News this Week

Science  20 Sep 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6152, pp. 1324
  1. Around the World

    1 - Canberra
    PM-Elect Goes Science-Lite
    2 - Rome
    Italian Panel Assails Stem Cell Treatment
    3 - Damascus
    U.N. Team Confirms Sarin Attack in Syria
    4 - Beijing
    Fraudulent Chinese Academy Bid Exposed
    5 - Boston
    Reviews Find Fault in Transgenic Rice Study
    6 - Washington, D.C.
    BRAIN Initiative Gets (a Little) More Detailed

    Canberra

    PM-Elect Goes Science-Lite

    Australia's scientific community and incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott are off to a rocky start. Unveiling his picks for Cabinet posts this week, Abbott left science out in the cold.

    "Scientists around the nation are asking, 'Where's the science minister?' " said Catriona Jackson, CEO of Science and Technology Australia, an organization representing 68,000 scientists and technologists. This will be the first time that an Australian government has not had a science minister since the science portfolio was created in 1931. Pressed by journalists, Abbott revealed that Australia's national research agency, CSIRO, would report to industry minister Ian Macfarlane.

    The omission comes on the heels of the incoming government's threat to micromanage grant selection at the Australian Research Council, with awards in philosophy, religious history, and the intersection of art and climate change singled out. Climate science and environmental protection may well need to brace for tough times. In 2009, Abbott dismissed climate change as "absolute crap," and this week reiterated a campaign pledge to scrap the outgoing government's carbon tax.

    http://scim.ag/AbbottScience

    Rome

    Italian Panel Assails Stem Cell Treatment

    Lorenzin CREDIT: ITALIAN MINISTRY OF HEALTH

    An expert panel that the Italian government asked to come up with a trial design for a controversial Italian stem cell therapy has thrown in the towel. In a report to Italian Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin last week, the group concluded that the treatment, designed by the Stamina Foundation, has no scientific basis.

    Facing strong pressure from patients who want to undergo Stamina's therapy for a range of diseases, the Italian government has allocated €3 million to studying the therapy, but the panel argued that there is no point in going forward.

    In response, Stamina President Davide Vannoni questioned the impartiality of the panel's members and said they did not ask for medical records of patients responding well to treatment at the hospital in Brescia where Stamina operates. The foundation is also under investigation for allegedly treating patients with unapproved therapies in exchange for money.

    Vannoni said last week that he was in Africa to negotiate a trial with government officials of a country he declined to identify. http://scim.ag/stempanel

    Damascus

    U.N. Team Confirms Sarin Attack in Syria

    Sellström and Ban CREDIT: UN PHOTO/PAULO FILGUEIRAS

    U.N. inspectors have found "clear and convincing evidence" that a chemical weapons attack using the nerve agent sarin killed a large number of civilians near Damascus on 21 August.

    The U.N. team, led by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström, visited the Ghouta suburb of Damascus between 26 August and 29 August. Their 38-page report describes evidence such as soil samples, wipes from rockets, and blood and urine samples from survivors. Lab tests finding sarin or its degradation products in the samples, along with interviews of survivors and medical staff members, led the team to conclude: "Chemical weapons have been used in the on going [Syrian] conflict … on a relatively large scale."

    U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the findings "beyond doubt and beyond the pale." Although the report does not assign blame for the attack, it includes details on the rockets used to deliver the sarin, information that some countries said implicates the Syrian government. Russia and the United States have already agreed to a plan to allow U.N. inspectors to secure and destroy Syria's chemical arsenal.

    http://scim.ag/syriasarin

    Beijing

    Fraudulent Chinese Academy Bid Exposed

    Zhang Shuguang, called the "father" of China's high-speed rail system, stood trial in Beijing last week on corruption charges, where he admitted to paying 23 million yuan (about $3.8 million) to burnish his credentials for membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). His attempts failed twice.

    In 2007, as deputy chief engineer of the now-defunct railway ministry, Zhang used a slush fund provided by businessmen seeking contracts to cloister 30 experts in a hotel for 2 months while they produced three books on high-speed rail technology credited to Zhang, according to reporting in Century Weekly. His bid failed by seven votes.

    Two years later, he again hired ghostwriters to produce more volumes on his behalf and allegedly bribed voting CAS members, but again fell one vote shy of election.

    CAS academicians, or yuanshi, help set the nation's science policy and can keep their jobs as long they wish. Zhang's testimony has touched off a firestorm in China, where many commentators are questioning CAS members' integrity and calling for curbs on yuanshi perks. http://scim.ag/corruptacademy

    Boston

    Reviews Find Fault in Transgenic Rice Study

    A U.S.-led study in which Chinese children were fed genetically modified rice in 2008 didn't comply fully with regulations for studies in humans, Tufts University announced earlier this week after internal and external reviews. The university has barred the study's principal investigator, Guangwen Tang of the university's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, from doing human studies for 2 years. The study of "golden rice," modified to deliver vitamin A, triggered a firestorm in China. Greenpeace alleged ethical misconduct and called it a "scandal of international proportions" shortly after a paper reporting its results was published last year (Science, 14 September 2012, p. 1281); following an official Chinese investigation, three Chinese researchers were removed from their positions in December.

    In a brief statement issued on 17 September, Tufts said there was "insufficient evidence of appropriate reviews and approvals in China," and that Tang—who did not respond to requests for comment—made changes to the study protocol without approval from Tufts University's Institutional Review Board. The reviews did not identify health or safety concerns and the study's results are not in dispute, the university says. http://scim.ag/ricereviews

    Washington, D.C.

    BRAIN Initiative Gets (a Little) More Detailed

    This week, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) made a first stab at fleshing out its plans for the roughly $40 million that it hopes to spend on the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in fiscal year 2014. A report compiled by 15 scientists over the course of four public meetings lists nine research priorities, including classifying brain cells, studying how they connect, and identifying how patterns of activity among them produce behavior. It's clear that achieving the report's ambitious goals will require far more than NIH has allotted, says Gerald Rubin, executive director of the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. "The plan is bigger than the money," he says.

    http://scim.ag/BRAINdetails

  2. Random Samples

    What I Learned in School

    PHOTO CREDIT: BAR GRAPH SOURCE: ©2013 GALLUP INC.

    Science is moving up the ranks on a list of the most important courses Americans take in school. A Gallup poll of 2059 U.S. adults, released earlier this month, found that 12% think science was "the most valuable" subject in their academic careers. That's up from 4% in 2002, the last time Gallup asked the question.

    The perceived value of studying science also rises with level of education. Those with no more than a high school diploma chose math over science by a whopping margin of 43% to 9%. But those with postgraduate training ranked science third, at 17%, only slightly behind math at 19%. English topped their list of most valuable subject, at 25%. Overall, math and English still claimed the top two spots in this year's survey, at 34% and 21%.

    They Said It

    "I think that we've stopped evolving."

    —87-year-old British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, in an interview with Radio Times, adding that, with so many babies now surviving childhood, natural selection cannot act on humans anymore. The comments drew heat from scientists, who note that his view doesn't reflect scientific consensus. http://scim.ag/Attenevo

    Ig Nobels Honor Dung Rolling and Shrew Swallowing

    CREDIT: ANNALS OF IMPROBABLE RESEARCH

    "Some people say our science is crap," declared Marie Dacke, a biologist at Lund University in Sweden, while accepting the 2013 Ig Nobel joint prize in biology and astronomy for the discovery that African dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate.

    The annual ceremony honoring research that "first makes people laugh, and then makes them think" was hosted last week by Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, in a packed theater at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    In their prizewinning work, Dacke and her colleagues observed that beetles rolling dung across the floor of a planetarium changed their direction in response to the Milky Way's orientation.

    Brian Crandall, a science educator based in Hudson, New York, dedicated his archaeology prize to the people who ate whole parboiled shrews for his undergraduate study at the University of Victoria in Canada. He was studying the effect of human digestion on tiny mammal skeletons.

    A team led by Masateru Uchiyama, a biologist at Teikyo University in Tokyo, won the medicine prize for its study of the effect of music on mice that had received heart transplants. Control mice died after a week; those exposed to opera recordings survived as much as three times as long. The researchers arrived on stage in head-to-toe mouse outfits.

    The prize consisted of a hammer sealed within a glass case with instructions to "use hammer to break glass in case of emergency" and $10 trillion … in Zimbabwean dollars. http://scim.ag/IgNobel2013

    By the Numbers

    6.6 million — Children worldwide who died in 2012 before reaching age 5—50% fewer than in 1990, according to a U.N. report.

    9 — Papers still not retracted by journals, 2 years after editors pledged to withdraw a record 88 papers associated with German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt, who was found guilty of scientific misconduct. http://scim.ag/PapersTrail

    ScienceLIVE

    Join us on Thursday, 26 September, at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat with experts on the workings of the teen brain.

    http://scim.ag/science-live

  3. Predators in the 'Hood

    1. Virginia Morell

    As cougars, coyotes, and bears spread into backyards and downtowns, science is helping to show how people and predators can coexist.

    At home.

    An American black bear roamed downtown Aspen, Colorado, on a summer night.

    CREDIT: RJ SANGOSTI/THE DENVER POST/GETTY IMAGES

    Two years ago, in June 2011, A cougar wandered through backyards and peered into homes in Milford, Connecticut, the first mountain lion in that state in more than 100 years. Later that same year, a gray wolf crossed the Oregon border into California, the first wolf in that state in more than 80 years. Black bears now lumber through subdivisions in Ohio and Missouri, states that were bearless until recently. And coyotes, once restricted to the prairie states, now live from Panama to Alaska, including a booming population in downtown Chicago. The only chunk of North America that coyotes have not colonized is Long Island. "But it's only a matter of time before they do," says Mark Weckel, a conservation biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City who is happily following coyotes' spread into his city.

    Once hunted nearly to extinction in the lower 48, America's biggest predators are making a remarkable comeback. Their return has sparked a range of emotions, from surprise and joy to demands that the animals be harshly controlled, if not shot outright. Europe is experiencing a similar resurgence, and similar reactions (Science, 3 November 2006, p. 746). Recently, the Dutch were astonished to learn that a wolf had made its way to the Netherlands from Eastern Europe—the first since 1897—while French shepherds complain that wolves slaughter sheep and endanger their way of life.

    Yet ecologists agree that the animals benefit ecosystems, and many citizens, especially in cities of the western United States, seem willing to have them back, says Stanley Gehrt, a wildlife biologist at Ohio State University, Columbus, who tracks Chicago's coyotes. That leaves scientists, conservationists, and wildlife managers all scrambling to figure out how to best manage animals that literally live next door and are capable of killing humans. "If you're interested in large carnivores, it's a very exciting time," Gehrt says. "There are more people than ever and yet we're seeing a resurgence and acceptance of these predators. Thirty years ago, no one would have predicted this would happen."

    On the move

    CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

    Several factors are spurring the predators' expansion. First, the landscape is getting greener: Forest land has expanded by 28% across 20 of the northern states, even as the human population has jumped by 130%, according to a 2012 U.S. Forest Service report. Cities contain more tree cover, plus bountiful white-tailed deer and cottontails. "Maybe having coyotes living next to us isn't what we were going for when we talked about 'greening' our cities," Weckel says. "But this is the result—and it's a positive thing. If they're successful here, it means we've succeeded."

    Predators bring ecological benefits: Coyotes help control Canada geese; black bears spread seeds; mountain lions and wolves eat deer. Wolves have helped restore Yellowstone National Park, for example, although managers face criticism from all sides (see sidebar, p. 1334).

    In addition, most of North America's surviving predators have traits that make coexistence at least possible, says David Mattson, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. "They're the last of the large Pleistocene carnivores and they've survived because they're the shyest and least aggressive," he says. "Most of them try to avoid [confronting] us."

    Take the black bears of Durango, Colorado, a community of 20,000 people that abuts the 1.8 million–acre San Juan National Forest. At a recent meeting,* Heather Johnson, a wildlife researcher with Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Durango, told of her informal survey of the city's school kids. "If you ask them if they've seen a bear in the wild, one or two will raise their hands. But if you ask, 'Have you seen a bear in your backyard?' every hand goes up."

    During the dry summer of 2012, a black bear broke into someone's home or car in Durango most every night. Johnson and her team trap and count bears within 10 kilometers of the city to try to understand why. One reason is obvious: Bears need 20,000 calories per day in the late summer and can eat the same kinds of foods we do. Plus their huge home ranges, up to 260 square kilometers or more, inevitably overlap with some neighborhoods, where they find bounty in fruit trees and dumpsters. "It's a perfect storm for bear-human conflicts," Johnson says, adding that the same pattern afflicts many cities in the mountain west.

    Although bears increasingly encounter humans, the interactions are rarely violent. Since 1900, black bears have killed only 14 people in the lower 48 states. As a result, we've reduced "the mindset that we should get rid of every bear we run into," says Brian Scheick of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Gainesville.

    In Durango, for example, despite 431 complaints in the summer of 2012—about bears interrupting barbecues, ripping off siding, and eating trash—residents are surprisingly tolerant. In a formal survey, Johnson's agency found an almost 100% approval rating for bears. "People love the bears," Johnson says.

    Occasionally bears may scratch someone, if a person acts foolishly by feeding it. Or they may break into someone's home, as a few have done in Durango. "People don't see their behavior as endangering themselves and the bear," Johnson says. But after such incidents, the animal may be identified as a "problem bear," requiring managers to try to capture or kill it.

    Lethal force?

    CREDIT: © RYAN STAVELY

    When a bear—or a cougar or coyote—becomes a nuisance, officers typically reach for a gun. It "is the easiest thing to do," Johnson says. "But there's no evidence that this is effective on a large scale." A growing number of wildlife researchers say that shooting a predator often doesn't solve the problem, because it merely opens territory to another animal. "It isn't a simple numbers game," says Robert Wielgus, a wildlife ecologist at Washington State University in Pullman.

    For the last 30 years, Wielgus and his colleagues have studied what happens when cougars and grizzly bears are heavily hunted. In 1996, Washington state passed a law banning hunting cougars with dogs—the best method for finding the elusive animals. Some livestock owners feared that the population of mountain lions, as cougars are also called, would soar, leading to more stock losses. In response, state agencies extended the hunting season, increased the number of lions a hunter could take, and dropped the cost of a hunting tag. More than 66,000 tags were sold in 2007 (up from 1000 in 1996), although the cougar population was then estimated at fewer than 4000 animals. Cougar deaths skyrocketed—but so did complaints about problem animals.

    State wildlife officials had made the common mistake of modeling the lions' response to hunting as if the carnivores were white-tailed deer, Wielgus says. Managers hadn't considered what happens to cougar society with such a high mortality rate. "A stable cougar society has senior, adult males," who patrol large territories and father and protect the kittens of several females, Wielgus explains. When a male dies, incoming younger males will fight over his territory, and kill kittens in order to bring the females into estrus again, as his team will report in Biological Conservation in November.

    When the researchers looked at the cougar population of the Selkirk Mountains in eastern Washington, where lion complaints had increased, they discovered that most of the older male cats had been replaced by adolescent males. Because of the threat from these infanticidal young males, many of the female lions there had also moved to higher elevations with their cubs, Wielgus's team discovered. "The females moved to areas they would normally never use, where they eat prey they normally wouldn't eat, including the highly endangered mountain caribou," Wielgus says. The younger males also attacked livestock. "They're the ones that haven't learned to avoid people and so get into trouble."

    Wielgus and his colleagues have worked with Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife to overhaul cougar hunting rules to help restore the cat's society. Cougars in the state are no longer regarded as a single population. Instead, the state recommends that no more than 14% of the lions in any of 49 management units be killed annually. "It should lessen this massive social disruption they've experienced in the past," Wielgus says. He points out that California, which bans sport hunting of cougars, has one of the largest mountain lion populations (about 4000) and the lowest rate of livestock depredations. In contrast, other western states with lion hunts also have high depredation rates.

    California's citizens seem as willing to accommodate cougars as Durango's inhabitants do bears—even though the big cats occasionally kill people. Since 1986 in California, cougars have attacked a dozen people and killed three, probably because of the growing human population. Yet Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill earlier this month that prevents managers from killing lions unless they pose an urgent threat to public safety. Wildlife wardens are to help capture and relocate the animals instead. "I'm amazed that Californians still want to protect them," says Gehrt, the coyote watcher.

    The coyotes are coming

    No predator has faced more lethal force than the coyote, which has never been protected. Several states still pay bounties for killing coyotes, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) killed nearly 80,000 in 2012. Yet they have thrived anyway, Gehrt says.

    In part, that's thanks to humans: We removed coyotes' top competitor and killer, the gray wolf, in the early 20th century. With wolves out of the way, coyotes began spreading across the country, and they're still on the move (see map). They arrived on the outskirts of Chicago in the 1990s, most likely by following railroad tracks, where fences and walls offer cover and make hunting easy. By 2000, they were in the city proper, and over the next decade their numbers rocketed by 3000%, to about 2000, for reasons that Gehrt is still trying to understand. "They've flexed their adaptive muscle and crept into openings in the urban landscape," he says. "Any small natural area in the city now has coyotes."

    Over the past 13 years, he has published a string of studies analyzing coyote numbers, prey, and social structure using radio collars and camera traps. He's found that Chicago's coyotes eat the same prey that rural ones do: voles, shrews, rabbits, and fawns. To avoid people, city coyotes have switched to a nocturnal lifestyle, hunting at dawn and dusk. But they are clearly at home in the city. They cross lanes of traffic with aplomb, trot down the center of roads, duck into subways, and seek shelter in culverts and underpasses. And it's not just Chicago. Coyotes are moving east into every major U.S. city, including Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Dallas. They'll eventually meet up with those already in New York City, which migrated in via Canada.

    Coyotes have some ecological benefits: They devour the eggs of Canada geese, and in Chicago have pushed the geese's annual population growth down from 10% or 20% per year around 1990 to 1% to 2% now. They may also be welcomed by suburban gardeners, because they eat fawns. The coyotes found in the Northeast, which have some wolf ancestry, can even take down adult deer.

    People will need to adjust to their new neighbors, Gehrt says. Coyotes may bite—especially if they are accustomed to people feeding them—and they hunt pet cats and dogs. At first, many Chicagoans demanded the animals' removal, Gehrt says, in "a typical response to a new carnivore." However, as 2 centuries of hunting shows, a coyote killed will simply be replaced by another—so it's important that people know how to deal with them, says Valerie Matheson, the urban wildlife conservation coordinator for Boulder, Colorado. "People need to know that coyotes do pose a threat and they need to learn what to do when they see one," she says. Or what not to do: Coyotes chased and bit five people over 2 years on Boulder's bike path, probably because someone had first fed them.

    Once coyotes are accepted, they may boost tolerance to other predators. "They crack open the door for other large carnivores to live next door to us," Gehrt says.

    However, one large carnivore is not likely to set up shop near U.S. cities anytime soon: the wolf. Once found across most of the country, wolves became the most hated of predators once European settlers arrived. When sentiment changed in the 1970s, gray wolves were one of the first species to be protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, and the federal government actively helped restore them to the wilds of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Other wolves independently loped in from Canada. Now, the federal government is seeking to remove their protected status, and they are hunted fiercely in several states.

    Although many welcome the return of the wolf, others, particularly livestock owners, think that wolves and ranches cannot coexist—and that the only good wolf is a dead wolf. Wolves rarely kill people, but they do at times attack unprotected livestock. In 2010, USDA fingered them for the deaths of about 8100 cattle. But conservationists like to put that number in context: The same figures show that domestic dogs killed 21,800 cattle, and coyotes 116,700. "About 80% of wolf packs don't do this," says Wielgus, who's just launched a new study in conjunction with federal and Washington state agencies and livestock operators to find ways to alter the behavior of the other 20%.

    Even so, wolves aren't expected near a city anytime soon, says Douglas Smith, the head of the National Park Service's wolf project in Yellowstone National Park. Given the space they need and the feelings against them, "they'll always be restricted to places with a few people and no agriculture," he predicts. But if the wolf remains a creature of wilderness, North America's other predators have, like so many of its human inhabitants, opted for the suburbs.

    • * Conservation Behavior Workshop, Merging Science and Application, sponsored by the Animal Behavior Society in Boulder, Colorado, 28 July 2013.

  4. Man in the Middle

    1. Virginia Morell

    Scrutinized by opposing sides—wolf-watchers and wolf-hunters—Yellowstone National Park wolf expert Douglas Smith tries to stick with science.

    Diplomat.

    Wolf expert Douglas Smith faces scrutiny from all sides in Yellowstone.

    CREDIT: NPS PHOTO

    MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK—In February 2012, wildlife biologist Douglas Smith fired a tranquilizing dart at a Rocky Mountain gray wolf, a member of a pack living here in Yellowstone, as part of his ongoing project to tag wolves and study their movements. As he knelt next to the drugged wolf, Smith realized he'd mistakenly darted the pack's alpha or breeding female, named '06 for the year of her birth by the park's wolf-watchers. Darting the wolf wouldn't hurt her, Smith knew, as he took her measurements, checked her teeth, and fastened a GPS collar around her neck. But this wolf was hugely popular with park visitors, and the collar would trigger complaints that she no longer looked wild. The GPS unit, shaped like a tin can, jutted out slightly beneath the wolf's neck. Henceforth, she'd be known as 832F for the number on her collar.

    Less than a year later, 832F was dead—felled by a hunter's bullet 15 miles outside of Yellowstone's border in Wyoming (http://scim.ag/832Fdeath). Smith's phone began to ring, and angry messages poured into his e-mail inbox. "People from the wolf-watching community blame me," Smith said. "They think that if 832 hadn't been wearing a collar, the hunter wouldn't have targeted her."

    Smith is in the crossfire of the wolf wars. On one side are the wolf-watchers who thrill at the sight of the animals; on the other are the ranchers and hunters who blame wolves for a plunge in Yellowstone's elk population and for livestock losses, and who eagerly shoot as many wolves as legally allowed once the animals stray outside the park. It is an occupational hazard, says Smith, who recalls another researcher saying that "the landscape is littered with the carcasses of wolf biologists," who couldn't handle the constant attacks and quit or were fired. "Every year my main goal has been to survive to the next [year] and keep the study going," Smith says. "You always hear from people when you're working with wolves."

    Tall and fit, with a ranch hand's lanky build and straightforward manner, Smith, 53, has been working with wolves—and hearing from people—since he was 18. He decided to become a wolf biologist after reading a cover story about the animals in National Geographic in 1977. Fresh out of high school, he landed a plum job as a field assistant with the wolf-moose project at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior (Science, 24 May, p. 919). Project leader Rolf Peterson of Michigan Technological University in Houghton recalls how the then–assistant secretary of the interior, no fan of wolves, cut off the team's permits and funding that winter. "But we were already on the island, so we just persevered. It was good training for Doug—he saw at a very early age how wolf research gets co-opted by various agendas."

    Since arriving in Yellowstone in 1994 to help reintroduce gray wolves to the park, Smith has had many occasions to put that training to use. Scientifically, the project has been a huge success (Science, 23 October 2009, p. 506), as the newly arrived wolves reduced an out-of-control elk population and allowed the park's ecosystem to recover. "For a long time, Yellowstone wasn't natural," Smith says. "Now it's as pristine as it's ever been.

    But politically the project is a hot potato. "I'm criticized for not being more outraged about the hunting of the park's wolves; I'm criticized for calling them 'the park's wolves,' and for asking the states to put a protective buffer-zone outside the park," Smith says. He's been called a liar and some ranchers and state officials have lobbied for his removal.

    With nine of the park's collared wolves lost to hunters since 2009, Smith is steeling himself for the coming months. Wolf hunting season just opened.

  5. Neuroscience

    Concentrating on Kindness

    1. Kai Kupferschmidt

    Tania Singer helped found the field of social neuroscience. Now she wants to apply what has been learned—by training the world to be more compassionate through meditation.

    Empress of empathy.

    Tania Singer has long practiced meditation herself. Now she is leading a large study to find out how meditation can mold the mind.

    CREDIT: SVEN DÖRING FOR MAX PLANCK SOCIETY

    Empathy made Antoinette Tuff a minor celebrity. On 20 August, a young man armed with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition burst into the school in Decatur, Georgia, where Tuff works as a bookkeeper. It might have ended in yet another senseless mass killing if it hadn't been for Tuff's compassionate response to the gunman, recorded in its entirety because she had dialed 911.

    As the man loads his weapon, Tuff seeks a human connection with him. She talks of her own struggles, her disabled son, her divorce, her thoughts of committing suicide. Finally, she persuades him to lay down his weapon, lie down on the ground, and surrender to the police. "I love you," she says near the end of the call. "You're gonna be OK, sweetheart." (Only after the man is arrested does she break down, crying "Woo, Jesus!")

    Tuff's heroic conversation, posted on the Internet, was hailed by many commentators as evidence of the power of empathy and the value of compassion. If more people were like Tuff, there would be less violence and suffering, they say.

    For neuroscientist Tania Singer, that sentiment has become an ambitious research program. Singer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, wants to find out if people can be trained to be more compassionate. Her program combines rigorous neuroscience with a practice some scientists dismiss as subjective and spiritual: meditation. The effort, called the ReSource Project, involves dozens of scientists and heavy use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It also includes 17 meditation teachers and 160 participants in Leipzig and Berlin who meditate at least 6 days a week for 9 months. Singer hopes to find a "signature of compassion" emerging in her subjects' brains: evidence that the instinct to be kind to others can be nurtured through meditation. Singer is candid about her ultimate goal: She wants to make the world a better place.

    I feel your pain.

    In a 2004 paper, Singer showed that watching someone suffer activates some of the same brain areas as experiencing pain. The overlap is the root of empathy, she says.

    CREDIT: SCIENCESOURCE

    For Singer, two interests converge in the study, which she spent 5 years developing. She has been a pioneer in brain studies of empathy, making her "one of the most influential social neuroscientists in the world today," says Richard Davidson, a psychologist who studies emotions at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She also has a long-running interest in meditation. She tries to meditate every day, has met the Dalai Lama several times, and has been to spiritual retreats lasting months. Although compassion is the study's main focus, she also aims to discover if meditation can make people better at regulating their emotions, help them concentrate, or reduce stress.

    Singer knows all of this makes some people cringe. During most of her career, she kept her interest in meditation to herself. "When I was younger, it was unthinkable for meditation research to be taken seriously," she says. "I had my life as a researcher and then I had my private life, where I could follow these interests." Even her father, Wolf Singer—a neuroscientist who until 2011 headed the Department of Neurophysiology at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt—was skeptical. "We certainly didn't practice meditation at home," Tania Singer says.

    Ouch, that hurt

    Empathy is the bridge that allows us to cross into the territory of someone else's feelings. It establishes a connection between two people, and it's the reason we enjoy reading novels and watching movies. But empathy has long been outside the scope of neuroscience. Scientists studied what happens in the brain when someone thinks or feels, but not how we can know and feel what someone else experiences.

    But in 2004, while at University College London (UCL), Singer published a landmark paper in Science exploring what happens in our heads when we see a loved one suffer (20 February, p. 1157). For the study, she brought couples into her lab; the woman was lying in an MRI machine, and either she or her partner, who was sitting next to the scanner, received an electric shock to the hand.

    The jolts themselves activated multiple areas involved in sensing and experiencing pain, such as the sensorimotor cortex and the insula; surprisingly, observing the partner in pain engaged some of the same brain areas. Not the ones that tell you you're feeling a searing pain in your left hand, Singer says, but the "end note" of pain, that feeling of "ouch, that hurt." This overlap is the root of empathy, she argues.

    The experiment changed how people did neuroscience, says Chris Frith, then Singer's group leader. "People hadn't thought before that you could study empathy in this very reductionist way," he says. Involving more than one person at a time in an MRI study was a daring move, Frith adds. "Tania is incredibly enthusiastic and she is prepared to deal with problems and design experiments which other people would feel are too difficult."

    Other scientists are studying the importance of empathy as well. Christian Keysers, a brain researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, is approaching the topic from a different, darker angle: He is studying imprisoned psychopaths to find out what happens when the connection between people breaks down.

    In a recent paper in Brain, Keysers reported that there was little overlap between the brain regions active when psychopaths felt pain themselves and those lighting up when they watched videos of someone else experiencing pain. But when Keysers asked them specifically to try to empathize with the actors in the videos, the psychopaths showed the same pattern that Singer saw in her romantic couples. "The capacity to empathize seems to be preserved in psychopaths," Keysers says. "They just don't use it automatically."

    Embracing empathy

    Helping each other.

    Singer and economist Dennis Snower (right) received a grant to develop their ideas for a compassion-based economy.

    CREDIT: MAX PLANCK SOCIETY

    Such studies have helped to bring new attention to an age-old idea: that the world needs more love, or at least empathy. In his recent book The Empathic Civilization, author Jeremy Rifkin argues that humanity needs to develop a "global empathic consciousness" to avoid disaster. U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a more empathic society as well; as he put it in a 2011 commencement address at Xavier University, "When you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help." There's a more cynical way to make that case: You help someone not because you want to reduce their pain, but your own. Feel their suffering more strongly, and you are more likely to act.

    For Singer, who moved from UCL to the University of Zurich in 2006 and took her current job in 2010, the interest in empathy came naturally. She has an identical twin sister, and likes to say that she was "born as a we" and that people "constantly resonate with each other." What she is trying to train in the ReSource Project, however, is a slightly different capacity that she calls compassion. In daily life, the two words have overlapping meanings and they're often used interchangeably, but Singer suspects that they are two different phenomena associated with different brain activity patterns.

    A mind for science.

    Postdocs prepare a Tibetan monk for an MRI study at Stanford University, where researchers are also studying compassion.

    CREDIT: BRYCE E. JOHNSON/SCIENCE FOR MONKS

    That insight came from her work with Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk with a background in molecular biology who lives in Nepal and practices meditation. When Singer asked Ricard to "do his thing," focusing on compassion, in the MRI scanner, she got a surprise. The brain regions she saw light up were not the ones that she had seen time and again when subjects tuned into the suffering of another person. Instead, areas associated with romantic love or reward, such as the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum, were activated.

    Starting early.

    Buddhist monks are trained in meditation from a young age.

    CREDIT: THIERRY FALISE/GETTY IMAGES

    Confused, Singer asked Ricard what he had been doing. He explained that he had put himself into a state of compassion, a warm feeling of well-wishing toward the world. When Ricard went back into the scanner and concentrated on the plight of children in a Romanian orphanage he had seen in a documentary, his brain showed the typical signature of empathy. But Ricard later said that the pain quickly became unbearable. "I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out."

    Doctors and nurses have also reported being worn out by too much secondhand suffering. And empathy has other drawbacks, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker writes in an e-mail. Corruption, for instance, is basically a result of our natural tendency to empathize more with our friends and relatives than with strangers, and to favor them at the expense of others. "No amount of training is going to erase this difference," Pinker writes.

    Indeed, studies have shown that people are more likely to empathize with others of their own race or supporters of their favorite football team; even rats show a stronger signature of empathy toward cagemates than to other rats. The world needs justifiable policies and a robust commitment to human rights rather than more empathy, Pinker argues. "Frankly, I don't feel empathy for every one of the two billion Indians and Chinese—who has the time or energy? But I also feel very strongly that they should not be harmed, exploited, or killed. These aren't the same thing."

    Singer, too, acknowledges the limits of empathy. After her experience with Ricard she changed tack and concentrated on compassion, Ricard's state of general warmth—which she also calls "empathic concern," as opposed to "empathic distress." "I thought we should all be more empathic and the world would be a better place," Singer says. "But Ricard taught me that compassion is something completely different from empathy." Now, she's convinced it is this "caring system" that needs to be used more. The general warm feelings from compassion would not be limited to friends or relatives, and they are less stressful for caregivers than empathy.

    Love generation

    Numerous studies have shown that people can be "primed" to think more socially in various ways—from reading simple instructions to holding a warm cup of coffee. In one test, participants who listened to Bob Sinclar's hit song "Love Generation" were more likely to come up with words like "help" than those who listened to Sinclar's less uplifting song "Rock This Party." But Singer isn't interested in words; she wants to train people to act more socially in everyday life. And from personal experience, she believes meditation may be the way to do it.

    At its most basic, the technique simply involves focusing on a feeling. In one meditation exercise in her study, participants are told to imagine a person they love and to concentrate on positive feelings toward them. "May you be happy. May you be safe and sheltered. May you be healthy. May you live with a light heart," the teacher intones. Like bodybuilders increasing the weights they lift, meditators can intensify their compassionate feelings over time. Expert meditators can go very far, Singer says; rape victims may meditate on feeling compassion for their rapist, for instance.

    To measure meditation's effects, researchers in the ReSource Project determine the level of the stress hormone cortisol in participants' saliva, test their reaction times, have them fill out questionnaires, and shepherd them through virtual reality worlds while monitoring their heart rate. Each participant's brain is scanned for several hours five times over the course of the study.

    Participants also play computer games designed to evaluate their compassion level. In one of them, developed with Swiss economist Ernst Fehr, they have to guide a smiley along a winding path that leads to a treasure chest; they have blue or red keys to open gates of the same color. But another smiley is also wandering the screen, on its own quest to another treasure, and players have to decide whether to open gates for it, too. In a preliminary study in 2011, Singer showed that just one day of compassion meditation made people more likely to help the other smiley, whereas 1 day of memory training did not.

    Singer is also trying to better understand what goes on in the brain when it is feeling compassion. The activation patterns seen in the scanner leave open two possibilities: The feeling could be linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine and the brain's reward circuits (which, among many other things, makes you crave chocolate) or it could be linked to what she calls the affiliation network, which is activated for example when you view a picture of your partner or your own child, and is mediated by the neurotransmitters oxytocin or opioids.

    Singer admits that pinning down the neurobiology of compassion is difficult because the mental state it corresponds to remains fuzzy. A French Buddhist monk may have a very different concept of compassion than an African doctor or a British businessman, and there's friction between the classic third-person perspective of science and subjective experiences. "But we need the first-person experience as well as the third-person science," she says.

    Wet noodle

    On an evening in early September, Singer is sitting barefoot on the floor of the Berlin apartment that she rents from Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson, known for his mood-altering installations of water, air, and light. Beautiful globes made of wood, glass, and metal hang from the ceiling, like huge glowing molecules, as Singer talks about what compassion training, practiced on a large scale, could help achieve. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, she has spoken about "caring economics," based on cooperation and compassion instead of just competition. A new grant from the George Soros–backed Institute for New Economic Thinking will allow her and economist Dennis Snower of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy to outline how a compassion-based economy could work.

    She has also produced a free 900-page e-book, entitled Compassion. Bridging Practice and Science, scheduled to go online on 18 September. Based on a 2011 Berlin workshop, it covers everything from the neuroscience of compassion and empathy to specific training schedules. Bringing together texts from Singer and others, sound collages from her twin sister, and Elíasson's photos, it shows "that science and art are actually capable of producing things together," Elíasson says.

    Singer hopes the book will help spread her message. People think compassion makes you vulnerable for exploitation, that it is weak, that it is a "wet noodle," she says. "In fact compassion is courageous, compassion is tough." But she's aware that many of her colleagues are skeptical of her sweeping vistas—and even more about getting there through meditation.

    One problem is that historically, meditation is intertwined with religion. Scientists like Singer and Davidson take care not to include religious references in their study designs; meditation practices "offer a kind of training technology" that even strident atheists can use, Davidson says. But many meditation studies, including Davidson's, are funded by the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has frequently been criticized for trying to blur the boundaries between science and religion. (Davidson says that the foundation is "doing a great service" and that the money comes with no strings attached.)

    Another problem is that meditation research is not known for rigor. In 2007, scientists working for the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine sifted through more than 800 studies looking at meditation's health effects. They were not impressed. The research "does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality," they wrote.

    The most important problem has been that scientists fail to use adequate control groups. Many studies compare participants in a meditation program to people who applied for the study but did not take part. That leaves many factors unaccounted for, from being part of a group experience and having a devoted teacher to the fresh air at a retreat. In a 2012 paper, Davidson showed that many reported effects of "mindfulness" meditation disappear when the control group takes part in a similar program without the specific meditation techniques.

    Singer hopes her own study design is rigorous enough to withstand criticism. During the first 3 months, both groups are trained in meditation focused on attention; then one group gets 3 months of compassion training, while the other focuses on "perspective-taking"—a way of viewing their own thoughts and feelings from a distance. If Singer sees differences between the groups after that, it will be due to the different meditation techniques, she says. "I've had people tell me I'm crazy to use such a conservative measurement, and that I will never find anything this way," she says. Meditation training and follow-up studies will run until 2015, but Singer expects the first results next year.

    Seasoned by skeptical responses, Singer has learned not to bring up her own meditation with fellow scientists, and she is reluctant to discuss it with Science. But she's encouraged that many scientists have recently become more interested. Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences in Seattle, Washington, for instance, says that he used to doubt the value of studying meditation. But at a meeting between Western scientists and Buddhist monks, he was impressed by the Dalai Lama and by researchers like Singer and Davidson, "very serious basic scientists who knew their stuff." The meeting convinced him that meditation research is worthwhile, Koch says.

    Singer's father, too, changed his position, after attending a 2-week meditation retreat in the Black Forest a few years ago where speaking, or even making eye contact, was forbidden. "There is no question that meditation can lead to altered states of consciousness while you are doing it," Wolf Singer says. He has become friends with Ricard, and a conversation between the two about meditation and brain sciences was just published as a book.

    For Tania Singer, compassion research is a logical next step in neuroscience—but one that offers more hope for humanity than most other lines of research. "Why do other people study the amygdala and research how fear works? It's basic science," she says. "We are researching a system that is the opposite of fear, that allows us to go in peace, to trust ourselves and others more, that breeds tolerance."

Log in to view full text

Via your Institution

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution


Navigate This Article