News this Week

Science  03 Dec 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6009, pp. 1298

You are currently viewing the .

View Full Text

Log in to view the full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution

  1. HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials

    A Powerful and Perplexing New HIV Prevention Tool

    1. Jon Cohen

    On 2 October, two dozen AIDS researchers gathered at the Eden Roc hotel on Millionaire's Row in Miami Beach, Florida, to learn whether an HIV prevention study they had just completed would become a millstone or a milestone for the field. In the six-country study, 1251 men and transgender women who have sex with men and were not infected with HIV at the study's start took an antiretroviral pill each day to see whether it could ward off infection with the virus. Another 1248 carefully matched participants took a placebo. Failure would cast a pall over the whole concept of oral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which is now being tested in four other efficacy trials that involve 16,000 heterosexuals and injecting drug users (see table). Success would offer a powerful new option to dodge the virus—and might even slow HIV's spread in entire communities.

    More news soon.

    Large PrEP studies in different populations will start reporting results by 2012.


    Unlike the many HIV prevention trials that have failed or had positive but barely significant results, the study—called the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis Initiative (iPrEx)—showed unequivocally that the treated group had 44% fewer infections after an average of 1.2 years. More encouraging still, most of the failure seemed to occur among those who did not take the pill as directed: A small substudy found that risk of infection plummeted by 92% in people who had measurable drug levels in their blood. The researchers applauded and some even cried when they heard the bottom line. “It was very, very dramatic,” says Robert Grant, a virologist with the J. David Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who headed the trial. “People were overjoyed to be among one of the few prevention trials to have shown a protective effect.”

    The New England Journal of Medicine published a full report of the iPrEx results on 23 November. The global response was ecstatic, prompting no less than U.S. President Barack Obama to issue a statement. “I am encouraged by this announcement of groundbreaking research on HIV prevention,” said Obama. “While more work is needed, these kinds of studies could mark the beginning of a new era in HIV prevention.” But the good news was tempered by a dizzying array of complicated issues about human behavior, ethics, resources, risk, and public health.

    The iPrEx study, which cost $43.6 million and was conducted between July 2007 and December 2009, has one clear-cut message: A pill can dramatically lower the chances of transmission of HIV through receptive anal intercourse in men who have many partners—on average, 18 in the 12 weeks preceding the start of the trial—and frequently do not use condoms. The pill, Truvada, made by Gilead Sciences in Foster City, California, combines two anti-HIV drugs, tenofovir and emtricitabine. Truvada is already on the market and widely used as a treatment in AIDS drug cocktails, which means doctors can immediately start prescribing it “off-label” as a preventive.

    Yet PrEP's role in public health remains anything but clear. “We don't think, ‘Let's just sprinkle Truvada in the water supply and it solves the problem,’” says Kenneth Mayer, who headed an iPrEx study at Fenway Health in Boston, one of two U.S. sites. (Nine other trial sites were in Peru, Ecuador, South Africa, Brazil, and Thailand.) “It's an imperfect tool.”

    First, iPrEx shows only that the drug works in the specific high-risk population studied. Mayer and others stress that, as was done in the study, the drug should be offered as part of a prevention package that includes condom promotion and counseling. Experts worry that PrEP might lead people to take more risks than they would otherwise, offsetting the benefit of the pill, although this wasn't seen in the study.

    PrEP could do harm, too, if it drove the evolution of Truvada-resistant HIV strains. When used as treatment, Truvada alone, versus in combination, is not strong enough to keep the virus in check. Theoretically, if people did not know they were already HIV-infected and took Truvada, the virus could mutate around the drug. An increase in Truvada-resistant strains, which are already circulating at low levels, could undermine both treatment and PrEP. Again, such drug resistance did not surface in iPrEx, but the researchers were rigorous in their efforts to exclude HIV-infected people and tested participants for new infections every 4 weeks.

    For policymakers, the PrEP results raise difficult ethical and practical questions. Funding for HIV/AIDS is already insufficient: Ten million infected people who need treatment currently have no access to drugs. “I think it's going to be quite a while before we'd start using oral antiretrovirals for prevention,” says epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, which has more infected people than any country.

    In wealthy countries, no one knows whether insurance companies will cover the use of Truvada as a preventive, and there are no guidelines for prescribing PrEP, although in the next few weeks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it will publish interim guidance.

    Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which paid for two-thirds of iPrEx (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation picked up the balance), says Truvada's success as PrEP could have far-reaching impact on other HIV prevention studies. Ethical principles demand that researchers minimize risk for people who participate in studies, which means offering known effective interventions in the control arms of trials of vaccines or other PrEP compounds. Fauci says NIAID will now review “virtually every study that we have ongoing or planned” to assess whether trials that have placebo controls should instead offer Truvada. “It's going to create welcome work for everyone in HIV prevention science,” says Jeremy Sugarman, a bioethicist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. Sugarman, who chairs the ethics working group of the NIAID-funded HIV Prevention Trials Network, stresses that he's thrilled about the positive results. “If they make our ethical questions harder to answer, so be it.”

    UCSF's Grant contends that the iPrEx results create new opportunities that might mitigate some of the potential downsides. First, he wonders whether real-world adherence might be better than in a clinical trial setting, as people know that they are taking an active drug and that it works. Adherence also could differ in different populations. Epidemiologist Connie Celum of the University of Washington, Seattle, is currently heading a PrEP study in 4700 Kenyan and Ugandan heterosexual couples in which only one partner is known to be infected. The Partners PrEP Study carefully monitors drug adherence, and preliminary evidence suggests it is much higher than in iPrEx, which Celum suspects is because the uninfected long-term partners are highly motivated.

    As for resource limitations sidelining PrEP, prophylactic use of Truvada could create more competition and lead to a reduction in the price of the drug, which ranges from $11 per month for a generic version sold in poor countries versus up to nearly $1000 per month for the retail Gilead product. And PrEP costs would fall if people do not need to take it every day: Truvada has a long half-life, and ongoing and future studies will assess whether it will work with less frequent dosing. CAPRISA 004, a PrEP trial with a vaginal microbicide that contained tenofovir, revealed in July that inserting the gel before and after sex alone cut transmission by 39%.

    Fielding questions.

    Robert Grant (right) spoke about potential risks and benefits with communities in Peru before launching iPrEx. Positive results (left) mean clinicians everywhere must do the same.


    In keeping with a push to link prevention and treatment—treated people are likely less infectious—PrEP might encourage more people to undergo HIV tests. “No one is getting tested hoping to be positive and start treatment,” says Grant. “People are hoping to be negative. This becomes a potent motivator to get a test.”

    Ultimately, PrEP's popularity may be tied to whether Gilead asks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a label change to include its use as a preventive. Although not required, insurers will often reimburse only for indications approved by regulatory bodies, and many countries follow the lead of FDA. Gilead says it wants to have “frank” talks with FDA and other stakeholders before it decides to seek licensure for Truvada as a preventive. “We'll have, I imagine, a very interesting discussion about the potential risks and benefits associated with this kind of a modality, and I think that will govern what we choose to do,” says Howard Jaffe, president of the Gilead Foundation, a nonprofit started by the company to help poor communities combat HIV and hepatitis B and C.

    Confusing as PrEP's fate might seem, Fenway Health's Mayer stresses that the iPrEx results are an important milestone for the failure-weary HIV prevention field. “This plus CAPRISA means we've crossed the Rubicon,” says Mayer. “Antiviral chemoprevention works, no question.”

  2. Newsmaker Interview: Michel Sidibé

    New HIV Infections Drop, But Treatment Demands Rise

    1. Jon Cohen

    Two years ago on World AIDS Day, 1 December, Michel Sidibé was appointed the new executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). An economist by training and a native of Mali, Sidibé came into the job when funding for HIV/AIDS was still flush. But the global economic crisis that fall threatened to end the era of extraordinary largesse, which enabled many poor countries to rapidly increase the number of people who were receiving antiretroviral treatment. On World AIDS Day today, that rapid growth has come to a standstill, and Sidibé is wrestling to renew the momentum and turn the funding situation around.

    In its new 359-page Global Report on the epidemic, UNAIDS spells out the challenges in detail, documenting the country-by-country prevalence that adds up to an estimated 33.3 million HIV infections. The report, as usual, is a sweet-and-sour dish, emphasizing that despite increasing concern about funding, 33 countries—two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa—have seen rates of new HIV infections drop by more than 25% since 2001. Sidibé spoke with Science from New York City, where he was visiting the U.N. headquarters.

    Q:What's the main news from the report?

    M.S.:For me the most exciting news is we have broken the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic. It's the first time through data and analysis we can show that 56 countries have stabilized or significantly slowed the rate of new HIV infections.

    Q:How confident are you that these stabilizations are due to prevention efforts as opposed to HIV having infected the most vulnerable people years ago and saturating populations?

    Changes in Incidence Rate of HIV Infection (2001–2009)CREDIT: UNAIDS

    M.S.:I think it's mainly due to prevention combined with treatment. To give you a good example, in 59 countries, fewer than 25% of the men reported having sex with more than one partner in the last 12 months, which is spectacular. A few years ago we were seeing the opposite trend. Condom use and availability have also increased significantly. And young people are leading the prevention effort by delaying the first time they have sex. I don't think it's just saturation.

    Q:The new report has scorecards that summarize the prevention, treatment, funding, and human rights situations in each country. It doesn't look like everyone is achieving what you want.

    M.S.:I tried to introduce this scorecard concept to better analyze the gaps. We're closing the gap between treatment and prevention. Just 2 years ago, for every two people we were putting on treatment we were having five new infections. Now it's one to two. That's a very good signal.

    Q:What do you think of regions that aren't stabilized, like Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which saw incidence increase by 25% between 2001 and 2009?

    M.S.:In these regions, prevention services for drug users are below 35%, which is far short of what's needed. If we have an epidemic mainly driven by drug use and we don't have prevention services available, it will be impossible to see the reduction we're seeing in other parts of the world. In Bangladesh and Indonesia, we're having difficulty reaching the sex worker and the client with HIV prevention services. It will also be a question of how we deal with laws and stigma and prejudice that are making people not have access to the services.

    Q:Where have you seen success that you didn't expect?

    M.S.:I was visiting Iran and was very surprised to see one of the most progressive programs in a prison setting where they were having condom distribution and methadone maintenance for prisoners.

    Q:What do you think of the 1-year retention rate of people on antiretrovirals? It's 95% overall but falls to 47% in one country, and after 2 or 3 years it plummets in many places.

    M.S.:We need a serious monitoring of the dropout rate. Dropouts have become one of the critical issues to deal with because we're going to have increasing drug resistance and a more complex problem to deal with.

    Q:On human rights, are we making progress or sliding backward? Are you concerned about the homophobic laws being pushed in Uganda?

    M.S.:Without any doubt. Uganda is one of the model countries for us. It's one of the first countries to break the conspiracy of silence, putting people with AIDS at the front line. I raised this issue with Uganda's government, and I certainly hope they will take the decision that is most appropriate for protecting those people.

    Q:Do you think we're at a point where we cannot sustain people who have already started ARVs?

    M.S.:We're at that point, and it's very, very scary. Most of the programs will have difficulty increasing the number of people on treatment. Most just are trying to maintain what already is being implemented.

  3. Biochemistry

    What Poison? Bacterium Uses Arsenic to Build DNA and Other Molecules

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    From elephants to the bacterium Escherichia coli, all forms of life on Earth depend on the same six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. “The paradigm is that the chemistry of life is so specific that any change in chemistry also changes molecular stability and reactivity, which would not be tolerated,” says Clara Chan, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Delaware, Newark.

    In a paper published online by Science ( this week, however, an exception to that rule makes a surprising debut. Meet GFAJ-1, a bacterial strain that researchers say can replace the phosphorus in its key biomolecules, including DNA, with the legendary poison arsenic. “This is a very impressive and exciting discovery,” says Barry Rosen, a biochemist at Florida International University in Miami. “The implication of this work is that life can be quite different from what we know,” agrees Chan.

    Search for unusual life.

    Felisa Wolfe-Simon collects samples from Mono Lake (left), where high arsenic levels proved conducive to the evolution of arsenic-using microbes.


    In 2009, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a geomicrobiologist based at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, and two colleagues argued that arsenic could have stood in for phosphorus in ancient living systems. Phosphorus, in the form of the compound phosphate, forms the backbone of strands of DNA and RNA, as well as ATP and NAD, two molecules key to energy transfer in a cell. Arsenic, Wolfe-Simon pointed out, sits just below phosphorus on the periodic table and has similar chemical properties. Indeed, its toxicity to people and most forms of life arises when cells try to use arsenic in lieu of phosphorus.

    Despite that, Wolfe-Simon speculated that some microbes might be able to adapt to using arsenic. Others were skeptical. The arsenic-containing compound arsenate is much more unstable than phosphate in water, and no cell would be able to cope with that, critics argued.

    To test her hypothesis, Wolfe-Simon collected mud from Mono Lake, California, a desert body of water known for having high arsenic levels, and grew the microorganisms from it in increasing concentrations of arsenate. She didn't add any phosphate or other phosphorus-containing compounds to the growth medium, as is typically done to sustain microbes. Instead, she periodically transferred the growing cultures to a new dish to reduce the concentration of any original phosphorus to the point that any microbe making new DNA or other biomolecules would need to use the arsenic to survive.

    Like others, says Wolfe-Simon, she didn't really expect to find any survivors. So she was thrilled and surprised when one evening she checked the latest cultures under the microscope and saw fast-moving bacteria. She rechecked the components of the culture media to confirm there were no phosphorus contaminants. She and her colleagues then began to subject the microbes to sophisticated analyses to see if arsenic had been utilized by the bacteria. “I held my breath with every one,” says Wolfe-Simon.

    One form of mass spectrometry showed that the arsenic was inside the bacterial cells and not some impurity sticking to the outside of the cell. When the researchers added radioactively labeled arsenate to the bacteria's culture, they were later able to discern its presence in the protein, lipid, nucleic acid, and metabolite fractions of the cells, suggesting that arsenic had been incorporated in molecules forming each fraction. They also separated out the DNA from the bacteria and analyzed its composition using a technique called high-resolution secondary ion mass spectrometry; the isolated DNA contained arsenic.

    Tests utilizing the intense x-rays at a synchrotron facility offered additional support, indicating that at least some of the arsenic in the bacteria was in the form of arsenate with the appropriate molecular bonds to carbon and oxygen atoms to replace the phosphates in DNA and other molecules.

    Such work has convinced many that Wolfe-Simon's team has isolated a bacterium that uses arsenic to grow. “The organization of the experiments presents convincing and exhaustive results,” says Milva Pepi, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Siena in Italy. But not everyone agrees. Rosen finds the study “believable” but says he still has lingering concerns that the arsenic is simply concentrated in the bacterial cell's extensive vacuoles and not incorporated into its biochemistry. He would like to see Wolfe-Simon's team demonstrate a functional arsenic-containing enzyme, for example. Steven Benner, an astrobiologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida, is more skeptical: That GFAJ-1 uses arsenic as a replacement for phosphorus, “is, in my opinion, not established by this work,” he says.

    Wolfe-Simon isn't arguing that GFAJ-1 prefers, or even naturally uses, arsenic. Mono Lake has a lot of phosphorus as well as arsenic, and the strain grows better when supplied with phosphorus. But to her and others, GFAJ-1 is proof that phosphorus-free life forms can exist and may do so somewhere on Earth. Next, Wolfe-Simon wants to collect samples from places with high arsenic but low phosphorus concentrations in hopes of finding microbes that depend solely on the former.

    Wolfe-Simon speculates that organisms like GFAJ-1 could have thrived in the arsenic-laden hydrothermal vent–like environments of early Earth, where some researchers think life first arose, and that later organisms may have adapted to using phosphorus. Others say they'll refrain from such speculation until they see more evidence of GFAJ-1's taste for arsenic and understand how the DNA and other biomolecules can still function with the element incorporated. “As in this type of game changer, some people will rightly want more proof,” says microbiologist Robert Gunsalus of the University of California, Los Angeles. “There is much to do in order to firmly put this microbe on the biological map.”


    From Science's Online Daily News Site


    Meet the Squidworm Deep in the Pacific Ocean, scientists have discovered a remarkable new creature that they have dubbed the “squidworm.” Karen Osborn, then at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, and colleagues used a remotely operated vehicle to find Teuthidodrilus samae at the bottom of the Celebes Sea off the eastern coast of Borneo. As the team reports online in Biology Letters, the segmented worm sports a series of 10 large appendages near its head that give it a squidlike appearance.


    Black Hole May Offer Clues to Extra Dimensions String theory posits that space has more than three dimensions, curled up in loops so small that they could probably be probed only in high-energy particle collisions. Now one theorist suggests these hypothesized extra dimensions might reveal themselves in the stars.

    According to Einstein's theory of gravity, matter warps spacetime, changing the paths of free-falling objects. It even affects light; when light from a star passes near a galaxy, its path bends, changing where the star appears in the sky—an effect called gravitational lensing.

    Now, physicist Amitai Bin-Nun of the University of Pennsylvania argues in Physical Review D that gravitational lensing around the supermassive black hole thought to be at the center of the Milky Way might provide a way to search for extra dimensions. Bin-Nun used numerical simulations to show that, in a world with extra dimensions compared with one without, a star known as S2 could be as much as 44% brighter when it reaches its peak brightness in 2018.

    But researchers say the hypothesis will be hard to validate with telescopes, and if the black hole is rotating, it would produce effects that could easily be confused with Bin-Nun's predictions.

    The Curious Case of the Backwardly Aging Mouse In F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” an old man gets younger with each passing day. Now a team has used genetic engineering to accomplish something similarly curious in mice. Scientists don't fully understand what triggers aging, but many suspect the gradual shrinking of telomeres, the protective DNA caps on the end of chromosomes. The telomeres shrink as cells divide, and telomerase, the enzyme that maintains the caps, isn't typically active in adult tissues.

    To investigate the connection, molecular biologist Ronald DePinho of the Belfer Institute at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard Medical School and colleagues first genetically engineered mice to lack a working copy of the telomerase gene. The animals aged prematurely and died at about 6 months—mice usually live for 3 years. Then the team created a new batch of mice with the same infirmity but with a telomerase gene activated by a certain drug. The researchers let these mice prematurely age, then at 6 months they switched on the telomerase gene.

    The burst of telomerase production spurred almost total recovery, the researchers report online in Nature. This indicates that the cells that divide to replenish tissues don't simply die when their telomere clock expires, but can be revived, says DePinho. Other researchers point out that these mice were genetically modified, so it still remains to be seen if aging can be delayed in a normal mouse—or in a human.

    Toba's crater, now a lake (inset).


    Giant Eruption Cut Down to Size Just how devastating was the eruption of the Indonesian “supervolcano” Toba 74,000 years ago? Some researchers have suggested that it locked the world in a deep freeze, whereas others have put the cooling at only 3° to 5°C. Similarly, some archeologists have proposed that the explosion impacted human evolution, creating a genetic “bottleneck” where only the survivors' genes got passed on; others have argued that people would have survived the eruption handily.

    Now researchers led by climate modeler Claudia Timmreck of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, have weighed in with a climate model that focused specifically on the way the blast's sulfate aerosol particles cooled the atmosphere by reflecting the sun's rays. Assuming that Toba pumped out about 850 million metric tons of sulfur, the number used in previous models and supported by ice core data, temperatures would have dipped only 3° to 5°C across the globe, the team reports online in Geophysical Research Letters. Overall, Toba didn't wipe out flora and fauna, Timmreck says, but it would have made life harder for a few years.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more at

  5. U.S. Research Universities

    Panel Explores New Funding Pact With Washington

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The leaders of U.S. higher education have complained for a decade or longer that the unwritten arrangement between the federal government and the universities, struck in the 1950s, is badly strained. According to that arrangement, the government would pay the full cost of university research it funds and, in return, universities would educate the next generation of scientists. Over time, however, a growing number of federal regulations and a cap on reimbursement rates have led to billions in university research costs that aren't reimbursed. Rising federal spending has helped keep the relationship intact, but now a fiscal crisis threatens to rip it apart.

    That was the backdrop to an intense meeting last week at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. A blue-ribbon panel asked by Congress to recommend how the country's research universities can bolster the nation's well-being (Science, 9 July, p. 126) spent a day and a half in public discussion with several dozen leaders in higher education, followed by a day of private deliberations aimed at producing a final report next summer. Overshadowing the discussions was growing concern that federal investment in academic research may shrink as the government struggles to reduce the federal deficit, even as states are cutting support to their flagship public research institutions in an attempt to balance their recession-battered budgets.

    Cut-rate science?

    Federal grants don't cover the true cost of academic research, say university administrators.


    Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), one of four science-savvy legislators from both parties who requested the study, summed up the community's predicament this way: too many rules, not enough money, and an inherent conservatism within academia. His telephoned comments struck a chord with the panel, which also welcomed Alexander's suggestion that they compile separate rankings of “10 things that cost money and 10 things that don't.”

    “If you assume that the amount of research funding is fixed, then the only question is how it's divvied up,” says Chad Holliday, chair of the panel. “So I hope that we can come up with a robust set of recommendations, some of which do not require more money.”

    The panel's charge deliberately mimics the 2005 request from Congress that led to Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the academies' improbably influential report on how the overall U.S. scientific enterprise could strengthen the economy. The higher education community, which planted the seed for the congressional request, hopes the new report will address what it sees as glaring flaws in the system that governs the $32 billion a year that the federal government now spends on academic research.

    At the top of the list, university leaders want changes in the formula used to reimburse universities for the ancillary costs of conducting federally funded research on campus. The negotiated reimbursement rate is too low and allows too many exceptions, they say. As a result, universities must dip into their own coffers or curtail other educational activities. “We fail to recover $600 million a year,” says Steven Beckwith, vice president for research for the 10-campus University of California system, tallying up the shortfall caused by a cap in so-called indirect cost recovery rates and by various exceptions to those rates.

    University leaders also want the government to ease some of the administrative requirements that come with federal research dollars, saying they drive up costs without providing any significant societal benefits or protections. “When I began I wasn't sure about that,” says Holliday, a former DuPont CEO. “But after our discussion, I now see how those rules put an undue burden on universities and force them to make spending choices they shouldn't have to make.”

    The gloomy fiscal outlook led panel member James Duderstadt to propose a bold quid pro quo in line with Alexander's description of the problem. What if, he said, the community abandoned its perennial request for more—on the grounds that investing in research is a public good that will pay large dividends—and accepted flat funding in return for the government allowing universities to be reimbursed fully for what they consider the true cost of hosting federally funded research? He also suggested an easing of the regulatory burden, which he speculated might save enough in administrative costs to nearly eliminate the shortfall in paying for the so-called indirect costs of research: administration, buildings, utilities, etc.

    Duderstadt says his idea is just a trial balloon to address a problem “that we've spent 40 years debating and haven't made a dent in solving.” But Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, an organization of 63 research powerhouses, joined many in the room in voicing support for it. “I don't think we'll see an increase in the federal investment in research in the foreseeable future so, yes, I think we'll have to redistribute the money in a different way,” Berdahl said. “I would support an increase in funding at the inflation rate,” he added, a rise much flatter than the 7- to 10-year doubling that the community has long sought.

    At the same time, Duderstadt acknowledged that increasing reimbursement for overhead costs, in a flat budget, would leave agencies with less money for research grants. That would increase competition among faculty members already bemoaning low success rates on their applications. “Would your faculty support that approach?” wondered panelist Walter Massey, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta and a former director of the National Science Foundation. “They want a grant with lower, not higher, indirect costs. Could you bring them around?”

    Several university administrators thought they could, provided the changes were explained properly. “The challenge is to be consistent and understandable,” said Kim Wilcox, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “If we can do that, then it's up to us to explain it to the faculty.”

  6. U.S. Energy Policy

    With Money Tight, White House Panel Offers New Path to Energy Research

    1. Eli Kintisch

    In a period of avowed austerity in Washington, D.C., can the government spark a technological revolution in energy without raiding the U.S. Treasury? A new report embraced by the White House says yes. Small surcharges on energy production and use could raise the billions of dollars needed for additional research and development, it says, and a quadrennial energy review and other administrative changes would help spend the money wisely. But even fans of the plan, which echoes other recent high-level reports on the topic, say it faces sizable political and logistical challenges.

    Fill 'er up.

    A 2-cent-per-gallon fee on liquid fuels could help fund a tripling of spending on energy R&D, a study says.


    “American economic competitiveness, environmental stewardship, and enhanced security depend on picking up the pace of energy technology innovation,” says the report, Accelerating the Pace of Change in Energy Technologies Through an Integrated Federal Energy Policy, from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). It notes that “extraordinary actions” by the government are needed to do so.

    The report says that current federal energy R&D spending should be tripled, to $16 billion a year. Its innovative approach to obtaining the needed funds is likely to make waves. Running for president in 2008, Barack Obama proposed a 10-year, $150 billion fund for energy funded mostly by revenue from a national greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme. Even months before that scheme was declared dead in Washington, PCAST member Maxine Savitz told Science, members looked at other sources, in particular surcharges on energy transmission or partnerships with industry. A one-tenth of a cent surcharge for every 1 kWh of electricity used, for example, could generate $4 billion, the report says, as could a 2-cent-a-gallon charge on liquid fuel.

    But the government needs a “more coordinated and robust” effort to spend that money well, the report declares. Toward that end, PCAST called for a “Quadrennial Energy Review (QER),” led by the Department of Energy and involving all relevant federal agencies, industry, and the public. The QER “could reduce bureaucracy” by getting federal agencies “reading from the same memo,” says Robert Simon, staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who gave input to PCAST members before the report was written. The review could be a useful process for defining and coordinating energy policy, agreed David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., as long as it can avoid reaching bland conclusions or drawing a “map as big as the territory” it is examining.

    At the same time, warned Goldston, a former staff director of the House of Representatives science committee, collecting “revenue streams” for innovation from various energy sources could create a “patchwork of separate energy policies.” Political or legal entanglements can stymie surcharge systems, Simon added, pointing to a $23 billion fund for nuclear waste storage, funded by small charges on electricity produced by nuclear power, that's never been spent on storing fuel.

    Despite those challenges, the report's backers hope that the message in its 39 pages will find a receptive audience among those who feel that action is urgently needed. By coincidence, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who requested the report, spoke about the need for energy innovation during a previously scheduled talk to the national media only 2 hours after the report's release. “America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that needs a new energy revolution,” he said. “But I think time is running out.”

  7. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is holding a competition to support the research programs of early-career scientists trained in the United States who have now returned home. Up to 35 scientists in 18 countries will receive $650,000 over 5 years. The deadline is 23 February.

    Two car bombings in Tehran killed one Iranian nuclear scientist and wounded a second in circumstances similar to the slaying of a theoretical physicist in January. Government leaders accuse the West of trying to dismantle Iran's nuclear program.

    President Barack Obama has asked his bioethics council to conduct a “thorough review” of U.S. rules protecting human subjects to ensure that they “protect people from harm or unethical treatment, domestically as well as internationally.”

    An expert panel says the Dutch government failed to mount a robust response to the world's worst outbreak of Q fever, a disease transmitted from farm animals to humans that has killed 14 people and sickened thousands more since the outbreak began in 2007.

    University officials say it's not clear that new immigration policies in the United Kingdom will do more to allow the free flow of foreign scientists into the country.

    The Croatian government has backtracked on a plan to store all of the country's low-and medium-level nuclear waste at a major research institute in the heart of its capital.

    Germany's high court has upheld a law governing genetically modified crops that requires a buffer zone and a public database of planting, and that holds researchers who plant GM crops liable for any pollen that escapes.

    For more science policy news, visit

  8. Science in Brazil

    Brazilian Science: Riding a Gusher

    1. Antonio Regalado

    A fast-growing economy and oil discoveries are propelling Brazil's research to new heights. But scientific leaders must overcome a weak education system and a low-impact track record.

    Science hub.

    Brazil's richest city, São Paulo, and eponymous state are home to most of the nation's research.


    NATAL—Miguel Nicolelis stands with his arms spread, pointing out a rectangular pit carved into dry earth on the outskirts of the Brazilian beach city of Natal. “That is where the supercomputer will go,” he says. And, pointing to an area still thick with shrubbery, “that is the sports complex.”

    Nicolelis is Brazil's best-known scientist. A neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, he is renowned for spectacular experiments that use signals tapped from the brains of monkeys to make robots walk. But when Nicolelis launched plans in 2003 for a neuroscience institute in Brazil's backward northeast districts, few thought it could work (Science, 20 February 2004, p. 1131).

    The notion was to pair cutting-edge science with a social mission: developing one of Brazil's poorest regions. Nicolelis, who now spends part of the year in Brazil, is eager to offer a visitor “categorical proof” of success. He's built two hands-on science schools for children and a maternity clinic, and recruited 11 Ph.D. neuroscientists who run labs in a temporary headquarters. Within a few months, he says, $25 million in Brazilian federal money should begin pouring into his sandy acreage, creating the sprawling neuroscience complex Nicolelis calls his “Campus of the Brain.”

    Proud moment.

    Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at the foundations of his “Campus of the Brain” in northeastern Brazil.


    “In Brazil we need science to build a country,” says Nicolelis, an energetic nationalist whose passions include wearing a green Palmeiras soccer club hat and downing pitchers of yellow maracujá juice. “This place is going to create the next generation of Brazilian leaders.”

    Some continue to think Nicolelis's idea is eccentric. But his timing couldn't have been better. Over the past 8 years, Latin America's largest nation has begun to boom. Its economy is growing fast, and it has become a player in world affairs, reveling in an unprecedented bout of self-confidence. It will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics 2 years later.

    The good times are lifting science, too. Between 1997 and 2007 the number of Brazilian papers in indexed, peer-reviewed journals more than doubled to 19,000 a year. Brazil now ranks 13th in publications, according to Thomson Reuters, having surpassed the Netherlands, Israel, and Switzerland. Brazil's universities awarded twice as many Ph.D.s this year as they did in 2001, and thousands of new academic jobs have opened up on 134 new federal campuses.

    It's a reversal of fortune for a nation that during the 1990s was beset by dire economic problems. Back then, researchers scrounged for funds; Brazil even saw its flag removed from the logo of the International Space Station after it failed to come up with funding to build six components. “We kept thinking smaller and smaller,” says Sérgio Rezende, science minister for the past 5 years. “If we couldn't solve small problems, how could we solve big ones? Now we are in a position to think big again.”



    Amazon: Half as large as Europe, the Brazilian Amazon is home to fewer than 3,000 Ph.D. scientists. Government incentives seek to increase Brazil's scientific presence in the forest region.

    Brasília: Brazil's rapid economic growth means rising budgets at the Ministry of Science and Technology. It now spends about $4 billion a year.

    Natal: Construction is beginning on a $25 million “Campus of the Brain” conceived by Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University.

    Rio de Janeiro: A massive new R&D facility built by oil company Petrobras is billed as the largest laboratory in the Southern Hemisphere. Workers will explore deep-water oil deposits.

    São Paulo: The wealthiest state in Brazil is also its science leader. São Paulo researchers publish half of all Brazilian papers.

    Brazilian Science Begins to Boom




    The fuel that propels science in Brazil is an R&D tax on big industries; it has swelled the budget of Rezende's ministry to $4 billion, up from $600 million a decade ago. The national oil company, Petrobras, is the largest contributor (see sidebar, p. 1308). Brazil restarted its nuclear research program in 2008, after a 20-year lull, and in October, a delegation traveled to Geneva to negotiate associate membership in CERN. With Brazil's economy growing at a pace of 7% this year, the country can afford the dues of $14 million per year.

    Scientists here say their arguments in favor of more education, innovation, and technology have been heard in Brasília, the capital, and they expect budgets to keep growing under Brazil's president-elect, Dilma Rousseff, the first woman to hold that post. By 2020, say officials of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, Brazil should again redouble or triple output of students, papers, and spending and become a “formidable” force in science. Government officials want to see Brazil among the top 10 science nations.

    But Brazil is not formidable yet. Like Nicolelis's institute—where construction is several years behind schedule—Brazil's scientific output trails its ambitions. The country produces few high-impact papers and only a trickle of patents. Its primary and secondary public education system is in shambles, leaving the nation of 195 million chronically short of technical workers. “We need to be lucid and not fall into a victory discourse,” cautions Sidarta Ribeiro, a neuroscientist trained at Rockefeller University in New York City and co-founder of Nicolelis's brain institute. “In terms of impact we are marginal. The external discourse for the world should be that we are interested in science and we are growing. The discourse internally should be, ‘Let's improve. Let's focus on merit.’”

    Boom times

    Brazil is clearly breaking away from the pack in Latin America, indicators show. Brazil now accounts for over 60% of all research spending in Latin America, and Brazilian scientists write half of the papers. Brazil's science bureaucracy is influential, too, having had its own ministry since 1985. That's a step Argentina took only 3 years ago and which neighbor Bolivia is still debating. “Brazil is the only example in Latin America where 1% of GDP goes into R&D and the science minister is a physicist that still publishes. So Brazil is the beacon,” says Juan Asenjo, president of the Chilean Academy of Sciences.

    Globalization of markets is also working in Brazil's favor. Like other Latin American countries, Brazil's research base is heavily skewed toward agriculture, ecology, and infectious diseases—it is first in the world in publications related to sugar, coffee, and orange juice. Brazil's cattle industry produces 33% of the world's cow embryos. Once a sideshow, such research is increasingly well placed to address global preoccupations over food production, climate change, and conservation.

    Nicolelis says he sees an “emerging tropical way of doing science” driven by research on renewable energy, agriculture, water, and animal and plant genetics. “These are the issues defining the planet, and, believe it or not, the players are down here,” says Nicolelis.

    Biological research is a hot area of growth. The Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, the government-owned agricultural research company known as Embrapa, plans to hire 700 new researchers this year. Embrapa is considered one of the world's premier agricultural units, and its budget of $1 billion is now the same size as that of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. “I've never seen so many resources for science as in the last 5 years,” says Maria Fátima Grossi de Sá, a plant geneticist who recently received $1.5 million to develop a transgenic cotton plant.

    De Sá works at Embrapa's research station in Brasília, which is also finishing tests on a herbicide-resistant soybean that will be the first genetically modified crop designed by Brazilian scientists to reach the market. Demand for Ph.D. scientists is running so high that de Sá says it's difficult to find people to take postdoc positions. “We've gone pretty rapidly from having trouble placing Ph.D.s to having stipends that don't have takers.”

    Embrapa has nearly completed a four-story, $15 million agro-energy center that will employ 100 researchers on the campus in Brasília. One goal is to turn Brazil's 22 million hectares of soybeans into more valuable products, such as biodiesel. “We capture solar energy and turn it into other forms of energy. We think we can move very quickly from agriculture for food to agriculture for energy. We can be a player,” says Frederico Ozanan Machado Durães, general director of the new unit. Countless shiploads of soybeans that embark for Asia every day from Brazilian ports could instead, he says, power domestic industries in lipochemistry and plastics that produce “value-added products.”

    Tweaking nature.

    Researcher in a government research lab in Brasília inspects a transgenic cotton plant.


    The project represents an important shift in Brazilian thinking: namely, that science can transform the nation's economy, currently dominated by commodities like soy, beef, sugar cane, iron ore, and petroleum. “The new Brazil will be a natural knowledge economy,” says Gilberto Câmara, head of Brazil's space agency.

    With more money and an emerging green-science mission, Brazilian researchers say they're being taken more seriously. Most of Embrapa's senior scientists were trained in the United States, like Executive Director José Geraldo Eugênio de França, who in 1987 traveled to Texas A&M University to study sorghum genetics. De França says he noticed a change during a mission to Washington, D.C., last November, where he met U.S. science adviser John Holdren and other officials. “For the first time in history, we had a recognition that something was changing in Brazil. They didn't ask us how many postdocs we needed to send, or where we needed help, but where could we work together,” de França says.

    Private money

    The most important goal right now, by Rezende's reckoning, “is for science to make a difference in the productivity of industry. I'd have to say that is our great challenge.” Other goals are to increase the number of scientists, invest in strategic areas, and solve key social problems.

    The disconnect between science and business is almost total in Brazil, researchers say. In the United States, about 80% of research personnel work in industry, according to OECD data, whereas in Brazil, that figure hovers near 25%. Brazil produces hardly any patents—just 103 U.S. patents were issued to inventors in Brazil in 2009—and Brazilian companies spend half of what European ones do on R&D. When they do spend, it's often to import technology rather than develop it.

    Researchers say Brazil's 20-year dictatorship, which ended in 1984, is partly to blame for the lag. Universities became redoubts of political opposition and Marxist reading lists, where patents were viewed as oppressive. “We isolated ourselves from the big industries, which supported the military. They couldn't come in the university. The university became closed, hermetic, and now we have to change that,” says Maria Bernardete Cordeiro da Sousa, dean for research at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte.

    Officials have been trying to close the innovation gap. In 2004 and 2005, Brazil passed laws giving R&D tax breaks to companies and began allowing the Ministry of Science and Technology to give companies grants, even pay salaries of industrial researchers. In August, the ministry announced a major industrial R&D program, offering $294 million in grants to back innovation projects inside companies in “strategic areas” including electric cars, pacemakers, and genetically engineered crops.

    It's too early to say if the government incentives are working; only a small number of companies signed up for the tax breaks. But U.S.-style, risk-taking innovation, once viewed as alien, is increasingly seen in favorable terms. Venture capitalists have begun setting up shop in Brazil, and in 2010 both IBM and General Electric announced plans for research centers in the country.

    “We lack a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. There is a long path ahead to change that,” says Luiz Mello, a physician who last year was tapped by Brazil's second largest company, the iron-ore miner Vale S.A., to spend $180 million establishing three new corporate science institutes. Mello says he was hired after approaching Vale's CEO, Roger Agnelli, to raise money for an engineering program. “It turned out to be a meeting for him to say what he wanted. And he wanted the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] of Vale,” recalls Mello. “I was being invited to lead something that would be a new Bell Labs or Xerox PARC.”

    Tropical innovation.

    An architect's rendering of the General Electric global research center near Rio de Janeiro. The lab, when built, will be GE's fifth international R&D center.


    Mello traveled this fall to Silicon Valley to get ideas. Although Vale's business is low-tech, the commodity company, which ships vast amounts of ore to China and Europe, wants to spend heavily on research partly because it faces a sharp shortage of skilled labor, increasing pressure from environmentalists, and competition from global companies. Vale's three labs will work on biodiversity, renewable energy, and mining technology. “This is the biggest spontaneous investment in R&D that I know of in Brazil,” says Mello.

    The new laws also encourage Brazilian universities to file patents and set up technology transfer offices, which many are doing for the first time. At the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the number of patent applications has reached 356, including one for a canine vaccine against leishmaniasis, now on the market. “All these things are leading to resonance in the system,” says Ado Jorio, the professor who coordinates the university's patent efforts. “There has been an explosion in publications, and this is also going to happen in innovation.”

    Share the wealth

    Brazilian science suffers another imbalance, between the wealthy south and the poor northern regions, that officials have put a priority on trying to correct. Most science still occurs in just three southern states, with the University of São Paulo alone accounting for nearly a quarter of all scientific publications. “One of the great questions we face is that Brazilian asymmetry, the inequality of the regions,” says Lucia Melo, head of the Center for Strategic Studies and Management in Science, Technology and Innovation, a government science policy think tank in Brasília.

    To push science out into Brazil's neglected hinterlands, Brazil's government has gone on a binge of university construction and earmarked 30% of research funds for poor northern and western states. Under a 2009 program called “Stipends for Everyone,” officials in Brasília said they would give study grants to all graduate students in distant regions, regardless of academic merit.


    Physicist Sérgio Rezende has kept publishing while running Brazil's science ministry.


    The idea flows from Brazil's governing Workers' Party, which has made improving conditions in poor areas a priority. A greatly expanded welfare program has helped move several million Brazilians out of poverty. It has given researchers breathing room, too. “Before, we'd face the question, ‘Why are you giving a monkey food and milk when there is a hungry child next door?’” says Cordeiro da Sousa, who is also a primate researcher. But she sees a tradeoff: Researchers feel increasing pressure to spend time solving local problems. She's considering creating a salt institute to support the local salt-mining industry. “You have to have a vocation, because in the future we could be called to answer in a big way.”

    Nowhere is the dearth of Brazilian-led science of greater concern than in the Amazon, the tropical forest that accounts for about 49% of Brazil's territory but is home to only about 3000 Ph.D. researchers, very few of whom do bench science. “Imagine what a totally irrelevant number that represents for this immense region,” says Odenildo Teixeira Sena, secretary of science and technology in the state of Amazonas. Although larger than France and Spain combined, Amazonas has only a single resident Ph.D. archaeologist, and despite its vast river systems, no naval engineers, Teixeira says.

    Increasing scientific labor power in the region could help find alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture. But national anxieties figure into the calculation as well. “The majority of publications on the Amazon don't have a Brazilian author. That is a worry for us,” says Jorge Guimarães, the Ministry of Education official who oversees higher education in Brazil. “We need more Brazilians participating.”

    Brazil has never felt secure in its control over the vast region, which Spain ceded to Portugal under the 1750 Treaty of Madrid. With the Amazon a focus of international maneuvering on carbon credits, Brazil's dependence on foreign knowledge production has become a “very delicate question,” says Adalberto Val, director of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia in Manaus. During a national science and technology conference last May, Val called for Brazilian “informational hegemony” over the forest biome. “There is a question of national sovereignty,” he says.

    Such nationalist tones may sound harsh outside Brazil, but they play well at home. Physicist Luiz Davidovich, who chaired the May conference, says Brazil's scientific community needs to raise “big flags” to rally the country around. “‘The Amazon is Ours’ is one of those,” he says.

    Even some foreign experts have responded to the call. Daniel Nepstad, a prominent American tropical forest ecologist, dropped his job in October at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts to become a Brazilian resident and fulltime employee of the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia, a nonprofit he co-founded, based in the city of Belém. Nepstad says his U.S. affiliation “was interpreted that I am less committed to the scientific agenda in Brazil.” Brazil's forest policy is evolving rapidly and, Nepstad says, “as long as the science is led by Northerners, we are missing the opportunity to get really good information into policy decisions.”

    Making it real

    Despite its growing ambitions, Brazil has yet to prove it can do world-class basic research. The impact scores of its scientific papers are modest, about two-thirds the world average, and have slid in some areas. No Brazilian has won a Nobel Prize in science or medicine, whereas regional rival Argentina has three. Researchers blame structural problems at Brazil's state-run universities. Critics say they discourage competition, for example, with automatic tenure after 3 years on the job and evaluations that reward Portuguese-language publication. “The attitude for many years was to avoid competition, keep your head low, and choose a marginal subject,” says Ribeiro. Instead of competing head-to-head on hot topics with big labs overseas, he says, Brazilian researchers have sometimes been content to study local questions. “The thinking was, ‘The anteater is yours so don't worry about the gringos.’”

    Missed opportunity?

    Many researchers have published studies involving the Amazon region; most are not Brazilian.


    Brazilian researchers returning from overseas, drawn by jobs and start-up funds, complain that there are still many obstacles that make producing world-class science nearly impossible. After 11 years in the United States, biologist Luciana Relly Bertolini returned to Brazil in 2006 with her husband, Marcelo, to start a laboratory that aims to clone transgenic goats. Although the effort is adequately funded, Relly Bertolini says a heavy teaching load required of professors and lack of trained staff means “it's science by persistence here.”

    Also notorious are Brazil's Kafkaesque importation regulations. Even simple reagents can take months to arrive, with radioactive or biological samples often in doubtful condition. Relly Bertolini says a cell-fusion instrument she ordered from Hungary has been trapped in customs for 4 months. “You can have the best head in the world and you will never be competitive because the government works against us,” says Bertolini. “When we begin thinking that way, we want to go back.”

    Some say the prospects will remain bleak until such problems are solved. “I know of no extraordinary science in Brazil,” says Andrew J. G. Simpson, scientific director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in New York City. A naturalized Brazilian citizen, he lived in São Paulo for 7 years and coordinated one of Brazil's memorable triumphs, the sequencing of the plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa, which landed on the cover of Nature in 2000. But when Simpson returned this year for a 10th-year celebration of the feat, he noticed that, at least in the field of genomics, “there was never again a big impact paper. There was no upwards process. It was a blip.”

    Brazilian officials have instead focused on beating another problem: the insecurity of research funds. In 2008, in its largest-ever funding round for basic research, Brazil's Ministry of Science and Technology offered $350 million over 3 years to fund 122 national institutes to tackle subjects from quantum computing and stem cells to an upgraded Antarctic research station. “They saw that we needed long-term programs with stability,” says Davidovich, who co-leads the program on quantum computing.


    Tropical ecologist Dan Nepstad studies a controlled fire in Tanguro Forest, Mato Grosso, Brazil, in August.


    Other scientists privately express doubts about the grandiosely named institutes, noting that in reality they are virtual networks with an average of 20 university investigators each and money spread too thin to achieve much. In position papers, the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science has said that Brazil needs to focus on creating more pure research jobs outside of the university system. It wants a new, heavily staffed state institute to study the oceans, and another for the Amazon, modeled on the agricultural agency Embrapa—in this case with funding to match the grandiose vision.

    In the city of Natal, Nicolelis's neuroscience institute, currently housed in a converted hotel, has also yet to produce a Brazilian breakthrough. But it's increasingly well-positioned to do so. It has reasonably equipped laboratories, a primate facility, and a crowd of young professors with promising track records who have signed on, including two recruited from a Max Planck center in Germany. In August, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland donated an IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer, which Nicolelis says will be the fastest in South America.

    Ribeiro, the Brazilian who returned from a postdoc at Rockefeller to be the institute's scientific director, says the year of science he expected to lose while organizing the center has dragged into three, as he faced down customs officials and coped with large numbers of poorly trained students. “Now I'm finally starting to fight reviewers again instead of bureaucrats, which is a sign the plan worked,” says Ribeiro, whose work includes experiments to look at the effect of sleep and dreaming on motor and perceptual skill retention.

    The dirt road outside his building that leads to a nearby shantytown, he says, reminds him of a photograph he saw of Rockefeller's Founder's Hall after it was built in 1906 and still surrounded by muddy fields and horse-drawn carriages: “They didn't start as the best place to do science either.”

  9. Science in Brazil

    Tapping a Deep, 'Pre-Salt' Bounty

    1. Antonio Regalado

    Three years ago, a drill bit struck immense oil deposits deep off the coast of Brazil. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promised to use the oil revenue for education and public health. But Brazil's R&D sector has been first to benefit.

    Three years ago, a drill bit struck immense oil deposits deep off the coast of Brazil. Petrobras, the national oil company, tapped undersea fields now estimated to hold about 80 billion barrels of oil and natural gas—about three times the size of the reservoir under Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It brought the promise of new wealth and expectations that Brazil will climb to the world's top rung of achievement in science and technology.

    Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva once termed the oil strike “a second independence for Brazil” and promised to use the oil revenue for education and public health. But Brazil's R&D sector has been first to benefit. This October, Petrobras inaugurated a sprawling new $700 million research center in Rio de Janeiro. At the event, da Silva, a former union leader with a fourth-grade education, left no doubt what the vast R&D complex represents to him: “Brazil will never have to lower its head to anyone again,” he roared to a boisterous crowd of oil workers.

    Oil money.

    National oil company Petrobras inaugurated a $700 million research center in Rio de Janeiro in October.


    Deep-water petroleum exploration is Brazil's largest technology project, and Petrobras's money is pouring into research labs throughout the country. In order to retrieve the oil, which lies a daunting 7 kilometers below the ocean surface, Petrobras has opened a fire hose of funding that is “changing the face of science in Brazil,” says Angela Uller, dean for research at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, whose campus on an island outside the city also houses Petrobras's R&D Center, known as Cenpes.

    Petrobras now spends about $1 billion a year on R&D, including some $225 million that goes directly to universities, for which Petrobras has been rushing to outfit laboratories, erect new geophysics centers, and train a new generation of engineers. “We want to transform the technological capabilities of Brazil and help build university labs equal to any in the world,” says Carlos Tadeu da Costa Fraga, head of Petrobras R&D operations.

    Petro power.

    With workers in 2008, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva celebrates the “second independence” oil discoveries will give Brazil.


    Rio's engineering school, known as COPPE, is the biggest single beneficiary of the oil gusher. Petrobras has paid for the construction of numerous laboratories on campus, including the world's deepest wave pool, used to test automobile-sized models of oil platforms. “It's starting to look like Dubai around here,” says Segen Farid Estefen, a director of COPPE, which gets about $60 million a year from Petrobras. He says the industry-academic complex on the island is the “largest offshore oil research cluster in the world.”

    Petrobras, founded in 1947, began to follow the scent of oil offshore in the mid-1970s, investing in R&D to extend its reach. Brazil was importing equipment from the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and adapting it to tropical conditions. But Brazil's decision to pump its own oil demanded growing investment in R&D.

    “You cannot simply cut and paste,” says Martin Landrø, deputy chair of petroleum engineering and applied geophysics at the Norges Teknisk-Naturvitenskapelige Universitet in Trondheim, Norway. “You have to build up competence, and the easiest way to do that is to build up research. You have to bite the apple, so to speak.”

    Landrø, who has visited Brazil three times to give courses to Petrobras geophysicists, says he's noticed an accelerating change in Brazil. “They have maneuvered from the position of being not so competent to being on the cutting edge in 10 years,” says Landrø.

    Petrobras, the world's largest deep-water oil producer, is reaching depths where experience is scarce or nonexistent. At the Laboratory for Non-Destructive Testing, Corrosion and Soldering, for instance, four COPPE professors work alongside 30 Petrobras engineers to submit steel to corrosive hydrogen sulfide gas at extreme pressures. “At 7000 meters [below sea level], we don't have any information about how materials perform, or how long they can last,” says Oscar Rosa Mattos, director of the lab, which Petrobras paid $30 million to build in 2008. “My foreign visitors are surprised when they encounter a facility like this in Brazil.”

    The superdeep petroleum deposits now being discovered are in the “pre-salt” zone, an area where organic matter was deposited 125 million years ago and later encased beneath thick layers of salt. These are “a new kind of geologic play. They are new types of reservoirs and there are lots of things being learned,” says William Fisher, a geologist at the University of Texas, Austin. One critical difficulty is spotting the oil reservoirs beneath the salt domes, frequently over a kilometer thick; seismic signals are hard to interpret. “As far as the potential discoveries—what is the potential volume of oil and gas—well, you can hazard all kinds of guesses, but it's going to be big,” says Fisher.

    Estefen hopes that Brazil's exploration of the ocean does not stop at oil. He says the country could use its deep-water expertise to be at the forefront of wave energy and undersea communications, too. “The analogy I use is that deep-sea exploration can do in Brazil what the space race did for the United States,” Estefen says. “If Brazil only pumps oil, it would be a big loss.”

  10. Science in Brazil

    Talented But Underfunded: Brazil's Future Scientists

    1. Antonio Regalado

    Brazil must overcome deep social divisions in order to achieve its dream of becoming a major player in scientific research. Many say the task must begin with improving public schools, where poorly paid teachers offer rote lessons.


    It's an unusual prelab routine. Wake up in a below-ground apartment where five people sleep (four on the floor), grab your books, then head out past the machine gun–toting gangsters who guard your street against police vehicles. That's been reality for 25-year-old Reinaldo Sousa dos Santos, a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and a resident of Parque Uniño, a crowded favela where residents live under the thumb of a drug gang.

    Dos Santos owes his journey from shantytown to lab bench to his mentor, Leopoldo de Meis, a 72-year-old professor of biochemistry at UFRJ. In 1985, de Meis began offering a hands-on science course for low-income adolescents called Young Talents. Dos Santos enrolled when he was 14, a year after his father died, leaving him orphaned.

    “I don't want people to think I am the poor little kid from the favela,” says Dos Santos, a fast, concise talker who is studying the metabolic response of goldfish to low temperatures. Although he may sleep some nights on the laboratory couch, “intellectually I don't think I am below anyone.”

    Brazil must write thousands more stories like Dos Santos's if it is to overcome deep social divisions and achieve its dream of becoming a major player in scientific research. Many say the task must begin with improving public schools, where poorly paid teachers offer rote lessons.

    Brazil's math and science scores vie for the worst among 57 countries ranked on the so-called PISA scale by OECD, barely edging out Tunisia. College is mainly for the elite. Prestigious federal universities in Brazil offer free education, but it's difficult to pass tough entrance exams unless families have paid for private secondary schools. “We have had a perverse system of social apartheid, where the poor don't have access to higher education,” says Luiz Davidovich, a physicist at the university who sits on the board of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. Only 14% of 18- to 24-year-olds are in college, not enough to meet Brazil's growing demand for researchers and engineers. “We're working with just a sliver of the population,” Davidovich says.

    In recent years, the government has tried to broaden access to education. Scores of state technical schools have opened; since 1979, Brazil has hosted what is now billed as the world's largest math olympiad. Another national program, ProUni, since 2005 has paid for 748,000 lower income students who can't get into federal schools to attend private, for-profit universities. Davidovich says the efforts fall short: “Brazil needs a revolution in education at all levels, especially at the most basic levels.”

    Dos Santos recognizes that his life is exceptional. “Most Brazilians don't know any scientists and don't know what a scientist does,” he says. For him, science has proved both an intellectual and financial life belt. His state stipend of $1000 a month (he gets another $180 for supplies) makes him his family's top earner, and this summer he helped his grandmother, uncle, and cousins move into a larger house. Now that he has his own room, he hopes to decorate it with a metabolic chart like one he saw at a conference.

    “I like to see the molecule in vivo doing something,” says Dos Santos of his career choice. “The lab is really a psychological escape from all the situations I live through. It's my ideal place.”