News this Week

Science  12 Jun 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5933, pp. 1372

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  1. U.S. Climate Policy

    Congress Takes First Step Toward One-Stop Shopping for Climate

    1. Erik Stokstad
    Uncertain fate.

    Regional climate change forecasts would help relocation planning for villages threatened by global warming, such as Shishmaref, Alaska.


    Congress is moving quickly to lay a framework for a new federal body that would generate scientifically credible predictions about the impact of global warming, for use by everyone from city planners to state wildlife managers. The entity, dubbed the National Climate Service, would be managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and draw on research from many federal agencies. But building such a service, which proponents say would do for climate what the National Weather Service (NWS) does for weather predictions, won't be cheap or easy.

    The idea of providing government and industry with one place to go for climate information has been around for more than 20 years. It would offer short-term products such as drought forecasts, as well as guidance on decades-long phenomena such as whether a particular region will continue to have optimal conditions for wind or solar power. The task requires integrating existing data from many federal agencies and expanding research efforts in areas such as high-resolution regional climate modeling. “There's intense interest in the climate science world” in a National Climate Service, says Terrence Schaff, who directs government relations for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

    Last week, the House Committee on Science and Technology moved the concept closer to reality by approving a bill (H.R. 2407) that directs the White House to evaluate how to coordinate all the federal agencies that study and monitor climate change. The legislation, introduced in May by the panel's chair, Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), was adopted largely along party lines, with the ranking Republican saying he was not convinced that a climate service is necessary. Gordon hopes the language will be added to major climate change legislation drafted by representatives Henry Waxman (D–CA) and Edward Markey (D–MA) that is working its way to the House floor. Another bill (H.R. 2685), introduced last week and referred to the science committee, would speed the process by spelling out how the service should be organized.

    Also last week, the House panel that controls NOAA's budget added $100 million in 2010 for a variety of climate research programs already under way to help grease the wheels. “We've moved from talking about this on the cocktail circuit to serious business about how we're going to do it,” says Robert Corell of the Heinz Center in Washington, D.C., about the climate service.

    The former head of NOAA, retired Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., began talking up the idea last year, and his successor, marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, has carried it forward. Both say it makes sense for NOAA to take the lead, as the agency already gathers much climate data from buoys, satellites, and other monitoring platforms. It could also tap a network of regional collaborations on climate impacts as well as the local offices of NWS.

    The science committee's bill directs NOAA to create an office that would manage the day-to-day operations of a climate service. A key issue is how to integrate all relevant federal agencies. Even if NOAA manages operations, it can't tell another agency to change its research strategy, for example. “We probably need White House authority to ensure that all the pieces come together,” says Eric Barron, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who chaired a NOAA advisory committee that studied organizational issues.

    Gordon's bill asks the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to investigate possible solutions over the next 2 years. “I'm hopeful we can move much more rapidly than that,” Lubchenco says.

    The second bill, introduced by Representative Madeline Bordallo (D–Guam), would mandate an Interdepartmental Oversight Board, chaired by the OSTP director, that would set priorities and develop a cross-agency budget. Science lobbyists prefer this bill because it gives the extramural community a greater role in setting the research agenda. The bill has been referred to the science committee, and a staffer says members are open to a discussion of Bordallo's concerns.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) has told the chairs of various House committees with jurisdiction over aspects of climate change to finish reviewing the Waxman-Markey bill by 19 June, although no vote has been scheduled. (The Senate is waiting to see what the House produces.) NOAA and other agencies don't need legislation to create a climate service, but Lubchenco says that congressional approval validates the need for a climate service. “This is an idea whose time has come,” she says.

  2. Environmental Science

    Macau Launches Late Bid to Cure Its Pearl River Delta Blues

    1. Richard Stone

    MACAU—Hard up against the luxury casinos of Cotai Strip, a tiny remnant of native Macau is fenced off with barbed wire—for its own protection. “This is what it looked like before they filled in the wetlands and built casinos,” says Wang Zhishi, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Macau.

    Taipa-Coloane Wetland Reserve may appear more memorial than functional, but Wang and others hope that the 15 hectares of marsh will offer a sanctuary for an embattled symbol of Macau: the black-faced spoonbill, a critically endangered species with some 2000 individuals left in the wild. A few dozen of the migratory birds with the distinctive lute-shaped bill stay here in winter; their ranks have dwindled as the city's human denizens have multiplied. Macau's government restored Taipa-Coloane wetland and 40 more hectares of mangrove coast in a last-ditch effort, Wang says, to “call the bird back.”

    Fits the bill?

    Macau hopes tiny Taipa-Coloane reserve will attract rare black-faced spoonbills.


    For Macau, a gambling haven known more for unbridled development than for ecological awareness, the reserve's creation this year is a milestone on an uncertain road to sustainability. Another milestone will be passed on 29 June, when Macau establishes an Environmental Protection Bureau. “We started a little too late. But now the public is demanding a better living environment, and we have to catch up with international standards,” says Vong Man Hung, acting president of the Macau Environment Council's executive committee. The 10-year-old council has no authority to enforce laws; the bureau that will supplant it, on the other hand, will have full rein to go after polluters. “Without doubt, it will be a more powerful voice for the environment,” says Vong.

    The new bureau faces daunting problems, including severe air pollution and toxicants flowing into the Pearl River Delta, a region that includes Macau, Hong Kong, and mainland China's Guangdong Province. In a report last month, Guangdong's oceans and fisheries bureau noted that at least 8 million tons of pollutants and sewage discharged into the delta last year entered the South China Sea. Macau is the recipient of much of this toxic largess. “The waters off Macau's coast are a giant sink for pollutants,” says Wang.

    For researchers, at least, Macau's afflictions offer a rare opportunity to probe pollution in a setting that, thanks to the city's small size, scientists can fully characterize. “Macau is a unique urban environmental laboratory,” says Mok Kai Meng, dean of the University of Macau's science and technology faculty.

    Distress signals

    The waters of the Pearl River Delta are growing fouler and fouler. Red tides in the estuary once lasted a few days and were limited to coastal fish farms. In recent years, the harmful algal blooms have persisted longer and covered a larger area, says red tide expert Ho Kin-chung, dean of science and technology at The Open University of Hong Kong. “It's changing into a regional phenomenon,” he says.

    Prevailing currents sweep industrial effluents and pesticide runoff down the delta and deposit toxicants in coastal sediments. “A huge amount of pollutants are transferred to Macau,” says Ming Wong, director of the Croucher Institute for Environmental Sciences at Hong Kong Baptist University. A recent survey by the University of Macau and the Research Institute of Geochemistry in Guangzhou found that concentrations of organochlorine pesticides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were higher in Macau's inner harbor than at any other site sampled in the delta. Readings of DDT, which China and some other countries still use for mosquito control, were off the chart: 1628.8 parts per billion in Macau harbor compared with 2.6 ppb in Shenzhen Bay, for instance.

    The witches' brew, which includes heavy metals, gets into local fish. “These days, we warn people in Hong Kong about eating too much fish,” says Wong. A rising incidence of skin disorders in children in the region, he says, has been linked to elevated levels of four elements in hair, blood, and urine: mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead. An increasing prevalence of neurological disorders in Hong Kong may also be linked to blood mercury levels in infants, he says, and mercury has been associated with impaired male fertility in Hong Kong.

    Macau cannot stem the toxic tide. But the environment bureau, to be headed by the current chief of Macau's cartography office, Cheong Sio Kei, is expected to forge tighter connections with counterparts in Hong Kong and Guangdong. “There will be more collaboration in the region to define a common strategy,” says Mok.

    A more visible menace in the Pearl River Delta is filthy air. Regional air quality is so appalling that each year an estimated 10,000 people in the delta die from respiratory distress, Hong Kong researchers reported last year. The primary culprits are coal-fired power plants and rising automobile exhaust emissions. In recent years, concentrations of fine particulates (PM10) in Macau have been at least double—and in bad years, quadruple—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's annual PM10 standard of 50 micrograms per cubic meter. Conditions worsen in winter, when a northeasterly monsoon brings dry, particle-laden air.

    Improving air quality is one area in which the new bureau can quickly assert itself, says Vong. Already, she notes, Macau has moved to lessen its reliance on coal and produce more electricity from natural gas. And last year, the government passed legislation that tightened vehicle emissions standards. The bureau should put some teeth into these standards, Vong says, as well as work harder to promote public transportation.

    Also on the bureau's agenda is noise pollution. Macau is one of the most densely populated regions in the world: Some half a million people are crowded onto Macau peninsula and two islands, equating to more than 18,000 inhabitants per km2—and that doesn't even count the roughly 27 million visitors each year.

    Dialing down the decibels may calm frayed nerves—and soothe spoonbills. One of six spoonbill species, the black-faced spoonbills breed in late spring and early summer in Korea and China's Liaoning Province, and they winter on a stretch of coast from Japan to Vietnam. “The bird is quite sensitive to environmental change,” says zoologist Leung Va, a spoonbill expert at Macau's Seac Pai Van Park. Leung rattles off a number of interventions necessary to ensure that the 50-odd spoonbills that flock to Macau keep doing so: reduce light pollution from the casinos, limit vehicular and pedestrian traffic along the coastal reserve, and curtail fishing in spoonbill habitat. “The government has to do a lot; otherwise for the birds there is no hope,” Leung says.

    For Macau's new environmental watchdog, that's one of many challenges it must meet to satisfy a citizenry with rising expectations.

  3. Patents

    U.S. Supreme Court Delves Into What Is and Isn't Patentable

    1. Eliot Marshall

    For more than a decade, two entrepreneurs have been battling without success to win a U.S. patent on their method of doing commodity deals. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear their plea, signaling that it may pounce on the case to clarify rules about what is, or is not, patentable. Patent attorneys say a decision could affect not just business methods but some biotech claims and process inventions.

    Patent futures.

    A rejected patent on a commodity-trading strategy could have broad implications.


    The business duo, Bernard Bilski and Rand Warsaw, have been jousting with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) since the late 1990s because it refuses to award them a patent on their idea for buying and selling bulk materials, such as coal, while hedging their bets with contracts at different prices. PTO rejected this “invention” as too abstract—it doesn't even include an algorithm—and the top U.S. patent court, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC), upheld the rejection.

    The news that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case jolted legal experts last week. Hans Sauer, associate counsel for the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO) in Washington, D.C., says it's a “big deal” and has snapped “most patent attorneys in the country” to attention. For BIO members, Sauer sees a risk that the Supreme Court—which hasn't ventured into the territory of what is patentable in a couple of decades—could come up with a new definition that excludes certain diagnostic procedures or techniques to analyze genes, chemicals, or other natural phenomena. Physicians' groups, on the other hand, view such restrictions more favorably because they fear patents may limit access to diagnostics.

    The biotech industry's concern is justified, says Christopher Holman, a law professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and former pharma biochemist. He notes that the Bilski patent was rejected by CAFC because the judges said it did not involve a machine or a process that transforms a material from one thing to another. Since then, this logic has been used by a lower court to reject a biotech patent on vaccination scheduling; the court said simply that it violated the Bilski rule. Now CAFC is poised to decide about another biotech patent, this one held by Prometheus Laboratories of San Diego, California, on setting doses for the immune suppressant drug azathioprine. It's been challenged on grounds that it violates Bilski and is based on natural phenomena.

    Holman has joined four academics in an amicus brief to CAFC saying that judges need to be cautious in knocking down such patents: They should not call a person's response to azathioprine a natural phenomenon, for example, because the drug itself isn't natural. BIO also weighed in with a brief to CAFC, arguing that “significant and important sectors of the biotechnology industry” could be harmed if the Bilski logic is applied too broadly. Meanwhile, the American Medical Association and six other medical groups have filed a brief on the opposite side, arguing that the Prometheus patent should be rejected because it is abstract and based on natural phenomena.

    The Supreme Court's review of the Bilski case could set the ground rules for deciding this case and others involving biotech and analytical process inventions. The court hasn't set a date for accepting briefs but could do so as soon as this fall.

  4. Japan

    Science Windfall Stimulates High Hopes—and Political Maneuvering

    1. Dennis Normile

    TOKYO—A handful of stellar researchers could be in line for grants of as much as $90 million over 5 years, thanks to a new program included in a stimulus package approved by Japan's legislature on 29 May. But some scientists worry that a political selection process could steer money toward industry-favored projects. “I'm pessimistic about [the prospects for] basic science,” says Masao Ito, a neuroscientist at RIKEN, near Tokyo.

    In Japan, most grant programs are conceived by the ministries of education or economy, trade, and industry in consultation with the scientific community. But the new program, which aims to strengthen support for “world-leading research,” is the brainchild of Seiko Noda, who as minister for Science and Technology Policy heads a small bureau in the Cabinet office that coordinates positions on research issues across ministries.

    A career politician, Noda had no prior research-related responsibilities. But after taking the science policy post in August 2008, she heard long-running complaints about how scientists spend more time applying for grants than conducting research and how they are required to spend all grant money in the year it's awarded, says Eisuke Futamura, an official in the science policy bureau. In what Futamura calls a “rare case” of a science policy minister initiating a new program, Noda proposed a $2.7 billion fund to support about 30 world-beating research teams. The group leader would be able to spend the money as needed over 5 years and hire administrators to handle paperwork.

    Noda personally presented the plan to the Council for Science and Technology Policy, the nation's highest science advisory body, in late April. With the council's endorsement, the proposal was added to the $141 billion supplemental budget bill, which is intended to help Japan spend its way out of recession. The bill includes $13.7 billion for science-related funding, mostly to upgrade facilities and equipment, in addition to Noda's pet project.


    Seiko Noda, Japan's science policy minister, wants to rewrite the rules on research funding.


    Jockeying over control of the program has already begun. Sadayuki Sakakibara, president of Toray Industries and a member of the science policy council, called for half of the members of any selection panel to come from industry, and Prime Minister Taro Aso has declared that he will make the final call on grantees. Not surprisingly, many researchers worry that the program will be slanted toward applied research and that the selection process will be politicized. “We need to try to cook this to get [proper] priorities,” says Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former dean of Tokai University School of Medicine and a former science adviser to Japan's prime minister.

    Whatever areas win funding, the program would set an important precedent in allowing more flexible use of research funds, argues Tasuku Honjo, a member of the science policy council and a molecular geneticist at Kyoto University. “Once established, this principle could be used again for other grant programs,” he says. Futamura says proposals would be accepted from all fields and the selection process would likely rely on expert recommendations endorsed by the prime minister. Details will be clarified when the program is formally announced, Futamura says.

    Before Noda's program can disburse funds, a law must be amended so that money appropriated in one fiscal year can be spent over several years. Legislation is in the works, Honjo says, but passage depends on support of the prime minister and his Cabinet. Futamura says he has no idea when the amendment might be voted on.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Unfriendly Skies.Call it CSI: Bird Strike. For the first time, researchers have used a sophisticated chemical analysis to finger the fowl that brought down an airplane. The case? Figuring out just which type of bird caused a US Airways jet to crash into New York's Hudson River in January.

    A 10-Million-Year-Old Laugh. It's something all humans do, regardless of race, culture, language, or creed: laugh. And, it turns out, some 10 million to 16 million years ago, the last common ancestor of humans and apes was laughing, too, most likely when tickled. That's the conclusion of an analysis of the recorded laughs of young orangutans, chimpanzees, and human children.


    Snakes on a Pane. Snakes just wouldn't be snakes without their characteristic slither. Known scientifically as “lateral undulation,” the creatures wiggle their bodies like a sideways wave and leave a perfect S-shaped track as they go. But just how does slithering get snakes from point A to point B? A new mathematical model may reveal the answer.

    Laser Light Bulbs. Tired of dealing with those newfangled fluorescent and halogen bulbs that tend to blow out and can't quite handle dimmer switches? You might just find solace from an old and trusted source: incandescent lights. A team of physicists has discovered a way to double the efficiency of these ordinary light bulbs. All it takes is a superfast laser blast to their filaments.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  6. Plant Breeding

    Scientists Seek Easier Access to Seed Banks

    1. Elizabeth Finkel*

    Frances Ogbonnaya believes Ethiopia's traditional wheat varieties could hold the key to staving off a global food crisis. Wheat around the world is under siege from Ug99, an especially virulent strain of the fungus that causes stem rust, a plant disease. Few commercial wheats can resist the devastating strain (Science, 8 May, p. 710). That's why Ogbonnaya, a geneticist at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Aleppo, Syria, is using gene mapping to verify that Ethiopian durum wheats in ICARDA's collection harbor novel “slow-rusting” genes that can steel crops against the pathogen.

    Still more genetic weapons against Ug99 might be found in Ethiopia's own seed bank, one of Africa's best and home to a vaunted collection of traditional durum wheat varieties. But unlike ICARDA, the Ethiopian seed bank isn't always open to withdrawals. In recent years, Ethiopia has been reluctant to share seeds with other countries—for reasons that threatened to drive a wedge between rich and poor countries at a contentious treaty meeting last week.

    Free and timely access to seeds is enshrined in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which came into force in 2004. But “free and timely” is not how plant breeders describe their experience with five of the treaty's 120 signatories: China, Ethiopia, India, Iran, and Turkey. “Basically, they're closed gene banks,” says Kenneth Street, a legume curator at ICARDA. That's alarming because many seed collections are vulnerable. In the past decade, Afghanistan's collection was lost when the Taliban dumped seeds to scavenge their airtight containers; Iraq's was destroyed in the most recent war; and the Philippine seed bank sustained heavy damage from a typhoon in 2006.

    Last week, the treaty's governing body met in Tunis to review implementation and coax reluctant nations to open their seed banks and contribute to a “doomsday vault” on Norway's Svalbard island (Science, 23 June 2006, p. 1730). At the forum, Ethiopia and other developing countries asserted that they should be compensated for custodianship and ongoing cultivation of landraces: traditional varieties adapted to local conditions. Despite tensions over such issues, a deadlock was averted when participants found common ground on the need for a major new fund to support the work of traditional farmers. “One thing everyone here agrees on,” Francisco López of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported from Tunis, is that “there won't be any agriculture in 50 years unless we have exchanges of germ plasm.”

    According to many observers, the recalcitrance of Ethiopia and like-minded countries is a throwback to the days of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993. A key aim of the convention was to thwart “biopiracy,” by which foreigners reaped a windfall from a country's genetic resources without providing compensation. Melaku Worede, founder of the Ethiopian Gene Bank, notes that traditional knowledge of the nation's farmers gave the world prized cultivars of coffee, barley, and wheat—without any benefit for Ethiopia. In the 1980s, he says, an Ethiopian barley land-race saved NorthAmerica's crop from an epidemic of barley yellow dwarf virus, even as his country was suffering famine. The biodiversity convention was meant to redress that imbalance. Instead, countries drafted an array of bilateral seed-trade agreements so complex that they constricted the international exchange of seeds and technical know-how—the lifeblood of plant breeding.

    Once bitten, twice shy.

    Frances Ogbonnaya says Ethiopian durum wheats could help thwart a fungus now sweeping the globe—but Ethiopia is reluctant to share seeds.


    That tourniquet was supposed to be undone by the genetic resources treaty, which superseded the biodiversity convention when dealing with 64 crop varieties deemed vital to global food security. In place of bilateral deals, treaty signatories in 2004 adopted a standard material transfer agreement providing access to the 64 varieties held in signatories' seed banks. Any owner of an exclusively patented variety developed from such seeds would pay a 1.1% royalty to a common FAO-administered pool to support crop biodiversity and conservation.

    A bone of contention for some countries is that they will not receive direct payments for sharing seeds. “Countries think, ‘We give access in the here and now, but what do we get back?’” acknowledges Shakeel Bhatti, secretary of the treaty's governing body. “The benefits are nonmonetary. It's access to the biggest [seed] bank in the world—the global gene pool.” Sorting out which countries should be remunerated for a valuable variety would be daunting. Pedigrees are complex, and “determining the value of any particular contribution is nearly impossible,” says Cary Fowler, who as executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) is charged with preserving the world's seed diversity.

    In a bid for faster, more tangible relief for traditional farmers, Worede made a pitch in Tunis for a biodiversity fund for developing nations on a par with GCDT. (The trust, which relies on voluntary contributions, has so far received about $120 million of a pledged $150 million.) Seed banks like Svalbard are invaluable for preserving landraces, Worede says, but so are the skills and experience that traditional farmers bring to bear in selecting seeds to breed landraces season after season. After all, he says, Svalbard's dormant accessions won't have a chance to adapt to climate change.

    In a remarkable and unexpected climax as the meeting drew to a close, the treaty governing body agreed to raise $116 million for a biodiversity fund that would support traditional farmers. That helped avert a crisis of confidence in the treaty, says Bhatti, who calls the meeting “a real turning point.” Worede, more circumspect, describes the biodiversity fund as a “little progress.” However, he says, “Anything voluntary is like the dew on a leaf: It can fall down at any time. The contributions should be binding.”

    • * Elizabeth Finkel is a writer in Melbourne, Australia.

  7. Immigration Policy

    U.S. Promises to Reduce Delays in Granting Visas for Scientists

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    The U.S. government has streamlined procedures for processing visa applications from foreign students and researchers trying to enter the United States. Officials say these changes, announced last week, should make a lasting improvement in a review process that at times has resulted in long delays, pinched the flow of scientific talent into the country, and stymied scientific collaborations. But, citing security concerns, they have declined to spell out how the new approach differs from current practices, which have yo-yoed since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

    “We don't expect the long wait times to crop up again,” says Stephen Heifetz, deputy assistant secretary for policy development at the Department of Homeland Security. “We think this is more of a real fix than the last one.”

    Marilyn Speedie, dean of the college of pharmacy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, hopes that Heifetz is right. In April, the college was forced to postpone indefinitely a workshop on treatments for orphan diseases after three senior Indian researchers learned that their visas, for which they had applied several weeks earlier, would not be issued in time. In solidarity, several of their Indian colleagues canceled their travel plans, torpedoing the conference. “We were extremely disappointed,” says Speedie.

    Waiting game.

    A conference on orphan diseases organized by Minnesota's Marilyn Speedie fell victim to visa delays.


    The visa process became agonizingly slow in the aftermath of 9/11, when the government clamped down on anyone wishing to enter the country who had scientific and technical expertise deemed potentially useful to terrorists. However, even government officials acknowledged that the system to screen such applicants, known as a Visa Mantis, had begun to stifle the free flow of scientific information. By 2005, additional staff and better training for consular officials appeared to have resolved the problem. But a few years later, the review process began to bog down again for reasons that are not clear. “By the end of 2008, the average delay for applicants from China had climbed to 4 months,” says an official with the U.S. National Academies, which has tried to help scientists caught in the system.

    David Donahue, a State Department official, says the recent delays were due to inadequate staffing and procedural problems implementing the Mantis review. Both issues have been fixed as of last month, he says. Donahue says all agencies involved in Mantis checks have agreed to complete the process within 2 weeks. The checks can currently take 2 months or longer.

    Top-down changes don't always translate into improvements on the ground, however. Although the State Department decided in 2005 that Mantis clearances for students would remain valid for 4 years rather than 1 year, the academies official notes that many consular officials were still requiring a new Mantis review for any student seeking to return to the United States after traveling home for a vacation or a family visit. That additional review left many students in limbo for several months.

    Speedie plans to reschedule the workshop once the Indian participants obtain their visas, and she hopes that the latest changes clear up the problem once and for all. The recent snafu delayed potential collaborations aimed at “fighting diseases and improv[ing] global health,” she says. In other words, they are precisely the sort of partnerships that could eventually ease global tensions and lower the threat of terrorism.

  8. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Despite the tough economic climate, Germany plans to spend €18 billion more on research over the next 10 years. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced last week that she and the heads of the 16 German states had signed off on the increase in funding, which was negotiated in April. The chancellor, who has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and is married to a chemistry professor, said the agreement will send a “signal of predictability” to researchers and help them draw up long-term plans for the money.

    In a win for the open-access movement, University College London (UCL) announced last week that it would soon begin posting copies of faculty members' published journal articles in a free online repository. UCL follows the lead of other prominent institutions, including Harvard and Stanford universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. UCL plans to follow the copyright policies of the relevant journals, including waiting to post until after the journal itself has made the full text freely available.

    The British government has scrapped its Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which oversees most academic research programs. Created 2 years ago, the department will now be merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to form a new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It's not yet clear if the restructuring will increase the pressure on scientists to make their research more economically relevant.

    U.S. President Barack Obama signaled his intent to use science diplomacy to win over the Islamic world in his 4 June speech in Cairo, Egypt. The president promised new science envoys, centers of excellence, and a technological development fund for the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. Officials in the State Department and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are now scrambling to add substance to those words.

    For science policy news daily, visit

  9. Diseases

    A Medical Mystery in Middle China

    1. Richard Stone

    China has launched a massive effort to stamp out Kashin-Beck disease, including moving populations from affected areas, but the cause of this crippling ailment remains elusive.

    XI'AN, CHINA—Since he was a boy, the short middle-aged man with gnarled fingers and misshapen legs has suffered from deformed joints. But in the past couple of years, even taking a step has been agony for Ma Ming-An, a 50-year-old farmer. “I stay home and cook. Now my wife works in the fields,” says Ma, sitting on a gurney at Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Endemic Disease Control (SEDC) in Xi'an. Last month, Ma traveled from his home in southwest Shaanxi to the province's capital to receive treatment for Kashin-Beck disease (KBD)—a little-known ailment that has crippled and stunted the growth of hundreds of thousands of people in China's heartland.

    A surgeon at SEDC, Yu Yue-Xiang, leans over Ma and presses a lump above his right knee. It is deteriorated cartilage that has dislodged from its moorings at the end of the femur—a symptom of advanced KBD. A week earlier, Yu removed four bullet-sized chunks from Ma's left knee. He's about to wash out the right one. The arthroscopic surgery is no cure, but within a week Ma should be back on his feet.

    Yu and his colleagues are on the front lines of a battle against a baffling ailment. Although fungal toxins, tainted water, and trace-element deficiencies have all been implicated in the debilitating disease, KBD's precise cause is an enduring mystery. “We have no idea what triggers it,” says SEDC vice director Bai Guanglu, who leads Shaanxi's KBD response.

    China has mounted an aggressive attack against KBD, including providing millions of people with supplements and clean water—and condemning whole villages as part of the biggest relocation effort in history to combat a disease. Over the past 2 years in Shaanxi, some 85,000 people were relocated from land considered irredeemably tainted. Since 1995, several hundred thousand people in five provinces have been uprooted and resettled. “I don't know of any similar response to an issue like this,” says Ellen Silbergeld, an environmental scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The measures are gaining traction: KBD incidence is falling, as is the rate of dwarfism, the disease's most-severe manifestation.

    Earlier this year, China launched a 5-year, $240 million initiative that aims to stamp out the disease altogether. The State Council–led program will first fine-tune intervention and treatment strategies in a pilot area—an ethnic Tibetan enclave in Sichuan Province—before expanding them to other regions. Some researchers say victory is near: Liu Yunqi, a professor at Harbin Medical University's Kashin-Beck Disease Institute in China, predicts that by 2020, there will be no new KBD cases. “The disease will be totally under control,” he says.

    At the front line.

    Pediatrician Philippe Goyens of the Kashin-Beck Disease Foundation examines a girl in Tibet.


    Kashin-Beck disease may be fading, but the riddle of its origin is as potent as ever. Researchers have made strides in unraveling how KBD warps skeletal growth, and the hunt is on for genes that confer susceptibility or resistance. Figuring out the ailment's cause could offer insights into cartilage metabolism and common degenerative maladies of the Western world, such as osteoarthritis. “Understanding this disease will have global significance,” says Virginia Kraus, a rheumatologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

    But KBD is no easy target. “Researchers have been grappling with this disease for a long, long time,” says Bruce Caterson, a connective-tissue biologist at Cardiff University, U.K. “The harder we look, the more frustrating it gets.”

    Molecular carnage

    The first inklings of an endemic blight came in a report in 1849 by a Russian surveyor who noted that people in villages along the Urov River, east of Siberia's Lake Baikal, suffered bone deformities. A few years later, Nikolai Kashin, a doctor with a Cossack military detachment in Russia's Far East, described Urov disease and sketched crippled patients. A second Cossack doctor, Evgeny Beck, documented cases in a 1906 monograph Osteoarthritis Deformans Endemica. The disease later came to light in what is now northern North Korea—where it had long been known as tojiru—and in China, where it's called da gu ji bing, or “big joint disease.”

    KBD afflicts at least 1 million people in 14 provinces, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention's surveillance of sentinel sites. Other estimates put the affected population in China and neighboring parts of Russia and North Korea as high as 2.5 million. Prevalence peaked in the late 1950s, when in many severely hit villages 60% to 90% of children showed signs of KBD, says Liu. Now, he says, the incidence is about 5%. In comparison, some 60% of adults over age 65 have symptoms of osteoarthritis.

    The clinical picture is in sharp focus. “The disease severely erodes health,” says Xiong Yongmin, vice director of the Institute of Endemic Diseases at Xi'an Jiaotong University (XJTU). Initial signs include cracking or popping sounds in the finger joints indicating loss of cartilage, and ankle and knee stiffness and pain. As KBD progresses, joints deform, muscles wither, and mobility decreases. (Inexplicably, cartilage padding the spine is not affected.) Many patients are unusually short, have stubby fingers and a waddling gait, and suffer chronic fatigue and weakness. The younger a victim is at onset, the worse the symptoms tend to become.

    Scientists are beginning to unravel the damage that KBD unleashes at a molecular level. It begins at the epiphyseal growth plate: the nexus of growing bone and cartilage. Cartilage is a simple tissue—it has a single cell type, chondrocytes—but it takes a biochemical balancing act to maintain it. Chondrocytes produce proteoglycans, which pull water into a collagen mesh. That gives cartilage its elasticity and resilience to the pounding meted out to our joints. Aggrecan, the major proteoglycan in cartilage, binds to a link protein and hyaluronic acid, which in turn is anchored to chondrocytes by the protein CD44. A healthy body is constantly swapping in new aggrecan for old but is much less adept at replacing collagen.

    Hallmark symptoms.

    Like many KBD patients, Ma Ming-an has severely deformed joints.


    In KBD patients—as well as in the tens of millions of people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis—replacement of aggrecan and collagen lost to disease is inadequate, and joints degrade. The cartilage matrix collapses, and pressure piles up on the chondrocytes. Cartilage begins to buckle under daily wear and tear. “In osteoarthritis, this triggers repair responses that go awry and tends to chew up the joints. We suspect the same occurs in KBD,” says Caterson.

    Although osteoarthritis is a disease of aging, in KBD the mechanical breakdown of cartilage often starts early, in children as young as 2 or 3. As victims grow, “their joints just go in all directions,” says Caterson. Other KBD abnormalities include disturbed CD44 metabolism and elevated interleukin-1β and tumor necrosis factor-α, associated with inflammation. It's unclear whether these anomalies contribute to or are a consequence of cartilage erosion.

    Unmasking the chondrocyte killer is critical to solving the KBD puzzle. As with Viliuisk encephalomyelitis, another disease that emerged in Siberia and continues to confound experts (Science, 26 April 2002, p. 642), the culprit appears to be lurking in the environment. “There are many theories,” says Feng Qinghua, SEDC's provincial disease director.

    Misery in the joints.

    In Kashin-Beck victims, damage begins at the epiphyseal growth plate and progresses to joint surface articular cartilage. As the disease progresses, the body fails to adequately swap in new aggrecan for old, the collagen mesh frays and fibrils break, and collagen degrades. Chondrocytes die and lose their nuclei, persisting as ghost cells before the dead tissue is replaced by scar tissue. Surviving chondrocytes cannot meet demand for molecules to repair cartilage battered by daily wear and tear.


    Gallery of rogues

    In 1992, Françoise Mathieu, a physical therapy specialist, was working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Philippines when colleagues at the nonprofit's newly opened office in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, encountered dozens of people in two counties in Lhasa Prefecture with a severe form of osteoarthritis. “They were wondering what kind of disease it is. They had never seen anything like it before,” Mathieu says. That spring, after MSF physicians understood they were dealing with KBD, they invited Mathieu to Lhasa for a 6-week stint to explore whether physical therapy would ease symptoms. She has since devoted her career to KBD.

    Early on, Mathieu and her colleagues were struck by how KBD was rife in certain valleys in Tibet, especially east of Lhasa, and rare or absent elsewhere. Peasants are vulnerable, they found, but urban populations and nomads are spared.

    In the hunt for environmental clues, one startling peculiarity stood out early on. If you overlay a map of KBD incidence on a map of soil poor in selenium (a trace element) in China, the correspondence is striking. Nowhere in the world are selenium levels as low as in a swath of land that arcs from Tibet in the southwest to Heilongjiang Province in the northeast (see map,below). In this region's population, the mean serum selenium concentration is roughly 20 nanograms per milliliter—one-tenth the U.S. level. KBD occurs almost exclusively in this selenium-poor belt. A 1991 study by researchers at the Shanghai Institute of Metallurgy found that people in KBD-endemic areas in Shaanxi ingested 4.6 micrograms of selenium per day on average. Since then, selenium intakes have increased, XJTU researchers say, but are still far below the U.S. recommended daily intake of 70 mg.

    Selenium is a compelling suspect. The element is a component of a couple of dozen human proteins, including a key enzyme—glutathione peroxidase—that defends the body against oxygen-free radicals, molecular wrecking crews that corrode anything in their path. Adequate dietary selenium may help ward off cancers and diseases of aging presumed to arise from accumulated free-radical damage. That appears to be true for osteoarthritis: In 2007, a team led by rheumatologist Joanne Jordan of the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, reported that low selenium levels increased the odds of severe knee and hip osteoarthritis in U.S. women. And animal disease suggests a link to KBD, Caterson says: Epiphyseal-plate malformations occur in sheep in selenium-poor parts of New Zealand.

    Cause or coincidence?

    Most KBD cases (dots represent incidence in representative villages) occur in a swath of China with extremely low selenium levels, depicted on map in lighter blue. KBD incidence in endemic regions, according to cases confirmed by x-ray diagnosis, has declined steadily since 2000.


    But selenium deficiency alone does not explain KBD, researchers say. Although many villages in selenium-poor areas have high KBD rates, nearby villages are often disease-free. In surveys in Tibet in the mid-1990s, Mathieu's team found that children with or without KBD have equally low selenium levels. They also observed many children with goiter: KBD villages have high rates of hypothyroidism. Many of China's selenium-deficient areas, it turns out, are also iodine-poor.

    In Tibet, says Mathieu, KBD is more strongly correlated with iodine deficiency than selenium deficiency. Acute iodine deprivation harms thyroid function. Because severe hypothyroidism in children impairs the epiphyseal plate and stunts growth, it can masquerade as KBD. Yet in most other KBD-endemic areas in China, iodized salt is widely available and hypothyroidism is rare.

    Another bane of Kashin-Beck country is fungi. In some Shaanxi villages, for example, people have lived for centuries in moldy underground dwellings, says Caterson, who collaborates with XJTU's Cao Junling and has visited KBD hot spots four times since 2002. “It's an unhealthy environment,” he says. Geography may be a factor: The KBD belt is a climatic crucible in which cold, dry continental air mixes with humid air from the Pacific Ocean.

    In the 1960s, Russian scientists linked KBD to consumption of cereals tainted with Fusarium, a common fungal genus. Throughout KBD-endemic areas of China, researchers have detected extensive fungal contamination of grains and bread by genera such as Fusarium, Trichothecium, and Alternaria. These may affect two Tibetan staples: tsampa—roasted barley dough balls—and chang—fermented barley beer. “In preliminary studies, we saw a very strong correlation between fungi in the barley and KBD,” says Mathieu.

    Mycotoxins produced by Fusarium and its brethren are especially nasty. Scientists have zeroed in on three trichothecenes: nivalenol, butenolide, and T-2 toxin. Caterson's lab has found that nivalenol inhibits proteoglycan synthesis in cultured chondrocytes. Similarly, butenolide damages chondrocytes and engineered cartilage, Cao and colleagues reported in the February issue of Toxicology in Vitro.

    T-2, the most abundant mycotoxin in KBD-endemic areas, may be the worst of the lot. In cell culture, T-2 triggers apoptosis of chondrocytes, revs up synthesis of an enzyme that degrades aggrecan, and inhibits CD44 production. Guinea pigs fed T-2 develop cartilage damage similar to that seen in KBD patients. There may even be a connection between mycotoxins and selenium. In cell culture, selenium blocks T-2-induced chondrocyte apoptosis, a team led by XJTU's Wang Zhilun reported in 2006 in Food and Chemical Toxicology.

    But like selenium or iodine deficiency, fungal toxins fall tantalizing short of solving the riddle: Many villages that consume mycotoxintainted grain do not have elevated KBD risk. “That's the thing with this disease,” says Caterson. “The jigsaw puzzle seems to fall into place, then something mixes up the pieces.”

    Another suspect lurks in the drinking water. In many KBD-endemic villages, springs, streams, and wells are chock-full of organic matter. As the material decomposes, it releases humic acid and fulvic acid. Mathieu and colleagues have found that families with at least one KBD-afflicted member are more likely to store drinking water in small containers, which may not allow organic matter to easily settle. Fulvic acid, in cell culture, inhibits collagen formation, blocks selenium uptake, and triggers chondrocytes to make the corrosive compound hydrogen peroxide. Rats fed a selenium-poor diet laced with fulvic acid have impaired bone and collagen formation.

    In a stab at a grand unified KBD theory, Chinese researchers, as well as Mathieu and her colleagues in a 2008 monograph Big Bone Disease, suggest that free radicals generated by mycotoxins and fulvic acid damage chondrocytes in people with an impaired antioxidant defense due to trace-element deficiencies or malnourishment. But to many experts, things still don't add up. If unquenched free radicals were the sole culprit, smokers should be at higher KBD risk—but they aren't as far anyone knows, and the disease often strikes children, says Duke's Kraus. “There could be an unknown environmental factor,” adds Feng.

    One dark horse is a virus. In 2004, Li Guang-Sheng and colleagues at Jilin University in Changchun, China, isolated Coxsackie B3 virus from the hearts of victims of Keshan disease, a rare heart malady that occurs in the same region as KBD. Coxsackie B3 is known to destroy heart tissue. And XJTU's Wang Zhilun and Bi Huayin have detected human parvovirus B19 in patients in Shaanxi. A common scourge, B19 triggers periodic outbreaks of so-called fifth disease in schools and nurseries. In adults, the virus can cause arthritis-like symptoms in the hands, wrists, and knees. It's unclear how widespread B19 infections are among KBD patients in Shaanxi, let alone other endemic areas, says XJTU's Xiong.

    Undercutting a connection, B19's mild symptoms usually clear up quickly. But selenium deficiency might be a cofactor: Influenza and Coxsackie virus are more virulent in animals fed a selenium-depleted diet, Melinda Beck and her colleagues at UNC Chapel Hill have found. “The same virus might result in a quite different clinical picture according to the nutritional environment,” says Jean Vanderpas, a doctor at the Scientific Institute of Public Health in Brussels who has studied KBD.

    In addition to searching for suspects in the environment, researchers are pursuing new genetic leads that might explain why some populations are particularly vulnerable. Cases cluster in families, which could be due to environmental or genetic factors. An obvious place to hunt for variants is among the two dozen known human proteins bearing selenium, including glutathione peroxidase and selenoprotein P, which governs selenium metabolism. To test whether there are gene variants that confer susceptibility or resistance to KBD, Caterson and colleagues in 2007 collected spit samples and toenail clippings from KBD patients in Shaanxi. It took a year to satisfy Chinese officials that exporting the samples would not compromise personal information of Chinese citizens. The samples are now in North Carolina, where Jordan's team is analyzing toenail clippings for selenium and other trace elements and Kraus's group is scanning DNA from spit for variants in selenium-related genes.

    One promising candidate is DIO2, a gene encoding a selenoprotein that converts thyroxine to its active form. Last year, Ingrid Meulenbelt and colleagues at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands identified a DIO2 variant that increases osteoarthritis risk. KBD, says Kraus, “may very well result from an interaction between genes and the environment.”

    Pinpointing KBD-related genes would enable vulnerable populations to be screened. “Then we'd know if the disease is all due to a lack of selenium or iodine or if other agents are involved,” says Kraus.

    A final push

    With so many targets to shoot at, KBD interventions, not surprisingly, have been hit or miss. A decade ago, Mathieu's team gave iodized oil to one group of children with the disease, iodine followed by sodium selenate tablets to a second group, and placebos to a third. Correcting iodine deficiency markedly improved symptoms. “Young patients respond well,” Mathieu says. But the selenium offered no apparent additional health benefit, the researchers reported in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2003. “We urgently need to clarify selenium's role. High doses are extremely toxic,” says Kraus.

    Recent studies reveal an even more complex nutritional picture, says Mathieu, who cofounded the Kashin-Beck Disease Foundation to carry on work in Tibet after MSF pulled out in late 2002. Her team has documented not only iodine and selenium deficits but also low levels of calcium and vitamins A, D, and E. The biggest clinical improvement, they have found, happens when children with KBD consume a more diverse diet including nettles, a traditional food full of vitamins that is largely eschewed by younger Tibetans. To test whether several deficiencies conspire to give rise to KBD, Mathieu's group just finished a 3-year trial in which 1064 children ages 3 to 10 were given iodine and selenium and either a cocktail of micronutrients—copper, manganese, zinc, and vitamins A, C, and E—or a placebo. Results are expected later this year.

    Searching for answers.

    Françoise Mathieu analyzes grains in Gansu (top); a Tibetan boy with severe KBD.


    Experience shows that a strategy that reduces KBD in one village can flop in the next. “There is no single method of primary prevention,” says Xiong. In Shaanxi last year, 5.47 million people—nearly 15% of the population—received selenium supplements. Another 672,000 were given uncontaminated wheat. Some interventions may not be feasible, notes Vanderpas. “It seems almost impossible, operationally, to change fulvic acid in drinking water or decrease mycotoxins in cereals at the population level,” he says.

    When all else fails, authorities in five KBD hot spots—Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Tibet—have ordered relocations. Former settlements are converted to farmland or rangeland for livestock. Some Chinese scientists are ambivalent about this approach. “We don't support relocation because it costs a lot of money, but we don't object to it either,” says Liu. Relocation is a hardship for many, adds SEDC's Bai. “The elderly especially are reluctant to move,” he says. “Moving people is the last resort.” Or as Silbergeld suggests, “Perhaps the government needs to consider acting aggressively on food safety and improving diets rather than moving people around.”

    Although experts differ on the best approach to combating KBD, they concur that it is a disease of deprivation. Heading northeast from Shaanxi, China's population is more affluent, on average, and KBD rates fall off sharply. Xi'an, a city of 3 million people, is in the heart of KBD territory, but the only cases doctors here see are people from the countryside, SEDC's Yu says. KBD, Liu says, “only occurs in China's rural areas.”

    With that in mind, China's latest KBD initiative, overseen by the State Council's Leading Group of Poverty Alleviation and Development, has an overarching aim of improving people's lives. Measures will include providing untainted grains and selenium supplements, improving drinking-water quality, and relocating people from hundreds of villages. A pilot scheme is being rolled out this year in Sichuan's Aba Prefecture.

    China's strategy may be controversial, but it is working. “There are fewer and fewer victims,” says Bai. Most patients are now in their 40s or older, he says. That may be a blessing for China but a curse for KBD sleuths: As the disease retreats, so does the likelihood of unlocking its secrets.

  10. Profile: Artur Chilingarov

    Russia's Polar Hero

    1. Tom Parfitt*

    Artur Chilingarov has led researchers exploring the polar regions, the Arctic ocean floor, and the world's deepest lake. But is he promoting science or his homeland?


    After his 2007 dive to the Arctic Ocean floor, Artur Chilingarov shows off a picture of the Russian flag his team planted there.


    MOSCOW—Artur N. Chilingarov says he has a “dream,” and coming from a 69-year-old midranking Russian politician, it sounds at first like an improbable one. Chilingarov wants to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world's oceans at 10,911 meters, near the Pacific island of Guam. The site has been visited by people only once before, back in 1960 by divers from the U.S. Navy in the bathyscaphe Trieste, and Chilingarov feels it's time to go back—and that Russians should lead the way.

    “I'm discussing the possibilities with our shipbuilders,” he says. “It will be a manned craft. The Americans [at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution] have constructed a robotic vehicle to dive there—but we want to descend ourselves.” Chilingarov raises an eyebrow and smirks. “We may even get out and have a walk around on the bottom.”

    Don't bet against him. Although Chilingarov has made a steady political ascent to become deputy chair of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, and a leading member of the pro-presidential United Russia party, the diminutive man with the unruly seaman's beard is at heart an explorer and scientist—one with the political and business connections within Russia to raise money for costly expeditions. He has traveled on atomic icebreakers and helicopters to the polar regions, led research teams adrift on ice, and already reached another ocean floor, the Arctic's, 2 years ago. In doing the latter, Chilingarov confirmed his status as a Russian hero, literally, and set off an international furor that still echoes today.

    Little known outside his homeland at the time, Chilingarov shot to fame in August 2007 when he led a team that descended in two minisubmarines to the ocean floor under the North Pole, planting a titanium Russian flag on the seabed. Overnight, the oceanographer—Chilingarov has a Ph.D. in geographical sciences—was transformed into Russian's public mouthpiece on the Arctic. Vladimir Putin, then president, awarded him the Hero of Russia medal—to add to the Hero of the Soviet Union gong he earned for organizing the rescue of a ship stuck in polar ice in the 1980s—and Chilingarov made strident speeches about Moscow's rights to the region. “The Arctic is ours and we should demonstrate our presence,” he declared.

    Abroad, Chilingarov's flag-waving was widely interpreted as a blunt attempt by the Kremlin to assert ownership over the vast hydrocarbon reserves in what Russians call “the high latitudes.” Today, wearing a sharp dark suit rather than the submersible jumpsuit or furcollared parka he's often pictured wearing, Chilingarov rejects that accusation and argues that his North Pole dive stimulated other countries to study the polar region. “I'm very pleased that we've jogged them onto new research—they ought to be grateful to me for that!” he says. Chilingarov, Russia's representative for the International Polar Year (IPY) research effort that ran from 2007–08, also points out that his Arctic dive contributed to growing calls in the United States to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    Criticism of Chilingarov inside Russia is muffled but tends to focus on suggestions that his more recent achievements are stunts, with few concrete scientific results. “They are impressive sporting expeditions more than anything else,” says German Burkov, head of the polar countries' department of the Russian Geographical Society.

    Similar disparagements were heard last year when Chilingarov headed a scientific expedition conducting dozens of submersible dives in Siberia's Lake Baikal (see sidebar). The effort, which resumes next week with new dives, has garnered more publicity for the subs' attempts to set dive-depth records than for any new data—even though no records have been set so far.

    Yet that blemish has done little to shake Russia's love for its favorite explorer—and his bullish, sometimes near-jingoistic tone. “Artur Nikolayevich gets accused in the West of being a nationalist, but he is a patriot, which is something very different,” says Vladimir Gruzdev, the Duma member and joint owner of a supermarket chain who part-funded the North Pole dive. “He has dedicated his whole life to polar research, so when he defends Russia's interests in the Arctic, he is doing nothing less than defending his own home.”

    On, and below, the ice

    Born in 1939 in Leningrad, Chilingarov graduated from a naval academy in 1969 with a major in oceanography and was immediately dispatched to a research station in the Arctic port of Tiksi. He then worked his way through the ranks, heading two ice-floe-drifting stations in the Arctic. These staffed outposts, which shelter a small band of researchers dropped on free ice to conduct studies for months at a time, have been a staple of Soviet, and now Russian, Arctic science since 1937.

    Afterward, Chilingarov took on increasingly responsible state posts connected to hydrometeorology and the polar regions. Since 1985, when he led a successful mission to save the ice-surrounded research ship Mikhail Somov in the Antarctic, Chilingarov's career has been marked by high-profile polar trips in aircraft and ships, with the flag-planting submersible dive being his crowning glory. Last year, he was named Russia's presidential envoy for international cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic. So does Chilingarov the diplomat now regret the tone of his pronouncements after the North Pole dive?

    “Look,” he says, his sonorous voice filling an office dotted with reminders of his explorations: a waist-high wooden carving of a penguin, large photographs of polar bears, a huge pair of insulated boots, “It was not only my dream but that of polar researchers of many countries—for many years they dreamed of reaching the Poles. Before, it was all on ice. And all of them, of course, went there with the flags of their country. Amundsen, Scott, Peary, the Bolsheviks, the Russian explorers of later years—all these expeditions carried the flag of their motherland. We took our flag to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean under the Pole.” He picks up a 15-cm model of the Russian tricolor and plants it in the middle of his desk. “What's the difference?”

    The difference may be that it is precisely the ocean bed that is now the Arctic's greatest prize. According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey, about 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of the world's undiscovered gas may be found north of the Arctic Circle, with the latter being largely concentrated in offshore zones near Russia (Science, 29 May, p. 1175). The speed of the polar ice melt and the advance of drilling technology have raised the possibility that these vast natural resources will become increasingly exploitable just as onshore hydrocarbon reserves begin to dwindle. In a scramble to cash in on the Arctic's riches, Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland) are now lobbying U.N. bodies to decide who has jurisdiction over the region, each providing geographic evidence. According to international law, the five countries with an Arctic coastline have exploitation rights over a 320-km zone extending north of their borders, but the Kremlin is claiming a much bigger territory on the controversial theory that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge running toward the North Pole is connected to Russia's continental shelf, making it by law a “natural prolongation” of Russian land (Science, 16 March 2007, p. 1525).

    Polar presence.

    Chilingarov has made many visits to the polar regions, such as this one to an Antarctic research station.


    During Chilingarov's North Pole dive in 2007, the minisubmarines Mir 1 and Mir 2 collected samples from the seabed, which the explorer suggested could strengthen Russia's claim. Putin fanned the flames by telling Chilingarov shortly after the dive that “we need the results of your expedition to act as the basis of Russia's position” on shelf limits.

    That suggestion brought scorn from some quarters in Russia, with one polar expert saying “you can't determine anything with a single bucket of mud from the Pole.” Only a complex program of seismic and geological tests could come anywhere close to proving the Lomonosov theory, the critics pointed out. Russia has been preparing a new claim for review by the United Nations; Valery Kaminsky, director of VNII Okeangeologiya, the oceanography institute in St. Petersburg, which is coordinating the work, stressed last year that the task had been going on for years. Scientists on the research ship that transported Chilingarov's minisubs to the Pole in 2007 contributed to it, he said. But Kaminsky indicated that Chilingarov's efforts had been of little importance, remarking with indifference that “the fate of the samples raised from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean [by the Mir submersibles] is unknown to us.”

    Perhaps stung by such criticism, Chilingarov now claims there was no intention to use seabed samples from his expedition to shore up Russia's claim to the Arctic. “The two things were not related,” he says. “Whoever says they were is mixing up their fantasy with reality.” He adds: “It was just politicians who talked that up. In principle, it [the dive] was a geographical first, an outstanding one; … we were the first people on Earth to see the floor of the Arctic Ocean, at a depth of 4300 meters, and to move along it. That's how it should be presented.”

    Political scientist

    Chilingarov has close ties with members of the powerful military-security clique of senior officials, such as Putin, now prime minister, and the head of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, yet his political influence may go only so far. “Chilingarov is an imposing character with a striking background,” says Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Moscow think tank Center for Political Technologies. “But in terms of geopolitics and Russia's strategy on the Arctic, I don't think he takes major decisions. He is seen more in the Kremlin as a reliable status figure with good patriotic credentials whose expeditions help confirm Russia's status as a great power.”

    As for scientific credibility, Jan-Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, Norway, agrees with Burkov that many of Chilingarov's trips to polar regions are “spectacular expedition events” or simply “visits.” “For the last decade of his life, or maybe the last 2 decades, he has been a polar expert on the strategic and political level and not as a hands-on scientist, that's quite clear,” says Winther.

    Some see the ongoing Lake Baikal effort as another example, so far, of style over scientific substance. Chilingarov proudly participated in the early media-covered dives last summer, although that publicity backfired somewhat when members of the team had to backtrack from their initial claims that the submersibles had reached a record depth in the world's deepest lake; the subs actually reached only 1580 meters, short of the 1637 meters achieved by a previous Russian sub in 1990.

    Nonetheless, Winther argues that Chilingarov has played a key role in securing funding for the scientific community, particularly for those working in the often-neglected polar regions: “He has been a very important player who has ensured good financial support for Russian scientists who are doing the data-collecting that is needed for the continental shelf commission—and other science” such as for the IPY. Colleagues say he also attracted vital funding for the Baikal dives.

    On the Arctic, Chilingarov seems to have softened his rhetoric as he points out the Lomonosov Ridge on a large globe. “Everything must be done in accordance with international law,” he says, admitting it could be up to 4 years before Russian experts collect enough data to prove a connection between the ridge and the country's continental shelf. (He had earlier predicted a new submission to the U.N. would be made by this year.)

    Still, Chilingarov's pride in Russia's Arctic presence remains strong. “Today, the North Pole-36 drifting station is Russian!” He enunciates the syllables in Russian for emphasis, “Ro-ssi-ska-ya!” He continues, “Our team spends the winter on the ice right next to the Pole. No one else is there.”

    And there's no denying that those outside Russia hear that booming voice. Mead Treadwell, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, confirms that Chilingarov's Arctic expedition in 2007 did prompt thoughts that “we needed to be doing a much stronger mapping effort ourselves” so as not to miss out on the Arctic “Cold Rush.”

    “As someone who advocates for American science, I was quite grateful that the world had this reaction because then people [in the United States] said, ‘Well we have a geostrategic interest in following through ourselves.’ And when I met Dr. Chilingarov at an Explorers' Club dinner last year, I did say thank you for giving us that stimulus.”

    • * Tom Parfitt is a freelance writer based in Moscow.

  11. Profile: Artur Chilingarov

    Diving Into the Sacred Sea

    1. Tom Parfitt

    Prompted by potential menaces to Lake Baikal, the largest, deepest, most ancient, and most biologically diverse freshwater lake on Earth, scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences, led by oceanographer and explorer Artur Chilingarov, last year began a program of research using two deep-water Mir minisubmarines.

    At 25 million years old, 640 kilometers long, and with at least 1600 endemic species of flora and fauna, Lake Baikal is the largest, deepest, most ancient, and most biologically diverse freshwater lake on Earth. Set in the heart of Siberia, the crescent-shaped lake, which curls toward Russia's border with Mongolia, is often called “the Sacred Sea.”

    Yet although the Kremlin has long professed interest in preserving Baikal, a pulp and paper mill was allowed to spew harmful dioxins into the lake for decades, until it closed last year. Environmental campaigners chalked it up as a victory; they had forced the factory to go to a closed water-production cycle, which cut contamination and ended the making of profitable chlorine-bleached pulp. Long-term effects of the jettisoned waste, however, remain unknown. Another threat—detailed by a group of American and Russian scientists last month in the journal BioScience—is the effect of climate change on Baikal. The lake's warming water—temperatures increased by 1.21°C between 1946 and 2008—have caused a longer ice-free season, which hinders the growth of algae that bloom under the ice in spring, the principal source of food for crustaceans, themselves eaten by fish. Added to these questions is the unknown influence of tons of crude oil that naturally seep into the lake every year from fissures in the bedrock.

    Prompted by such potential menaces to the lake, scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) last year began a program of research using two deep-water Mir minisubmarines to make physicochemical analyses, obtain geological and biological specimens, and monitor tectonic processes on the lakebed. They also want to examine gas and oil seeps and the mud volcanoes discovered on the lake floor in 1999, which produce gas hydrates, a methane-containing form of ice created at great depths and normally found in oceans, not lakes.

    Marc De Batist of the Renard Centre of Marine Geology at Ghent University in Belgium, who has traveled to Baikal for 15 years and was one of two foreigners to dive in the Mirs last year, says the expedition was first conceived as a “prestige project” focused on setting depth records but developed into a serious scientific research trip when limnologists, geographers, and biologists from heavyweight institutions signed up. Russian scientists say it is the most extensive study of the lake since they dove in Canadian Pisces submersibles in 1990 and 1991.

    The Mirs team carried out 52 deep-water dives in 2008 and, starting next week, plan another 100 submersions this summer.

    Going down.

    This Mir sub and another one are diving into Lake Baikal for records and data.


    Last year, diving in the lake's Barguzinsky Bay, researchers were able to take samples from outcrops of bitumen on the bottom, where oil leaks into the water at a depth of 850 meters. “These sources have been known about since the 18th century, but before us no one had seen how the oil is released drop by drop into the water,” says expedition member Tamara Zemskaya, a microbiologist from the Limnological Institute in Irkutsk, near Baikal. “Only thanks to the Mirs were we able to study the process at first-hand and take targeted samples.”

    The probes have already yielded intriguing new data. “We were amazed by the abundance of fauna on and in these bitumen formations—it was much higher than the background level in the lake,” Zemskaya explains. “We were also surprised that in sediment soaked with oil, there were benthic organisms that were actively moving about, and it appeared that the oil had not inhibited their development.”

    De Batist agrees that the chance to descend in one of the Mirs was “exciting” and “unique.” “My dive was directed towards one of the mud volcanoes we discovered in 1999,” he says. “We managed to find it on the lake floor and to sample the mud, observe cracks and faults, and make some temperature measurements.”

    As for the future, Robert Nigmatulin, director of RAS's P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology and one of the scientists who dove into Baikal last year, believes there are encouraging signs that the lake has protected itself from the mill and other threats using its own living decontamination system. “Baikal is not just H2O; it's a kind of bouillon where there are many living organisms at all layers of depth,” he says. “Thanks to these plankton, the composition of the water has remained stable because they constantly filter and purify it.”

    Artur Chilingarov, the oceanographer and explorer who leads the expedition, stresses that the emphasis of research must be on preserving the lake for future generations. “We must increase our knowledge of Baikal in order to save its unique ecosystem,” he says.

  12. Evolution

    Authors Scramble to Make Textbooks Conform to Texas Science Standards

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    The Texas market is so large that publishers must pay heed to new guidelines on what students should learn.

    Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biologist and author of a popular high school textbook, has spent years battling advocates of intelligent design (ID) and their argument that students need to be taught the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. So it was more than a little embarrassing when defense lawyers for the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board, on trial in 2005 for its policy to accommodate ID in biology classes, asked Miller, a prosecution witness, why he had used the same phrase in the 2004 edition of his textbook.

    He had done so, Miller explained, so that his textbook could be used in classrooms throughout Texas, the second largest market in the United States. (Texas standards also shape what's sold nationally, as publishers often use the same version in other states.) The “weaknesses” were nothing more than unresolved questions about evolution, Miller insists. “We wanted to show, without compromising scientific integrity, that we had met the literal standard requiring strengths and weaknesses,” he says.

    Strengths and weaknesses.

    Biology textbook author Kenneth Miller (inset) chose that phrase, often used by critics of evolution, to satisfy Texas science standards.


    In March, the Texas school board approved new science standards that omit the “strengths and weaknesses” line (Science, 3 April, p. 25). But many scientists view the new version as more insidious than the previous one. Among other things, it requires that students have the chance to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.” The language is seen as an opening for ID proponents to argue that such “irreducible complexity” points to an external organizing force.

    Those standards pose a new challenge for Miller and other textbook authors as the board prepares for a new round of textbook adoption in 2011. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California sees Miller's earlier revision as a failed “attempt to be clever.” And she's worried that history might repeat itself.

    “When you put ‘weaknesses’ and ‘evolution’ in the same line, you reinforce doubts that creationists are trying to sow,” says Scott, whose organization monitors the issue as it plays out in state and local districts. In fact, Scott was so incensed by the revelation at the Dover trial that she confronted Miller after he testified. “What were you thinking?” she asked him.

    Miller's answer, then and now, is not to get too excited. The new Texas standards leave plenty of room for authors to explain the robustness of evolutionary theory, he says, and that's precisely what he and his publisher, Prentice Hall, plan to do. “The advocates of these standards underestimate the strength of the scientific evidence for structures and phenomena that they mistakenly believe evolution cannot account for,” Miller says. “The new wording is an opportunity to make biology texts even stronger.”

    For example, Miller intends to “introduce more material on the evolution of organelles” within the cell to show that the cell's complexity is in fact explained by evolution. Likewise, he sees the standard requiring explanations of “sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record”—although written with the intent to undermine evolution—as “an invitation to introduce students to punctuated equilibrium.”

    Steve Nowicki, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, plans to take the same approach when he asks Texas to adopt his biology book, published by Holt McDougal. “I understand that there may be a political agenda behind the standards, but I am taking them at face value,” he says. “If a state thinks students need more information to understand evolution, I am happy to provide that.”

    Don McLeroy had wanted the standards to require textbooks and other materials to offer an even more skeptical view of evolution. But McLeroy, whom the state legislature declined to reappoint as chair last month although he remains on the board, says he's satisfied that requiring “more scientific evolutionary discussions” will serve students well. “The explanations offered [in the texts] will be so weak that students who are skeptical of evolution will see the weakness for themselves,” he says.

    Scott believes that Miller's approach is a “wonderful way to beef up content” while sticking to the letter of the standards. But she's worried that McLeroy and others on the board who embrace ID may view phrases such as “complexity of the cell” as a victory, even if only cosmetic. “Sowing confusion is their goal,” she says. How far they will push on the actual content will depend on the composition of the publicly elected board in 2011, she says. “I'm just hoping publishers don't get weak-kneed and give in.”

    Alton Biggs, a co-author of a popular biology textbook published by Glencoe, concedes that that may have happened in 2003, when 12 lines about “divine creation” were included in a section of his book that describes various “beliefs and hypotheses” for the origin of life. But those words were dropped in the next edition. He says his team expects that the version to be submitted for adoption will “meet the Texas standards as well as benchmarks and other standards set by scientific societies.”

  13. U.S. Higher Education

    Minority Retention Rates in Science Are Sore Spot for Most Universities

    1. Robert Koenig

    A few universities have demonstrated what it takes to help more minority students earn science degrees. But their efforts are only beginning to be widely replicated.

    CATONSVILLE, MARYLAND—Yohance Allette didn't panic when he hit a “rough stretch” of science courses last year as a sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) here. He knew that, as a Meyerhoff Scholar, he could lean on what he calls his “friends and family”—older students, faculty members, and university staff—to help him make it through organic chemistry, physics, and genetics.

    Having such a support group is a big reason why Allette, a biology major, and other Meyerhoff scholarship students are twice as likely to earn a bachelor's degree in a science field, and five times as likely to enroll in graduate study, as their peers who were accepted but chose not to enter the program. “It's like being able to talk with your older brother or sister,” says Allette, whose parents are from the Caribbean.

    Begun in 1989, the Meyerhoff program has tried to address a glaring failure of U.S. higher education: the high attrition rates among minority students (predominantly African-Americans and Hispanics) who declare an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Science, 31 March 2006, p. 1870). Although minority students entering U.S. colleges are just as interested as their white peers in these STEM fields, they are only two-thirds as likely as whites to earn bachelor's degrees in those fields within 6 years. (Asian Americans, who are not considered a minority in STEM fields, are more likely than whites to earn such degrees.)

    “Most institutions have the intent to improve retention rates; they simply don't know how to do it,” says mathematician Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC's president. He's also a standard-bearer for the program, backed by Baltimore philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. Their family foundation supplies two-thirds of the program's $3.5 million budget for 2008–09.

    A team approach.

    John Matsui and students in the Biology Scholars Program at UC Berkeley.


    On the West Coast, the 16-year-old Biology Scholars Program (BSP) at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, has also succeeded in helping underrepresented minorities make it through college. Since 2000, 69% of its 650 students have graduated within 4 years, topping the 61% rate for the rest of the student body. Among African-American students—some of whom take more than 4 years to complete their studies—scholars have a 93% graduation rate versus 73% for their nonprogram peers. Only 0.15% of biology scholars are dismissed for poor academic performance, notes evolutionary biologist John Matsui, who directs the program, compared with 3.5% for all UC Berkeley undergraduates. The program's annual budget of $1.5 million comes from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and, since 2004, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

    Although the two programs differ in many respects, their ability to lend minority students a helping hand at the right time seems to be critically important. For his first 2 years at UC Berkeley, Eric Octavio Campos, a graduating senior, says, “I was very much alone on this huge campus, and there were so few Latinos or African Americans in my science classes.” But joining the Scholars program “gave me a sense of community and helped advise me on how to get where I wanted to go in science.” This fall, Campos will enter a Ph.D. program in biology at the University of Washington, Seattle.

    Good intentions, scant data

    UMBC and UC Berkeley often figure prominently in discussions of how to bolster the numbers of minorities entering STEM fields. It's a perennial topic among those who worry about whether the United States is producing enough scientists and engineers. Michael Summers, a biochemist at UMBC who has been active in the Meyerhoff program, wondered why more universities haven't been able to match its success.

    Summers took his concerns to HHMI, which supports Summers' lab as an HHMI investigator. With help from the institute and contributions from the National Institutes of Health, Summers and colleagues invited diversity specialists from 75 research universities and leading 4-year colleges to discuss undergraduate STEM diversity and retention.

    Summers recalls that many administrators who attended the group's first meeting in 2004 at Harvard University “were shocked at how low STEM retention was among disadvantaged students” and by how few institutions actually tracked dropout rates from STEM fields. They vowed to do better. Educators met again in 2007 and 2008 to report on their progress, including the status of new programs.

    But Summers says few have developed good empirical data. “Most institutions don't track their students and thus don't know their own performance when it comes to retaining and educating underrepresented minorities,” he says. And it will take years to collect and analyze the data at institutions that have begun to do so.

    Success in situ.

    Yohance Allette says the Meyerhoff program has helped him stay in biology.


    One problem, says John Slaughter, president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering in White Plains, New York, is that most universities that care about diversity have concentrated on entry points rather than completion rates. “We need to focus more of our attention on outcomes like retention and graduation rather than simply enrolling more minority students,” he argues.

    Another issue is the paucity of good studies of what Matsui calls “the sociology of science diversity.” Conventional wisdom values summer bridge programs for incoming freshmen and the chance to do undergraduate research, for example, but Matsui says “we need more rigorous study to understand what works, for which students, and under what conditions.” Such comparisons are hard to make when most programs preselect students, notes social psychologist Martin Chemers of UC Santa Cruz, who adds that the lack of control groups hinders empirical studies.

    A third problem is the absence of data on what happens after students graduate. “We have no idea whether most of these programs are working or not,” says Willie Pearson Jr., a sociologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who studies science education. “There's a great need for follow-up data.” The National Science Foundation hopes to address that need, says Kellina Craig-Henderson, a manager within NSF's cognitive sciences program, with an initiative, labeled “The Science of Broadening Participation,” that would fund research on effective programs and how they can be scaled up.

    Different approaches

    The UMBC and UC Berkeley programs take different paths to help their target populations. UMBC recruits high-achieving high-school seniors, two-thirds of them underrepresented minorities, gives them generous financial aid, uses a summer bridge program to create group cohesion, plunges them quickly into research, and surrounds them with mentors. Rather than focus mainly on what he calls “high flyers,” Matsui looks for “those on the margins, who will succeed if given the right environment and opportunities.” The UC Berkeley program offers mentoring and group cohesion but does not include a summer program, offer a separate stipend, or require freshmen to do research.

    Meyerhoff's results are impressive. Seven of eight graduates (more than 650) have earned degrees in STEM fields, and they have gone on to receive 53 Ph.D. degrees, 74 medical degrees, and 21 combined degrees. Hrabowski says that makes UMBC, with an enrollment that is 14% African-American and 3% His-panic, “one of the few predominantly white universities producing significant numbers of African-Americans who go on to get Ph.D.s.”

    Elusive degree.

    A minority of African-American and Hispanic students who begin as science majors actually graduate with a STEM degree.


    UC Berkeley's program, which has helped 2000 students, can't match those retention numbers: So far, about 70% of BSP students have graduated with biology degrees. Matsui is proud of having created what he calls a sense of community among students, advisers, and “culturally sensitive” faculty members. “The network of close-knit students and mentors gives you a basis to succeed,” says UC Berkeley senior Dannielle McBride, an African American who joined Matsui's group after four part-time years at a community college.

    Although they disagree on some of the necessary ingredients, Hrabowski and Matsui are both passionate about collecting and analyzing data to evaluate and improve their programs. They are also eager to share their knowledge with other universities. “We place a great deal of emphasis on evaluation, and other institutions should also,” says Hrabowski, who chairs a National Research Council panel for the National Academies that is assessing minority STEM education.

    Allette, a rising senior who hopes to earn a combined M.D.-Ph.D. degree, says programs like Meyerhoff provide students with the support they need to persevere. “The challenge for science majors is not so much, ‘Do I want to do it?’ as ‘Can I do it?’ Once you are confident of success, you can go far.”

  14. U.S. Higher Education

    Following the Leaders

    1. Robert Koenig

    Several institutions have begun to imitate aspects of the Meyerhoff program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Biology Scholars Program at the University of California, Berkeley (see main text). However, none has published comprehensive data on what has been accomplished.

    Several institutions have begun to imitate aspects of the Meyerhoff program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Biology Scholars Program at the University of California (UC), Berkeley (see main text). However, none has published comprehensive data on what has been accomplished.

    Five years ago, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, began a program to serve disadvantaged science students. LA-STEM tries to replicate Meyerhoff's tiered mentoring and summer programs but without the same level of financial aid. With this month's graduation, 46 students have completed the program, with a retention rate of 90%. Even so, its driving force, vice chancellor and analytical chemist Isaiah Warner, admits that “we are far behind Meyerhoff in terms of getting and measuring results.”

    This past summer, about 50 incoming engineering students at the University of Michigan (UM) joined a new academy that includes a summer program, mentoring, research internships, and modest student grants. “Our challenge was, How could we put a Meyerhoff-like model to work in a large research institution?” says Derek Scott, who directs UM's multicultural engineering program.

    The UC Berkeley program has been an inspiration for two other UC campuses, and in 2007, Cornell University embraced its name and concepts to tackle its attrition rate among minorities in biology, says virologist Laurel Southard, who directs the department's undergraduate research and outreach. The Cornell program takes in 20 to 25 first-year students each year, offering them mentoring, special events, and research opportunities. Southard is seeking outside support to supplement a small budget provided by the department and the vice provost's office.

    The biology department at Harvard University offers a Howard Hughes Medical Institute–sponsored program that each year enrolls about 40 freshmen students from disadvantaged backgrounds. “We stick with them for all 4 years,” says biologist Robert Lue. “They are assigned to a faculty lab and mentored by faculty and others.” In 2006, Harvard started a wider effort—the Program for Research in Science and Engineering—that offers summer research opportunities to undergraduates from all of the sciences. Lue says that the number of women and under represented minorities majoring in the life sciences has risen by 16% over the past 4 years. He's now analyzing the program's impact on attrition rates.