News this Week

Science  29 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5867, pp. 1168

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    Florida Standards Support Evolution--With a Twist

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Florida scientists declared victory last week after the state Board of Education approved science standards that for the first time explicitly embrace the teaching of evolution. But antievolution activists are claiming that the vote bolsters their position that evolution is a “just a theory” and therefore unproven. Such is life on the front lines of the continuing battle over teaching evolution in U.S. schools.

    The basis for the dueling claims is a last-minute change by state school officials to a document drafted by an advisory committee made up of scientists, educators, and the public. In lieu of evolution, the standards now refer to “the scientific theory of evolution.” State education officials say the new wording was intended to appease conservatives without compromising on accuracy. To be consistent, officials applied the same wording to every other scientific concept mentioned in the standards, for example, changing “photosynthesis” to “the scientific theory of photosynthesis.”

    The changes were made after state Representative Marti Coley phoned in during a 4 February conference call to the board and asked that the word “theory” be added to the draft standards. Mary Jane Tappen, director of the education department's Office of Mathematics and Science, then talked with members of the standards writing committee and other scientists. The additional words may make the document “cumbersome,” she admits, “but some of us felt the document got better.”

    On 19 February, the board voted 4 to 3 to approve the revised version. Two members who voted with the majority—Linda Taylor and Kathleen Shanahan—had asked that the word “theory” be included. But two who voted against adopting the standards—Roberto Martinez and Akshay Desai—said they were angered by the last-minute rewording. “What's going on here is an effort by people who are opposed to evolution to water down our standards,” Martinez said before casting his vote.

    Nobelist Harold Kroto, a chemistry professor at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee who helped rally public support for the standards, believes the new language allows scientists and teachers to make a clear distinction between scientific and unscientific theories. “The original standards were fine, but this might actually be better in the long run,” he says. “The phrase ‘scientific theory’ gives us leverage to differentiate between theories that are supported by evidence and those that aren't.” The simple addition of “theory” would have been disastrous, he adds.

    Different standards.

    Nobelist Harold Kroto and Florida legislator Marti Coley disagree on what new science standards say about evolution.


    That's not how some conservatives see it, however. Coley issued a press release soon after the board's vote “applauding” the decision “to teach evolution as a scientific theory, not a scientific fact as had been earlier proposed.” Coley says the standards now are “inclusive of a variety of viewpoints.”

    Some of the 23 individuals on the standards writing committee who had expressed concerns about last-minute changes seem satisfied with the final wording. “Our hackles went up when we heard of the request to add ‘theory’” just to the references to evolution, says Sherry Southerland, a science education professor at FSU. “But we felt that putting the language throughout the standards would take care of that concern.”

    Tappen believes that the new standards leave no room for the teaching of alternative ideas about how life came to be, at least not in a science class. “Theories that are not scientific may be discussed in a humanities or a comparative religion course,” she says. But the difference may not be clear to everyone, concedes FSU evolutionary biologist Joseph Travis. “If somebody wants to say a particular religious idea is a scientific theory, that's another issue.”

    The change failed to appease board member Donna Callaway, who had been pushing for an amendment to allow the teaching of alternatives to evolution. And the Seattle, Washington-based Discovery Institute, which advocates teaching students to question evolution, called the new wording “an impotent change.” An analysis of the new standards posted on its blog carried this headline: “Florida State Board Tricked Into Meaningless ‘Compromise’ to Retain Dogmatism.”

    Hard-liners unhappy with the standards don't intend to let the matter rest. In a 21 February interview published in the Florida Baptist Witness, an organ of the Florida Baptist State Convention, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, Republican Marco Rubio, said he and other House leaders are considering introducing legislation to allow teachers to teach criticisms of evolution.

    Callaway says she would support such an effort. “People have asked me why I don't question math concepts or grammar,” she explained to Science. “I tell them, ‘Those things have nothing to do with life. Evolution is personal, and it affects our beliefs.’”


    NIH Urged to Focus on New Ideas, New Applicants

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Advisers to the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, outlined a near-final plan to rescue the overburdened NIH peer-review system last week. They want NIH to go for a sweeping overhaul—one that would speed reviews, make the system more inviting, and nudge it to favor new ideas. One way to do this, they say, is to streamline a process that now encourages scientists to keep revising grant applications until they wear down resistance. Researchers seem to like the proposed changes, although some say NIH ought to test them first.

    This analysis began last summer when NIH Director Elias Zerhouni asked for ideas to help NIH cope with system overload and reviewer burnout. The agency is receiving a record number of applications—about 80,000 are expected in 2008—at a time when its budget is stagnant. Zerhouni formed two advisory committees, one internal at NIH and the other external, and asked them to figure out how to fund “the best science … with the least administrative burden,” he said last week at a teleconference meeting of his Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD). Many of the ideas adopted by the two groups were described in a preliminary report last year (Science, 14 December 2007, p. 1708).

    One of the combined panel's fundamental recommendations is to avoid having proposals routinely revised and resubmitted as many as two times. These “amended applications” tend to be put in the queue in front of new applications, and there is a sense that “last chance” applications may be favored, the panel found. “It's a system that awards persistence over brilliance sometimes,” Zerhouni said. “We really want to change that.”

    Instead, the panel says study sections should stamp some applications “not recommended for resubmission” during the first review. These quick rejections might run about 20%, external group co-chair Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, told Science. Proposals that make it past this first barrier but are not ranked among the best could also face tougher scrutiny. The panel would do away with the category of “amended” applications and have all submissions considered as “new.” A study section now devoted to rebuttals of reviews would be eliminated; instead, the grant writer would simply incorporate any responses into a fresh application.

    In addition, the panel recommends specific tweaks of review criteria and procedures. NIH should shorten its 25-page application, the advisers say, and focus more on impact and innovation and de-emphasize methods and preliminary data. Study sections should rate all proposals, even rejected ones, on five criteria such as impact so that people will know where they stand. The panel also suggests another way to reduce ambiguity: In addition to giving scores, study sections should rank all applications from first to last. For better quality, the number of reviewers for each proposal should be doubled from two to four or more.

    New order.

    Two working groups proposed changes that would streamline NIH peer review.


    The panel's charges included helping NIH spend its money more effectively. Noting that a small fraction of investigators hold multiple grants, the panel says NIH should “ensure optimal use of NIH resources” by requiring investigators to devote at least 20% of their effort to each grant. This might limit most researchers to three or four grants.

    Zerhouni has said that a top objective is to give more help to new investigators. The panel suggests that NIH consider putting first-timers on a separate track, using generalists rather than specialists to review their proposals. To encourage more high-risk science, the panel suggests that NIH devote at least 1% of its basic investigator research grants to mechanisms such as the Pioneer Award, which is based on an investigator's track record rather than a specific research project. That could mean 300 to 400 awards per year for these risk takers, more than five times the current number, Yamamoto says.

    Some ideas did not make it into the final report, such as whether to set a maximum length for applications. This was “hotly discussed and debated,” said Lawrence Tabak, director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, who co-chaired both the internal and external working groups; the panel decided to let NIH figure it out. The panel also scrapped some ideas for motivating reviewers, such as extending the length of their grants, which could have led to a “stampede,” Yamamoto says. Instead, the aim is to attract reviewers by “making the process better.”

    These ideas drew mostly positive reactions from the full ACD during last week's telephone call, although panel member Mary Beckerle of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, cautioned that NIH needs to try some experiments first. The panel has “come up with lots and lots of good ideas,” agrees Yale University cell biologist Thomas Pollard, who was not part of the meeting. “The question is which will work in practice.” The panel planned to submit its final report this week, and Zerhouni says he will form an NIH implementation team within 4 to 6 weeks.


    New Prize Sends Old Hands on Flights of Lunar Discovery

    1. Eli Kintisch

    As a legendary designer of communications satellites, Harold Rosen doesn't need to spend his ninth decade figuring out how to land a cheap probe that can maneuver and send back pictures from the moon's surface. But when Google announced last year that it was joining with the nonprofit X Prize Foundation to sponsor the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, the National Medal of Technology winner decided to dust off an idea for a tubular, spinning payload that had been “in the back of my head” for decades. “We think we have the team to win it, and we're raring to go,” says the spry aerospace engineer, who at 82 stays in shape by swinging on metal rings at the beach outside his home in southern California.

    So far, Rosen's crew consists of volunteers—his wife, Deborah Castleman, a former satellite systems engineer; a brother and a grandson; and a handful of colleagues from the aerospace industry who jointly hold 130 patents. But Rosen hopes that the contest's publicity will attract companies willing to bankroll the entire effort, from design to delivery. And he thinks he can do it for the price of the winner's pot of $20 million.

    Nine other teams have also stepped to the starting line in what Google's Tiffany Montague characterizes as “a new commercial moon race” for lunar industries and science. Competition organizer Peter Diamandis says that the $10 million awarded in 2004 as part of the Ansari X Prize to send a privately built, crewed spacecraft to the edge of the atmosphere leveraged nearly $100 million in related spending. He also hopes that the contest will “inspire a new generation” of students, who then translate their excitement about space into science and technology careers.

    The Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976 was the last robotic mission to the moon. The cost of following up on that feat has been prohibitively expensive: NASA's recently announced lunar orbital, called GRAIL, is priced at $375 million. Although the cash prize is far less, Montague says it is “an incentive, not meant to cover development costs.”

    Some of the contestants are hoping that their lunar missions will lead to deals with the media or with companies hoping to extract minerals or other resources. “For me, it's a business plan contest,” says space entrepreneur Robert Richards of team Odyssey Moon, which is based in the United Kingdom's Isle of Man. Richards sees the race as just one step toward selling “small-scale robotic missions to deliver scientific and technology missions.”

    Even the recognized front-runner in the competition has a long way to go. The principals in Astrobotics, a collaboration between Raytheon (rocketry, navigation), Carnegie Mellon University (robotics), and the University of Arizona (space cameras, vehicle testing), have raised $1.5 million toward what the group estimates will be $100 million that it needs for its four-wheeled, pillbox-shaped rover mission. A focus on television and other media dollars has led to some unique engineering requirements, says University of Arizona planetary scientist Dante Lauretta. “Our media people are saying you can't have the rover look that boxy,” he says only half-jokingly. Engineers will also need to make sure that the rover will be able to snap a “self-portrait with the [corporate] logos in focus,” he says, one of the contest's media-savvy rules.

    Topping it off.

    Aerospace pioneer Harold Rosen hopes a spinning design will spell victory for his lunar lander.


    It's not just glamour shots they're after. “Science isn't a level-one requirement,” says Lauretta. “But you know us, we're scientists. Once we have a spacecraft on the moon, we are going to want to do science.” New regolith formations and boulder distributions are among the features he's hoping to explore.

    Although the $5 million bonus for photographing humanmade remnants of previous lunar missions may be a publicity gimmick, it also promises to focus attention on the important technological problem of carrying out precision landing. NASA's Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, lacked such guidance systems. Instead, they bounce-landed on the Red Planet using giant air bags. To land near the historic Apollo 11 site on the Sea of Tranquility, for example, will require new technology.

    Astrobotics will use Raytheon's adapted missile-guidance technology. “We don't want to land on the flag or the boot prints,” says Lauretta. Mastering such landing skills “could revolutionize planetary science” for future missions, he predicts. (Scientists often have to avoid geologically exciting landing sites because they're too small; precise navigation could allow landing in tight areas.)

    Rosen is taking another approach. He thinks the inherent stability of his spinning design, which he has modeled with a skate wheel and bobby pins, will obviate the need for expensive hardware. And he hopes that chasing the prize will be good for his health, too. “I thrive on it. [It] keeps me mentally alert.”


    Chemist Found Responsible for Ethical Breaches

    1. Robert F. Service*
    1. With reporting by Pallava Bagla in New Delhi, India.

    This time it's chemistry's turn. After a series of high-profile scientific misconduct cases in stem cell biology and physics, an Indian chemistry professor has been punished by his university for committing unethical practices involving what appear to be dozens of recent papers, including plagiarizing data in an article submitted last year to an analytical chemistry journal. In the wake of the investigation, four Elsevier journals have retracted 13 papers written by Pattium Chiranjeevi, a professor of chemistry at Sri Venkateswara University (SVU) in Tirupati, India, and at least one other publication is reviewing pending submissions from Chiranjeevi or published articles he has written.

    India's University Grants Commission is weighing a ban on any research grants; a university official says that, to date, Chiranjeevi has not received funding from any government agency. The university has decreed that he cannot hold an administrative position or mentor students. Although he has not been fired, he has been denied some pay raises. The investigation was completed last summer, but the case only came to light last week in an article in Chemical & Engineering News.


    A reviewer of a paper (bottom) spotted its similarity to one already in the literature (top), setting off the investigation. Chiranjeevi denies submitting the paper.

    In an interview with Science, Chiranjeevi said that the charges against him are “baseless and not correct.” He blames colleagues and journal editors for creating “this nuisance” and says that he plans to take action in an “international court of justice.”

    The university began its investigation after a peer reviewer discovered that a Chiranjeevi paper submitted to Analytica Chimica Acta (ACA) was nearly identical to a 2006 paper published by other authors in a different journal. Purnendu K. Dasgupta, an ACA editor and chemist at the University of Texas, Arlington, notified Duvvuru Gunasekar, then the chair of SVU's chemistry department.

    In a summary of its findings, an internal three-member university panel concluded that Chiranjeevi “followed unethical and fraud practices in publishing research papers. Some parts of his research work were found to be fake.” The summary, a copy of which has been obtained by Science, also notes that Chiranjeevi cited the use of equipment that does not exist at SVU, copied material from other articles, and included “unjustified” co-authors.

    “It's just amazing what this guy did,” says Gary Christian, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Washington, Seattle, and one of two editors-in-chief of Talanta, an analytical chemistry journal published by Elsevier. “This one is unprecedented in scope.” Christian led an investigation that has prompted the journal to retract five papers from Chiranjeevi that it published between 2003 and 2007.

    None of Chiranjeevi's recent work is thought to have broken much new scientific ground. “This is real low-profile stuff, specialized analytical techniques,” says G. Bruce Wiersma, an ecologist at the University of Maine, Orono, and an editor for Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, which recently published several articles by Chiranjeevi. Springer, the journal's publisher, “is still in the process of dealing with” those articles, Wiersma says. Six other articles in press have since been “suspended,” Wiersma adds.

    The full scope of the falsified papers may never be known. Although the university has not said how many papers it examined, the summary concludes that “a large number of publications (66) in a short span of time, 2004–2007, without proper equipment, lead to the suspicion about the genuineness of the work.” It cast further doubt on many of them, stating that the majority included co-authors whose involvement raised questions.

    Nandula Raghuram, secretary of the Society for Scientific Values in Delhi, a nongovernmental organization that investigates cases of scientific misconduct in India, praises SVU's response, calling it “a breath of fresh air.” He says Indian administrators too often look the other way to avoid bringing embarrassment to their schools. Raghuram says it's critical that the country set up and fund an independent watchdog group to monitor and investigate scientific misconduct cases.

    But Rajagopala Chidambaram, chief scientific adviser to the Indian government, believes that there are too few scientific misconduct cases to warrant a full-time oversight body. Any alleged misconduct, he says, is best resolved by the universities and journals themselves. Varada Reddy, current chair of SVU's chemistry department, says, “No further action is envisaged against Chiranjeevi.”


    German Science Takes an International View

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    BERLIN—Many scientists were skeptical when Annette Schavan was named Germany's research and education minister in 2006. Her scientific credentials were limited: With a Ph.D. in theology, she directed the Roman Catholic Church's university scholarship program before serving as education and culture minister in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Since taking office, however, Schavan has presided over increasing research budgets and resolved the decade-long quarrel over a German National Academy of Sciences. She discussed Germany's latest science policy developments with Science. Her comments have been edited for length.


    Q: This month, the Bundestag debated changing Germany's stem cell law. You worked for the Catholic Church for much of your career. You surprised some observers when you supported expanding the number of human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines.

    A.S.: For me, the decisive argument was that it is exactly those researchers who are working on alternatives [to embryo-derived stem cells] who need to use the knowledge gained from human ES cells.

    For me personally, it was a long road and a difficult decision. I believe that for the long term, we need regenerative medicine without the use of embryos. Otherwise, the more successful the development of treatments, the more embryos researchers will need. And for me, that is difficult to reconcile, because the ethics of healing and the ethics of protecting life are not alternatives but are two sides of the same coin.

    Q: What do you think will happen in the vote next month?

    A.S.: It is a vote of conscience, and many members of parliament are struggling with their position. So I don't want to predict how it will turn out. But no matter what, in recent weeks, science and politics have had a very positive dialogue with each other. Politics has taken science seriously, and scientists have taken politics seriously.

    Q: German stem cell scientists have complained that the current law makes it difficult for them to cooperate in international projects, because they are not allowed to work with new cell lines even outside Germany. What do you say to them?

    A.S.: The bills under consideration include the clarification of the legal situation that should fit the needs of international collaborations. The point is not controversial except for those who want to ban all research. [The bill Schavan cosponsors stipulates that any restrictions apply only to work within Germany—Ed. Note]

    Q: You also surprised many observers with your announcement last year that the Leopoldina should be Germany's National Academy. What prompted that decision?

    A.S.: Most importantly, I believe Germany needs to seize the chance it has to play a larger role in the international research agenda. We have excellent research facilities and excellent researchers. At the moment, there is broad political support here for increased investment in research. In climate change questions, for example, we want to be very active internationally. For that, we need a single contact for the academies in other countries. Second, I want the discussion between science and politics to be intensified. More and more, scientific knowledge is absolutely necessary for responsible decision-making. Therefore, I find it important to have one institution that is the contact for political leaders and that can also bring issues to the attention of politicians that they haven't yet considered.

    Q: Germany's new law regulating genetically modified (GM) crops disappointed many scientists, especially because it mandates a public database of locations of all transgenic crops and still leaves researchers potentially liable for any escaped pollen. Yet you praised it as a step forward for German research. What does it improve?

    A.S.: The question for the GM law is whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. I can certainly understand the criticism. The public discussion is still very concerned with the possible risks—as was once the case with recombinant gene technology. We from the side of research speak more about the opportunities. And the goal of the law was to achieve an advance for research—for example, we have simplified the application process for experimental plantings— while at the same time ensuring a high measure of safety for the public and the environment.

    We need to bring along those who have worries. That's why I said it was an improvement even when I would have wished for more. For example, you have to understand that if you call the [GM crop] database into question, you give the impression of trying to hide something. … I think it is a good compromise.

    Q: Last week, the government announced a new strategy for “internationalizing” German science, including setting up “German Science Centers” around the world. What do you hope to accomplish?

    A.S.: We want to intensify the relationships between German scientists and the international science community, … and we want to send the message that science policy is an important part of our foreign policy. For example, I was in Africa a few weeks ago, and there is a real need to strengthen the role of science in international development work. We need to figure out with people in developing countries how to develop local excellence in research that also contributes to development. I always have in the back of my head the sentence: “The new word for peace is development.” And science and research are keys for development.

    It's also about making sure Germany has a big enough piece of the global brain circulation. Germany will be especially affected by demographic developments. We are an aging society that should have an interest in attracting young talent from all over the world.


    Philip Morris Pulls the Plug on Controversial Research Program

    1. David Grimm

    Philip Morris has ended a controversial 8-year-old program that supported research at dozens of U.S. universities. The tobacco company's decision removes a major factor behind a recent decision by the University of California (UC) to monitor the flow of such support into the 10-campus system.

    “It's a big shift,” says K. Michael Cummings, head of the Tobacco Control Program at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. He accuses Philip Morris—the largest tobacco-industry sponsor of U.S. academic studies—of having supported “bogus” research. Now, he says, the company is retreating from a public relations fiasco. UC and other universities have been fighting internal battles for years about whether to ban tobacco-industry money, leading to “unseemly” coverage in the news, he says. Philip Morris spokesperson William Phelps, who confirmed last week that the company has ended its external research program, defended the quality of the research. He says that future support will be aimed at studies on “reducing the harm of smoking.” He declined to say how much would be spent at universities.

    Launched in 2000, the Philip Morris External Research Program (PMERP) has funded 470 research proposals at about 60 U.S. medical schools, according to the company. Studies have included examining the molecular basis of atherosclerosis and gene expression in lung tumors. But critics have charged that PMERP was no different from earlier, discredited Philip Morris programs—and had the same goal of confusing the public about the dangers of smoking (Science, 26 April 1996, p. 488).

    The ashes remain.

    The biggest academic research program funded by the tobacco industry has ended.


    The company notified grantees last September that it would no longer fund new research through PMERP. But the news only spread to the larger academic community after UC President Robert Dynes, in a 5 February letter, reminded UC chancellors to stringently review tobacco-sponsored research funding, as per a resolution adopted by UC's governing body in September. In an aside, he also noted that Philip Morris, “the only known current tobacco industry sponsor of University of California research,” has shut down its external research program.

    The effect of the decision on academic science remains unclear. At UC alone, 23 grants were funded by Philip Morris as of fiscal year 2006–2007, for a total of $16 million. James Enstrom, an epidemiologist at UC Los Angeles (UCLA) who uses Philip Morris money, says it means a change in the way things are done in his lab. “It's just something I have to deal with,” he says.

    But bioengineer and antitobacco crusader Stanton Glantz of UC San Francisco says not to count Philip Morris out of the academic game just yet. He cites a $6 million Philip Morris grant recently obtained by UCLA researcher Edythe London to study addiction, which Glantz says was not funded through PMERP. In Philip Morris's new strategy, funding may also go to studies of “reduced harm” products, such as spitless tobacco, at least some of which will be done in-house. Cummings doesn't buy the efficacy of such products, but he says ending PMERP is a “positive move.”


    War of the Worlds?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Despite the prospect of a sample-return mission, some researchers worry that the golden age of Mars science may be on the wane as NASA shifts its focus to Earth and Jupiter or Saturn.

    Despite the prospect of a sample-return mission, some researchers worry that the golden age of Mars science may be on the wane as NASA shifts its focus to Earth and Jupiter or Saturn

    Mars mirage?

    Researchers fear that an international mission to collect samples and return them to Earth is unlikely to happen by 2020.


    It would be the most ambitious and expensive planetary science effort ever undertaken, with the promise of spectacular results. Yet when NASA science chief Alan Stern last month announced that the space agency is backing a mission to collect rocks and soil from Mars and bring them back to Earth, many planetary researchers reacted with dismay rather than joy. “This could destroy the short-term exploration program,” warns planetary scientist James Head III of Brown University.

    Make no mistake—Head and nearly every other Mars researcher dearly want to get their hands on martian samples. But they also noticed that the plan laid out in NASA's 2009 budget request (Science, 8 February, p. 714) would cut projected spending on Mars by half over the next 5 years. As a result, many scientists fear that NASA is abandoning a carefully plotted and extraordinarily successful research endeavor on the Red Planet in exchange for promises of an expensive mission far in the future.

    An expert panel assembled at the request of White House budget officials to vet the plan concludes that it doesn't hold water. “You have to come clean,” says planetary scientist Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe, who chaired the panel. “Either you fund the program, or you accept the fact that it will be significantly reduced for the next decade.”

    Christensen laid out the panel's conclusions at a 20 February meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group in Monrovia, California, with Stern sitting in the front row. The agency's science chief insists that the new plan is sound and that the community is needlessly worked up about the proposed changes. “No missions have been canceled—none, zero, zip, nada,” he told Science. “The Mars program is really healthy,” he adds, noting that NASA might even hold a competition soon for a new Discovery mission that could be devoted to Mars.

    Stern's assurances at the gathering, however, did not quell the anxiety among Mars researchers in the room. “I don't think many people accept this budget,” said astrobiologist Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado (UC), Boulder.

    That skepticism is the latest sign of a crisis afflicting the $4.6 billion science program that Stern inherited last spring. He intends to increase spending on earth science, start a $3 billion project to send a probe to the Jupiter or Saturn system, and begin building a series of lunar robots. The earth science effort addresses appeals from Congress and the U.S. National Academies to put more resources into monitoring global climate change. The second follows another recommendation from the National Academies. And the third is part of a White House-backed push to focus on the moon in preparation for human landings.

    Stern is trying to cater to all these constituencies without any growth in his overall budget, which encompasses earth and planetary sciences, astrophysics, and heliophysics, the study of the sun and its effects (see graph). And he's doing it at an agency with a $17.3 billion budget that is dominated by a costly effort to replace the space shuttle. In addition, Stern must cope with the unpleasant news of a $165 million overrun in the $1.6 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) scheduled for launch next year. “Alan is trying to do the right thing by offering something to keep everyone happy,” says UC Boulder planetary scientist Frances Bagenal, who is co-investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which Stern leads. “But it's impossible.”

    The robotic Mars effort has lived a charmed life ever since a group of scientists suggested in a 1996 research paper that a martian meteorite found in Antarctica contained signs of past life (Science, 16 August 1996, p. 924). That claim, although it has garnered little scientific support, generated strong political backing for a Mars exploration program. As a result, NASA has launched a mission every 26 months, when Mars and Earth are favorably aligned.

    The effort has included some spectacular failures, such as the loss of an orbiter and a lander in 1999. But their rover successors, Spirit and Opportunity, continue to return data after 4 years on the surface, and Mars Odyssey has been in orbit since 2001. In May, the small Phoenix Scout spacecraft is scheduled to land on Mars's northern plains and begin a search for complex organic molecules in the ice-rich region.

    “We've produced wonderful science on a reasonable budget,” says Head. “And there is tremendously synergistic science going on, from atmospheric to mineralogy studies.” Adds Jakosky, who heads one of the two competing efforts for the next Scout mission: “Scientists, NASA, Congress, the OMB [Office of Management and Budget], and the public all agreed this was a first-rate program.” Researchers say it's a mistake to put the program in a lower gear just as they are on the verge of answering fundamental questions about the planet.

    “Suck it up”

    Impressive science is no guarantee of future support from a cash-strapped NASA, however. Microgravity researchers, earth scientists, and astrophysicists have been living for the past several years with lowered expectations. NASA's 2009 budget request to Congress diverts money from three of the four space science areas to the earth sciences, reflecting growing worries about global warming and sharp criticism of NASA's earth science program in a report last year from the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC). But more money for science as a whole is not in the cards. “You're only going to get so much,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin warned scientists in characteristically blunt fashion at an 11 February briefing at the National Science Foundation. “Suck it up and live with it.”

    Within planetary science, outer-planets researchers are itching for a mission of their own. “It's time to take a break from Mars and work on other things,” says Bagenal, who also chairs NASA's outer-planets advisory group. A mission to Jupiter's moon Europa has been put off twice in recent years because of its cost. Given the high priority assigned to such a mission in an influential 2003 NRC report, Stern is backing a $3 billion spacecraft destined either for the jovian system or for Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus with a launch by 2017. A decision on the destination is slated for later this year.


    NASA's exploration schedule for Mars makes use of a 26-month launch opportunity.


    In order to bolster earth sciences and fly an outer-planets mission, however, NASA will have to divert funds from Mars. As recently as last fall, the agency planned to spend about $600 million annually through 2013 on the Mars program, with a slow rise to nearly $700 million by 2020. That was to pay for construction and launch of an astrobiology field lab that would land on the martian surface or two midsize rovers in 2016, as well as other as-yet-undefined efforts.

    Under the new plan, spending on Mars would nosedive to $300 million in 2010, then inch upward to $414 million by 2013. Stern maintains that the dip in the next few years mostly reflects completion of MSL and moving back the launch of the next Scout mission from 2011 to 2013. The Mars budget would not grow significantly until at least 2016, according to a 13 February briefing by Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program. Only later in the next decade does projected funding shoot up to $1 billion by 2020 as work begins in earnest on the sample-return mission.

    Christensen's panel says that fiscal plan won't fly. “The phasing is just wrong,” says Christensen. “Our assessment is that it just won't work.” Preparing to launch a sample return by the end of the decade would require a big boost in spending earlier in the decade. The group determined that NASA would have to cancel everything after MSL—including the 2013 Scout and the 2016 missions—to fly a sample return by the second half of the next decade. Stern, meanwhile, has slapped an $800 million cost cap on the 2016 mission, which he acknowledges would rule out the complex astrobiology field lab. Several scientists say that cap might also eliminate the rovers.

    An alternative scenario would preserve the Scout mission and move the sample return back to 2022. But that would require using a poor orbital trajectory and create a dozen-year gap in U.S. landings on Mars, notes planetary scientist Lars Borg of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. “Everything is on the table,” says Borg, calling the new plan a radical change in direction by NASA.

    The Mars program's most daunting problems, however, are in the short term. The $165 million overrun in MSL, a car-sized roving suite of instruments designed to gather extensive data on martian soil and rocks, is due to increased manufacturing costs for the technologically complex lab and the need for double shifts to meet the scheduled launch window, say agency officials. To save money, project managers have already pruned MSL of a spare radioisotope power system, replaced a surface removal tool with a simpler brush, and reduced the zoom capability of one of the cameras. Stern says he has no plans to cancel MSL but that NASA could postpone the fall 2009 launch date until 2010 or 2011 if technical problems are not resolved by this summer.

    No free sample

    Stern concedes that anything beyond 2013 is “notional” and adds that the disagreement represents “normal scientific community debate.” But he is eager to begin planning a sample-return mission, an idea that has been proposed periodically since the early 1980s. It would be extraordinarily complex, involving launch vehicles, a Mars landing system, an Earth return vehicle, a Mars lander, a Mars ascent vehicle, a rover, an Earth-reentry system, and a sample-receiving and-curation facility on Earth. It is also likely to rank high when planetary scientists put together their next long-term plan.

    Tight space.

    An essentially flat budget through 2013 will mean stiff competition among the four pieces of NASA's science directorate.


    Early estimates put the overall cost of such an ambitious mission at $5 billion to $6 billion. Stern says that NASA can contribute no more than $3 billion, and he hopes to attract another $1 billion or so from Europe—which is eager to participate—and possibly Japan. The cost would be lower if the mission brought back rocks collected by previous landers, such as MSL or the 2013 European ExoMars.

    Toward that end, Stern has pushed to add a sample cache to MSL, with money from his own office's reserves. A pricier approach would involve a rover equipped with a drill that could range over the martian landscape for 2 years until an orbiter arrived to carry the samples back to Earth. The rover could pick up individual samples as small as 5 grams and gather as much as 500 grams to be returned to Earth.


    A quick grab, however, lacks appeal for many researchers, who have been able to study meteorites ejected from Earth's neighbor. “We already have Mars samples; it's not really worth it to scoop up a couple of rocks,” says Brown University planetary scientist John Mustard, who chairs the advisory group that met with Stern last week. “If we make the investment to do such an extraordinarily ambitious project, you should have a big science payoff.”

    Mustard says the Mars community is enthusiastic about conducting the current planned missions followed by the more ambitious version of sample return: “That's the right program; it's exciting and scientifically justified.” But he wonders if Stern's plan is realistic. “We just don't see how you connect the dots.” To do a sample return by 2018 and 2020, he notes, NASA would have to spend large sums to tackle the stickiest technological challenges early, at a time when the $3 billion outer-planets mission will be absorbing the lion's share of the planetary science budget.

    With their eye on that long-delayed mission, some researchers say that reducing the near-term Mars budget wouldn't be such a tragedy. The Mars community, notes Bagenal, “has a huge flagship in MSL” and “is already swamped with data they've not had the time or money to analyze.”

    The tension over how to spend planetary science's limited pot could spill over onto Capitol Hill this year. Last year, astrophysicists persuaded lawmakers to ignore NASA's vehement objections and reinstate funding for the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM)—an effort to find Earth-sized planets in other star systems. Griffin and Stern sharply warned astrophysicists that their other projects will suffer as a result of the cost of restoring SIM.

    Mars advocates possess even more political muscle, as well as grassroots backing throughout the country. The 2008 NASA spending bill pointedly notes that the appropriations committees “strongly support a robust Mars exploration program with a rate of at least one mission at every [26-month] opportunity.” But leaders in the community so far are treading carefully. “It's important to step back and look at the big picture,” says planetary scientist Richard Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who also chairs the Division of Planetary Sciences at the American Astronomical Society. “We have to look at the health of the overall program.” Bagenal pledges to work to “get the community behind a unified solar system program,” whereas Mustard insists that “we don't want to turn this into a tomato-throwing contest.”

    Stern says that his primary goal “is to have a balanced program.” For now, that means rejiggering the Mars effort to survive the current budget crunch. “Whether Alan has hit the right balance is something we will see going forward,” says Stephen Mackwell of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. “But there is no question there will be winners and losers.”


    Are Epigeneticists Ready for Big Science?

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    The National Institutes of Health's hefty boost of U.S. epigenomics efforts has Europe wondering where it fits in.

    NIH's hefty boost of U.S. epigenomics efforts has Europe wondering where it fits in

    For Peter Jones, this next week is critical. He and his colleagues at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles are putting the finishing touches on their plan to map epigenomes, the myriad of chemical modifications of human DNA and its associated proteins that influence gene activity. Jones hopes his team will become part of a newly announced $190 million, 5-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) epigenomics initiative. And he views NIH's funding as a way to jump-start an ambitious international epigenome project that he has championed since 2005. “The [international] project is huge, as huge as the Human Genome Project,” says Margaret Foti, CEO of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

    Yet some who study epigenetics question NIH's strategy and whether the science is ready for a large-scale international project. “Some of us biochemists think we need to know more about [epigenetic marks] before we spend all this time mapping,” says Jerry Workman, a molecular biologist at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri.

    Twenty years ago, most geneticists paid little mind to epigenetics. But cancer and stem cell research have gradually focused attention on these genome modifications. In a still-obscure manner, enzymes, transcription factors, and snippets of RNA converge on particular DNA sequences. They customize the expression of nearby genes, often by adding methyl, acetyl, or phosphorous groups to the DNA or the histone proteins surrounding the DNA. Methylation, for example, can silence a nearby gene and seems to be involved in some cancers. Increasingly, researchers are unearthing links between epigenetics and other diseases.

    Until now, researchers have tackled epigenomics piecemeal, with different groups cataloging where on the genomes of particular cells certain epigenetic modifications occur. European researchers took the lead, for instance, setting up a Human Epigenome Consortium in 1999. In 2003, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and a Berlin-based company called Epigenomics teamed up to identify the location of every methyl group bound to a human gene in an assortment of tissues (Science, 17 October 2003, p. 387). After going through three chromosomes, the project “fizzled,” says Stephen Beck of Imperial College London, who headed the Sanger effort.

    Recently, faster, cheaper technologies that can better pinpoint sites of epigenetic activity have emerged, encouraging a more comprehensive attack on the epigenome (Science, 25 May 2007, p. 1120). When Jones became AACR president in 2005, he made epigenomics a priority, assembling an international task force that proposed a worldwide Alliance for the Human Epigenome and Disease. AHEAD would finally bring various epigenetics projects under one umbrella and help standardize the bioinformatics and the research. AHEAD called for a pilot phase, but no international funding materialized.

    However, epigenomics has been selected as one of NIH's two new Roadmap Initiatives for 2008. By year-end, NIH plans to award $50 million to three to five epigenome mapping centers in the United States and allocate $7.5 million for a bioinformatics center. Other grants will go toward the identification of new epigenetic “marks” along the genome and new technologies for mapping them.

    Mapping all epigenetic modifications is more daunting than sequencing the human genome, as there is no single epigenome. Each cell type has its own array of epigenetic marks. NIH's new initiative will likely characterize stem cells, progenitor cells, and differentiated cells from a variety of tissues. The effort “will have to make a tradeoff between how many epigenomes are analyzed and to what detail,” says Kazu Ushijima of the National Cancer Center Research Institute in Tokyo.

    Those who advocate a slower approach note that so many epigenetic marks exist—in some places, there can be many on each histone—that it's difficult to know which meaningfully influence gene expression. In addition, “there's a lot of unknown modifications on histones that have not been characterized, and for all we know, they might be the most important,” says Workman. Kevin Struhl, a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, is also critical of the NIH initiative, arguing that more attention needs to be paid to the regulatory proteins that home in on target DNA and enable these chemical modifications. A focus on simply mapping histone modifications and DNA methylation “doesn't strike me as a good expenditure,” he says.

    Turnoffs and turn-ons.

    Chemical modifications of DNA or histone proteins (H), particularly their tails, affect nearby gene activity.


    Nor is it clear that the NIH effort will draw in the international community. Henk Stunnenberg of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, complains that Europeans are being left out, as there was little time for them to team up with U.S. groups to apply for the NIH money. Even Jones admits that he's been so busy preparing his grant that his global emphasis has fallen by the wayside, temporarily. But many agree in principle that an international epigenome project is still worth pursuing. “I think it would be wonderful,” says Rolf Ohlsson, a molecular biologist at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. “It will be extremely counterproductive to do the same thing on both sides of the ocean.”


    Flu Virus Research Yields Results but No Magic Bullet for Pandemic

    1. Dennis Normile

    As concerns wane that the bird flu strain H5N1 will spark a global pandemic, scientists are warning that the virus, perhaps less of a threat, is here to stay.

    As concerns wane that the bird flu strain H5N1 will spark a global pandemic, scientists are warning that the virus, perhaps less of a threat, is here to stay

    Nowhere to hide.

    Lightweight transmitters enable satellite tracking of migratory birds and the flu viruses they carry.


    BANGKOK—Just a couple of years ago, scientists, public health officials, and journalists were nervously tracking every move of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus, fearing that a few simple mutations might give it the ability to spread readily among humans, sparking a global pandemic that could kill tens of millions. But since alarms were sounded when the virus started spreading in earnest among birds in late 2003, the dreaded pandemic hasn't come. “I'm less worried about this virus than I was 5 years ago,” says virologist Robert Webster of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

    But H5N1 hasn't gone away—and increasingly, say scientists, the virus appears to be here to stay. “H5N1 is going to be with us for a long time,” says Les Sims, a veterinary consultant based in Palm Cove, Australia, continuing to devastate poultry flocks and posing an ongoing threat to human health.

    In 2007, the virus surfaced in poultry flocks in eight new countries as widely separated as Bangladesh, Poland, and Ghana. Outbreaks returned in 23 countries stretching from Japan to the United Kingdom; in Indonesia and Nigeria, in particular, they are now more or less continuous. Although the number of human cases and deaths declined by 25% compared with 2006, Nigeria, Laos, and Pakistan had their first human cases last year, and Indonesia, the hardest-hit country, reported 42 cases and 32 deaths. As long as the virus is circulating in birds, experts warn, there will continue to be sporadic human cases, and most of them will be fatal.

    Research is providing insights into how the virus spreads and the viral mutations that might be needed for H5N1 to infect humans more easily, as was evident at a recent meeting here.* “The spinoff is a better understanding of flu viruses in general,” says microbiologist Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

    But David Fedson, a vaccine expert and former executive at Aventis Pasteur now based in Sergy Haut, France, worries that these advances, although valuable, are not doing much to help prepare for an influenza pandemic. He and others believe a pandemic is inevitable, whether it is caused by H5N1 or another flu strain that has yet to emerge. “Nobody has a clue [how] to take some of these findings from the lab and turn them into something that addresses public health,” laments Fedson.

    Out of the wild

    One continuing uncertainty is whether wild birds are “victims or vectors” of H5N1, says wildlife health specialist Scott Newman of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in New York City. Poultry trading is the primary means of spreading the virus. But the role wild birds play in long-distance spread is still unclear, says Newman. Several groups are studying the question both in the lab and in nature, taking advantage of new lightweight transmitters that enable satellite tracking of migratory species.

    Nicolas Gaidet of the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development in Montpellier, France, described one of the most ambitious efforts. The group, which includes researchers from FAO, the U.S. Geological Survey, Italy's Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie, and others, collected cloacal, tracheal, and fecal samples from more than 11,000 birds in 19 countries in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in 2006 and 2007. The researchers fitted some of the migratory birds with transmitters. Overall, 2% of the birds were carrying influenza viruses, says Gaidet, and that number rose to 14% in certain species.

    The group did not find any living wild birds infected with H5N1, which is in line with other surveys. That suggests that H5N1, which is lethal to many types of wild birds, may kill its victims before they travel far. The team did, however, find four birds in Nigeria carrying an H5N2 virus that genetic analysis indicates would be highly pathogenic to chickens. One, a white-faced whistling duck, subsequently flew 650 kilometers and is still apparently healthy. “This is the first time anyone has found a bird carrying a highly pathogenic virus over a great distance,” Gaidet says.

    At the meeting, researchers also described progress in understanding how avian influenza viruses mutate into human pandemic strains. Previous work had shown that the viruses' hemagglutinin protein, a surface protein that comes in 16 subtypes, preferentially binds to a host cell receptor known as alpha 2,3; human viruses prefer alpha 2,6. Evidence suggests that a mutation affecting hemagglutinin binding is necessary for an avian influenza virus to switch to a human virus. Whether additional mutations are needed is not known.

    Mikhail Matrosovich of the Institute of Virology at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, is trying to answer that question by working with the 1968 H3N2 pandemic virus. The hemagglutinin protein of that virus differs from its putative avian ancestor by seven amino acid substitutions. Two of these had been linked to the receptor-binding preference of the hemagglutinin. To find out the role of the other five substitutions, Matrosovich's group is creating viruses with various combinations of the mutations and testing how well they bind and replicate in cultures of human airway epithelium cells. The team took the pandemic virus and switched the two mutations associated with binding preference back to their avian version. As expected, this engineered virus replicated far less efficiently in human cells than the pandemic virus did.

    The biggest surprise, says Matrosovich, is that the virus with the avianlike binding protein grew at all in human cells. “These [findings] do not support the quite-common theory that there are no receptors for avian viruses in the human airway,” Matrosovich says. Another virus construct, with the two binding mutations of the pandemic strain left intact but the remaining five substitutions reworked to their avian state, replicated much less efficiently than the pandemic strain as well, suggesting that these substitutions might also be needed for conversion to a pandemic virus, a finding likely to apply to all avian viruses.

    Preliminary results from similar studies of changes in the neuraminidase protein common to the 1918, 1958, and 1967 pandemic viruses suggest that mutations in that protein also play a role in giving a virus pandemic capabilities, Matrosovich says.

    Evidence that viruses need multiple mutations to adapt to human hosts might seem reassuring. But Prasert Auewarakul, a virologist and physician at Mahidol University in Bangkok, warned that viruses can adapt quickly. His group sequenced viruses retrieved from three fatal human H5N1 cases and found that genomic domains associated with hemagglutinin binding specificity were mutating far more frequently than other areas, indicating evolutionary pressure for the avian virus to adapt to its new host species. Another site with evidence of rapid change was associated with a protein involved in enabling avian influenza viruses, which thrive at the 40°C temperatures found within birds, to replicate efficiently at the lower 33°C temperature of the human body. Auewarakul notes that all three patients died 1 to 3 weeks after the onset of illness. “This tells us that the virus is evolving very quickly inside the human body,” he concludes.

    An ounce of prevention

    Public health authorities hope an effective vaccine will prevent human H5N1 infections altogether. Numerous groups have reported advances in vaccines, including, for instance, novel ways of making one vaccine protect against several different flu strains and using adjuvants to stretch precious vaccine supplies. But Fedson notes that these advances might ameliorate but don't solve the bottleneck of current vaccine production, which requires incubating the virus in an enormous number of chicken eggs, a time-consuming and expensive process that requires biosecure facilities, a highly trained work force, and long lead times. Fedson calculates that with existing vaccine production capacity and the use of an adjuvant, 9 months after a pandemic virus appears there is likely to be only enough vaccine for 700 million people. “Pandemic vaccination is not going to be a realistic possibility in the near future for more than 85% of the world's people who live in countries that don't have vaccine companies,” he adds.

    Still on the move.

    Although not headline news, in 2007 the H5NI virus spread to poultry flocks in eight new countries and returned in 23 others stretching from Japan to the United Kingdom while human cases continued to mount.


    Responding to that challenge, Linda Lua of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane presented “a radically different vaccine process” that doesn't use eggs. Instead of working with the entire virus, they select a part of a viral structural protein recognized by the human immune system. They then build these protein bits into viruslike particles for use as vaccines. “There is no genetic material,” says Lua, which means that the particles are noninfectious; this in turn avoids the need for high-level biosafety production facilities.

    “It's a pretty simple process,” Lua says. The protein is produced in a bacterial-fermentation process, purified, and then chemically processed into viruslike particles. Lua says they deliberately developed a manufacturing process within the capabilities of some of the more advanced developing countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam. “It is an Asian solution for an Asian problem,” Lua says. Anton Middelberg, a chemical engineer at the institute, says that once a pandemic strain appears, whether it is H5N1 or another flu subtype, they could identify target proteins and start production in 1 to 2 weeks. A plant small enough to load into a cargo plane and take to an airport near an outbreak site would be capable of producing about 500,000 doses of vaccine a week. “We can have a rapid response for pandemic influenza using this technology,” Lua says. Fedson called the work “extraordinarily exciting.”

    Middelberg says they “tackled the manufacturing issues first” and are now seeking partners to move into animal testing. He adds that viruslike particle vaccines for hepatitis and human papillomavirus are already on the market and that other groups have gotten promising results with a viruslike particle vaccine against flu in mice. Provided they find a partner and funding, it would take “a few years” to have the process ready to go.

    That is cold comfort to Michael Osterholm, a public health specialist at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, who warns that every day brings the world closer to the next pandemic. “We don't know if it's going to be H5N1, but there will be another pandemic,” he says.

    • *“Bangkok International Conference on Avian Influenza 2008,” 23–25 January, Bangkok, Thailand.


    Insights Flow From Ultracold Atoms That Mimic Superconductors

    1. Adrian Cho

    They're the technological progeny of famed Bose-Einstein condensates. But chilly gases called Fermi condensates are proving even richer in new physics.

    They're the technological progeny of famed Bose-Einstein condensates. But chilly gases called Fermi condensates are proving even richer in new physics

    In 1995, experimenters unveiled the coolest thing ever seen in atomic physics. Using lasers and electromagnetic fields, they chilled gases of certain atoms, known collectively as bosons, to within a millionth of a degree of absolute zero to coax them into a single quantum wave, giving the gas bizarre new properties. Known as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), that atomic tsunami had been predicted 70 years earlier; its discoverers won a Nobel Prize in 2001.

    Then in 2004, physicists pulled off a tougher trick by making other atoms, known as fermions, behave like the electrons in a superconductor, which pair and waltz along without resistance. Merely producing such a “Fermi condensate” was a more impressive feat, many researchers argued. But was it as important as the discovery of BECs? All agreed that that depended on what grew out of it. Fermi condensates could open new realms of research—or prove a conceptual dead end.

    Now, only 4 years after they first were made, Fermi condensates are exceeding expectations. BECs have been used to make atom lasers and stop light dead, but Fermi condensates may be more fruitful, physicists say. “One of the biggest impacts of BECs is that they provided the technology and tools to do fermions,” says Wolfgang Ketterle, an experimenter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and co-winner of the Nobel Prize for BECs. “I see a lot of deeper conceptual issues” with fermions.

    Like the electrons in a superconductor, the paired atoms flow without resistance to form a “superfluid.” By tuning the tugs between atoms, researchers are mapping a new landscape of superfluidity. The gases are also providing insights into other forms of matter, such as the soup of fundamental particles called quark-gluon plasma that filled the infant universe and has been recreated at particle colliders.

    Experiments with ultracold fermions might even crack the mystery of high-temperature superconductivity, says Randall Hulet, an experimenter at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “The promise is still enormous,” he says. “There's much more to be done than has been done already.”

    Atoms, social and otherwise

    Atoms are either joiners or loners, depending on how they spin. And that depends on how many protons, neutrons, and electrons they contain. If an atom has an even number of parts, as rubidium-87 does, its spin is a multiple of an iota known as Planck's constant. That makes it a boson, and any number of identical bosons can squeeze into one quantum wave. So when physicists chill rubidium-87 gas to below a millionth of a kelvin, the atoms pile into the lowest energy wave to make a superfluid BEC.

    Atoms with an odd number of protons, neutrons, and electrons are far less gregarious. Known as fermions, they have an extra half-serving of spin, and a law of nature says that two identical fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state. So when fermions get cold, they stack one each into the lowest energy waves like so many plates in a cupboard (see figure, below).

    La différence.

    Bosons crowd into a single spatially extended quantum wave to flow without resistance. Fermions stack into the waves but then can pair to flow freely.

    Fermions can still form a superfluid, however. For example, in a superconductor, electrons (also fermions) fill two energy stacks: one for electrons spinning one way and another for electrons spinning the opposite way, as particles with opposite spins are in different states. Vibrations in the material then attract the electrons to one another, allowing opposite-spinning electrons to form loose, overlapping “Cooper pairs.” At low temperature, there isn't enough energy about to break up the pairs, so they flow without hindrance.

    Physicists aimed to mimic that effect in gases containing atoms spinning two different ways, to make them flow without resistance and show other weird quantum effects. To draw the atoms together, they apply a magnetic field. The field then produces a “Feshbach resonance” that greatly increases the interactions between the atoms.

    Progress came in quick steps. In November 2003, Rudolf Grimm of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and colleagues formed diatomic molecules of lithium-6 and produced a molecular BEC (Science, 14 November 2003, p. 1129). Three months later, Deborah Jin and her team at JILA, a laboratory run by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado, Boulder, adjusted the magnetic field to create looser Cooper pairs of potassium-40 atoms and achieve a Fermi condensate (Science, 6 February 2004, p. 741). In 2005, Ketterle proved that a Fermi condensate is a superfluid by spinning one and observing a telltale pattern of tiny whirlpools called vortices (Science, 24 June 2005, p. 1848).

    Fermi condensates don't behave exactly as expected, Jin says. “The superfluid didn't turn out to be like an ordinary superconductor,” she says. “It's more like a high-temperature superconductor, but it's not really that, either.” That's because the atoms attract one another so strongly. If the electrons in a metal pulled as hard, superconductivity would set in at thousands of degrees.

    Charting new territory

    Ultracold atoms can be manipulated far more easily than electrons in a superconductor. So like kids playing with a radio, physicists are turning every knob on their experiments to see what happens.

    For example, researchers have varied the ratio of atoms spinning in the two directions. Such experiments could lend insight into the hearts of neutrons stars, which contain different numbers of different kinds of quarks (which are also fermions). The imbalance throws standard theory out of kilter and could result in new types of superfluid, such as the so-called FFLO state that is patterned like striped cloth.

    In December 2005, Ketterle and his team reported that in lithium-6, superfluidity vanished when the ratio of up spins to down spins exceeded 85:15. In contrast, Hulet and colleagues found that superfluidity endured to a ratio of 93:7, the highest they could measure. For ratios above 55:45, it appeared that an evenly paired superfluid core forced the excess spins to the edges of the gas puff, like unpaired dancers squeezed off a crowded dance floor (Science, 23 December 2005, p. 1892). Hulet's results for nearly equal ratios even seemed to leave room for an exotic superfluid.

    The experiments sparked a heated debate, however. Ketterle argued that, in theory, superfluidity had to disappear if the ratio got too lopsided. He questioned the claim of a sharp “phase separation” between an evenly paired superfluid and the excess spins. But theorist Henk Stoof of Utrecht University in the Netherlands suggested that the MIT team simply didn't get their atoms cold enough to see the separation, which sets in below a so-called “tricritical point” (see figure).

    Terra nova.

    At lowest temperatures, a Fermi condensate separates into an evenly paired core and a shell of excess spins.

    CREDIT: SHIN ET AL., NATURE 451, 689 (2007)

    That cloudy situation is clearing. Ketterle and team have used laser light to trace the three-dimensional distribution of spins in their gas puffs. At the lowest temperatures, they observed a sharp boundary between core and periphery, they reported in the 7 February issue of Nature. That suggests that the MIT group had reached very low temperatures all along. But it also shows that the atoms phase-separate, as the Rice group claimed.

    Meanwhile, Stoof and others have calculated that the tricritical point should lie pretty much at the temperature and spin ratio that the MIT group says it does. “It looks kind of settled,” Stoof says. All agree that the Rice experiments must be taken seriously, however. Hulet's team traps their atoms in a very long, thin trap, Stoof notes, and the trap's shape may play a role and even stabilize the superfluid core in some way.

    Quintessential fermions

    Experimenters have also found extraordinary similarities between different types of cold atoms. In February 2007, John Thomas and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, traced how entropy varies with the energy in a lithium-6 gas. In April, theorist Peter Drummond of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and colleagues showed that data for potassium-40, collected by JILA's Jin, lay along precisely the same curve.

    Such “universal” thermodynamics arises because the atoms pull on one another so strongly that the details of their interactions cease to matter. But that means exactly the same relations should hold for hard-tugging quarks in a quark-gluon plasma or electrons in a high-Tc superconductor. “The big picture is that all strongly interacting fermions have to behave this way,” Thomas says.

    Universality has piqued the interest of nuclear physicists. They have created a quark-gluon plasma by smashing nuclei together at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. A collision typically produces a cigar-shaped droplet of the 2-trillion-degree plasma, which expands oddly—much faster widthwise than lengthwise. Measuring that “elliptic flow,” researchers have shown that the plasma is a nearly perfect liquid with almost no viscosity.

    A cloud of fermionic atoms expands in the same strange way. Setting a puff of lithium-6 jiggling, Thomas found that its viscosity was nearly as low as the plasma's. The precise origins of that similarity remain to be determined, says nuclear theorist Krishna Rajagopal of MIT. “Nature is trying to tell us something,” he says. “There is clearly some universality between these two very different liquids.”

    Some researchers hope to make connections to the ultracold, ultradense nuclear matter within a neutron star. There, different types of quarks may pair like the atoms in an imbalanced Fermi condensate. But there are key differences, Rajagopal says. The atoms spontaneously form a paired core surrounded by unpaired atoms. Such phase separation isn't possible with electrically charged quarks, he says, because it would cause a massive buildup of charge. Instead, a neutron star may contain the theorized FFLO superfluid, says Rajagopal, who hopes experimenters can prove that it does exist, perhaps in extremely elongated atom clouds.

    The ultimate superconductor

    Perhaps the grandest goal is to explain high-Tc superconductors, which carry electricity without resistance at temperatures as high as 164 K and have defied explanation for 20 years.

    The superconducting compounds contain planes of copper and oxygen atoms arranged in a square pattern. Electrons hop from copper to copper, avoiding each other because their charges repel but somehow pairing by interacting through their spins and magnetic fields. The mathematical formulation of this scheme, known as the Fermi-Hubbard model, is simple to describe but too complex to solve even with the best computers.

    So physicists hope to simply simulate the thing with cold atoms. The idea is to load ultracold fermions into a corrugated pattern of laser light. The atoms would hop from bright spot to bright spot like the electrons hopping from copper to copper. “If you're given one goal you want to accomplish in the next 5 years, it's to produce in the lab a Hubbard model” that mimics high-Tc superconductivity, Ketterle says.

    Several groups around the world are pushing to do just that. But it may not be as easy as some expect, says Tin-Lun “Jason” Ho, a theorist at Ohio State University in Columbus. To form a Fermi condensate, researchers chilled their atoms to a few billionths of a kelvin. To probe the Hubbard model, Ho says, they may have to reach a few trillionths of a degree.

    Still, in just a few years, Fermi condensates have opened new vistas and forged connections between distant fields. Likely, important results will continue to flow.


    Rocking the Cradle of Humanity

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    The nation of Ethiopia is seeking to leverage its past--including its most famous daughter, the hominid called Lucy--to help secure its future.

    The nation of Ethiopia is seeking to leverage its past—including its most famous daughter, the hominid called Lucy—to help secure its future

    ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA—At the National Museum here, Stephanie Melillo sits within arm's reach of almost 5 million years of human evolution—literally. Crammed into a corner in a temporary lab, transferring notes penned in a battered yellow notebook to her computer, this Stanford University graduate student must move out of the way so researcher Timothy White can unlock the filing cabinet that houses the reconstructed teeth of the famed 4.4-million-year-old hominid, Ardipithecus ramidus. A second cabinet nearby contains the cranium called Herto, which at 160,000 years old is one of the oldest known modern humans, plus skulls of Homo erectus and Homo rhodesiensis, 1 million and 500,000 years old, respectively.

    White, of the University of California, Berkeley, co-leader of a team that discovered many of these fossils, eagerly explains the bones' significance to visiting government officials while Melillo and other researchers from three continents jostle elbow to elbow, desperately trying to finish their work before their visit here ends. It's clear that the group needs more space and that these priceless fossils need a better home. “We're coiled up here like a spring ready to explode,” White complains.

    In a few months, however, White and other researchers should each have their own office during their stays in Ethiopia, while the hominids rest in cushioned vaults. Even as Melillo works and White talks, hammering and other construction noises outside their windows herald the impending opening of the museum's new research center. Built with $10 million from the Ethiopian treasury, it is symbolic of a burst of scientific enterprise from a country besieged with AIDS, periodic famine, and, occasionally, armed conflict.

    Kenya once held the world's attention for its contributions to understanding human evolution. But Ethiopia has its own cache of ancient treasures, and its leaders hope to use them to advance both the country's image and the science within its borders. “We want to catch up with the rest of the world,” says Mohammoud Dirrir, minister of culture and tourism.

    Step by step.

    Ethiopia is home to fossils representing many stages of hominid evolution from Ardipithecus to Homo sapiens.


    Not just the national museum but also universities and outreach efforts are expanding, in hopes of building Ethiopia's internal scientific capacity, encouraging research, and developing tourism. As part of its millennium celebration (Ethiopia follows the Egyptian Coptic calendar, in which this is the year 2000), the government hosted an international meeting* last month to foster links between research and development. For researchers, “everything is more positive, welcoming,” says paleoanthropologist and native Ethiopian Sileshi Semaw of Indiana University, Bloomington. “Everyone is realizing our work is important.”

    Many obstacles exist. Ethiopia still lacks the funds and skilled teachers needed to realize its vision of being a scientific leader in Africa. And tourism and outreach sometimes conflict with research. Despite protests from scientists, the Lucy skeleton is now on tour in the United States. But there is optimism as well. The government and scientists “are now working together very well,” says White. “We need to build on this collaboration as we move forward together.”

    Move to modernize

    Working in Ethiopia hasn't always been so amicable. When Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in the 1970s, researchers were kicked out and the search for fossils suspended for several years. Even after White and others were allowed back in, the government paid little mind to their discoveries. But today, Lucy's discoverer, Donald Johanson of Arizona State University in Tempe, calls Ethiopia “Africa's most promising country to expanding our knowledge of the past.” His project in Hadar in the Afar region of eastern Ethiopia is one of about 25 active paleontological or archaeological field sites in the country (see map). All fossils and artifacts unearthed stay in the country; once researchers leave the field, they must go directly to the museum to drop off their finds, even if it means a late-night rendezvous with caretakers.

    Digging in.

    Many of Ethiopia's current fossil and artifact excavation sites are located along the Rift Valley.


    So it is no surprise that the museum is bursting. For decades, researchers squeezed into the former governor's residence; a small lab building was added in 1982 with funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation. But space remained tight. Some decades-old specimens are still wrapped in the newspaper or even the dried grass they were delivered in, waiting to be processed. “If two or three teams showed up at the same time, it was very hard to work,” Johanson recalls.

    Then in 2003, that lab was razed to make way for a six-story, modern structure that includes a two-floor library, a 500-person auditorium, and 200 rent-free offices, plus storage and study space for more than a million specimens. The three wings are devoted to paleontology and archaeology; art and history; and administrative, conservation, and educational spaces.

    Although scheduled to open in the next few months, the building is still a dusty shell of concrete and glass, with unfinished wiring poking out of walls, ceilings missing tiles, and a gaping hole on the ground floor where a giant elevator is to go. The museum needs more than $5 million to outfit the new facility—there are almost no books for the library, for example—and less than $200,000 has been raised so far.

    Foreign aid is helping: France is supplying furniture, and Japan may outfit the hominid spaces. Everyone involved is thrilled and not just with the prospect of more space. “It shows how much emphasis has been given [to research],” says Ethiopian native and paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio. “In a country that has a lot of needs, the government could have easily used that money for something else.”

    Beyond concrete and glass

    But a six-story building that serves primarily as a second home to researchers from abroad is just the first step. “We must train more Ethiopians,” says Berhane Asfaw, an Addis Ababa-based paleoanthropologist who often works with foreign teams. Toward that end, the Ethiopian government has about tripled the number of universities in the past 3 years and promised $10 million toward educating 10,000 master's students and 2000 Ph.D.s in the next 5 years. Addis Ababa University will shift its focus from undergraduate to graduate education.

    Natural as well as applied sciences will get a boost, with new graduate programs sprouting up, including interdisciplinary ones key to fields such as paleontology. In the works are a botanical garden and a new natural history museum to promote research that is focused more on biology and earth sciences than is the national museum. And the goal for the next generation—unlike that of Haile-Selassie, Berhane Asfaw, and about a dozen other prominent Ethiopian researchers, all educated abroad (Science, 29 August 2003, p. 1178)—is to have “most of the training done inhouse,” says Araya Asfaw, dean of science at Addis Ababa University. The hope is to foster permanent research programs within Ethiopia that depend less on foreigners.

    At the same time, “one of the most important things that needs to happen is the integration of tourism and science,” says White. And that, too, is happening. National Geographic has pledged support for an educational center at the village nearest to Hadar, home of the 3.2-million-year-old Lucy. With better roads under construction, “it could easily be a destination spot for tourists,” Johanson predicts. Exhibit plans are still taking shape, but there likely will be casts of Lucy and other fossil hominids, as well as photographs from the site.

    Steven Brandt of the University of Florida, Gainesville, has similar visions for Moche Borago, an excavated cave an 8-hour drive southwest of Addis Ababa. Here, Brandt's team has dug up stone tools and other artifacts that help reveal the transition to complex societies about 50,000 years ago. Brandt hopes to set up a small research center at a local university, and he talks enthusiastically about the cave's potential as a stop-off, complete with displays and craft shops, for tourists heading to see native tribes farther south. “If he is committed [to that project],” says Yonas Beyene, research director at Ethiopia's Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, “it would be very much appreciated.”

    Researchers hope also to build another museum in or close to Addis Ababa devoted to human evolution, with an expected _10 million from the European Union, says Berhane Asfaw. The new museum will boost public outreach about hominids in a way the National Museum, with its limited exhibit space, cannot, he adds.

    Are these goals a pipe dream? Maybe. Ethiopia faces an acute shortage of professors to teach graduate courses and at the moment can support little research by local scientists. “They have no money,” says geologist Maurice Taieb of the Centre Européen de Recherche et d'Enseignement des Géosciences de l'Environnement in Aix-en- Provence, France.

    Already, the government's decision to send Lucy abroad has raised the ire of some. Many Ethiopian and Western scientists argued that the skeleton was too fragile to travel (Science, 27 October 2006, p. 574). “Obviously, the Ethiopian government has made its own decisions on how to use Lucy in terms of tourism and economic gains,” says Haile-Selassie, as the priceless bones are now on display in Houston, Texas. Lucy is scheduled to stay in the United States for several years, although no additional exhibitions are yet confirmed. Money earned by Lucy's travels will help improve the National Museum, says museum director Mamitu Yilma.

    And even if, as Ethiopian officials hope, Lucy sparks a run of tourists visiting Ethiopia, Brandt worries about the fate of sites those tourists might want to see. Many sites are already vulnerable, he says, and better roads may destroy them or make them too accessible. “By opening up [to tourism], we can lose everything we have,” agrees Berhane Asfaw.

    Yet Seyoum Bereded, director of the Ethiopian Millennium National Festival Council Secretariat, is unfazed by these challenges, saying that science and tourism can be a compatible, and profitable, match. He's ready to push Ethiopian science into the 21st century. “If we have peace, we can do anything.”

    • *“International Conference on Transforming the Might of a Century-Long Research Output into Development,” 12–15 January, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.