News this Week

Science  28 Sep 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6102, pp. 1588

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Caen, France
    France, E.U. to Review Controversial GM Food Study
    2 - Washington, D.C.
    STEM Visa Bill Defeated
    3 - Richmond
    Mann Wins Latest Climate Court Battle
    4 - East China Sea
    Dispute Over Islets Threatens Scientific Exchanges—Again
    5 - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and London
    Health Officials on Alert Over New Coronavirus

    Caen, France

    France, E.U. to Review Controversial GM Food Study


    A study purporting to show that genetically modified (GM) corn can cause tumors and death in rats was panned by many scientists, but it is nevertheless having a political impact.

    A team headed by Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen reported in Food and Chemical Toxicology that rats fed Monsanto's herbicide-resistant maize variety NK603 for 2 years died earlier than rats on a non–GM maize diet, developed more tumors, and suffered from hormone imbalances.

    Critics have said that the study has serious statistical and other problems. But those criticisms received relatively little attention in France, in part because the team provided some French journalists with advance access to the paper but barred them from showing it to other scientists. As a result, the publication was widely reported but few critical notes were sounded until the next day.

    Two French agencies and the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, Italy, have been asked to look into the study, and in California, supporters of a proposed law to make labeling of GM food mandatory have seized on it to bolster their case.

    Washington, D.C.

    STEM Visa Bill Defeated

    The U.S. House of Representatives last week defeated a Republican plan to make it easier for foreign-born students earning advanced science and engineering degrees from U.S. universities to remain after graduation.

    The proposal, by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), would have created a new employment-based visa category for up to 55,000 such graduates each year. It would have held overall immigration flat by eliminating a lottery-based program that awards a similar number of visas. Supporters say that kicking out graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields encourages them to go home and compete against U.S. companies.

    Democrats agree that foreign-born STEM graduates have valuable skills, but they also want to preserve the lottery program. They object to including for-profit institutions in the pool of eligible degree-granting institutions and discarding unused slots rather than adding them to another visa category.

    The vote (257 to 158) fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage under House rules that allowed the bill to be fast-tracked. But the tally, which included 30 Democrats voting yes, allows each side to claim victory on an issue likely to come up again in the next Congress.


    Mann Wins Latest Climate Court Battle



    Climate scientist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, won an initial victory in his legal battle against the American Tradition Institute, a group trying to force the release of his e-mail correspondence while a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

    On 17 September, a judge in Prince William County in Virginia ruled that the group did not have a right to see Mann's e-mail under the state's freedom of information laws. Although Mann's correspondence was considered public record, the judge ruled that an exemption protecting data, records, or information produced by faculty or staff members in the course of conducting research applied to the climate scientist's e-mail. The ruling could still be appealed to a higher court.

    This latest victory comes on the heels of another battle in March, when Virginia's Supreme Court tossed out an effort by the state's conservative attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli II, to compel the University of Virginia to turn over detailed records related to Mann's work.

    East China Sea

    Dispute Over Islets Threatens Scientific Exchanges—Again

    Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands


    A long-simmering spat between China and Japan for sovereignty over a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea is once again denting scientific cooperation between the two nations. The Japanese government's 11 September decision to buy three of the islets from their Japanese owners sparked anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and saber rattling on both sides. In a 15 September online statement, the China Association for Science and Technology, an umbrella organization representing more than 160 professional societies, called the purchase “a gross violation of China's territorial sovereignty” that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and undermined bilateral relations,” China's Xinhua news agency reported. The Chinese asked to postpone a China-Japan University Fair and Forum scheduled for the end of September. They also suspended a plan to donate two rare crested ibises to a Japanese captive-breeding program.

    Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and London

    Health Officials on Alert Over New Coronavirus

    Public health experts are on edge about a new virus discovered in two patients, one of whom has died. The new infectious agent is a coronavirus, a group whose members include four viruses that cause the common cold as well as the agent that causes SARS—a severe respiratory syndrome that killed more than 700 people and sickened more than 8000 in a global outbreak in 2002 and 2003.

    The first known patient was a 60-year-old man from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who died of pneumonia in July; his case was reported by Ali Mohamed Zaki of the Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah on ProMED, an e-mail list about emerging infections, on 15 September. On 23 September, the United Kingdom's Health Protection Agency reported that a 49-year-old Qatari man treated for a severe respiratory syndrome in a London hospital was infected with the same virus. Several other cases are still under investigation this week. It's unclear whether the virus can be transmitted between humans or how big a threat it may pose to public health.

  2. Newsmakers

    Three Q's



    On 13 August, cardiologist Gary Gibbons, 55, became director of the $3 billion National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Gibbons comes to NHLBI from Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, where he directed a cardiovascular research center.

    Q:Why were you interested in this job?

    I've always been motivated to address scientific questions that have implications for patients and patient care and public health. And I have a particular passionate commitment to expanding the diversity of the biomedical workforce. This position gives me an opportunity to really pursue that goal.

    Q:What motivates you to pursue public service?

    One of my heroes growing up was my mother, who exemplified this notion of community service, giving back. That's derived from her own personal experience as an orphan growing up in the Great Depression. I'm carrying on in that sort of family tradition.

    Q:What are the big challenges ahead?

    We tend to think of [heart, lung, and blood diseases] as chronic diseases. And yet what we're learning in areas of reparative biology, in terms of epigenomics, these advances suggest ways of intervening that can kind of erase or reboot the memory of the body and change the natural history [of these conditions].

    We often get jealous of our oncology colleagues [who] talk about the remission of the disease. We're not quite there, but those would be frontiers that we'd be excited to pursue.

    Princeton President Shirley Tilghman Steps Down



    Princeton University president and molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman will resign in June after leading the university for 12 years.

    “There is a natural rhythm to university presidencies,” Tilghman wrote in a resignation letter on 22 September to the Princeton community. With a $1.9 billion fundraising campaign completed and her priorities accomplished or on their way, she wrote, “it is time for Princeton to turn to its 20th president to chart the path for the next decade and beyond.”

    Tilghman gave up her research on mammalian genetics to become Princeton's first woman president. She worked to increase the number of students receiving financial aid, created a neuroscience institute, recruited new chemistry faculty members, and launched energy and environmental programs.

    A longtime proponent of the view that U.S. institutions produce too many biomedical Ph.D.s, Tilghman co-chaired a National Institutes of Health (NIH) working group that recommended in June that NIH take steps to curb the growth in trainees and improve working conditions. After taking a year's leave, Tilghman will return to teaching.

  3. Random Sample

    Whirlpool Galaxy Takes Center Stage


    M51—known as the Whirlpool galaxy—is a classic spiral galaxy that astronomers have studied for centuries. But this mesmerizing new image has nabbed Australian photographer Martin Pugh the top prize in the fourth annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards for the second time. He won Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2009. The galaxy portrait—noted for its sharp detail of the spiral's arms, defined by dark, dusty areas and bright, pink clouds of hydrogen—is on display at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in the United Kingdom from 20 September until 17 February 2013. Visitors can also view winners in categories such as “Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year,” “Earth and Space,” and “Our Solar System,” alongside Pugh's winning shot. Pugh's photograph, chosen from more than 800 entries, also earned him £1500.


    The first-ever paper about XMRV, linking the controversial virus to prostate cancer, has been retracted. As Science reported last week (21 September, p. 1441), authors of the 2006 study in PLoS Pathogens had shown it contained errors but said they did not want to retract it. By the time Science's story appeared, the editors of PLoS Pathogens had already retracted the paper without the authors' consent.

    Ig Nobels to Studies of Swaying Ponytails, Dead Salmon


    “I used to jog around the Stanford campus and saw many young ladies running,” Joseph Keller told a packed theater on 20 September in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Their ponytails swayed side to side like this”—the Stanford University mathematician tossed the dangling tassels of a fez hat—“even though the head was only going up and down. Why did the ponytail go side to side?” For finding a mathematical explanation, Keller and a team of physicists scooped one of the coveted 2012 Ig Nobel prizes.


    Awarded each year in a lighthearted ceremony a few weeks before the actual Nobel prizes are announced, the Ig Nobels celebrate “research that makes people laugh, and then think.” This year, for example, a team led by Craig Bennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara, grabbed the neuroscience prize for “proving” that a dead salmon has brain activity—work that highlighted a common statistical pitfall in brain imaging research.

    This year's recipients had to contend with a giant inflatable clownfish drone that hovered over the stage, colliding with walls and people alike, and with the SpeechJammer, a device that thwarts people from speaking by projecting their voice back at them with a tiny delay. The invention won two Japanese researchers this year's Ig Nobel prize in acoustics.

    By the Numbers

    5 years and 3 years — Amount by which life expectancy of white U.S. women and men (respectively) without a high school diploma decreased between 1990 and 2008, according to research published in the August issue of Health Affairs.

    110 — Number of chimpanzees that the U.S. National Institutes of Health will retire from its Louisiana research center by August 2013.

    179 — Number of new Thailand wasp species identified by an international team of researchers. Scientists named 34 after characters in Terry Pratchett novels, and one after Lady Gaga.


    Join us on Thursday, 4 October, at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat on a hot topic in science.

  4. Paleoclimatology

    Roots of Empire

    1. Mara Hvistendahl

    A climate history project in Mongolia is charting the unexpected conditions that may have propelled the rise of Genghis Khan.

    Window on the past.

    Ancient trees that found a foothold in this lava-covered landscape are yielding insights into centuries-past rainfall patterns.


    KHORGO, MONGOLIA—As the sun descends over the ancient lava field, John Burkhart—clad in a fluorescent orange field vest, leg guards, and ear covers—sinks a chainsaw into a dead Siberian pine. The saw's earsplitting whine drowns out the hum of insects, until one end of the misshapen log drops to the ground with a soft thud.

    As the geography graduate student slices a second time, dendrochronologists Amy Hessl of West Virginia University in Morgantown and Neil Pederson of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, watch expectantly from a few meters away. The wood is blackened on one side, probably by a forest fire. That charring has likely protected it from microorganisms and decay, meaning it could have fallen into this crevice between two wedges of volcanic rock hundreds of years ago. The trunk's exposed interior appears free of the rot that would render it scientifically useless. But only after Burkhart extracts a disk of wood a few centimeters thick do the tree-ring scientists celebrate. “That's just an excellent remnant,” Hessl says. Pederson grabs a black marker and scribbles a standard field label on the sample, then proclaims, jokingly: “Chinggis looked upon this tree!”

    The odds that he is right are vanishingly small. But this chunk of pine could help illuminate the rise of one of history's great leaders. Beginning in the 12th century, Genghis Khan—known in Mongolia as Chinggis Khaan—rose from obscurity to conquer a territory that covered as much as 31 million square kilometers, extending from Korea to the Balkans—the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world. And yet little is known about how a man of humble origins managed to lead an army that claimed more territory in 25 years than the Romans conquered in 400.

    To uncover clues to this puzzle, Pederson and Hessl are spearheading a multidisciplinary project bridging climate science, energetics, and history—part of a growing body of work connecting climate change to centuries-old societal and political shifts. A $1.4 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, announced last week, will fund fieldwork at Khorgo and other sites over the next 3 years. That research could expand the climate record for a poorly understood region and “develop long, robust chronologies” that “would fill a gap” in climatologists' understanding of medieval Asia, says Ulf Büntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape in Zurich, who is not affiliated with the project.

    Samples collected here last year hint at an intriguing history that Pederson says could overturn “the prevailing wisdom on the Mongol empire.” Some 8000 to 9000 years ago, an eruption of the now-dormant Khorgo Volcano covered a vast expanse with lava. Today, the landscape is dotted with hawthorn, rose hips, and buckwheat. Siberian pine and larch have a precarious foothold: Some trees protrude awkwardly from cracks in the volcanic rocks, while others are twisted and stunted like bonsai. “This is the edge of what's possible for forests to grow,” Hessl says. That makes the site an ideal barometer for climate conditions on the surrounding grasslands. Throughout the centuries, the lava field's stressed trees have been acutely sensitive to changes in moisture levels. Their rings bear the imprint of those fluctuations.

    In 2010, Pederson and Hessl surveyed the area for a project exploring the link between climate change and wildfire risk in Mongolia. On their last day of fieldwork, they took samples from 10 living Siberian pines and seven downed logs. They aimed to strengthen a 600-year-long precipitation record derived from lava-field wood by Lamont-Doherty's Gordon Jacoby and colleagues. “We were just hoping for 500 or 600 years” of history, Pederson recalls. In the 13 years he'd been working in Mongolia, the 1500s were as far back as his group of dendrochronologists had gotten.

    Their last batch of samples turned back the clock to much earlier. Several trees predated 1300; one was from the mid-600s C.E. A preliminary climate record that Hessl and Pederson constructed from the 17 trees suggests that in the period from 1211 to 1230 C.E., when Genghis Khan was in his heyday, Mongolia enjoyed abundant rainfall: apparently more than in any other 20-year stretch over the past 900 years. The steppe's grasses and other vegetation would have flourished, allowing the Mongols to raise more livestock and giving them what Hessl calls “more horsepower” for conquests.

    The tree-ring scientists hope to round out the climate record by uncovering more wood from the time of Genghis Khan and before. They are helped by the fact that many Mongolians venerate the land—some worship trees—and have pointed the scientists to sites strewn with old wood. “Mongolians have really good knowledge about the environment because of our lifestyle of moving around,” says project collaborator Baatarbileg Nachin, a dendrochronologist at the National University of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar. And through sediment analysis and energy modeling, they will attempt to confirm that livestock populations grew as rainfall increased.

    For Hessl, an easygoing California native, the project offers a tantalizing opportunity. Research into the relationship between climate and the decline or collapse of civilizations is well-established—from Angkor in Cambodia (Science, 20 February 2009, p. 999) to the Maya in Mesoamerica and South America (Science, 14 March 2003, p. 1731). But much of that research has focused on water. “When we look back on ancient societies and say lack of water caused an empire to collapse, it's pretty easy to think that won't happen to us. We have reservoirs and other ways of managing water,” Hessl says. In Mongolia, her team will look at energy use and availability over the entire arc of an empire, by examining how the Mongols “captured water and used it to make energy”—for agriculture, for irrigation, for war.

    That's a difficult task, notes Büntgen, who led an earlier study that gauged the effect of climate on the rise of the Roman Empire (Science, 4 February 2011, p. 578). “With collapse, you have a more precise date,” he says, “whereas the rise is vague and less well-documented.” But it's one worth tackling, Hessl says: Energy is “a more fundamental linkage and one we can't deny, even in our modern world.”

    Cryptic conquest

    In the mid-1100s, Mongolia's grasslands were an unlikely wellspring for a world conqueror. Nomadic tribes roamed the sparsely populated steppe, frequently waging war with each other. Nor was Genghis Khan an anointed leader. Annals say he was born to a concubine his father had kidnapped. As a young boy, Genghis was banished with his mother and siblings to a bleak corner of the steppe, where he spent much of his childhood scavenging for food. Yet within a few decades, the outcast would unite Mongolia's tribes, and then vanquish peoples across Asia and Europe.

    The Mongol conquest “has always been a bit of a mystery,” says Nicola Di Cosmo, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Chinese troops during the Ming Dynasty sacked Karakorum, the Mongol capital, in 1388, and today only a few artifacts remain. A stone turtle that once marked the city's boundary is now a lone relic anchoring a grassy knoll. The location of the tomb of Genghis Khan, who died in 1227, is unknown.

    Tree-ring detectives.

    Neil Pederson (left) and Amy Hessl are using long-dead Siberian pine and larch (lower right) to reconstruct 13th century climate records.


    Much of what historians know about the ascent of the Mongol Empire is based on a single source: The Secret History of the Mongols, an account of Genghis Khan's life written by an anonymous author shortly after the ruler's death. The document disappeared for centuries, only to reemerge in Beijing in the 19th century. Printed in a bedeviling script using Chinese characters to represent Mongol sounds, the text was not fully deciphered until the 1980s. But while rich with details about Genghis Khan's life, the Secret History is also heavy on folklore, and it says nothing about resource use or climate during the period of the leader's rise.

    Based on the shreds of information that exist, some historians have explained the Mongols' achievements as a product of superior military tactics, proposing that because Genghis Khan's troops grew up hunting and riding horses they had an advantage over sedentary armies. Or, in exploring why the Mongols managed to rule over a large empire, scholars have pointed to an innovative leadership style. Genghis Khan favored meritocracy over cronyism and embraced conquered subjects who pledged loyalty.

    In 1934, British historian Arnold J. Toynbee may have been the first to point to a possible climate connection, but he apparently got it wrong. He proposed that a “push exerted by the climate of the steppes”—implicitly an inhospitable climate—may have propelled nomadic armies like the Mongols to venture out for resources. “That was not a picture supported by any data,” Di Cosmo cautions. But the idea persisted because of historical records showing a 12th- and 13th century drought in neighboring China and Tibet, and because history was largely written by the people the Mongols conquered. Such an inference is akin to “talking about what happens in Arizona based on what happens in Mississippi and New York,” says Kevin Anchukaitis, a paleoclimatologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who is assisting on the project.

    Unlikely ruler.

    Raised in poverty, Genghis Khan conquered more territory in 25 years than the Romans did in 400.


    The tree-ring data collected by Hessl and Pederson show that in the late 12th century, around the time Mongolia was wracked by intertribal warfare, the area did experience a cold, dry period. But a few decades later, as Genghis Khan began consolidating power, weather conditions appear to have substantially improved—and to nomads who rely on access to lakes for watering animals, that would have made all the difference. In times of abundant rain, pastoralists thrive, Hessl says: Very little human effort is needed to “create large amounts of meat that is mobile, that can be used for war, and that can be used to transport things.” Whole herds can be tended by children—leaving the men free to fight.

    If more rainfall boosted grassland productivity and overall energy output, that could help explain why the Mongols were able to transition from a “chieftain society, where positions are hereditary” to managing a complex state covering a vast empire, Di Cosmo says: “A centralized state requires more resources.” The horses and food accumulated on the steppe would have enabled the Mongols to set out for China in pursuit of gold and silk—and from there on to more distant lands.

    For its scale and grandeur, the expanded Mongol Empire was remarkably short-lived. Climactic shifts may help explain why. The preliminary tree-ring record suggests “a rapid change that was sustained for a few decades, and then that was it,” Hessl says. Around 1258, after an unidentified volcano unleashed a massive eruption that spewed sulfur and ash into the stratosphere, a cool, dry climate returned. Kublai Khan moved the Mongol capital to Dadu, now Beijing. Thereafter, he ruled as emperor of China, founding the Yuan Dynasty. But outside the region, the Mongols' power had begun to wane.

    Depths of time

    After Burkhart sheathes his chainsaw, the researchers hike back to camp with samples from some 30 trees, including larch. Multiple species will allow them to “better capture the climate signal,” Pederson says. They drop their gear in their gers, or yurts. Before feasting on lamb goulash and fried fish washed down with salty milk tea, they change into swimsuits as dusk falls and dive into frigid Lake Terkhiin Tsagaan to cool off.

    The new samples should help sharpen the climate record, but another piece of the puzzle lies at the bottom of the lake. Starting next year, Avery Shinneman, a postdoctoral scholar in biology at the University of Washington, Seattle, will paddle out into Terkhiin Tsagaan and other lakes to take cores of sediment. The sediment accumulates at the lake bottom like a “layered history book,” she says. Using dating techniques based on the radioactive decay of the isotopes 210Pb and 14C, Shinneman will look for fossil diatoms, or small algae, that can indicate high phosphorus levels in lake water, as well as spores of Sporormiella, a fungus that lives in the dung of grazing animals. The idea is to gauge the number of livestock that have frequented the lakes over time. Mongolian lakes are like “gas stations” for thirsty animals, Hessl says—and thus a good way to measure population fluctuations that might be compared with the climate record.

    The researchers will use such data to draw conclusions about total energy flows at the time of Genghis Khan. Hanqin Tian, an ecologist at Auburn University in Alabama, will apply a model he developed to simulate how climate change affects grassland productivity, water availability, and energy-use efficiency across Asia. Already, Tian has found that precipitation was the key factor in grassland productivity in Mongolia over the past 100 years. He intends to extend that model back another 900 years.

    The team's findings will help fill a “void in the human and environmental history of central Asia,” says David Stahle, a dendrochronologist at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who is not involved with the project. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, much of the world was in the grip of the Medieval Climate Anomaly. Europe entered a warm spell, while episodic droughts hit the southwestern United States. Sometime between 1250 and 1350, the global climate turned cooler, ushering in the Little Ice Age. Much of the data on the period comes from Europe, leaving open the question of how Asia and other regions fared.

    Ghost town.

    Little remains of the Mongol capital Karakorum.


    Büntgen hopes the endeavor may even help elucidate the epidemiology of the Black Death, which some scientists believe originated in central Asia. “The extension of the Mongol Empire was probably one factor that allowed the virus to spread,” he says.

    The research could also provide lessons for coping with modern-day climate change, Hessl says. A decade ago, drought devastated the steppe, prompting a mass migration to Ulaanbaatar. Meanwhile, the burgeoning mining industry is adding to stresses on the water table. Mongol history may prove a stark reminder that while resources can prop up an empire, they are also finite. And yet, Hessl points out, in the face of apparently severe climate conditions, the Mongol Empire did not collapse. Instead, she says, “they restructured” and diversified energy sources. A revamped Mongol army no longer depended on the health of the grassland.

    The tree-ring research is poised to reveal much more about that enigmatic empire. But the team's insights should not detract from the individual pluck behind one of history's great military triumphs, Pederson cautions: Ultimately, “Chinggis did it, and his army did it.” Still, he adds, a favorable climate and abundant energy would have helped the ruler consolidate his power. That intriguing possibility could reshape our understanding of the seeds of empire—in Mongolia and beyond.

  5. Paleoclimatology

    Where Asia's Monsoons Go to Die

    1. Christina Larson*

    An ambitious effort is gathering tree-ring samples from across Asia as proxies for past climate conditions.

    KHORGO, MONGOLIA—He has scaled a Bhutanese mountaintop and ventured into Vietnamese highlands, a Costa Rican cloud forest, and the Alaskan tundra in search of ancient tree-ring samples. Few paleoclimatologists are worldlier than Kevin Anchukaitis of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, yet his first foray into a Mongolian lava field left him awestruck. “This site is pretty exceptional,” he says, bounding over an “ocean of rocks” toward one of the few standing trees on the arid and desolate landscape. After rapping his knuckles on a gnarled Siberian larch—by the sound, he could tell that it wasn't rotten and hollow—Anchukaitis unsheathes a T-shaped tree corer, screws it into the trunk, and extracts a cylindrical sample about the length and diameter of a pencil.

    Rain man.

    Kevin Anchukaitis and colleagues are using tree-ring cores (above) to build an atlas that will help scientists model shifts in the Asian monsoon.


    “Sites in Southeast Asia tend to be wetter and not as moisture-stressed,” he explains. “It's hard to find any sites like this.” As he eyes the sample's undulations of dark and light hues, he estimates the tree is about 500 years old. The lava field's harsh conditions make it a prime location to find slow-growing and long-lived trees. The annual growth of Siberian pine and larch is limited by the availability of moisture; thicker tree rings are the product of wetter years.

    Anchukaitis's adventure here is part of an ambitious effort to gather tree-ring samples from across Asia as proxies for past climate conditions. Records from this site and more than a dozen other Asian countries—including Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, and Vietnam—populate a database known as the Monsoon Asia Drought Atlas, developed at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. Rolled out 2 years ago (Science, 23 April 2010, p. 486), the database is “a living atlas,” Anchukaitis says.

    The Asian monsoon systems shape rainfall patterns over a region home to roughly half the world's population, alternating between relatively dry winters and relatively wet summers. But modeling how a warming climate will impact the monsoons has proved challenging. “When it comes down to creating actual computer models for explaining and predicting monsoon behavior, by and large the models don't yet work that well,” says Lamont-Doherty dendrochronologist Edward Cook, who dreamed up the drought atlas. But modelers seeking to forecast future monsoon rhythms can compare their algorithms with the past: “It gives climate modelers grist for the model mill,” Cook says.

    One driver of the Asian monsoon cycle is the difference between land and ocean temperatures. In spring and summer, land warms more quickly than seawater, causing the winds to reverse direction and blow inland, bringing rain. As the climate warms, this temperature difference will increase, explains Caroline Ummenhofer, a Woods Hole climate modeler who has used records from the drought atlas in her work. “In a warming climate, we would expect enhancement of the land-sea temperature contrast and therefore a strengthening of the monsoon,” she says. Another key variable, says David M. Anderson, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's World Data Center for Paleoclimatology in Boulder, Colorado, is the fact that “a parcel of air can hold more water if the air is warmer.” With climate change, Anderson says, “we expect that monsoon rains will be greater; wet areas will get wetter.”

    Two puzzling questions are how the location of the intertropical convergence zone—the band of rainfall created as a ring of atmosphere converges and rises upward—will shift, and how the role of black carbons in the atmosphere above Asia may impact warming. Nicolas Jourdain, a modeler at the Climate Change Research Centre in Sydney, Australia, has analyzed 60 climate models from leading international institutions in a paper under review at Climate Dynamics. Assuming a scenario in which atmospheric CO2 continues to rise through 2100, Jourdain found that nearly all models that are accurate throughout recent history predict that monsoon rainfall will increase in South Asia during this century, with upticks ranging from 5% to 20%. Yet, he says, there's “no consensus among the models about rainfall” in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. “Some models project a rise and others a dip in rains.” Varied topography, he adds, makes it tricky “to reproduce the physics of this region.”

    India's recent experience illustrates just how tricky modeling can be. In recent years, monsoon rains on the subcontinent have weakened rather than strengthened, confusing modelers. This year, precipitation is down 12% across India. One possible explanation, put forward online on 26 June in Nature Climate Change, is that black carbon in the atmosphere may be reflecting solar radiation back into space and thus reducing warming.

    Mongolia is at the outer edge of the monsoon rain belt, or as Lamont-Doherty dendrochronologist Neil Pederson puts it, “where climate systems go to die.” But in mapping the complex climate systems of Asia, past and future, this otherworldly lava field is a vital piece of the puzzle.

    • * Christina Larson is a writer in Beijing.

  6. Global Research Universities

    Satellite Labs Extend Science

    1. Robert F. Service

    A new type of lab links Western scientists who want to expand with emerging nations seeking access to world-class researchers.

    Global Research Universities

    This article is the second in a series in which Science will examine the key ingredients needed to create and maintain what we have labeled global research universities. View all stories in this series.

    Four years ago, Le Quang Minh and Hoang Zung decided to create a cutting-edge chemistry research center at Vietnam National University (VNU), Ho Chi Minh City. The center would also help train the next generation of basic scientists.

    But neither Minh, VNU's vice president of international relations, nor Zung, the director of its science and technology department, could think of a domestic researcher with the scientific heft to lead the center. That's not too surprising, given that one of their goals was to strengthen the research capacity of their home institution. So the two men launched a global search, and on a visit to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), they found someone who seemed to fit the bill.

    Global reach.

    Omar Yaghi (top) with the molecular cages he pioneered, and (above) with Anh Phan (far right) and students at MANAR in Vietnam.


    His name was Omar Yaghi, and his scientific achievements clearly qualified him for the job. The Jordanian-born faculty member is one of the most highly cited chemists in the world and an expert on designing novel porous materials. Yaghi had also shown an ability to work with those from another culture, having formed a mentoring relationship with the International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics in Tsukuba, Japan. The icing on the cake was a Vietnamese graduate student working in his lab.

    Convinced that Yaghi was their man, Minh and Zung invited him to run the center as a satellite of his own lab. Yaghi readily agreed. “Scientists do science to stimulate their mind,” Yaghi says. “I want to go into new territories to explore them.”

    With Yaghi on board, the three men went to work making the center a reality. The university hosted an international conference to flesh out a research agenda for what they called the Center for Molecular and Nanoarchitecture (MANAR). Then they pitched the idea to the Vietnamese government. After countless meetings, Minh and Zung wrung a promise for $20 million over 5 years for the center, no small feat in a country with a total budget for science and technology of roughly $700 million a year.

    Work began in 2009 on the lab, to be housed on one floor of a newly built high school. Yaghi's graduate student, Anh Phan, began traveling back and forth to Vietnam in 2-month chunks to oversee construction. MANAR officially opened for business in December.

    Yaghi is one of several high-profile researchers who in recent years have opened such satellite labs in other countries. It's a hybrid form of international partnership—smaller, more focused, and less bureaucratic than a formal alliance between two institutions, but broader and more structured than a simple agreement between two like-minded researchers to team up on a project.

    Western scientists who have set up satellite labs in other parts of the world say the approach provides a relatively easy way to expand their research group and obtain funding without having to run the peer-review gauntlet in the United States and Europe. In return, the host country buys access to a world-class scientist willing to train its students and strengthen its research capacity. That arrangement typically requires less than 20% of a professor's time, comparable to the amount available to faculty for outside consulting projects. Compensation is also worked out on a case-by-case basis.

    Yaghi isn't paid by VNU to direct the center. But VNU has named him a distinguished professor, and the position covers a portion of his travel and administrative costs. Yaghi has also promised to visit as often as needed to keep the research on track and to mentor VNU students. So far he has spent only a few weeks in Vietnam. But e-mail and Skype allow him to stay in close contact with his group of some two dozen students and several senior researchers and professors.

    MANAR likely won't be the final satellite lab on his plate. Yaghi is looking into creating labs in several countries in the Middle East, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and his native Jordan.

    Yaghi, who in January left UCLA to head the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and join the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, says he isn't trying to create a global scientific empire. But he would like to help jump-start scientific development in areas that desperately need it.

    “These countries are very eager to join the world economy and the world science scene,” says Yaghi, who took his satellite arrangements with him when he came to Berkeley. In fact, the three institutions have agreed to back a new center for global mentorship to help other topflight researchers around the world set up their own satellites (see sidebar, p. 1602).

    Satellite labs can be a challenge to set up and run, Yaghi and others admit. The mentoring scientist must find local talent to oversee the lab, bridge cultural differences, and learn how to navigate another, unfamiliar layer of bureaucracy. The new lab can crowd out responsibilities at the scientist's home institution. There's the issue of researchers who receive taxpayer-provided funds taking some of their best ideas overseas. And some wonder whether the arrangement is also a good deal for the host country.

    New directions.

    Chad Mirkin, shown here giving a lecture in Singapore, says his satellite lab allows him to expand the types of research he's able to pursue.


    A source of ideas

    Science has always been an international endeavor, and individual researchers have long formed collaborations that transcend national boundaries. Among institutions, the most prominent form of cooperation is a direct relationship between two or more universities. Such collaborations, which typically involve an exchange of faculty members and students, not only help to build new research capacity but also aim to improve curriculum and nurture entrepreneurial talent.

    But such university-to-university alliances also have drawbacks. They can take years to create and are open only to faculty and students at participating universities. Such large alliances may also generate mismatched partners. Claude Canizares, vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, which has an alliance with the National University of Singapore, says MIT has tried to avoid that problem by tapping only those faculty members who are eager to participate and who are already familiar with the work of their counterparts.

    The satellite arrangements, which operate on a smaller scale, avoid this hurdle by allowing the new lab leader to set the research agenda and select the team. At the same time, the host country puts up all the research funds. At UCLA, Yaghi pioneered the creation of new porous solids called metal-organic frameworks that are prized as catalysts, among other uses. But his satellite labs are pushing other research topics that his U.S. group doesn't have time to pursue.

    The Vietnam center, for example, specializes in making novel porous materials. Its long-term goal is to find applications in the energy sector, such as storing hydrogen and other energy-rich gases, as well as environmental applications, such as designing novel water-filtration systems. In Japan, members of Yaghi's lab are searching for novel metals containing polymers. “I want new ideas to challenge me and keep me interested,” Yaghi says.

    Chad Mirkin, a nanotechnology expert at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has pursued a similar research strategy at a satellite lab at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore that's not part of a larger university alliance. Mirkin's research blends chemistry, materials science, and medicine, and his group at Northwestern is one of the largest in the world, with more than 60 students and postdocs. Even so, his home lab is not large enough to satisfy his ambitious agenda.

    He says that NTU has been particularly helpful in translating his group's basic chemistry and materials discoveries into medicine and then carrying out expensive clinical trials. Clinical trials are easier to initiate in Singapore than in the United States, he notes. NTU also pays Mirkin to train between seven and 10 students at a time in Singapore. The group focuses on translational research, such as honing nanoparticle synthesis techniques to control particles' shapes and sizes so that they function better in the body. The group also investigates energy applications of nanotechnology, a priority for the government of Singapore but less important to Mirkin's U.S. operation.

    “I've found it to be very productive,” Mirkin says. “It's definitely a model that works.”

    Satellite labs can also serve as a conduit for students to move back and forth between countries. Edward Yeung, an analytical chemist at Iowa State University in Ames, runs a satellite lab of 20 graduate students at Hunan University in Changsha, China. Lehui Xiao, a graduate student at Hunan, was the first to join Yeung's group in China. Last year he transferred to Yeung's group in Ames to finish his Ph.D.

    Xiao says he entered graduate school with the goal of getting a job in industry. But working under Yeung hooked him on basic research, he says. Now a postdoc at the University of Washington, Seattle, Xiao says Yeung also “encouraged me to go abroad and broaden my experience.”

    For his part, Yeung says he's also been energized by running a new lab in another country. “It's like being an assistant professor again,” Yeung says.

    Running a satellite lab has been a “dream scenario” for Julius Vancso, a polymer scientist at the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands. The lab, at the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences in Singapore, is trying to find materials that will prevent biofouling of ships by barnacles and other unwanted marine organisms. “We have a project manager that runs the administration, reports, and keeps in contact with the funding agency,” Vancso says. “I am responsible for the scientific content.” Vancso is also excused from serving on faculty committees at the institute, an arrangement common to most satellite lab directors.

    Surgical efficiency.

    Julius Vancso (left) says short, regular visits to his lab in Singapore help students and lab directors alike to remain focused.


    Vancso visits his Singapore lab quarterly, spending 2 to 3 days listening to research presentations and the rest of the week helping the team write up its results. Then it's off to Holland, or perhaps Germany or the United Kingdom, where he takes part in other collaborations. “This is a very surgical operation,” Vancso says.

    Striking a balance

    Most scientists interviewed for this story spoke glowingly of the benefits of satellite labs. One of the few to raise a red flag when the topic was broached was Timothy Swager, a chemist at MIT.

    “Going global is a tricky thing. We live in airports already,” Swager says about the lives of most academic researchers. “There clearly have been benefits. But a number of us are worried about the downside. Are we weakening how we operate?” he asks. “There is a concern, when you are pulling faculty away from an institution, that you are diluting the faculty.”

    In China, some scientists have questioned an institution's decision to pay top dollar to attract high-profile researchers who spend little time in the country. They say such scientists are only there to raise the prestige of the host university (Science, 22 September 2006, p. 1721).

    Swager does not operate a satellite lab, although he emphasizes that he's not critical of the concept. He also believes that U.S. universities should help other countries looking to improve their science and technology base. “But there has to be a balance,” he insists, to ensure that faculty members remain engaged in their home institutions. Swager also questions how much a host institution benefits from the arrangement. “I don't know how you run a lab when you're only there 2 weeks a year.”

    Yaghi and others say that success doesn't hinge on face-to-face contact. “We do a lot of stuff by e-mail,” Yaghi says, as well as conducting video conferences. Members of his lab in Japan spent five conference calls hashing out the text for one upcoming paper, he notes. “I don't have to be on the ground there [all the time]. But it's nice to go every once in a while.”

    At the same time, Yaghi agrees that personal contact with students is important and that he's trying to do more than teach research skills. “What you cannot do on video is to show the care you are giving that person,” he says. “A good deal of mentoring is a one-to-one activity.”

    Xiao says that Yeung's extended absences from the Hunan lab weren't a problem. Gaining access to professors at Chinese universities can often be extremely difficult, he says, as most of their time is taken up with teaching and writing proposals. In addition, Xiao says Chinese professors put a priority on helping students find work in industry and play down acquiring research skills. And while Yeung spent far less time in China than his domestic professors, Xiao says, “we got more mentoring from Dr. Yeung than from anyone else.”

    Still, Yaghi and others readily admit that running a satellite lab comes with a host of challenges. Local politicians may try to influence research agendas, they say, and host-country scientists may resent playing second fiddle to a visiting researcher with more clout.

    At the same time, the rules regarding travel and time commitments are usually negotiated directly by the host institution and the group leader. For Yeung, who is officially retired from Iowa State but still advises a handful of students, that means coming to China four to six times a year, for a few days at a time. When National Taiwan University in Taipei asked him to be there 6 months a year for 3 years, he initially balked but eventually agreed to spend between 2 and 4 months there each year. Faculty members with more active research programs typically can't afford to devote this much time to a satellite lab, however, unless the researcher is given a joint appointment.

    Under any scenario, however, the head of a satellite lab will need a trusted research partner to run the lab on a daily basis, Yaghi and others says. A homegrown scientist works best. Phan, Yaghi's former graduate student and a Vietnamese native, filled that role at MANAR.

    “Every culture has its own way of doing things,” Yaghi says. “She coaches me on things unique to Vietnam.” After negotiating what he thought were the terms of his research arrangement, for example, Yaghi was surprised when his colleagues in Vietnam came back with a list of additional changes. Phan explained that many Vietnamese think it's rude to disagree openly with people.

    But even a native can run into problems managing a satellite lab. Balancing the constantly fluctuating needs for reagents with the country's rigid rules for purchasing and stocking controlled chemicals was a never-ending source of concern for Phan, for example.

    Those administrative responsibilities eventually took their toll on Phan, whose husband and young child had remained in the United States. Her grueling travel schedule became untenable after she had a second child last year. So in January, Phan, now a U.S. citizen, took a job with the computer chip giant Intel in Hillsboro, Oregon. Yaghi is still looking in Vietnam for her replacement.

    One persistent issue for researchers setting up a satellite lab is how to handle intellectual property (IP). Although each agreement is negotiated separately, Yaghi says that his arrangement with MANAR is typical: The center retains rights to whatever is developed in Vietnam, while IP developed jointly is split between Yaghi's home institution and the center.

    Scientists running satellite labs say they are aware of criticism that their ideas, funded by taxpayers at home, will be used to boost the economies of other countries. But few researchers feel such an argument has merit. “We train [foreign] students all the time who go back to their home countries,” says James Heath, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Heath recently closed a satellite lab in Singapore after achieving his goal of developing a high-throughput method to generate compounds designed to bind to specific proteins.

    Besides, he adds, the economic benefits from a satellite lab are not limited to the host country. Heath's protein capture technology, for example, was spun out to a start-up company located in southern California to take advantage of the talent and venture capital funding there.

    Yaghi believes that the ties created in his satellite labs also give the United States and other Western countries increased access to rising scientific stars. “The pools of talent that made the U.S. great are drying up,” he says, referring to reports that many talented students in India and elsewhere are either staying in their home countries for their training or returning home soon after they earn their degree. “This is helping us in a very profound way in keeping our country competitive.”

    But perhaps the most important benefit of satellite labs is the ability to cultivate friends and allies around the globe. “If we succeed in internationalizing what we do, … it is a basis for a mutual, respectful relationship based on trust,” Yaghi says. “To continue to thrive, we need to engage the world in a mutual, meaningful way. This is a very good way to do it.”

  7. Global Research Universities

    How to Go Global

    1. Robert F. Service

    Jordanian chemist Omar Yaghi has launched the Center for Global Mentoring to help faculty members set up satellite labs around the world.

    Global Research Universities

    This article is part of a series in which Science will examine the key ingredients needed to create and maintain what we have labeled global research universities. View all stories in this series.

    Omar Yaghi was a teenager in Jordan in 1981 when his father asked him to choose between two starkly different futures: Go to the Soviet Union to become a doctor, on a full scholarship that his father had arranged, or move to the United States and make his own way, with only a few months' support from his family.

    His father was offering him the choice of studying in one of the two most technologically advanced countries in the world because Yaghi's prospects for obtaining an advanced education in Jordan were slim. Despite the likelihood of economic hardship if he came to America, Yaghi says the decision was an easy one: “I didn't want anything to do with” the political system in the USSR.

    Coming home.

    Vy Lai, with student Matthew Leung, hopes Yaghi's center will help her return to her native Vietnam to launch a cancer immunology lab.


    So Yaghi crossed the Atlantic Ocean, found part-time work, enrolled in a community college in upstate New York, and began learning English. Nearly a decade later, armed with a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he launched an academic career that has included stops at Arizona State University, Tempe; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In January, he became head of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

    The 47-year-old Yaghi says his saga proves that America is truly the land of opportunity. Now he's hoping to offer other aspiring scientists that same opportunity with what he calls the Center for Global Mentoring.

    Launched this year, the center is a partnership between Berkeley, LBNL, and UCLA, which is providing $1.5 million in seed money. Its goal is to help faculty members at the California institutions and elsewhere emulate what Yaghi has done in setting up satellite labs around the world (see main text, p. 1600).

    Yaghi and co-chief of the center David Eisenberg, a proteomics expert at UCLA, already have their eye on their first possible project: a collaboration with Vietnam National University (VNU), Ho Chi Minh City, on cancer research. And it would be built around another immigrant whose scientific career has blossomed in the United States.

    Vy Lai grew up outside Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam. When she was 5, her family joined the flotilla of boat people trying to escape the war between the United States and North Vietnam. Her younger brother died before she and the rest of her family made it to a refugee camp in the Philippines. Eventually, Lai's family settled in Canada, and in 2004, Lai earned a Ph.D. in tumor biology and immunology at the Mayo Clinic's Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota.

    Now a postdoctoral fellow in cancer immunology at the University of Washington, Seattle, Lai is eager to return home. And she is hoping that a cancer center modeled on the materials research satellite lab that Yaghi has created with VNU will give her a chance to fulfill her wish.

    “Even though I left Vietnam when I was young, my heart has always been there,” Lai says. “My dream would be to go back to Vietnam and help the people there.”

    For that to happen, VNU must agree to fund the center itself and find outside support for faculty members, students, and research grants. And Yaghi has created a road map for her to follow: “This model has given her a platform to say, ‘I can go back to my country.’”