News this Week

Science  30 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5953, pp. 650

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  1. Scientific Misconduct

    Hwang Convicted But Dodges Jail; Stem Cell Research Has Moved On

    1. Dennis Normile*

    Disgraced stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang was handed a 2-year suspended prison sentence on 26 October for embezzlement and bioethics law violations. And the scientific community seemed to just shrug.

    Have South Korean researchers been keenly following the proceedings? Asked before the verdict was announced, Dong-Wook Kim, director of the Korean Stem Cell Research Center in Seoul, replied with a curt “No!” “The scientific community has moved way beyond Hwang and will read about [the verdict] with amusement,” agreed George Daley, a stem cell researcher at Children's Hospital Boston.

    Suspended sentence.

    Stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang, talking to reporters on 26 October, won't serve jail time.


    The nonchalance is quite a change from the anxious attention focused on Hwang in late 2005. Hwang had almost single-handedly brought the goal of therapeutic cloning—generating replacement tissue genetically matched to a patient—within reach. He claimed a first in developing a human embryonic stem (hES) cell line from a cloned blastocyst in 2004 ( and followed that up with a 2005 paper claiming to have generated 11 patient-specific stem cell lines ( Hwang became a national hero in Korea, and would-be collaborators and competitors flocked to his Seoul National University (SNU) lab to see how he did it.

    But in November 2005, in response to allegations, Hwang admitted that members of his research team had donated oocytes and that other donors had been paid—both ethically questionable practices. Days later, as questions about his work mounted, he informed Science that some images in the 2005 paper were duplicated, although he insisted that the results were real. Alan Colman, a stem cell researcher then in Singapore, told Science at the time that if Hwang's results did not hold up, many might think the research “too difficult and inefficient to pursue.” He and others also worried that ethical lapses would provide ammunition to opponents of hES cell research (Science, 16 December 2005, p. 1748).

    Hwang's results didn't hold up. On 29 December, an investigative committee at SNU found the 2005 paper fraudulent and on 10 January 2006 concluded that the 2004 paper was bogus as well. (Hwang's one true achievement was cloning a dog, named Snuppy.) The president of SNU called the incident a “blemish on the whole scientific community.”

    But now, after a criminal trial that lasted 40 months, longer than Hwang's 2 years in the spotlight, the community “feels relieved that we dodged the bullet and that the field has remained vigorous,” says Daley.

    Several factors blunted the impact of the fraud. The public “soon realized that this is such a bizarre case that it was an aberration,” says Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. More significantly, just 6 months after Hwang's papers were retracted, Kyoto University's Shinya Yamanaka reported that introducing just four genes into mouse skin cells could turn them into something that closely resembles embryonic stem cells. He later showed that this direct reprogramming works with human cells as well, resulting in what are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

    Since then, several groups have reported creating iPS cell lines from patients with various illnesses. But no one has yet reported success in creating stem cells from a cloned human blastocyst, as Hwang claimed in his 2004 Science paper. “I think the game-changing breakthrough of direct reprogramming pushed the nuclear-transfer imperative to the background,” Daley says.

    Some even see a silver lining in the Hwang affair. “There could be no better case study than Hwang to underline the fact that you have to have ethics and science proceed together,” says Hyun. He says the debacle was a catalyst for the International Society for Stem Cell Research to bring together researchers, legal scholars, bioethicists, and policy experts to craft guidelines for hES cell research (Science, 2 February 2007, p. 603).

    Scientific journals now examine papers more closely. Science, for instance, now routinely screens all images in accepted papers, says Katrina Kelner, managing editor of research journals for AAAS, which publishes Science. “We did tighten up quite a few policies,” including more stringent statements on conflicts of interest and the option to request institutional review board documents. The journal will soon require authors to identify their specific contributions to the research. Mike Rossner, executive director of the Rockefeller University Press in New York City, thinks journals have not gone far enough. “Only a handful do systematic screening of all image data in all papers accepted for publication,” he says.

    In Korea, researchers are now more committed to proper documentation of lab work and to scrupulous handling of research funds, says Jeong-Sun Seo, a geneticist at SNU College of Medicine. Hyun adds there is a new awareness that “good scientific research is also ethical research.” And stem cell research is thriving. “Korea ranked fourth in the world in the number of accumulated publications on human ES cells, according to a report in Cell Stem Cell in July 2007,” says the Korean Stem Cell Research Center's Kim.

    Hwang still has supporters, who turned out in force each time he appeared in court. The Jang Yeong-sil Memorial Foundation, named for a 15th century Korean astronomer, awarded Hwang a medal for scientific excellence earlier this year. Meanwhile, Hwang has returned to veterinary science at the private Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Gyeonggi Province, where his team has been cloning dogs. The province is also supporting Hwang's efforts to develop pigs for various research purposes. And he is even publishing, but his papers don't attract the attention they once did.

    • * With reporting by Yvette Wohn.

  2. Scientific Misconduct

    Timeline of Events

    12 February 2004: “Evidence of a Pluripotent Human Embryonic Stem Cell Line Derived from a Cloned Blastocyst” published in Science.

    6 May 2004: Nature alleges unethical ooctye donation.

    19 May 2005: “Patient-Specific Embryonic Stem Cells Derived from Human SCNT Blastocysts,” reporting the creation of 11 stem cell lines derived from patients, published in Science.

    4 August 2005: Hwang's team reports the first cloning of a dog, Snuppy, in Nature.


    22 November 2005: Korean TV reports evidence of unethical oocyte donation; 2 days later, Hwang admits it's true.

    Early December 2005: Anonymous Korean scientists identify duplicated images and questionable DNA fingerprint data in Hwang's papers.

    15 December 2005: Hwang and co-author Gerald Schatten ask Science to retract their May 2005 paper because of data problems; Hwang continues to defend validity of findings.

    29 December 2005: Seoul National University (SNU) investigation reports there is no evidence Hwang's team produced any of the patient-specific stem cells reported in the May 2005 Science paper.

    10 January 2006: An investigating committee at SNU concludes that both Science papers were fraudulent but that Snuppy really is a cloned dog.

    20 January 2006: Science officially retracts both papers.

    20 March 2006: SNU dismisses Hwang.

    12 May 2006: Hwang is indicted on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and bioethics violations.

    26 October 2009: A Seoul court convicts Hwang of embezzlement and bioethics charges, giving him a 2-year suspended prison sentence.

  3. Energy Research

    DOE Gives $151 Million to ‘Out-of-Box’ Research

    1. Eli Kintisch

    Three days after President Barack Obama told a Massachusetts Institute of Technology audience that he would lead the country into a “new frontier” of clean energy research, a fledgling federal agency made a $151 million down payment on that promise.

    On Monday, the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) gave grants to 37 teams at companies, universities, and national labs that are pursuing cutting-edge technologies. “If only one project in a particular area works and produces transformational research, that will be a big success,” says Matt Rogers of the Department of Energy (DOE).

    Congress created ARPA-E in 2007, but the Bush Administration never liked the idea. Obama's election and the appointment of Steven Chu as energy secretary changed the political dynamic, however, and Congress gave DOE $400 million in this winter's $787 billion stimulus package. Its first solicitation attracted 3700 concept papers (Science, 21 August, p. 926), which were whittled down to roughly 300 full proposals.

    The awards, averaging $4 million for up to 3 years, are considerably larger than typical DOE grants in basic or applied energy. “The two strategies that the secretary was trying to get away from were either putting all your money into one [idea] or giving a little bit of money to 100 different approaches,” said Rogers. The awards have gone to technologies close to commercialization, including wind turbines derived from jet engines, as well as to more fundamental research, such as a type of genetically engineered plant enzyme that could be activated to convert the plant into a biofuel.

    One winner, a joint battery project run by Envia in Hayward, California, and Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, Illinois, aims to double storage capacity by using silicon anodes. DOE's vehicle-battery program has focused on developing titanium anodes because they promise longer-lasting batteries. Silicon anodes offer even greater capacity but cause swelling during recharge. A design using nanotubes could lick that problem and make a “huge impact,” says Argonne's Khalil Amine. Another grantee, Massachusetts–based start-up 1366 Technologies, has had trouble getting funding to explore cheaper ways to manufacture silicon wafers for photovoltaic cells. So ARPA-E's willingness to take a flyer on such techniques was a godsend, says 1366's Frank van Mierlo.

    Jet set.

    ARPA-E's first batch of awards includes funding for a novel wind turbine design, shown in this artist's representation.


    The agency plans a second solicitation at the end of the year for its remaining $249 million. And some supporters are already worried that Congress might lose patience with the program if, as is expected, many of the projects fall short of producing transformational change.

    Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), chair of the House science committee, confesses that blowback from nonstarters is his “biggest worry.” But he thinks “the appropriators will see the value” over time of taking such calculated gambles, offering as proof the agency's 50-year-old counterpart within the Department of Defense. “Look at all the successes out of DARPA,” he says.

  4. HIV/AIDS Research

    Beyond Thailand: Making Sense of a Qualified AIDS Vaccine "Success"

    1. Jon Cohen*
    Short supply.

    Limited blood samples from Thai participants will complicate efforts to find correlates of protection.


    When researchers announced on 24 September that an AIDS vaccine trial had positive results for the first time in history, many wondered whether they were real. Some prominent skeptics remain, but that debate has largely given way to intense discussions about how to build on this surprising finding. “The results are conceptually a game changer,” says AIDS vaccine researcher Gary Nabel, who heads the Vaccine Research Center at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the main funder of the $105 million study.

    Already, researchers have begun discussing the staggering challenge of probing blood samples from the more than 16,000 people in Thailand who participated in the trial to figure out which immune responses led to the modest protection reported. “The scientific community is going to throw everything it can at this,” says Nabel. “We can't afford to not pursue every clue we have here.”

    The key question is whether the study will help reveal the long-sought immune responses that correlate with protection. “There are no guarantees, and it's not going to be easy,” Nabel says. Peggy Johnston, who heads HIV/AIDS vaccine research at NIAID, says it's a long shot: “I think it's more likely that we'll be able to eliminate a correlate.”

    But even if these so-called correlates of protection remain elusive, the study is leading researchers to reassess the fundamental differences between preventing and controlling an infection, related findings from recent monkey studies, and the possibility that even a mediocre vaccine can help under some conditions.

    The 6-year Thai study, run by the U.S. Military HIV Research Program in collaboration with the Thai Ministry of Public Health, combined two vaccines that each had performed poorly in earlier trials (Science, 2 October, p. 26). The study's lead investigators revealed in press conferences in the United States and Thailand last month that HIV infected 51 of nearly 8200 people who received the vaccines versus 74 people of a similar number who received a placebo. Most were heterosexuals who had no high-risk behavior. This translated to 31.2% fewer infections in the vaccinated group, and it just barely met the arbitrary cutoff of statistical significance (see graph). The vaccine unexpectedly had no impact on virus levels in vaccinated people who became infected.

    Graphic difference.

    In this statistically significant analysis, infection rates climb more steeply in the placebo group but then become similar.


    Other analyses not initially described to the press but revealed 20 October at an AIDS vaccine meeting in Paris and in a New England Journal of Medicine report had slightly lower levels of vaccine efficacy that did not reach statistical significance. “It's definitely not an AIDS vaccine that we would use,” says immunologist Bruce Walker of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Still, Walker says the positive “signal” from the trial reveals something about protection. “I think we need to take it seriously,” he says.

    The U.S. military has enlisted four teams of scientists, including some not affiliated with the study, to decide how best to make sense of this weak signal with the limited plasma and cells collected from individual trial participants. The groups will examine antibody and cellular immunity, whether genetic differences between participants contributed to the protection, and the potential for future animal experiments to shed light on the results.

    Sorting out cause and effect will be difficult in part because most people in the study may not have been exposed to HIV. Ideally, researchers would like to compare immune responses in people exposed to the virus during the study who received the vaccine or the placebo. But this trial had a low rate of new infections, 0.19% per year, as most participants reported little or no high-risk behavior such as injecting drugs or commercial sex work. In a subset analysis of HIV-infected people in the highest risk group—which had too few numbers to reach statistical significance—the vaccine did not show any benefit.

    The immunologic results reported so far mirror data from earlier studies of these two vaccines that left many researchers unimpressed. The trial designers hoped that the one-two punch of the vaccines used in the Thai study would combine the power of antibodies to prevent infection with what's known as cell-mediated immunity to clear cells that the virus manages to infiltrate. But vaccinated people in the Thai study apparently made only “binding” antibodies, poor cousins to the dreamed-of “broadly neutralizing antibodies” that can stop many strains of the virus in test-tube experiments. Now researchers are wondering whether binding antibodies offer partial protection. “At least for some populations, it may not be necessary to have broadly neutralizing antibodies,” says NIAID's Johnston.

    As for cell-mediated immunity, Thai vaccine recipients showed only hints that the vaccines turn on this arm of the immune system—and it could not have been that robust, because the vaccine had no impact on viral levels in people who did become infected.

    In addition to comparing infected and uninfected people in the study, researchers will attempt to find correlates of protection by analyzing the viruses that managed to “break through” the vaccine protection. This may reveal immune responses that worked and others that didn't—but may need to be turned up. “That's probably going to be the most informative analysis,” says Nabel.

    Working hypothesis.

    People who reported the highest risk behavior did not appear to benefit from the vaccine, but the low and medium risk groups did.


    Louis Picker, who does monkey studies of AIDS vaccines at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, doubts that more will be learned from trial participants' blood samples. “The nonhuman primate model is probably the only way we're going to be able to dissect the Thai results,” he says. To Picker and many colleagues, the Thai results suggest that the vaccines protected people against the low doses of virus typically transmitted during sex, and that protection decreased over time because of repeated exposures and waning immunity. His group and others have developed a monkey model that may tease out the mechanism.

    Traditionally, researchers vaccinate monkeys and then “challenge” them with high doses of SIV, the simian AIDS virus, given intravenously. Picker, in contrast, challenges vaccinated monkeys with repeated, low doses of SIV given rectally to mimic human sexual transmission across a mucosal surface. “The Thai trial has said that using the low-dose model is probably a good thing to do,” says Picker, whose own SIV studies with this approach have linked oft-ignored immune responses to protection.

    Another possibility the monkey model can explore is the impact of the canarypox virus, the backbone of one of the vaccines in the Thai study. Koen Van Rompay and Marta Marthas of the University of California, Davis, published a study in 2005 that used an empty canarypox virus as a control in a low-dose challenge experiment with monkeys. The virus itself appears to have protected some animals from SIV, possibly by ramping up the more primitive innate immune system.

    The Thai study, for ethical and practical reasons, did not use an empty canarypox virus in the control group. If the canarypox virus by itself did lead to the protection seen in Thailand, van Rompay says, “I don't think they'd be able to figure that out.”

    Aside from intensifying the hunt for correlates of protection, the Thai results also promise to affect the design of future trials. “Should we be doing efficacy trials in such low-incidence communities that have so few events?” asks Seth Berkley, head of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). Indeed, some investigators contend that the only way to clarify why the Thai trial had a positive signal is to redo the study in a high-incidence heterosexual population.

    Robert Grant, an HIV/AIDS researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says the Thai study resembles trials of microbicides and behavioral interventions that have had hints of working. “We're going to have to learn to interpret results from prevention trials that show modest effects,” says Grant, who is leading a large study of anti-HIV drugs as preventatives. And maybe, he says, researchers will start combining the marginally effective strategies—just as they have done with treatment—to come up with one that has enough power to make a real dent against the spread of HIV.

    IAVI's Berkley stresses that the Thai study does at least bring closure to the once thorny question of whether these two vaccines hold promise. They do not. “At the end of the day, the field is going to continue to move forward other products,” he says.

    • * With reporting by Martin Enserink.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Gene Therapy Helps Blind Children See A single injection of DNA into the eyes of four children born with a blindness-causing disease has given them enough vision to walk without help. The study confirms that if patients with this disease are given gene therapy early in life, the results can be dramatic. A video accompanying the story shows how one 9-year-old's vision dramatically improved after the procedure.

    Naked Mole Rat Wins the War on Cancer With its wrinkled skin and buckteeth, the naked mole rat isn't going to win any beauty contests. But the burrowing desert rodent is exceptional in another way: It doesn't get cancer. The naked mole rat's cells hate to be crowded, it turns out, so they stop growing before they can form tumors. The details could someday lead to a new strategy for treating cancer in people.


    Why Fish and Red Wine Don't Mix For ages, diners have been told that drinking red wine while eating seafood can produce an unpleasant fishy aftertaste. The rule of thumb has been red wine with meat, white wine with fish. But the rule is not hard and fast. Seafood can taste fine with some reds, whereas some whites can ruin the meal. What's the common factor?

    Cutting Carbon Emissions, One Home at a Time You've heard the drill: Drive a fuel-efficient car, insulate your attic, and install energy-saving light bulbs. But what can the average person really do to combat global warming? Quite a bit, according to a new study. By taking a few well-known, readily available measures, researchers argue, Americans could cut their emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by as much as 7% over the next decade.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  6. U.S. Stem Work Force

    Study Finds Science Pipeline Strong, But Losing Top Students

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    A new study* finds little evidence for leaks in the U.S. pipeline for producing native-born scientists except for a steep drop in the percentage of the highest performing students taking science and engineering jobs. The findings suggest that the United States risks losing its economic competitiveness not because of a work force inadequately trained in science, as conventional wisdom holds, but because of a lack of social and economic incentives to pursue careers in science and technology.

    The researchers, led by B. Lindsay Lowell, a demographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Harold Salzman, a sociologist at the Urban Institute and Rutgers University, New Brunswick, analyzed data from six longitudinal federal surveys of education and employment trends conducted between 1972 and 2005. The surveys follow students as they graduate from high school and enter college, and again 3 and 10 years after leaving college.

    The researchers found that the percentage of high school students who were enrolled in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics program or had earned a STEM degree 5 years after graduation dipped only slightly between 1972 and 2000, from 9.6% to 8.3%. The percentage of those STEM graduates who were working in STEM occupations 3 years after college increased over the period—from 31.5% for the 1977/'80 cohort to 45% for the 1997/2000 cohort. Similarly, the percentage of STEM graduates who continued to work in STEM occupations 10 years after college rose from 34.8% in the 1977/'87 cohort to 43.7% in the 1993/2003 cohort.

    Greener pastures.

    More recent high-performing STEM graduates than in the past are finding jobs outside the field.


    That's not the case for the highest performing students, however, as measured by college entrance test scores and college grades. Although the percentage of those in the top quintile who pursued STEM in college climbed from 21% in the 1972/'77 cohort to 28.7% in 1992/'97, it plunged to 13.8% in 2000/'05. Likewise, the share of the top quintile still holding STEM jobs 10 years out of college dipped from 44.8% in the 1977/'87 cohort to 43.2% in the 1993/2003 cohort (see chart).

    The authors say those findings square with anecdotal evidence of STEM graduates being drawn to careers in management and finance starting in the early 1990s. Lowell says employers “seem to be poaching the best and the brightest” of STEM graduates by offering higher salaries for management and other non-STEM positions.

    Lisa Frehill, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, thinks the key to keeping talented STEM majors in science is to emphasize the opportunities that exist to solve society's problems. “Really good people will be less concerned about money if they can do work that is meaningful to them,” she says.

  7. U.S. Stem Education

    Obama's Science Advisers Look at Reform of Schools

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Confident that its opinions will be welcomed by the Obama Administration, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has launched a study of how best to improve U.S. science education. The goal is a quick-turnaround analysis to help guide U.S. policy on ways to raise student test scores and provide higher-octane fuel to run the nation's innovation system.

    “Filling the scientific pipeline is a critical issue for this country,” says PCAST Co-Chair Eric Lander, who will team up with council member James Gates to lead the study. “Our feeling was that we cannot avoid taking on this challenge.”

    PCAST will be entering a crowded field. There have been numerous such studies in the past 2 decades, including one by another presidentially appointed body, the National Science Board. Its 2007 report, which called for a national council to coordinate the country's STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education system, has been largely ignored. But board chair Steven Beering says that “the problem hasn't changed, and I can't imagine how [PCAST] could come up with a different set of issues to address. The key is to get the White House and Congress to act on them.”

    Last week, PCAST took its first steps by hearing from two expert panels and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The speakers offered suggestions on many topics, including reducing the achievement gap among students, increasing parental involvement, opening up the teacher-certification process, and strengthening the curriculum.

    Duncan offered a blunt diagnosis: “Frankly, too often science and math are boring for children … because it's been about memorizing facts, and because students have been taught by teachers who don't know the content themselves.” His solution was equally direct: “In the end of the day, it's about how do you get more adults with those skills in front of children.”

    Several speakers focused on those adults. Cora Marrett, who leads the $1 billion education directorate at the National Science Foundation, homed in on the need to do more research on the undergraduate experience. That's where the nation's teachers are trained, and giving them a stronger foundation in math and science is seen as key to making them better STEM teachers. Carl Wieman, a physics Nobelist, wowed the council with preliminary data on how his research team has begun to transform introductory STEM courses at the University of Colorado, Boulder, by understanding how students learn and then getting faculty to modify their teaching. But Wieman also warned the council not to expect a quick fix. Asked by one member what PCAST could do to implement his work, Wieman answered: “I'm not going to answer that. Despite the long-term nature of education reform, people always want a one-line solution.”

    Lander said PCAST hopes to deliver its recommendations to the president within 6 months.

  8. Paleoanthropology

    Signs of Early Homo sapiens in China?

    1. Richard Stone

    BEIJING—A fresh find of human fossils claimed to be more than 100,000 years old challenges the prevailing view that our ancestors peopled the world in a migration out of Africa late in the last Ice Age, Chinese scientists say. Other experts, however, argue that it's far too early to make sweeping claims about the significance of the putative Homo sapiens fossils: a fragment of a lower jawbone and isolated teeth unearthed in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and unveiled there at a press conference earlier this week.

    Many experts hold the “Out of Africa” view of modern human origins: We descended from populations of early H. sapiens who lived in Africa 100,000 to 200,000 years ago and left Africa perhaps 50,000 years ago. A rival idea with a small band of ardent backers holds that those who left Africa interbred with humans they met on other continents. That's China's take, described as “continuity with hybridization” by Wu Xinzhi of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) here. In this view, modern Chinese trace their roots to primitive Asian populations, including “Peking Man” or H. erectus, that bred with H. sapiens from Africa. “The Guangxi jaw is strong evidence to support this hypothesis,” asserts IVPP's Jin Changzhu, who discovered the Guangxi jawbone.


    A Homo jaw and associated teeth were found in a cave on Mulan Mountain.


    Not so, say Out of Africa defenders. “This initial publication makes shaky claims based on preconceptions rather than analytical rigor,” says Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. The find “is not evidence for ‘continuity with hybridization,’” adds paleoanthropologist Hisao Baba of the University of Tokyo. Nevertheless, if the Guangxi dating holds up, it suggests that “‘Out of Africa’ by Homo sapiens was probably carried out much earlier” than now believed, Baba says. That would mesh with the Liujiang fossils from Guangxi—putative H. sapiens remains dated to some 67,000 years ago—and stone tools found in India suggesting to some that H. sapiens arrived there at least 75,000 years ago (Science, 9 October, p. 224).

    Guangxi's jagged karst hills have cast a spell on paleoanthropologists since the late 1950s, as researchers have uncovered fossils of huge extinct apes and some primitive H. sapiens teeth there. Those finds prompted Jin in 2007 to systematically excavate six caves in Chongzuo. They hit pay dirt in one—now dubbed Homo sapiens cave—at Mulan Mountain.

    In 2 years of excavations, the group has unearthed fossils of 55 Ice Age species, including panthers, rhinos, and elephants. The big prize is the Homo mandible, whose owner would have had a chin that curved ever-so-slightly outward. H. erectus had an inward-sloping chin, whereas modern human chins generally jut out farther than the Guangxi specimen's. Jin's group classifies the fossil as primitive H. sapiens and says the intermediate chin suggests interbreeding with H. erectus. Uranium isotope dating by R. Lawrence Edwards of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, indicates that the fossil-bearing layer is about 110,000 years old, in a paper that will appear in the November issue of Chinese Science Bulletin.

    Chongzuo is a thought-provoking site, says Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who is not ready to assign the jaw to H. sapiens. It's “really quite important to continue these studies,” he says. Jin is confident that Guangxi's caves hold more secrets. “The jaw is only the beginning,” he says. His team resumed excavations at Chongzuo this week.

  9. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    ScienceInsider broke the story that the Department of Energy may extend by 1 year the operations of Fermilab's Tevatron in Batavia, Illinois. That would allow the premier U.S. particle physics lab to have a shot at finding the Higgs boson ahead of its European rival, the Large Hadron Collider, at CERN.

    The final report of the blue-ribbon panel on the future of U.S. human space exploration suggested, as expected, that NASA should extend shuttle launches into 2011. The panel called for more overall funding, as well as support to operate the space station at least until 2020.

    A “perfect storm” of unforeseen problems has delayed delivery of swine flu vaccine stocks. The delay means that millions of people could come down with the pandemic disease before the vaccine has had a chance to take effect.

    Bill McKibben of the climate advocacy group told ScienceInsider why an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 350, lower than the current level of 390, is the right goal for society.

    More children than ever are being vaccinated against deadly diseases, says the World Health Organization. Some 106 million infants were vaccinated against diseases such as measles and whooping cough in 2008—a record number.

    Although the United Kingdom has largely resisted the introduction of genetically modified crops on its land, a new report by the Royal Society suggests that the plants are needed as part of a multipronged strategy to ensure food security.

    Harvard University is reassessing options for its $1 billion Allston science complex. Construction has begun, but the school is worried that the 27% drop in its endowment could require scaling back plans.

    For more science policy news, visit

  10. 2009 Nobels: Break or Breakthrough for Women?

    Until this month, women had never won more than one Nobel science prize in a single year. This year's quartet of laureates talk about what their success might mean for science and society.

    Medals of honor.

    This year's crop of Nobelists includes, from far left, Elinor Ostrom in economics, Ada Yonath in chemistry, and Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider in physiology or medicine.


    The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. But this is the first year that more than one woman has been chosen as a science laureate. Indeed, the four distinguished scientists in the class of 2009—Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider in physiology or medicine, Ada Yonath in chemistry, and Elinor Ostrom in economics—raise the overall tally for women by 31%. But in absolute numbers, these 17 women scientists represent only 2.8% of the membership of this exclusive club.

    What will it take to boost those numbers? This year's awardees (Science, 9 October, p. 212; 16 October, p. 346) agreed to tackle that question in a telephone roundtable with Jeffrey Mervis of Science magazine and Kate Travis of Science Careers. Here is an edited version of what they had to say.

    Q:Although their presence has grown steadily for the past 3 decades, women hoping for a career in science still face many obstacles. What are the two or three most important steps that need to be taken right now to increase the number of women going into science and to improve conditions for those already in the field?

    Elizabeth Blackburn:The big bottleneck in terms of women's advancement—and I'm speaking about biological sciences—is the transition from postdoctoral research to positions in academic or research-intensive institutions. And so the question is, ‘How do you give people tools to deal with this?’ One very practical thing I've seen at my institution—and I know it's not unique—is having the ability for postdoctoral fellows to attend laboratory leadership courses. They can be as little as 1 week. They don't waste a lot of time, and I've seen them be very effective.

    Ada Yonath:Elizabeth talked about a very important stage in the development of a scientist, a man or woman. But I would like to refer to the steps before that. Although girls and young women are taking classes in the life sciences and chemistry, only a few of them make it to the next and the next and the next step. And this is maybe because there is not enough effort made in making them appreciate science and love science and develop their scientific curiosity. I think … maybe it is because we, the established scientists, don't interact with the youth enough. When I talk to them, they say, ‘Yeah, I want to study this because I want to be afterwards a lab assistant or a research helper.’ Very few say, ‘Because I want to solve a problem that interests me.’

    Audio Feature

    Listen to an extended-length version of the interview with 2009's four Nobel Prize-winning women. (Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)

    Q:Why do you think that is?

    A.Y.:I didn't have a mentor, nobody told me to go do a postdoc. I just was very excited and curious about science and solving the problems when they came up instead of thinking from the beginning and then looking at science as a profession. I looked at science as somewhere that I go to satisfy my intellectual needs, and I found ways to bypass the day-to-day problems.

    E.B.:Yes, I think that's so important. … I see the difficulty, that they love the science and they feel daunted at the same time. So how does one give them the confidence and the tools to be able to deal with those things that can end up deflecting them from the career that they might have wanted?

    Carol Greider:In the past, there hasn't really been leadership courses and those kinds of more formal ways of informing oneself, and so I think that the current mentors don't necessarily know to recommend that [approach] to their younger students. But there is a culture change going on—I certainly have seen it over the last 10 years—of more focus on these kinds of tools to overcome any potential obstacles, to be able to go forward and do what you're excited about.

    A.Y.:In Israel, we are doing it. The academicians set up an organization that goes to talk mainly to girls in high schools and in the first college years and try to convey to them the passion, the love, of science. I'm doing it almost four or five times a year, and it works.

    Q:What do they ask you?

    A.Y.:Well, there are those that talk about the personal aspects, so they ask, ‘Why did you do it and how did you do it and how did you solve that or that problem?’ And there are some that ask, ‘So why was this the problem that interests you?’

    Q:Do they feel that they can do it, too, or that you are so high up that they could never aspire to the kind of success you have achieved?

    A.Y.:First of all, I've been so high up only for a week, and I have been doing it for a few years, so until then I was just another professor. But my life, becoming a scientist, was quite difficult. I was an orphan, we were very poor, and I didn't have any help. Actually, I had to help my family. Let's not talk about it much. But when the girls find out that it could be done, [they think] maybe they can also do it.

    Q:Ada, both you and Liz received the UNESCO-L'Oréal Award that honors exceptional women scientists. Do you feel that such gender-based awards are useful?

    E.B.:They have a slogan that goes something like, “The world needs science, and science needs women.” In any complicated endeavor like science, you need lots of different ways of thinking about things. And women probably do add ways of thinking about things that are scientific, which may be different than men, because of their cultural differences and so forth. Women bring a richness to the research in all fields, not just science.

    And so I think this idea that science needs women is really right on target. I like what L'Oréal is doing.

    A.Y.:Well, I totally agree. … My little hesitation is, although everything is wonderful and the prize is good and their slogan is good, it's a bit too commercial. If it was less emphasis on L'Oréal, L'Oréal, L'Oréal, I think it would be more efficient. Because women associate L'Oréal with cosmetics, and the fact that it is mentioned so many times, and it's not only the ceremony but before and after for months we have to go and talk about our science but make sure we mention L'Oréal, I don't think it helps.

    Q:How is it possible, in today's climate, for the director of the National Institutes of Health, for example, to launch a high-profile competition like the Pioneer Awards and wind up with an inaugural class of grantees that is all men?

    Elinor Ostrom:It takes a while for the acceptance of women in multiple disciplines. That's happening more and more, and I think 10 years from now it will be a natural event that the distribution of women and men in their field does not represent the repression that women once faced in going to college or going into graduate school. The problem is the transition. So having it brought to people's attention that, gee, why is it all male repeatedly, is an important thing to do.

    Q:Any thoughts on how to get through this transition period?

    E.O.:Well, in our program, we have about 50% women applying to go to graduate school. I have a number of [women] colleagues here at Indiana who have full tenure. It's still not quite at the level it should be, but you don't make that [change] overnight.

    E.B.:Speaking for the biological sciences, and perhaps to contrast a little bit with what might be the case in the world of economics, the pipeline has been very, very strong for quite a long time for women. They've been populating the Ph.D. and postdoctoral levels at about roughly half men, half women for really quite a long number of years.

    Yet there's a very striking discrepancy in the careers after that. So I'm less optimistic that the problem is automatically solving itself. … [This] massive hemorrhaging is nice for other fields but not very nice for the aspirations, perhaps, of the women who put so much of themselves into training for so many years. I think career structure is something we have to look at. For many women, the issue is, ‘How am I going to have a family and a life and also tend to a career?’

    Q:How did each of you deal with that issue?

    E.O.:Well, as a somewhat older participant, I had a clear [choice]. And I made the decision not to have a family because, in earlier times, that would have been a very, very difficult thing to accomplish.

    C.G.:I come from the other spectrum in that I was able to see around me a number of women, including Liz, who were able to have children and have a career. So just in the same way that you have to go forward with experiments sometime, not knowing what's going to happen, I just went forward with the experiment of having kids and the career and trying to do both full-time.

    Q:To what extent do you have to blend your personal and your professional life to achieve a balance?

    A.Y.:In my day-to-day life, I don't sit and think about this, it just comes. This is the way I am and this is the way I run my life, and I don't really sit and organize myself, [saying] tomorrow I have to do this or that. It just happens.

    E.B.:Well, yes, I think that the message of balance is somewhat overplayed, because if you're doing something intense like having a family and doing science, they're both intense things. The idea that somehow every day is sort of balanced, I think it's really a bad message to try and send people. … That sounds very boring to me, in this sort of 9-to-5 [world]. Go for these things intensely in the periods when you have to go for them, and the balance will take care of itself over decades.

    C.G.:Many professional women face this kind of issue, and I tell people that it's actually very nice to be in science because what we're judged on in the end is how productive we are and what we get done, and it's not necessarily 9 to 5, and so I feel like I do have a lot of freedom. You know, I'll go out for my son's play at school at two o'clock in the afternoon and then come back again, and that kind of freedom to have a flexible schedule, I think, is not always true in other professions.

    Q:Many reports have said that women leave academic science because they are looking for more regular hours and a more predictable schedule.

    E.B.:Right. People have been giving them bad information. I think there's a lot of conventional ideas about being a mother and, you know, certain sorts of formulary and stereotypes are there. And I really think that they're not terribly helpful.

    Q:Has anything helped you be successful in terms of managing your time?

    E.B.:Is it time to tell the Bagel Bites story? … It's about producing beautiful cookies or cupcakes with beautiful icing and you're up till 2 a.m. making them for your children. This is what motherhood is supposed to be like, right? Well, it turns out that if you go to your supermarket, you can buy these little Bagel Bite things, they're called commercially, and you put them in the oven and they have cheese on the top and they bubble and they're lovely and brown and taste wonderful. And you take them to any children's function, and the children swarm over them, they love them, … and it takes 12 minutes in the oven to cook. So my feeling is there's plenty of time … to catch the essence of what it is that people like mothers to do, but you don't have to do it in a very laborious, conventional way.


    Q:Now that you have a bully pulpit, are there things that you can do to increase awareness of the importance of attracting women into science?

    C.G.:I think just getting out there and talking to people about the opportunities that have come up puts science into the minds of the public. And then by simply being a woman scientist, you have the opportunity to be there and talk about your science.

    Q:Will you be disappointed if next year's awards, and those for the following years, do not include women?

    E.B.:Oh, we'd like to [achieve] the biological ratio, which is 50–50, so all we're doing this year, I would say, is just approaching a more normal situation.

    Q:What about in economics and political science?

    E.O.:We wouldn't expect that, every year from now on, we would have one woman and one man receiving the prize in economics. That would be wonderful, but over a period of a decade, beginning to approach 50–50 makes eminent good sense. And if it doesn't, that is something we can be addressing.

    Q:How would you address that in the context of the Nobels?

    E.O.:Well, it's a delicate problem. But indeed, if 10 years from now the ratio had gone way, way down and someone asked me, I would be very honest and say I was deeply disappointed. Because I know there are very able women out there who aren't being recognized.

    Q:Would it say something about the process of recognizing scientific achievement?

    E.O.:Well, I think it says something about the processes in academia. As a person who was strongly advised against going to graduate school because I was a woman, I'm at least relieved that that has stopped and that, slowly but surely, we are seeing many more women becoming full professors, being given awards, et cetera. I think we will be seeing a continuation of that, but if we don't, then we better speak up and indicate that something's wrong.

    Q:Ada, in chemistry you were the first woman chosen in 45 years. What do you think the prospects are?

    A.Y.:It's very nice that women get it, and it's very nice that there is a half-half this year. It was not very nice that the community had to wait 45 years for a woman. But I think the prize should be given for excellence and not pay attention to anything else. And if there is an excellent woman, she should get it. She should not be discriminated against but also not discriminated for. … It's just one prize, and how the [Nobel] committee in Sweden make the decision is above and beyond my understanding. Yet I don't think that gender has to be part of their consideration.

    Q:The next time you talk to a 12-year-old girl who shows a passion for science, what would you most want her to know?

    C.G.:Well, I was just talking to a group of 9-year-old girls that were interested in science at my daughter's school, actually, and they asked me some of those questions, and what I said was, ‘Do what excites you. Follow your passion. Don't necessarily worry about what obstacles might be there, because there are always ways to overcome them. But the most exciting thing is to be able to do what you love, and just don't let anything stand in the way of that.’

    E.O.:I think that captured it very well. If you don't choose to do what you're really fascinated by, and then get yourself ready to do it, then your life is not a very worthwhile life.

  11. Profile: Chewang Norphel

    Glacier Man

    1. Gaia Vince*

    A retired civil engineer battles climate change in the Himalayas, building artificial glaciers that provide irrigation water to mountain villages.

    Icy resolve.

    Despite initial ridicule at his concept, Chewang Norphel has built 10 artificial glaciers


    STAKMO, INDIA—At more than 4000 meters above sea level in the trans-Himalayas, the air is so thin that it can be a struggle simply to breathe. Yet Chewang Norphel is almost jogging across the boulder-strewn landscape, with goatlike agility that belies his 74 years. Tonight, he will sleep in a tent 1000 meters higher up, at temperatures that dip 10°C below freezing, so as to continue his work in the morning. And what unusual work it is: Norphel makes glaciers. He takes a barren, high-altitude desert and turns it into a field of ice that supplies perfectly timed irrigation water to some of the world's poorest farmers.

    So far, Norphel has built 10 artificial glaciers, which sustain crops that feed some 10,000 people. It's become his obsession. “When it is very cold and very difficult work, I have to remain focused. All I can think about is making the most successful glacier,” he says.

    Legend has it that villagers in nearby Pakistan once grew glaciers to block Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors from advancing through mountain passes, but until Norphel came along there was little evidence that man could reliably duplicate this geological trick. Thanks to his talent, Norphel is now known as “Glacier Man” among the locals in these mountains. Wearing a beige sweater, gray pants, and a pair of leather lace-up shoes, he looks more schoolteacher than superhero, but Norphel has arguably pulled off something miraculous, doubling agriculture yields in one of the most climate-change ravaged regions in the world.

    Part engineer, hydrologist, and glaciologist, Norphel has had to create his own field of expertise. “What he has achieved in such circumstances, in remote parts of this mountainous desert, is remarkable,” says Pankaj Chandon, coordinator of the WWF-India's High Altitude Wetlands Conservation Programme in the Himalayas, based in Leh, who has followed Norphel's progress over the past decade. “It is testament to his sheer force of character. But also, he has come up with a unique, innovative idea that provides water when it is needed. It is a fantastic adaptation technology for the climate changes that we are experiencing in this region.”

    From runaway to road builder

    Leh, where Norphel was born into a farming family, is the principal town of the ancient kingdom of Ladakh. Wedged between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China, the territory consists entirely of mountains. It's the highest inhabited region on Earth, originally settled by pilgrims and traders traveling on the Silk Road between Tibet and India or Iran. It's now home to an 80% Tantric Buddhist population.

    In the 1940s, when Norphel was growing up, there was just one school in Leh, a primary school, and the young boy had to beg his father to attend it. “He agreed as long as I also kept up my faming duties. So I would rise at 4 a.m. and take the cows and goats for grazing before school. After school, I would rush home to help in the fields,” Norphel recalls. Even there, however, he thought of school, scratching times tables and equations into the dirt with a stick as he minded the herds.

    The youngest of three brothers in a poor family, Norphel expected that he would be sent to live in a Buddhist monastery after primary school, as tradition dictates. So, at 10 years old, he simply ran away to attend the nearest secondary school, in Srinagar more than 400 kilometers away. He paid for lessons by cooking and cleaning for his teachers.

    As his education progressed, Norphel realized two things: He loved mathematics and science, and he wanted to help the farmers he'd seen struggling so hard during his early childhood. One of his heroes was his father's cousin, who had been to London, returned to Leh as Ladakh's first engineer, and built the town's airport and the road from Leh to Srinigar.

    There was no university in the state at that time, so Norphel traveled south to Lucknow to earn a civil engineering degree. He loved the rigor of the subject and the practical application of physics and materials science. “You can really make a difference with engineering. You can solve people's problems quickly and in a way that they can see,” he says.

    Norphel ultimately returned to Leh as a governmental civil engineer. There was hardly a road or bridge in the region when he started in 1960, and everything had to be built by hand. Over the next 35 years, the enthusiastic, raven-haired engineer became a familiar site to the locals, who grew to trust him. “There is scarcely a village in Ladakh where I have not made a road, a culvert, a bridge, a school building, an irrigation system, or a zing [a small water-storage tank fed by glacial meltwater],” he says.

    More than 90% of those he helped were subsistence farmers, living and working in tightly knit communities. There was no money around—when Norphel needed labor for his projects, people willingly came forward. His designs had to be sustainable, using locally available materials. For example, he built a number of canals in which instead of using an expensive cement lining that would crack during winter, he allowed weeds to grow and thicken, their roots naturally plugging the gaps.

    Vanishing ice and a gush of inspiration

    By the time Norphel retired in 1995, priorities among Ladakhis were shifting from road-building to a far more serious problem: water scarcity. “Glaciers were vanishing and streams were disappearing,” Norphel says. “People would beg me to bring them water. Their irrigation systems were drying up and their harvests were failing. The government was starting to bring in grain rations.”

    In the so-called rain shadow of the Himalayas, Ladakh receives just 5 centimeters of rainwater a year—about the same as the Sahara desert. The population is entirely dependent on the melting of glaciers and snow. But global warming has hit this region particularly hard. The tree line has risen more than 150 meters during Norphel's lifetime, and glaciers have retreated by as much as 10 kilometers.

    Above the small village of Stakmo, Norphel points up at the dark rock slopes rising from the valley. “There were two large glaciers here and here,” he says, “and many smaller ones that only persisted during wintertime.” The glaciers that remain are now far from the villages and at high altitudes where they don't produce significant meltwater until May or June.

    That's too late to help local farmers. Because they experience such a brief summer, villagers must plant their one annual crop of barley, peas, or wheat by late March; otherwise it won't mature before winter arrives in September, after which the temperature drops below −30°C.

    By the mid-'90s, Norphel was living in the small village of Skarra, a few kilometers outside of Leh, with his wife and a daughter they adopted from one of his brothers. Determined to address the irrigation problem, Norphel came upon inspiration within 100 meters of his house, one bitingly cold winter morning. “I saw water gushing from a pipe and was thinking what a shame it is that so much abundant water is wasted during wintertime—the taps are left open to stop the water freezing in the pipes and bursting them,” he says. “Then I noticed that on its route to the stream, the water crossed a small wooded field, where it was collecting in pools. Where the trees provided shade, it was freezing into ice patches. By early March, the ice patches melted.”

    Farm aid.

    Farm aid. Using inlet channels, Norphel directs winter precipitation into stone-built reservoirs (top). … The stored water freezes into an artificial glacier and in the spring, outlets direct meltwater into irrigation (middle). … The strategy has helped farming villages such as Stakmo maintain productive harvests (bottom).


    Norphel realized that if he could somehow copy this on a much larger scale, he would have a way of storing up this winter water in an artificial glacier that would melt at just the right time for crop sowing and irrigation.

    Scorn, then gratitude

    It was a beautifully simple concept, but the initial reception to it was rough. “People laughed when I first presented the idea,” Norphel says. “Officials and villagers were skeptical. ‘What crazy man are you? How can anyone make a glacier?’ I was told.”

    Norphel's idea was to divert the lost winter water from its course down the mountain, along regularly placed stone embankments that would slow it down and allow it to spread and trickle across a large, shaded surface depression a few hundred meters from the village. Here, the slowed water would freeze and pack into a glacier that would begin melting when the sun rose high enough in spring to expose the thick ice sheet—just in time for the sowing season.

    But Norphel had no equipment and, even after some relentless lobbying, just a little seed money from the national Desert Development Programme. That was a problem given the societal change in the region that had occurred over the past decade. As water scarcity increased and the roads brought in trucks with government-subsidized grains, many villagers had left their fields to find paying jobs. “The attitude completely changed: If I wanted any of the villagers to repair a canal or help build a new glacier, I had to pay them,” Norphel says.

    He thus built his first artificial glacier with very little help, above the village of Phuktse. It was an immediate success, supplying water to irrigation channels from late March to late April, after which meltwater from the natural glacier higher up took over. “When people saw the benefits of the artificial glacier, they started helping me and we stretched the length of the glacier to 2 kilometers,” Norphel says.

    Giving thanks.

    Norphel (left) with a local farmer—some call him a “miracle worker.”


    The glacier supplies water for crops sustaining more than 1500 people in four villages. It's so precious that during the irrigation season, a man sleeps by the sluice gate to guard against water theft. “It was like a miracle, people quickly started to cultivate more land and started planting willow and poplar trees between their fields,” says Phuktse farmer Skarma Dawa. “This technology is very good because it works and it is simple and there's very little maintenance required.”

    Norphel has built nine glaciers since that first one, which he began in the late 1980s and worked on until 1994. They average 250 meters long by 100 meters wide; the Phuktse glacier remains the largest. Norphel estimates that each one provides some 6 million gallons (23,000 meters3) of water, although there has been no accurate analysis to date, and the undulating ground makes it difficult to guess the volume of ice in each glacier.

    Each artificial glacier is built using local labor and materials for about 3 to 10 lakh Indian rupees (US$6000 to $20,000), depending on the size and site, compared with about US$34,000 for a cement water reservoir, Norphel says. “And the technique also helps recharge groundwater and nearby springs,” he points out.

    “Before the artificial glacier, we really struggled to get any barley,” says Tashi Tundop, a 76-year-old farmer from Stakmo village. “But now we can grow many crops, even potatoes, which need to be planted earlier in the spring, but sell for much more money. I get three times more income than I used to.”

    A new climate threat

    Norphel's glaciers are site specific—they require a certain altitude, water flow, and surface area temperature, so they are not suitable for every location, notes Andreas Schild, head of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu. “Nevertheless, we are going to have to do some serious out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to sustainable water storage and investigate the efficiency of artificial-glacier technology,” Schild says.

    Norphel notes that he has already had interest in his glaciers from nongovernmental organizations working in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. “In some areas, reservoirs are a much more practical solution,” he says. “But in terms of water storage and release at the irrigation season, you can't beat artificial glaciers.”

    Despite his success, there has been little attention from the academic world. “I could do with some scientific help from specialists,” Norphel says. “I am trying to collect data on how and where the glacier forms best, and which parts precipitate first and why, so that I can improve on them and people can use the technique elsewhere.

    This September day, Norphel and his glaciers receive their first scientific visitor. Adina Racoviteanu, a geography graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is passing through Stakmo en route to her glacier field stations farther east. When she offers to make Norphel a topographic map of the artificial glacier site using her hand-held GPS monitor, a $3000 device, his eyes light up. The pair spend the next several hours taking readings across the site, achieving what would take Norphel weeks to do with his tape measure and plumb line.

    Later that day, as Norphel leaps nimbly across the boulders above Stakmo village, he points out his latest design tweaks. In 2006, when it rained for a week and the Zanskar River, which freezes over each winter, melted ahead of time, flash floods and landslides devastated his glacier here. “Blocking walls and canals were damaged by floods,” recalls Norphel. “I'm still at the experimental stage, but I've been able to completely redesign this glacier site to make it withstand floods better.

    The Stakmo site will soon have three artificial glaciers at increasing altitudes, so by the time the lowest one is spent, the one above it will have begun melting, and then the highest before the natural one at the top starts to liquidize. Norphel points out his latest seepage-avoidance technology: a 200-meter cement chamber that will be connected to the artificial glacier with 2- to 3-meter-long pipe. This will help distribute and freeze sheets of water evenly in the artificial glacier as well as providing a water reservoir for later in the year. “Creating the first such chamber is difficult in terms of design and funding,” he says. “The rest will still be expensive but easy to replicate.”

    Money remains a huge problem. Norphel says that 75 other nearby villages are in suitable locations for his artificial-glacier technique, but he lacks funds, and what funds are promised do not typically arrive in full. The watershed development program allots $50,000 per project per village, but so far, only $12,000 has been released in two installments over the past 6 years.

    And there's another problem: continued climate change. There is less and less snowfall during wintertime, when it is needed to contribute to Norphel's artificial glaciers. Instead, rain is arriving in September, ruining the harvests. It's a worrying trend. “These glaciers are not magic formations. They need that water over winter,” says Norphel.

    As the “retired” engineer makes his way up the mountain to his glacial work site, singing drifts up the valley from the villagers in the fields below, who are harvesting the last of this year's barley with simple scythes. It's a scene that must have played out for centuries. Without the Glacier Man, this village might well have fallen silent a decade ago.

    • * Gaia Vince is freelance writer following climate change around the world at

  12. Climate Change

    Hot, Flat, Crowded—And Preparing for the Worst

    1. Mason Inman*

    In a clarion call to other developing nations, Bangladesh is girding itself against the hazards of a warmer world

    Vegging out.

    In arid northwest Bangladesh, gardens are catching on as a simple way to compensate for declining rice yields.


    RAJSHAHI, BANGLADESH—Pale-green sprouts of summer rice are just poking up from water the color of milky tea pooled behind low earthen banks. These terraced rice paddies are a traditional farming method for coping with monsoon downpours. Another age-old adaptation of this community in northwest Bangladesh is deowal bari: thick mud walls that keep homes cool even as temperatures outside soar above 40°C.

    But a changing climate is forcing locals to further improvise—and fast. This region of Bangladesh in recent years has received only about half the winter rainfall it averaged over the past half-century. Farmers here are often unable to sow winter crops. Compounding these woes, monsoon rains came nearly a month late in 2009, cutting short the main growing season. “Between May and December, we used to plant two rice crops,” says Alfaz Hossain, a local farmer. Now, he says, they plant only one. That has forced villagers to largely rely on a single harvest of aman, or “summer rice,” all year long.

    Conditions are expected to deteriorate. The first high-resolution model of South Asia predicts that if average temperatures rise about 3°C by 2100, monsoons will rev up 2 weeks later than they do now, and rain will come in less frequent but more intense bursts, climatologist Noah Diffenbaugh of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and colleagues reported in the 3 January issue of Geophysical Research Letters. That's bad news for a country that gets hammered regularly by floods, cyclones, and droughts. Bangladesh is “nature's laboratory for natural disasters,” says Ainun Nishat, senior adviser at the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Dhaka office.

    Now Bangladesh is striving to become a global showcase for climate change adaptation. Earlier this month, its government approved a wide-ranging strategy for dealing with climate change that includes ramping up civil engineering projects to control flooding and protect farmland from rising sea levels. Researchers here are also testing crops that better tolerate floods and drought.

    Realizing that time-honored approaches to living off the land no longer suffice, Bangladesh has implemented more community-level projects than any other country to gird people for climate shifts. With support from Livelihood Adaptation to Climate Change, a program run by the United Nations (U.N.) Food and Agriculture Organization and Bangladesh's Department of Agriculture Extension, farmers in Basuldanga, in the northwest, have been testing new ways to eke out a living. With program-supplied seeds and pointers from agricultural field officers, once-bare patches between houses are brimming with vegetables such as spinach and gourds watered from newly dug ponds that collect rainwater. There are now so many gardens, agricultural officers refer to Basuldanga as subzee gram, or “vegetable village.” “Vegetable cultivation can't replace the loss of paddy [rice], but it provides a little bit of help,” says local farmer Mohammed Mostafa.

    Old and new.

    Thick mud walls of homes are a timehonored adaptation to scorching heat, while newly dug ponds collect rainwater for irrigation.


    Given the uncertainties of climate modeling, “improving overall resilience is the way to go,” says Neil Adger, head of adaptation research at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, U.K. He and others are calling for adaptation measures in Bangladesh and elsewhere that help people regardless of how the climate changes. There's little time to spare. “We are running, but the climate is running faster,” says Habib Mohammad Naser, a soil scientist at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute in Dhaka.

    Averting hunger

    The U.N. has so far amassed about $350 million in four funds to help high-risk locales adapt to climate change, including pilot efforts to fight malaria in Colombia and to strengthen shorelines on Kiribati, a Pacific island nation. But this funding is a thimbleful of what's needed: The World Bank estimates that as much as $100 billion a year is required to prepare people in vulnerable areas for climate change. That's assuming the world gets its act together to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. If not, says disaster expert Ian Burton of the University of Toronto in Canada, “then the cost of adaptation is going to be enormous.”

    Although Bangladesh had been working on adaptation plans for several years, 2007 was a wake-up call. That year, after two severe floods and a cyclone, rice production overall fell 10% short of need; in some districts half or more of the crop was wiped out. Bangladeshis waited in long lines for government handouts, and food riots broke out.

    Climate change presents many challenges for South Asia, but in Bangladesh, not surprisingly, “agriculture will be the hardest-hit sector,” predicts Sheikh Ghulam Hussain, an agricultural scientist with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council. Although the country's rice production nearly tripled with Green Revolution techniques—improved seeds, more irrigation, and more fertilizer—progress here, as across much of Asia, has stalled. Bangladesh must ratchet up yields by at least 40% by midcentury to keep its population fed, says Hussain.

    For more than a decade, Hussain has been modeling the effect of hotter weather and higher carbon dioxide levels on crops. An average annual temperature rise of up to 2°C above present day will have a negligible effect on rice in Bangladesh, his models predict. “But if it goes beyond that, to three or four degrees, then it will be a problem” for rice, says Hussain, who forecasts roughly a 25% decrease in rice production.

    Raising production in a warmer climate will be a huge challenge, Hussain says, “but there are many options,” including improved crop varieties, shifts to new crops such as maize, and more efficient fertilizer use.

    One promising development is rice that can withstand being underwater for days on end (Science, 18 July 2008, p. 330). Since severe floods often swamp Bangladesh, plant physiologist Jiban Krishna Biswas of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) in Dhaka and colleagues are testing how rice responds to floods simulated in swimming pool–sized concrete tanks. Varieties with the gene sub1 can survive 2 weeks underwater—more than twice as long as ordinary rice. The gene slows the plant's growth to conserve energy and preserve chlorophyll, allowing it to spring back once floodwaters subside. One variety, Swarna sub1, could be ready for farmers in 2 or 3 years, says Biswas. “It would be a breakthrough,” he says, because Swarna sub1 could be suitable for up to 1 million hectares, or onesixth of Bangladesh's summer rice.

    BRRI researchers have also developed a rice variety called BRRI Dhan 47 that can withstand high salt levels, and they are experimenting with aerobic rice, in which no standing water remains on a field, cutting water use in half. But scientists are making fewer inroads into traits such as tolerance to drought and heat. Therefore, Hussain argues, the main threat to rice from a warming world is sterility: When rice plants flower in summer, temperatures above 35°C for more than 8 hours straight often sterilize the plant's spikelets, preventing these from developing into rice grains. “Once this threshold is crossed, we will be in trouble,” Hussain says. Developing varieties that flower earlier in the morning could help avoid this problem, but the genes controlling flowering time haven't been identified.


    Much of Bangladesh's cropland (top) was deeply flooded after intense monsoon rains in July 2007 (bottom).


    Turning back the tide

    The need for hardier rice, particularly salt-tolerant varieties, will only grow. As climate changes, a broad swath of Bangladesh is expected to grow saltier, and some areas could even disappear under the waves. Nearly a fifth of Bangladesh sits less than a meter above sea level; recent estimates forecast sea level rises of up to 2 meters by 2100 (Science, 5 September 2008, p. 1340). In Bangladesh, “river waters will be more saline, and the people will find that their lands are no longer suitable for agriculture. They will lose their livelihoods,” predicts S. M. Mahbubur Rahman of the Institute of Water Modeling in Dhaka. Bangladesh's climate change strategy warns that “sea-level rise could result in the displacement of millions of people.”

    To blunt the ill effects, Bangladesh's adaptation strategy calls for a Dutch-style overhaul of coastal polders: pockets of land enclosed by several-meter-tall earthen embankments that protect against high tides and moderate storm surges when cyclones tear through. Engineers have already built an extensive network of such embankments. Bangladesh's plans call for extending, strengthening, and building them higher.

    The integrity of inland embankments is also a major worry. Although torrential downpours fill rice paddies—an essential part of the agricultural cycle—too much rain can lead to flooding that wipes out crops. In 1998, the worst year on record, about two-thirds of Bangladesh was deep underwater, some places for as long as 2 months.

    Seasonal flooding seems to have worsened in recent years, says climate scientist M. Monirul Mirza of Environment Canada in Toronto. Severe floods, in which more than a third of the country is inundated, hit five times between 1987 and 2007, compared with just twice in the previous 2 decades, he says. With a 2°C average global temperature rise, one of Mirza's studies predicts, more intense monsoon rainfall would increase the area in Bangladesh hit by severe floods by at least 25%. Sea-level rise would compound the problem by slowing river flow, resulting in deeper and longer-lasting floods.

    Bangladesh's climate change strategy estimates that strengthening embankments and other adaptation projects would cost about $5 billion over the first 5 years. So far, the government has contributed $70 million to a trust fund to pay for the work, says S. M. Munjurul Hannan Khan, deputy secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and other countries have pledged contributions, including $30 million from the United Kingdom.

    Grassroots efforts are critical. “It's necessary for officials to learn from farmers and pass information up to research scientists and planners,” says U.K. soil scientist Hugh Brammer, who for more than 40 years has helped Bangladesh shape its strategy for agriculture and flood control. If Bangladesh's recipe for adaptation works, it may end up being emulated as other countries brace for the consequences of a warmer world.

    • * Mason Inman is a writer in Karachi, Pakistan..