Science  06 Mar 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5919, pp. 1273
  1. THREE Q'S


    Cancer biologist Frank Torti, 61, took a leave of absence from his post at Wake Forest University School of Medicine last May to join the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the newly created role of chief scientist. On 20 January, he was appointed acting director of the agency. While the Obama Administration hunts for a permanent head, Torti has been busy elevating the role of science at an agency criticized for not taking it seriously enough.

    Q: How are things these days at the agency?

    The FDA has faced some real challenges, and it hasn't solved all of those challenges yet—I think it's poised to do so. There are so many crosscutting issues in science that need to be anticipated, understood … [to regulate] these products, which are very different than traditional small molecules.

    Q: What have you been doing to bolster science at FDA?

    Just tons of stuff. But we're not done. … At the FDA until recently, science has been largely invisible. … I asked each center [at FDA] what their overarching [scientific] priorities for the center are. … They [include] rapid detection, sensitive high-throughput methodologies, adverse-event analysis, biomarkers of both toxicity and efficacy, personalized medicine, and nutrition. … For each, we have projects that the centers can tackle.

    Q: And do you have the budget to do this?

    Right now, we don't have the budget to do it all. We'll show [Congress] what the projects are and what they cost, and what we can do now and what we [can't afford]. It won't be that we'll have our hands out for funding; [we will talk about] priorities that everyone can endorse.


    MISSION ACCOMPLISHED? In his speech to Congress last week, President Barack Obama asked the country to help him improve U.S. education. The goal, he said, should be that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

    A stretch? Hardly. Turns out the United States is already there. A recent report by the U.S. National Science Foundation ( shows the United States leading the world, with roughly 30% of its adult population holding 4-year college degrees.

    But Obama is right to be worried, according to Thomas Snyder of the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. Over the past 2 decades, countries across Europe and Asia have poured money into their universities on the assumption that a well-educated population is essential for long-term economic and national security. As a result, several industrialized nations now top the United States in the percentage of younger adults ages 25 to 34 with college degrees. “The concern is with younger people,” says Snyder.


    CLIMATE BIGWIGS. Atmospheric scientist V. Ramanathan and glaciologist Richard Alley share this year's $200,000 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement for their work on climate change.


    Ramanathan, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, says the prize will help him get “back to my roots.” As a child in India, he watched his grandmother cook over a smoky fire of dung and wood. As a climate researcher, he documented the “brown cloud” blowing off India from such fires and burning fossil fuels. He then showed how the cloud warmed the upper atmosphere, reduced monsoon rainfall and rice harvests, and led to the retreat of Himalayan glaciers supplying drinking water to billions of people. Now he is organizing a project in north India to show how much using more efficient stoves and cleaner fuels could thin the brown cloud.


    Alley, of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, has retrieved records of climate's wild gyrations from ice cores and investigated how glaciers might rush to the sea under global warming. His communication style has been described as combining Woody Allen and Carl Sagan, with a bit of “Weird Al” Yankovic thrown in. In one YouTube video, a guitar-strumming Alley warns of global warming in a folksy parody of “Proud Mary.”



    STELLAR ROLE. What do a Nobel Prize and a television sitcom have in common? George Smoot.

    Next week, the astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was honored in 2006 for confirming the big bang theory, appears as himself on the show of the same name. The cast was starstruck by Smoot's presence. Jim Parsons, who plays the arrogant genius Sheldon, said, “You['ve] actually got a scientist to talk to on this set!” Producers Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady glowed as Smoot autographed gift copies of his book Wrinkles in Time. “We've peaked with Dr. Smoot,” said Lorre.

    “On the show, I was a little bit harsh,” Smoot says about his reaction to meeting an over-confident Sheldon. In reality, says Smoot, “I try very hard to be encouraging to young scientists, even the ones that are way off base.” He even ad-libbed a few positive comments during rehearsal. After the filming, he received a memento: a director's chair with his name on it.

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