News this Week

Science  21 Nov 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5905, pp. 1172

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    U.S. Visa Delays on the Rise, Scientists Abroad Report

    1. Richard Stone*
    1. With reporting by Chen Xi.

    BEIJING—Huang Yanyi was looking forward to the 11th Chinese-American Kavli Frontiers of Science Symposium, held last month in Irvine, California. He had organized a session on microfluids and planned to huddle with collaborators from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. But Huang never made it out of China. Although the materials scientist at Peking University applied for a U.S. visa in early July, the visa was not issued until 7 October—3 days after the symposium wrapped up. “It's very frustrating,” says Huang, who recently completed postdoctoral stints at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “My American colleagues joke that maybe we should look for a 'neutral zone,' like Europe, for our future meetings.”

    It may not be long before that dark humor becomes reality. The Chinese scientist Huang lined up to speak at his session also failed to get a visa in time; the chair of his session, who got his visa the day before he was due to fly, agreed to stand in for the speaker. All told, visa woes prevented 11 Chinese from attending the symposium. In a similar case in August, the leader of China's delegation to the General Assembly of the International Union of Radio Science in Chicago, Illinois, did not get a visa in time to attend and present his country's proposal to host the next assembly.

    All were snared by a recent slowdown in the processing of U.S. visas for foreign scientists. Procedures instituted after the 11 September 2001 attacks require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, and other agencies to vet most scientists from countries whose citizens must obtain visas to enter the United States. In 2003, visa delays prompted scientific societies to warn of an erosion of U.S. competitiveness if top foreign talent were to eschew travel to the United States. By last year, U.S. security agencies had managed to whittle average visa-processing time for scientists from 7 weeks to 3 weeks. It has since climbed back up to 8 weeks. “We are quite concerned about the possibility of seeing all the ground we made lost,” says Amy Scott, assistant vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.


    Huang Yanyi was one of 11 Chinese scientists who failed to get a visa in time for a symposium last month in California.


    Visa-processing delays are not the only complaint. U.S. managers say it is harder than ever to secure H-1B visas for foreign researchers they wish to employ in the United States. “It is nearly impossible to bring in the best people in the world and build a company without spending a huge amount of time and money to get these people to the States,” says biomedical engineer and entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, who founded 454 Life Sciences and several other biotech start-ups. Reaching out to U.S. legislators has done little good, Rothberg says. “They see it as a zero-sum game, where we are hiring 'one less qualified American.'”

    Meanwhile, the visa delays, observers say, have worsened since last summer. “It's driving everyone crazy,” says an official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. “It obviously damages our S&T relationship with China.” The embassy has a channel to intervene in high-profile cases, which it used earlier this year to expedite review of a visa application from Jiang Mianheng, vice president for high-tech research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and son of the former president of China, Jiang Zemin. “We can use this channel only in exceptional cases,” says the embassy official. A recurring problem is seemingly arbitrary visa denials. According to a State Department official authorized to speak on background, visa rejections are rare and, for reasons he declined to elaborate on, tend to target scientists in aeronautics and aviation.

    The renewed concerns have prompted a fresh look at how to streamline the Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) process. Parts of this bureaucratic machine date to the Cold War. For example, the decades-old Technology Alert List allows consular officials to flag visa applications from students and scientists in disciplines in which the U.S. government is determined to restrict sensitive information. The list—described in congressional testimony in 2003 as 15 critical fields—is now classified; in the past, it included biotechnology, chemistry, and robotics. “Maybe the only field that doesn't raise a red flag is pure mathematics,” says the State Department official.

    The State Department introduced a layer of complexity in 1998 with its Visas Mantis Program, aimed at thwarting the leakage of S&T secrets. Under Mantis, consular or Homeland Security officials can reject a visa application if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe an applicant's proposed activities will “violate or evade any law prohibiting the export from the United States of goods, technology, or sensitive information.” Mantis cases comprise about 10% of SAO cases. Then in 2002, the State Department launched Visas Condor, which lists 25 countries, including China, India, and Russia, from which visa applicants who meet certain classified criteria receive special scrutiny.

    The post-9/11 change with the biggest impact on visa processing time, says the State Department official, is a requirement that each reviewing agency give a thumbs-up, no matter how long a review takes. Before 9/11, a visa would be granted if no agency objected within 10 days. The official says that agencies simply don't have the staff to make much headway on the visa backlog.

    One remedy would be for security agencies to hire more reviewers. Experts also argue that agencies could speed up the process by relying more on the judgment of the U.S. scientific community. For instance, some researchers would like to see an executive order stipulating that if a scientific body or university supports an application, a decision to grant or deny a visa must be made within 30 days. Advocates say this approach might also rely on qualified U.S. scientists to vouch for the credibility of the work of foreign experts. They argue that researchers who build a reputation in the scientific community are unlikely to trash that and become a terrorist or spy. A U.S. National Research Council panel is expected to recommend a vouching system in a report due out in several weeks on how U.S. security controls are impeding the flow of scientific information.

    An expert vouching system “might speed things up to some degree,” says Albert Teich, director of science and policy programs at AAAS (Science's publisher). But he warns that reviewing agencies would still have a good deal of responsibility to weigh whether granting a visa presents a security risk. He and others will be watching whether President-elect Barack Obama addresses concerns about the visa issue through an executive order early in his Administration.


    Excess Particles From Space May Hint at Dark Matter

    1. Adrian Cho

    An unexpected abundance of high-energy electrons from space could be evidence of particles of dark matter—the weighty and mysterious stuff whose gravity holds the galaxies together. The observation is the second in 4 months that suggests a link between cosmic rays and dark matter. But if the sightings really do point to dark matter, then physicists may have to revise their ideas about what the stuff is.

    The latest result comes from the Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC), a NASA-funded balloon-borne particle detector that circled the South Pole. “If it is true, it's fantastic,” says Lars Bergström, a theoretical astroparticle physicist at Stockholm University in Sweden.

    Using data collected in 2000 and 2002, ATIC researchers observed about 210 electrons and positrons with energies between 300 billion and 800 billion electron volts (GeV), they report this week in Nature. That was about 70 more than they expected by extrapolating from lower energies. The excess could be born of the collisions of dark-matter particles, says ATIC team leader John Wefel, an astrophysicist at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. According to leading theories, when two dark-matter particles collide, they should annihilate each other and produce either an electron and a positron or some other particle-antiparticle pair.

    The excess could also be produced by a nearby pulsar or other astrophysical beast that accelerates particles in some unexpected way. But “so far we have not been able to find anything out there that's able to do this,” Wefel says. Moreover, the excess abruptly disappears at energies above 800 GeV. That detail might point toward dark matter, as the mass of the colliding dark-matter particles would limit the energy of electrons and positrons, Bergström explains.

    Going up?

    Researchers prepare ATIC to be hauled aloft by a balloon. The particle detector may have spotted signs of dark matter.


    Another cosmic-ray observation also hints at dark matter. In August, researchers with the orbiting PAMELA (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei Astrophysics) experiment reported that at energies between 10 GeV and 100 GeV, the ratio of positrons to the sum of electrons and positrons begins to climb. Ordinarily, electrons from space should far outnumber positrons. But dark-matter annihilations should produce equal numbers of electrons and positrons, causing the ratio to rise, as PAMELA observed. The PAMELA and ATIC data are “completely compatible,” says Marco Cirelli of the Institute of Theoretical Physics of the French Atomic Energy Commission in Saclay, France. “PAMELA is seeing the start of the rise [in electron-positron pairs], and ATIC is seeing the whole bump,” he says.

    Ironically, if ATIC and PAMELA are detecting dark matter, then theorists may have to rethink a favorite idea. Many believe that dark-matter particles might be the lightest particles predicted by supersymmetry, which posits a heavier “superpartner” for every known type of particle. But colliding particles of supersymmetric dark matter ought to produce a lot of proton-antiproton pairs. Unless the supersymmetric particles are heavier than generally expected, PAMELA should also see the ratio of antiprotons to protons increase at energies above 10 GeV, which it doesn't.

    Moreover, annihilating supersymmetric particles won't directly produce electron-positron pairs, but it will make other particles that decay into the electron and proton. That should smooth over the sharp drop-off ATIC sees. “If this is dark matter, it is not the standard dark matter,” Cirelli says.

    Clarity may come soon. NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, launched in June, will look for photons produced by dark-matter annihilations. If ATIC and PAMELA are seeing a real signal, then Fermi should see one, too.


    Malaria Drugs, the Coca-Cola Way

    1. Martin Enserink

    Most parents would buy the most effective drug they could afford to save their child's life. But it's not so simple if you are poor and living in Africa, where the local drugstore stocks a bewildering array of medicines, ranging in price from a few dimes to $10, usually with no information about which work and which don't. There's a good chance you would choose a cheap treatment—and that it would turn out to be totally ineffective.

    That, in a nutshell, is the problem with a new generation of malaria drugs called artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). Although cheap by Western standards, they're expensive to the world's poorest, and in the private sector where most Africans buy their drugs, they face stiff competition. But on 7 November, the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria voted to adopt a new financing system aimed at bringing the best drugs to stores at rock-bottom prices—by letting the market do the work. “From an economics point of view, it's going to be an incredibly exciting experiment,” says Barry Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

    ACTs combine a drug derived from Artemisia annua, a plant used in Chinese medicine for centuries, with a second malaria drug to make it harder for the malaria parasite to develop resistance. Highly effective, ACTs have revived hope that the enormous burden of malaria can be slashed, but their rollout has been slow and difficult (Science, 26 October 2007, p. 560). The Global Fund, the World Bank, and others provide subsidies to poor countries that buy the drugs for their public health systems, but more than half of patients in Africa get their drugs from private outlets. Those drugstores often don't carry ACTs, however, and if they do, they're much more expensive than old, ineffective drugs like chloroquine, counterfeit drugs, and artemisinin monotherapies. (Drug resistance to artemisinin-based drugs—already emerging in Southeast Asia—is a huge worry, which is why global health leaders discourage the use of monotherapies.) A recent study by the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the Ugandan Ministry of Health shows just how expensive and difficult ACTs are to obtain in the private sector (see table).

    View this table:

    In 2004, a U.S. National Academies' Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel chaired by retired economist and Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow proposed a solution. Pharmaceutical wholesalers in poor countries should be able to buy ACTs straight from the manufacturer for pennies instead of dollars, the panel said; donors would pay the difference directly to the manufacturer. That way, the drugs could be traded down the supply chain and be sold in even the smallest village at the same price or for less than the undesirable drugs—which would, with any luck, be pushed off the market. “For years, we've been saying in public health: If only we knew how Coca-Cola gets its cans into the most remote African villages, we could do the same for drugs,” says health economist Ramanan Laxminarayan of Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C., who sat on the IOM panel. “Well, this is how they do it—by relying on the market.”

    Take your pick.

    A street vendor in Niger—one of 11 countries targeted for the new program—has a huge variety of drugs for sale, including many for malaria.


    Still, the idea is untested in global health, says Oliver Sabot, director of the Clinton Foundation Malaria Control Team. Some worry that, instead of passing the benefit on to patients, intermediaries will pocket most of the subsidy. Some also contend it's better to expand access to the public health system than to subsidize the chaotic private sector. For those and other reasons, the U.S. government has opposed the plan so far. “This is an expensive proposition,” says Bernard Nahlen, deputy coordinator of the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative. “We'd better have good evidence that it will work.”

    Some evidence came earlier this year from a small-scale trial in Tanzania run by the Clinton Foundation. Wholesalers were sold the locally preferred ACT, arthemeter-lumefantrine, for about $0.12 per treatment course and were allowed to sell it in two rural districts. Researchers interviewed customers coming out of shops and audited stores' inventories and sales data. The number of patients who came home with an ACT shot up from 1% to 44% in 4 months, and patients paid the same average price or even less for ACTs than for older drugs. Nahlen calls the results “encouraging” but adds, “You can't extrapolate from two districts in Tanzania to the entire world.”

    Many organizations, including the World Bank and even the Global Fund, were initially skeptical, says Laxminarayan, but they have come on board. In 2007, Roll Back Malaria, an international partnership of governments, organizations, and companies, threw its weight behind the idea, which is now called the Affordable Medicines Facility for malaria (AMFm). And in New Delhi on 7 November, the Global Fund's board approved a plan to host and manage AMFm, starting with a 2-year pilot project in 10 African countries and in Cambodia. (The United States, whose delegation was divided on the issue, ended up abstaining.)

    So far, the U.K. government has pledged $60 million of the projected $350 million needed for the pilot. The board of UNITAID, an international fund that raises money from taxes on airline tickets, is expected to approve a large contribution on 25 November. (Both the Global Fund and UNITAID declined to comment for this story pending that decision.)

    Arrow, 87, who knew next to nothing about malaria before 2004 but has become quite the expert, says he's “very happy” that his panel's idea is becoming reality. “I'm only disappointed that it took so long.”


    Study Shows How Degraded Surroundings Can Degrade Behavior

    1. Constance Holden
    Antisocial cues.

    People are much more likely to litter a graffiti-adorned alley than one in which the walls are clean.


    If you're walking by a wall covered with graffiti, are you also more likely to litter? The Broken Window Theory, crystallized in a 1982 article in The Atlantic by political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George L. Kelling, posits that the environment has a significant effect on whether people engage in antisocial behavior. But there's been little empirical research on just how “broken windows” lead to social disorder and crime—until now.

    In a series of cleverly designed experiments reported in a paper published online by Science this week (, researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that if people see one norm or rule being violated (such as graffiti or a vehicle parked illegally), they're more likely to violate others—such as littering, or even stealing.

    In one setup, for example, the experimenters attached useless fliers to the handles of bicycles parked in an alley that had a sign on the wall forbidding graffiti. There was no trash can in the alley. The experimenters covertly watched how many people tossed the fliers on the pavement or put them on another bike rather than pocketing them for disposal. On another day, they set up the same condition in the same place, except with graffiti on the wall.

    The results were striking: When there was no graffiti, a third of 77 cyclists tossed the flier away. But more than two-thirds littered after the graffiti was applied. In another experiment involving a €5 note left sticking out of a mailbox, 13% of subjects pocketed it when the mailbox was in a clean environment, compared with 23% when there was trash around.

    Auditory cues can also set the scene for disorder. Four out of five cyclists littered their fliers when they could hear illegal firecrackers being set off, whereas barely half did so when it was quiet.

    Kelling commends the experiments as “very tidy.” He says that most earlier studies “dealt with correlation rather than causality” but that there is growing evidence for the broken window effect. A Harvard University study, reported earlier this year, found that scrupulous “situational prevention” in troubled neighborhoods in Lowell, Massachusetts—in particular, added policing and cleanup—was more effective than social services or law enforcement in maintaining order.

    The study demonstrates that disorder in the environment has a generalized effect, says social psychologist Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University, Tempe. That finding suggests government agencies can expect a big payoff from what he calls “relatively minor efforts, let's say, to keep the streets clean.”

    Cialdini says his research has found that people's pro-social behavior can be calibrated to quite a fine degree and is shaped not only by what they see but also by what they believe to be true. For example, many hotel bathrooms have signs advising visitors that reusing their towels is good for the environment. On any given day, he says, about 38% of guests will reuse their towels. But the percentage rises to one-half if guests are told that a majority of the hotel's guests reuse their towels. “And if we say, 'The majority of guests in this room' reuse towels, we get even more [participation],” says Cialdini.


    The New Groove in Science Aid: South-South Initiatives

    1. Robert Koenig

    MEXICO CITY—When 42 elite scientists from the developing world founded their own academy 25 years ago, they aimed to help close the divide between the research capabilities of the northern and southern hemispheres. Today, that community, the 871-member Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (known as TWAS after its original name, the Third World Academy of Sciences), is also focused on another divide: the widening gap between the South's scientific haves and have-nots.

    While research in about 80 struggling countries in Africa and elsewhere has lagged, it has advanced dramatically in several of the South's largest nations—led by China, India, and Brazil. That gap sparked a lively debate at TWAS's 25th anniversary meeting here about the academy's programs and the responsibilities of the top developing countries.

    “The growth of science and technology in the developing world has been as uneven as it is impressive,” says mathematician Jacob Palis, president of TWAS and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. He wants TWAS to expand its grants and fellowship programs and bolster initiatives to help young scientists.

    Others contend that big science projects are also needed. Physicist Mambillikalathil G. K. Menon, a TWAS founder who advises India's Space Research Organization, is calling for projects funded by developing nations that might parallel Europe-wide ventures such as the European Space Agency and CERN. He also suggested that the South's prosperous countries should mentor far more scientists in Africa and other less-developed countries. “We should undertake some major scientific activities,” Menon says.

    One such regional effort seems likely to succeed, says Moneef R. Zou'bi, director general of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences: the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME). It brings together scientists from 10 Middle Eastern countries to conduct experiments at a relocated German synchrotron that will start operating next year in Jordan. Other researchers, arguing that big science is not yet feasible in most of Africa, want to build better research networks to link scientists from poorer nations to strong labs in the emerging South economies.

    C. N. R. Rao, a past TWAS president who led the Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, India, says small African nations need basic assistance to build their research capacity. It's the kind of support India received a quarter-century ago, Rao says, and is now giving back. India, China, and Brazil have joined with TWAS to run a South-South fellowship program for 250 Ph.D. students and postdocs.

    Tieniu Tan, deputy secretary general of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and director of China's National Laboratory of Pattern Recognition, says China is expanding fellowship programs and sharing technology and data in the developing world. “We feel obliged to do this because we are the largest developing country,” he says.

    African postdocs praise the Chinese fellowship program but say that returning to their home countries—with expertise but limited equipment and grant money—can be a shock. “It is great to train at a good institute, but the training and equipment I had in China was not matched when I returned home,” says S. Idowu Ola, a Nigerian reproductive physiologist who was a postdoc at the CAS Institute of Zoology in Beijing. Eventually, with some help from TWAS and the International Foundation for Science, he set up an animal reproduction lab at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria.

    Lab boost.

    Expansion of South-South scientific cooperation might help research at labs across Africa, like this one in Tunisia.


    Both South Africa and Nigeria, two of the continent's strongest nations, now offer programs to train other African students and young scientists. “We are fully committed to South-South cooperation in S&T,” says South Africa's science minister, Mosibudi Mangena, noting that his country already hosts three “flagship centers” to train African students in advanced math, biosciences, and laser technology. “But political support is absolutely crucial for South-South cooperation.”


    Cast of 1000 Proteins Shines in Movies of Cancer Cells

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Like the instruments of an orchestra, the thousands of proteins inside a living cell sometimes individually surge into prominence, blend in with each other, or fade to a whisper. Biologists have not had an effective way to eavesdrop on this full protein symphony—but now they're a step closer. Systems biologists led by Uri Alon of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, describe online in Science this week ( how fluorescent markers and a time-lapse microscope have allowed them an unprecedented view of the fluctuating locations and levels of about 1000 proteins in individual human cancer cells.

    Leroy Hood, president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington, calls the new work “pioneering,” pointing to the number of proteins Alon's group followed and how precisely their abundance and whereabouts were tracked. “I think it will be a milestone paper,” he says. The new technique should help drug developers as well as basic cell biologists, notes Alon. In their study, for example, his group fingered two proteins that may help explain why some lung tumors resist a well-known cancer drug.

    Protein symphony.

    Each horizontal line shows the level of a specific protein (redder is higher, bluer is lower) as cells respond to a cancer drug.


    Existing ways to monitor multiple proteins in a cell include gene expression arrays, which detect RNA from transcribed genes, and mass spectrometry, which measures protein levels. But both methods entail crushing large numbers of cells, collecting the cytoplasmic juice, and analyzing it. Results reflect an average across many cells.

    To develop a new way to gauge protein dynamics, Alon's group relied on fluorescent proteins plucked from jellyfish and other organisms that biologists commonly use these days to tag proteins in cells. Researchers typically fuse the gene for a fluorescent protein to the gene for a single protein of interest and add the construct back into a cell's DNA.

    Instead of creating tagged proteins one by one, however, Alon's team took a more global approach. They infected lung cancer cells with a retrovirus ferrying the DNA for a yellow fluorescent protein. In each cell, the retrovirus integrated its payload at a random place, often within one of the cell's 20,000 or so genes that encode a protein. Voilà: a cell with a fluorescently marked protein. The researchers ultimately isolated individual cells with 1020 different, randomly tagged proteins.

    Then it was time to make movies. Working with an automated microscope that could record the fluorescence of 12 cell colonies at a time, each one with a different protein tagged, the researchers gave each group of cells a dose of the common cancer drug camptothecin and watched what happened over the next 48 hours. The drug kills cancer cells by gumming up an enzyme called topoisomerase-1 (TOP1) that the cells need to unwind DNA and copy it or transcribe it into the RNA instructions for making proteins.

    Not surprisingly, in TOP1-tagged cells, levels of the enzyme dropped soon after the drug was introduced. In cells tagged for other proteins, sometimes a protein's level rose, but more often it fell after the drug treatment. Some tagged proteins faded from the cell's nucleus and appeared in the cytoplasm or made another translocation that could further explain camptothecin's mechanism of action.

    The big surprise was the fate of cells tagged with two particular proteins. After exposure to the cancer drug, these cell colonies each split into two sets of cells with differing characteristics. In one, the concentration of the tagged protein rose, and the cells survived. In the remaining cells of the colony, the protein's level slumped, and the cells later self-destructed. Understanding the role these two proteins play in cell survival could suggest a new strategy for overcoming a tumor's resistance to camptothecin, Hood says.

    The technique developed by Alon's team could be “an amazing tool for working out drug mechanisms,” says computational biologist Joseph Lehár of CombinatoRx, a company in Boston that tests pairs of known drugs to see if they work better than one alone.

    Alon acknowledges that with 5000 to 10,000 proteins being produced by cells at any one time, his team is far from observing a complete picture of protein dynamics. Still, “1000 is pretty impressive,” says Boston University systems biologist James Collins.


    World Oil Crunch Looming?

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Even those who believe there's plenty of oil left in the ground to meet rising demand are warning that the final crisis could come uncomfortably soon.

    Even those who believe there's plenty of oil left in the ground to meet rising demand are warning that the final crisis could come uncomfortably soon

    Don't stop.

    Kansas will have to squeeze out more oil just to help keep non-OPEC production steady.


    Breathing a sigh of relief as the price of gasoline plummets toward $2 a gallon and maybe beyond? Thinking $100-a-barrel oil was just a passing inconvenience? Think again.

    The fall in oil prices will likely be short-lived, say those in the know. Although price spikes and drops may recur for years, says economist Fatih Birol, “we think the era of cheap oil is over.” He and colleagues at the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) just released their World Energy Outlook 2008. IEA analysts see enough oil still in the ground to satisfy ever-rising demand for decades to come—assuming the price continues to rise. But they aren't at all sure that the Middle Eastern government-owned oil companies sitting on most of the remaining oil will be pumping it fast enough a decade or two from now to meet the unbridled demands of the rest of world.

    Already, countries outside oil-rich OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) seem unable to increase production further, even with the enticement of high prices. IEA's World Energy Outlook sees that plateau of non-OPEC oil production continuing, putting the burden on a reluctant OPEC to make up the shortfall, if it can.

    “It's getting harder and harder to find an optimist” on the outlook for the world oil supply, says Beijing-based petroleum analyst Michael Rodgers of PFC Energy, a consulting company. Indeed, the IEA report as well as one coming from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA, confusingly enough) see hints that the world's oil production could plateau sometime about 2030 if the demand for oil continues to rise. Unless oil-consuming countries enact crash programs to slash demand, analysts say, 2030 could bring on a permanent global oil crunch that will make the recent squeeze look like a picnic.

    Soon the norm?

    Gas-sipping vehicles would be de rigueur if OPEC doesn't come through with more oil.


    Stagnation close to home

    It took 140 years for the world to consume its first trillion barrels of oil, notes oil information analyst Richard Nehring of Nehring Associates in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Now, if long-running trends continue, the world will demand its next trillion barrels within just 30 years. Some oil analysts working from their best estimate of how much oil remains in the ground—dubbed “peakists”—see world production reaching its limits in the next few years or a decade and then declining.

    Signs of strain may already be emerging. Outside OPEC, oil production has not risen since 2004, even as prices soared. IEA sees no recovery in this non-OPEC production from conventional oil fields. Moreover, it projects that the plateau in conventional oil will turn into a decrease beginning in the middle of the next decade, accelerating through to 2030. Only the growth of production from expensive unconventional sources, such as mining tarry sands in Canada, will keep total non-OPEC production from falling during the next 20 years, according to IEA.

    “Non-OPEC conventional production is definitely at a peak or plateau,” says Rodgers. “That's starting to make people nervous. It's not what even pessimistic people anticipated.” Three years ago, analysts in and out of the industry predicted that projects under way or planned would dramatically boost world production during the second half of the decade, sending prices back down (Science, 18 November 2005, p. 1106). Only in the 2010s would non-OPEC producers—who had boosted their output 35% in 25 years—falter and level off their production, analysts thought. That predicted plateau may be here already. “Despite all the work,” says Rodgers, “we can't grow non-OPEC.”

    That sinking feeling

    A big part of any problem with slaking the world's thirst for oil, according to IEA's report (, is the rapid decline of production from fields past their prime. Any new field produces increasing volumes of oil each year as more and more wells are drilled, but production eventually peaks and, in time, begins to decline. IEA studied 800 fields around the world that had already passed their peak production to see how fast they are declining—a rather rapid 6.7% decline per year, it turns out. And that rate could increase to 8.6% by 2030, IEA says, as the industry turns more and more from waning giant onshore fields to smaller fields and offshore fields, both of which decline faster after peaking.

    The decline rate “is a major challenge in itself,” says Birol. “We have found that if we want to stand still—that is, continue producing 85 million barrels per day—for the next 22 years, we need new production of 45 million barrels per day to compensate for the decline. That means four Saudi Arabias.” Add on a demand increase of the sort seen the past couple of decades—equivalent to another two Saudi Arabias—and the world will have to work that much harder to meet rising demand, Birol says.

    Even given the extra effort, IEA in its “reference scenario” of future world oil production (see figure) has the world production of conventional crude leveling off early in the next decade. Only a considerable increase in unconventional oil and natural-gas liquids—an oil-like byproduct of natural-gas extraction—keeps world production rising to 2030. With non-OPEC conventional production in this scenario leveling out and then falling, “this time [the effort] needs to come from the national oil companies,” says Birol.

    Those are the government-owned companies with the biggest reserves of oil in the ground, principally the OPEC countries of the Middle East. “This aspect is more uncertain,” Birol adds. In the past, IEA and its U.S. equivalent, EIA, have assumed that OPEC could and would make up for any shortfall in non-OPEC production. But this year, IEA's World Energy Outlook warns that although there's enough oil in the ground to meet growing demand through 2030, there “remains a real risk” that oil companies—OPEC's in particular—will soon fail to invest enough in exploration and production efforts. That could precipitate a calamitous oil crunch as early as the middle of the next decade, the report says. “There can be no guarantee that [oil resources] will be exploited quickly enough” to meet expected demand, the report says.

    It'll work, if …

    In this scenario from IEA, the world's rising demand for fluid fuels will be met by growing unconventional oil and natural-gas liquids production, but only if OPEC expands its production of crude oil.


    Less encouraging still

    In its first look ever beyond 2030, the U.S. EIA is finding even less support for a rosy oil scenario than IEA is. Its report is yet to be released, but EIA's Glen Sweetnam of the Washington, D.C., offices outlined preliminary results at an EIA conference in April ( Moving beyond their usual approach of simply depending on OPEC to make up any shortfall, EIA analysts considered four factors that bear on how much oil of all sorts—conventional, natural gas liquids, and unconventional—gets produced: demand (high, intermediate, and low scenarios), how much oil was in the ground to start, what fraction of that oil will ever be extracted (some always remains no matter how great the effort), and OPEC's willingness and ability to respond to increasing demand.

    Things look fine right through the rest of the century if, starting now, the whole world severely curbs its appetite for oil, the EIA analysis suggests. In this low-demand scenario, the lingering demand for oil could be met even if the nondemand factors were unfavorable.

    Still on the optimistic side, if demand were to continue rising as before and level off starting in 2030—say, in response to crash programs to increase efficiency and develop alternatives—demand could be met into the second half of the century even if a single factor were unfavorable, with one exception. If OPEC does not increase its production beyond its current 34 million barrels per day, world production will plateau within a few years, reminiscent of the potential crisis IEA sees in the middle of the next decade. Most ominously, EIA's high-demand scenario—higher demand to 2030, then business-as-usual increases in demand thereafter—“may be difficult to meet even with favorable supply assumptions,” said Sweetnam. Unbridled consumption does not seem to be an option.

    A hard place

    The energy agencies “have done a good job of describing the fix we're in,” says energy analyst David Greene of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee. “They're recognizing that the non-OPEC world won't be able to increase production much if at all. The IEA correctly points out the massive investment required” to meet any increase in demand. In fact, it's not clear to Greene or other analysts that OPEC has any intention of upping production to keep the price of oil relatively low, which would not be in its self-interest. Better to keep more oil in the ground, pinching supply, and sell that oil later at a higher price. And some OPEC countries, such as Iran and Iraq, may not be capable of making the required investment, even though they have the oil.

    The United States can help itself, Greene notes, but it's going to be tough. Insulating the economy from the worst oil price effects “takes a long time, 10 to 15 years. You have to do just about everything you can think of,” from further improving the efficiency of cars and light trucks to bringing on biofuels to producing more oil in the United States. “You have to have a comprehensive structure and a measurable goal. We don't have that now. I just hope the Obama Administration doesn't look at the [current] price of oil and shove the problem to the back burner.”

  8. SPACE

    Cloudy Future for Europe's Space Plans

    1. Daniel Clery

    A string of successful missions had the European Space Agency riding high and making ambitious plans, but the worldwide financial downturn may bring it back to Earth.

    A string of successful missions had the European Space Agency riding high and making ambitious plans, but the worldwide financial downturn may bring it back to Earth

    Please recycle.

    ESA wants to make its one-shot automated transfer vehicle (ATV) into a reusable craft.


    Doing science in space is, above all, expensive, so space researchers often find their careers hanging on the decisions of government ministers rather than grants committees. In Europe, the pinnacle of this nail-biting process happens roughly every 3 years when the European Space Agency (ESA) convenes a meeting of politicians from its member states to agree on budgets and approve new programs.

    With the dark cloud of a global economic crisis overhead—Germany, for example, last week confirmed that it was in a recession—ministers will gather in The Hague, the Netherlands, next week for the latest such meeting. The air of uncertainty leading into this gathering contrasts starkly with the last, which was held in Berlin in 2005, when ESA got almost everything it asked for (Science, 16 December 2005, p. 1749). This time round, governments are tightening their belts, and the run-up to The Hague conference has seen wrangling over funding for even well-established ESA programs. “Earlier in the year, it looked like this meeting would be straightforward. Now it looks to be a very crucial and very tricky one,” says space scientist Mark Sims of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. “Economic times are difficult.”

    In contrast to NASA, whose budget is set by the U.S. Congress every year, ESA works on a roughly 3-year cycle. This gives projects added stability, if approved, but it also means that a lot rides on each ministerial budget meeting. Getting 18 different governments, with differing priorities, to agree on something can be like herding cats. “Germany and Spain are the most ambitious at the moment and want bigger roles. Other countries are retrenching,” says Mike Healy, head of earth observation, navigation, and science with the aerospace company EADS Astrium.

    The wildcard in the pack is Italy, which contributed generously in 2005 but has since had a change of government and consequently a new chief for the Italian Space Agency, industrialist Enrico Saggese. Apparently following a shift in emphasis ordered by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Saggese has so far emphasized national space projects, and it looks as though he will not have a lot of new money to put on the table in The Hague.

    Italy's and other nations' reluctance to increase their contributions to ESA means that next week's negotiations will be tense. At risk will be some high-profile future missions, including ExoMars, an ambitious mission to the surface of the Red Planet, and Kopernikus, an effort to turn environmental monitoring into an operational service. “Ministerials sometimes bring surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant ones,” says Sims. “We all cross our fingers and hope our missions will survive.”

    Copy charges.

    ESA members are happy to pay for environmental monitoring Sentinels, but not the backup craft.


    Costly options

    In recent years, ESA's stock has risen as the agency has completed a series of high-profile science missions, such as planet mappers Mars Express and Venus Express, the Huygens lander on Titan, the Rosetta comet chaser, and space telescopes Integral and XMM-Newton. All were funded through ESA's science program, one of the agency's mandatory programs to which each ESA member must contribute in line with its gross domestic product. Because all 18 member states have to agree to the program's total budget, large increases are rare. At the 2005 meeting, officials were pleased to get annual increases of 2.5%, just above inflation, after years of flat funding. “We've had a small growth in purchasing power,” says ESA Science Director David Southwood.

    With inflation now above 4%, next week ESA will ask for 3.5% yearly increases in the science program's €396 million annual funding, which, if as expected the recession forces inflation down, should give some wiggle room. “The issue for me is how fast we can introduce the new missions selected earlier this year for further study,” says Southwood. These include a mission to the outer planets, an x-ray observatory, and the first space-based gravitational-wave interferometer. Southwood is expecting a tough debate next week. “The battle is between the majority who are happy to go along with [the increase], and one or two who feel they can't afford it.”

    Yet the fighting may be even fiercer over ESA's optional programs, to which member nations can contribute as much, or as little, as they like. In deep trouble is the ExoMars mission. Part of the Aurora program to send a series of probes to Mars and possibly the moon, followed by crewed missions, ExoMars was well-supported in 2005 and given a budget of €650 million. Since then, researchers have kept adding new capabilities, and ExoMars's costs have snowballed. In spring 2007, a program committee gave the ExoMars team approval to move ahead with an expanded mission, including an orbiter, a static base station, and a rover with a drill to get samples from below the surface. Cost estimates are now at about €1.2 billion, and managers figured that ministers, enthusiastic in 2005, would pony up again in The Hague.

    They figured wrong. Italy, for one, will pay no more than the €250 million to €300 million it agreed to 3 years ago in Berlin (40% of the original project), Saggese told the International Astronautical Congress in September. Although other nations, including the United Kingdom, want to increase their contributions, these fall well short of the €1.2 billion needed. “We're not going to get that much, but we could reach €1 billion,” says Southwood, who, in a shuffling of portfolios, took over the robotic parts of Aurora a few months ago. Healy says some states want to keep the budget at €800 million and scrap the rover, a decision that could cause the United Kingdom to pull out. “Potentially, it could all collapse,” says Sims, “but the implications of not continuing with Aurora would be pretty severe for ESA and Europe.”

    ESA's current plan is to delay ExoMars's launch from 2013 to the next window in 2016 to get some breathing space to reconfigure the mission. Next week, ESA will ask member states to indicate their level of funding for ExoMars, and the mission's managers will spend the next year talking with potential partners, such as NASA and the Russian Space Agency, about sharing costs. Sims thinks that teaming up with the United States could work well. NASA is already planning a rover mission for 2016. Together, the two agencies could launch a series of Mars probes culminating in a joint sample-return mission the following decade. “It could be quite a good marriage of capabilities,” he says.

    Storm clouds are also gathering over Kopernikus (formerly GMES), the environmental monitoring program. Kopernikus is one of two large collaborations between ESA and the European Union (E.U.). It aims to provide operational data on Earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere for government agencies, businesses, and other users. ESA's role is to provide the hardware: the ground infrastructure for processing data and delivering it to users, and a series of five spacecraft, dubbed Sentinels, each with different sensors. Sentinel-1, for example, provides all-weather radar imaging, whereas Sentinel-2 will produce multispectral images like the U.S. earth-monitoring satellite Landsat, and Sentinel-3 will monitor land and sea-surface conditions with a radar altimeter and temperature and color sensors.

    ESA is looking for €850 million in funding from 2009 to 2018 to continue construction of the first four Sentinels, with launches beginning about 2011, and to make Kopernikus an operational system. But a spat has broken out over who pays for what. Each of the Sentinels will be followed by a duplicate, or b-unit, put in place to ensure continuity of data. “We need a certain budget from countries that paid for a-units to make b-units,” says ESA earth observation chief Volker Liebig. But some countries don't want to pay up, arguing that the customer, i.e., the E.U., should pay for them. There are precedents: For each new generation of European weather satellites, ESA makes the prototype and EUMETSAT pays for the rest. “Most member states are concerned about the funding of b-units,” says Healy.


    ESA managers got carried away with ExoMars. Funders now want it scaled back.


    As Science went to press before The Hague meeting, Liebig said that he was still “in full negotiation” with member states looking for a compromise. “I'm optimistic we won't be undersubscribed. [The environment] is still high on the [political] agenda,” he says.

    The extent of ESA's partnership with NASA on the International Space Station (ISS) is also up for discussion next week. ESA's Columbus laboratory module was delivered to ISS earlier this year (Science, 30 November 2007, p. 1374), and ESA wants more funding for microgravity research there and to upgrade the automated transfer vehicle (ATV) it has already built for delivering cargo to the station. At the moment, each ATV is discarded after delivering its cargo, but ESA wants to give it a reentry capability to return material to Earth. Support for ISS varies among member states; the United Kingdom, for example, takes no part in human space flight. “This will be a challenging issue,” says David Parker, head of space at the U.K.'s Science and Technology Facilities Council. “Some want funding to go up, some down.”

    There is also likely to be a new round of discussion about astronaut-carrying spacecraft. ESA has long struggled with this topic: A planned minishuttle called Hermes was canceled in 1993, and the 2005 Berlin meeting nixed a plan to develop a shuttle called Clipper with Russia. As a result, ESA astronauts must hitch a ride on the U.S. shuttle or Soyuz. Next week, ministers will consider another ESA-Russian proposal, this time for a capsule that looks similar to Orion, NASA's shuttle replacement. But EADS Astrium will also present a rival plan for a crewed vehicle based on an evolution of the ATV and lofted with Europe's Ariane V rocket. Decisions are unlikely at this meeting, but ministers may approve seed money.

    In with the new?

    Several entirely new programs will also be put to the ministers in The Hague. One is a climate change initiative that will demand no new spacecraft but will involve recalibrating archival data so that they can be compared with newly acquired data from the latest satellites. That project, whose budget from 2009 to 2014 would be €170 million, will “build on what we have … to create [a] long time series of essential climate variables,” says Liebig. “It's not a trivial task to calculate these data sets,” he adds.

    Another plan calls for €50 million between 2009 and 2011 to investigate a space situational awareness system: a network of telescopes that will track all current and decommissioned satellites, space debris, and near-Earth objects and monitor space weather to give Europe warning of any threats to its satellites or ground infrastructure. At the moment, Europe must rely on warnings from other space agencies. ESA now feels it's time to take on that responsibility itself.

    While researchers keep their fingers crossed, the negotiators will be trying to get the best possible roster of programs with the money available. Says Parker: “That's the genius of Europe: finding compromises.”


    Last Stand for the Body Snatcher of the Himalayas?

    1. Richard Stone

    The caterpillar-hijacking fungus Cordyceps sinensis is touted as a natural Viagra. But overharvesting has put the peculiar parasite's back against the wall.

    The caterpillar-hijacking fungus Cordyceps sinensis is touted as a natural Viagra. But overharvesting has put the peculiar parasite's back against the wall

    KUNMING, CHINA—Some people kill for it. Others risk their lives for it. To many, it's the creepiest thing they've ever seen. It is Cordyceps sinensis, a parasitic fungus that consumes its host, ghost moth caterpillars, from inside out as they hibernate in alpine meadows in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau. But one of nature's more curious creatures is in trouble: Surveys by the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) in Yunnan Province have discovered that the range of C. sinensis is shrinking fast. “It's disappearing before our eyes,” says XTBG entomologist Yang Da-Rong.

    The fungus is in this predicament because it's one of the hottest commodities around. There are nearly 400 known species of Cordyceps, mostly in Asia, including 68 in China, but C. sinensis is prized above all others as a treatment for everything from impotence to cancer. Also called aweto or yarchagumba, C. sinensis caught the fancy of Western herbalists in 1993, when Chinese track coach Ma Junren claimed that Cordyceps-based concoctions boosted the stamina of his record-setting runners. “What makes it fascinating is all the unproven hype,” says Nigel Hywel-Jones, a mycologist at the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Bangkok.

    Prize parasite.

    Scientists seaching for C. sinensis in Tibet.


    Hype or no, huge demand coupled with dwindling supplies—China's harvest was about 100 tons in each of the past 3 years, less than 10% of the hauls 20 years ago—pushed top-grade C. sinensis to $60,000 per kilogram last year. (Prices have receded to under $10,000 per kilo.) Cultivation is a dream: C. sinensis grows poorly in the lab. “A few labs claim to have commercially available isolates for mass production,” says Hywel-Jones. But he suspects that they are not C. sinensis.

    Hywel-Jones got the urge to sample C. sinensis on his first survey in Bhutan in 2002. “I had heard it was a natural Viagra,” he says. He took a bite—“It tastes fine, a bit nutty”—then joked to a male colleague, Tshitila, that he needed a woman. “There were none around, so I sprinted after a yak saying, 'That will do.'” But at 4300 meters above sea level, Hywel-Jones passed out from lack of oxygen. “When I came round, Tshitila was standing over me laughing and telling me that it doesn't work that quick.”

    Every year in late spring, villagers in search of “Himalayan Viagra” fan out across Tibet and surrounding swaths of southwestern China, Bhutan, India, and Nepal. Yang estimates that more than 1 million people forage for C. sinensis on the Tibetan Plateau alone. “Only the elderly and children stay home,” says XTBG's Peng Yan-Qiong. Collectors crouch on hands and knees in search of “summer grass winter worm,” brownish fruit bodies a few centimeters long that are hard to discern from alpine vegetation. In a couple of months, says Yang, a skilled collector can earn $2000—more than most Chinese villagers earn in a year.

    Tragedy comes with the turf. In July 2007, a gun battle between rival villages over access to prime C. sinensis habitat in Sichuan Province's Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture left eight people dead, according to news reports. That followed an episode several weeks earlier, when collectors in Nepal were stranded in the mountains by a late-season blizzard. By the time the army arrived, dozens had perished.

    Against this backdrop, a 23-person-strong XTBG team set out to assess how the species is holding up. On Yang's first survey 25 years ago, he recalls, C. sinensis was so cheap that he could trade a bag of salt for a bag of the fungus. These days, locals see the scientists as competition: “Villagers don't like us to collect aweto,” says Yang. But his team persisted, and in 47 excursions over the past two summers they documented what Yang calls a “shocking” decline: Prime habitat starts 500 meters higher than it did 20 years ago, translating to a 70% to 97% decline in C. sinensis biomass.

    Meanwhile, the harvesting hordes are punishing the fragile land. “They destroy the soil and trample vegetation,” Yang says. As a result, he says, each year some 3.5 square kilometers of grassland are “turned into desert.” That, in turn, is degrading a vital watershed where many of China's major rivers originate, including the Yangtze and Yellow.

    If C. sinensis dies out, it may take a few biological secrets to the grave. Its life cycle is a fungal version of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In late summer, the fruit bodies disperse spores, just as ghost moth larvae are shedding their skin. “That's when larvae are vulnerable,” says Yang, who estimates that up to 12% of ghost moth larvae become infected. “But we don't understand the infection mechanism.”

    Infected larvae, which live in the soil, fall under the spell of the fungus, which steers the caterpillars to park vertically near the surface, head up. As C. sinensis consumes its victim, its fruit body slowly pushes up out of the head and by early spring emerges from the soil. Ghoulish as it sounds, Yang views the Cordyceps-moth relationship as “coevolutionary,” in that the fungus may keep moth populations at sustainable levels.

    To protect C. sinensis, Yang suggests a number of measures, including a law that would mandate a kind of crop rotation: harvesting the fungus from some areas while leaving others unmolested for a few years to give habitat time to recover. Yang's team is also taking a Johnny Appleseed approach, dispersing moth eggs in C. sinensis habitat.

    If these remedies fail, C. sinensis may make its last stand high in the Himalayas, in areas even the most industrious or foolhardy of fungus hunters cannot reach.


    Reaching for the Stars in Romania

    1. Martin Enserink

    A small association of Romanian scientists, many of them working abroad, is fed up with the slow pace of reforms in their country. And politicians are paying attention.

    A small association of Romanian scientists, many of them working abroad, is fed up with the slow pace of reforms in their country. And politicians are paying attention


    Ad Astra, which is critically following Romanian science policy, was founded by Liviu Giosan (left) and Răzvan Florian.


    BUCHAREST—As the sun was setting, scientists flocked to Victoria palace, a massive 1930s complex in Romania's capital and the headquarters of the country's prime minister. Among them were hundreds of Romanian scientists working abroad, flown in for the occasion. Sipping Romanian wine, the expats chatted with local researchers, hatching ideas for collaborations or, who knows, quietly pondering a return to their homeland.

    Prime Minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu extolled the country's scientific talent. U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Taubman offered words of praise while encouraging further reforms in science and education. The message of the evening—part of a 3-day meeting on “The Romanian Scientific Diaspora”—was upbeat: Almost 20 years after the fall of communism, Romanian science was on the right path—its future as bright as the floodlights bathing the palace's façade.

    But to some Romanian scientists—especially the younger generation and the majority who work abroad—the positive tone was a bit of a façade itself. Look behind it, they say, and you'll find a nepotistic old guard that controls research funding, an unfair peer-review process, abysmal starting salaries for young talent, and a lack of recognition for scientific excellence. “Despite all the rhetoric, there's little progress,” says Liviu Giosan, a Romanian marine geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

    The discontent has found a voice in Ad Astra, an association of Romanian scientists that Giosan co-founded in 2000. With fewer than 60 members so far—entry criteria are strict—Ad Astra seems almost laughably small. But thanks to its Web site that more than 800 registered nonmembers frequently visit, high-profile spokespeople, and a series of well-publicized policy studies it ran, Ad Astra is “one of the most successful nongovernmental organizations in Romania,” boasts Daniel Funeriu, a chemist at the Technical University in Münich, Germany.

    Other members, including Giosan, are more skeptical about Ad Astra's impact. But nobody denies that the group has captured politicians' attention. In 2006, when Romanian President Traian Băsescu assembled a panel to map out the future of science and education, four of its 12 members came from Ad Astra's ranks. “I don't always agree with Ad Astra, but I want to talk with them,” Anton Anton, Romania's minister of education, research and youth, told Science recently. “They're a strong, clear, and independent voice.”

    Out of Ceauşescu's shadow

    Both Romania's particular brand of communism and the tumultuous transition to democracy have left their marks on the country's science. Nicolae Ceauşescu, who ruled the country for 24 years until 1989, had a keen interest in certain scientific fields, such as nuclear physics and chemistry, that could help achieve his dreams of national self-reliance. But he neglected biology, except for a few prestige projects (see sidebar, p. 1184), and banned psychology, a field he deemed unnecessary in a socialist paradise. Research funding was generally tight, especially during the 1980s, when Ceauşescu's decision to pay off the national debt plunged the country into poverty.

    Because Ceauşescu had kept a particularly tight lid on emigration, the brain drain seen in many Eastern European countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 became a hemorrhage in Romania. “Everybody wanted to leave, and now they finally could,” says cell biologist Nicanor Moldovan, who left to do a postdoc in the United States in 1995. “It was like an elastic band that suddenly snapped.” The exodus robbed the country of a generation of its top scientific talent. The official number of scientists in Romania is about 30,000, but the country now has an estimated 16,000 researchers abroad.

    Giosan decided he had to leave in 1990, when, as a student and a senate member of the University of Bucharest, he took part in political demonstrations that were brutally repressed by miners, called in by then-president Ion Iliescu. He got out 3 years later and started his graduate studies at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. But in 2000, after attending a science policy meeting in Bucharest, he realized he hadn't turned his back on the country for good. The conference, organized by other young scientists from the diaspora, was supported by his former teacher, mineralogist Emil Constantinescu, who had been elected the country's president in 1996.

    Soon after the meeting, Giosan met Răzvan Florian, a computational neuroscientist from the northern city of Cluj-Napoca who had worked at the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in Paris and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California. Florian, a computer whiz, helped Giosan put together an “online community” where Romanian scientists could debate policy, post documents, and share experiences. Its name was derived from Seneca's quote, “Per aspera ad astra,” or “Through hardship to the stars.” “That's how I envisioned the battle ahead,” Giosan says.

    In 2002, the duo set up an association by the same name. To be voted in, aspiring members must have a Ph.D. or be Ph.D. students, have at least one paper in an international journal, and offer a statement about what they hope to bring to Ad Astra.

    More money

    Financially, the position of Romanian science has greatly improved since Ad Astra's birth—but the group had little to do with that. To meet the conditions for membership in the European Union (E.U.), Romania hiked public spending on research from a paltry 0.2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2004 to 0.6% this year. The figure is slated to grow to 1% in 2010. The country's GDP itself has been growing fast as well since 2001, and E.U. membership has brought access to so-called structural funds, some of which are used for science. In a few short years, many scientists say, money stopped being the problem.

    But many other concerns remain. Compared with countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, Romania hasn't been nearly as successful in reforming its science system, says Giosan. Due to the massive brain drain, power has remained in the hands of communist-era scientists whose productivity is low. Many publish only in the hundreds of Romanian journals, whose circulation is often limited and whose main goal seems to be puffing up authors' resumés, Florian says. According to an Ad Astra analysis, only about one in three scientists in Romania has ever published in an international journal.

    Persuading young scientists to stay and replace the old guard is tough. Although veteran scientists now earn salaries comparable to those in Western Europe, starting Ph.D. students can get paid as little as €300 per month. That makes recruitment very difficult, says Ştefana Petrescu, who heads the Institute for Biochemistry in Bucharest. Romania has also been faring poorly in E.U. competitions. For instance, it didn't win a single one of the prestigious new grants—300 for beginning researchers and 275 for more established scientists—awarded in 2007 and 2008 by the European Research Council.

    Ad Astra's biggest complaint is that the way Romania distributes its growing science budget—through grants disbursed by the National Authority for Scientific Research (ANCS) and its subagencies—is flawed. Many reviewers have no knowledge of the topics they're supposed to judge, says Florian, who says the government should enlist foreign experts. “You may propose a project in quark-gluon plasmas, but the reviewer may know little about nuclear physics and write that plasma problems were solved 20 years ago,” says Nicolae Zamfir, who returned from the United States in 2005 to become director general of Romania's National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering.

    Ad Astra has fought back by lobbying and debating online—and by studying and documenting the problems. Florian became a part-time scientometrist who meticulously keeps score of the country's achievements. In 2006, he published a “white book” showing that entire national institutes in Romania produce little more than some small research groups abroad. Ad Astra's national university ranking, modeled on the global index published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, shook up the academic pecking order and revealed that many universities are scientific lightweights.

    A little patience

    To many young Romanian scientists, the wave of activism was a breath of fresh air—even an inspiration. Veterinary scientist Marilena Lupu says she wanted to come back to Romania after working in the United States for 3 years but was worried about the scientific climate; she took the plunge after discovering that she wasn't the only one who wanted to improve the research system.

    But not many have followed her—perhaps a sign of how much improvement is still needed. So far, about 30 expat researchers have taken advantage of national and European “reintegration grants.” Still, the government is listening to Ad Astra and other critics, says Anton, the science and education minister, who took that job last month after 4 years as the president of ANCS. “I want the young people to be happy,” Anton says.

    Acknowledging problems in the grant-review system, Anton says that the government has already raised the bar for reviewers. He would like to hire foreign reviewers as well, but that has proven impossible, he says; expat researchers don't have time, and the number of proposals is vast. Anton urges a little more patience with the older generation of scientists, however. They were educated when publishing in Western journals was discouraged, and now they're told that only international papers count—“that's a pretty big change,” he says.

    Some Ad Astra members say they can see the group's work beginning to pay off. The presidential advisory committee, chaired by psychologist and former education and science minister Mircea Miclea—another Ad Astra member—has raised awareness of the problems, says Technical University's Funeriu. All nine major parties participating in the 30 November parliamentary elections have committed to new investment and reforms in science and education. Other scientists say that the government has been serious about reforms, and Petrescu credits Anton for “being very open and reform-minded.”

    Booming budget.

    Romanian science spending has risen fast and the increases are projected to continue, but the way grants are distributed has come under fire.


    Ad Astra's founders are perhaps least impressed about what the group has achieved. Florian agrees that widespread media attention to his studies has made the public familiar with the problems, and science administrators are more prone to use reform-minded language. But he doesn't see much real change at universities and labs. He has been successful himself, however. Together with a colleague, he set up a small institute for cognitive and neural science in Cluj-Napoca, which managed to bag a research grant. (Sometimes the system does work, he concedes.)

    Giosan returns to his homeland annually to study the Danube delta, a key area for environmental research. “The country is still very close to my heart,” he says—but he's been unable to get Romanian funding, and he can't envision himself moving back anytime soon. Despite Ad Astra's best efforts, Giosan still sees primarily hardship for Romanian science—and few stars in sight.


    At Home in Bucharest, for Better and for Worse

    1. Martin Enserink

    In the late 1980s, communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu sought to demolish the Institute of Cellular Biology and Pathology (ICBP) to make way for his "House of the People." Then came the Christmas revolution of 1989. Ceauşescu didn't survive; ICBP did.

    Family affair.

    Maya Simionescu, with husband, Nicolae, and Nobelist George Palade (center) in the 1970s—and today, with a bust of her husband at the institute they founded.


    In the late 1980s, one of the darkest periods in Romania's history, the future of one of the country's flagship research centers hung by a thread. In downtown Bucharest, communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was erecting his “House of the People,” a gigantic government building for which a large part of the historic city had been flattened. To expand a park surrounding the building, Ceauşescu had also set his sights on demolishing the Institute of Cellular Biology and Pathology (ICBP), a modern research facility run by Nicolae and Maya Simionescu, a scientist couple that had previously worked at top labs in the United States.

    Then came the Christmas revolution of 1989. Ceauşescu didn't survive; ICBP did. Today, its top floors offer an excellent view of the dictator's Hollywood-esque creation.

    The story could be emblematic for Maya Simionescu, who colleagues say is a survivor herself. She replaced her husband as ICBP director when he died in 1995, and today, at 71, she is a heroine and an icon of Romanian science, says Marilena Lupu, who took a job at the institute in 2007 after completing a postdoc in the United States. The lab has remained one of a few “islands of excellence” in a sea of rather mediocre research, says cell biologist Octavian Voiculescu of University College London. But not everyone is a fan; Simionescu's tough leadership style has driven some lab members away, and some see her as stifling reforms in Romanian science.

    During a recent meeting at her institute, Simionescu took some time out in her giant office to discuss her scientific adventure, which spans almost half a century. She and her husband—she was his student in Bucharest first—spent the 1970s working at Rockefeller University in New York City and at Yale University with Romanian Nobel laureate George Palade, who died last month at age 95. “We loved life in the U.S., and the working conditions were great,” Simionescu recalls after lighting a long, thin cigarette and ordering coffee. “But we always felt we could make a bigger contribution here.” So they persuaded the Romanian government to build a brand-new lab for them. ICBP opened in 1979.

    Just how well-connected the Simionescus were at the time is under dispute. Some assert that Ceauşescu was personally interested in repatriating the high-profile couple, and Nicanor Moldovan, who worked at the lab for 13 years and is now at Ohio State University, Columbus, says they seemed to have “some form of access to the higher political hierarchy,” up to Ceauşescu and his chemist wife, Elena. But Simionescu says she and her husband remained “apolitical” and insists that a reception at the Romanian embassy in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s was the only time she met Ceauşescu. Other officials, such as the health minister, championed their cause, she says, as did Palade.

    Whatever the backstory, it didn't take the Simionescus long to create “a unique place in Eastern Europe,” Moldovan says. Focusing on the cardiovascular system—in particular the cell biology and biochemistry of the vascular endothelium—they introduced to Romania new techniques, such as electron microscopy, and new habits, such as working long hours and publishing in international journals; they obtained Fulbright scholarships and visas to send young scientists to the West and flew in Palade and other top scientists to discuss research in Bucharest. “Working with the Simionescus was a passport to the best labs and scientists in the world,” Moldovan says.

    In the 1980s, however, Ceauşescu's economic policies plunged the country into hardship. Funding for the lab dried up, the government ordered the lights out after 5 p.m. to save electricity, and there was often no heating during the winter. It also became increasingly difficult to get visas to go abroad, says Simionescu. Grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health—a rare honor for a foreign institute—kept the lab afloat.

    The 1989 revolution ended the immediate threat to ICBP, but it also triggered the departure of more than a third of the staff, many of them looking for a better life outside Romania. Lingering tensions over the Simionescus' controlling management style may have hastened the exodus, some researchers say. The duo had little patience for dissent and created a personality cult, says one former ICBP scientist who asked not to be identified because he worries it might hurt his career. “People wrote songs and poetry about the Simionescus,” the researcher says. Moldovan confirms that the lab was run “like an autocracy” —although to him, it felt more like a family at the time.

    For Maya Simionescu, the post-revolution defection was a blow. “I had trained so many of those people, taught them everything—they were like my children,” she says. The revolution did offer new opportunities, however, such as a chance to hire fresh, young people with new skills—computers had just begun to alter how biology research was done—engage in collaborations with foreign labs, and receive E.U. funds.

    After her husband didn't wake up one Monday morning in 1995—a heart attack—she named the institute after him and took on the directorship. “I wasn't sure I could do it. We had always done everything together,” she says. Opinions on her tenure since then are divided. Moldovan says he “has nothing but the greatest admiration.” But Mircea Miclea, a former science minister, says Simionescu has become a conservative force herself, for instance, by blocking his attempts to reform the Romanian Academy of Sciences, of which she was the vice president for 8 years.

    Simionescu has no plans to leave. She recently received some €14 million in E.U. “structural funds” to renovate ICBP's aging building and buy new equipment. She is moving into stem cells. “Maybe in a couple of years,” she says, “I will find a new director, and I will become honorary director, if that is helpful.” Then she pulls a rose from a nearby vase, lays it gently on the pedestal of a large bronze bust of her husband, and walks back to her meeting.