News this Week

Science  27 Mar 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5922, pp. 1654

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    Madagascar's Coup Endangers Science and Scientists

    1. John Bohannon

    Scientists returning from the field faced burning barricades in the capital.


    The government of Madagascar was toppled last week in a bloody military coup that is playing havoc with the research efforts, and lives, of the many scientists studying the island's rich biodiversity. As the violence subsided, several researchers told Science about the harrowing events and their fears for the future of the African nation's unique natural resources. “I had to jump over 12 manned barricades of burning tires and then sneak through the public zoo to get to my house to pack,” says Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences and director of the Madagascar Biodiversity Center in Antananarivo, the nation's capital.

    Until this year, Madagascar had been enjoying an unusual period of peace and stability. After being democratically elected in 2001, now-ousted president Marc Ravalomanana had championed science and conservation. During its 160 million years of isolation in the Indian Ocean, a strange menagerie of life evolved on the California-sized landmass, from unique noncactus prickly plants to the only populations of our primate relatives, the lemurs. But since arriving 2000 years ago, human colonizers have cut down more than 90% of the island's forests, threatening the flora and fauna with extinction.

    The Ravalomanana government was credited with opening the doors wide to ecotourism. The lure of lemurs brought in hundreds of millions of dollars annually to one of the world's poorest nations. Madagascar's system of protected areas and national parks was expanded with the help of international support. In parallel, education and research have flourished, says Steven Goodman, a biologist at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, who has lived and worked in Madagascar for more than 3 decades (Science, 26 September 2003, p. 1835). Goodman and his Malagasy collaborators have identified a string of vertebrate species new to science, including, just 2 years ago, “one of the most marvelous bats in the world” that climbs surfaces with suction-cup elbows.

    The trouble started in January as the global economic downturn hit Madagascar, says Goodman. “Therewere a lot of people with little to no means to feed their families, tourism was close to zero, and organized crime had notably grown,” he says. Some of Ravalomanana's decisions came under harsh criticism, such as his leasing of half of Madagascar's arable land to a Korean company for corn and palm oil production. Ravalomanana tried to quell criticism by partially shutting down television and radio stations, but protesters took to the streets of Antananarivo, and dozens were killed in clashes with the police. After the city's mayor, Andry Rajoelina, called on the president to resign, Ravalomanana sacked him. Madagascar quickly descended into chaos.

    “The situation has gone from bad to worse,” wrote Goodman in an e-mail to Science on 17 March, the day the president resigned. “Gun fire around the house, raging fires in the neighborhood, and wide-scale looting and pillaging. … Several students have been killed.” Fisher and other scientists were stranded in the turmoil after returning from fieldwork. On the way to the airport to flee the country, Fisher had “a close call” with a rock-throwing mob but escaped on a motorcycle. Nearly 200 deaths have been confirmed, but the true number is “far more than reported in the local and Western press,” says Goodman, who remains in the capital.

    When the country's military leaders declared support for the opposition last week, Ravalomanana resigned. Rajoelina, who had become the public face of the opposition, was installed as president and then dissolved Parliament. Supporters of Ravalomanana have held protest rallies, but little violence has been reported. On 21 March, Madagascar's highest court declared Rajoelina's leadership legal, although the 34-year-old former disc jockey is too young to hold office according to Madagascar's constitution. As Science went to press, the former president remained in hiding.

    Biological riches.

    Steven Goodman holds newly discovered bat species of Madagascar.


    Fisher says the coup derailed plans for donors to visit the island, placing his center in financial risk. “The big fear now is that this year's tourism revenue for Madagascar will be completely wiped out,” adds Christopher Raxworthy of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, who studies the island's unique reptiles and amphibians. “Sadly, any decrease in income from tourism may increase human pressures on the local natural resources.”

    A more immediate threat to the environment comes from “people taking advantage of a power vacuum,” says An Bollen, a biologist who coordinates an international conservation organization based in Toamasina in eastern Madagascar called the Madagascar Fauna Group. Marojejy National Park has been shut down due to “looting and destruction,” according to its Web site. It reports that “gangs of armed men (led primarily by foreign profiteers in conjunction with the rich local mafia) are plundering the rainforests. … Most worrisome is the well-being of the highly endangered Silky Sifaka,” a lemur that exists only in the park's forests and the surrounding area.

    Madagascar's new government is being greeted with international condemnation, and most nonhumanitarian aid to the nation has been frozen. In terms of conservation, “it is unclear what the new government will bring,” says Bollen, noting that the new environment minister is a former employee of a major nickel-cobalt mining company.


    Arctic Summer Sea Ice Could Vanish Soon But Not Suddenly

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Global warming is causing trouble for polar bears, no doubt about that, but how long the bears will have floating ice for summer seal hunting has remained unclear. Just a few years ago, it looked as if summer ice would still be around at the end of the century, but when ice melting took a sharp turn for the worse in 2007, some scientists started talking about catastrophic “tipping points” and a possible imminent demise of summertime ice.

    After paring their suite of 23 climate models down to the best half-dozen, two researchers now say with new confidence that summer ice will most likely disappear around 2037. But none of the select models predicts a tipping point—a sudden jump to an ice-free summer Arctic. “They've identified the most credible models,” says polar researcher John Walsh of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and “the most realistic models are the most sensitive to future [greenhouse] changes.” All in all, it's bad news for the bears.

    The new model study recognizes that not all climate models are created equal. For the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment, modelers around the world ran 23 different climate models with and without rising greenhouse gases. The fate they predicted for arctic ice ranged from complete loss in the summer by 2020 to only slight losses by 2100, and almost everywhere in between. Modeler Julienne Stroeve of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and her colleagues shrank the IPCC list to the 13 models that did a reasonable job of reproducing the observed slow decline of the extent of summer sea ice, but that still left them with a considerable range of losses by 2100.

    To further narrow the possible outcomes, arctic researchers Muyin Wang of the University of Washington, Seattle, and James Overland of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle added another constraint: Usable models must reasonably reproduce the ups and downs of sea ice area from summer to winter and back. As they report in a paper in press at Geophysical Research Letters, that shortened the list to six models. “That's a very important improvement,” says Wang, because those models should have the most realistic response to the rising heating by the strengthening greenhouse.

    Wang and Overland then examined each simulation to see how many years it took summer sea ice to dwindle from its current 4.6 million square kilometers to an essentially ice-free summer Arctic Ocean. The “expected time frame” for ice-free summers is about 30 years. Ice-free conditions aren't likely before the late 2020s, according to these models. And none of them go ice-free in a single, abrupt jump; there are no tipping points.

    Won't be long.

    The six best climate models available show global warming clearing the Arctic Ocean of summer ice (top) within about 30 years (bottom).


    Researchers have long worried that the models don't have ice tipping points because they simulate some key physical process poorly. In the real ocean, for example, a decline in ice coverage decreases the amount of solar energy that ice reflects back to space while increasing the amount of heat absorbed by the darker open water. This ice-albedo feedback, if unopposed, could drive the system past a tipping point, but ice physicists Ian Eisenman of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and John Wettlaufer of Yale University believe they have discovered what tends to counteract it.

    In the 6 January issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Eisenman and Wettlaufer report an underappreciated ice-thickness feedback that strongly opposes the ice-albedo feedback. When added summer heat thins the ice, the ice can grow back in winter all the faster because the ocean can lose heat faster through thinned ice. “The harder you kick the ice, the harder it tries to get back to where it was,” says Eisenman. “The models do agree with our claim” that the competition between the two feedbacks that will hold off a tipping point, he says.

    The loss of summer sea ice in 25 or 30 years “is probably the best estimate that models can come up with at the moment,” says sea ice specialist Josefino Comiso of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. It coincides with the central tendency of expert opinion, adds Walsh. “We're resigned to losing the ice,” says sea ice specialist Mark Serreze of NSIDC. And it looks as if that will happen sooner rather than later.


    OSTP, NOAA Chiefs Finally Get a Chance to Lead

    1. Eli Kintisch

    Two major players on the Obama Administration's science team donned their uniforms last week, 3 months after being nominated for their prospective positions.

    On the job.

    John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco are now official.


    Physicist John Holdren and marine biologist Jane Lubchenco were confirmed by the Senate on 19 March and immediately took up their respective posts as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Their confirmations had been held up by an anonymous senator or senators. The matter was resolved as part of congressional approval of the 2009 federal budget, and both scientists were approved without a recorded vote.

    Lubchenco says she's moving “on fast forward” to get a handle on the $4 billion agency she'll be steering. Speaking this week with reporters, Lubchenco said she had yet to be briefed on some of the thorniest issues facing the agency, including fixing NOAA's ailing satellite program, tackling overfishing along the nation's coasts, and reviewing a budget she called insufficient for the task at hand. She also pledged support for the agency's extramural research efforts, although she said she had yet to calculate the ideal ratio of support for that enterprise. “NOAA has a strong track record on science,” she says. “We are going to build on that track record.”

    Although the confirmation delay had prevented her from taking office, she says she has advised the White House on a number of issues, including working with Holdren on a 9 March presidential request to OSTP to review scientific integrity practices across the government (Science, 13 March, p. 1412).

    Holdren's staff did not respond to an interview request. In a short video message released after he was confirmed, however, the former Harvard University physicist said he was eager to provide the president “all the clear and objective advice he needs about the scientific and technological aspects of all the issues on his plate.” As examples, he cited the president's three priorities in his proposed 2010 budget: the economy, health care, and education.

    With these two jobs now filled, the major remaining vacancies among science agencies are the heads of NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.


    Koonin Tapped at DOE, Which Lays Out New Spending

    1. Dan Charles,
    2. Eli Kintisch,
    3. Jeffrey Mervis

    A top theoretical physicist turned energy guru has been chosen as undersecretary of science at the Department of Energy (DOE), which this week announced how it would distribute $1.2 billion among its 10 national labs and to universities around the country.

    The two Steves.

    Chu (left) hopes Koonin will join him at DOE.


    On Friday, the president nominated physicist Steven Koonin, former provost of the California Institute of Technology and currently chief scientist at oil giant BP. If confirmed by the Senate, Koonin would replace Raymond Orbach as head of DOE's $4.8 billion Office of Science. Chu and Koonin are no strangers: In addition to their long California résumés, the two physicists teamed up on a BP-funded $500 million research program on biofuels and other new energy sources at DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which Chu led before coming to Washington.

    Congress made Koonin's job a bit easier last month when it passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus bill. The package gives DOE's Office of Science $1.6 billion to address a backlog of construction and research projects, and almost every lab comes away with something (

    The biggest single chunk of cash—$150 million—will go to Brookhaven National Laboratory to speed up construction of its National Synchrotron Light Source II. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory gets $124 million to equip an environmental molecular sciences lab and a climate research facility. LBNL gets $115 million for two facilities to support users of its Advanced Light Source, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory gets $71 million for a multipurpose facility to house its chemical and advanced materials research programs. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory will receive $68 million for equipment and modernization, and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Laboratory gets $65 million to complete an upgrade of its Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility. Some $69 million will help to triple the speed of a 10-gigabit-per-second data network serving all the national labs. The eventual goal is a 100-gigabit network also connecting major universities. The NO?A neutrino experiment managed by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in collaboration with the University of Minnesota will get a $50 million boost.

    The stimulus funding also provides $277 million to establish roughly a dozen Energy Frontier Research Centers. DOE has already reviewed 260 applications for the new program, which focuses on using basic science to tackle challenges such as solar power or hydrogen energy. Each center, a collaboration between universities and national labs, is expected to receive from $2 million to $5 million for up to 5 years. In addition, DOE's high-energy physics and fusion research programs will get $90 million on top of their regular budgets for competitive grants.


    U.K. Funder Accused of 'Blacklisting' Repeatedly Unsuccessful Applicants

    1. John Travis

    Do scientists have a fundamental right to apply for government money, even if their grant proposals are regularly rejected? That's one of the issues at the heart of a fiery debate now taking place in the United Kingdom, where a major funding agency has just announced it will ignore submissions from “repeatedly unsuccessful applicants,” a policy that could exclude 5% of its previous grant applicants. The U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) says the move is designed to ease the burden on volunteer peer-reviewers, but outraged researchers have called the change “black-listing” and “scientific McCarthyism.”

    “We don't think there's any precedent elsewhere,” says organic chemist Joe Sweeney of the University of Reading, who started an online petition to repeal the EPSRC policy. More than 1200 scientists—including several fellows of the Royal Society, Britain's academy of science—had signed on by early this week. In a move that could thwart EPSRC's aims, organic chemist Philip Page of the University of East Anglia in Norwich says he and other scientists will strike: “A number of people will not referee proposals while this policy is in place,” says Page.

    New and improved?

    Many U.K. scientists don't agree that EPSRC's new funding policies will help them.

    EPSRC is the largest U.K. funder of engineers and physical scientists, handing out grants totaling more than £475 million in 2007–08 to more than 3200 researchers. It receives the most grant proposals among the seven research councils, and the number has grown dramatically in recent years, says David Reid, EPSRC's head of communications.

    After rejecting options such as charging for proposal submissions or placing quotas on institutions, on 12 March the council announced a new policy to ban from any EPSRC funding consideration, for a year or even longer, any principal investigators who have “Three or more proposals within a 2-year period ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritisation list or rejected before panel [without review]; AND An overall personal success rate of less than 25%.” EPSRC notes that this policy should exclude about 200 to 250 people and is retroactive: Letters to those excluded go out on 1 April, and their proposals won't be considered after 1 June.

    Reid says the idea is to weed out the small number of scientists who submit multiple, poor applications; the estimated 5% excluded submit 10% of applications, says EPSRC. “They're operating a scattergun approach” and placing a “huge burden” on the peer-review process, Reid says. He adds that EPSRC consulted with university officials who expressed a desire to know which researchers need mentoring to help them obtain funding.

    Yet some U.K. scientists argue that any such exclusion policy is fundamentally unfair and that far more than 5% of EPSRC applicants will be affected by what could be a career-ending decision. Page says that whether a typical proposal ends up in the “bottom half” of the rankings is “rather a lottery.” A more defensible criterion, he says, would be to use the quality cutoff line many panels already employ to indicate weak proposals that are not deserving of a funding ranking. Even that would disturb Peter Lawrence, a Royal Society fellow at the University of Cambridge who signed the online petition. Excluding people based on past proposal failures “doesn't support the unpredictability of original research,” he says.

    For the moment, EPSRC is vigorously defending its new policy and arguing that the online petition and many critics misstate its new measures. Reid adds that the council will review the impact of the changes after a year or so. This is part of an “evolving program to reduce the [peer-review] burden,” he says.


    From Science's Online Daily News site

    Super hard drives coming soon? For those whose computer hard drives can never hold too much data, here's some good news. In Nature Photonics, researchers report finding a way to potentially boost disk capacity to 10 times the current theoretical limit—and without a correspondingly astronomical increase in cost.


    Bad for coral, bad for fish. Populations of Caribbean reef fish have plummeted between 32% and 72% over the past decade in response to widespread disappearance of coral, according to a new study published in Current Biology. If the trend continues, it could worsen the already unprecedented deterioration of reef habitats and disrupt Caribbean countries that rely on the fish as a source of food and income.

    Happy music has worldwide appeal. Feeling a little blue? Why not kick back and put on Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" or Queen's "We Are the Champions"? Chances are you'll feel more cheerful in no time. But what about people who have never been exposed to Western music? A new study, published in Current Biology, concludes that even they can tell the difference between a happy and a sad tune.

    Earliest corn discovered. Pity the first corn eaters. The ancestor of the plant that gives us its succulent yellow kernels is an unappetizing grain known as teosinte, whose ears harbor only five to 12 rock-hard grains. Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers say they have now found the earliest known traces of corn—or maize—at a site in central Mexico dated to nearly 9000 years ago. Although this ancient plant was probably tough on the teeth, the find suggests that early farmers did indeed eat it—rather than turn it into alcoholic beverages, as some researchers have suggested.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on ScienceNOW.


    Twins May Think Alike Too, MRI Brain Study Suggests

    1. Constance Holden

    Research on cognitive abilities has generally been split into two noncommunicating camps: cognitive scientists who look for strategies or brain regions that all humans employ for particular tasks, and intelligence researchers who are interested in individual differences.

    On page 1737, a European team uses brain imaging with twins to achieve a rare fusion of the two approaches. The researchers show that different people may use different strategies to accomplish the same mental task, and that genes influence the type of strategy used.

    A team led by Jan Willem Koten Jr. of RWTH Aachen University in Germany tested 10 sets of siblings, each consisting of a pair of male identical twins and a nontwin brother. While their brains were being scanned in a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI), they were asked to memorize a short span of digits. They were then given a “distraction” task to befuddle that memory: either a simple arithmetic problem (2 + 4 = 7, yes or no?) or instructions to categorize a picture of an object. They were then shown a number and asked if it was among the numbers in the memory task. All these chores took at most 7.5 seconds.

    The team found that, when distracted by the photo-categorization task, many men used brain areas associated with language for the digit-memory task. When the distracter is the numerical problem, which also employs language areas, says Koten, “then the verbal loop gets interrupted,” causing the original memory to rapidly decay. The point at which the subject has to judge whether he's seen a digit before is where “the genetic influences on brain activity starts to come out,” says Koten. Subjects who used language areas when encoding the numbers took longer to come up with the answer than did those who resorted to a “visual-spatial memory system”—akin to counting on fingers—that the arithmetic task doesn't interfere with.

    The scientists compared twins, who are 100% genetically alike, with each other and with their brothers, who share on average 50% of their genes. Twins used the same strategy more often than brothers did in the roughly 50 trials, suggesting that “there are qualitative differences in how individuals think, and these differences have a substantial genetic component,” Koten says. He says the team was able to reliably estimate heritability even in this small sample by doing two identical scanning sessions with each of the 30 subjects. Estimated heritabilities ranged from 60% to 90% in the three phases of the task. Koten says such “highly individualized” responses “are of key importance for a proper understanding of the biological basis of individuality.”

    In sync.

    Identical twins tended to use the same strategies when faced with memory tasks.


    Behavioral geneticist Nick Martin of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia, says “I think this will prove to be a real watershed in how we think about brain activity. There is obviously a high degree of individuality in how the brain responds to external stimuli, and this is strongly genetically influenced.” He adds that “studies focusing only on regions identified by averaging fMRI across individuals will miss the activity in regions which are even more important to particular genotypes.”

    Working memory of the type measured in this study is already known to have high heritability, notes brain imager Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Now, he says, the group has shown that the accompanying brain activation is heritable, too. “This combination of neuroimaging and genetic analysis,” he says, “marks the beginning of new efforts to explain, rather than explain away, individual differences in cognition and intelligence.”


    Oddly, Too Much Weirdness Slows a Quantum Computer Down

    1. Adrian Cho

    Physicists dream of creating quantum computers that can swiftly solve problems that overwhelm the best conventional computers. Schemes for making the devices rely on a mysterious quantum connection called “entanglement,” through which a measurement made on one particle can instantly affect the state of others. But too much entanglement is bad for a quantum computer and makes it run only marginally faster than a conventional one, a new analysis shows. “A lot of people, including myself, were surprised by this,” says Richard Jozsa, a mathematical physicist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom “It's a thought-provoking result.”

    If a quantum computer could be built, it would outpace a conventional one by crunching many numbers at once. The trick is to replace a computer's bits, which can be set to either 0 or 1 to spell out binary numbers, with “qubits” that can be set to 0 and 1 at the same time. A qubit could be an ion or other particle that can spin in either of two directions, up or down, or, thanks to quantum weirdness, both ways at once. It's because qubits can express both values at once that a quantum computer could process many numbers simultaneously.

    To achieve maximum efficiency, however, the qubits would have to be entangled. Suppose each of 100 ions is put in a both-ways state. If one ion is measured, then its state will instantly and randomly “collapse” so that it is found to be spinning either up or down. But the 100 ions can be entangled so that their undetermined directions are correlated. For example, they can be linked so that if one ion is measured and collapses into the down state, all the others will instantly collapse into the down state, as well.

    The correlations can be more complicated than all the spins pointing in the same direction. They are also probabilistic and can be less than 100%, so, unlike pregnancy, entanglement admits of degrees. Physicists know that entanglement is essential to enabling a quantum computer to take far fewer steps than an ordinary one to handle certain daunting calculations—such as factoring a huge number. They had assumed that more entanglement would yield greater efficiency.

    Not so, say David Gross, a theorist at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany, and colleagues. To make that case, they considered a newer variant called “measurement-based quantum computing.” Instead of using a computer with quantum circuits, this theoretical scheme combines an ordinary computer and an external string of qubits in a specially chosen entangled state, such as one known as a “cluster state.” To perform a computation, a user makes successive measurements on the qubits and feeds each result back through the computer to determine how the next measurement should be made. Theorists have shown that, given the right arcane algorithm, the measurement-based scheme can do anything quantum circuits can.

    But if the user sets the qubits to an even more entangled state, Gross and colleagues show, the correlations among them become so convoluted that the measurements yield an essentially random string of 0s and 1s. So in principle, a user could get the answer almost as easily by scrapping the qubits and tossing a coin instead, the researchers report in a paper in press at the journal Physical Review Letters.

    Unlike the measurements, the coin flips aren't guaranteed to yield the right answer. But the results can be checked very quickly—it's much easier to check that 53 × 61 = 3233 than it is to factor the original number—and the process could be repeated until it works. The randomness of the qubits ensures that it won't take many iterations to hit on the solution. The quantum scheme would still be faster, but not exponentially so. That's key, as producing such a large advantage is the whole point of quantum computing.

    Physicists have only a poor understanding of how entanglement and computational efficiency are connected, so it's valuable to know that more entanglement doesn't imply greater speed, says Norbert Schuch of the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany. “It certainly tells us how they're not related,” he says, “which, given the difficulty of the question, is worth quite a lot.”


    Hughes Backs Institute at Epicenter of HIV and Resistant TB

    1. Robert Koenig

    When HIV/AIDS researcher Bruce D. Walker and tuberculosis investigator William R. Jacobs made their pitch for a new research center in South Africa 2 years ago to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the concept was foreign in more ways than one. HHMI had never built an institute outside the United States, and no other research center anywhere had focused its work entirely on the two diseases. But, says HHMI President Thomas Cech, “their logic was compelling.” The two researchers and their South African collaborators argued that medical science would benefit from a direct engagement with the epidemics of HIV/AIDS and drug-resistant TB in a region that has been devastated by them. HHMI bought the idea.

    Last week, Cech joined Walker, Jacobs, and South African researchers in announcing the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH), a $60 million project on the campus of the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban. The medical school—the only one in South Africa where blacks were allowed to study during the apartheid years—already has a modern HIV/AIDS research wing funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

    “There is no better place on Earth to investigate the confluence of HIV/AIDS and drug-resistant TB,” says molecular immunologist Malegapuru Makgoba, vice chancellor of UKZN. KwaZulu-Natal province is the epicenter of both epidemics in South Africa, which has the most HIV/AIDS cases (5.4 million) and one of the world's highest per capita rates of TB. What Walker calls a “cataclysmic convergence” of the two epidemics has been further complicated by the emergence in 2005 of extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB) in the province's town of Tugela Ferry; it has since spread through much of the country (Science, 15 February 2008, p. 894). This week, the World Health Organization reported that one out of four TB deaths is HIV-related—twice as many as previously recognized.

    The six-story K-RITH center will house two floors of biosafety level 3 labs equipped for TB research. “We have a unique opportunity here to study the capacity of the TB bacterium to become more resistant and more virulent,” says acting director A. Willem Sturm, who has led South Africa's genetic analysis of XDR-TB. “But first we need rapid diagnostic tests” to determine drug resistance.

    That's where Jacobs and his lab at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City come in. Using tests that employ engineered bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria—Jacobs believes his group will be able to reduce the time it takes to diagnose resistant TB from 4 weeks to a matter of days.

    The HIV/AIDS team will pursue parallel objectives. Walker, based at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Harvard University, also directs the HIV Pathogenesis Program in Durban. His research group will focus on the immune response to TB in HIV-infected people. “Understanding how the immune system responds to TB will be essential” in developing vaccines for TB and HIV, he says. Another research team, led by UKZN epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim, will study patterns of TB latency and reinfection.

    African venture.

    Outgoing HHMI President Cech (left) backed institute in South Africa, shown above in an artist's rendering.


    Cech says the institute has made a 10-year commitment to K-RITH. It will take more than a year to build the new center, starting in September. In the meantime, HHMI has awarded seed grants totaling $1.1 million to scientists who will be involved in K-RITH to jump-start research, as well as $3 million in grants to build temporary labs.


    CIRM Close-Hauled, Seeks Bonds to Sustain Headway

    1. Constance Holden

    With dramatic shifts in both the economic and political landscape for stem cell research, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)—a state initiative set up to avoid restrictions on federal research laid down in 2001 by President George W. Bush—is scaling back, rethinking its priorities, and looking at how to mesh its activities with those that will soon be funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The latter is somewhat tricky, as exactly what types of research NIH will support now that President Barack Obama has rescinded the Bush restrictions with his executive order (Science, 20 March, p. 1552)—and how much of the $8.2 billion in NIH's stimulus package will go into stem cell research—remain unclear.

    The Center for Genetics and Society, a public interest group in Oakland, California, has hinted that the state may find better ways to spend its money now that the economy is tanking and NIH is no longer inhibited by the Bush policy. But scientists point out that as long as NIH has to comply with the Dickey-Wicker Amendment prohibiting research with human embryos, federally funded researchers will have to look to private or state-supported sources like CIRM for new ES cell lines. They also argue that in California, as elsewhere, a strong local establishment makes scientists more competitive when it comes to getting federal grants.


    CIRM's Robert Klein sees shoals but no wreck.


    Even so, CIRM is simultaneously scrambling to replace a shrinking pot of money from state bond sales and shifting its emphasis from basic research toward bringing stem cell therapies to the clinic. Board chair Robert Klein says he sees the shift as particularly timely to complement NIH's expanded focus on basic stem cell research.

    Until recently, things had been looking rosy for CIRM. After being delayed by lawsuits, the agency roared into action in the spring of 2006 with the promise of $3 billion over 10 years from the sale of state bonds ($250 million worth have been sold to date; CIRM got another $250 million as an advance loan on sales). So far, the agency has spent or promised $690 million, according to Vice President for Operations John Robson. That includes $271 million in grants awarded last spring for construction of new facilities at universities, $95 million for grants to train undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs, and close to $115 million in salaries and research awards for new faculty members. One hundred twenty million dollars has been committed to basic research.

    Now, says Robson, CIRM has a cash-flow problem. State bond sales have been frozen, and CIRM “would still need another $112 million” to fulfill existing obligations up to the end of 2010. Before the crash, CIRM had anticipated committing $375 million between now and December 2010, says Robson; now, with some belt-tightening, $220 million seems more realistic. At its 12 March board meeting, CIRM decided to pull back on some plans—most notably, $40.6 million slated for training grants for undergraduates and graduate students will now shrink to $7 million in this period. Agency officials hope to restore that funding when the economy revives.

    Until then, Klein has a bold plan to save the day. He recently obtained permission from the state treasurer to sell $400 million in bonds to private investors over the next 12 months. (Although state bonds are moving again, CIRM's would have low priority.) The perennially optimistic Klein thinks he'll find plenty of takers. “We're structuring it not as a donation but [as] an investment,” and the guaranteed 5% interest rate should attract groups that fund biomedical research, he says. Robson adds that other CIRM officials “are not as optimistic as Bob” about finding buyers, but they should be able to carry through their modified plans if sales bring in at least $200 million. Even then, he says, grants for basic research will have to be reduced, from $60 million to $20 million, until at least the end of 2010.

    CIRM's shift in focus from basic to translational research began last year, when Alan Trounson took the helm, and is now accelerating. The agency plans to throw major resources into the “valley of death”—the limbo in which promising research often languishes because of a lack of resources to bring it to the point at which it can be tested in clinical trials. A $210 million, 4-year program of “disease team grants,” to be awarded this year, is the centerpiece of this thrust. The program will entail perhaps 10 large grants to teams combining academic and industrial researchers working on a specific stem cell product for, say, Parkinson's disease. The goal is to speed work to the point at which the team can apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a New Drug Application within 4 years. Under this program, biotech companies will receive loans, not grants, to ensure that companies will retain intellectual property. Klein wants to get those loans guaranteed by the federal government under the stimulus package.

    Some scientists worry that the emphasis on applications is coming too soon. “I am concerned that some of this rush to the clinic is premature,” says Arnold Kriegstein of the University of California, San Francisco. “My concern is … they're taking risks with potentially very little gain.”

    Officials appear confident that they can hang on until the economy picks up. “I don't think state initiatives will wither” despite the economy, says James Kovach, head of the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, California, where construction of a new building has been delayed. He predicts the new presidential stem cell policy will have a “big effect” on the morale of scientists, especially young ones just choosing their careers, who will no longer have to wonder if it's safe to invest their futures in stem cell research.


    Most State Stem Cell Efforts Staying Afloat

    1. Constance Holden

    In addition to California, several states have made serious attempts to encourage stem cell research. Although some are tightening their belts, these programs generally seem to be holding their own in this uncertain environment—at least for now.

    An exception is New Jersey. In 2005, it became the first state to finance stem cell research, with a $10-million-a-year grants program. But the state's ambitions have hit some serious snags.

    In November 2007, voters delivered a surprise rejection of a $450 million bond referendum to finance research and lab construction. Now, construction of a $150 million research facility for the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey—for which ground was broken a month before the referendum—has had its budget cut and is on hold indefinitely. Then last month, Governor Jon Corzine zeroed out the annual $10 million for the grant program. Martin Grumet, director of the Rutgers Stem Cell Research Center, says there's still some hope: The governor plans to propose restoring grant money in his next budget.

    In Connecticut, legislators voted in 2005 to invest $100 million in stem cell research over 10 years, starting in fiscal year 2007. So far, the state has given out $30 million in grants and shows no sign of stopping, says David Goldhamer, associate director of the University of Connecticut Stem Cell Institute. The current assumption is that a full $10 million will be available for the next grant cycle, to be announced at the end of March.

    Maryland is committed to becoming “the biotech state,” say Karen Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland law school, so the state is unlikely to back off its stem cell commitments. The Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission, set up in 2006, has overseen the funding of $36 million in grants so far. But overall funding may drop for a few years: Governor Martin O'Malley has proposed $18 million for stem cell research this year—compared with $23 million last year.

    Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative last spring, which directs $1 billion in state funds toward biotechnology, including stem cell research, over a decade. Total investments to date amount to $33 million; $11 million of that has been stem cell-related, primarily to support a stem cell registry and bank at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. With the state facing a budget shortfall of $1.4 billion, the Life Sciences Initiative is slated to get a maximum of $20 million instead of the planned $25 million in fiscal 2010.

    New York appears to be doing well despite the dour budget climate. Two years ago, the legislature created the Empire State Stem Cell Trust to dispense some $600 million to stem cell research over 10 years. The first grants, $14.4 million for research and training at 25 institutions, were awarded in January 2008. Governor David Paterson has proposed that New York State Stem Cell Science, the granting body, give out $50 million as planned in the next fiscal year. Scientists in New York have also gotten a boost from the privately supported New York Stem Cell Foundation, which supports a lab on the campus of Columbia University.

    Dream house.

    Construction on some facilities is delayed, including a global stem cell research center at the Buck Institute in California.


    Wisconsin, where it all began with James Thomson's successful cultivation of human ES cells, is aiming to have a major presence in the stem cell world, but not through direct state funding of research. Last year, ground was broken for the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, part of a $750 million multiyear strategy spearheaded by Governor Jim Doyle to make the state a leader in biotech and health sciences. But the state's direct involvement in stem cell research has been limited to $10.4 million in grants and loans to stem cell companies.

    Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich signed an executive order in 2005 to create the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute. John Kessler, director of Northwestern University's Feinberg Clinical Neuroscience Research Institute, says the state gave out more than $10 million in grants in the subsequent 2 years, but the legislature never followed up with more money. Now, he suspects, “the time has passed.”


    From the Science Policy Blog

    Scientists around the world have been struggling to help a virologist who might have been exposed to the Ebola virus. An unnamed scientist at the Bernard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, pricked her finger with a syringe during an experiment earlier this month. A team of world experts on the deadly disease eventually chose a new type of experimental vaccine developed in a Canadian lab and previously tested on monkeys. In 2003, researchers showed that a single shot of the virus offers protection in monkeys even if administered after exposure to Ebola. As of press time, it was still unknown whether the researcher had been infected.

    The mad scramble for millions of dollars in stimulus funds has strained the Web site that handles federal grants, According to data released in March, the site is designed to accommodate 2000 users at a time but was getting requests for 50% more than that. As a result, on 16 March, the system was down for 8 hours.

    Dutch science minister Ronald Plasterk announced this week that the 170-year-old severed head of King Badu Bonsu II of Ghana will be returned to the king's homeland after a writer found it preserved in formaldehyde in a medical research collection at Leiden University Medical Center last year.

    The organizer of the Copenhagen Climate Congress, held earlier this month, debates with Stanford University ecologist Chris Field whether the event exaggerated the scientific consensus.

    Finally, a public contest to name a new observatory module to be connected this year to the international space station has gone awry after Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert asked followers to add his name to the write-in ballots. His name came out on top, ahead of four suggested names.

    For the full postings and more, go to


    Are You Ready to Become a Number?

    1. Martin Enserink

    Life could be a lot easier if every scientist had a unique identification number. The question is: Who should provide them?

    Life could be a lot easier if every scientist had a unique identification number. The question is: Who should provide them?


    A-1262-2007 and A-1270-2007 are happy to be numbers—and they think you will be, too. The two clinical researchers at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands—named Jochen Cals and Daniel Kotz, respectively—find it bizarre that in this day and age, it can be next to impossible to find all the papers written by a given scientific author. Enter “Smith, J.” into the PubMed search engine, they say, and you're deluged with more than 15,000 abstract titles. Good luck sorting out who wrote what.

    That's why, in a paper in The Lancet last summer, the duo recommended that every scientist sign up for ResearcherID, a free system that promises to do away with such confusion by assigning every scientist a number. If everyone enrolled, they claimed, it would be much simpler to retrieve someone's complete publication record or to follow someone's career path. “It would make life a lot easier,” says A-1262-2007.

    He's not the only one to think so. With global scientific production growing fast, it's becoming harder and harder to tell authors apart. A universal numbering system could aid scientists trying to stay on top of the literature, help universities more readily track staff productivity, and enable funding agencies to better monitor the bang they're getting for their buck. An effective identification number might also make it easier to find information about an author's affiliations, collaborators, interests, or simply their current whereabouts.

    ResearcherID, launched officially in January 2008, is only one in a wave of initiatives trying to pin a number on researchers. It's the creation of digital information company Thomson Reuters, which hopes to enhance the value of its paid services. Meanwhile, universities, librarians, national agencies, and publishers have devised, or are still hatching, potentially competitive identification systems, each with slightly different purposes in mind.

    A-1262-2007 and A-1270-2007 endorsed ResearcherID not because it's perfect, they stress, but because it's the first global scheme ready and available now. But some predict that an ID scheme currently in development by CrossRef, an organization that unites more than 600 scientific publishers, has the potential to emerge as the dominant system, if only because publishers can force scientists to cooperate if they want to get their papers printed. Others say the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) may have a strong suit because it could incorporate its system into PubMed Central, the free and immensely popular database of medical and life sciences research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), of which NCBI is part.

    But for the moment, the plentitude of plans is a problem, some say, because to be truly useful, a numbering system has to be universal. “There are initiatives in four or five different silos,” says Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes the use of technology in scholarly communication. “The lack of interconnection is striking.”

    Dr. Who?

    The confusion over who's who in science has many sources. Common names such as James Smith and Mary Johnson are one—and with the number of published papers growing by an average of 3% annually, it's only getting worse. Some people also change their names when they get married or divorced, effectively splitting their scientific record in two. Adding to the confusion, journals have widely varying style rules for noting first names and initials. There's only one published scientist in the world with the last name of Varmus, for instance—that's Nobel laureate Harold Elliot Varmus—but his name appears on 352 scientific papers in six different ways.

    Today's scientific explosion in Asia is fast exacerbating the problem. Names printed in Chinese characters are not usable in most online searching systems. For papers in English, Chinese authors usually “transliterate” their names using the so-called Pinyin system, which leads to many ambiguities. At least 20 different Chinese names, many of them common, are transliterated as “Wang Hong,” for instance. Korean and Japanese names have the same problem. The Vietnamese use Roman script, but an estimated 40% of them have the family name Nguyen, which puts the Smiths to shame.

    Of course, other information can help distinguish one author from another. The J. A. Smith who co-authored a 2008 paper on women, anger, and aggression is probably not the J. A. Smith who studied how to control the size of gold clusters in polyaniline. (And if you're in doubt, you can look at where they work.) Conversely, if the same e-mail address appears on two papers, it's a safe bet that they were written by one and the same researcher. But often, it's not so easy.

    There are other problems that a numbering system could do away with, such as spelling errors. Of the more than 200 papers by French epidemiologist Antoine Flahault that are in one literature database, 14 are registered under the name “Flahaut.” He can't wait to become a number.

    A fine balance

    It's no surprise that Thomson Reuters was the first out of the gate with a worldwide system to assign unique numbers to researchers. Its livelihood, selling analyses of the scientific literature, depends on accurately matching papers with people.

    Software can achieve that goal to a certain extent. So-called disambiguation algorithms can crawl through the literature and try to figure out which papers belong to the same author. They use names, as well as words in the abstract and all kinds of “metadata,” such as affiliation, scientific field, co-authors, address, and citations. Thomson Reuters uses disambiguation software in its popular ISI Web of Knowledge. Reed Elsevier has built similar algorithms into Scopus, a rival literature search system launched in 2005.

    At the moment, despite being two of the most popular literature search sites, neither PubMed nor Google Scholar uses disambiguation systems. Such software is expensive and time-consuming to develop, and the algorithms are far from perfect. They can incorrectly conclude that papers by different authors belong to one person, or fail to realize that various papers came from the same author.

    There's a fine balance between these two types of mistakes, says Elsevier's Niels Weertman; if an algorithm reduces the number in one category, it usually increases the prevalence of the other. The software in Scopus errs on the side of caution; it only assigns two papers to the same person if it has a high degree of confidence. That means, for instance, that if you search for “Varmus” in Scopus, there appear to be two scientists by that name, one of whom wrote 338 papers and the other 14. When Weertman plugs his own last name into Scopus's name search field, the results include the works of Johannes Weertman and Julia Weertman, who have published many papers in the same journals and who are both professors emeriti at the department of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. (They're also married.) Their intellectual heritage is so hard to disentangle that Scopus cuts it up into more than 60 different clusters.

    Identity solution.

    Jochen Cals (left) and Daniel Kotz argue that a global system of unique identifiers, such as their ResearcherIDs, will help scientists better search research literature and work with colleagues.


    Because of such imprecision, disambiguation algorithms can't assign each scientist a single, unique number. (In Scopus, Varmus now has two numbers, whereas the Weertmans together have 65.) And that's why science information companies need human help. Elsevier, for instance, has staffers who “curate” the data by doing additional search work—mostly at offices in Asia—and manually merge separate groups of papers that belong to the same person.

    Another strategy is to let scientists themselves take care of the job—after all, they should know which papers are part of their oeuvre. That's what motivated Thomson Reuters to launch ResearcherID. If you sign up—which some 30,000 scientists have done—you are first assigned a unique number. (Cals's number, A-1262-2007, means he was the 1262nd person to sign up in 2007.) Then you can “claim” the papers the company's software suggests are yours, coupling them to your number; you can also add others that the search engine missed—for instance because you wrote them before your divorce—or upload lists of your own citations.

    For such a voluntary disambiguation system to work, scientists need an incentive, however. ResearcherID's carrot is that scientists can analyze citations to their papers, or place a “widget” on their Web site or blog that automatically retrieves a list of their most current papers whenever someone clicks on that page. They can also post a profile page with information about themselves on the ResearcherID site, much like people do on sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn. And like those sites, these services are free. Scopus currently doesn't allow users to register with a unique number, but it has plans to do so as well, Weertman says. Scientists can also suggest corrections to Scopus.

    Publishers' plans

    Some universities and research organizations have also begun setting up numbering systems. Part of the motivation stems from the advent of institutional repositories, online databases in which researchers can post copies of their papers and other data. Repositories are an answer to the pressure to make the fruits of taxpayer-funded research freely available to the public. They also help research managers track staff productivity and scientific impact. But again, achieving either goal is hard if you can't easily tell who's who—as the Weertmans at Northwestern demonstrate.

    Several countries, meanwhile, have developed ID systems at the national level. In the Netherlands—a front-runner when it comes to institutional repositories—every researcher has had a Digital Author Identifier (DAI) since 2007. The system was designed by SURF, a technology development foundation in which most research institutes and universities collaborate. So far, however, few Dutch scientists know about the numbers; Cals, for instance, wasn't aware he had one before he recommended ResearcherID in The Lancet, and he doubts that national numbers are very useful in an international endeavor such as science. But Gera Pronk, who helped develop DAIs, says national systems could eventually be knit together into an international one.

    Another ID system is in the works at NIH, the biggest funder of biomedical research in the world. NIH wants to better track what its grantees are publishing, whether it's papers, book chapters, patents, or other output. NCBI Director David Lipman says his institute is consequently developing a unique identifier system for grantees that could later be expanded to all biomedical authors. Lipman has already discussed this idea with the editors of Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, who have endorsed the concept.

    Scientific publishers have their own reasons to support a numbering system: It would make it easier to do business. Giving scientists a number should speed up manuscript handling, help locate reviewers for a paper and detect conflicts of interest, facilitate royalty payments, and give marketing departments a leg up. For publishers, CrossRef was a logical candidate to develop a personal ID system; it already provides the infrastructure for Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs), the numbers that uniquely identify each published scientific article and that make it possible to click from one citation to the next on the Web.

    The system now in development, called ContributorID, would ideally provide one identification with which a researcher could interact with any scientific publisher, whether as an author, journal editor, or reviewer, says CrossRef's Geoffrey Bilder. Whenever a research team submits a manuscript, each member would include a ContributorID number, establishing an enduring link to the paper's DOI. If publishers have trouble selling scientists on the system's benefits, such as doing away with a multitude of login data, they could bring out a stick: You can't publish without a number.

    ContributorID would compete with Thomson Reuters and Elsevier, both of which are CrossRef members. Still, Weertman and James Pringle, vice president for product development at Thomson Reuters, say their companies won't necessarily oppose the plan, because there may be ways to cooperate. For instance, CrossRef is interested in using the disambiguation software developed by either company. And, Bilder points out, any universal numbering system, even one developed by a third party, could add value to both companies' products.


    Who controls it?

    With so many initiatives, there's lots of discussion about which one could—or should—prevail. Because a numbering system would be for the ages, some say it shouldn't be in private hands or held by a single company. “I would be very worried if an individual publisher controlled this,” says CNI's Lynch, adding that he would be “much more comfortable” if it were operated by NCBI or a broad group like CrossRef, whose membership includes so-called open-access publishers and scientific societies like AAAS, the publisher of Science. Given the power of CrossRef members to enforce the system, Lynch predicts that “it will probably carry the day.” But Pronk says a publisher-operated system may remain unpalatable to universities; they are more likely to stick with their own, she says.

    Meanwhile, some say the current lack of coordination is not just wasteful but could add to the confusion. Like people who have accounts at several social networking sites, researchers could end up with a whole series of numbers. Lipman says that may be the only way to make progress, however. “If we all had to sit down and talk until we agreed on a system, we would never get anything done,” he says. And there's nothing wrong with letting a couple of systems evolve, he says; they can always be linked or merged later on.

    Whichever system emerges victorious, it will still face problems. One is how to authenticate that the scientists claiming papers are who they say they are. ResearcherID does not currently verify that. “You can log in and claim every paper by Albert Einstein and have a lot of fun,” Lynch says. Pringle says the system is “self-policing”: If authors claim papers they have not actually written, others will protest soon enough, he says. Whether that really suffices remains to be seen. But for keeping track of NIH grantees or dealing with publishers, more secure identification systems are necessary, akin to those used for logging in to an online bank account.

    Then there's the problem of what to do with the millions of old papers whose authors cannot help disambiguate their work because they are dead or no longer active. “Nobody has the time and money to do the detective work to get all the retrospective stuff 100% right,” says Lynch. “It will always be a little probabilistic and flaky.”

    Unless that detective work was left to the wisdom of crowds, says Lipman. After all, if people are enthusiastic enough to set up Wikipedia pages about the most arcane topics, they may also be willing to help sort out who's who in 2 centuries of scientific literature.


    California's Water Crisis: Worse to Come?

    1. Robert F. Service

    Perennially contentious issues of water management in California are being brought to a head by climate change and rising earthquake risks.

    Perennially contentious issues of water management in California are being brought to a head by climate change and rising earthquake risks

    California is now in its 3rd year of drought, and long-standing tensions over water are boiling to the surface. Last month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide water emergency, which could lead to widespread water rationing. Federal and state water managers announced that water deliveries would be drastically curtailed from the state's two major water projects, which serve tens of millions of people. Earlier this month, a pair of irrigation districts representing northern California farm communities pushed back, suing to keep the water flowing to their crops.

    As bad as the situation is now, researchers warn that unless the state makes dramatic changes in the way it manages water, it's certain to get far worse. Especially vulnerable is the hub of California's freshwater system, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. A 2007 letter to Schwarzenegger written by members of a task force on the delta warned that it “is in crisis, and each day brings us closer to disaster.”

    The delta is the West Coast's largest estuary, channeling water from the northern Sierras into San Francisco Bay. Half of all Californians receive at least some of their water from two massive pumping stations in the southern part of the delta. One, the State Water Project, routes it to dozens of municipalities throughout northern and southern California. The other, the Central Valley Project, pipes it to farmers in the Central Valley, home to some of the richest farmland in the nation.

    Delta blues.

    There is a 95% chance that levees will fail by 2050, according to a recent estimate.


    In February, Central Valley farmers were told that all water deliveries would be halted, and State Water Project managers said they would be forced to cut water deliveries to just 15% of normal. If those cuts come to pass, the upshot would likely be an economic hit of up to $2.8 billion and the loss of as many as 95,000 jobs, according to a new computer model developed by a trio of researchers at the University of California, Davis, led by resource economist Richard Howitt.

    Heavy snows in the Sierras in late February and early March have brought some relief, boosting the region's snowpack back up to 90% of normal. “This will improve things slightly,” says Howitt. Already, water levels in the state's reservoirs have increased markedly, and they are now at 70% of capacity for late March, according to the latest data from the California Department of Water Resources. Still, Howitt and others note, it will take a series of wet years to return to normal, and they warn that the delta's growing troubles threaten catastrophe.

    Over the next few decades, a one-two punch of climate change and earthquakes is expected to change the delta dramatically. The delta contains some 1770 kilometers of levees holding back water from dozens of stadium-sized sunken “islands” inside which the land has subsided. By 2050, the chance of widespread levee failures is as high as 95%, due to runoff from the northern Sierras, which is predicted to be more concentrated in the late winter and early spring, and the increasing risk of earthquake, according to a report last summer by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). If that occurs, salt water from the San Francisco Bay would rush in to fill the voids, dramatically increasing the salinity of water in the delta, possibly making it undrinkable. Adding sea-level rise to the equation—as climate models predict—brings the date of levee failures closer. “It will happen,” says Ellen Hanek, a PPIC economist in San Francisco.

    That realization is beginning to change long-standing water politics in the region. In 1982, Californians soundly defeated a measure to build a “peripheral canal” to divert Sacramento River water upstream of the delta and deliver it to farmers and urban residents farther south. The measure was opposed by a coalition of farmers and environmentalists, who saw it as a water grab by Los Angeles. “It became the third rail of water politics, because nobody wanted to touch it,” Hanek says.

    Until recently, no one has. But in January, The Nature Conservancy became the first environmental group to publicly support a modified peripheral canal. In addition to increasing the reliability of water deliveries to cities and farms, a peripheral canal is expected to improve habitat conditions for several species of endangered fish in the delta, says Anthony Saracino, the Conservancy's California water program director in Sacramento. That's because the current water projects remove water from the southern end of the delta, which pulls freshwater through the rest of the estuary toward the pumps. If those pumps were shut off and water instead diverted before entering the delta, “it would allow the estuary to have a more natural flow regime,” Saracino says.

    But making that change won't be easy. Farmers within the delta itself still oppose the change. And other stakeholders must be convinced that any future canal would be managed to ensure not only water deliveries to politically powerful cities and farms but also ecosystem health. Still, Saracino and others say it looks like the long-standing stalemate could be coming to an end. Says Saracino: “I think you're seeing real momentum building.”


    Can a Shotgun Wedding Help NASA And ESA Explore the Red Planet?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Tight budgets are pushing the U.S. and European space agencies to consider a truly collaborative series of missions to Mars. Can they succeed, and what would it mean for science?

    Tight budgets are pushing the U.S. and European space agencies to consider a truly collaborative series of missions to Mars. What would it mean for science?

    Did Mars ever harbor life? The multibillion-dollar quest to find out faces an uncertain future on both sides of the Atlantic. The European Space Agency (ESA) lacks the money to carry out its ambitious blueprint for putting a sophisticated lander and rover on Mars's surface in 2016. And NASA is grappling with major cost increases and delays in its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that are eating up funding for future missions.

    To avoid hanging separately, say scientists and managers in the United States and Europe, the two agencies must agree to hang together in an unprecedented partnership. This summer they intend to unveil a sweeping plan for a decade of collaboration that could kick off with a joint 2016 mission and culminate a decade later in the return of a martian sample to Earth. “This is a big change,” says David Southwood, ESA science chief. “But we have to think about Mars differently.” Adds his counterpart at NASA, Edward Weiler: “We've got to do this together.”

    The financial motivation for the new strategy is obvious. A sample return mission alone could run between $6 billion and $8 billion, far beyond the means of either agency. But the two agencies and scientific communities will first need to overcome a host of political, cultural, and technical challenges. Some Americans fear ESA is not yet ready to oversee complex missions on the martian surface. Europeans worry about being tied to NASA's annual budget wrangles. And both sides want the glory of landing rovers on Earth's neighbor.

    Gaining weight

    Cooperation between NASA and ESA is nothing new, of course. ESA has long been part of the international space station, and it provided the Huygens probe that plunged into Titan's atmosphere after riding on NASA's Cassini spacecraft to the Saturn system. Likewise, NASA is slated to pay for two important instruments aboard a 2016 ESA mission called ExoMars. But none of these projects is truly a joint effort. Instead, one agency—usually better-funded NASA—has had the final say, and the other agency's science has literally gone along for the ride. For the joint efforts now being discussed, each agency would take turns. For example, ESA and NASA are likely to alternate putting a lander on the surface, with the other providing a less expensive and technically challenging orbiter or related hardware.

    The travails of ExoMars help to explain ESA's interest in a joint effort. Last year, the 17 nations that make up ESA approved $1.1 billion for ExoMars, some $195 million less than agency officials had requested (Science, 5 December 2008, p. 1447). The lander, which would open like a flower to reveal a 270-kg rover, would drill down 2 m to examine organics and conduct geochemical studies on whether life ever evolved and prospered on the planet. ESA's only other Mars mission, Mars Express, was a far more modest venture, and although its orbiter was a success after arriving in 2003, its U.K.-built Beagle 2 lander failed to survive the descent.

    But the weight and complexity of ExoMars's planned scientific payload has grown alarmingly. The estimated weight of a geophysical package called Humboldt, for example, has tripled. Lifting additional weight requires extra fuel and a roomier spacecraft, which increase costs. “There is not enough [money] to fully realize Exo-Mars as planned,” said Jorge Vago, ESA's ExoMars project scientist, at a meeting earlier this month near Washington, D.C., and “no mechanism for financial shortfalls.” As a result, he says, scaling back the $1.56 billion project as well as bringing in U.S. participation “is unavoidable.”


    That effort is well under way. Last week, European engineers and scientists met in the Netherlands to decide the fate of 23 instruments, two of which would be NASA contributions. At the same time, Southwood is loath to scale it back too much. The ability to establish a presence on the Mars surface, he says, will allow ESA to “stand shoulder to shoulder with Uncle Sam.”

    But some U.S. scientists worry that ESA lacks the experience to carry out such a difficult mission. “They have never successfully landed on Mars,” notes G. Scott Hubbard, a former NASA official and now a physicist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “And ExoMars is more complex than MSL.”

    Lean on me

    NASA has long ruled the roost on solar system missions beyond Earth orbit, having a 3-decade-long track record of landing robots on Mars. But these days it needs a shoulder to lean on. Technical troubles and a $400 million cost increase for MSL recently forced Weiler to postpone the launch of the 900-kg rover by 2 years (Science, 12 December 2008, p. 1618). The overrun will eat into future Mars projects, endangering the agency's decade-old plan to send a probe to Mars every 2 years.

    That strategy was meant to capitalize on a 1996 paper in which scientists presented possible evidence of fossilized life in a Mars meteorite—evidence that has since largely been discounted. The failure of two probes in 1999 led NASA to revamp that schedule, however, and last year then-NASA science chief S. Alan Stern put forward yet another plan to streamline Mars missions and speed up a sample return mission. Scientists said the plan was unrealistic, however, and Stern resigned shortly thereafter in a funding dispute with the NASA administrator.

    Now NASA has decreed that future Mars missions must fit into the more constrained budget. The U.S. agency still plans to send an orbiter to Mars in 2016. One of the scientific instruments aboard the Mars Science Orbiter (MSO) would monitor trace gases such as methane while cameras would provide data on future landing sites. In addition, a communications package would beam information from future U.S. and ESA landers back to Earth.

    However, overruns on MSL have left NASA managers with only $700 million for the mission, far less than needed. NASA has also pledged to fund two U.S.-built ExoMars instruments, and the $50 million growth in the initial $80 million budget for them would come out of the 2016 mission. To fit a mission into that amount of money, NASA has proposed limiting the number of instruments. But planetary scientists say the current MSO budget is unrealistic. “What can you do with $500 million?” asks John Mustard, a planetary scientist at Brown University and chair of NASA's Mars advisory panel. “Not much.”

    Given the dire budget situation, U.S. scientists seem to agree that cooperation with ESA is vital. But exactly how that will be done remains unclear. Some engineers and scientists favor a combined 2016 mission in which a U.S., European, or Russian rocket launches a NASA orbiter to Mars, which then drops ExoMars to the surface. In 2018, the two agencies would switch roles, with an ESA orbiter dropping NASA's proposed $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion Mars Prospector Rover. A network of landers designed to monitor Mars's geophysical health could follow in 2020. The first portion of a sample return mission would leave Earth in 2022, with the second half following in 2024. NASA would likely be responsible for getting the Mars sample into orbit, with an ESA craft bringing the sample home to Earth 2 years later.

    In alignment.

    NASA's Edward Weiler (left) and ESA's David Southwood hope for a tentative agreement this summer on joint Mars missions.


    That tag-team approach has its critics. Jean-Pierre Bibring, an ExoMars principal investigator with the Institute of Space Physics in Orsay, France, fears that combining the 2016 mission with U.S. and perhaps Russian components could delay it until 2018—5 years beyond its initial target. And he says that “if ExoMars meets its goals, then the 2018 lander makes no sense.”

    Bibring would prefer to see both sides do a sample return mission starting in 2018: “There is no other science rationale for waiting. The missions in between are really political and economic missions. They are a waste of time and money.”

    Flag size

    Neither Weiler nor Southwood want to tip their hand before meeting in June. “We're still negotiating,” says Southwood. The goal, he says, is to avoid the difficulty that goes along with integrating complicated pieces of hardware—from shipping risks to import restrictions—by making each agency responsible for separate pieces of every mission.

    One key stumbling block is that Europe lacks the tradition of long-term planning that characterizes NASA's effort. The likelihood of ESA's many masters approving an entire series of very expensive flights to Mars during a severe economic downturn seems small. “There's a psychological barrier we're dealing with,” acknowledges Southwood. “We've got to work with member states used to the idea of one mission at a time.” At the same time, he and other Europeans note that NASA's penchant for long-term planning does not necessarily mesh with the uncertainty of Congress's annual budget process.

    Weiler admits that cooperation with ESA is a hard sell. “I may be the only person in NASA who believes that this is the right thing to do,” he says bluntly. “My toughest job is to get my view understood at all levels below me, and especially at certain NASA centers.”

    Those centers—particularly the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, which has built previous Mars landers and rovers—may be loath to relinquish U.S. dominance of the Mars program. JPL has never been shy about using its industrial partners and the powerful California congressional delegation to ensure its central role in solar system exploration. But Weiler is betting that JPL's managers will realize that leading one Mars mission every 4 years is better than maintaining control over a bankrupt program.

    There are subtler barriers to U.S.-European cooperation as well. American space scientists have less experience working with colleagues in other countries than do their counterparts. “There's a lot of ignorance,” says Mustard, who has worked closely with French researchers for 2 decades. “So there's a lot of anxiety.” And Europeans must contend with what Southwood says is “a bit of an inferiority complex” with NASA when it comes to managing major Mars projects.

    But managers on both sides believe that the opportunity to do good science will ultimately trump all other concerns. Weiler admits that “psychology and nationalism … are tough nuts to crack.” But he warns that if scientists want a strong Mars program, “flag size cannot matter.”


    Piled Higher and Deeper: The Everyday Life of a Grad Student

    1. Sara Coelho

    Jorge Cham's comic strip, capturing the trials and tribulations of grad school, became so popular that he left the lab for a career as a cartoonist and lecturer.

    Jorge Cham's comic strip, capturing the trials and tribulations of grad school, became so popular that he left the lab for a career as a cartoonist and lecturer


    Jorge Cham is not a Nobel laureate, but the popularity of his keynote lectures and his following in the scientific world are enough to make even the most distinguished professor green with envy. Cham, 33, is the brains behind the comic strip Piled Higher and DeeperPHD for short—and it's made him a celebrity among graduate students, with 4.7 million visitors a year to his Web site and a battalion of fans in labs all over the planet. His fourth book, Academic Stimulus Package, is scheduled for publication this month.

    Supervisors interested in learning what's on their students' minds might find PHD an illuminating place to start. After all, “every professor was once a graduate student,” says Anthony Finkelstein, head of the Computer Sciences department at University College London (UCL) and a PHD fan. Cham's comic strip resonates with graduate students and professors alike because it deals with everyday frustrations of life in the lab—procrastination, dealing with advisers, serving on committees, lack of inspiration—and its appeal seems to be universal. “I live all those issues every day,” says Martha Elena Ibarra, a molecular biology Ph.D. student at the Cinvestav laboratory in Irapuato, Mexico. “It makes you feel you're not the only one out there,” says Shrikant Sundaram, an electrical engineering master's student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

    Cham, who is surprisingly low-key for somebody with such a sharp eye and an edge to his humor, grew up in Panama in a science-oriented family. Both of his parents have graduate degrees and taught at the University of Panama. “I guess you could say geekiness is in our genes,” Cham says, “but they also instilled in us to value education and hard work.”

    As a child, Cham dreamed of becoming an engineer. “I was interested in machines and movement, so mechanical engineering seemed the best fit and robotics the most interesting to me within that,” he says. He graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and got into cartooning almost by accident.

    In the fall of 1997, a few weeks after he started a master's program in mechanical engineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, the student newspaper The Stanford Daily put out a call for a new comic strip. Cham, his brother Jaime, who was also a graduate student at Stanford, and a few friends discussed some ideas for a comic strip over dinner. “My brother said he always thought there should be one about grad school, because that's when the real pain begins,” Cham recalls.

    Cham was enthused. Although he had doodled as a child and his school notebooks were filled with little drawings, he had never tried sketching comics before. “At the time, I was also reading a book about Doonesbury,” the comic strip that has provided wry social and political commentary since 1970, “so I was kind of inspired in that way,” he says. Despite being busy with a full load of classes and teaching assistant duties, Cham says, “I somehow thought it would be a good idea to draw a comic 5 days a week.”

    Cham proposed a comic strip that would center on the life (or lack thereof) of a group of overworked, underpaid, procrastinating graduate students and their terrifying advisers. The Stanford Daily's editors liked the idea, and in October 1997, Piled Higher and Deeper was born. A few weeks later, Cham created the Web site on which, to this day, his comic strip is available for free.

    From the beginning, PHD has featured a regular cast of characters: the nameless hero, suspiciously similar to the author himself; geeky Cecilia, the dedicated engineering student; Mike Slackenerny, who takes laziness to a whole new level; social scientist Tajel; the absent-minded Professor Jones; and the demanding Professor Smith. Cham insists that none of them is based on real people, but he acknowledges that he was inspired by colleagues “from the research center where I worked, to my cohort of classmates, to a lot of my brother's friends.”

    Split careers

    Cham kept up the comic strip while he finished his master's degree and continued it during the 4 years he spent at Stanford studying for a Ph.D. His research was part of a multidisciplinary project to build a sturdy and fast six-legged robot—a design inspired by cockroaches—capable of maneuvering in bumpy terrains. Cham's role was to design the legs and joints. “He was a great student, creative and hardworking and very sharp,” says Mark Cutkosky, Cham's Ph.D. adviser at Stanford. Cutkosky remembers his own graduate student days well enough to identify with the comic strip's characters. “Jorge's comics capture the special culture of academia, especially in technical fields, quite well,” he says.

    Cham's first book, Piled Higher and Deeper: A Graduate Student Comic Strip Collection, was published in 2002, during his last year at Stanford. But despite the growing success of the comic strip, he still planned to pursue a career in research. Cham started looking “very aggressively” for an academic job. He was short-listed for a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge but didn't get it. “I always think that I was this close,” he says with a hint of frustration. In the end, Cham stayed on the West Coast for a postdoc position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena researching neural prosthetics. The work was aimed at developing a system to help paralyzed people control external devices, such as a mouse pointer, with brain signals.

    Cham's second collection of comic strips, Life is tough and then you graduate, was published in May 2005. By then, PHD fans had spread beyond Stanford, and his sister Laura volunteered to organize a book signing at MIT, where she was a graduate student. Cham thought it was a cool idea but says, “I offered to do a lecture instead, since it's a skill you learn as a Ph.D. anyway.” He talked about the books and their characters, and the ups and downs of graduate student life. That talk launched his career as a speaker at conferences and student events worldwide.

    His “The Power of Procrastination” lecture presents the comic strip and its characters, explores the pros and cons (mostly cons) of being a graduate student, and discusses the pros and cons (mostly pros) of procrastination. The result is “hilarious,” says Finkelstein of UCL. Finkelstein says he considered several “worthy but dull options” for a keynote speech at the Computer Science 2008 Student Research Conference he was organizing at the University of Cambridge when someone suggested Cham. Finkelstein agreed immediately.

    Feedback from the talk at Cambridge was excellent, he says. “[Cham's] message that research is mentally tough and potentially lonely strangely made the students more enthusiastic,” Finkelstein adds.

    Making choices

    Coordinating his cartoonist activities with his research at Caltech became increasingly difficult, and Cham realized that the comic strip was “growing into something special.” He dithered on whether to become a professional cartoonist or pursue his dream of becoming a professor. Cham says he's grateful for the advice Joel Burdick, his principal investigator at Caltech, gave him at the time. Burdick encouraged him “to pick one thing and be really good at it” and warned him not to be caught in artificial models of success, such as thinking that becoming a tenured professor at a major university is the only available option. Instead, Cham learned that “if you have the drive and the creativity, you can forge your own path” and “you can choose your own definition of success,” he says.

    Cham believes that part of his drive to become an academic was the thrill of achievement, and he realized that being “this close” to fulfilling his dream of getting an academic job at MIT was “actually pretty good. … So once I got that far, I just said to myself, ‘You know, I don't need to be a professor anymore.’” So, in July 2005, Cham left Caltech to become a full-time cartoonist.

    The PHD comic strip is still available for free on his Web site and syndicated for free in university newspapers. Cham makes his living with the sale of books, merchandise, and “The Power of Procrastination” lecture series. The business gives him little rest; Cham gave 46 lectures last year, more than a dozen of which were in Europe. Next month, he's scheduled to speak at five universities in four states and Canada.

    Even though his graduate student years are definitely over, comic ideas are still plentiful: He posts new comics on his Web site “approximately 2.718 times a week.” Cham draws mostly from his own experiences as a graduate student, although he is also inspired by fan mail and people he meets during his talks.

    “Running a business can be really challenging,” Cham says, and part of him misses working in a scientific institution and knowing that his research is part of something larger. However, there are quite a few signs that his work is far-reaching: His often-packed lectures usually include graduate students from many different disciplines, and seeing “art history scholars laughing along with biologists, English, and engineering majors is something I imagine rarely happens,” Cham says. “Many people have come up to me to say the comics and the lecture are like therapy for them.” Finkelstein agrees: Part of the appeal of PHD, he says, is that “while poking fun at the loneliness of research, [Cham] actually makes us realize that we are not alone.”