News this Week

Science  07 Sep 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6099, pp. 1154

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Vienna
    Iran Accelerating Nuclear Program, Report Warns
    2 - Tampa, Florida
    Neuroscience In, Climate Change Out, In GOP Platform
    3 - Atlanta
    Drug-Resistant TB on the Rise
    4 - London
    Paralympics' Praise for Science


    Iran Accelerating Nuclear Program, Report Warns

    Iran is continuing to expand its capacity to build a nuclear weapon and resist international oversight of its atomic program according to a 30 August report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Nuclear engineers have more than doubled the number of centrifuges capable of refining uranium at a fortified underground facility known as Fordow, and have accelerated production of highly enriched nuclear fuel, IAEA concludes. Iran now appears to be producing at least 10 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium per month and has stockpiled at least 189 kilograms, enough to dramatically reduce the time it would take to produce the 90%-enriched material typically used in weapons. And production could accelerate rapidly if Iran activates its large number of newly installed centrifuges. The report says the number of installed centrifuges at Fordow nearly doubled to 2140 from 1064 in May, adding to the more than 9000 centrifuges already operating at another facility.

    Tampa, Florida

    Neuroscience In, Climate Change Out, In GOP Platform


    More neuroscience research and a modernized nuclear arsenal are among the science priorities presented in the 2012 Republican Party Platform, approved 28 August at the GOP's national convention in Tampa, Florida. Other topics, such as sending humans into space and climate change, appear to have faded from the GOP agenda.

    The 2012 GOP platform resembles its 2008 edition in supporting federal funding for biomedical research and opposing human embryonic stem cell studies. But it gives a new nod for more neuroscience research.

    The GOP is vaguer than it was in 2008 about whether it would revive efforts to return humans to the moon. However, it lauds NASA's “spectacular results” over the past few decades and warns against falling behind other countries in space research.

    The largest shift is evident on climate change: While the 2008 platform spent nearly two pages on “addressing climate change responsibly” and “reducing demand for fossil fuels,” the topics are barely mentioned this year. The GOP gives qualified support for a market-based approach to developing alternative energy sources, but the greater emphasis is on domestic oil, gas, and coal development.


    Drug-Resistant TB on the Rise

    A large international study has confirmed the rise of so-called extensively drug-resistant (XDR) tuberculosis (TB) strains seen previously in national surveillance data. For the study, published online by The Lancet last week, sputum samples from 1278 patients from eight countries already resistant to two first-line antibiotics were shipped to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and tested for resistance against a panel of 11 TB drugs. Overall, almost 44% were resistant to a second-line drug as well, and almost 7% of the isolates were XDR, meaning that second-line drugs from two different groups failed.

    Data from different TB studies are hard to compare because they often use different patient populations, says Sven Hoffner of the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control in Solna, “but these are among the highest figures ever reported.” XDR rates varied widely however, from 0.8% in the Philippines to 15.2% in South Korea, reflecting different treatment regimens.


    Paralympics' Praise for Science


    Science played an unusually large role in the opening ceremony for London's Paralympics on 28 August. Titled Enlightenment, the show likened athletes' efforts to overcome obstacles to scientists' quest to expand our knowledge. It started with a sphere (pictured) setting off an explosion that represented the big bang and featured giant floating apples to honor Isaac Newton, who supposedly had a key insight about gravity after he saw an apple fall in his garden. Glowing, swirling umbrellas celebrated the recent discovery of the Higgs boson at the European particle physics laboratory CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. Physicist and narrator Stephen Hawking (inset)—using his iconic speech generator—urged onlookers to “[l]ook up at the stars and not down at your feet.” “Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist,” he said. “Be curious.”

  2. Random Sample

    By the Numbers

    323,000 — Number of deaths that could result from a magnitude-9.1 earthquake and subsequent 34-meter-high tsunami originating along the Nankai Trough off Japan's Pacific Coast between Tokyo and Osaka, according to a study by the government's Central Disaster Prevention Council.

    1100+ — Number of brain scans from subjects with autism and matched controls released last week by the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange consortium as part of an open science effort called the International Neuroimaging Data-Sharing Initiative.


    The free online server arXiv—on which scientists post their work before publication—will receive up to $350,000 a year for 5 years from the Simons Foundation, according to a 28 August announcement. Cornell University Library, which maintains and operates the repository, says that arXiv provided nearly 50 million free downloads and received more than 76,000 submissions in 2011, mainly research from physics, mathematics, statistics, and computer science.

    No-Nonsense Views Of Edward Lear


    “The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea/In a beautiful pea green boat.” So begins the famous poem by Edward Lear, the 19th century British artist and author. Best known for his nonsense literature, Lear was also a groundbreaking zoological illustrator. In honor of the bicentenary of his birth, London's Royal Society has opened an exhibition of rare books, drawings, and lithographs of his work entitled Edward Lear and the Scientists.

    Lear came from a prosperous family that fell on hard times. He began selling his drawings while still a teenager, including pictures of diseased specimens for doctors. By drawing some of the inhabitants of the new London Zoo—particularly parrots—he made his name as an animal illustrator. Lear spent much of the early 1830s at the Earl of Derby's private menagerie at Knowsley Hall near Liverpool. The centerpiece of the Royal Society exhibition is a folio illustrated by Lear, Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall, published in 1846. Lear provided illustrations, including the yellow-footed tortoise (above), for the work of 10 members of the Royal Society during the 1830s.


    Join us on Thursday, 13 September, at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat on intelligence and culture in Neandertals.

  3. Newsmakers

    Richard Levin to Step Down As Yale President



    It's a cliché to say that a long-serving university president has changed the landscape of the institution. But in the case of economist Richard Levin, who last week announced he would be stepping down next year after 19 years at the helm of Yale University, it's also true. Some 70% of the space on campus has been partially or comprehensively renovated since he took office in 1993, including a massive expansion of Yale's Science Hill.

    Levin, 65, came to Yale in 1970 as a graduate student in economics and never left New Haven, Connecticut. During his remarkably long presidential tenure—twice the average of his Ivy League colleagues—Levin is also credited with improving contentious labor relations on campus, strengthening ties with city officials, and helping increase the school's endowment sevenfold, to $19 billion, despite two economic downturns. He plans to return to the faculty after taking a sabbatical to write a book on higher education and economics.

  4. Global Research Universities

    Flocking to Asia for a Shot at Greatness

    1. Dennis Normile

    Academics from around the world are taking jobs in Hong Kong, Singapore, and elsewhere in East Asia, lured by generous budgets and a welcome sign for foreigners.

    Stephanie Wehner, a quantum information scientist, was excited by the work going on at the National University of Singapore's Center for Quantum Technologies.


    HONG KONG AND SINGAPORE—Ambitious academics have always been a mobile lot. But Stephanie Wehner has taken mobility to a new level. And her career choices reflect a fundamental shift in where some of the best science is being done around the world.

    The 35-year-old quantum information scientist completed her undergraduate degree in her native Germany, earned a master's degree from the University of Amsterdam and a Ph.D. from the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica in Amsterdam, and did a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. Then she asked herself: “Where would it be scientifically interesting for me to go?” The answer took her further west, across the international dateline, in fact, to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

    The center, established in December 2007, is already recognized as one of the world's top institutes for quantum studies. “It is unique” in combining computer science and physics, theory, and experiments, says Wehner, who joined its ranks in July 2010. The institute's generous funding from the government—$126 million over 10 years—means there is money for postdocs and state-of-the-art equipment for experimentalists. It also allows Wehner to concentrate on her research without having to apply for grants. A reduced teaching load of only one course a semester is another bonus. With those advantages, it's no accident that the center's 150 researchers hail from 33 countries.

    Such diversity has long been the norm at the top U.S. research universities. For several decades after World War II, top academic talent gravitated to the United States. Researchers were attracted by generous and rising funding and a continually improving infrastructure, the result of broad societal support for higher education and a political consensus that investment in research reaped economic and social dividends.

    Foreign-born scientists still come to the United States, but that faith in the benefits of vibrant universities is arguably stronger now in Asia. “Many Asian governments see education as a very critical way of societal and economic advancement, so they are investing very heavily in their universities,” says NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan. To achieve academic excellence, “attracting, nurturing, and retaining top talent is the most vital strategy,” he adds. With the region's rising investment in education, he says, “conditions are right for Asian universities to attract top faculty from the rest of the world.”

    Global Research Universities

    It's not a fluke that the United States is home to most of the leading research universities in the world. But it's also not a given.

    Many countries have paid close attention to what it took for the United States to climb to the top of the global academic research ladder in the past half-century. Some have now translated those lessons into national strategies that they hope will lift them up the ladder. What will it take for them to reach the top rungs?

    Over the next several months, Science will examine the key ingredients needed to create and maintain what we have labeled global research universities. Indeed, ranking these universities has become a cottage industry. Although there is little consensus on what metrics to use, most scientists carry around in their heads their own list of top schools, compiled on the basis of anecdotal evidence, reputation, and personal preferences.

    The first story in the series explores the role of mobility by focusing on the increasing flow of talent into East Asia, in particular Hong Kong and Singapore. Subsequent stories will look at other important factors that shape an institution's ability to become a global research powerhouse.

    More than bragging rights are at stake in this race to the top. A world-class university system is a powerful engine for economic development, and research is the fuel powering that engine.

    Although its impact on academic mobility is hard to quantify, the great recession that has staggered Western economies appears to have given Asia an edge. “People on my science advisory board say this is a good time to hire Americans because there are no jobs and funding is looking dreadful,” says geologist Kerry Sieh. In 2009, the former tenured professor at Caltech became founding director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, another one of the city's five centers of excellence, based at Nanyang Technological University. Most of the center's 54 researchers were lured from positions overseas. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has made worldwide recruiting a firm policy. “We are filling all positions—faculty, deans, vice-presidents, and presidents—through open international searches,” says Khaled Ben Letaief, the school's dean of engineering.

    Hong Kong and Singapore schools aren't alone in recruiting globally. The National Research Foundation of Korea has committed $728 million for a 5-year World Class University Project that has attracted 321 foreign academics, most on full-time appointments. Three years ago, Japan's Ministry of Education began a program to internationalize both the faculty and the students at its universities, although budget constraints have crimped the effort. And Taiwan's Ministry of Education has an Aim for the Top University Project that supports overseas recruitment.

    China has employed a variety of schemes in the past decade to lure back scientists who went overseas for advanced degrees or jobs. These include the Ministry of Education's Changjiang Scholars Program and the Chinese Academy of Sciences' 100 Talents Program. Last fall, it broadened that search by launching a program aimed at hiring 1000 nonethnic Chinese scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs over 10 years.

    Universities are tapping into these schemes, but in most countries they are starting from a low level of internationalization. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon has used the government support to more than double—to 49—the number of nonethnic Koreans holding tenure-track positions since 2007. The University of Tokyo is aiming to boost the percentage of non-Japanese permanent and fixed-term staff members from 7% to at least 10% by 2020. (Only 2.4% of its current full-time faculty is nonnative.) And National Taiwan University is aiming to recruit 20 foreign full-time faculty members each year for the foreseeable future to bolster their presence, now at 7%.

    Leading the way

    On the move.

    (Clockwise from right) Geologist Kerry Sieh, electrical engineer Khaled Ben Letaief, marine biologist Leszek Karczmarski, and biologist Paul Matsudaira followed job opportunities to Hong Kong and Singapore.


    But universities in Hong Kong and Singapore have a long head start. NUS boasts that more than 50% of its full-time academics are foreign-born and represent more than 70 countries. At the University of Hong Kong (HKU), 40% of the professoriate comes from beyond the city and mainland China. More than 80% of the full-time faculty at HKUST earned Ph.D.s at top American and European universities, and more than 20% are of non-Chinese ethnicity.

    Those schools are setting the pace in internationalization thanks in part to their colonial legacies. One big advantage is the use of English. To teach students in the local language, most universities in Asia “have to rely on people of their own nationality,” says Sun Kwok, an astronomer who returned to his hometown to become dean of science at HKU after more than 20 years in Canada and Taiwan.

    The pervasiveness of English also allows nonlocal scholars to move up the academic ladder. “If you are not a local and happen to be in Korea, Japan, or even China, I don't think you [can] become department head or dean,” says HKUST's Ben Letaief, who was trained in the United States and worked in Australia before coming to HKUST in 1993. In contrast, only four of seven department and center heads at HKUST's school of engineering are Chinese.

    The small size of the two cities—Hong Kong has a population of about 7 million, and Singapore's is only 5 million—encourages looking outward. “If we only recruited within Singapore, it [would be] like saying MIT could only recruit from Boston,” says Barry Halliwell, NUS deputy president for research and technology, who came to the university on a sabbatical from King's College London in 1998 and decided to stay.

    The Internet has eased if not erased the sense of isolation from Old and New World academic centers by providing immediate access to journals. “It doesn't matter where you are,” Ben Letaief says. E-mail and the electronic exchange of information also make long-distance collaborations easier, he notes.

    Because we are preparing for the future, I encourage faculties to recruit junior people.



    Reputations as cosmopolitan cities help, too. “Hong Kong is a really international city; even if you are a Westerner, you can settle in—no problem,” says Tony Chan, a Hong Kong native who spent 2 decades at the University of California, Los Angeles, and who headed the largest research directorate at the U.S. National Science Foundation before becoming president of HKUST in 2009. The same could be said about Singapore.

    Tan says Asian universities are using their latecomer status to incorporate global best practices into curricula and programs. Toward that end, NUS forged an alliance with Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to add a modern medical school as part of Singapore's push to become a biomedical hub. Launched in 2005, the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School has attracted senior academics such as infectious-disease expert Duane Gubler, formerly of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, to head the school's program on emerging diseases, and cancer researcher David Virshup, who left the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to lead efforts on cancer and stem cell biology.

    One factor behind Hong Kong's increasing research capacity was its switch to the international norm of 12 years of primary and secondary schooling, followed by 4 years for a bachelor's degree. The old system of 3-year undergraduate programs, retained from colonial days, “was an elitist approach that is no longer suitable,” Kwok says. The transition began in 2009, and the first students from the new system are entering university this fall. “We are trying to educate a larger population and trying to give a better, well-rounded education,” Kwok says.

    The shift presented an opportunity to overhaul the curriculum, too. Nonscience majors are now required to take integrated science courses that will give them a broad perspective on important scientific advances, Kwok says. Coursework for science students, he adds, will be “more interdisciplinary and will get students involved in research at the undergrad level.”

    Both schools are increasing faculty by more than 20% to cover the increased teaching load—HKU to 1100 and HKUST to 510—and have spread recruiting over several years. “Hiring everybody at the same time is not a recipe for building excellence,” HKUST's Chan says.

    Attracting, nurturing, and retaining top talent is the most vital strategy.



    And the emphasis is on youth. “Because we are preparing for the future, I encourage faculties to recruit junior people,” says HKU President Lap-Chee Tsui, a geneticist who grew up in Hong Kong and worked for years at University of Toronto in Canada before returning in 2002.

    Officials at all these schools say their salary and support packages are competitive with Western institutions. “To support new staff, we put in a lot of [seed] money,” Tsui says.

    Of course, once researchers set up their labs, they must apply for grants just like anywhere else. No country ever has enough money to fund everything that its scientists would like to do. But NUS's Halliwell thinks that “the success rates are reasonable” for government programs. “They don't throw money away, but if you have a good project you'll probably get [funded],” he says.

    The opportunity to compete is just what HKU earth scientist Kono Lemke was looking for. A German national with an undergraduate degree from the Technical University of Berlin, Lemke earned a master's degree from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, before taking a postdoc at ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

    Searching for career-track jobs, he discovered that European institutions typically wanted replacements for retiring professors. In contrast, he says, “HKU was looking for people who could not just fill a gap but could bring something into the university that wasn't there already.”

    In Lemke's case, that means blending chemistry and earth science to study the possible origins of life in high-temperature, high-pressure geological environments. At HKU he has gotten support to recreate the geological conditions that might have fostered the evolution of inorganic to organic material. In Europe, “it would be quite hard to find a position that would cater to [someone with] that background,” he says.

    He's also grateful for the chance to test his ideas. Friends who landed assistant professorships in New Zealand, the United States, and Europe have become computational scientists, he says, because they can't get funding to conduct experiments.

    Ageless opportunity

    Young scientists aren't the only ones going to the Far East. For Sieh, 61 and one of the world's leading earthquake experts, the Earth Observatory represents a “stunning opportunity” to build an institution tackling challenges that threaten civilization.

    Sieh has worked extensively in Indonesia and knew that Singaporean officials and academics were worried about the region's natural-hazards risks. So when Singapore's National Research Foundation announced its Research Centres of Excellence program in 2007, Sieh and Nanyang Technological University proposed an institute to study climate change, sea-level rise, tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes.

    “Hong Kong is a really international city; even if you are a Westerner, you can settle in—no problem.”



    In some cases, Western scientists have relocated to rediscover a sense of scientific adventure. Biologist Paul Matsudaira joined the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1985, just 3 years after its founding. “It was like a startup,” Matsudaira says, with enormous possibilities, plentiful resources, and excitement at the mandate “to do the best science we could.”

    But after 24 years, Matsudaira confesses, “I was getting complacent.” He wanted to push biological imaging in new directions, but his idea was one of thousands competing for scarce resources. After working in Singapore under an alliance that links the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NUS, and Nanyang Technological University, he spent a sabbatical year at NUS and realized that “there's outstanding research that goes on every day at places other than where I was.”

    The clincher was NUS's support for a biological imaging center. “People ask me, ‘Why would you ever want to leave MIT and Whitehead?’” says Matsudaira, now head of biological sciences at NUS. His answer: “It [offers] the possibility that I could build something here that's unique in the world.”

    Researchers in fields such as earth sciences, environmental studies, and ecology find that a move to Southeast Asia opens up virgin scientific territory. Sieh mentions visiting a little-studied major fault in Myanmar that is the length of California's San Andreas Fault and runs through the capital of Naypyidaw. In contrast, researchers must work ever harder to discover something new about the San Andreas. “The things we don't know about geological processes and geological history in Southeast Asia are just breathtaking,” Sieh says.

    Leszek Karczmarski says similar opportunities in marine biology lured him to HKU's Swire Institute of Marine Science. Originally from Poland, Karczmarski has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals, particularly dolphins, in South Africa, the United States, and Central and South America. But the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii and between Japan and Australia is “aqua incognita,” he says.

    In 2010, he left the University of Pretoria in South Africa for a post at Swire, which was created to focus on marine conservation and ecology, and quickly ramped up research efforts. He has 12 postdocs and grad students conducting fieldwork in Southeast Asia, South America, South Africa, mainland China, Taiwan, and Egypt. He's also set up a small field station in a remote corner of Hong Kong for students to study local issues. “Something like this would take a few years in a number of other places,” he says. “Here it happened over a few months.”

    Karczmarski has also begun to assemble a regional cetacean research network to share data, ideas, and strategies for research and conservation. In just 2 years the nascent group has sponsored six training workshops in modern quantitative research techniques that brought together 50 participants from 10 countries. “We have now a framework in place, and the web of interactions is growing strong,” he says, pointing to an increasing number of collaborative research initiatives and jointly co-authored publications.

    Moving on

    The growing capabilities are not going unnoticed. “People are coming after our junior faculty, especially those whose research is beginning to take off,” Halliwell says.

    One example is Rudiyanto Gunawan, who left NUS for a position at ETH Zurich last year for both professional and personal reasons. The 35-year-old systems biologist is now closer to the European and U.S. labs working in his area, and he felt it would be easier to attract postdocs to ETH than to NUS. He was also able to negotiate for more lab space. Finally, he thought Switzerland would be a better place to raise his daughter than “fast-paced Singapore.”

    He values his 4-plus years in Singapore, however, and continues collaborating with two NUS groups. And there are no hard feelings. Poaching is a sign of success, Halliwell says, as long as it doesn't go too far. “If nobody wants anybody [on your staff] you're in trouble. [But] if everybody's going, you're in trouble.”

    There's also a silver lining to losing good faculty members. They make for “very good advertisements for us,” Halliwell says. “And they build links.”

    There is no question that the competition for talent is going to get tougher. China's universities are striving to gain global recognition, HKUST's Chan says, “and they want to do it like us, in less than 20 years.”

    Foreign faculty members are already common at many Chinese business schools and at joint programs set up by Chinese and Western universities, says Huiyao Wang, director general of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing. “I think the next wave will be foreign faculty coming in” at the established universities, he says. Universities in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan are also stepping up international recruitment.

    If those trends continue, the Stephanie Wehners of the future will have more Asian choices when they draw up a list of the most interesting places to work.

  5. Global Research Universities

    A Life Outside Work

    1. Dennis Normile

    Outstanding job opportunities in Hong Kong and Singapore may be the prime draw for globe-trotting academics. But their families, their interests, and their social lives are also important considerations.

    Beyond the lab.

    Kono Lemke (left) says Hong Kong offers more job opportunities for his wife; Barry Halliwell (right) participates in many civic activities in Singapore.


    Outstanding job opportunities in Hong Kong and Singapore may be the prime draw for globe-trotting academics. But their families, their interests, and their social lives are also important considerations.

    Quantum information scientist Stephanie Wehner and her nine-person group have turned out a string of papers, including one in Science, since joining the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore (NUS) 2 years ago. She also teaches one course a semester. But “I do have a life outside work,” she says. She has taken up ocean canoe racing, training several times a week and competing in the annual Around the Island Race in Hong Kong. “It's extremely easy to live here,” she adds. It helps that Hong Kong and Singapore are arguably the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, with diverse expatriate populations and English in common use.

    Biologist Paul Matsudaira worried about finding good schools for his two young children when he began thinking about coming to NUS. He had participated in an alliance with Singapore while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and began bringing his family along in 2004 for part of the summer. But the year they spent with him during his 2008–09 sabbatical eased his concerns. The difference in the quality of the educational experience at Singapore's American School compared with what they received back home “was like night and day,” he says. “Our kids loved school.”

    After that experience, the local schools became a reason to join NUS, not a roadblock. “Our daughter wants to graduate from the American School,” he says. She is now 12 and entering seventh grade.

    The Singapore government is also beginning to shed its reputation for being puritanical. The increased openness extends to lifestyles. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's über-influential founding prime minister, in recent years has called for acceptance of homosexuality, saying it should not be criminalized and gay people should not be harassed. Seismologist Kerry Sieh, director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore at Nanyang Technological University, believes that attitudes are indeed changing.

    “I feel safer here as a gay person than I do in the United States,” Sieh says. “I wouldn't have come here” if top officials were not supportive, he says. Still, he says those changes need to spread to the “intellectual ferment” throughout the city. “They've got to become more open to the arts, more open to freedom of thought and expression.”

    Sun Kwok, an astronomer who gave up a position at the University of Calgary in Canada to become dean of science at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), says he's been pleasantly surprised by the government's decision to limit development and preserve natural areas in the hinterlands of the crowded metropolis. At the same time, he admits that moving from Calgary has put a crimp on his favorite pastime. “I can't go skiing anymore,” he laments. Instead, “every weekend I go to the beach.”

    The common use of English can create unexpected job opportunities for spouses. HKU earth scientist Kono Lemke says his wife, a Chinese-Malaysian, had difficulty finding a job when he worked at ETH Zurich in Switzerland because she didn't speak German. But her English and Chinese skills were an asset when they moved to Hong Kong in 2008. The university also gave them “a reasonably good housing package” that has proven “quite important if you want to start a family,” says Lemke, who has a 2-year-old son.

    There are also plenty of options for those with an interest in local politics. Barry Halliwell, an NUS chemist who has lived in Singapore since 1998, is a member of several civic organizations wrestling with the challenges facing an aging society. “You can be as big a part of the community as you wish,” he says.

  6. Profile: Ewan Birney

    Genomics' Big Talker

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    A self-taught programmer turned bioinformatician is playing a big role in shaping how researchers perceive and use DNA sequence data.


    “My ultimate weapon is just talking people into submission,” Ewan Birney joked one recent afternoon while describing his role in coordinating one of the most ambitious genomics projects since the human genome was sequenced. A self-taught programmer turned bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, U.K., Birney has used his gift of gab to pull together 442 researchers to characterize not just the genes but also all the functional elements in the human genome. The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project this week published 30 scientific papers that begin to fill in the details of DNA's role in making life possible (see p. 1159). Birney was in charge of data analysis, and, along with his right-hand man, EBI's Ian Dunham, he coordinated the setting of quality standards, the development of consistent protocols, and the planning of the publications as well as developing new ways to look at data. “The ENCODE project would simply not have succeeded without [Birney's] leadership,” says Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    Some say the secret to Birney's success is youthful exuberance. The 39-year-old will talk about anything to anyone, and he has an opinion about just about everything. Such ebullience serves him well: “It's very difficult for him to say no, and it's very difficult for people to say no to him,” says EBI's Paul Flicek. “He has an immense ability to bridge [disciplines],” adds EBI's director, Janet Thornton. “He's very clever and very confident.” But that confidence can come off as arrogance. “He does raise antibodies in some people, usually males around the same age,” Thornton says.

    Some even say Birney is like the kid who can't stop asking questions. At the annual Biology of Genomes meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, he raises his hand so often after each talk that the organizers limited the number of questions from any one person. Even during senior management meetings at EBI, each person must raise a hand to speak because Birney, with his unbridled enthusiasm, would otherwise interrupt too much. “He's probably the most extroverted person I know,” Thornton says. “I don't think he has an ounce of self-consciousness.”

    A quiet boy

    Birney didn't start out that way. Dyslexic, he initially had trouble at school, where he was sometimes ridiculed for not being able to spell. Yet he wound up a top student at Eton, one of the best and most exclusive private schools in the United Kingdom. As its best science student, he earned a yearlong internship at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1991, before heading to the University of Oxford. At Cold Spring Harbor, he lived in James Watson's house and worked for Adrian Krainer, a biochemist, studying RNA-protein interactions. Even then, “one could see he had the potential to play a leadership role,” Krainer recalls.

    Birney soon became interested in computers, teaching himself programming during the winter at Cold Spring Harbor. Using a computer to align DNA sequences, he surveyed the RNA binding domain in proteins of many organisms, producing a publication that has been cited more than 500 times—and is still cited today, 20 years later.

    Yet even then Birney wasn't sure he would become a scientist. One summer in college he worked at an investment bank—which he says was lots of fun—and during his final summer as an undergraduate he worked in the mayor's office in Baltimore, Maryland. (The mayor, Kurt Schmoke, had been a Rhodes scholar at Birney's college and had set up the internship.) “My role was to be posh and British and hopefully charming when big donors came around,” Birney recalls. The experience also included spending a week with undercover cops and attending adult literacy classes.

    In his senior year at Oxford, he approached Richard Durbin at the newly created Sanger Centre in Hinxton to work with him and the DNA databases being set up there. By the time he left Oxford he had written his own programming language that streamlined the writing of programs for comparing DNA sequences. “It allowed me to write algorithms much faster and to do much more complex algorithms,” Birney says. One result was an open-source program called Genewise, which was used by both Celera Genomics—the company run by J. Craig Venter that sequenced the human genome—and a public Web site called Ensembl that Birney helped put together.

    Durbin helped Birney get a well-paying fellowship at Sanger that swayed him to pursue a Ph.D. through the University of Cambridge instead of investment banking. “He was already a pretty good researcher and had strong computer skills,” recalls Alex Bateman, a biochemist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “He also had strong opinions and lots of them.”

    Home away from home.

    Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is like a second home to Ewan Birney, who worked there for a year and a summer as a young student (bottom; orange shirt), and returns annually to the Biology of Genomes meeting. Captured during a coffee break in 2003 (middle photo, second from left) and again in 2010 with Francis Collins (top), Birney talks up his new ideas with his colleagues.


    Birney didn't act like a graduate student. In 1997, for example, he pointed out that the programming approach of the head of Sanger's bioinformatics, Tim Hubbard, was flawed, convincing Hubbard he should try an approach called object-oriented programming instead. “The idea that Ewan [shouldn't] tell somebody 20 years older what to do didn't occur to him,” Hubbard says.

    During those early years, Birney left his mark on some of molecular biology's most important collections. He rewrote all the code for a database of protein families, Pfam, making it more modular and more robust. A big innovation was to store the data in such a way that one could keep track of revisions.

    Human Genome Project

    And that was just a side project, because Birney quickly got swept up in the Sanger scientists' frenzied race to sequence the human genome before Celera did. “I depended heavily on Ewan to carry out a long list of challenging analyses,” says Collins, then director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Birney and his colleagues quickly realized they needed a computer program that would automatically identify genes in a high-throughput manner. Hubbard wrote what even he calls “horrible” code to do this, and Birney and Sanger postdoc Michele Clamp took over making automated annotation a practical reality. “We had these impossible deadlines,” Birney recalls. “People were demanding results in a short-term turn-around for something that had never been done before. It was exhilarating, but it's not the way you should do science.”

    He moved from Sanger to the building next door, EBI, in 2000, and the genome browser Ensembl was born as a way to make sequence data accessible to the public. The Web site remains one of the key places where researchers go to get and work on genomic data. He also set up a fiercely competitive sweepstakes for predicting the number of genes in the human genome.

    It was an exciting time for other reasons as well. Birney and Barley Laycock, now his wife, moved in together in a cramped bachelor flat in London. At that time, Birney, an advocate of open-source software, was given the option to buy in to a company formed to provide services for Linux, the free operating system to which he had contributed code. He couldn't work out how to wire money for the purchase and instead arranged to buy and sell the stock right away. “It turned out to be the genius maneuver,” he says, as the stock spiked briefly, netting enough cash that he bought himself a BMW Z3, a two-seater sports car. In 2003, he won the Royal Society's inaugural Francis Crick Lecture, which recognizes promising young investigators.

    At EBI, Birney, who was in charge of the nucleotide databases, and Rolf Apweiler, who took care of the protein side of EBI, were a study in contrasts. The two leaders were like “chalk and cheese,” Birney admits. Birney's old office was littered with piles of paper and bits of computers, with a big jar of the yeast extract Marmite on his desk for snacks. Apweiler's office was spare and spotless. Birney had a “let's do it and think about how later” attitude. “I have a knack for cajoling people into doing this sort of thing,” he says while Apweiler is much more cautious, working out the details before agreeing to a new course of action. As co–associate directors, they help keep each other balanced. “I'm awful at the finishing process,” Birney says, and he sometimes neglects the details.

    Enter ENCODE

    In 2003, with the human genome completed, Collins approached Birney with a new challenge. NHGRI was funding a pilot ENCODE project that involved many different analyses of 1% of the genome with the eventual goal of extending the project to the entire genome. “It was clear early on that the most significant challenge for ENCODE was not going to be the production of data, but the analysis and synthesis of that data,” Collins says. “[Birney] had the right kind of scientific savvy, computational skills, and the people skills to pull this off,” says John A. Stamatoyannopoulos, an ENCODE researcher from the University of Washington, Seattle. “He was the glue that held that effort together.”

    There was no limit to the number of hours Birney was prepared to spend on conference calls or transatlantic flights. In October 2011, when the ENCODE consortium was in the throes of planning its publications, Birney averaged two teleconferences a night, for example. (There were more than 675 over the 4 years.) His task was to move things forward, delicately persuading ENCODE's top scientists to give up a little independence for the joint effort. His job, he says, was “to enable this scientific collaboration to occur and to help get through the tough bits and not get in the way of creativity.”

    As chief cat-herder, he had to make sure that everyone kept talking to each other and eventually agreed on certain protocols—even the culture conditions for the designated cell types—and data-quality procedures, including statistical analyses, to ensure consistency among the resulting data. And he succeeded: “There was a sense of people really working together and not so much to their own drummer,” says Yale University bioinformaticist and ENCODE researcher Mark Gerstein. The pilot ENCODE depended on microarrays that identified relevant sequence using chunks of DNA mounted on an array. But when cheaper sequencing technologies came along, the project quickly shifted to sequencing the regions pinpointed by the assays. Birney helped coordinate the challenging transition.

    ENCODE went smoothly in part because the group cut its teeth on the pilot project, published in 2007 (Science, 15 June 2007, p. 1556). The pilot initially resulted in five draft papers, but reviewers were quick to pick up on conflicting interpretations. “That was a little bit of a disaster,” Birney recalls. After intense discussions, the participants agreed to write just one paper. “Birney has some very clear opinions and very clear biases, but he's open-minded and willing and encouraging to get divergent points of view on the table and try to work out the best alternative,” says Thomas Gingeras, a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory ENCODE investigator. “He's a reasonably good umpire [and] he's tireless.”

    “Services is my day job and strategy is my thing. But I hope I don't give up scientifically fooling around.”



    For the full ENCODE project results published this week, the group planned a more coherent package that includes six papers in Nature and 24 in Genome Research and Genome Biology. To help readers get the most from the papers, the team came up with an iPad and Web application that enables the reader to call up parts of all the papers that are relevant to one of 13 keywords or concepts, such as “enhancer” or “interaction with disease.” “It will be interesting to see how people will pick up on this,” Birney says. (Related papers appear online in Science.)

    For those who want to probe the computations, the team is providing a second innovation: a “virtual machine,” on the ENCODE Web site that will enable any user to retrace the steps that converted raw data into a finished product. Birney hopes to start a trend. “All papers that do computational work should have virtual machines so we can see precisely how it was done,” he says.

    The future

    This phase of ENCODE is winding down, but Birney's life is no less hectic. He has a wife and two children with whom he'd like to spend more time, and a long commute to Hinxton from the Victorian-era suburb in North London where they live. So he tightly choreographs his days. Each morning he leaves at 7:30 on the dot, combining a walk, short ride on the Tube, a 40-minute journey on a train with a good Internet connection that allows him to catch up on e-mail, and, finally, a bus ride to get to work each day in Hinxton. He reverses the routine each evening to be home by 5:30 to spend time with his 6-year-old son and 3.5-year-old daughter. Then he often has a conference call in the evenings.

    Most days his schedule is filled with meetings ranging from a discussion of overhauling EBI's 80 Web sites to a 3-hour session with representatives from the national and international agencies that provide high-speed computer connections among universities and research organizations. He squeezes in a conference call to plan a proposal for a $25 million European Union program aimed at using supercomputers in innovative ways—his group wants to tap them for personalized medicine. Then he meets with several colleagues to discuss their projects and, if there is time, checks in on various research projects.

    Still into algorithms, he and his colleagues are developing CRAM, a way to further compress raw sequence data for storage. He's working with a cardiologist on making genome data more relevant to physicians, with geneticists about mounting a massive breeding project for the fish medaka, and a phenotype-genotype study of Drosophila. “Services is my day job and strategy is my thing,” he explains. “But I hope I don't give up scientifically fooling around.”

    His next big project is a new pan-European bioinformatics effort called ELIXIR, now in the planning stage. Biology has “got potentially more data than physics,” Sanger's Hubbard says. EBI alone has seen a 2000-fold increase in the amount of DNA sequence data—just one of several categories—since 2005. To complicate matters, many countries have been developing their own bioinformatics databases. Aiming for more order, EBI hopes to make it possible to access these databases through a single portal, “to allow comprehensive searching of all resources,” says EBI Director Thornton. Thirteen European nations have agreed to help set this up. EBI is working out the details over the next year for what could be a 20-year project, although funding has yet to be fully determined.

    EBI will become the central hub for ELIXIR. Thornton, Birney, and Apweiler envision other huge computer centers across Europe for storing not just genome and protein data, but also other molecular and phenotypic information on thousands of organisms, including humans. Already, the U.K. government is spending £75 million ($120 million) over the next 10 years on computers and a new EBI building. EBI plans to almost double its staff to 700 in the next 3 years. Birney has traveled to Finland to an old paper mill that—with its large space, easy access to hydroelectric power, and cool temperatures—could be ideal for a big computer center. In February, he goes to Barcelona to see what its computer facilities have to offer, and he's planning a trip to Turkey.

    With ELIXIR on his plate, Birney is bowing out of the next ENCODE phase. He, Apweiler, and Thornton talk about EBI becoming the center of gravity for bioinformatics. But Birney is really a force field unto himself. “People who go on to be successful generate their own kind of gravity,” Bateman says. “They tend to make themselves the center of things and everything starts to revolve around them.”

    “Ewan's got a lot of gravity.”