hyenas faces a funding crisis

    Splashing around.

    Hyenas enjoy playing in a tub of water at the Berkeley colony.


    BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—The foggy, eucalyptus-studded hills above the San Francisco Bay are a world away from the African savanna, but the spotted hyenas that live here seem content. On a recent afternoon, they excitedly jostled one another to get a better look—and sniff—at some visitors passing by their enclosure at the Field Station for the Study of Behavior, Ecology, and Reproduction at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. Pink tongues darted through the chainlink fence to lick a keeper's outstretched hand. “These animals really get to you,” she says. “It doesn't take long for your heart to be stolen.”

    Long maligned in myths and movies as dangerous freeloaders with a high-pitched giggle, spotted hyenas are in fact intelligent animals with fascinating biology and behavior, says Stephen Glickman, a psychologist and integrative biologist at UC Berkeley and director of the field station, home to the only captive hyena research colony in the world. Since establishing the colony in 1985, Glickman has worked hard to repair the reputation of his charges and to attract the interest of other scientists.

    Many have been hooked by the unique reproductive anatomy of the female spotted hyena: She sports an elongated clitoris roughly the size of the male's penis, through which she urinates, mates, and gives birth. Why this structure evolved, how it develops in the embryo, and what it might have to do with the female's dominant status in hyena society are among the questions that intrigue biologists. The animals also have digestive and immune systems that enable them to swallow chunks of bone that would give a lion indigestion and to feast on rotted, anthrax-ridden carcasses with no ill effects.

    Other researchers say that by virtue of his enthusiasm and easygoing manner, Glickman has created a remarkably diverse network of scientists who use the hyena colony to pursue such questions. “You've got a dozen or more senior investigators across the entire range of biological sciences collaborating without any kind of formal arrangement,” says Elihu Gerson, an independent San Francisco-based sociologist who is studying the dynamics of the collaboration. “It's extraordinarily unusual.”

    But that collaboration now faces an uncertain future. Last fall, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which funded the colony for 22 years through an R01 grant to Glickman, did not renew his grant. Despite positive comments about the project's recent work, the priority score was too low. “The basic problem is that there's no precedent I know of for a research grant with the number of collaborators we have and the variety of projects,” Glickman says. An emergency $200,000 grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) will keep the colony going for another 15 to 18 months while he and colleagues look for a longer term solution. Meanwhile, he's had to downsize the colony by about a third, arranging for 10 hyenas to be sent to zoos and animal parks and euthanizing two older animals.

    Puzzling endowment.

    The female hyena's elongated clitoris raises many questions for biologists.


    “I can't stand the thought of them shutting this down,” says Kay Holekamp, a former student and longtime collaborator of Glickman's, now a behavioral ecologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “This is such an invaluable resource; it would be a tragedy if it were lost,” says molecular endocrinologist Geoffrey Hammond of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

    Crazy anatomy

    In the break room at the field station, Glickman turns on a small television and plays a video montage of hyena behavior at the colony. Silver-haired and soft-spoken, with a voice that betrays a hint of his Brooklyn upbringing, Glickman narrates as a female hyena gives birth to a 2-kilogram cub. This cringe-inducing process—imagine pushing a golf ball through a soda straw—makes the downside of the female hyena's strange anatomy abundantly clear. Hyena moms typically have two cubs in a litter, and about 60% of cubs born to a first-time mom are stillborn, Glickman says. The cub in the video survives, but before it can free itself from the amniotic sac, a sister, born just minutes earlier, attacks with a bite to the back of the neck and a vigorous shake. “This little brain is organized for aggression at birth,” Glickman says.

    For decades, researchers have suspected that the female hyena's heightened aggression and masculinized anatomy might share common biological roots. “It looks as if the female hyenas have traded off certain reductions in fertility for the ability to be more aggressive and dominate males and feed themselves and their offspring in tight times,” Glickman says. That hypothesis has driven work at the colony from the beginning.

    In the early 1980s, a UC Berkeley graduate student named Laurence Frank was studying wild hyenas in Kenya. He'd noticed that although both sexes hunt, the females drove off the males once a kill was made. (Despite their reputation as scavengers, hyenas kill most of what they eat.) As the kill was consumed and the remaining share shrunk, high-ranking females drove off subordinates. Cubs of highranking females were allowed to feed, but cubs of low birth were shoved off. The female dominance hierarchy was clearly central to hyena society, says Frank, now a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

    Frank, as others before him did, wondered whether high levels of male sex hormones might prime the female hyena brain for aggression and account for her “crazy anatomy.” Frank wanted to test the idea by injecting antiandrogen drugs but soon concluded this wasn't feasible in wild hyenas. He began looking into alternatives. By this time, Glickman, who was on Frank's Ph.D. thesis committee, had become interested, and he submitted a grant proposal to NIMH to fund a research colony at the field station, a few kilometers from the main campus. “It was really a pretty wild-ass idea to suggest that a large, dangerous carnivore would make a convenient lab animal,” Frank says. “To our utter amazement, we got the grant.”

    In 1985, Frank, Glickman, and co-workers arranged export permits and flew to Kenya, where they paid Maasai tribesmen to lead them to hyena dens with young cubs. In two trips, they collected 20 cubs, which they bottle-fed and kept in their tents at night until they made the trip back to California.

    In a series of experiments published in the early 1990s, Glickman and colleagues established that hyena fetuses are exposed to unusually high androgen levels in the womb. In other mammals, this causes females to develop a penislike structure. Androgens also spur aggression, and an explanation seemed near at hand.

    But a seminal experiment published in 1998 revealed that androgens aren't the whole story. Glickman and colleagues administered androgen-blocking drugs to pregnant female hyenas—a treatment that prevents penis formation in males in other mammals. The researchers predicted that the drugs would have the same effect on hyena males and would prevent a pseudopenis from forming in females. Neither prediction came true.

    “That was an extraordinary finding,” says Gerald Cunha, an emeritus developmental biologist and anatomist at UC San Francisco (UCSF) who collaborates with Glickman. The hyenas have forced biologists to think beyond the dogma on genital development, which essentially says that if a fetus gets androgens, it develops a penis, and if not, it develops a vaginal opening, Cunha says: “You're going to have to come up with something creative to explain this unusual set of circumstances.”

    New directions

    A full account of how the female pseudopenis develops has eluded the hyena researchers so far, but other dogma-challenging results have emerged. One study suggested that the female sex hormone estradiol plays a role in the development of the male hyena's penis, a finding that may have implications for understanding a common birth defect in boys, says Laurence Baskin, the chief of pediatric urology at UCSF. In a condition called hypospadias, the urethra exits the underside of the penis instead of at the tip. The condition happens in approximately one in 125 boys, Baskin says, and something similar occurs in male hyenas born to moms given drugs that block estrogen synthesis. The cause of hypospadias isn't known, Baskin says, but the hyena findings suggest that there may be a previously unrecognized estrogen-sensitive phase of male sexual development. If so, it's possible that exposure to certain chemicals in the environment during that period could have a role in causing hypospadias, Baskin says.

    Aggressive by nature.

    Complementary studies in wild and captive hyenas are helping researchers unravel the links between androgens and aggression.


    Baskin says work with hyenas has already had clinical applications for another condition he treats: congenital adrenal hyperplasia. In about one in 10,000 girls, a malfunctioning enzyme results in abnormally high androgen levels and development of a penislike structure that is similar to the female hyena's pseudopenis. Baskin recently collaborated with the Berkeley team to map the nerves in the hyena pseudopenis and says the findings have helped refine the surgeries he does to restore more typical female anatomy in girls with the condition. “It's already paid off in terms of … preserving their sexual function,” he says.

    Although prenatal androgens apparently aren't necessary for development of the female's pseudopenis, recent evidence suggests that they do influence hyena behavior. In 2006, Holekamp and colleagues reported in Nature that high-ranking females in the wild have higher androgen levels late in pregnancy than do low-ranking females and that cubs born to these androgen-fueled moms exhibit more aggression. Preliminary findings from the Berkeley colony back this up: Females treated with antiandrogen drugs in utero seem to display less aggression toward males as adults.

    Such studies may also provide insights into how hormones set up sex differences in the brain, says behavioral neuroendocrinologist Nancy Forger of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Forger and colleagues have been examining male and female hyena brains from the Berkeley colony for differences in the distribution of vasopressin, a hormone linked to aggressive behavior. Vasopressin expression differs between males and females in a consistent pattern across a wide range of vertebrates, Forger says. “So far, we can say that hyenas don't show that difference, and the pattern may even be reversed.”

    She says she's concerned about the outlook for the colony. “There's never been anything like this before, and I don't think there ever will be again.”

    Glickman has been busy investigating funding options at NSF and at the National Institutes of Health, including the resource grants used to fund chimpanzee colonies and other shared facilities. But the uniqueness of the project—not to mention the research subjects—means it's not a perfect fit for many of the existing funding mechanisms, Glickman says. “It's tough because we don't fit the template.”

  13. China's Living Laboratory in Urbanization

    1. Dennis Normile*
    1. With reporting by Richard Stone in Xiamen.

    With millions of farmers each year moving to its burgeoning cities, China is searching for novel ways to expand urban areas while conserving natural resources.

    With millions of farmers each year moving to its burgeoning cities, China is searching for novel ways to expand urban areas while conserving natural resources


    Shanghai hopes its Dongtan Eco-city will be the world's first carbon-neutral urban development.


    CHONGMING ISLAND, CHINA—Standing in a sea of marsh grass at the eastern tip of Chongming Island, in the mouth of the Yangtze River, it's easy to forget that this wilderness lies within the boundaries of Shanghai municipality. Tidal mud flats, feeding grounds for migratory birds on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, reach toward the East China Sea as far as the eye can see. A million shore birds pass through every year, including the endangered black-faced spoonbill. To the west, scattered sparsely across the 1041 square kilometers of Chongming, the world's largest alluvial island, are villages, paddies, and orchards.

    Shanghai is about to burst another seam and spill onto this peaceful isle. A bridge-tunnel link scheduled for completion in 2009 will turn a torturous 3-hour car-and-ferry trip from downtown—just over the horizon to the south—into a 30-minute commute. And with well over 300,000 new residents each year swelling one of the world's biggest cities—Shanghai has more than 17 million inhabitants—development of Chongming's wide-open spaces is inevitable.

    Shanghai is hoping to show that development can be environmentally responsible with the world's first “carbon neutral” city, in which carbon emissions would be completely offset by carbon absorption. Construction of Dongtan Eco-city will begin early this year on land adjacent to Chongming's wetlands. Dongtan's backers hope it will offer a new model that contrasts with China's haphazard urbanization of the past 2 decades. Some planners familiar with practices here, however, wonder if Dongtan's ambitious aims can be fully realized.

    Dongtan is one of a half-dozen or so ecocities on the drawing boards as Chinese leaders cope with one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world. The leadership now realizes that unchecked urban sprawl threatens the country's environment and security, says Niu Wenyuan, chief scientist of China's sustainable development strategy program and a counselor of the State Council. As a result, he says, the country is striving for three “zero net-growth rates”: the population by 2020, urban energy consumption by 2035, and urban ecological degradation by 2050. “We still have a long way to go,” Niu said at the first Xiamen International Forum on Urban Environment in Xiamen, China, last November.

    This may be China's last chance to get urbanization right, says Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of construction. “If China chooses the wrong [urbanization] model,” he says, “it will [impact] the entire world.”

    Much of the developing world is urbanizing rapidly, but China's sheer numbers make the stakes here higher. China now has 670 cities, up from 69 in 1947 and 223 in 1980. According to United Nations statistics, China has 15 of the world's 100 fastest-growing cities with a population of a million or more (based on population growth between 1950 and 2000); India, next on the list, has eight. China has 89 cities with a population of a million or more. The United States has 37 and India 32.

    The government estimates that 44% of China's population now lives in cities, but that figure does not include migrant workers registered as residing in rural areas. If they are included, “China's real urbanization rate is already around 50%,” says Deng Wei, an urban economics specialist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. By 2020, some 60% of the population will live in cities, according to government estimates. Each year, about 12 million farmers move to cities, Niu says: “The biggest agrarian society in the world is becoming the biggest urban society in the world.”

    The implications are enormous. “Urbanization concerns the use of resources, human lifestyles and culture, economic efficiency, modernization, the welfare system, everything,” says Qiu, an expert in economics and urban planning. According to Zhao Jinhua of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, China's cities weren't designed to accommodate breakneck growth, which leads to chronic problems such as water and housing shortages.

    Throughout the world—China is no exception—city dwellers are typically wealthier, consume more, and produce more waste, including greenhouse gases, than people in rural areas. If China has not already done so, it will soon surpass the United States as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. A large share comes from coal-fired power plants, but tailpipe emissions are an increasing contributor, especially in cities, Qiu says.

    A generation ago, China's urbanites overwhelmingly relied on bikes and public transportation, Zhao says. But starting in the 1980s, haphazard planning spawned economic zones tailored for manufacturing but with minimal housing or shopping areas and bedroom communities with few job opportunities—all of which encouraged commuting by car. Then in the 1990s, dozens of “new towns” sprang up on the outskirts of cities, most “designed with the car as the dominant mode of transportation,” says Zhao, who is also executive commissioner of the China Planning Network, an organization of Chinese and overseas scholars who study China's urbanization.

    Well-intentioned development has exacerbated the problem. Beijing's ring roads, for example, were supposed to ease crosstown traffic but instead have accelerated sprawl and private-car use, Qiu says. In some areas, bicycle lanes and the median strips that once separated them from traffic were sacrificed to make more room for cars.

    For the birds.

    Dongtan aims to protect an adjacent waterfowl refuge.


    Well-planned cities could ameliorate these problems. That means “dense and diverse” cities, Qiu says. Packing more people per square kilometer makes public transportation more feasible, he says. Apartments use resources, including energy, more efficiently than detached houses. Diversity entails what planners call mixed-use—an intermingling of residential, shopping, and office areas that creates opportunities for walking or biking to shops or work. The construction ministry and local governments are also encouraging a nascent “green building” movement that seeks to make better use of energy, water, and materials to minimize a building's environmental impact throughout its life cycle. These trends are converging in plans for several eco-cities, the most notable being Dongtan.

    From the outset, the Shanghai government, which owns the site, has viewed Dongtan as an “eco demonstrator” of urban development existing in harmony with the environment—even on an ecological treasure like Chongming. “This is not just about saving energy or saving water,” says Roger Wood, a partner in the engineering consulting firm Arup in London that is in charge of Dongtan's master planning. “It is about a holistic approach that goes right through the social, governance, education, transportation, wastewater issues—all the things that actually make a community.”

    Dongtan will rise on a portion of an 86-square-kilometer strip of Chongming owned by the municipal government's Shanghai Industrial Investment Corp. The city wants housing for 10,000 residents completed in time for Shanghai's 2010 World Expo, which, appropriately, will explore the theme “Better City, Better Life.” The goal of the start-up phase, scheduled for completion by 2020, is a community of 80,000, businesses providing 50,000 jobs, and shops, entertainment, and cultural amenities that offer residents everything they need in Dongtan, although it's expected that some people will commute to Shanghai and some nonresidents will work in Dongtan. Eventually, the Eco-city could be extended to cover 30 square kilometers and house half a million people.

    The investment corporation instructed Arup to minimize the project's ecological footprint: the land and water areas needed to provide Dongtan's resources and absorb waste. Using established technologies, the planned ecological footprint could be less than half that of a comparable conventional city, Wood says. Buildings will be properly insulated and rely on low-energy lighting and appliances. A double-piping system will provide drinking water and treated wastewater to flush toilets and irrigate vertical farms (see p. 752). The initial target is that no more than 10% of Dongtan's trash will end up in a landfill; planners would like to eventually make it the world's first zero-waste city. Most Chinese cities dump about 90% of their waste and burn the rest.

    A second requirement is that all energy consumed in Dongtan comes from renewable sources. Solar panels, wind turbines, and a biomass cogeneration plant, fueled by rice husks, will generate electricity for power, heating, and cooling. Husks, currently burned or dumped, will be collected from throughout the Yangtze delta.

    The plan also calls for all vehicles in Dongtan to have zero tailpipe emissions. That will be a stretch technologically, and it will require a mind shift in middle-class aspirations. Dongtan planners hope to reduce dependence on private autos with apartment buildings laid out in clusters so that all residents are within a 10-minute walk of a shopping center and public transportation, which could be pollution-free fuel-cell buses or electric light rail.

    Cars running on fossil fuels cannot achieve zero tailpipe emissions, so conventional cars would have to be parked outside city limits. Dongtan residents who wish to drive in town will have to use hydrogen fuel-cell or electric vehicles. However, such vehicles that match the performance and affordability of conventional cars are years if not decades away. Zhao wonders if enough people will be willing to give up the dream of owning a car and a detached home. One unresolved issue likely to affect car use is whether the rail line connecting Chongming to downtown Shanghai will extend to Dongtan. Deng says previous new towns lacking good public transportation links ended up encouraging private-car use.

    There are other concerns. Zhu Dajian, an economist who studies sustainability at Tongji University in Shanghai, says it will be a challenge turning Dongtan's impressive plans into reality without compromises: “The key issue is that the implementation is often out of the control [of the designers].” Zhu adds that although some of Dongtan's concepts and technologies could be put to use in other projects, he thinks it will be difficult to copy the model wholly because of Shanghai's financial and institutional support for Dongtan. (Officials at Arup say they are unable to disclose estimated costs or how the costs compare to those of a conventional new town.)

    As they wait for Dongtan to materialize, planners welcome growing efforts to reduce energy and resource use, a trend that Qiu says will be furthered by several new national laws on planning and energy consumption. In addition, Shanghai, to alleviate traffic and promote mass transit, is considering a toll system on private cars entering downtown, similar to schemes in London and elsewhere (see p. 750).

    China's urban planners realize that eco-cities, redevelopment projects, and green building efforts must be scrutinized to determine how well they enhance livability and reduce environmental costs, Qiu says. With so many cities growing so rapidly, China is already a laboratory for urbanization. Now it is poised to become an experiment in innovative urban planning as well.

  14. Calming Traffic on Bogotá's Killing Streets

    1. Jon Cohen

    With humor, education, and tough laws, this Colombian city has dramatically reduced traffic injuries and deaths.

    With humor, education, and tough laws, this Colombian city has dramatically reduced traffic injuries and deaths

    Long branded as one of the world's most dangerous cities, Bogotá, Colombia, has won plaudits for cutting its murder rate by more than 70% during the past decade. But this city of 7 million people has received far less attention for a dramatic decline in a more common danger that plagues urban areas everywhere: traffic-related injuries and deaths.

    With a combination of innovative education campaigns, an overhaul of its public transportation system, strict law enforcement, and redesign of streets and highways, Bogotá has made moving from place to place safer and more efficient. “In 1997, everything was a mess and we were losing the battle,” says Dario Hildalgo, a transportation engineer from Bogotá who is now with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. “To solve the problems, we needed a miracle. The miracle happened.”

    Mark Rosenberg, the former head of injury prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, says Bogotá is a model for the world. “Bogotá is not unique in having this problem, but it is unique in solving it,” says Rosenberg, who now heads the nonprofit Task Force for Child Survival and Development in Decatur, Georgia.

    Silent treatment.

    Bogotá used mimes to shame traffic violators.


    In a 2004 report, the World Health Organization and the World Bank blamed 1.2 million deaths and some 50 million injuries each year on road crashes. For people between the ages of 10 and 24, traffic injuries are the leading cause of death worldwide. The report projected that without major changes, deaths and injuries would increase 65% by 2020. “We have interventions that work, and we know how to bring the rates down,” says Rosenberg. “There's no other opportunity like this in public health. It's as good as the best vaccines. But we need the resources”—and political will.

    Rosenberg, Hildalgo, and others laud the aggressive and creative efforts of mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa, who alternately ran the city from 1995 to 2003. Mockus, a former mathematician and philosopher, famously painted zebra stripes at intersections and employed mimes to shame bad behavior, pretending to pull on vehicles, for example, that blocked crosswalks at red lights. “The city was a very funny place,” says Francisco José Fernandez, head of the Road Accident Prevention Fund, a private group supported by a special tax on car insurance. But Mockus had serious aims and some decidedly unfunny interventions. For one, he fired approximately 2000 traffic police. “The police department that was working on traffic was very corrupt,” says Fernandez, who served as secretary of transit when Peñalosa took over in 1998.

    Peñalosa, an erstwhile journalist, built on Mockus's efforts. Bogotá hired an army of 1000 to confront pedestrians who ignored red lights, cracked down on drunk drivers, built bicycle-only lanes, installed new signals, and restricted each car's access to the city center to 2 workdays a week.

    Perhaps most important, Peñalosa championed a new bus rapid transit system modeled after the widely celebrated one in Curitiba, Brazil. At the time, Bogotá relied on several bus companies that clogged the roads and vied for passengers. Peñalosa oversaw development of a bus rapid transit system called TransMilenio that has dedicated lanes. He also forced companies to work together by bidding for contracts and sharing revenue. Although Peñalosa met strong resistance, Hildalgo, who worked on TransMilenio, says the mayor told the bus companies, “I'm doing this with you or without you.” When Peñalosa's term ended in 2001, Mockus was reelected and continued the traffic reforms.

    Fast lane.

    Bogotá reduced traffic injuries and deaths by replacing a chaotic, competitive bus system with TransMilenio, which moves more rapidly and pollutes less.


    Today, TransMilenio has only about 25% of its projected 388 kilometers in operation—funding shortfalls have slowed completion—but accounts for 18% of the transit trips in the city and moves 1.3 million passengers a day. The $750 million system has shaved about 15 minutes off the average trip, according to TransMilenio data, and has reduced emissions by replacing 1500 obsolete buses with a new fleet.

    TransMilenio is one element in a broad push to improve traffic safety. Along the TransMilenio route, injuries plummeted from 18 a week in 1998 to four in 2002, notes Hildalgo. In Bogotá at large, accidents and trafficrelated injuries and deaths all steeply dropped between 1998 and 2006 (see table, above).

    Bogotá proves that even cash-strapped cities can improve traffic safety, Rosenberg says: “Traffic deaths are not an essential consequence of growth and development.”

    Elsewhere, Sweden has paced the field with technologies—such as road dividers made of Mylar—and traffic-slowing strategies as part of Vision Zero, a project launched in 1997 to eliminate traffic deaths and injuries in that country. Traffic deaths, which already were low by international standards, by 2006 had dropped by 20%. “Probably the most important measure for bringing down the death rate is to build safer roads so when people make mistakes in driving they're not penalized with their lives, and they did this in Sweden,” says Rosenberg. Norway and Australia now have similar programs.

    In April 2006, the World Bank launched the Global Road Safety Facility to help low- and middle-income countries reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths. The fund hopes to spend $30 million per year, but to date, donors have contributed just $12 million. “It's nothing,” complains Rosenberg.

    As much progress as Bogotá has made, it, too, faces costly obstacles to further improving its traffic safety. The new mayor, Samuel Moreno Rojas, has promised to build a traditional rail system, an idea that the public likes but that some transportation experts worry will inevitably delay the completion of the much cheaper TransMilenio routes. And although use of private cars has dropped, motorcycles are increasingly popular and now are involved in 51% of all fatal crashes. “Motorcycles right now are a nightmare,” says Fernandez. Improving motorcycle safety, he says, will require intensive courses for riders, more complex licensing tests, and stepping up enforcement—all of which cost money. “Bogotá is much more friendly now than it was 10 years ago,” says Fernandez. “But there are a lot of things to do.”

  15. Durban's Poor Get Water Services Long Denied

    1. Robert Koenig

    By providing clean water and improved toilets in "township" settlements, Durban is tackling one of the remaining vestiges of apartheid.

    By providing clean water and improved toilets in “township” settlements, Durban is tackling one of the remaining vestiges of apartheid

    Clean water.

    A Zulu boy uses a new water dispenser to fill a bucket in one of Durban's semirural settlements.


    DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA—Swerving around a muddy puddle in his old Toyota, Lucky Sibiya cruises past a row of shacks in Cato Crest and stops in front of a postlike water dispenser, where a Zulu man is filling a 10-liter bucket. Nearby, a plastic roof tank is supplying water to the shack below, and, down the street, a woman is adjusting the water flow from a barrel-shaped tank perched on an old tire in front of her home. “That water is clean,” says Sibiya, and for every household, 200 liters a day is free.

    Sibiya advises communities such as Cato Crest—one of Durban's poorest neighborhoods—about how to get the most out of the city's eThekwini Water and Sanitation Unit. Fifteen years ago, when engineer Neil Macleod became head of the unit, Durban's water services reflected the apartheid divide that had split South Africans for decades. The wealthiest residents had First-World water service; the middle third had access to basic water and sewerage; and the poorest third in the slums and semirural areas drew water from muddy streams. Soon after majority rule began in 1994, indigent South Africans began to clamor for the services that they had long been denied. Macleod's department confronted the challenge of rapidly expanding water and sanitation services in “township” settlements while keeping its budget afloat.

    At the time, a quarter of a million households in the Durban area had no access to clean water or sanitation. To jump-start improvements, Macleod got permission from the city in 1996 to provide a daily 200-liter water ration—a policy that became a national goal. Although water dispensed from standpipe posts remains free of charge, valves were installed to limit waste. Workers ran plastic piping into poor settlements and installed meters for household tanks. Families can have the spigot turn off at 200 liters or pay a metered rate beyond that limit.

    The laborious pipe-laying took time, and sanitation lagged even further behind. A cholera outbreak in Durban in 2000, which killed more than 70 people and infected tens of thousands in poor neighborhoods, increased pressure on Macleod's unit to speed up water service and sanitation improvements.

    Today, all but 120,000 of Durban's 3.5 million residents have access to clean water—at the very least, within a 200-meter walk. (A decade ago, some residents had to haul water as far as a kilometer.) All households should have water by the end of this year, says Macleod, but it will take 2 more years to make sure everyone has access to a proper toilet. “Water is relatively easy compared to the challenges of sanitation,” says Macleod.

    To tackle that problem, eThekwini Water is replacing the old “pit toilet” outhouses in many poor neighborhoods. At the time of the 2000 cholera epidemic, there were about 100,000 pit toilets in Durban, which posed disease-transmission problems when they were full. And they often were, because the hilly areas on the outskirts of the city are inaccessible to vacuum tankers that pump out deep pits. In 2003, Durban officials pledged to empty the communal pits every 5 years, and they started to research better options.

    The best solution so far is urine-diversion (UD) double-pit toilets, which separate urine from feces to allow the latter to dry and decompose faster. UD toilets have shallower pits and are less costly to empty than conventional pit toilets. During the past few years, eThekwini has replaced nearly 60,000 pit outhouses with UD toilets. The utility also commissioned research into the health and environmental impact of the new toilets. Starting in 2006, eThekwini has given about $300,000 a year to the Pollution Research Group of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban to study issues such as whether UD solid waste can be used as fertilizer. Early results are promising, says UKZN biologist Mike Smith.

    Another project, funded by eThekwini and the World Health Organization, assessed the health benefits of better water and sanitation. For 12 weeks, public health workers surveyed more than 1300 households in Durban's poor areas—half with UD toilets and half without—questioning each household every 2 weeks and recording episodes of diarrhea, vomiting, worms, and skin infections. Preliminary results suggest a 30% reduction in diarrheal diseases among households with UD toilets compared with similar households using pit toilets, says Stephen Knight of UKZN's Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, who worked on the project with eThekwini's environmental health department and the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control. Access to UD toilets helped avert an average of one diarrhea episode per person every 2 years, with the benefits of good sanitation three times greater for children under age 5 than for other age ranges, according to findings presented at a wastewater management conference last summer.

    EThekwini has won wide acclaim and some criticism. Patrick Bond, director of UKZN's Centre for Civil Society, contends that eThekwini's guarantee of a small amount of free water disguises the fact that it has raised water prices for people who use more than the free 200 liters. Many poor people “can't afford to pay the high costs,” Bond says. He also accuses the utility of disconnecting too many customers for not paying their water bills.

    EThekwini's deputy head for customer services, Michael Singh, says water policy “has been focused on marginalized and poor communities” and its new debt-relief program forgives past debts if customers meet their monthly bills for 20 months in a row. Although Macleod concedes that water prices have risen, he claims that eThekwini has set a standard among South African cities: “We are on track now to give everyone access to a basic level of services—water and sanitation—within 2 years. Not many other cities on this continent can say that.”

  16. Pipe Dreams Come True

    1. Jon Cohen

    A big investment in sewer connections in Salvador, Brazil, has led to a steep decline in diarrhea, a major killer of kids.

    A big investment in sewer connections in Salvador, Brazil, has led to a steep decline in diarrhea, a major killer of kids

    No connection.

    Before the intervention, toilets in many homes did not tie into the sewer system.


    Feces happen. And when millions of people live in the same city, a lot of it happens every day; and if it isn't properly disposed of, the health of the population goes down the toilet.

    Throughout the world, more than 2 billion people lack proper sanitation, which is integrally tied to water supply for both personal hygiene and sewage systems. In all, 1.6 million children die each year from related diarrheal diseases, making it the third leading cause of mortality in children under age 15 in middle- and low-income countries. “Third World cities have a huge internal environmental problem created by fecal contamination that needs to be solved,” says epidemiologist Mauricio Barreto of the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil.

    Project after project has demonstrated that cleaner water, proper sanitation, and hygiene education can improve the health of communities. Yet few studies have measured the impact of interventions citywide, and none has focused on sanitation, says Barreto. Now, an ambitious project in Salvador that he led claims to have done just that, documenting for the first time the health benefits of expanding sewer systems.

    A decade ago in Salvador, 80% of the 2.5 million residents had flush toilets in their homes. Outside of wealthy neighborhoods, however, few toilets were linked to sewers; nearly three-fourths of the residents relied on septic tanks or, more commonly, flushed waste into creeks, streets, and the like. In 1996, the city received a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank and invested about $220 million in a project that laid 2000 kilometers of sewer pipes for more than 300,000 homes. “Very few cities in the world have made an investment in sanitation on this scale in such a short time,” says Barreto. “We saw it as a great opportunity to see the effects on health.”

    As Barreto and co-workers explained in the 10 November 2007 issue of The Lancet, they recorded cases of diarrhea in 841 children before the intervention and in 1007 other children after the pipes were laid. The children, who were no more than 3 years old and had similar living conditions in 24 sentinel areas, were followed for more than 6 months by fieldworkers who came to their homes twice a week. Citywide, diarrhea dropped 22%, and it fell 43% in neighborhoods that had the highest diarrheal prevalence before the intervention. Neither the researchers nor the city provided hygiene education, and hygiene behavior did not explain differences in diarrhea prevalence. The study team concluded that the sewage hookups primarily prevented transmission of diarrhea by reducing exposure to feces in the “public domain”—that is, in open sewers. “[The benefit] wasn't dependent on whether your house had a connection,” explains co-author Sandy Cairncross, a water engineer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the U.K. “It was the extent of coverage of sewers in your neighborhood to which people could connect.”

    Demographer Narayan Sastry of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, commends the researchers but questions whether the findings will apply elsewhere. He notes that other cities in Brazil have much higher connection rates to sewer systems and that it's easiest to see a dramatic impact in areas where none existed, as in some of the sentinel areas in Salvador.

    Brazil's sanitation shortcomings pale, too, in comparison with many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia that lack sewage systems and clean water supplies. In these less developed countries, simpler and cheaper interventions can have a big impact, says Albert Wright, a water and sanitation engineer and consultant in Woodbridge, Virginia. “The tools are there,” says Wright, a native of Ghana who has worked at the World Bank. “It's just how you apply them.”

    Leaders in many cities in developing countries make the mistake of wanting to replicate the sewer systems of wealthier countries, Wright contends. “They think they must have conventional sewage like New York or Los Angeles, and they try to design a centralized system,” he says. But a larger system means bigger pipes and higher costs. “They look at the high cost and have a sense of hopelessness, so they put the plans on the shelf,” Wright says. These cities, he says, would be better off designing neighborhood sewer systems similar to the ones recently built in Bangkok, Thailand.

    In some locales that can't afford sewage systems, basic, well-designed latrines can significantly improve sanitation. Wright points to work he does with WaterAID, a nonprofit that builds dry pits and pour-flush latrines that use pairs of pits. When one pit fills, the latrine diverts to the second. After 2 years, the contents of the first pit can be removed and used as fertilizer—at which point the pit is again ready for human waste.

    Although experts disagree about how to get the most bang for the buck, there's wide consensus that there aren't enough available bucks. “Diarrhea kills more children than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria put together,” says Cairncross. “Yet there isn't a global fund for diarrhea. All politicians would like an airport or a train station named after them but not a sewage plant.” Also, there's often a disconnect between local health and water agencies, he says. Further complicating matters, private enterprises frequently run water and sanitation services. And as the Salvador study highlights, scant data exist to help municipalities make tough choices.

    The United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of Sanitation, which Barreto welcomes—albeit with a measure of skepticism. “The U.N. has been very, very shy when it comes to sanitation,” he says, adding that it is no longer acceptable. “Societies have to make this a priority.”

  17. Rebuilt From Ruins, a Water Utility Turns Clean and Pure

    1. Erik Stokstad

    A hard battle to root out corruption and renew devastated infrastructure has paid off in the capital of Cambodia.

    A hard battle to root out corruption and renew devastated infrastructure has paid off in the capital of Cambodia

    When Ek Sonn Chan was appointed director of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) in 1993, he faced challenges that were severe even for the developing world. A century-old infrastructure had fallen into disrepair during years of civil war and repression. Morale was low, training inadequate, and corruption rife. Stricken by the bloodletting of the Khmer Rouge, the utility was hemorrhaging water and money.

    In little more than a decade, Chan turned PPWSA around. “It is an important success story,” says Michael Rouse, who teaches water management and policy at the University of Oxford, U.K. Backed by political support from Cambodia's authoritarian government and many millions of dollars from international donors, Chan took several key steps. He raised water prices to help the utility become self-sustaining, stemmed the amount of water stolen or lost through leaks, and expanded services. “These are unusual achievements for urban water supply in developing cities,” says Jennifer Davis, a water supply and sanitation expert at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

    French colonists started Phnom Penh's first water utility in 1895. The utility grew 10-fold after the country gained independence in 1953, but neglect during a civil war in the 1970s took a toll on infrastructure. PPWSA suffered even more when the Khmer Rouge captured the city in 1975. Along with many of the country's intellectuals and professionals, water engineers were killed. Blueprints were lost, and much of the equipment destroyed. When Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the utility limped back on line with few resources or experienced staff.

    Corruption and cronyism were rampant. Water was free of charge but not freely available: Wealthier residents slipped PPWSA employees as much as $1000 to jury-rig illegal connections, which wasted water, says Chan. The government allowed PPWSA to start charging for water in 1986, but then meter readers took bribes and more than half the bills went unpaid. All told, the utility collected payment for just 28% of the water it supplied, which meant it couldn't keep up with maintenance.


    Ek Sonn Chan has won praise for reforming the water utility in Phnom Penh.


    Chan was an unlikely savior. He was trained as an electrical engineer, but the Khmer Rouge forced him and other professionals to work in the rice fields. The Khmer Rouge killed his entire family. After the regime fell, Chan got a job as a butcher in Phnom Penh and then entered the civil service. He worked his way up to director of municipal commerce and, in 1993, was tapped to lead PPWSA. “The demand for change came from Ek Sonn Chan himself, and he saw the potential for reform to improve performance,” says Wouter Lincklaen Arriens, a water-resources specialist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Mandaluyong City, Philippines.

    Digging deep.

    The utility stretched its dollars by installing much of the new distribution system itself.


    Chan started with a yearlong evaluation during which staffers rooted out illegal connections. He then had workers install more water meters—in 1993, just 9% of connections were metered; within 3 years, the utility had reached 85%. It wasn't easy because most residents still expected to get their water for free. Chan held public meetings and went door to door to explain that the fees—then, 10 cents per 1000 liters—would improve the system. Once, Chan recalls, a military officer who objected to paying for water pulled a gun. It was a “harrowing experience,” he says. Chan left but contacted the military police and then returned with an armed squad to disconnect the illegal tap.

    Prime Minister Hun Sen's support was key to raising prices. “You've got to have a government, whether national or local, that has the courage to make these changes,” Rouse says. He credits PPWSA for spreading out the increases over 7 years, which eased the pain.

    Streamlining the bureaucracy wasn't easy, either. But in 1996, the government granted the utility autonomy, a crucial step that allowed Chan to promote talented employees, give performance bonuses, and deal with slackers. PPWSA became more efficient; the number of staff per 1000 connections dropped from 22 in 1993 to four in 2005.

    These kinds of improvements impressed donors. With $118 million from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the World Bank, ADB, and others, Chan started repairing the infrastructure, and he installed a computer system that tracks flow and pressure to help detect leaks. Chan also added 950 kilometers of new piping. The system now delivers water 24 hours a day; adequate pressure helps prevent sewage and other contaminants from seeping into the pipes. PPWSA provides water to all of the 500,000 people who live in Phnom Penh's four inner districts and about 60% of the metropolitan area.

    The work isn't over. The utility has subsidized the hookup fee for some 15,000 poor families, but many others draw from wells that are not all safe or buy expensive water from private vendors. As more poor people migrate to the city—the population of Phnom Penh is expected to double by 2034 to 3 million—the service area will need to expand fivefold to 500 square kilometers. Chan estimates the price tag at $300 million. Sanitation, the province of another agency, will become an ever-bigger problem, as will pollution dumped into the rivers upstream by the city's factories.

    But Phnom Penh has already made enough progress to share its experience with other cities. PPWSA is now training staff at a utility in Vietnam's Binh Duong province. “Remember that PPWSA started out in very poor condition, worse than many other utilities, yet was able to achieve phenomenal improvements over a short period,” says Lincklaen Arriens. “It is clear that there are lessons for other cities.”

  18. Living in the Danger Zone

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    The siren call of storm-battered coasts and other beautiful but hazardous human nesting areas has compelled urban planners to gird for the worst.

    The siren call of storm-battered coasts and other beautiful but hazardous human nesting areas has compelled urban planners to gird for the worst

    On a Friday morning in ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana, Joe Brown learned just how fiercely people value their homes. Along with several dozen other disaster experts, the veteran urban planner had been recruited by the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., to develop a rebuilding plan for the city, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. At a town hall meeting that October, at the Sheraton Hotel on once-bustling Canal Street, Brown, who leads the San Francisco design and planning firm EDAW, shared his vision, formulated after interviewing 300 people over 2 weeks. Much of New Orleans was salvageable, he said, to nods and murmurs of approval. But about a quarter of the city lay in utter ruin and remained at high risk of flooding. Brown displayed diagrams that suggested turning some blocks, for the time being, into open space.


    Hurricane Katrina flooded much of New Orleans, and some neighborhoods have struggled to recover.


    Reaction was swift and harsh. A council member accused Brown of aiming to “replace these fine neighborhoods with fishes and animals,” he recalls. A couple of audience members rose up and declared, “All we want to do is get back to our homes.” The planners were startled. “We got shock and amazement to what, to us, were fairly obvious truths,” Brown says.

    Although rebuilding a broken city can ease trauma, it often goes against research suggesting that reconstruction ought to proceed differently, or not at all, on land acutely vulnerable to disasters. “Cultural, social, emotional, and psychological” factors are “more important than physical safety and ecological determinism” to displaced residents, Brown says. “People believe you must always be able to recolonize.” Persuading residents to resist this imperative is nearly impossible, he says.

    Residents of New Orleans are not alone in their dogged determination to place themselves in harm's way. According to a report last August from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly half the U.S. population lived in counties that had declared flood disasters at least six times between 1980 and 2005, and 29% made their home in a county hit by at least one hurricane in that time. Large swaths of the western United States are at risk of wildfires, such as those that emptied parts of southern California last October. People are willing to gamble by building homes on earthquake fault lines, in landslide zones, and along tornado alleys. “Population trends are increasing the nation's vulnerability to these risks,” the GAO report noted dryly.

    The collision of science and human psychology frustrates urban planners as they try to insulate communities from danger. One approach is to gird cities for the blow, for example, by toughening building standards and construction permits. When a disaster does strike, communities are rarely abandoned; in most cases, picking up the pieces means modifying how a city is rebuilt. “You're working at it backwards in a way,” says Ken Topping, a city planning consultant and lecturer at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. “Sometimes you have to wait for a crisis to get the idea across” to planners and residents that how and even where they live should change.

    Hurricane Katrina prompted Topping and colleagues to consider the impact of levy failures as they drafted a California state disaster-mitigation plan. Levies were built in the Central Valley to protect cropland from floods. Now they are essential to shielding communities. If levies were to fail, catastrophic effects could include disruption of the drinking water supply to southern California, the mitigation plan's authors concluded, echoing past warnings.

    One region where it has proved especially tough to modify development is along the Florida coast. “The attractions and the amenity of being on the water are very, very strong and overcome a lot of rational understanding of the risk,” says urban planner Steven French of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. In 1996, after Hurricane Opal tore up the Florida panhandle, Robert Deyle, who studies coastal planning at Florida State University in Tallahassee, surveyed 35 counties and 158 municipalities about their postdisaster plans. Only 12% had one in place.

    Although planners may hold little sway with Floridians, insurance companies are modifying behaviors as they become less inclined to cover homeowners in exposed areas. Ceres, an investor coalition that focuses on sustainability, has reported that Allstate Insurance let 120,000 policies lapse in Florida in 2006, after canceling 95,000 the year before. Another major insurer, State Farm, declined to renew 39,000 windstorm policies in 2006. In a sign of how dire the situation has become, the Citizens Property Insurance Corp., set up by Florida legislators in 2002 as the insurer of last resort, is now the state's biggest property insurer. It has raised premiums by as much as 150% in the last 2 years. Rising premiums may price some residents out of hurricane zones, says French.

    On a few occasions, the government has said enough is enough. Consider Brownwood, Texas. The tony Gulf Coast subdivision had been subsiding for years and was highly susceptible to flooding when Hurricane Alicia hit in 1983. “We didn't have very many homes standing,” recalls A. Jean Shephard, who had lived in Brownwood since 1954. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered to buy out the 400 or so wrecked houses. “I can't tell you how it felt” to leave, says Shephard, who now lives in Paris, Texas.

    Brownwood lay abandoned for years. In the early 1990s, a special planning committee chose to turn the ghost town into a nature preserve with wetlands and a butterfly garden that now occupy more than 160 hectares.

    Brownwood is a stark exception; New Orleans is the norm. Reconstruction there has proceeded fitfully. The most vulnerable areas are a patchwork of rebuilt homes and decaying shells—in Brown's words, a “shantytown of semiabandonment,” and exactly the reincarnation he'd hoped to avoid.

  19. Choking on Fumes, Kolkata Faces a Noxious Future

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Faced with political opposition, Kolkata lags behind other Indian cities in tackling auto emissions.

    Faced with political opposition, Kolkata lags behind other Indian cities in tackling auto emissions


    On a typical weekday in Kolkata, a city of 14 million people in the Indian state of West Bengal, the streets are clogged with vehicles and the air is stick with exhaust. Soot coats the leaves of trees along the sidewalks. The skin tingles. Snot turns black. Every few weeks, when a strike shuts down businesses and traffic for an entire day, citizens see a silver lining: They can walk through downtown without handkerchiefs pressed to their noses.

    Officials admit that air pollution in India's former colonial capital poses a serious health risk to its inhabitants. The annual average concentration of nitrogen oxides in many residential areas, for example, is nearly double the regulatory threshold of 60 micrograms per cubic meter. “The winter months are very serious,” says Dipak Chakraborty, chief scientist of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB). “Elderly people with respiratory illnesses are severely affected.”

    Unlike other Indian metropolises such as New Delhi and Mumbai, where court-mandated measures to control auto emissions sparked recent improvements in air quality, Kolkata's air quality appears to be deteriorating. Environmental groups accuse the West Bengal government of doing little to address the problem. “Pollution is simply not an issue for them,” says Sunita Narain of the nonprofit Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. State officials counter that they have forced many factories out of the city and required them to switch from coal to oil or natural gas. But they admit that a lack of resources and resistance from powerful taxi and bus unions—which wield considerable influence over the state's communist government—have prevented them from tackling auto emissions.

    In 2005, WBPCB recommended that Kolkata's taxis, three-wheelers, and buses convert to cleaner fuels such as liquid petroleum gas and compressed natural gas, as New Delhi and Mumbai began doing 5 years ago. But vehicle operators argued that they could not afford to make the switch and threatened to strike. The proposal languished. “The government does not wish to become unpopular with the transportation lobby,” acknowledges an official.

    The board also recommended that, as Delhi and Mumbai have done, Kolkata begin phasing out all commercial vehicles made before 1990, when emissions standards were practically nonexistent. The government issued an order to that effect in May 2005, but bus and taxi unions challenged it in Calcutta High Court. In December 2007, when state lawyers failed to appear in court, judges voided the order. “The ban was a farce,” says Anjali Srivastava, a chemist with the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Kolkata. “It was clear that the state government had no intention of following through.”

    Another obstacle for Kolkata and other Indian cities is an allegedly corrupt system for emissions checks. All vehicles are required to have an annual inspection at a private testing station. The certificates issued by these stations are often unreliable, says Chakraborty. “There is a lot of manipulation, and certificates are even issued without an inspection,” he says, adding that government proposals to require testing stations to use tamper-proof technology have so far failed.

    India's auto boom, fueled by a rising economy, is likely to aggravate Kolkata's woeful air quality and reverse some gains in Delhi and Mumbai, environmental groups predict. With manufacturing giant Tata set to debut a $2500 car to the Indian market by late 2008, tens of millions of automobiles are expected to be added to the country's congested streets in the next few years. Even though new vehicles emit far less pollutants, their sheer number could add up to high levels of air pollution, says Narain. An added concern, she says, is that a third of all new cars run on diesel, a more polluting fuel than gasoline. “Manufacturers want to sell diesel cars because diesel is cheaper,” explains Narain, who wants the government to raise taxes on new vehicles and on diesel and invest more heavily in mass transit systems.

    Rakesh Kumar, a scientist at NEERI in Mumbai, is opposed to any move that would put vehicles out of reach of the middle class. “Why should cars only be owned by rich people?” he asks. Instead, he wants cities to improve bus and train services to enable people to curtail their use of personal vehicles. This is already the case in Mumbai, Kumar says, which has the best public transportation of any Indian city.

    Kolkata's priority should be to run public vehicles on cleaner fuels, Chakraborty says. Toward that end, the state government plans to spend $1 million this year to subsidize the cost of switching several hundred three-wheelers and taxis to liquid petroleum gas. That will not be enough, he concedes: Eventually, the government will have to phase out older vehicles and stem the numbers of new vehicles. “Unless we take drastic steps,” Chakraborty says, “the problem will continue to get worse.”

  20. From Gasoline Alleys to Electric Avenues

    1. Eli Kintisch

    A grass-roots campaign for next-generation electric cars could help make fuel-efficient and less polluting hybrid plug-ins a reality.

    A grass-roots campaign for next-generation electric cars could help make fuel-efficient and less polluting hybrid plug-ins a realityCREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

    In 2020, the streets of Austin, Texas, won't seem much different from the way they are today. Sidewalks and bicycles will be used much as they are now: seldom. The automobile will continue to be central to daily life. Most of the city's residents will commute to work, take children to Little League games, and pick up groceries on the way home by car. But there will be one big difference: Drivers will stop far less frequently at gas stations, and the air will be considerably cleaner. That, at least, is the way that Roger Duncan, deputy general manager of Austin Energy, the city-owned utility, sees it.

    “We have a vision,” says Duncan. He's spearheading a nationwide grass-roots effort to popularize the next-generation hybrid vehicle. Like today's hybrids, such as Toyota's popular Prius, they have dual gasoline and electric engines. But whereas current hybrids recharge their battery packs only during driving, plug-ins can also be recharged from the electrical grid by plugging into wall sockets. Last year, Duncan persuaded dozens of cities to sign a nonbinding pledge to buy plug-in hybrids for municipal fleets when they come on the market, as early as 2010.

    Plug-ins “are most valuable in an urban environment,” says Duncan, who notes that electric engines don't waste energy by idling at stoplights or in traffic jams. Less gasoline burned means less pollution: A 2006 study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council predicts “small but significant improvements in ambient air quality” if half of U.S. drivers adopt plug-ins by 2050. Even if only a fifth of U.S. drivers buy plug-ins, the study found, that would lead to much higher energy efficiency, averting the emission of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year.

    Current plug-in prototypes are more than twice as efficient in gasoline consumption as today's gas hybrids, says James Francfort of Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls. No wonder, then, that many experts are itching to see the cars on the road. Plug-in hybrids, says California-based electric car advocate Chelsea Sexton, are “the killer app” of car technology.

    Duncan became acquainted with hybrid plug-ins after Austin's city council in 2004 asked him to brainstorm green-energy solutions for the progressive university town. The council latched onto the technology the next year, authorizing $1 million for rebates for future plug-in hybrid purchasers. Duncan persuaded dozens of Austin government offices, businesses, and nonprofits to commit to soft orders: nonbinding pledges to car companies to buy plug-ins once available. Then in 2006, Austin created the Plug-In Partners national campaign, which has brought together 77 cities—from Alameda, California, to Wenatchee, Washington—and more than 100 organizations and businesses to set up similar programs and pledges. “Carmakers aren't going to make plug-in hybrids just for Austin,” says Duncan.

    Last month, Toyota announced that it will build a plug-in for sale by 2010, matching a General Motors (GM) target. Meanwhile, Daimler-Chrysler is testing a prototype plug-in van, the Dodge Sprinter, which it hopes will compete with models that Japanese companies are developing. It's unclear whether Duncan's grass-roots campaign will gel into a potential market for plug-in hybrids, cautions GM's Larry Nitz. Still, says EPRI's Mark Duvall, “support for the technology has really grown in the last year.” In Washington, D.C., the Plug-In Partners campaign has teamed with green groups and defense-minded organizations concerned about U.S. dependence on foreign oil to push for federal research and tax incentives.


    There are several technical wildcards, such as how the larger battery packs—four times larger than those of the Prius—will withstand the rigors of city driving, how many recharging cycles they'll endure, and what changes to the U.S. power grid will be needed to take on a heavy charging load. “Our [industry's] research effort is really just starting out,” says Francfort, whose team studies batteries, fuel use, and car performance.

    Austin is chipping in some research as well. Its municipal fleet includes two Priuses equipped with extra batteries that can be recharged using a standard plug. Duncan says the city is tracking mileage performance, battery life, recharging capacity, and durability. And Internet giant Google is reviewing proposals for $10 million in technology grants it hopes to hand out this year. One priority is creating a computer protocol for cars to communicate their charging needs to an upgraded power grid able to manage a city full of plug-ins.

    In Duncan's vision of Austin, plug-ins are a two-way street. During the daytime, commuters would leave them plugged in and allow the city grid to draw electricity from the cars during afternoon peak demands. “We'd buy [electricity] back,” says Duncan, “instead of having to build another power plant.” That could help keep Austin the way its residents like it: pretty much as it is today.

  21. Unclogging Urban Arteries

    1. Elizabeth Quill

    "Congestion charges" can significantly reduce gridlock. Next step: Taxes on high-polluting vehicles?

    LONDON—In 2003, soon after London authorities slapped a tax on each vehicle entering the city center, traffic volume fell 15%, and drivers spent 30% less time in gridlock, according to the city's Transport for London. Commuters were delighted, and once-virulent opposition to the fee, now £8 ($16) a day, subsided.

    Congestion charges are a big hit in London and Stockholm, which adopted a similar tax in 2007. Other cities are expected to follow suit. New York City plans to implement a charge this year, and politicians in Shanghai, China, and Sydney, Australia, are debating the idea. “As congestion becomes worse in other major cities, it becomes more likely that charges will be put in place,” says Graeme Craig, Transport for London's director of congestion charging.

    Congestion is a bane of urban life. The average U.S. commuter spends 38 hours stuck in traffic, according to a study released last September by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University in College Station. A century ago, economists suggested that road taxes would alleviate this ill. Since then, proposed schemes have included highway tolls, daily parking charges for cordoned areas, and graduated pricing based on time of day and kilometers traveled. Officials in Singapore first implemented a congestion charge in 1975; interest in such charges picked up considerably after London used the fee to untangle its downtown grid.

    The tax is not a panacea. “You can't introduce it by itself and expect it to solve the problem,” says Philip Blythe, a civil engineer at Newcastle University in the U.K. Charging schemes require detailed modeling of a city's layout, travel patterns, and public transportation, as well as occasional tweaks to maintain benefits. Still, some critics question whether the benefits will last. Transit time on London streets has slowed since the initial improvements; officials attribute this to construction projects.

    As other cities mull a congestion tax, Blythe emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For example, freeway traffic tends to be a bigger problem than downtown traffic in Los Angeles and other cities in the western United States, says David Brownstone, a transport economist at the University of California, Irvine. Some cities may not be ready for congestion charges. In Beijing, “we need to construct more roads first, and we need to provide better public transportation,” says Yang Xinmiao, an engineer at Tsinghua University in Beijing.


    Hoping to build on its success, officials in London will use its congestion charge scheme to turn the screws on less eco-friendly cars. Later this year, authorities plan to raise the charge for high-polluting vehicles—those that emit more than 225 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer—to £25. Blythe sees this trend eventually leading to a carbon-trading scheme for transport. “At some stage, we may have our own personal carbon allowance for travel,” he predicts. “But first we have to get the basics right.”

  22. Upending the Traditional Farm

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    Cities are taking over farmland. Could they someday take over the job of farming, too?

    Cities are taking over farmland. Could they someday take over the job of farming, too?

    Future farms.

    Hydroponic techniques that grow produce on a Hudson River barge (right) could be deployed in vertical gardens built into the glass façades of office buildings (left).


    In a high-tech answer to the “local food” movement, some experts want to transport the whole farm—shoots, roots, and all—to the city. They predict that future cities could grow most of their food inside city limits, in ultraefficient greenhouses.

    “Vertical farms,” proponents say, could produce more food using a fraction of the resources that traditional farms consume. The lives of millions of people may depend on it. Dickson Despommier, a parasitologist at Columbia University and an avid proponent of vertical farming, calculates that with projected population increases, the world will need 1 billion more hectares of arable land by 2050—roughly the area of Brazil and far more land than will be available.

    Researchers are now putting prototypes of intensive urban farms to a real-world test. The basic concept is an evolution, not a revolution, of greenhouse technology. Greenhouses “can grow any crop anywhere at any time—at a cost,” says Gene Giacomelli of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which has built a $450,000 greenhouse for researchers who winter at the South Pole. Well-designed greenhouses use as little as 10% of the water and 5% of the area required by farm fields, says Theodore “Ted” Caplow, executive director of the engineering company New York Sun Works in New York City, which designs energy-efficient urban greenhouses. “We are removing that footprint from the countryside,” he says, and reducing pressure on habitats and depleted soils.

    Urban indoor farms can't do it all. Growing grains such as wheat, corn, and rice indoors does not save as many resources as growing vegetables and fruits indoors, says Caplow, and most trees grow too slowly to make greenhouse orchards pay off. Some of the more ambitious concepts for vertical farms will require technological breakthroughs in lighting and energy consumption. And initially, at least, urban produce will likely be more expensive than that grown at conventional farms and shipped to a city.

    But as oil prices rise, greenhouse economics look more favorable, Giacomelli says. “All our cheap food is based on cheap transportation, cheap water, and cheap energy for nitrogen-based fertilizer,” he says.

    One approach that could be implemented quickly is rooftop greenhouses. In a demonstration of what can be grown on New York City's roofs, Caplow's company last summer built and operated the Science Barge, a floating greenhouse on the Hudson River that used solar power and recycled water to grow fruits and vegetables. New Yorkers eat 100 kilograms of fresh vegetables on average per year, Caplow says, and the rooftops of New York City would provide roughly twice the needed space to supply the entire city. New York Sun Works is now installing a demonstration greenhouse on top of a New York City school that would serve as a teaching area and supply produce to its cafeteria.

    A more ambitious concept is farming the facades of office buildings. Double-glass facades are already popular among architects as an energy-saver, allowing winter sun in while insulating against noise and heat loss. In the summer, most double facades have built-in shades to keep the interior cool. Hydroponic gardens could provide that shade, Caplow says. Vertical conveyor belts could cycle plants to the lower floors in time for harvest. “The systems we are designing are what we can actually do today,” Caplow says.

    Gazing further into the future, Despommier and his students are refining the idea of skyscraper farms. They estimate that a 30-story farm on one city block could feed 50,000 people with vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat. Upper floors would grow hydroponic crops; lower floors would house chickens and fish that consume plant waste. Heat and lighting would be powered by geothermal, tidal, solar, or other renewable energy sources. Nitrogen and other nutrients would be sieved from animal waste and perhaps from the city sewage system. “That's where a significant fraction of your fruits and vegetables are going,” into sewage, Despommier says. “You have to close the loop.” Eventually, he says, hydroponic greenhouses could also be a boon for the developing world. In tropical regions, they could make use of ample sun, conserve water, and give wornout soils a rest. Ideally, they would also provide a way to safely turn human waste into plant food, he says.

    Such ideas are inspiring, says Jan Broeze, an agricultural scientist at the University of Wageningen, the Netherlands. But “you need large technological breakthroughs” in lighting and waste processing to realize them. In 2001, Broeze, Peter Smeets, and their colleagues proposed a six-story urban farm called Deltapark at Rotterdam harbor that would recycle water and nutrients and use excess heat from nearby buildings. The agricultural ministry supported Deltapark, but the project was abandoned after the press criticized it for being “too industrialized.” Now Broeze is working on several projects that link greenhouses with livestock producers to recycle waste and reduce energy consumption. And he and other Dutch scientists are working with colleagues in India and China to design urban farms in several cities. The biggest project is part of Dongtan Eco-city, near Shanghai (see p. 740).

    One goal of Dongtan is to grow enough food to replace lost productivity as farmland is urbanized, says Peter Head, director of Arup, a design company leading the project. “The big question is whether it is economically viable,” he says. Head predicts that the lessons learned in China will propel a fundamental shift in the world's approach to agriculture. “It isn't a matter of whether we think it would be nice to do urban farming or not,” he says. “It's a matter of whether we are going to survive.”

  23. Imagining a City Where (Electrical) Resistance Is Futile

    1. Daniel Clery

    Will the cities of the future be powered by liquid hydrogen transmitted via superconducting cables?

    If you were building a city in the 21st century, how would you power and fuel it? Pipe in electricity by copper cable and haul in gasoline by road, as is done today? Paul Grant thinks not. He envisions using superconducting electrical cables and liquid hydrogen to energize a metropolis while emitting little or no carbon.

    Grant's “SuperCity” is popular with proponents of nuclear energy because it relies heavily on the next generation of nuclear plants. But the hard work of fleshing out the concept and developing the cables has only just begun. “The basic research still needs to be done. Can this thing really be built?” asks electrical engineer Thomas Overbye of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who has organized a couple of workshops on the related idea of a SuperGrid to wire a whole continent. Not everyone is convinced. “We should sort out the problems with the energy system we have” before inventing new ones, says Robert Socolow of the Energy Group at Princeton Environmental Institute. Grant concedes that at the moment, SuperCity remains a utopian vision. “It's about the energy society we should be looking at 50 years from now,” he says.

    Cool fuel.

    Because a supercable would bring liquid hydrogen into a city as a coolant, plenty would be available to sell as fuel.


    While working at IBM's Almaden Research Center in northern California during the 1980s, Grant pioneered the development of high-temperature superconductors, complex oxides that carry electricity with zero resistance at temperatures that are low but much higher than those for earlier materials. Unlike their predecessors, high-temperature superconductors can be cooled using easily obtained liquid nitrogen. In 1993, after more than 40 years with IBM, Grant moved down the freeway to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, where he applies his skills to solving energy problems, such as improving transmission. In 1999, Grant was challenged to come up with a “wild idea” to present at a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) meeting on superconductivity. His brainstorm was to combine superconducting cables with a hydrogen economy.

    Today's electricity grids lose about 7% of power to resistance, so superconducting cables would boost efficiency—if the lines could be supercooled. Grant proposed pumping liquid hydrogen into a pipe in which the superconducting cable runs down the middle, creating a “supercable” that carries both electricity and hydrogen into a city. Fuel stations could tap into the coolant to power electric fuel-cell cars. Hydrogen could also be burned for domestic heating and cooking, circulated au naturel for air conditioning, or converted into electricity during peaks in demand.

    The SuperCity requires nuclear power to generate electricity, Grant argues, because renewable energy sources such as biofuels and wind or solar farms take up valuable land and degrade the environment. “You cannot beat nuclear for its [small] footprint and [high] power density,” he says. Upcoming nuclear reactor designs, known as generation IV, will operate at high temperatures and produce hydrogen as a byproduct of electricity generation. Grant's SuperCity doesn't dismiss other energy sources entirely, however. Every roof could be covered with solar cells, and waste could be burned to generate power. Such alternative sources could supply about 10% of a city's energy demand, he says.

    Because of the huge investment sunk into conventional technology, it may take decades to realize the entire SuperCity vision. Supercables integrated into the electricity grid could happen sooner. “It would have immediate appeal,” says Steven Eckroad of EPRI, which has carried out cable-design studies. Overbye adds: “The concept really needs a big funder [such as DOE] to step up and say, ‘This is the way we're going to go.’ But that hasn't occurred yet.”

    Grant, now retired from EPRI but still consulting, is undaunted. “If we were starting from scratch on another planet, this would be the way to do it,” he says.

  24. Money--With Strings--to Fight Poverty

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Cash incentives for education and health care are a new tool for helping the urban poor in Mexico and New York.

    Cash incentives for education and health care are a new tool for helping the urban poor in Mexico and New York

    Sound investment.

    Mexico pays poor families to keep their children in school.


    In 1995, the peso's devaluation plunged Mexico into its worst economic crisis in half a century. For years, the government had helped those in poverty by subsidizing the price of staples such as tortillas and milk. But that meant that the rich and middle class who didn't need help got it anyway, wasting scarce government resources. Mexico needed to target the most destitute.

    So Deputy Finance Minister Santiago Levy and others proposed a radical idea: Scrap the food subsidies and use census data and surveys to identify the poorest households and give them cash instead. Not handouts: To get the money, families would have to keep their children in school and get regular health checkups. Payments would go only to mothers, because research showed that they were less likely than fathers to squander it. Children would get nutritional supplements. And the program would include treatment and control groups, just like a clinical trial. The long-term goal was to pull the next generation out of poverty.

    Other Mexican officials thought it was “crazy” at first, Levy says—like “bribing” parents. But 10 years later, the “conditional cash transfer” (CCT) program is credited with higher school enrollment and taller, healthier children. Outside researchers regard Mexico's CCT program as an innovative approach to reducing Third World poverty. As a way to boost education level, which influences income, CCTs are “one of the most effective programs,” says economist Alan Krueger of Princeton University. The giant social experiment has been adopted widely in cities including Rio de Janeiro and Istanbul and has just debuted in New York City.

    Levy, an economics professor at Boston University who returned to Mexico in 1992, says he and others set up the CCT program in recognition of the “strong coupling” between health, nutrition, education, and lifetime earnings. Benefits range from $11 per month for children in 3rd grade up to $69 for a girl finishing high school, with attendance verified by school records. Mothers also get cash for buying food and nutritional supplements for babies when they attend family health checkups at free clinics.

    The program, called Progresa, built in outside evaluation because “credibility was essential,” says Levy. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C., and Mexican academics set up a study design with 320 villages randomly assigned as treatment groups and 186 control villages.

    After 18 months, the comparisons showed clear gains. For instance, the program raised junior high school enrollment 20% for girls and 10% for boys; children under age 6 had 12% fewer bouts of illness; early prenatal health visits rose 8%; and toddlers grew 1 centimeter more per year. The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004 and in economics journals, persuaded the next government in 2001 to rename the program Oportunidades and extend it to cities. It now covers 5 million families, or one-quarter of Mexico's population.

    In urban areas, the health benefits have been similar, but school enrollment hasn't climbed as much, perhaps because of the greater job opportunities for youth compared with rural areas, notes economist Susan Parker of Spectron Desarrollo, a research organization in Mexico City. One disappointment in both rural and urban areas is that test scores haven't risen. “The deeper issue is the quality of education and teachers,” says Levy, now at the Inter-American Development Bank.

    About 20 other countries in Latin America and elsewhere have adopted CCT programs, says economist Laura Rawlings of the World Bank. In urban Turkey, for example, the program has raised the attendance of girls in secondary school by 6%, says Michelle Adato of IFPRI. In the World Bank's view, CCTs are “not a silver bullet” for eliminating poverty, says Rawlings. But they are, she says, “a promising tool.”

    Perhaps the most surprising imitator is New York City. This fall, after visiting Mexico City and the nearby city of Toluca, Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched Opportunity NYC, a privately financed program that will pay families for achieving certain schooling, health, and work targets. About 5000 families (including controls) identified from lists of children receiving free school lunches have enrolled in a 2-year pilot study. Families can get $50 per month for a child who has a 95% attendance rate at high school and as much as $200 for a preventive health care visit; one of the biggest awards, $600, is for passing a high school achievement test.

    The program has drawn plenty of flak. The notion of paying for better test scores has raised concerns about the kind of rote learning that may encourage. A more basic question, notes Krueger, is whether the payments are big enough to motivate the New Yorkers, who although poor are well-off compared with the average Oportunidades family subsisting on $100 a month. “It's right to be skeptical,” says sociologist James Riccio of MDRC, a nonprofit research organization in New York City that is evaluating the program. Still, he says, like Mexico's CCT program, “what's most impressive is how rigorously it's going to be tested. In the end, it will be informative.”

    As New York City samples these waters, Mexican researchers are now investigating the program's long-term effects. Last year, they began collecting data on the education level, jobs, and marital status of the first generation of boys to benefit from the program. But as Levy points out, improved health and more schooling may not be sufficient to ensure that Oportunidades children fare better than their parents, unless accompanied by economic growth and better schools. “My concern is that people will begin to think this is a panacea,” says Levy. Still, even if Mexico's CCT program alone cannot wipe out urban poverty, it is attacking some of its causes at their roots.

  25. Building on a Firm Foundation

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Researchers have found striking improvements in child health from a simple measure: giving poor Mexican families a concrete floor.

    Replacement plan.

    Converting dirt floors like this one to concrete yields health benefits.


    Improving the homes of slum dwellers is one of the oldest strategies for tackling urban poverty in the developing world. But the health benefits of these approaches have rarely been put to a controlled test. In one such effort, researchers found striking improvements in child health from a simple measure: giving poor Mexican families a concrete floor.

    Eight years ago, the government of the state of Coahuila in northern Mexico began offering households with dirt floors $150 worth of free concrete—enough to cover most rooms in a house. Trucks delivered the wet concrete, and families spread it after it was poured. To assess the benefits of the program, called Piso Firme (Firm Floor), state officials approached economist Paul Gertler of the University of California, Berkeley, who was part of a team evaluating Mexico's new poverty payments program (see main text).

    Gertler and colleagues compared households in the twin cities of Torreón, Coahuila, and Gómez Palacio/Lerdo in the state of Durango, which has similar socioeconomics but did not have a Piso Firme program. Two to 4 years after the Torreón families got their concrete floors, Gertler's team interviewed 2755 mothers in both cities about their family's health, took stool and blood samples from children less than 6 years old, and gave the children vocabulary tests.

    “It turned out to be much more interesting than I expected,” Gertler says. His team calculated that in homes converted from all-dirt floors to all-concrete floors, children had 78% fewer parasitic infestations (one in three children in the control group had parasites compared with 7% in the treatment group). The children had also had half as many diarrhea episodes in the past month, an 81% drop in anemia, and a 36% or better improvement on cognitive tests. Mothers also reported less depression and more satisfaction with their lives. “The benefits are incredibly impressive,” says epidemiologist Nancy Padian of the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied economic interventions to improve women's reproductive health in Africa and recently began collaborating with Gertler.

    Gertler cautions that in rural areas lacking clean water, the effects might not be so dramatic. Still, the program's success spurred Mexico to adopt a national Piso Firme program. Although it's “sort of a no-brainer” that concrete floors are better than dirt floors, says Padian, the study demonstrates the value of low-tech ways to ease urban poverty. “We need to capitalize more on the no-brainer solutions,” she says.