GREENER PLASTICS. A leader in the field of green chemistry has won the 2008 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Joseph DeSimone, a polymer scientist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, received the $500,000 award 26 June during EurekaFest, an annual affair in Boston that showcases inventions by students and scientists.
DeSimone, 44, developed a technique that substitutes carbon dioxide for perfluorooctanoic acid, which can cause environmental and health problems, to make a more durable and environmentally friendly plastic called fluoropolymer. DuPont built a $40 million plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to produce the new material, which is used to make wire, cable insulation, tubing, and other materials for the telecommunications and automotive industries. The technology is also being tested for use in medical devices.
“The opportunity for new materials is ubiquitous,” says DeSimone. “And polymer science can be a bridge to a lot of different fields to create new materials.”
COUNTING CARNIVORES. Wildlife biologist David Maehr dedicated his career to large carnivores. On 20 June, he lost his life in a plane crash while studying them in Florida. He was 52.
Maehr made his mark in the late 1980s at the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission studying the state's endangered panthers. His research on the animals' range affected land development in the region. Although some of his findings were contested by other researchers (Science, 19 August 2005, p. 1162), his book The Florida Panther: Life and Death of a Vanishing Carnivore remains a classic, says ecologist John Gittleman of the University of Georgia, Athens.
After joining the University of Kentucky, Lexington, in 1997, Maehr turned his focus to black bears. He was conducting an aerial survey of bears near the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, Florida, when the single-engine Piper Cub apparently stalled and crashed, killing Maehr and the pilot. Such research requires scientists “to hang in there for long periods of time,” says Gittleman. “Dave was willing to do that.”
RETURN TO FUNDER. Any scientist will tell you that there's never enough money for research. So NASA officials were pleasantly surprised earlier this month when a contractor saved the agency nearly $3 million.
NASA budgeted $100 million in 1999 for the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment project, a small satellite mission launched in 2003 that studies how solar radiation affects climate. A combination of experience and good luck allowed the team at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to complete the project with money to spare. Returning the funds seemed like the right thing to do, says principal investigator Thomas Woods. “NASA and the government in general are having budget problems,” Woods says, so “it's good to help them out.”
NASA officials say that the last time this happened was in 1996, when Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory shaved $3.6 million off the cost of the NEAR Shoemaker comet project.
AN EXODUS OF WOMEN. A new report has found that 52% of women entering the U.S. corporate science, engineering, and technology (SET) workforce will leave their jobs at some point because of gender-related issues. One-quarter will abandon science altogether.
A survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York City of 2493 men and women aged 25 to 60 found that the attrition of female SET employees spikes at about age 35 and that the pharmaceutical and technology industries are the most affected (see chart). Women reported feeling isolated—many were often the only woman in their work group—and 63% said they were sexually harassed. Other reasons for leaving included low pay and the challenges of balancing work and family.
With women currently claiming 41% of all entry-level scientific jobs in industry, the impact of the hostile work environment is huge. Study authors note that reducing the number of women who quit by just one-quarter would increase the SET workforce by 220,000 people. And nearly two-thirds of the women who left SET jobs say they would gladly return if employers addressed the issues that led them to quit.