News this Week

Science  11 Nov 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6057, pp. 742

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Valencia, Spain
    Researchers Fight Closure of Biomedical Research Center
    2 - Patancheru, India
    Pigeon Pea Genome Sequenced
    3 - Beijing
    Chinese Spacecraft Dock
    4 - New York, New York
    Consortium to Make New York City a Big Genomics Player
    5 - Lancashire, United Kingdom
    Temblors Caused by Fracking
    6 - Moscow
    End for Mock Martian Mission

    Valencia, Spain

    Researchers Fight Closure of Biomedical Research Center

    Protesting research cuts.


    Spanish scientists stage a pink slip wake. On 2 November, staff at the Prince Felipe Research Center (CIPF) protested cuts to biomedical research leading to more than 100 layoffs with an unusual event: a memorial service.

    CIPF, a private foundation that opened in 2005 with money from the European Regional Development Fund, ran into trouble when the Valencian regional government drastically slashed its funding. Rafael Pulido, a group leader at CIPF and head of the workers' union, says the institution received only 60% of the already-spent 2009 budget and that the 2010 budget was slashed by a third. “Suddenly we were bankrupt” with €7 million in debt, Pulido says.

    Negotiations with the union over the layoffs are ongoing, with a final decision on how many employees will be affected expected in early December. Pulido isn't optimistic. Even those allowed to stay, he says, will have to work without proper funding, technical support, and day-to-day peer interactions. The regional government has put the center on a “slow death” sentence, he says.

    Patancheru, India

    Pigeon Pea Genome Sequenced

    Indian scientists with support from a Chinese sequencing center have decoded the genome of a popular food lentil, the pigeon pea. While not a household name in the Western world, the pigeon pea is one of the most important sources of protein for India's vast vegetarian populations.

    According to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in New Delhi, farmers grow about 4.9 million hectares of this staple worldwide, amounting to about $1.5 billion in crops annually. In a paper published 6 November in Nature Biotechnology, a team at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Patancheru, India, and colleagues unscrambled the pigeon pea's genome. The group estimates that the plant carries about 48,680 genes. A competing team at ICAR published its own draft sequence of the pigeon pea's genome last month in the Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology.

    The ICRISAT team says the new sequences will make it easier for researchers to home in on drought resistance or other helpful genes within the pigeon pea's genetic code. That, in turn, could cut the time needed to breed hardy plants.


    Chinese Spacecraft Dock

    For Chinese space enthusiasts, no late-night kiss could have tasted sweeter than the peck that the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft gave to the Tiangong-1 lab module. The two crafts docked in the wee hours of 3 November, making China the third country to succeed in coupling two orbiting spacecraft.


    The pas de deux in Earth's shadow marked a major milestone on the road to a space station that China hopes to begin building in 2020. “This will make it possible for China to carry out space exploration on a larger scale,” Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's Manned Space Engineering Project, told journalists. Others are keeping the champagne on ice. Separation of the two craft, slated for 14 November, is just as tricky as coupling, Zhang Bainan, Tiangong-1's general designer, told Xinhua news agency. After that parting, ground controllers will attempt a second and trickier docking in direct sunlight that could interfere with guiding sensors. For that reason, Zhang said, the mission is “only half complete.”

    New York, New York

    Consortium to Make New York City a Big Genomics Player

    Researchers and investors are pushing to make the Big Apple a bigger player in the $7 billion genomics industry. The $125 million New York Genome Center, launched last week, aims to start up 30 DNA sequencing machines in a 11,000-square-meter lab in Manhattan by spring 2012; the center plans to grow over time but not to rival the world's sequencing giants such as BGI in China.

    An independent, nonprofit consortium, the center combines 11 public and private partners including Columbia, New York, Rockefeller, and Cornell universities, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Jackson Laboratory, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The group also plans to hire about 30 researchers and to establish a strong bioinformatics component to push for clinical uses of genome technology. It will also conduct basic biomedical research for understanding disease, developing diagnostics, and evaluating biomarkers.

    The goal is eventually to spin off commercial companies, says Nancy Kelley, the center's executive director. This venture is separate from the New York City mayor's effort to build a science and engineering center there (Science, 4 November, p. 574).

    Lancashire, United Kingdom

    Temblors Caused by Fracking

    Two small earthquakes that shook the Lancashire Coast of northwest England and the nearby city of Blackpool earlier this year were probably triggered by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a shale gas extraction technique, according to a 2 November report. The analysis was commissioned by energy company Cuadrilla Resources, which operates a drilling operation half a kilometer from the quakes' epicenter, and carried out by independent experts.

    After a magnitude-2.3 quake on 1 April and a magnitude-1.5 quake on 27 May that some geologists linked to Cuadrilla, the company voluntarily suspended drilling and fracking operations. The new report deems it “highly probable” that Cuadrilla's fracking created small fissures in the rocks which “lubricated” them and allowed them to slide more easily past each other, causing the tremors.

    The quakes were a fluke, the report continues, and it's unlikely that any quake caused by this combination of geologic factors could exceed magnitude 3—too small to cause any real damage. Cuadrilla has said that it plans to resume fracking operations after the report's recommendations have been implemented.


    End for Mock Martian Mission

    Six Mars explorers emerged from their cramped craft 4 November after a simulated 17-month voyage to the red planet. The team of Italian, French, Chinese, and Russian engineers and scientists had spent the past 520 days in a facility in Moscow built to resemble a tight space-going vessel. Their extreme isolation was science's gain: Researchers with the Mars500 study, a European and Russian collaboration, tapped the crew to see how humans might react to a lengthy space voyage.


    Throughout the “trip,” the crew dined on food similar to the fare served aboard the International Space Station. They also communicated with a control center on a 20-minute delay to simulate the travel time of transmissions sent millions of kilo meters from home. The journey had its share of excitement: About midway through, the explorers completed a stay on a mock alien planet.

    “When the hatch opens, … I'm looking forward to seeing my family,” said French crew member and engineer Romain Charles in a recording taken on the “approach” back to Earth. “The other thing is to eat something different and delicious, like a croissant.”

  2. Random Sample


    The official monikers for elements 110, 111, and 112 are coming to a periodic table near you. On 4 November, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics approved the final names of these three atoms: darmstadtium (Ds)—after Darmstadt, Germany, the site of its discovery—as well as roentgenium (Rg) and copernicium (Cn).

    Ancient Painters Got Spotted Horses Right


    About 25,000 years ago, humans began painting a curious creature on the walls of European caves: polka dot horses. Although horses in cave art tend to be brown or black, some—including a horse adorning the Pech Merle cave in southern France—are white with black spots. That struck scientists as odd because many suspected that such breeds only dated to about 5000 years ago when humans first domesticated the species.

    But in a study published 7 November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analyzed DNA from a sample of 31 prehistoric horses that roamed Siberia and Eastern and Western Europe from about 20,000 to 2200 years ago. The painting in Pech Merle may have been right on: 25 of the horses were black or brown, but six appeared to have been spotted.

    If so, the researchers say, prehistoric artists may have been drawing what they saw rather than creating imaginary creatures. Prehistoric horses came in at least “three coat color[s],” says study co-author Arne Ludwig of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. “And exactly these three [colors] are also seen in cave paintings. Cave art is more realistic than often suggested.”

    They Said It

    “The goal of an AIDS-free generation may be ambitious. But it is possible with the knowledge and interventions we have right now. And that is something we've never been able to say without qualification before.”

    —Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, addressing the success of recent HIV prevention studies

    When There Are Too Many Ants, Try Basketball


    How do ants work successfully as a team? Jennifer Fewell, a biologist at Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe, is interested in how hundreds, even thousands, of ant workers coordinate their activities to keep a nest thriving. But that's far too many individuals to make sense of their interactions. So she and ASU mathematician Dieter Armbruster are assessing team dynamics in basketball as a proxy for ant dynamics. And they have found a winning strategy, one that depends on distributed leadership—akin to what ant colonies have.

    For this unpublished pilot study, Fewell and Armbruster had undergraduates watch videos of the 16 teams in the first round of the 2010 National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs to catalog who passed to whom and how often the ball traveled among various players. Some teams, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, almost always passed the ball back to the point guard, who distributed it to his teammates. But a few teams used triangular play patterns, in which sets of three players interacted. “If you are guarding this [style of] team, it's much harder to predict where the ball will go,” says Fewell, an avid Phoenix Suns fan.

    In almost all of the eight first-round playoff games, the winners were the team with the more distributed and less predictable passing. Ultimately, the two NBA finalists, the Los Angeles Lakers (one passing pattern shown above) and the Boston Celtics, had the most extreme examples of this type of play. She and Armbruster hope to expand their analyses of the NBA to learn how strategies might change over the course of a season.

  3. Newsmakers

    SLAC Director Steps Down

    When Persis Drell took over 4 years ago as director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, she vowed not to keep the job any longer than necessary. Last week, she fulfilled that pledge, as SLAC announced that Drell will step down once her replacement has been found.



    “I never aspired to be a lab director,” says Drell, who joined SLAC in 2002 and will return to research and teaching. However, in 2007 SLAC faced the daunting challenge of changing from a lab dedicated primarily to particle physics to a multi-purpose lab. Officials at the Department of Energy (DOE), which owns SLAC, and Stanford University in neighboring Palo Alto, which manages it, persuaded Drell to shepherd the lab into its new future.

    “The blueprint was there, but she built the building,” says William Madia, Stanford's vice-president for SLAC. Raymond Orbach, DOE's undersecretary for science under President George W. Bush, says Drell “just brings out the very best in her staff and her colleagues.”

  4. U.S. Science and Austerity

    Fewer Dollars, Forced Choices

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Doing more with less may be a cliché. But as Congress moves ahead with deficit reduction, U.S. research agencies may need to find ways to embrace that adage without sacrificing excellence.

    The U.S. scientific community has no better friend in Congress than Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD). For more than 2 decades, she has used her position on the powerful appropriations committee to help grow the budgets of several federal research facilities in her state and, more generally, to be a cheerleader for the government's investment in science.

    But these days, there is a limit to what even Mikulski can deliver. Last month, she complained about her predicament as her colleagues debated a 2012 spending bill covering several science agencies.

    “Our allocation was $500 million below 2011,” she said about the money available to fund all the programs under the purview of the commerce, justice, and science (CJS) subcommittee, which she chairs. “This allocation required the CJS subcommittee to take stern and even drastic measures. I eliminated 30 programs. Yes, Senator Barbara Mikulski, a liberal Democrat, cut and eliminated 30 programs, including one at NASA and four at the National Science Foundation. … I could not believe it, but that is what we had to do.”

    Those cuts are just a taste of what lies ahead for science in the next few years. With Congress committed to reducing a federal deficit of $1.5 trillion, research agencies will also be asked to do their part. The likely outcome is flat or declining budgets for the foreseeable future. If enacted, those budgets would surely lead to the loss of thousands of jobs and grants and the delay or cancellation of numerous high profile projects.

    Mind the gap.

    The current difference between how much the federal government spends and takes in is even larger than in the 1980s, the last time agencies felt so much pressure on their budgets.

    The proximate cause of these cuts is an agreement between Congress and the Obama Administration known as the Budget Control Act of 2011. Signed into law on 2 August, the act averted a government default. It caps discretionary spending—about a third of the overall federal budget and the pot that funds all research activities—at $1.043 trillion for the 2012 fiscal year, which began on 1 October. The amount is $7 billion below 2011 levels. The pain was spread across the 12 congressional spending panels, including the $500 million reduction that Mikulski cited in her 19 October floor speech.

    The new law also created a 12-member bipartisan panel of legislators and told it to come up with a plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years through some combination of spending cuts and increased revenues. The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction must submit its proposal by 23 November, and the law gives Congress 1 month to act on the recommendations. Failure to do so will trigger $1.2 trillion in cuts across the board—half to defense, half to domestic programs—beginning January 2013.

    Or so it's written. Whether Congress will actually abide by the law, and follow its timetable, is the question of the day on Capitol Hill. The so-called Super Committee was formed to break the political gridlock: Republicans typically object to any tax hikes, and Democrats want to avoid cutting social programs. On other hand, nobody likes the idea of mandatory cuts, and there is talk of rewriting the rules. So far the panel has been unable to reach agreement on any plan, and time is running out.

    Same goals, different tone

    What does all this mean for federally funded science? Quite a lot. But the answers will come only as an outgrowth of a broader debate about how best to stimulate a sluggish economy, revive the depressed housing market, preserve a strong military, curb health care costs, alter the tax code, and deal with other mega-issues.

    Research has never been on that A list of topics, although a particular project or program—think Hubble Space Telescope or breast cancer research—may occasionally receive a few minutes in the spotlight. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a low profile historically has been good for U.S. science.

    Bipartisan support for research, for example, has allowed President Barack Obama to continue requesting a 10-year doubling of the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Department of Energy (DOE) science budgets without having senior Administration officials laughed out of congressional hearing rooms. It provided an opening for former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter to slip an extra $7 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) into the massive 2009 stimulus package without raising the ire of budget hawks in both parties. And it has greased the way for the America COMPETES Act (passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010), which lays out a long-range vision for bolstering U.S. competitiveness through a sustained investment in research, training, and science education.

    A Primer on Federal Research

    Clockwise from top left: (1) Congress has been remarkably consistent over the years in what it spends on research despite the absence of an overall federal science budget. (2) By sector, industry receives the largest share of research dollars, and the U.S. government is by far the biggest source of research funding for universities. (3) The president's 2012 request favored some agencies over others in reflecting the Administration's priorities, (4) although in absolute terms the annual budget for the National Institutes of Health dwarfs that of all other agencies.

    Nevertheless, today's grim economic realities have reshaped the political landscape for science. Although his policies haven't changed, Obama has revised his rationale for spending more on science over the years to fit the current political climate. The press release for his first budget, unveiled in May 2009, simply announced “a renewed commitment to science and technology.” The next year that commitment was described as a “promise of new industries and jobs, cleaner energy, a healthier America, and enhanced security.” By February 2011, the same ideas were labeled “strategic increases,” and the press release touted the fact that “every increase [is] offset by a cut.”

    Of course, the president's budgets are simply a request to Congress, and during his Administration the proposed increases for science have not materialized. The exception was the 2-year stimulus package, now a memory (as is Specter's political career). The money enabled NIH, NSF, and DOE's science office to boost success rates for grant applicants, launch several experimental programs, and address serious infrastructure needs (Science, 27 November 2009, p. 1176). Yet its relentless focus on job creation obscured the inconvenient truth that the real economic payoff from basic research can take decades to show up, if it happens at all. Even in the short term, the billions in stimulus money were more likely to help people keep their jobs than to expand the scientific workforce.

    Will the consensus hold?

    Despite the chronic angst within the community over whether legislators appreciate the value of research, congressional support for science has remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years. John Marburger, the recently deceased science adviser to President George W. Bush and the target of the community's deep unhappiness with Bush's policies, liked to remind scientists that their share of the government's overall discretionary spending pot—between 11.5% and 13.1%—is not the result of any grand political strategy, since Congress is never asked to vote on a science budget. Still, the outcome of piecemeal votes on the budgets of particular agencies that support biomedical, space science, energy, environmental, and all other research seems to reflect an unspoken consensus on how much the government should be investing.

    That consensus has held during economic booms and recessions, including the most recent financial crisis. It's hard to put an exact price tag on how much “science” was included in the stimulus package. But using a broad definition that includes applied research and technology programs, the estimated $40 billion spread across many agencies is roughly 11% of the $357 billion allocated to discretionary spending. (The rest of the $787 billion package consists of tax incentives and bailing out state and local governments.)

    Looking ahead, the health of U.S. science will depend on the government's ability to respond to new opportunities at the frontiers of knowledge—that is, to fund the ideas of the nation's best scientists and give them the tools to succeed. A reduction in overall discretionary spending will put a crimp in its ability to do so, even if science retains its historical share of the pie.

    So the real battles will be fought at the margins of the 2012 budget, which is still to be determined, and those for subsequent years. Republican attacks on research relating to climate change and other environmental problems are likely to gain momentum as budgets tighten. All manner of social science research, a perennial target, becomes more vulnerable to ideological assaults. Any new initiatives are immediately regarded with suspicion as potential budget busters.

    In an era of lowered expectations, many of the battles will involve tradeoffs. The stories in the rest of this special report describe some of those choices. Will Congress support DOE's fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, which aims for home runs in clean energy technology, at the expense of DOE's Office of Science, which supports basic research at 10 national labs and throughout academia? Will NASA get enough money to complete work on the James Webb Space Telescope—and send a mission to collect and retrieve bits of Mars? Will NSF's budget be large enough to fund creative ideas from individual investigators, give them the right tools, and also provide sufficient opportunities for the next generation of scientists and engineers? Will NIH be able to keep enough individual researchers afloat through creative manipulation of its budget, or must the biomedical research enterprise inevitably shrink?

    Nobody expects science to emerge unscathed from the debate over reducing the deficit. And that's as it should be, say community leaders. However, they worry that the knife will leave permanent scars on the nation's scientific enterprise.

  5. U.S. Science and Austerity

    Setting Priorities Has Never Been Fun

    1. Eliot Marshall

    Government support for research has grown steadily since the late 1940s, and the process for determining the "right" level comes up every time there is a funding crisis.

    For blunt advice about how to trim U.S. spending on biomedical research, ask Michael Cannon or John Porter. Just don't try to reconcile their views.

    Cannon, a health policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says there's nothing in the U.S. Constitution about spending public money on research. And he would be happy if U.S. biomedical research were slashed. Porter, a former influential congressman and chair of Research!America, which advocates for more research, praises a recent House bill adding $1 billion to the $31 billion budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) but says this isn't nearly enough to keep the United States in first place as a science and technology power.

    Government support for research has grown steadily since the late 1940s, and the process for determining the “right” level comes up every time there is a funding crisis. In 1961, Alvin Weinberg, then director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, argued in the pages of Science ( for making hard decisions across the R&D budget through consensus. “We cannot allow our over-all science strategy, when it involves such large sums, to be settled by default, or to be pre-empted by the group with the most skillful publicity department,” he wrote.

    That high-minded view may be laudable, but it has not carried the day. In its place are lobbyists of all stripes, hoping to influence Congress to embrace their point of view. And the stakes couldn't be higher, as a broad funding cut looms. “It is really optimistic to think we will end up with flat budgets for R&D,” says Christopher Hill, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and a former congressional aide and White House science official. “I don't see how any agency can be protected. … It's scary for the scientific community.”

    Two decades ago, the heads of NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) rolled out strategic plans designed to make programs and grants consistent with defined priorities. But those plans never went far, according to Susan Cozzens of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, taking stock in 1999 in Issues in Science and Technology. The plan drawn up by then-NIH director Bernadine Healy included the “controversial claim that biomedical research should contribute to economic prosperity as well as personal health,” Cozzens writes. “Widely seen as a top-down effort, the plan was buried before it was released.” At NSF, the National Science Board, which oversees the agency, didn't even distribute a plan drawn up by then-director Walter Massey.

    The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) also tried its hand at setting broad research priorities. But the 1993 “Press Report,” named after former NAS president Frank Press, was never adopted. It was “politically impossible,” Press says now, because it would have “deprived committees in Congress of their prerogatives” over agencies in their jurisdiction. It wouldn't work today for the same reason, he admits.

    In 1993, Congress did adopt the Government Performance and Results Act as part of a bipartisan good-government move in the Clinton Administration. Science agencies complied with its paperwork requirements for justifying their spending. The law is still on the books, Cozzens notes, and she says most agencies have adapted to this and more than 30 other mandates for program evaluation and priority ranking. But there still is no national framework for allocating R&D spending.

    With Congress holding all of the cards, Porter offers one piece of advice to lobbyists like himself and policy analysts like Cannon: “Appropriators hate” flat budgets because their purpose in life is to cut or create programs. And because the status quo is not an option, Porter is spending every free moment talking up the importance of research to friends and acquaintances on Capitol Hill.

  6. U.S. Science and Austerity

    Darwinism vs. Social Engineering at NIH

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    A bleak budget outlook has NIH searching for new ways to feed a ravenous biomedical research community.

    The grim outlook for U.S. science budgets has created a crisis mentality at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2011, the agency may have been able to fund only one in six research grant proposals—the lowest success rate in the agency's history. And with Congress looking to slash spending as part of a pledge to rein in the federal deficit, there is no relief in sight.

    Feast and famine.

    The number of investigators and new research grants grew during a 5-year doubling of NIH's budget. But budgets (and the number of new grants) have since flattened, and success rates have hit an all-time low.

    “There has not been a time that people here can remember where the support for biomedical research has been under more stress,” NIH Director Francis Collins, who has been at the agency 18 years, said while speaking last month to an NIH advisory board.

    The bleak financial picture has triggered a scramble to find ways to keep labs afloat. Since September, Collins has been meeting with NIH institute directors and community leaders to discuss solutions. Although the agency's internal deliberations are private, NIH extramural research chief Sally Rockey posted online last month some options for making the money for research grants go further, including imposing some type of funding cap. (The grants consume some 52% of NIH's overall $30.7 billion budget.) The proposals have already drawn more than 300 comments, and many appear to favor a cap. At the same time, some writers fear that such changes could erode the meritocracy that now determines how NIH funding is disbursed.

    “There's nothing simple here. It's a question of which sort of pain you think is the worst,” says Jeremy Berg, who stepped down as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in July. As National Cancer Institute Director Harold Varmus recently put it, NIH is weighing some type of “social engineering” rather than simply letting “Darwinian forces” cull weaker labs and shrink the number of mouths NIH feeds.

    Many observers trace the roots of NIH's problems to the 1999–2003 doubling of the agency's budget, which swelled the ranks of NIH-funded investigators and triggered a building boom on many campuses. Since then, the agency's modest increases of 3% or less have fallen short of biomedical research inflation, and success rates have slid (Science, 20 April 2007, p. 356). The $10 billion NIH received from the 2009 Recovery Act threw a lifeline to some labs, but that money is now running out.

    Although the post stimulus landing has not been as hard as some feared, 6 years of flat budgets—and an uncommon 1% cut in 2011—have left NIH at 2002 levels in purchasing power, Collins says. Yet few expect Congress to come to the agency's rescue. “They think [NIH has] had its run” after the 5-year doubling, says a former senior congressional staffer.

    Even before this year's budget crunch, NIH's 27 institutes and centers had begun trimming large programs and canceling clinical trials that miss patient-recruitment goals, freeing up funds for new research grants. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, for example, now examines programs “sooner and very rigorously,” says Director Story Landis, and has shut down a microarray consortium and an effort to involve private neurologists in trials after 5 years instead of giving them the usual 10-year run. “Every institute director is deeply engaged in that process,” Collins says.

    The agency is also considering what Collins calls “much more controversial” approaches. The “scenarios” Rockey's office described include trimming $25,000 from every grant, funding fewer large awards, and limiting the maximum number of grants or total amount of money an investigator can receive.


    NIH's budget growth slowed after a 1999–2003 doubling; Recovery Act funds provided only temporary relief. In real terms, the agency's buying power is now at the 2002 level.

    NIGMS, for example, has long considered how much funding an investigator already has when making grant decisions. With the funding cutoff so low, proposals on either side of the cutoff line are very similar in quality. “They are all pretty strong,” so NIGMS feels it should not “blindly follow peer review,” says Berg, now associate vice chancellor for health policy and planning at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

    With budgets so tight, other institutes are looking closely at the NIGMS policy. The downside of imposing some type of ceiling on investigators, Collins says, is that some “very productive” researchers may be held back.

    Biomedical lobbyists say that one cost-saving measure also proposed this year by House appropriators, to cap salaries paid by NIH, could drive some scientists out of research or force budget-strapped universities to make up the difference. Universities would also feel the pinch if NIH adopted a suggestion from some scientists to trim the overhead it pays on grants. “Our general position is that universities are being underestimated” for so-called indirect costs, says Carrie Wolinetz, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.

    The need to maintain an adequate level of grants for ideas generated by researchers must be weighed against NIH's mandate to prevent and treat disease, say some institute directors, even if the latter results in reserving funds for more mundane topics. Varmus says: “The tendency in this situation is to think, ‘How do we keep the grant numbers up?’ We have to be sensitive to what is happening to the scientists who do our work. But we don't necessarily solve the problems the nation cares about most by pulling various levers on grants.”

    Some believe that the academic community needs to reassess the size and makeup of the nation's biomedical research workforce. Collins has assembled a panel, headed by Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, that is examining the issue and plans to deliver its report by next summer. “Maybe we have too many investigators,” says Susan Shurin, acting director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

    At last month's meeting of the NIH management board, William Brody, president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, said that the new funding climate requires a new attitude. He thinks the extramural community is “fundamentally in denial about the macroeconomics of what's going on” and that “the system has to wash out some people” because the days of sustained growth are over. Despite NIH's best efforts, that pruning may be inevitable.

  7. U.S. Science and Austerity

    Commitments, Ideology Clash Over DOE Research Spending

    1. Adrian Cho

    Despite congressional support for science office, U.S. payments to the international fusion experiment, ITER, could lead to severe cuts.

    Scientists funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) find themselves at the center of two conflicts. One is an ideological battle between the Obama Administration and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives over the type of research that should be funded. The other, more practical, tussle involves making allocations within DOE's $4.8 billion Office of Science. The ideological struggle may garner more attention, but the practical one may cause DOE-funded researchers greater heartache.

    On the ideological front, President Barack Obama's call for greater investments in new, greener energy technologies is reflected in a push by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to increase spending by the Office of Science on basic research that's more directly related to energy. Chu also champions the fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy (ARPA-E) as a way to develop the most promising technologies. Its budget is currently $180 million.

    Congress, however, has less appetite for “clean tech” and ARPA-E. In markups of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, which began 1 October, House and Senate appropriators allotted ARPA-E $180 million and $250 million, respectively, far short of the requested $550 million. Writing last month to the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, Republicans on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology argued that ARPA-E has “emphasize[d] late-stage technology development more appropriately performed by the private sector.”

    “So far we haven't canceled any major projects, but we're stringing them out.”



    House Republicans would prefer that DOE invest in basic research through the Office of Science, the single biggest funder of the physical sciences in the United States. In their letter to the deficit panel, Republicans said that the Office of Science “should be the top funding priority among DOE R&D programs and be protected from cuts.” “It's the right role for government and it does excellent work,” says one Republican staffer about the Office of Science. Both House and Senate appropriators signaled their support for the Office of Science by proposing to maintain its current budget in 2012.

    Observers expect the Obama Administration to stick to its clean-energy agenda, which includes robust funding for ARPA-E. “My own view is that we're just going to have this same argument over and over again,” says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. But with Congress holding the purse strings, observers predict that funding for ARPA-E will fall far short of Chu's goal of $1 billion and that Congress will try to sustain the Office of Science's budget.

    Even so, the Office of Science still faces a colossal budget crunch caused by its commitment to the $23 billion international fusion experiment, ITER, being built in Cadarache, France. The United States signed on to the project, which aims to demonstrate the potential of nuclear fusion as an energy source, when George W. Bush was president and has pledged to put in 9%—$2.2 billion—by building components for the giant reactor. To meet that goal, DOE's spending on ITER will balloon from $108 million in 2011 to more than $250 million per year within 2 years. In a flat budget, that money must come from cutting other programs and projects. “ITER will eat something,” says one Democratic House staffer. “It will have to.”

    According to congressional staffers, DOE officials also suffer from unduly rosy expectations. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, the staffers say, agency officials have been assuming that their budget will increase by 3% per year over the next 5 years, allowing for ITER and more. But the staffers aren't counting on any increment. “That's not part of my reality,” says one Democratic Senate aide.

    William Brinkman, director of the Office of Science, declined to comment on whether DOE is projecting such growth, citing the traditional gag on discussing the president's budget before its release to Congress in February. But if, as seems all but certain, there is no increase, DOE officials will have to shrink, delay, or kill some activities closer to home. “So far we haven't canceled any major projects, but we're stringing them out,” Brinkman says.

    The brakes may not be applied evenly, however. For example, Brinkman says that a $400 million expansion of an x-ray laser facility known as the Linac Coherent Light Source at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, is “our highest priority.” In contrast, he says that plans to build the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a $615 million accelerator at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is “one of the big challenges for us.”

    With a fixed or shrinking pot, the Office of Science may also have to rebalance priorities among its six research programs. The agency's 2012 budget request signaled that its priorities were advanced materials, advanced biofuels, and advanced scientific computing, the Senate staffer says. So highenergy physics, nuclear physics, and the domestic fusion program would likely see cuts first, the staffer says. “Does that mean Congress is going to eviscerate the programs? No,” the staffer says. “But it means that the scope for new projects will be limited, and they will have to do them one at a time instead of developing them in parallel.”

    ITER or.

    Several new projects could be delayed or canceled to free up money for DOE's contributions to the international fusion experiment, ITER.


    That one-by-one approach could hamstring Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. The sole U.S. high-energy physics lab shut down its Tevatron atom smasher this fall and is planning a suite of new experiments. “You need a vitality at a lab; you need a series of projects that people can work on,” says Melvyn Shochet of the University of Chicago in Illinois, who chairs DOE's high-energy physics advisory panel. For his part, Brinkman says that the highenergy physics program has some “real issues” to address because, outside of Fermilab, the community does not have a clear plan of what it wants to do.

    DOE's approach to choosing winners and losers is another matter of concern. The Office of Science does a good job of setting priorities within each of its six programs, observers say, in large measure because each program has its own advisory panel. But the agency has no advisory panel to compare projects across different programs. “It's up to the director of the Office of Science,” Lubell says. “There is no other mechanism.”

    That could change. Senate appropriators have told DOE this year to create a new advisory panel specifically to help it set cross-programmatic priorities. The idea of such a panel has been around for a long time, but Brinkman questions its value. Given that such decisions are made in negotiations between DOE, Congress, and the White House Office of Management and Budget, rather than within DOE, Brinkman says, “I'm not sure another advisory panel would help.”

  8. U.S. Science and Austerity

    NSF Goes Back to Basics to Preserve Basic Research

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    NSF launches initiatives designed to make its dollars go further without weakening support for academic research. But is it too much of a stretch?

    For most U.S. scientists, the central issue in the budget debate is how much Congress values basic research. No government agency has a bigger stake in the answer to that question than the $6.8 billion National Science Foundation (NSF), whose raison d'être is ensuring the health of the country's academic research enterprise. But facing a budget that's flat this year and likely to shrink next year, NSF is trying new ways to achieve its mission on the cheap.

    Delicate balance.

    A windfall from the 2009 stimulus package allowed NSF to temporarily ease pressure on its major facilities account, one of the agency's three core programs

    One challenge for NSF officials is how to apply those solutions to disciplines from anthropology to zoology, and to efforts to answer disparate questions such as how children learn and how stars are formed. Not surprisingly, each community has its own views on basic issues such as the right balance among research grants, facilities, and education for the field, or the sweet spot in a matrix of number, size, and duration of grants that can be supported for any given amount of money. So NSF is unlikely to try a one-size-fits-all approach to those aspects of its portfolio management, preferring to let each directorate and division take the pulse of its constituents and address their needs on an individual basis.

    Another challenge is getting all of those different communities to recognize that times have changed dramatically since a promised 10-year doubling of NSF's budget became law in 2007. (The bill's language reflects congressional intent rather than an actual appropriation of money.) Indeed, NSF Director Subra Suresh, the former dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has gone from boom to gloom within the first year of his 6-year term. The boom came in the form of a $3 billion windfall from the $787 billion stimulus package passed shortly after President Barack Obama took office. “One of the biggest problems I face is managing expectations,” Suresh admits.

    His predecessor, Arden Bement, used most of the stimulus funds to pump up success rates—the percentage of grant applicants who win funding through NSF's highly admired merit-review system—and to accelerate construction of a few large new research facilities. Bement said he wanted to whittle down a $2 billion backlog of well-reviewed applications that had been rejected simply because of tight budgets, as well as to follow White House orders to create as many jobs as possible by investing in “shovel-ready projects.” By fully funding most of the investigator-initiated awards, Bement also reduced the pressure on future NSF budgets by limiting those out year commitments, which he regarded as “new mortgages.”

    Community leaders generally liked that approach, as it provided their institutions and disciplines with an influx of funding while preserving NSF's existing way of doing business. At the same time, Bement's approach pushed any major new programmatic initiatives into future budgets. Although the White House has held up its end by proposing double-digit increases for NSF in each of the past 2 years, Congress has not, passing budgets that leave little room for new activities.

    The congressional hostility to any large requested increase is also pinching NSF's major facilities account, which fluctuates each year as projects ramp up, are completed, and are replaced by new ones that carry different price tags. Congress has thrown a sizable monkey wrench into the process by putting a low ceiling on the account, although this year the Senate has offered NSF the chance to shift $100 million into facilities from its research account.

    The stimulus money is now history, either spent or allocated to specific projects. Speaking last week at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, D.C., Suresh said that in a new era of austerity, his approach to fiscal stewardship includes “things we will fight for, no matter the budget.” Prominent among them, he said, was “human capital: the graduate students, postdocs, and young faculty members that are needed to keep the U.S. competitive in a global economy.” Those words suggest that long-running programs, such as graduate research fellowships and interdisciplinary training grants, would be protected, if not expanded, under all but the worst budget scenario.

    At the same time, Suresh has begun to implement some new policies designed to maintain excellence. Instead of counting on an influx of new money, Suresh has gone after the “low-hanging fruit” from the orchard of academic research that NSF supports.

    Suresh has picked what he believes are three ripe ideas, all aimed at making NSF's dollars go further. They address different realms of the scientific enterprise—promoting family-friendly rules to remove potential roadblocks to a successful career, increasing international collaborations, and teaching academic researchers to assess the commercial potential of their discoveries. But they share two key elements: Each tackles an issue important to the long-term health of the U.S. scientific community, and none strains NSF's budget.

    “There's a misconception within the community, and some would say within NSF as well, that anything new and useful requires significant new dollars,” Suresh told the COSSA audience. “I would like to dispel that myth. Significant new dollars are required for many things. But there is also a lot we can do by leveraging dollars in interesting new ways.”

    The Career-Life Balance Initiative, as it's called, is intended to enhance the contributions of women, who still bear the brunt of family-rearing duties. It gives any investigator the opportunity to defer an award or receive a no-cost extension. And it promises greater use of virtual panel reviews to reduce the amount of time away from home. To take root, however, the new policies need to be embraced by academic leaders across the country. The only direct cost to NSF is supplemental awards for investigators to hire a technician to keep their labs moving ahead while they take family leave.

    The second initiative, called Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI), encourages NSF-funded researchers to form ties with their counterparts around the world. Taking advantage of the increasingly global nature of science is hardly a new idea, but Suresh wants this type of collaboration to become the norm rather than the exception. Not only will it foster better science, he argues, but it will also tap into the increasing investment in research by other countries and allow U.S. researchers to accomplish things that they couldn't achieve with NSF money alone.

    The third initiative, dubbed Innovation Corps (I-Corps), offers the biggest potential return on NSF's investment by teaching would-be entrepreneurs what it takes to turn their research into a successful business. “The NSF grant has dried up, but there hasn't been any effort to commercialize it. We call it the Ditch of Death,” says Errol Arkilic, a program manager within NSF's engineering directorate who ran the competition for the initial round of $50,000 grants to 21 three-person teams. The winners attended an entrepreneurial boot camp last month at Stanford University, where they got their marching orders.

    Promising to streamline a bloated bureaucracy is a favorite Washington ploy when budgets head south. But that's not likely to be a lucrative strategy at NSF, which spends less than 5% of its budget on operations and operates no in-house laboratories. Even so, officials are giving it their best shot: Soon after NSF's inspector general told a congressional spending panel in February that the agency was spending $500,000 a year on “light refreshments” for the thousands of scientists who come to its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters to review grant applications and provide program advice, fruit and muffins began disappearing from the side counter at meetings.

    Suresh likes to paraphrase an observation made during the depths of the financial meltdown by Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, telling audiences that “we don't want to let a crisis go to waste.” Toward that end, Suresh has coined the phrase “One NSF” to describe how he wants to tear down disciplinary and bureaucratic walls so that the 60-year-old agency can maintain a vibrant research portfolio despite a stagnant budget. Scientists hope he's right. But their fear is that Congress may instead turn Suresh's vision into “Minus One NSF.”

  9. U.S. Science and Austerity

    A Difficult View From Space for NOAA

    1. David Malakoff

    As the agency moves to get polar-orbiting satellites off the ground, ocean science programs could feel budget chill.

    For painters, sky and sea make for an attractive combination. When it comes to funding science, however, combining atmospheric and oceanic research in a single agency can create some ugly scenes. And as the budget clouds gather in Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is facing some unsightly options for keeping its expensive weather and climate satellite fleet flying without sinking efforts to study and protect the ocean.

    “Budget issues at NOAA often revolve around the procurement of new satellites; it's always a battle,” says Conrad Lautenbacher, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral who led the agency from 2001 to 2008. “The challenge is not letting those procurements squeeze the other parts of the agency.”

    For the moment, however, the squeeze is on. NOAA is scrambling to get several long-delayed satellite projects off the ground without causing its “wet” fisheries and ocean programs to dry up. It's also struggling to preserve the relatively small pot of research money that goes out to nonagency scientists.

    This year, the agency has proposed more than doubling spending on satellites while essentially flat-lining its wet programs. Overall, that means that building and operating orbiters would claim more than one-third of NOAA's proposed $5.4 billion budget. If its overall budget stagnates, however, NOAA's leaders and Congress will be forced to either trim the agency's nonsatellite programs or scale back the number or capabilities of those space-based monitors.

    Weather report.

    The first orbiter in NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System, planned to launch in 2016, will carry instruments designed to improve weather and climate forecasting.


    That drama is getting a full dress rehearsal in this year's NOAA budget debate. At the center of the struggle is how to pay for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), a project run with NASA currently expected to cost at least $11.9 billion over the next dozen years. The two-satellite JPSS—a reformulated version of the failed National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (Science, 5 February 2010, p. 629)—is intended to become a NOAA workhorse, providing weather forecasters and climate modelers with a trove of data now provided by older orbiters. Those satellites, however, are due to expire over the next decade, and NOAA hopes to get the first JPSS satellite launched by 2016 to avoid a gap in coverage.

    That schedule took a hit this year, however, as part of the overall spending deal between Congress and the White House. To help compensate for an anemic budget in 2011, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco won approval to seek an $850 million boost in 2012, with most of the increase going to JPSS. Congressional appropriators have agreed with that priority, calling JPSS “essential” and “critical.”

    Go for launch?

    Building and operating satellites (purple wedge) is expected to consume more than one-third of NOAA's budget in 2012. That share could grow—and eat into other programs—if the agency's budget stagnates.

    But House and Senate members differ on how to come up with the money. The House panel called for giving NOAA just $4.4 billion overall, a 3% cut from 2011 levels, and freeing up money for JPSS by slashing the budgets of the agency's ocean, fisheries, and research programs by about one-third. The Senate panel took a different tack. It boosted overall spending to about $5 billion, an 8% increase, and reduced but did not eliminate cuts to other parts of the agency. However, it told NOAA to reduce JPSS's total cost by some 20%, perhaps by trimming some instruments, and said it was “deeply concerned about the long-term drain that [JPSS] could have on NOAA's other commitments, particularly … critical investments in our ocean and coastal resources.”

    Such language, says Wendy Naus, a lobbyist with Lewis-Burke Associates in Washington, D.C., who represents clients funded by the agency, signals that lawmakers “recognize that having satellites come at the expense of everything else at NOAA is not good policy.” But she says the government's bigger budget problems “have put them in a difficult position.” The budget crunch has even generated some “creative” but controversial funding ideas, she notes, such as a Senate suggestion this fall that the agency take the unprecedented step of charging other agencies and “scientific institutions” for the data JPSS produces.

    Some academic scientists fear that approach could reduce collaboration by, in effect, taxing information. NOAA officials haven't publicly weighed in on that relatively radical idea, but they have warned repeatedly that shortchanging JPSS now could mean higher costs, delays, and science gaps later. And although NOAA's final budget is still uncertain, it appears agency officials will be forced to make at least some cuts in other programs.

    It's a familiar quandary for Lautenbacher. “It's a very difficult place to do reductions,” he says, due to the agency's relatively small budget and large infrastructure. One vulnerable budget, he says, is the relatively small pot of money that NOAA gives to outside researchers—about $170 million this year. With legislators likely to resist cuts to NOAA facilities in their districts, he says, cutting extramural grants and contracts “is often the path of least resistance.”

  10. U.S. Science and Austerity

    Will Tight Budgets Sink NASA Flagships?

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    The space agency may have to find international partners to fulfill even part of the wishes of the U.S. astronomy and planetary science communities.

    The authors of an October 2010 report on the most important projects on the horizon for U.S. astronomy took pains to make their recommendations more realistic than previous decadal surveys by the National Academies' National Research Council. The new Astro2020 panel got independent cost estimates of the projects it reviewed, said committee chair Roger Blandford, and took into account projected budgets for NASA and other astronomy-funding agencies.

    So much for good planning. One year later, that carefully compiled short list is just one of many victims of the renewed zeal for budget-cutting by Congress. The 2012 budget request for NASA paints a far less rosy picture of the next 5 years than did the president's previous budget, and the outcome for 2013 is expected to be even worse once Congress completes its work. NASA's situation is aggravated by the rising cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) (Science, 19 November 2010, p. 1028).

    “We are in a position of having to defer programs and accommodate the objectives of decadal surveys in a longer time frame,” Chuck Gay, the acting associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, told the NASA Advisory Council's science committee last week. “It's unfortunate to have to do that sort of thing, but it's no surprise given what's going on in the country economically.”

    One casualty may be Astro2020's topmost priority in the large-scale space category, the $1.5 billion Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Earlier this year, NASA terminated two other largescale space missions recommended by Astro2020: the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) and the International X-ray Observatory (IXO). Both were under development for possible launch in the 2020s in collaboration with international partners.

    The future is not bright for planetary scientists, either. NASA has canceled plans to build its own rover for a 2018 Mars mission that was originally supposed to carry one from NASA and a second from the European Space Agency (ESA). Instead, NASA now plans to share a single rover with ESA, and the two agencies are discussing a unified design. A flyer for a meeting held by astronomers and planetary scientists on Capitol Hill last week summed up the situation: “The planetary exploration program is in grave danger. … The space astronomy program is also headed for destruction.”

    The state of NASA's science portfolio will become clearer after the Obama Administration rolls out its 2013 budget request in February. And even that request is just a marker for Congress, which will be looking for myriad programs to cut or cancel. That looming prospect is already prompting debate over how NASA should carve up its $5-billion-a-year science pie. At stake is the relative balance between the handful of so-called flagship missions, together costing several billion dollars, and dozens of smaller missions.

    While some want flagship missions to be preserved at all cost, others believe exactly the opposite. A compromise would have NASA join in more international partnerships. “Flat budgets do have their advantages; they force us to think of new ways to collaborate,” says Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

    One big question that needs to be answered relatively soon is where NASA will find the money to complete the Webb telescope by 2018, provided Congress does not terminate the project. NASA officials have declared the $8.7 billion instrument an agency-wide priority and would like to take half of the addition $2 billion needed over the next 5 years from within the Science Mission Directorate. (The rest would come from other parts of the $18.5 billion agency.)

    That plan is causing consternation among researchers outside astrophysics, who say that it is unfair for the planetary, earth science, and heliophysics programs to support an over-budget astronomy mission. “JWST has been held up as the most important thing to be done, at all cost,” says Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. “But it is not scientifically responsible to undermine other programs to cover JWST.”

    The planetary and astrophysics communities are advocating somewhat different approaches to dealing with a constrained budget. Unlike Astro2020's support for the flagship WFIRST infrared mission, the planetary science decadal survey favored extending ongoing missions and launching smaller ones if the flagships run too much over budget. “If we have to make tough choices, the choice we would make is to preserve the smaller programs, because those are the ones that maintain and train our next generation of scientists,” Sykes says. He wants to extend missions that are still delivering good science at low cost. “People are talking about turning off Voyager because it would save $1 million or so a year. But how much would it cost to send up another spacecraft to study the edge of the solar system?” he asks.

    Mountain says giving up on big missions or trying to reduce their scope significantly would be a mistake. “Big flagships fund a big part of the community,” he says. “After a decade of flat budgets, the temptation will be to run smaller missions. Those can be your fill-ins. But can you sustain the field on them?”

    Squeeze play.

    The projected healthy gains for science have all but disappeared. Combined with rising costs for the James Webb telescope (top left), that tightening threatens two flagship missions, WFIRST (top right) and the Mars Sample return (above).


    One way forward is to collaborate with other countries on flagship missions. WFIRST is a perfect candidate for such a partnership, Mountain says. Its goal of studying dark energy overlaps with that of the $1.3 billion Euclid mission, which was approved last month by ESA. Last year, NASA turned down ESA's offer to make NASA a 20% partner in the Euclid project because U.S. astronomers would prefer to run their own dark-energy mission. Astro2020 emphasized that the United States should consider merging WFIRST with Euclid only if all of WFIRST's science goals were accommodated into the combined mission, and if the United States could play “a leading role” in it.

    “Was that a science constraint or was it a jingoistic constraint?” Mountain asks. He points out that the United States can rightly claim leadership in the field after this year's physics Nobel Prize went to two American physicists and one Australian for the discovery of dark energy. “Now we can relax and start working with the Europeans on a collaborative dark-energy mission,” he says.

    A former NASA official who did not wish to be named says it's more complicated than that because the missions are not identical. “WFIRST is not Euclid,” he says, noting that WFIRST is supposed to look for extrasolar planets and carry out other observations in addition to exploring dark energy.

    NASA and ESA officials have recently resumed discussions on how to make a collaboration work. Blandford says that his panel's definition of “leading role” “does not require that the mission be U.S.-led.” And he thinks that there's still time for NASA to adopt “a stable, carefully considered cooperative and possibly collaborative plan” with ESA.