News this Week

Science  27 Feb 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5918, pp. 1154

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    NASA, ESA Choose King of Planets for Flagship Missions in 2020

    1. Andrew Lawler

    In classical mythology, Jupiter abducted both Europa and Ganymede. But last week those jovian satellites turned the tables and seduced NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) officials into picking them, instead of Titan, an equally intriguing moon of Saturn, as the next major missions to explore the solar system beyond Mars. If all goes as planned, two separate spacecraft will head to the Jupiter system in 2020, with the NASA probe targeting Europa and the ESA probe heading for Ganymede.

    The decision marks the end of a heated 2-year competition between the two systems (Science, 19 December 2008, p. 1780). The scientific payoff from the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the ongoing Cassini mission to Saturn made equally compelling cases for a follow-up visit, says Ronald Greeley, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, Tempe, who co-chaired the team that defined the science for the Europa-Jupiter mission. But there's money for only one flagship planetary mission, say NASA officials, and the technical maturity of the Europa proposal clinched the deal. “The science was absolutely outstanding on both,” says James Green, NASA's planetary sciences chief. “But a Europa mission has been studied for a long time.”

    Both the Europa and Ganymede missions still face hurdles. NASA must win approval from the Obama Administration and Congress for the estimated $3 billion cost of the Europa mission, while ESA will weigh its Ganymede mission—and its $1 billion price tag—against two astronomy projects in 2011 before it can start design work in earnest. Neither agency has room for additional scientific missions in its current budget, and the decision to launch separate probes allows either side to back out without torpedoing the entire mission. Not that they have any plans to do so, of course. ESA Director of Science David Southwood called the joint missions “a wonderful new exploration challenge and a landmark of 21st century planetary science.”

    Home away?

    NASA's Jupiter probe will investigate the habitability of Europa.


    Both Europa and Ganymede tantalize outer planetary scientists. The former has an icy crust concealing an ocean of water that could harbor the building blocks of life, or life itself. And Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, is the only satellite with an internally generated magnetic field. Its surface may also conceal an ocean far below.

    Neither probe would depend on the other for data, but officials are expecting synergistic results, notes Greeley. “Both probes could look at the magnetosphere of Jupiter at the same time from different positions,” or image the volcanic activity on Io from different angles. The exact trajectory of the probes has yet to be determined, but each spacecraft would likely tour the Jupiter system before settling into orbit around its respective target.

    Although initial plans for the Europa mission included a lander that would puncture the surface ice, that feature has been dropped after engineers deemed the task too difficult technically. But there will be challenges enough. One major obstacle is the intense radiation surrounding Europa. That hazard helped shoot down a Europa proposal a decade ago, but NASA's Green says there have been important advances since then in hardening sensitive instruments and spacecraft components against such radiation.

    Even that technical hurdle, however, pales in comparison with what the backers of a Titan mission had proposed: a sophisticated lander and a French-built balloon to sail over the surface of the mysterious moon. Jonathan Lunine, a planetary researcher at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who worked on the Titan proposal, acknowledged its technical complexity but said “people were impressed by how far we took the study.” One consolation is that Cassini, launched in 1997, could continue beaming back data from the Saturn system until 2016 or 2017.

    As scientists move forward, the burning question is whether NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which will lead the NASA portion of the effort, can keep costs under control. “We've all got [Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)] in the back of our minds,” says Fran Bagenal, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who also chairs the board that advises NASA on outer planet science. MSL is well over budget and behind schedule, forcing NASA to make cuts in other planetary efforts. “We must not go down the same path,” she warns.

    Ed Weiler, NASA's science chief, emphasized that a mission to Titan is not off the table and that the agency has simply assigned Europa a higher priority. “The decision means a win-win situation for all parties involved,” he added. Says Lunine: “Clearly, NASA wants to fly both.”

    Even if that's true, however, few of today's scientists are likely to be around to analyze data coming back from a Titan flagship. The sibling spacecraft won't reach Jupiter until 2026, and any mission to Saturn would presumably arrive even further into the future. “You have to think in terms of your students and your grad students,” says Greeley. “This kind of work takes a lot of lead time.”


    Forensic Science Needs a Major Overhaul, Panel Says

    1. Constance Holden

    In 1928, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report saying coroners' offices should be abolished in the United States as an “anachronistic institution”; it called for replacing coroners with medical examiners.

    Now, 80 years later, more than half the states still have county coroners, an office for which no medical training is necessary. Last week, the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) reiterated its message, this time in the context of a sweeping overhaul of all forensic sciences in the United States, which it says almost uniformly lack rigorous underpinnings. It is calling for top-down change, starting with a new National Institute for Forensic Science.

    The 255-page report,* requested by Congress in 2005, also calls for removing crime labs from the direct control of law-enforcement agencies, mandatory accreditation for labs, certification and a code of ethics for forensic professionals, and a push for standardized procedures.

    Loops and whorls.

    Fingerprint analysis is still more art than science.


    The country is “plagued by fractionated and inconsistent practices” in the way crimes and suspicious deaths are investigated, said study co-chair Harry T. Edwards, a former judge in the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals, at a press conference last week in Washington, D.C. For example, Donald Murray of the National Association of Counties noted that there are only about 500 trained forensic pathologists in the nation's more than 3000 counties. In Minnesota, he said, “most autopsies are flown to two counties that happen to have forensic pathologists.”

    The committee's top priority is the establishment of an independent federal institute to put a scientific footing under myriad crime-fighting disciplines covering toxicology and analysis of fiber, hair, blood, coatings such as paint, shoeprints, tool marks, tooth marks, guns, fires, and fingerprints. The Justice Department is not the appropriate venue, says the report, and no other existing federal agency has “the capacity or appropriate mission” to do the job.

    Reactions to the report have been largely positive. “I think this agency would be welcomed nearly universally,” says Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University, Morgantown. But how the Justice Department, which issued a terse statement saying it would evaluate the report, feels about it is not clear. Former Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who co-chairs the NRC Committee on Science, Technology, and Law, says the Justice Department's research arm, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), was leery of the study and declined to provide funding for it. NIJ officials did not return phone calls.

    The report is hard on unnamed “members of the forensic science community [who] will not concede that there could be less than perfect accuracy either in given laboratories or in specific disciplines.” It concludes: “With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

    Fingerprints are Exhibit A. Committee member Sargur Srihari of the State University of New York, University at Buffalo, points out that DNA is available in only 5% to 10% of cases. That leaves fingerprints as the main way to nail a specific perpetrator, but recent cases have undermined the confidence of the courts. Most notable was that involving Brandon Mayfield, accused of being involved in the 2004 terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid. The FBI ran digital images of prints sent from Spain through the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which came up with several possible matches. Four experts both from within and outside the FBI narrowed the field to Mayfield. Subsequently, two FBI examiners changed their minds after going to Madrid to look at the original fingerprint images.

    Srihari, a computer scientist, says he and others are working to boost the statistical reliability of fingerprint analysis with calculations of “random match probabilities.” As with DNA analysis, he points out that matching a print to one in a database wouldn't be a problem if criminals left perfect prints. But authorities usually have to deal with partial prints, which, unlike DNA, have multiple variables—such as loops, whorls, ridges, and bifurcations—that are not clearly defined.

    Authors of the NRC report emphasize that they do not intend to provide fodder for lawyers seeking to overturn convictions. But as lawyer Michael Saks of Arizona State University, Tempe, notes, defense attorneys could try to use the report to cast doubt on forensic evidence: “A capable lawyer will consider any and all information that might advance a client's case.”

    Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.

    • *Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.


    Tangled Patent Dispute Over 'Free' Drug-Resistance Database

    1. Jon Cohen

    A patent dispute among a small European biotechnology company, Stanford University, and one of its HIV/AIDS researchers has triggered a defamation lawsuit, raised issues of academic freedom, and led some observers to call it a battle out of Don Quixote.

    Standing firm.

    Stanford's Robert Shafer rejects ABL's assertion that it has patent rights over the popular database (right) he posts on the Web.


    At the center of the dispute are U.S. patents owned by Advanced Biological Laboratories (ABL) S.A. in Luxembourg that involve computer methods to guide treatment of patients with HIV infection and other diseases. In early 2007, ABL notified Stanford that its popular Internet-accessible HIV Drug Resistance Database (HIVdb) possibly infringed two of the company's patents. The HIVdb helps clinicians, researchers, and drug developers around the world make sense of the complex array of mutations the virus has developed to dodge specific treatments. “It's a tremendous tool that takes full advantage of the power of the Web and marrying sequencing and clinical data,” says HIV/AIDS clinician Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I use it every time I'm in the clinic.”

    Robert Shafer, an infectious-disease specialist at Stanford who began building the database 10 years ago and receives support from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and unrestricted grants from industry, was outraged by ABL's claims. “It's so blatantly wrong,” says Shafer. He claims the patents are overly broad and vague and notes that the European Patent Office “refused” a similar application in 2006.

    Shafer says at first he saw eye to eye with Stanford's attorneys, who in October 2007 filed for “declaratory relief,” essentially asking a judge to prevent litigation from moving forward. Stanford also told ABL that it might file reexamination requests with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which can correct or invalidate issued patents.

    The company and the university continued to negotiate and in March 2008 reached a settlement—without Shafer's input. The “immunity agreement” states that ABL would not file patent-infringement claims against any party that used the database for noncommercial purposes. But only people affiliated with Stanford had the right to pursue commercial activities with the database; anyone else who used it “in activities for a fee or otherwise in exchange for monetary consideration” remained subject to ABL's patents. As part of the agreement, Stanford pledged to post a notice on the HIVdb that said as much.

    Shafer says telling him what to post on his Web site violates academic freedom and he balked, noting that many companies use the HIVdb to develop drugs or to support their own commercial tests that help clinicians make treatment decisions. The agreement, says Shafer, “gives ABL a green light to go and sue other people. It makes Stanford complicit and makes me seem complicit.”

    Five months passed before the Web site posted a notice, which said, in part, “Stanford does not represent that use of this database would not infringe patent rights of other persons or entities.” To ABL's dismay, this was not the agreed-upon language, and the notice made no mention of the company.

    Shafer hired his own counsel and on 10 October 2008 filed reexamination requests with USPTO on the two patents. Twelve days later, he posted a notice on the Web site that mentioned the company's patent rights but noted that he had filed the reexamination petitions. Shafer also included a disclaimer that said he “considers these patents to be harmful to research on the use of computers in medicine and is concerned that the recent litigation resulting from these patents is harmful to the care of persons with HIV infection.”

    On 1 December, ABL sued both Stanford and Shafer for breach of contract and defamation. Chalom Sayada, a co-founder of ABL who has led the company's negotiations with Stanford, says he has “a very deep and sincere respect” for Shafer's scientific work and the HIVdb. And he stresses that ABL has attempted to solve these issues amicably.

    Sayada, a geneticist who has served as CEO of several other biotechs, strongly objects to Shafer's allegation that the patents have harmed research and patients. “We are not aiming to prevent research,” he says. “And we obviously are not looking to harm or prevent the care of anybody.” He adds that clinicians, even though they charge their patients fees, are free to use the HIVdb without paying licensing fees to ABL. “We try to be realistic,” he says.

    Sayada contends that Stanford's and Shafer's actions have hurt ABL's business. “People are speaking very badly about my company,” says Sayada. And he says USPTO's patent reexamination is the proper venue to resolve the debate. “Anything beyond this is mere politics, and I'm not sure who benefits.”

    Sayada thinks Stanford made a “big mistake” by not involving Shafer during the original agreement negotiations. Stanford counsel Patrick Dunkley sees this as a misstep, too. Although the university owns the database and “had the complete authority to enter into the agreement without consulting with Professor Shafer,” says Dunkley, “in hindsight, it probably would have been more prudent to have involved him.”

    Shafer, who says he has spent more than $100,000 of his own money pursuing the patent reexaminations and defending himself against ABL's suit, contends that Stanford set a bad precedent by caving in to ABL's threats. “The university didn't back down at all,” retorts Dunkley. “What the university did was protect the rights of the research community, and upon achieving its objective, there was no ongoing fight to have.”

    Shafer has peppered many colleagues with e-mails about the dispute and about restrictive patents in general. This has alienated some colleagues who see his impassioned battle against allegedly harmful patents as tilting at windmills. But he has also attracted some strong support. “As a faculty member who does work precisely in this area, I was surprised and concerned that the university took the position it took rather than trying to contest the patent,” says Mark Musen, a Stanford researcher who specializes in biomedical informatics.

    USPTO is expected to rule on the patent reexamination requests within the next few months. Stanford and Shafer have until the middle of March to respond to ABL's lawsuits. ABL's Sayada has attempted to engage Shafer in an informal mediation with leading HIV/AIDS researchers, but Shafer vows to fight to the end. “I'm not doing it out of spite,” says Shafer. “It's a way of a vindication to say, ‘Look, you guys were scared, but I fought this and was able to win this.' I want to show Stanford should have taken a stand.”


    Harvard Puts Science Campus on Slow Track

    1. Eliot Marshall*
    1. With reporting by Greg Miller.

    Harvard University hit the brakes last week as it was getting ready to build one of the country's largest new academic science centers—flagging another possible casualty of the economic downturn. The delay, described in an 18 February public letter by university president Drew Gilpin Faust, will affect plans for a massive research facility (50,000 square meters) in Allston, Massachusetts, across the river from Cambridge (Science, 11 July 2008, p. 190). Conceived as a science showcase and a way to bring together cutting-edge work in biology, medicine, and engineering, the project could be put on an indefinite “pause,” Faust said. The university will build only the foundation in an existing hole in the ground; sometime later this year, it will decide what to do next.

    Distant vision.

    Harvard's plans to build a massive science center on its campus in Allston, Massachusetts, could be delayed.


    The setback shows that even huge endowments have their limits, says Harvard Provost Steven Hyman, a champion of the Allston campus. Harvard is planning for a 30% loss in its endowment for the fiscal year ending on 30 June (down from $36.9 billion last June). It's also expecting fewer and smaller gifts.

    Similar but less focused cutbacks are affecting other academic institutions. Many private universities, anticipating endowment losses of 25% or more this year, are putting plans on hold. Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, for example, suspended $1.3 billion in capital construction early this year. Meanwhile, both Harvard and Stanford are raising tuition fees by 3.5% while increasing scholarship aid. State-funded schools are being hit hard by mandatory budget cuts. Last week, the University of California (UC) system was ordered to cut an extra $50 million from a budget that had already been cut by $65 million. Robert Price, UC Berkeley's interim vice chancellor for research, says this will almost certainly increase strains on the university's research infrastructure, from grants administration to the maintenance of animal facilities.

    Because Harvard will not buy materials for the new research facility in Allston until it has finished a cost review and weighed options, the project almost certainly won't be completed by the target date of 2011. And delay can increase costs, too. One option being considered is to redesign the building for other uses, Faust and Hyman have said.

    Some scientists who were planning to move into the Allston building—notably stem cell researcher Douglas Melton, co-chair with David Scadden of a new department of stem cell and regenerative biology—will be shifted to alternative digs. “Before we made this announcement, we made sure we could situate the [stem cell] department … in good, high-quality contiguous space,” Hyman explains. Scouring available sites in Cambridge and Boston, Harvard planners came up with a solution that provides room to expand but doesn't include proximate labs for all the researchers it wanted to have in Allston. “We found approximately 75,000 square feet [7000 m2] of space” for the department of stem cell and regenerative biology, Hyman explains, in an existing structure on Harvard's Cambridge campus, likely in the Sherman Fairchild Biochemistry Building. The site needs some renovation. Ironically, Hyman notes, because remodeling is quicker than construction, the researchers in this group will “coalesce in Cambridge a year earlier than they would have in Allston.”

    Other labs, however, will need to relocate out of the Fairchild building to make room for this large group. The emigrants have not yet been identified. Recognizing that these labs' work will be disrupted, Hyman says, the university plans to give them extra infrastructure support. Meanwhile, the new Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, sparked by a pledge last October of $125 million from philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, will now be based in Harvard's medical area in Boston rather than in Allston as planned. Consolidation has been eased somewhat, Hyman says, by a grim side effect of the recession: The university has not been recruiting staff from outside.


    Stimulus Gives DOE Billions for Carbon-Capture Projects

    1. Dan Charles
    Grabbing an opportunity.

    DOE is supporting a project to capture some of the carbon emissions from this North Dakota power plant.


    Research on cutting CO2 emissions from the world's biggest greenhouse polluters is getting an unprecedented boost from the U.S. government's $787 billion stimulus package. Much of the $3.4 billion designated for fossil fuel R&D—about five times what the Department of Energy (DOE) now spends annually on such research—will finance industrial-scale attempts to capture CO2 from coal-burning power plants or oil refineries and lock it away deep underground.

    Great hopes are riding on this technology. A major study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2007 concluded that it was “the critical enabling technology” that would allow coal-rich nations such as the United States and China to reduce CO2 emissions while still burning their most abundant fossil fuel. But it's also expensive: Several experts estimate that it would currently cost about $60 to capture and store each ton of CO2. So it's unlikely that power companies will adopt it on a large scale until regulations—such as a carbon tax—make CO2 financially worth capturing.

    Technology already exists to capture CO2 from the exhaust of power plants, transport it in pipelines, and inject it deep into Earth. M. Granger Morgan, head of the Engineering and Public Policy Department at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says it's time to show that these processes can work together on a large scale. “We need to build an integrated system,” he says.

    The stimulus package may make that possible. It includes three large pots of money that DOE could use: $1 billion for cleaner fossil fuels, $800 million for a “clean coal” initiative to capture CO2 from commercial power plants, and $1.5 billion to capture CO2 or improve energy efficiency at industrial sites such as factories and refineries.

    DOE officials are drafting plans to spend their windfall. “It sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn't go that far,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu last week at a press conference organized by the energy company Platts. It's a recognition born of painful experience. Last year, the department canceled plans for a carbon-trapping power plant called FutureGen in Mattoon, Illinois, after the plant's price tag rose to $1.8 billion.

    Even with the stimulus money, Chu hinted that FutureGen remains too expensive. “Right now, quite frankly, it is not a slam dunk which technology is the right one.” Chu said he would prefer funding a “portfolio” of projects.

    Howard Herzog, a specialist on carbon capture and sequestration at MIT, likes the idea of multiple demonstration projects because different kinds of power plants require completely different technologies. It's easier to capture CO2 from power plants that convert coal into a gas before burning it, and Herzog thinks DOE should fund at least one project that includes coal gasification. But Morgan says demonstrating technology for capturing CO2 from a conventional coal-burning plant is equally important: “There are an awful lot of existing plants around, some of which are relatively new, and you don't want to [discard] them.” Some proponents of carbon capture are pushing for projects that will capture 90% of emissions, as FutureGen was designed to do. But Herzog says that's not necessary or even desirable, because such a high standard drives up the cost. “I'd rather see two demonstrations with 50% capture than one demonstration with 90% capture,” he says. Capturing half the CO2 would make coal power about as clean as electricity from natural gas.

    DOE is also likely to use some stimulus money to expand its current research on CO2 sequestration. It already funds seven regional carbon-sequestration partnerships that have been injecting CO2 deep into Earth at various geologic sites and studying whether it stays there. Some researchers, such as John Kitchin, a chemical engineer at CMU, fault DOE for making such progress with sequestration while neglecting efforts to assess different capture technologies. “That's critically missing,” says Kitchin. “We have to solve both of these problems at the same time—capture and injection.”

    Several of the regional partnerships are nevertheless starting ambitious collaborations with commercial power plants. The biggest so far would capture a million tons of CO2 annually from the Antelope Valley Station, near Beulah, North Dakota. That amounts to about one-quarter of the CO2 output from one of the plant's two 450-megawatt generating units. The project could break ground as early as this year and start operation in 2012.

    The CO2 will move through pipelines to Saskatchewan, Canada, where oil companies will pump it into depleting oil fields to push more oil to the surface. John Harju of the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, says the entire project will cost $500 million. But DOE's share is only $67 million. Most of the project will be funded privately because of the extra revenue generated by using the CO2 to extract more oil.


    Creationist Beliefs Persist in Europe

    1. Andrew Curry*
    1. Andrew Curry is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

    DORTMUND, GERMANY—News coverage of the creationism-versus-evolution debate tends to focus on the United States, where surveys consistently show that less than half of Americans accept the theory of evolution. But in the past 5 years, political clashes over the issue have also occurred in countries all across Europe. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's government briefly tried to halt the teaching of evolution in schools in 2004. In 2006, a deputy Polish education minister called the theory of evolution “a lie.” In 2007, the education minister of a major German state courted controversy by advocating that creationism and evolution be taught together in biology classes.

    Fertile ground.

    Turkish creationist Harun Yahya's antievolution tome went down well in parts of Europe.


    Indeed, creationism remains alive and well in Europe, according to researchers gathered here last week for a conference on the state of European science education and European teachers' attitudes toward and knowledge of evolution. European educators haven't yet conducted regionwide surveys, but snapshots from Germany, Turkey, and the United Kingdom presented at the meeting showed that creationist notions are more prevalent than researchers had expected, and that the understanding of evolution among teachers and teaching students—including biology teachers—is often problematic. “This isn't just an American problem,” says Dittmar Graf of the Technical University of Dortmund, who organized the meeting.

    Even the birthplace of Charles Darwin is struggling with evolution, despite the myriad celebrations for the 150th anniversary of his On the Origin of Species. “Creationism is on the rise in the U.K.,” says James Williams, a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex. “Creationists have adopted the attitude that if you get to children young and early, you can indoctrinate them before they even start talking about evolution in schools.” Williams cited a December 2008 Ipsos Mori poll of 923 primary and secondary school-teachers in England and Wales: 37% of the respondents agreed that creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution. Even among biology and science teachers, the number was 30%.

    Within Europe, unity on the importance of teaching evolution has been hard to come by. In 2007, the Council of Europe—a body composed of 47 European countries that promotes the region's integration—had an unexpectedly close vote on a statement saying that it “firmly oppos[es] the teaching of creationism as a scientific discipline on an equal footing with the theory of evolution and in general the presentation of creationist ideas in any discipline other than religion.”

    The measure eventually passed but only after fierce opposition from some delegates and outside groups, says Luxembourg's Anne Brasseur, the rapporteur of the council's Committee for Culture, Science and Education. She says the council was lobbied intensively by the Vatican, which some believe has moved away from acceptance of evolution since the beginning of Benedict XVI's papacy.

    In Western Europe, the reasons for creationism's tenacity lie as much in the classroom as in the churches, researchers suggested at the meeting. Graf reported a survey of 1228 German students planning to become teachers that evaluated their knowledge of and attitudes toward evolution. The results of the 108-question study—part survey, part quiz—revealed surprising gaps. Twenty percent of those studying to teach biology, for example, thought that evolution could be explained in part by Lamarckism, or the idea that traits acquired during a parent organism's life can be passed on to his or her offspring. And less than a third were able to answer basic questions about the role of reproductive fitness in evolution.

    The survey also probed the students' belief in creationism, and Graf reported that the most likely predictor of creationist thinking wasn't religious belief but a lack of confidence in science, followed closely by a poor understanding of scientific principles. “What surprised me wasn't that religion correlated with antievolutionist thinking but that the correlation between a failure to understand science and not believing in evolution was very strong,” Graf says.

    Compared with Germany, where about 20% of the public holds creationist beliefs, creationism is even more deeply entrenched in the Muslim world, according to a study of teachers reported by Universite Lyon 1 researcher Pierre Clement. Well over half of biology teachers in Senegal, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria agreed with the statement: “It is certain that God created life.” And Turkey has also seen a recent rise of an Islamic creationist movement (Science, 16 February 2007, p. 925).

    In Turkey, a country pressing hard for membership into the European Union, schools are supposed to be secular institutions; teaching creationism is even officially banned at the university level. But many university students training to become elementary- and secondary-level teachers haven't gotten the message, apparently. Graf collaborated with Haluk Soran of Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey, to give those students the same survey given in Dortmund. More than 75% rejected the theory of evolution. “There's a minimal understanding of evolution in Turkey,” Soran says. “The more religious people are, the more they forget about evolution.”

    What's the solution? Graf offered a prescription for Germany, one subsequently echoed by many of his fellow Europeans at the meeting. Science teachers in Germany have to compete with years of religious education, which is part of public school curriculum from first grade. Evolution, on the other hand, is generally first taught late in high school and not well integrated into the overall biology curriculum. “Many students who get evolutionary theory in science classes come as creationists,” Graf says. “We need to be teaching evolution earlier and teaching the nature of science more intensively.”


    Flu Antibodies Stir New Hope for Treatment, Vaccine

    1. Mitch Leslie

    If you had the flu this year, that won't protect you from getting it again next year or the year after that. Thanks to its rapid evolution, the influenza virus usually manages to remain one step ahead of the immune system. But this week, two independent teams report that they've nabbed antibodies that disable multiple varieties of the flu virus. The antibodies jam a molecule that allows the virus to barge into cells, a crucial step in infection. The results might help researchers devise a universal flu vaccine or treatments that quash numerous flu strains, including the dreaded avian influenza.

    On Sunday, in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, immunochemist Wayne Marasco of Harvard Medical School in Boston and colleagues reported pinpointing 10 human antibodies that latch onto a section of the viral surface protein hemagglutinin that rarely changes between influenza strains. As a result, the antibodies can neutralize the viruses behind bird flu and the 1918–19 flu pandemic, along with some of the common strains that cause seasonal flu. And online in Science this week, structural biologist Ian Wilson of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, and colleagues described an antibody that apparently recognizes the same portion of the protein.

    “They are both wonderful papers,” says virologist Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “They are reinforcing each other.” Because the flu virus is so changeable, researchers thought a vaccine that protected against diverse strains was probably impossible, says viral immunologist James Crowe of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. But these papers “raise the possibility of a vaccine that could induce broad cross-protective immunity.” However, Crowe and other flu experts caution that producing such a vaccine will be tricky, and use of the antibodies themselves as a therapy may be prohibitively costly.

    Still, the need for better flu treatments or preventive measures is dire. Seasonal flu kills more than 250,000 people every year worldwide. And many fear a pandemic like the one that swept the globe in 1918–19, when an estimated 50 million perished. Particularly worrying is the possibility that the avian influenza strain H5N1 could evolve to spread readily from person to person. Although H5N1 has infected only about 400 people, it's killed more than 60% of them.

    Catching the flu virus.

    An antibody (yellow and orange bands) homes in on the constant region of the viral protein hemagglutinin.


    The ability of the flu virus to change so fast explains why modern flu-fighting drugs such as Tamiflu are already losing power (Science, 26 January 2007, p. 448). And current flu vaccines, which are rejiggered every year to keep pace with viral adaptation, sometimes don't include the right mixture of strains to provide full protection.

    Seeking more universal countermeasures, the two research teams set their sights on hemagglutinin, which sports a bulky head that fastens onto the surface of its target cell. Current flu vaccines mainly provoke antibodies that target the head. But that part of the protein changes rapidly, which often means those antibodies are useless against the next year's strain.

    Now, using similar techniques, the two groups have revealed a section on the tail, or stem, of hemagglutinin that rarely changes among flu viruses. To find antibodies that latch onto the H5 version of hemagglutinin—the variant carried by the avian influenza virus—Marasco and colleagues trawled a gigantic library of more than 27 billion human antibodies that they had created. They identified 10 antibodies that recognized H5 and, in solution, could block it and eight of the 15 other hemagglutinin types, including the version used by the 1918–19 pandemic strain. The team tested three of these antibodies in mice dosed with lethal quantities of bird flu. Whether they received the antibodies before infection or up to 3 days afterward, most of the rodents survived, suggesting that the antibodies are therapeutic and preventive.

    Some of Wilson's co-authors had last year reported isolating a single type of antibody from a person who'd been vaccinated against seasonal flu, and they too showed that it could protect mice from bird flu. Both groups have now used x-ray crystallography to reveal that instead of glomming onto hemagglutinin's variable head, these newfound antibodies nestle into three pockets on the stem. Binding in this position prevents hemagglutinin from performing the contortions necessary for the virus to enter a cell.

    “These results could have a profound impact,” says structural biologist Robert Liddington of the Burnham Institute in San Diego, who collaborated with Marasco. For example, vaccine makers might now target the constant section of hemagglutinin—and thus perhaps produce immunizations against a variety of flu strains, says Wilson.

    Marasco envisions that physicians will inject stem-targeting antibodies directly into patients, producing short-term “passive immunity.” Such an approach might protect people who often don't benefit from vaccines, such as the elderly and cancer patients. Stockpiles of antibodies might also allow health officials to quell a dangerous flu outbreak before it becomes a pandemic. Marasco's group is moving on to animal safety tests and hopes to begin clinical trials of antibody treatments by the 2011–12 flu season.

    Developing a vaccine that elicits those antibodies could take longer. The constant section of hemagglutinin's stem typically doesn't provoke a strong antibody response, perhaps because it is fairly well hidden from immune surveillance. Vaccine makers, however, could find ways of presenting the constant region to boost an immune response.

    The primary obstacle for therapeutic use of antibodies could be cost, if the large doses necessary to protect mice are also needed in people. But stockpiling such antibodies may be a wise investment against another flu pandemic. “If you know that 60% of the world is going to die, I don't think cost is an issue,” says Wilson.


    NSF Restores Data on Minority Ph.D.s

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    It's not often a federal research agency does a U-turn after getting complaints from its constituents. But last week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) did—to the surprise and pleasure of groups working to increase the number of minorities in science and engineering.

    Each year, NSF conducts a Survey of Earned Doctorates, asking newly minted Ph.D.s to provide a wealth of information on their educational history and career plans. The results can be broken down by field and by race, ethnicity, and gender (REG). In 2007, citing new federal privacy rules, NSF's statistical branch decided to suppress a considerable amount of information about underrepresented minorities (in particular, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans). Staffers feared that savvy data miners could make use of the small numbers reported in some subcategories—one Hispanic received a doctoral degree in astronomy in 2006, for example—to identify individuals.

    Under its revised rule, any subcategory with fewer than six degree recipients went unreported. In practice, however, many more categories were also blanked out because NSF was concerned that the missing numbers could be calculated by a process of elimination. NSF also banned the use of zero, arguing that even a null set conveyed information—the absence of minorities in that category—that potentially compromised NSF's promise of anonymity to participants.

    A select group.

    An NSF survey will reinstate data on the small number of minorities earning doctoral degrees.


    The news took some months to trickle down to researchers, institutions, and professional societies that use the data, including organizations running projects funded by NSF aimed at fostering broader participation in science and engineering. By last spring, however, they were bewildered and outraged. There were even rumors that sinister motives were at work. “Without evidence of underrepresentation, some people might wonder whether such programs are needed,” notes Shirley McBay, president of the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network.

    Taken aback by the vociferous criticism, NSF asked QEM to hold a series of meetings that gave the community a chance to vent its anger and to suggest alternatives. (NSF had offered three options, which were universally panned.) Last week, McBay reported the results of those meetings to NSF's Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, an advisory body for issues affecting underrepresented minorities. Committee members also voiced their unhappiness with the changes and questioned why they were necessary.

    That's when NSF announced it had had a change of heart. Lynda Carlson, head of NSF's Science Resources Statistics (SRS) division, followed McBay to the podium and shocked her audience by declaring that NSF was rescinding almost all of the new policy. From now on, only fields that award fewer than 25 total doctorates each year will be subject to any data suppression. That is likely to affect about 4% of the 280 subfields reported in the survey, estimates SRS's Mary Frase. (In those instances, subfields will be combined until the minimum is reached.) In all other cases, results will be reported by race, ethnicity, and gender, even if the result is zero in some categories.

    “We listened,” Carlson explained after the meeting. “We didn't realize the extent to which people are using the REG tables. We can't do everything the community wanted. But we've tried to meet as many of their needs as possible.” McBay says she's pleased that SRS “heard the concerns expressed … and has reconsidered its approach.”


    From the Science Policy Blog

    This past week has been a mixed bag for science and its proponents. There have been some big winners, some big losers, and a bunch of folks who don't know where they stand. Here's a roundup from Science's policy blog, ScienceInsider:

    As a divided Congress has shown, you can't pass a nearly trillion dollar stimulus bill and keep everyone happy. The same goes for the 2009 U.S. budget, which is stingy when it comes to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but kind to the National Science Foundation and positively munificent to the Department of Energy. The hefty stimulus itself has also proved divisive. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) is being hailed as a hero for his successful effort to keep $10 billion of the stimulus money for NIH. Meanwhile, other congressional supporters of science, such as Representative Vern Ehlers (R-MI), voted against the bill, claiming it was not good public policy.

    In non-U.S. news, environmentalists are praising a proposed treaty to reduce mercury pollution. Among the 140 countries on board is India, though its science minister says the Asian nation has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to investing in science. Also catching heat is Japan, which the head of a green nongovernmental organization criticizes for not showing leadership on environmental issues.

    And finally, a tale of two viruses. International health officials last week sought to reassure antsy staff of foreign embassies in Beijing that the recent spate of fatalities in China from the H5N1 strain of yavian influenza is no cause for alarm. But they also noted that H5N1 remains as deadly and unpredictable as ever. And a different type of virus—this one of the computer variety—plagued, of all things, the International Meeting on Emerging Diseases and Surveillance. The good news: In contrast to many of the pathogens discussed at the conference, antiviral treatment is available for this one.

    For the full postings and more, go to ScienceInsider.


    A 'Wimpy' Flu Strain Mysteriously Turns Scary

    1. Martin Enserink

    Researchers are trying to figure out why resistance to the most widely used flu drug has skyrocketed--and what that means for pandemic preparedness.

    Researchers are trying to figure out why resistance to the most widely used flu drug has skyrocketed—and what that means for pandemic preparedness

    Taking stock.

    Resistance could render oseltamivir stockpiles, such as this one in the Philippines, useless during a flu pandemic.


    Everything is constantly changing in the world of influenza, but the latest development has taken even veteran researchers by surprise. A strain of flu resistant to the most widely used antiviral drug—oseltamivir, more commonly known as Tamiflu—has raced from country to country and has now become established around the globe. As winter took hold in Europe at the end of 2007, it began to rise to prominence, especially in Norway; it then jumped to the Southern Hemisphere, only to come back and conquer Asia and the United States this winter.

    That wasn't supposed to happen. Based on lab studies and clinical experience, oseltamivir resistance had seemed a minor, manageable problem. Researchers are well-acquainted with the resistance-conferring mutation, called H274Y, that has now circled the planet; they have studied it for more than a decade. And almost everything they learned indicated that the mutation also made the virus less viable, or “wimpy,” as one researcher puts it. The extraordinary spread of the drug-resistant strain has turned that wisdom upside down.

    From a public health point of view, the spectacular rise of the strain is not as threatening as it sounds. In most countries, oseltamivir is used for only the sickest of patients or not at all; Japan and the United States are the drug's main users. Besides, the mutation affects only the influenza A virus H1N1, one of three human flu subtypes that circulate annually, and one that happens to be relatively mild. The other two, H3N2 and influenza B, are still susceptible. And other drugs, such as oseltamivir's lookalike zanamivir, still work against H1N1. That's why this year's flu season in the United States could even end up killing fewer people than last year's, when the more aggressive H3N2 was the most active subtype.

    Scientifically, however, the spread of the strain with the H274Y mutation is “extremely interesting,” says Keiji Fukuda, an influenza specialist at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. Researchers don't understand why a mutation that seemed to cripple the virus in lab studies now seems to have no effect at all on its viability in the real world. “A natural experiment comes along and gives you a very different answer,” says John Skehel, an influenza scientist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London.

    The findings have also renewed the debate on how countries should prepare for an influenza pandemic. After the influenza subtype H5N1 started its romp through Asia, Africa, and Europe in 2004, infecting millions of birds and some 400 people so far, pandemic worries led many countries to buy massive amounts of oseltamivir. The specter that this particular mutation or another could take those precious supplies out of commission in a matter of months is troubling, says Angus Nicoll of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Stockholm. “This has changed the landscape,” he says. “One now has to now imagine that you could have a pandemic strain that is drug-resistant.”

    Unfortunate accident

    Oseltamivir, which hit the market a decade ago, blocks the action of neuraminidase, an enzyme on the viral surface that cleaves a molecular structure called sialic acid sitting on the infected host cell membrane—the first step in the release of thousands of new virus particles from the cell. It's not the first flu drug to run into resistance problems. Over the past 4 decades, researchers have occasionally seen resistance against two older flu drugs, the adamantanes, pop up. Between 2002 and 2005, resistance to these drugs exploded in H3N2, a development some researchers have blamed on their excessive use in some countries (Science, 23 September 2005, p. 1976).

    Flu scientists knew resistance could arise in oseltamivir as well. Studies had identified at least four mutations that seemed to lead to resistance, and H274Y, the one causing problems now, had been studied intensely because it occurred so frequently. Most scientists found the results quite reassuring.

    Out of shape.

    The H274Y mutation causes structural changes to the viral protein neuraminidase, making it impossible for oseltamivir to bind that target (top). But the mutation does not affect a similar drug, zanamivir.


    In H274Y, one of neuraminidase's histidine amino acids is replaced by a tyrosine—the number 274 indicates the exact position of the amino acid in the protein. A study published in Nature last year showed that the replacement tyrosine, slightly bulkier than a histidine, displaces a nearby amino acid a bit, thus disrupting the spot where oseltamivir normally binds. The same study also showed that the mutation didn't affect the binding of zanamivir (see figure), which explains why that drug has not lost its effectiveness, says one of the authors, Rupert Russell of the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

    An extensive study published in 2002 tried to determine how big a threat the mutation might pose. The outcomes were hopeful: The oseltamivir-resistant virus didn't grow well in kidney cells or in mice; in ferrets, it caused less severe flu symptoms than a nonresistant, or “susceptible,” strain. The drug-resistant strain was “severely compromised,” the paper concluded. “Virus carrying a H274Y mutation,” it went on to say, “is unlikely to be of clinical consequence in man.”

    Other lab studies published later seemed to confirm that idea, as did clinical experience. In a 2006 paper, for instance, a global research network reported that during the first 3 years of the drug's use, resistant strains were found in only 0.33% of patients. Another study showed that resistance seemed most common among children in Japan, where as much as 5% of the population uses oseltamivir during a typical influenza season. But resistant viruses just didn't seem to spread.

    Still, there were some warning signs, says Anne Moscona of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, who studies respiratory viruses and who wrote several opinion papers about flu for The New England Journal of Medicine. A 2004 study, for instance, found that H1N1 carrying the H274Y mutation was transmitted between ferrets—not as efficiently as a virus without the mutation, but still, it should have made flu researchers less complacent, says Moscona.

    Why the mutant has suddenly become so adept at propagating itself is still unclear. The distribution of the resistant H1N1 virus shows that the sudden rise was not driven by oseltamivir use; indeed, “it's one of the ironies” that resistance in Japan and the United States has lagged, says Frederick Hayden of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. More likely, another mutation, perhaps in the virus's other surface protein, hemagglutinin, compensated for the loss of fitness, says Peter Palese of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. But if such compensatory mutations exist, researchers have yet to identify them.

    Although far from wimpy, there's no evidence that the resistant strain causes more virulent disease than its wild-type counterpart, says Fukuda. In a paper in this month's issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a Norwegian research team reported that among 183 patients infected with the resistant strain last year, flu symptoms were no more severe and hospitalization rates no higher than among people infected with a susceptible strain.

    Still, H1N1's resistance to oseltamivir does complicate treatment in countries that use the drug. Oseltamivir's advantage has been that it worked against all three seasonal flu subtypes. Now, doctors need to know first the subtype they're dealing with before they decide which drug to use. Yet the current flu drugs need to be given within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be effective, and often there's no time for lab tests that discern between subtypes.

    What's in your country's stockpile?

    As to the pandemic threat, it's not clear what the rise of oseltamivir resistance in H1N1 means. Over the past 5 years, most of the pandemic worries have focused on the chance that H5N1, a subtype that occurs widely in birds and sporadically infects people, could become transmissible among humans. Because no one has immunity to the virus, that could trigger a global outbreak that would be very hard to stop without effective drugs. So far, all H5N1 strains circulating in birds are oseltamivir-susceptible, but resistance caused by the H274Y mutation has occurred in a few human patients treated with the drug. And a study published in 2007 by Elena Govorkova and her colleagues at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, showed that at least some H5N1 viruses with the H274Y mutation remained just as fit as the wild-type virus.

    Moreover, H5N1 is just one of many influenza subtypes that could trigger a future pandemic. There are nine known neuraminidase types, labeled N1 through N9, and oseltamivir is active against all of them. Very little research has been done on how easily resistance develops in most of these types, says Govorkova. The bottom line, says Hayden, is that influenza drug arsenals, like investment portfolios, should be diversified. Some countries have begun to do so; the United States and France, for instance, stockpile zanamivir in addition to oseltamivir, and the United Kingdom announced on 29 January that it would do the same. Further down the line, researchers hope that new anti-virals or anti-influenza antibodies, such as those reported this week in both Nature Structural and Molecular Biology and online in Science (p. 1160), will help shore up defenses.

    But the investment in new drugs has become a harder sell politically now that the pandemic threat has disappeared from the front pages of newspapers and the global recession has dried up available cash. Many countries are also facing the decision whether to replace their aging stockpiles of oseltamivir, which has an official shelf life of 5 years. Albert Osterhaus of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, worries that the downturn may make pandemic preparation fall by the wayside, even though the risk has not decreased.

    As to the oseltamivir-resistance mutation found in the H1N1 subtype, scientists say it's important to watch closely how it evolves. And perhaps it's not here to stay. New influenza strains come and go every year and usually spread from East Asia (Science, 18 April 2008, p. 340). The strains that win out are typically the most adept at beating human immune systems, and whether they are oseltamivir-resistant may not be the most important factor. In parts of China, an H1N1 strain is now circulating that does not have the H274Y mutation and is susceptible to oseltamivir, Hayden says. If that becomes dominant elsewhere in the world next year, oseltamivir resistance could simply subside again, he says—although nobody knows for how long.


    Making Every Baby Girl Count

    1. Mara Hvistendahl*
    1. Mara Hvistendahl is a writer in Shanghai, China.

    China is ramping up a program that addresses the sociological factors behind an alarming trend: the country's rising sex ratio at birth.

    China is ramping up a program that addresses the sociological factors behind an alarming trend: the country's rising sex ratio at birth

    Generation XX.

    Bao and Li received preferred land for settling in her hometown and cash for having a girl.


    CHAOHU, CHINA—When Bao Tiezhu and Li Qing married in 2002, they did everything backward. Instead of settling in his hometown, as most Chinese newlyweds would, Bao moved to Li's ancestral village and relinquished the right to inherit his family's land. When Li gave birth to two children in 5 years, they took her surname, not his. And—most importantly for the Chinese government workers who were watching the couple closely—the children are girls.

    In discarding centuries of tradition, Bao and Li became the face of the new Chinese family: foot soldiers in a desperate program, called Care for Girls, to narrow China's gaping sex ratio at birth, among the highest in the world at 120 boys for every 100 girls. Care for Girls, which was developed by a team of social scientists following years of fieldwork in the Chinese countryside, has a variety of carrots and sticks at its disposal, including financial incentives, strict punishment for sex-selective abortion, and radical social restructuring.

    In 1980, China, concerned about a population explosion, adopted a one-child policy— and enforced it through compulsory sterilizations and abortions. The policy clashed with the country's patrilineal tradition, in which sons carry on the ancestral line and care for elderly parents. Many families went to great lengths to ensure that their sole child was a boy. Confronted with a spike in the sex ratio and widespread resistance to coercive methods, Communist Party leaders relaxed the one-child policy in 1984. Most provinces subsequently allowed rural couples with one girl to try again, an exception sometimes termed the “1.5-child policy.” But the change coincided with the introduction of ultrasound machines to rural China, which enabled couples to determine the sex of a fetus and abort females. The country's sex ratio continued to rise.

    China is not the only country grappling with a skewed sex ratio. Across Asia, policy-makers are scrambling to come up with ways to stem a tide of “missing girls.” In India, the state of Haryana began paying parents for having girls in 1994, and last year the national government extended a similar plan to seven other states. But the powerful National Population and Family Planning Commission of China—the same body that enforces the one-child policy—may, ironically, be critical to bringing sex ratios back into biological harmony. “If [China] really focuses on it, they have the grassroots organizers who are capable of doing this,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer at the World Bank who studies sex ratios. “They have a lot of information on the parents, and if they're going to punish people, they can.”

    Chaohu, in rural Anhui Province, is the pilot for Care for Girls. In 1999, local Family Planning Commission volunteers began augmenting their routine of birth monitoring and contraception distribution with the oversight of doctors operating ultrasound machines. The program also features micro-credit grants to women and social security payments for parents of girls—Bao and Li received a small sum, $29, upon the birth of their first daughter—along with measures designed to change social customs.

    Bao and Li are one of four couples in their 600-person village to have espoused uxorilocal marriage, or living with the wife's family. Couples in some regions have opted for this lifestyle throughout Chinese history, but the practice is typically stigmatized. By rewarding daring couples with land and public praise, Care for Girls aims to remove the stigma. Bao says it worked: “People don't discriminate against you now.”

    Unnatural selection

    Down the street in Chaohu, a poster hanging in the entryway of Yang Chuanfeng's home shows a smiling couple embracing a young girl next to the slogan “Let gender equality prevail.” That is exactly the take-home message the family-planning volunteer and mother of two girls hopes to impart to women on house visits. “If it's a boy, have a boy,” she says. “If it's a girl, have a girl. They're the same.” To make her point, she hands out brochures in red bags emblazoned with “New Culture of Marriage.” One pamphlet explains the concept of sex ratio at birth.

    Battle of the sexes.

    The sex ratio at birth in China, now 120 boys for every 100 girls, has risen steadily.


    Such materials are the result of Zhu Chuzhu's decades of research. Following China's 1982 census, Zhu, a tireless 76-year-old demographer at Xi'an Jiaotong University's Population Research Institute, noticed a spike in mortality among girls aged 1 to 4—the first sign something was wrong—and quietly began researching the causes.

    Zhu didn't have funding to conduct extensive studies on child mortality until the mid-1990s, when the Ford Foundation backed fieldwork in rural Shaanxi Province. In a 2-year survey, she and Xi'an Jiaotong colleague Shuzhuo Li began investigating China's sex ratio at birth, which had jumped abruptly from a biologically stable level of 107 boys for every 100 girls in 1982 to 111 in 1990. (In the most recent census and in sample surveys, the sex ratio has continued to climb.) Son preference is ingrained in China, but Zhu and Li, a young star with postdoctoral experience at Harvard and Stanford universities, set out to see whether they could discern and combat the underlying causes.

    In a study on infant mortality, the duo found that parents were more likely to avoid seeking medical help for sick girls who were second or third in birth order or only had sisters. The pattern mirrored other scholars' findings on sex ratio at birth. In countries with high sex ratios—including China, India, and, most recently, the Caucasus Mountains nations—the proportion of boys born rises significantly with birth order, presumably because mothers abort female fetuses.

    The demographers realized that reversing the trend would require a major cultural shift. Undermining the patrilineal order, they suspected, might do the trick. With Marcus Feldman, an evolutionary biologist at Stanford, Zhu and Li surveyed two counties in China where a historically loose clan structure had led to a high percentage of men living with their wives' families. Both uxorilocal counties had a normal sex ratio at birth and low female child mortality. Moreover, matrilineality seemed to provide the same benefits as patrilineality: “We found that daughters provided economic and emotional support to their parents equal to that of sons,” Li says.

    Through fieldwork in rural China, Zhu and Li developed a framework that would make having girls economically and socially acceptable. At a national meeting in 1998, they approached the Family Planning Commission with their findings. The commission was moving away from coercive methods, repositioning itself as an arbiter of reproductive health, and Li and Zhu convinced Commissioner Zhang Weiqing to incorporate their findings into an upcoming gender-equality campaign. Still, the sex-ratio issue was sensitive because of its connection to the one-child policy—so much so that the demographers had trouble finding a pilot area for Care for Girls. In the end, Li says, they selected Chaohu simply because officials here agreed.

    Some scholars question whether the Family Planning Commission, which continues to slap fines on parents who exceed the one or “1.5” child policy, is the best entity to tackle China's skewed sex ratio. Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine, says the issue would be better addressed by scrapping birth limits entirely. “The Family Planning Commission is … curing the disease by treating the symptoms rather than the root cause,” he says. “They're evading the more difficult, and the more fundamental, part, which is the [one-child] policy.” Other scientists point out that sex ratios have risen concurrently across Asia in countries that do not limit the number of children a couple can have. And proponents stress that the Family Planning Commission has an army of workers—a nationwide network of 300,000 volunteers—to help engineer rapid social change.

    Li is among a group of demographers pushing for a further relaxation of the one-child policy. But he and Zhu argue that the policy exacerbates, but doesn't directly cause, China's high male-to-female sex ratio. “The essential problem is culture. And Chinese culture can be changed,” says Zhu, who remembers hearing of infant girls being drowned in buckets of water while growing up in the 1930s and 1940s.

    Demographic trendsetter.

    China's rapid urbanization may help bring the skewed sex ratio closer to biological harmony, says Shuzhuo Li, because urban culture values sons and daughters more equally.


    Deeper in Chaohu, in a fishing village at the end of a dirt road, 66-year-old Yang Peihua represents the most intransigent part of that culture. Sitting on a bench in her mudwalled home, Yang recalls how she felt when her daughter-in-law gave birth to a second girl. “It was like I was dropped into a tub of ice cubes,” she says. Under Care for Girls, Yang was required to attend a training session for elderly women, at which she says she learned, “Boy or girl, leave it to nature.” But her attitude underscores the challenge facing China. “It's a very powerful cultural norm that they're addressing,” says Feldman.

    Against the grain

    When Bao told his family he would move to his wife's hometown, he recalls, “at first my parents were opposed. But I told them the environment in this village is more comfortable. And this kind of land is difficult to get otherwise.” He gestures to the couple's courtyard home and its prime location on a busy road—a reward from the village government for their unconventional marriage.

    Preaching equality.

    Yang Chuanfeng emphasizes that girls are just as precious as boys.


    As Bao tells his story, Shuzhuo Li looks on approvingly, satisfied that over a decade of work is paying off. The results of the trial here were promising. According to Family Planning Commission data and independent surveys, Chaohu's sex ratio dropped from 125 in 1999 to 114 in 2002. The next year, the Chinese government scaled up the program to 24 districts around the country. Results were similarly encouraging, with the sex ratio in those places declining from 134 in 2000 to 120 in 2005. In 2006, Care for Girls rolled out nationwide.

    Li and Zhu concede that the program's short-term gains may be the result of a crackdown on sex selection, not deeper cultural change. Further progress could be elusive: “The closer you get to a normal sex ratio, the more difficult it is,” says Zhu. But unborn girls may get a boost from urbanization, which some scholars credit for a recent decline in South Korea's sex ratio. The flow of migrant workers to wealthy cities in eastern China raises women's earning power and introduces new ideas to the countryside. “Urban culture values sons and daughters more equally,” Li says. As the sex ratio continues its upward march, China needs all the help it can get.


    Chinese Men: A Rising Tide of Troublemakers?

    1. Constance Holden

    Chinese officials are taking measures to encourage couples to value daughters (see main text), but they don't talk much about the flip side of the problem: men who can't find wives.

    Anxious young men.

    Rising numbers of restless men, like these jobless migrant workers in Nanjing, could augur hard times in China.


    Chinese officials are taking measures to encourage couples to value daughters (see main text), but they don't talk much about the flip side of the problem: men who can't find wives. The problem of guang gun, or “bare branches,” as they are called, is “shrouded in secrecy,” says Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist at the University of California (UC), Irvine.

    With the current ratio of 120 boys born for every 100 girls, in the next couple of decades there will be at least 30 million Chinese men who cannot find wives, says Xi'an Jiaotong University demographer Shuzhuo Li. Men who lose out in the marriage sweepstakes, he says, tend to be at the bottom of the social ladder: rural, uneducated, marginally employed, and often transient.

    A surfeit of frustrated, low-status males is bound to spell trouble for society, some experts argue. In a controversial 2004 book, Bare Branches, political scientists Valerie Hudson of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and Andrea den Boer of the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K., used historical examples from China and elsewhere to argue that China might soon be bedeviled by a rogue underclass of malcontented single males who could stir up political instability and even armed revolts.

    Some experts dispute that forecast. Historically, up to 10% of Chinese males never marry because the sex ratio has long been skewed toward males, largely as a result of female infanticide, and rates of bachelorhood have been higher at times in some European countries as well as in parts of China, says demographer Wang Feng of UC Irvine. “So why only in China would this become such a big problem?” he says. “There is no convincing evidence that [young males] joined a peasant rebellion because they couldn't find a wife.” Wang believes that the worst consequences of the sex ratio may be for individuals who suffer from loneliness and lack of social support.

    Hudson counters that “we do see significantly rising crime” in China and rising social unrest (Science, 30 January, p. 574). But evidence that excess young males breed crime is only circumstantial, says Greenhalgh: “Nobody has done field research to see what's going on with these men.”

    That may soon change. Last August, Li and colleagues at Stanford University began administering questionnaires to 600 bare branches—defined as bachelors over the age of 28—as well as married men and women across China in which subjects can respond anonymously about their education, finances, physical and mental health, drinking, sex lives, and social connections. Village heads will be interviewed about the local crime situation. Bare Branches is a “very good book,” says Li. The time has come, he says, to put its thesis to the test.


    Will Monju's Resurrection Give Breeders a Second Lease on Life?

    1. Dennis Normile

    A long-shuttered fast breeder reactor could be the bridge to a new generation of such reactors, if it can overcome technical problems that have delayed its planned restart.

    A long-shuttered fast breeder reactor could be the bridge to a new generation of such reactors, if it can overcome technical problems that have delayed its planned restart

    TSURUGA, JAPAN—A highlight of a tour of the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor is the opportunity to avert catastrophe. In a simulator room used to train operators, a lucky visitor throws a pair of emergency switches, setting off a cacophony of sirens and buzzers. Blinking lights and flashing numbers indicate that everything from coolant flow to the nuclear reaction in the core has come to a screeching halt.

    This simulation is part of a campaign to convince Japanese officials and the wider public that the massive leak of sodium coolant that occurred in 1995— and the botched cover-up of the accident—will never happen again. For more than 13 years, Monju, a glistening white complex on a rugged promontory overlooking the Japan Sea, has sat idle, its future in doubt. Managers hoped to fire up the experimental nuclear plant this month, but a technological glitch has delayed the restart at least until later this year.

    Proponents of the controversial fast-reactor technology— which burns plutonium, an ingredient in bombs—see resurrecting Monju as an urgent task. “Monju is a very important tool in the long-term strategy for nuclear energy,” says Thierry Dujardin of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris. Fast reactors, he says, could reduce nuclear waste and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents see their recycled, noncarbon fuel as a critical advantage. “It seems obvious we should have the technology ready when needed, and we cannot do that without tools like Monju,” Dujardin says. With its 280-megawatt electric (MWe) capacity, Monju is a bridge between the last experimental fast reactor in the West—France's Phenix, which is about to be shut down—and a new generation of fast reactors planned or being built in China (a 20-MWe research reactor coming online in September), India (a 500-MWe prototype due for completion in 2012), and Russia (an 880-MWe demonstration reactor planned for 2012).

    Fast asleep.

    After a 13-year pause, Japan intends to restart Monju later this year.


    When Monju was conceived in the 1970s, scientists believed that fast neutron reactors were the next step in expanding nuclear power. Conventional reactors typically use water as a moderator to slow neutrons and increase the odds of energy-releasing collisions with uranium atoms in the fuel. Fast reactors do away with a moderator and use more-fissile plutonium, often combined with uranium. Configured as “breeders,” fast reactors produce more plutonium than they consume. “Burners” transmute waste from conventional nuclear plants or from weapons into less radioactive materials.

    The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and Japan built experimental fast reactors between the 1970s and 1990s. But they were plagued by technical problems, were extremely costly, and raised concerns about safeguarding plutonium. (The only road to Monju goes through a 900-meter-long tunnel guarded 24/7 by riot police.) The test reactors were shuttered one after another. The sole commercial fast reactor to date, France's 1200-MWe SuperPhenix, closed in 1985.

    Japan never gave up on fast reactors. Monju achieved criticality in April 1994. Operations halted when a coolant loop sprang a leak in December 2005. More than 700 kilograms of molten sodium escaped through a broken temperature probe, releasing toxic fumes and damaging the plant. (No one was injured.) Engineers concluded that the flowing sodium induced oscillations in the probe, causing metal fatigue failure.

    Plant managers created a PR fiasco when they misrepresented how much sodium escaped and the extent of the damage. “We lost the trust of the local people,” admits Takehide Deshimaru, director of Monju development for the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). “We learned the hard way that transparency is the most important thing.” It took more than a decade to win approvals for repairs and modifications. But last month, days before the planned restart, engineers discovered rusted ventilation ducts in a plutonium-handling facility that will be used to replenish fuel. Repairs are under way.

    Fast-reactor technology has not stood still during Monju's long dormancy. But JAEA officials are intent on squeezing value out of the aging complex by “verifying the plant's reliability through the experience of operation,” says Deshimaru. Researchers from Japan, France, and the United States will use Monju to test new fuel combinations and transmutation. Work at Monju will also feed into the ongoing design of a 1500-MWe fast reactor. The Japanese government and utility companies are discussing who will pay for and build the new reactor after the design is completed in about 2015.

    Monju's revival does not assure a bright future for breeders. Deshimaru says that because of the complexity, particularly of the cooling systems, a commercial plant based on Monju technology would cost 10 times that of a conventional light-water reactor of equivalent capacity. However, he says, recent designs with simpler cooling systems make fast reactors more cost-competitive.

    Western countries are ambivalent. France intends to build a next-generation nuclear power plant by 2020. A sodium-cooled fast reactor is the leading candidate, but a final decision won't be made until 2012, says Jacques Bouchard, special adviser to France's Commissariat a L'Energie Atomique. In the United States, research on fast reactor concepts is continuing. “But in terms of moving quickly on a demonstration or prototype reactor, it's wait and see,” says Mark Peters, a deputy associate lab director at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. In the meantime, U.S. and European scientists are lining up to visit Monju—not for simulations but to lay hands, at long last, on hard data.