News this Week

Science  09 Aug 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6146, pp. 596

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Rome
    Animal Research Limits Stun Scientists
    2 - Moscow
    Russian Physics Institutes Merger Draws Fire
    3 - Bethesda, Maryland
    HeLa Genomes Back Online


    Animal Research Limits Stun Scientists

    Off limits.

    Activists win a victory in Italy: The Parliament approved a bill to limit animal testing.


    The Italian Parliament approved a bill on 31 July that puts drastic limitations on animal testing. Scientists have warned that the provisions, voted by the Senate earlier this month, will severely hurt biomedical research in their country.

    The bill is Italy's implementation of a European directive adopted in September 2010, but the Italian law goes far beyond the restrictions imposed by the directive. The law bans breeding dogs, cats, and nonhuman primates for research purposes, or using them for any other purpose than health research; studies without pain killers or anesthesia, if the animal may experience pain (unless these are themselves the subject of the study); and using animals in studies of addiction, xenotransplantation, and for training purposes (except in higher education for veterinarians and physicians).

    Scientists, who rallied around the country earlier this summer to defend their research, haven't yet given up hope that the measures will be canceled; the Italian government has yet to sign off on the law and may refuse to do so. Ilaria Capua, a former avian influenza researcher who is now a member of Parliament, says that the government is committed to avoiding severe restrictions on animal research.


    Russian Physics Institutes Merger Draws Fire

    Physics research in Russia is on the cusp of a major transition. The government plans to consolidate several large scientific institutes into a single entity that proponents say will make it easier to fund major new facilities. Earlier this year, 15 institutes signed an agreement forging a partnership on megaclass research facilities. Then, just before elections to choose a new Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) president in May, outgoing academy president Yuri Osipov and Kurchatov Institute Director Mikhail Kovalchuk wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to transform the partnership into a separate body. Putin ordered the government to work out the legal framework for the new body by 1 September.

    However, some physicists decry what they believe to be the latest government maneuver to undermine the embattled RAS, which is fighting for its identity as the government moves to strip it of control of its lucrative real estate assets.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    HeLa Genomes Back Online

    Famous cells.

    Henrietta Lacks's family is allowing HeLa genomes to be available to researchers.


    Five months after it was yanked offline, the HeLa genome is again available for research. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, announced on 7 August in Nature that the descendants of Henrietta—Lacks, the woman whose tissue was used—without her permission—to establish HeLa, the most widely used cancer cell line, gave the go-ahead to researchers to study its genetic sequence.

    A team from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, published a HeLa genome sequence and an analysis of its content on 11 March, but took the data offline the same day in the face of harsh criticism for not getting permission from the Lacks family. NIH-funded researchers had also just sequenced a HeLa cell line, so the agency began negotiating with the family. "We have crafted a path that addresses the family's concerns, including consent and privacy," Francis Collins and Kathy Hudson, NIH director and a deputy director, respectively, write in Nature. Scientists must now apply for access to both teams' genomes (the second was published in Nature this week), and resulting papers must include an acknowledgment to Henrietta Lacks "and the continued generosity of her family."

  2. Newsmakers

    Handelsman Named to White House Post



    On 31 July, Yale University microbiologist Jo Handelsman was nominated by President Barack Obama to be associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). If confirmed, she would succeed physicist Carl Wieman.

    Q:Why did you say yes?

    J.H.:Because [OSTP Director] John Holdren asked me. Next to the president, he's one of my favoritest people. This is an opportunity to work at a pretty high level on a national agenda, with a team of people who are deeply committed to science.

    Q:Carl focused on STEM education. Will you?

    J.H.:John and the president see STEM education as a high priority. But the breadth of science not covered by the other directors at OSTP, including basic research across all fields, would certainly also be a large part of my portfolio.

    Q:Will you be taking leave from Yale?

    J.H.:Yep. I'll be taking 2 years' leave and planning to come back. I'm in the middle of my research career and I don't want to lose that.

    Space Walker to Lead NOAA



    The first American woman to walk in space has been tapped to become the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). President Barack Obama on 1 August nominated Kathryn Sullivan, now NOAA's acting administrator, to fill the post vacated in February by marine scientist Jane Lubchenco.

    Outsiders like the pick. "She will enjoy respect and strong support from the academic and commercial sectors," predicts Tom Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. A geologist, Sullivan, 61, is best known for being one of the first six women selected by NASA for astronaut training in 1978. She flew on three shuttle missions. This will be her second stint at NOAA; she served as the agency's chief scientist from 1993 to 1996.

    They Said It

    Projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward."

    —Crowd-funding website Kickstarter stating a policy change, effective 31 July, on the heels of a successful fundraiser to genetically engineer glowing plants for home lighting. The pitch offered the plants' seeds as rewards to online backers.

  3. Random Samples


    Setting Sail for Science

    Last week, the Schmidt Ocean Institute's newly refitted Falkor—named for the heroic "Luck Dragon" of The Neverending Story—docked in San Francisco, California, for the first time. The institute, a nonprofit ocean research organization founded in 2009 by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and wife Wendy, refitted the 32-year-old, 83-meter-long vessel to make it available to researchers to use for free for ocean exploration. Following extensive field trials, the ship began its scientific cruise program this year.

    A little more than a week before the ship's appearance at the city's Exploratorium, officials from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration met with scientists and technology companies such as Google and mapping software company Esri to discuss how public-private partnerships can further a national plan to map the United States' oceans, a plan in which Falkor will take a part.

  4. The Web's Faceless Judges

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    PubPeer is the latest forum for free-ranging discussion of published papers. It can only succeed, say its anonymous founders, if participants are able to keep their identities hidden.


    What does it take to run a website where scientists can chat freely about published papers?

    Anonymous e-mail addresses. Temporary phone numbers. Undisclosed locales. Jitters that one day, your cover will be blown, your career destroyed, and your family's finances depleted. It sounds like a John le Carré novel. But no, the protagonists here are a handful of biologists who last fall unveiled PubPeer, which bills itself as "an online community that uses the publication of scientific results as an opening for fruitful discussion." The goal is something of a free-for-all journal club, welcoming comments from readers and authors across disciplines.

    "When I saw that it was not signed by anybody, I felt uncomfortable—it was an instinctive reaction".

    —Shaul Hestrin, neuroscientist at Stanford University

    PubPeer is one of several recent ventures to encourage scrutiny of published work, seeking to fill what many consider a gap in scientific publishing. "I myself have kind of longed for a place where I can see discussion of work after publication," says Ferric Fang, a microbiologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, and editor-in-chief of Infection and Immunity. Journals are one obvious place to leave comments about a paper, says Fang, who has written extensively about scientific publishing and misconduct (Science, 25 January, p. 386). But he says that most "haven't been very good" at nurturing such discussion. Some don't allow comments at all, and others require commenters to be named or remove those that may imply wrongdoing.

    When questions about published research bleed into misconduct accusations, journals and institutions have their protocols, but many researchers grouse that the process can take years and its outcome is often unsatisfying. "Universities charged with investigation [have a] huge conflict of interest," says Jennifer Nyborg, a biochemist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, who's been frustrated by her efforts to report potential misconduct through the proper channels.

    Given these shortcomings, many agree there's a place for sites that engage in postpublication peer review. They can clarify experiments and catch errors, something several, including PubPeer, have done. They can challenge how studies are interpreted and suggest avenues for follow-up work.

    But many who participate in these discussions sit at a tense nexus: They long for more unfettered conversation about science, yet insist on doing so anonymously, fearful that their words will come back to haunt them. One of PubPeer's founders, who describes himself as a tenured professor, says that even a senior scientist "very rarely, myself included, wants to take the risk" of criticizing fellow scientists under their own names. The professor and his shadowy brethren—another founder tells Science that he is finishing up his Ph.D. somewhere in the United States—have gone to great lengths to protect their identities. "I don't want it to impact my scientific life or my personal life," says the professor of his site, adding that the phone number from which he was calling "probably won't work after a few days."

    While anonymity can spur discussion, it does not always elevate it.

    When PubPeer launched in October 2012, the founders' goal was genteel dialogue. "I enjoyed this paper greatly," an anonymous commenter wrote early this year, about a study in Science on empathy in rats. The commenter politely queried about comparisons between littermates and nonlittermates and sought more information about how the animals behaved.

    Posts like this one, though, were interspersed with those of a different nature. "The paper was VERY effective for getting his lab a lot of publicity (and money?)," one commenter wrote about an article in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal. "Was it just sensationalism or did it tell us something new about the brain?"

    In May, PubPeer underwent a tectonic shift after a tip exposed errors in a high-profile paper. The anonymous post flagged apparent image duplications in a manuscript describing how human embryonic stem cells could be produced by cloning, published in Cell by a group based in Oregon (Science, 31 May, p. 1026). Cell subsequently printed an erratum. Suddenly, PubPeer was in the news, and whistleblowers began flooding it with tips suggesting problematic images in dozens of papers. It now receives between 10 and 50 comments a day. "They're getting a little bit out of control, in my opinion," the professor founder says.

    "The volume of material they're dealing with, I think, is far, far greater than anyone anticipated," agrees Paul Brookes, a biologist at the University of Rochester in New York. Brookes knows well what it takes, and what it's like, to play scientific watchdog. Last year he launched, which unlike PubPeer sought from the start to expose problematic images in published papers. Brookes, too, was anonymous—until January, when a still-unidentified individual outed him (Science, 11 January, p. 132). Amid threats of lawsuits, imploded. Brookes quickly pulled accusations of wrongdoing from the site. Although many criticized him for questioning the integrity of authors, the site had an impact: More than 40 of the papers that appeared on have since been corrected or retracted, Brookes says.

    So far PubPeer's record is slimmer, but the site appears to be gaining traction. In July, it posted 89 comments, up from just 26 in June. In May, when the Oregon stem cell case broke and posted an endorsement of PubPeer, comments on the site topped 360. Some challenge the integrity of images; others question whether a paper's conclusions are backed by its data. Scientists who are first or last authors on a paper can register as anonymous "peers" and leave comments, which are posted automatically but can be removed if deemed inappropriate. Anyone can send unregistered submissions to PubPeer's e-mail address, and the founders often vet their claims against the paper in question. (In June and July, more than 500 comments were submitted but not posted due to problematic tone or content.) There's also the option of commenting under one's name, but few take that route.

    "If it's a verifiable fact, … it just shouldn't matter" if the person is named, says Ivan Oransky, a journalist who 3 years ago started the popular blog Retraction Watch with fellow reporter Adam Marcus. But he says that in some intangible way, "it does. People like to know where people are coming from." Many of the tips about retracted papers that he and Marcus investigate arrive under pseudonyms, from anonymous e-mail addresses. Even though Oransky supports anonymity, he admits that he can't help but be curious himself, especially about those who attack Retraction Watch and accuse it of having "an agenda." "I would very much like to know who all these people are," he says.

    "If it's a verifiable fact, … it just shouldn't matter" if the person is named. But "people like to know where people are coming from".

    ––Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch

    A big reason for staying hidden, many scientists suggest, is that despite all the talk of honest discussion in their community, there's little reward for engaging in it. "If the system was much more open and much more tolerant of dissent then this would not be needed," says Raphael Levy, who studies cell imaging at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. He has left both anonymous and named comments on PubPeer.

    Another occasional commenter, neuroscientist Boris Barbour at the Institute of Biology at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, concedes that his writing changes when it's backed by his name. "It's very easy to say, 'That paper's crap and how did it ever get accepted,'" Barbour says. "To be sure you have a water-tight case isn't trivial." Although he tries to be equally rigorous whether posting anonymously or not, he says the pressure to "make extra certain" the text is accurate is heightened when he goes public. Fang, who has left comments on Retraction Watch, agrees. "When I have to sign my name to it, it makes me just a little bit more thoughtful before I hit 'send,'" he says.

    When a paper is flagged on PubPeer, the site immediately notifies the corresponding author. Peter Klein, a physician and developmental biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, received an automated e-mail from PubPeer in late May. A poster listed 18 questions and comments about his 2012 report in Nature Medicine, including what this person described as "contradictions between text and figures" and "incomplete or inconsistent description of methods and figures."

    Klein had never heard of the site. "Because there were so many small details, my first response was, do we have to respond? We've already gone through peer review," he says. "But then as I went through it … it occurred to me that this person probably found the omissions frustrating. … I felt like, we can answer them, we can help them out." He and his postdoc crafted a nearly 900-word rejoinder.

    Few authors were as relaxed about anonymity as Klein. "When I saw that it was not signed by anybody, I felt uncomfortable—it was an instinctive reaction," says Shaul Hestrin, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, whose paper in The Journal of Neuroscience was questioned. Hestrin sensed an imbalance, because only one person was named. (That would be him.) "Either you want to stand by what you're saying, or you don't say it." Hestrin e-mailed the site to say he'd be happy to respond if he knew who was asking the questions, but was told that wasn't an option. "I just disengaged," he says, and didn't reply, although he acknowledges the points raised—essentially, whether the data had been overinterpreted—weren't unreasonable.

    Ironically, some of those who decry anonymity most vigorously insisted that their names not appear in this story. "Anonymity's a great cover for people who want to take other people down," says one author whose work was cited on PubPeer. Another scientist argued that PubPeer "becomes basically a gossip site" lacking "credibility or accountability." ("I've never done anything anonymously," this person emphasized, while stipulating that their name not be publicized.)

    Brookes, who is facing several threatened lawsuits, has thought a great deal about anonymity. His views are still evolving. "Previously I think I was very much like the owners of PubPeer—very scared, very wary," he says. "And I'm sort of coming around to the idea that doing this stuff using your real name is the way to go."

    Brookes cites a couple of reasons for the swing of his internal compass. For one, he was frustrated when he tried to contact a journal anonymously about potential image manipulations in five papers by a single author. After dozens of e-mails generated not a single reply, he became convinced that the reason was that no one knew who he was.

    Brookes also notes an important change in his own scientific fortunes: Last year, while running, he was applying for a grant from the National Institutes of Health. In February, he learned that his application would be approved. "It's really down to what career state you're at and what you're comfortable with," he says. Brookes is contemplating a new site for postpublication peer review. He's still considering the place anonymity might have on that site.

    PubPeer's founders watched's collapse warily. "We learned from that, we're not accusing anybody of fraud," says the professor founder. The site's administrators, whom he says number about eight spread across different institutions, have consulted with some family friends who are attorneys "but we are mostly winging it."

    At the same time, PubPeer is doing what it can to raise its profile. It's planning to offer its users browser plug-ins that can link PubPeer comments to PubMed, which thousands of researchers rely on to sift through biomedical papers. Its administrators are also developing citation software plug-ins that would alert users to comments on papers when those papers are referenced in manuscripts or grants. "Our dream," he says, "is that this becomes an important side piece to the scientific literature."

    The professor has already had occasion to be grateful for his double life. A visitor grading his lab for funding had a paper flagged on the site; a department colleague had research discussed there. "If he knew I was involved, it would change our interactions," he says, referring to the colleague. Still, he's resigned to a day when he's unmasked. "I think it's going to be very hard," he says, "to stay anonymous forever."

  5. Wildfire Science

    Computing a Better Fire Forecast

    1. Eli Kintisch

    Scientists and firefighters ponder new ways to predict the spread of wildfire as the U.S. West faces ever more potent blazes.


    The 2006 Esperanza wildfire burned 16,000 hectares of chaparral and killed five firefighters in southern California.


    Firefighters who were there that deadly morning would later describe trees with glowing orange bark and flames that leapt hundreds of meters in moments. An arsonist in the southern California town of Cabazon started the October 2006 blaze, known as the Esperanza fire. Havoc reigned at dawn as residents evacuated and fire trucks snaked up smoky mountain roads.

    At about 6:30 a.m., a five-man crew from Engine 57 set up a water pump above one edge of the fire, hoping to save an octagon-shaped house. But the blaze swept up an adjacent gully and over the structure in less than 10 seconds. None of the crew escaped.

    Now, 7 years after the Esperanza tragedy, U.S. wildfire specialists are still debating exactly what happened—and whether improved computer models might help scientists, firefighters, and disaster planners avert such deadly surprises. Relatively crude existing simulations already help the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies predict the course of hundreds of fires each year, mostly in the western United States. But researchers agree that these models do a poor job of simulating extreme events like Esperanza, when wildfire can seemingly act capriciously and erratically.

    "The current models have been stretched to their limits," says Kelly Close, a fire behavior analyst in Fort Collins, Colorado. They will be stretched further if a warming climate makes extreme fires more common, raising the odds of additional Esperanza-like calamities, such as the Yarnell, Arizona, blaze that killed 19 elite firefighters in June. More sophisticated models that can simulate both the extreme behavior of individual fires and the risk of fire across entire landscapes are on the horizon. But a variety of factors, including limited funds, technical disagreements, and the sometimes clashing cultures of academic scientists and wildland firefighters, is complicating the search for alternatives.

    Model behavior


    These days, meteorologist Janice Coen (above) is working to develop fire-atmosphere simulations that improve pioneering models devised by Richard Rothermel (left, behind window) in the 1970s.


    Wildfire modeling is a relatively young endeavor. In the early 1970s, when the U.S. Forest Service sought to analyze fire risk over large landscapes, it turned to its research laboratory in Missoula, Montana. There, fire scientist Richard Rothermel led a team that observed fires in field tests and the laboratory. They went on to write a set of equations, which for the first time related the speed and direction of a model fire's spread to terrain, the vegetation available for fuel, and nearby wind patterns.

    Forty years later, Rothermel's formulas are the foundation for two varieties of operational fire models. Strategic modeling tools allow managers to forecast, well beforehand, how fires might spread or visualize where future fires might break out; tactical tools allow modeling of specific fires on shorter timescales, sometimes with an eye toward figuring out whether to confront them or let them burn. Perhaps the most widely used model is a tactical model called FARSITE, which uses terrain, fuel, and weather data to project a fire's path over a 2D map.

    Fire analysts use it tens of thousands of times a year in their work, says FARSITE developer Mark Finney of the Missoula lab. And in the hands of an analyst who understands its limitations, FARSITE can be a valuable tool. In 1994, for example, officials in Glacier National Park were confronted with a pair of wildfires. They faced "a lot of tense decision-making," Finney says, over whether the flames might harm settlements, and whether they should put firefighters in harm's way. But FARSITE predicted that the fire would stay within a safe area, Finney says, and it did. In other instances, it has given planners a reliable 3-to 5-day forecast of a fire's spread, enabling them to more efficiently—and safely—deploy crews.

    Still, Rothermel-based tools like FARSITE have some glaring weaknesses. They assume that fuel is evenly distributed, for instance, and that it burns uniformly. They don't simulate the movement of particles and gases that can affect a fire's path, or the complex relationships with the atmosphere that can enable some blazes to create their own wind and weather, even generating so-called pyrocumulus clouds. The models also have a hard time with complex phenomena like rotating air masses known as fire whirls, fires spread by embers, or explosive blasts of flame that can shoot out from a fire's flanks. A Rothermel-based model "describes very well a fire burning in a field of wheat," one of the researcher's colleagues once told Fire Science Digest. "As you get further away from that uniformity, the less accurate it becomes."

    Such limitations became clear to FARSITE analysts studying a 2002 fire in northwestern Colorado. The model suggested that it could be stopped in its tracks by using time-tested methods such as lighting controlled "backfires" to deny it fuel. But the backfires wouldn't ignite even though the blaze went on marching across the landscape. The reason: The fire was spreading treetop to treetop via a flammable lichen known as "old man's beard," instead of creeping along the ground as the model assumed. (In such cases, Colorado's Close says, wildfire specialists "just have to turn off the computer" and rely on experience and intuition.)

    Flare up


    Computers simulate how fire may affect nearby winds (above) and how flows of air shape fire naturally into an oval (below).


    One scientist working to bring fire models into the 21st century is Janice Coen, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. Unlike most wildfire experts, Coen's career path began not in the forest, but in her childhood city of Pittsburgh, where her father was a firefighter. "The earliest pictures of me are of me tromping around in his fire boots," says the laconic researcher. In graduate school, Coen studied airflow over complex surfaces, which led her in 1992 to join NCAR, where a team was working to connect a high-resolution regional weather model to the Rothermel equations.

    Since then, Coen has become a leading advocate for the idea that robust simulations must reflect a coupling between the fire and the atmosphere. Each affects the other, she says, creating feedback loops that are critical to predicting fire behavior, including the seemingly whimsical way extreme fires move. She has drawn on aspects of fluid dynamics, for instance, to show why fires don't move through a landscape in a straight line, but with a front edge curved in the direction of prevailing winds. That's because rising parcels of air ahead of the fire front pull the fire into that shape.

    In 2005, Coen turned heads with a simulation of the Big Elk fire, a medium-sized blaze that had struck Colorado 3 years before. By modeling how the fire and the atmosphere interacted, Coen built what Close called a "surprisingly accurate" recreation of the Big Elk blaze in silico. The model showed, for example, how the blaze affected winds some 5 kilometers away—one of the first times such coupling had been quantified.

    Coen has also drawn attention for her more recent simulations of the 2006 Esperanza fire. Although fire modelers often don't have the real-world data necessary to test their models against real events, Esperanza was different: The Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station mapped its heat by airplane, in real time. That has allowed Coen to see if her models could accurately recreate its spread and intensity.

    The answer is a qualified yes, she and ecologist Philip Riggan of the Forest Service lab have reported at meetings and in a paper under review at the International Journal of Wildland Fire. Despite incorporating atmospheric coupling, the model didn't do a good job of mimicking some aspects of local warm winds, called Santa Anas. But it faithfully recreated how the fire raced through canyons, split into two flanks, and engulfed the firefighters at the octagon house. Such results suggest that "this is a really promising approach," says Max Moritz, a fire scientist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.

    Could it have prevented the tragedy at the octagon house? Coen emphasizes that her work isn't designed to tell firefighters where—and where not—to go. "I'm not one who says that fire modeling saves lives," she says. But she does believe that more sophisticated models would give crews a better idea of how an extreme blaze might behave, perhaps enabling them to build in bigger margins of safety.

    Her Esperanza work, for example, suggests that responders need to keep in mind that fires can create their own winds that can pull flames uphill. A California state review concluded that a combination of factors explained the "erratically" behaving fire, including Santa Ana winds trapped near the ground by a layer of cool air, which made them move faster. But Coen thinks that the fire's behavior at the octagon house wasn't so unpredictable. In her simulation, fire-generated winds largely explain "how the fire dragged itself up the gully so quickly," she says. Adding to the speed of those winds was a fire whirl, which developed in her model in the heat of the blaze.

    Jeff Zimmerman, a retired local fire chief who investigated the fire, isn't fully convinced. But he says Coen's model does show that "a computer model is a good tool to help predict future fire behavior."

    Her approach hasn't caught on among the modelers at the Missoula lab, however, who aren't convinced that they need to add fire-atmosphere coupling to the Rothermel equations. Given "the complication of adding such interactions" to current models, says the Missoula lab's Finney, wider tests are required. More important, he says, is establishing new, fundamental physics on combustion, convection, and other aspects of fire to eventually replace the Rothermel equations. "We don't understand how fire spreads," he says.

    Bringing the heat

    A warmer climate will lead to a "higher probability of extreme fire behavior, not in every fire of course, but more often than in the past," predicts forest scientist Steven Running of the University of Montana in Missoula. This new regime will not only tax tactical simulators like FARSITE, but strategic models as well.

    Such tools use historic weather data on previous fires to map the probability of fire spread. But existing databases of previous fires are increasingly not representative of the changing climate regime in the western United States, says Krista Gollnick-Waid, a fire analyst with the Bureau of Land Management in Boise. That should raise doubts about results produced by one oft-used strategic modeling tool, called FSPro, she warns: "Analysts need to be aware of the potential for FSPro to underpredict fire spread [and] probability." During her work analyzing a recent fire in southwest Colorado, for example, she found that the blaze traveled farther in 1 day than "what the model said it would go in 5 days." Says Close: "If that's the new normal, we better be ready."

    UC Berkeley's Moritz is already grappling with the changing climate of the West. In a 2010 paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, he used roughly a decade of wind and weather information to map the Santa Ana winds across coastal southern California, which dry out landscapes and stoke brushfires into conflagrations. The results were fairly broad but disturbing, highlighting areas that were potentially vulnerable to major fires. "I had fire departments calling me asking whether they could have even finer resolution maps to understand their local risks better," Moritz recalls. Unfortunately, those are still largely unavailable. But he says that the experience highlights the growing demand for better, and more detailed, strategic fire models.

    A unified front

    Improving all varieties of fire modeling, however, may require some shifts in funding priorities—and perhaps in attitudes toward collaboration among scientists and firefighters.

    Consider the priorities of the federal Joint Fire Science Program, a $13-million-a-year program managed by the Forest Service. "Our focus is primarily fuels management," or ways to reduce the amount of tinder-dry vegetation on the landscape, says spokesperson Tim Swedberg. None of the program's 50 research awards this year focus on wind, climate, or weather. That's typical, says Moritz, adding that he is routinely disappointed when he reads the program's annual description of research questions it wants to answer. "You look at it and you say wow, these research questions are really narrow," says Moritz, whose funders include the National Science Foundation.

    Cultural barriers to trying new ideas can also loom large. Wildfire officials who literally undergo trials by fire aren't necessarily inclined to put much value on knowledge gained from "a peer-reviewed study by a Ph.D.," says Matthew Desmond, who fought wildfires in Arizona before becoming a sociologist at Harvard University. And Coen is matter-of-fact about the challenges that she's faced in collaborations. She's from Pittsburgh, not the West; she's an academic, not "a forest person" and, well, she's a woman in a largely male professional world. "I've become much better at finding where people are coming from and finding ways to bridge that gap," she says diplomatically.

    She's tramped out to field command posts, for instance, to learn about what managers need—and would be willing to try out. "The procedures in place to manage wildfires make it very hard to try new things," she says. "You can't just say 'Try this model' to someone with no experience using it, who is engaged in responding to the incident."

    In 2007, she visited the octagon house destroyed by the Esperanza fire, at the invitation of Zimmerman, the retired fire chief. Zimmerman has visited the site repeatedly; each time, he says, "it's a very difficult experience." But Coen reveals little emotion. "I am freakishly analytical and Spock-like" sometimes, she says. And Zimmerman thinks more of that kind of thinking may be just what fire science needs.