Science  19 Sep 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5896, pp. 1619
  1. Aussie Science Review

    1. Elizabeth Finkel

    CANBERRA—Australia's approach to funding R&D needs a major revamp, says a review released here last week. The report, commissioned by science minister Kim Carr, highlights a fundamental flaw in the system, researchers say. Whereas funding agencies in the United States cover about a third of research project overhead, Australian government bodies fund as little as 20% of overhead costs such as electricity and lab maintenance. “We're running down our physical infrastructure and milking international students,” says Michael Gallagher, CEO of the Group of Eight Universities, which represents Australia's research-intensive universities.

    The review, led by industrialist Terry Cutler of Cutler & Co., calls on the government to boost R&D spending by $1.7 billion a year to $6.8 billion per year. The increase should be used in part to fully fund overhead, the report says. John Mattick, director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, applauds the proposals, because more funds for overhead “will eliminate the cross-subsidization of research by teaching [fees],” he says. Carr's office calls the report “timely and important” and says the government will respond by year's end.

  2. NIH to Get New Look

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    The push to merge some of the 27 institutes and centers at the sprawling U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is back on the agenda. Last week, Director Elias Zerhouni announced that a panel drawn from inside and outside NIH will be charged with examining its structure and looking for ways to improve efficiency. With biomedicine becoming more complex, “NIH must respond nimbly and strategically,” Zerhouni said in a press release.

    Observers have long complained that NIH is bogged down by a heavy superstructure created over the years at the behest of patient advocacy groups and Congress. Former NIH director Harold Varmus once said that there should be just six institutes, and a 2003 Institute of Medicine report suggested some specific consolidations. The 21 members of the new panel, the NIH Scientific Management Review Board, which includes Varmus, will reexamine these ideas. Chair Norman Augustine, former head of Lockheed Martin Corp., says he's optimistic that the panel will have clout because it was mandated by Congress in the 2006 NIH Reform Act. “It's a question of how compelling the arguments are,” Augustine says. NIH has not yet scheduled the board's first meeting.

  3. Physicists Support Conservation of Energy

    1. Eli Kintisch

    “Energy efficiency is one of America's great hidden energy reserves,” declares a new report by the American Physical Society released this week. To better tap that mother lode, the authors call for big increases in basic research funding, establishment of an agile, high-risk research agency modeled after DARPA, and a commitment to what they call “critical longer term applied research,” such as developing advanced windows and ventilation. (The U.S. Department of Energy often favors deploying technologies already on the shelf, the report says.) In order to persuade both consumers and industries to save kilowatts, the report calls for new kinds of electric power metering to support plug-in hybrid vehicles, tougher commercial and residential building standards, and fuel-efficiency standards of 50 miles per gallon by 2030. (Current standards call for 35 mpg by 2020.)

    By coincidence, on the same day a coalition of unions, energy companies, environmentalists, and industry groups called on the federal government and states to prioritize efficiency. They believe tax incentives for companies and households, job training programs, and the appointment of a National Energy Efficiency Advocate at the White House can make efficiency “the essential starting point in meeting demand for additional U.S. power supply.”

  4. Cravin' MAVEN

    1. Rachel Zelkowitz

    A new mission to Mars aims to provide the first in-depth probe of the Red Planet's atmosphere, NASA announced this week. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will be designed to orbit the planet for a year and collect data on features of the atmosphere such as the electromagnetic composition of solar winds that bombard the planet. Previous Mars missions have shown that the planet's atmosphere has thinned considerably over the past 4 billion years, and MAVEN will quantify the planet's gas loss to enable researchers to analyze that impact on climate change. “I see this as exploring the nature of martian habitability,” says principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. With a price tag estimated at $485 million, MAVEN is set to launch in November 2013 and should go into an elliptical orbit around Mars 1 year later.