Science  15 Aug 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5891, pp. 901

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  1. The Stars Are Out in China

    1. Richard Stone

    BEIJING—China is building a new set of ears tuned to our nearest star. Last month, the government of Inner Mongolia provided land to the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences for the Chinese Spectral Radioheliograph (CSRH), one of two major ground-based solar instruments that China's scientific community plans for the coming decade. Construction will begin later this month on the $7.3 million facility, which will listen in on radio bursts that could presage coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When directed at Earth, these ionic tidal waves can trigger geomagnetic storms that disable satellites and knock out power grids. Set to open in 2010, CSRH will consist of 40 radio dishes, each 4.5 meters wide. They will be clustered on the steppe in a zone devoid of earthly radio waves—apart from stray cell phone signals—260 kilometers northwest of Beijing.

    Meanwhile, there's work on a complementary facility, the Frequency-Agile Solar Radiotelescope (FASR). In June, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and several university partners asked the U.S. National Science Foundation for $25 million to build FASR at Owens Valley Radio Observatory in California. If they receive the funds, the consortium wants to begin building a prototype array at Owens Valley next year, says NRAO's Tim Bastian.

  2. Changes to Species Law Draw Fire

    1. Eli Kintisch

    The U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed loosening rules controlling how the government follows the Endangered Species Act in building and permitting highways, dams, and other projects. Currently, federal officials must consult scientists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration if the proposed projects “may” affect endangered species. Under the changes, officials would ask for consultations only if they “anticipated” impacts on threatened species. The Administration says the changes will reduce paperwork so that “more time and resources can be devoted to the protection of the most vulnerable species.” But former U.S. Forest Service ecologist Robert Mrowka, now with the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, says the rules are “like the fox guarding the hen house” and remove independent scientists from the review process.

  3. Report: Think Simple on Cars

    1. Eli Kintisch

    The hype over hydrogen or hybrid cars may be blinding policymakers from taking steps to improve the fuel efficiency of gasoline-powered cars, suggests a new report by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. The researchers concluded that fully electric cars or hydrogen-powered vehicles will require major technical improvements if they hope to become cost-competitive in the next 20 years. And although plug-in hybrid cars may offer greenhouse gas emissions reductions sooner than those technologies, the study says, more efficient or lighter gasoline-powered cars may offer reductions more cheaply. “It's an eye-opening report,” says John DeCicco of the Environmental Defense Fund, who applauds the report's “rigorous” analysis. Report author John Heywood of MIT says fuel-efficiency production standards, which Congress tightened last year, should be supported by incentives such as fuel taxes.

  4. British Scientists Seek Altered Trees

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    Scientists in the United Kingdom are hoping to launch the first field trial of genetically modified (GM) trees in that country in a decade. Gail Taylor of the University of Southampton and her colleagues have asked the U.K. Forestry Commission to provide land for a small-scale trial of poplar trees with reduced lignin, which could make them a more efficient source of ethanol for biofuel. The trial has reignited a debate over GM trees in the United Kingdom. Trees would be harvested after 3 years, says Taylor, before they release pollen. But Ricarda Steinbrecher, a molecular geneticist with EcoNexus in Oxford, U.K., says that because trees are so long-lived and relatively undomesticated, “we need to learn much more about poplars before we can dream about a proper risk assessment.”

  5. Physicists Feel the Spotlight

    1. Adrian Cho

    Physicists will attempt to load beams into the Large Hadron Collider, the most energetic particle smasher ever built, on 10 September, the European particle physics lab, CERN, announced last week. Researchers had better be ready for their close-up, as officials have invited the press to the lab near Geneva, Switzerland, to watch. “We're petrified,” says Paul Collier, head of accelerator operations at CERN. “When we turn the tap and the beam goes down [the beam pipe], there will be a lot of fingers crossed.”