News this Week

Science  06 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6188, pp. 1066

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  1. Random Sample

    SpaceX unveils crew capsule

    Elon Musk reveals the company's manned spacecraft.


    Enter the Dragon: On 29 May, SpaceX and its founder, billionaire Elon Musk, showed of a prototype of the company's newest Dragon capsule, which it hopes will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station in a few years. The capsule, a modified version of one that already carries cargo to the station, would hold seven astronauts. Upon reentering Earth's atmosphere, the craft would fire retrorockets and land upright, so that it might be salvaged and reused. Hawthorne, California–based SpaceX is one of three companies competing to build a crew carrier for NASA. The agency wants to have it by 2017 so that it can stop paying Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, more than $50 million apiece for rides to the space station. NASA also continues to develop its own crewed vehicle, Orion, as well as a rocket, the Space Launch System, to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.

    “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”

    Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the Supreme Court's 27 May majority decision in Hall v. Florida. The court ruled that states cannot decide who is mentally competent enough to qualify for the death penalty based on an IQ test score alone.

    Where are all the chickens?


    There are an estimated 1 billion pigs, 1.4 billion cows, 1.9 billion sheep and goats, and 20 billion chickens in the world—but nobody knows exactly how many of the animals live where. That's a problem in addressing many scientific issues, including food security, economic development, climate change—to which livestock is a significant contributor—and zoonotic diseases such as avian influenza. Now, a team of researchers from five institutes, including the International Livestock Research Institute and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, has assembled a new set of livestock distribution maps, using updated country estimates, advanced analytics, and new models that the scientists say provides a far better picture than the last global data set, produced in 2007. Their methods are described in a paper published in PLOS ONE last week. Maps and other data can be downloaded from the Livestock Geo-Wiki website, which will be updated as new census statistics become available.

    By the Numbers

    55,000 “Facial recognition-quality” images intercepted by the U.S. National Security Agency each day, out of the millions of photographs published online, according to 2011 documents obtained from former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

    288 Measles cases in the United States, a record since the disease was considered eliminated 15 years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    70 Percent of U.S. norovirus outbreaks from 2009 to 2012 that were linked to infected food workers; 54% of those cases involved workers touching ready-to-eat foods with bare hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 1% of norovirus outbreaks were on cruise ships.

    Zooming in on a fin

    This zebrafish's fin is part of a new photo exhibit, Life: Magnified.


    It's not a peacock feather, but a zebrafish's developing fin in this colorful image from the microscope of University of Wisconsin, Madison, developmental biologists. They are studying how environmental toxins can disrupt the expression of sox9b, which makes a protein important to skeletal development in both zebrafish and humans. (Sox9b's protein is marked green, collagen is red, and DNA is blue.) The photo is among 46 stunning microscope portraits of cells and other biological structures from the plant, animal, and microbial world on display from June through November at Washington Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. The shots include an immune cell engulfing an anthrax bacterium, neatly patterned muscle fibers, misshapen cancer cells, spiky pollen grains, and the intricate mouthparts of a tick. The American Society for Cell Biology is sponsoring the exhibit, Life: Magnified (, together with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

  2. Around the World

    Polio goal at risk
    Menlo Park, California
    Human stem cell tests advance
    China's lunar rover languishes
    Washington, D.C.
    NSF budget stays on track
    Kobe, Japan
    Researcher gives retraction OK
    Sydney, Australia
    Lab closings down under


    Polio goal at risk

    Pakistan has little hope of stopping polio this year.


    The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is at “extreme risk” of, once again, missing its latest target—stopping trans mission of the virus in 2014. So concludes the initiative's Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) in a just-released report. Although there were some bright spots, such as a dramatic drop in cases in Nigeria, overall global polio cases jumped from 223 in 2012 to 407 in 2013. The situation is particularly dire in Pakistan, where killings of vaccinators and political apathy have disrupted vaccination. IMB also blasts the program for not preventing new outbreaks in previously polio-free countries or stamping them out fast enough once they occur. Failure to eradicate polio is “inexcusable,” IMB says. “The program is failing children and families in the poorest parts of the world.”

    Menlo Park, California

    Human stem cell tests advance

    After a stalled clinical trial and a change of ownership, the first human embryonic stem cell therapy to be tested in humans appears to be back on track. Last month, Asterias Biotherapeutics announced results from an initial safety study of a potential spinal cord injury treatment; last week, it won $14.3 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine for more trials. Geron, the company that developed the cells, launched a trial in 2010, but halted it a year later to focus on anticancer therapies. Asterias took over the project in 2013, and now reports that five patients receiving the treatment saw no adverse effects. Asterias plans to test the therapy in the upper spine and to study its effect at higher dosages.


    China's lunar rover languishes

    After nearly half a year on the moon, the lunar rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, is alive but not kicking, according to Li Benzheng, vice commander-in-chief of China's Lunar Exploration Program. On 25 January, as Yutu was about to go dormant for the 2-week-long lunar night, it suffered a mechanical failure that prevented it from retracting its solar panels to shield its electronics from the extreme cold (Science, 31 January, p. 468). Engineers feared Yutu would never wake up—but it did and has survived several more lunar nights. What went wrong is a mystery, and because Yutu is still immobile, the data it still sends have little scientific value. The end is near, Li told Chinese media 28 May: “Yutu could stop working any time now.”

    Washington, D.C.

    NSF budget stays on track

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) last week withstood an assault on its 2015 budget. The Census Bureau wasn't so lucky. Despite complaints by some Republicans about NSF's support for social science research, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 321 to 87 to retain all but $10 million of a $237 million increase proposed by a House spending panel. That's more than double what the administration has asked for. At the same time, members cut $238 million from the bureau's budget request to prepare for the 2020 census, allocating the money for police protection, salmon recovery, and other purposes. The panel's chair, Representative Frank Wolf (R–VA), lamented the cuts by mockingly declaring during floor debate that “I announce that we are going to postpone the 2020 census … to 2021, or maybe to 2022.”

    Kobe, Japan

    Researcher gives retraction OK

    The lead author on two controversial Nature papers describing a method to reprogram mature cells into stem cells has reportedly agreed to retract one of them. According to the Japanese press, stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology indicated last week that she is willing to retract a paper detailing the capabilities of so-called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency stem cells, but not a paper explaining how to make them. The 29 January papers drew accusations of image manipulation and plagiarism. A RIKEN investigating committee ruled in April that these issues constituted research misconduct. At least two of Obokata's 10 co-authors agreed to the retraction, Japanese media reported, but the willingness to retract only one paper may indicate lingering disagreement among the researchers.

    Sydney, Australia

    Lab closings down under

    Australia's cash-strapped national research body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), will shutter eight research facilities in the wake of an austerity budget announced by the federal government for 2014 to 2015. The CSIRO Directions Statement 2014, an internal planning document obtained by Science, identifies labs slated to close, including a horticultural facility specializing in wine, table grapes, and citrus fruit and Aspendale Laboratories, a stronghold of marine and atmospheric research. The document also details cuts to research on geothermal energy, liquid fuel, and marine biology. CSIRO has already targeted radioastronomy for heavy cuts. Even some members of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative Liberal Party question the wisdom of the cuts; Dennis Jensen, an engineer and member of Parliament, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last week: “I'm worried about the future of science, quite frankly.”

  3. Newsmakers

    Three Q's


    What are your odds of becoming principal investigator (PI) of a research group? Depends on your publications, suggest computational biologist David van Dijk of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and colleagues in a 2 June paper in Current Biology. The team built a mathematical career model based on a scientist's publication record; Science talked with van Dijk in an interview edited for brevity.

    Q:Why study scientific careers?

    A:Once in a while I like to use my skills to tackle more general questions. Every grad student dreams of a Nature, Cell, or Science [NCS] paper—not just for the fame, but to secure a job. We wondered whether it would be possible to quantify the effect of an NCS paper [on careers].

    Q:What does your study reveal about the academic rat race?

    A:The easiest, [most] sensible way to judge people you don't know is probably by past work, especially for funding agencies and hiring committees. However, this filtering method will miss some phenomenal scientists. Making the scientific community more conscious of this fact can only improve things.

    Q:What effect does this paper have on your own chances of becoming a PI?

    A:The model predicts that I have a 71% chance of becoming a PI. After this study is published … the model gives me a score of 81%.

    Hauser report released

    Marc Hauser


    Four years after Harvard University completed its investigation of psychologist Marc Hauser, the institution's report, with redactions, is out—thanks to The Boston Globe, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. government. The pages detail an exhaustive investigation: Three committee members met 18 times and interviewed 10 people and Hauser. What they found was damning, including numerous mismatches between submitted papers and raw data. “Prof. Hauser repeatedly valued the primacy and impact of his ideas above an accurate representation of his scientific methods and the integrity of the data,” the committee concluded. In 2012, the federal Office of Research Integrity found that Hauser had engaged in research misconduct. He resigned from Harvard in 2011 but continues to write about language and cognition.

  4. Rethinking the Global Supply Chain

    The information highway gets physical

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The Physical Internet would move goods the way its namesake moves data.

    Sergio Barbarino is still haunted by something he once saw in a Vietnamese airport: a long line of people waiting to pick up box after box of Pampers that had just rolled out of the belly of a Lufthansa plane from Germany.

    A chemical engineer who has spent his career in product development at Procter & Gamble (P&G), Barbarino was pleased that one of his company's leading brands was so popular in this growing Asian nation. But as head of P&G's global supply chain innovation center in Brussels, Barbarino was appalled that people were crowded around a baggage carousel to pluck diapers sent by relatives. Having customers who couldn't easily get a product that they wanted to buy represents a serious breakdown in logistics for one of the world's largest consumer goods companies, he realized. “My heart was bleeding, because our job is to make it easier for consumers to get their hands on our product.”

    Getting goods from here to there is one of humanity's oldest—and sometimes most vexing—endeavors. Today, it has spawned a complex, $60-billion-a-year logistics industry that can, in a matter of days, move a fresh flower picked in a remote South American valley to a florist in Hong Kong.

    But the fundamentals of supply chain management have changed remarkably little since the first traders loaded their wares onto donkeys or carts and trundled to market. Indeed, analysts say the logistics industry is a laggard rather than a leader in adopting new technologies. That aversion to innovation has left the current global supply chain riddled with practices that waste space and energy, delay deliveries, endanger workers, increase road congestion, and pump out vast quantities of carbon dioxide. Those practices can also be bad for business, executives say—as the diaper dash in the Vietnamese airport attests.


    In a Physical Internet, standardized shipping containers like those crowding the deck of the Majestic Maersk would also take to land, simplifying the often chaotic last leg of delivery (opposite).


    There is a much better way, argues a small, loose-knit group of researchers that is just finding its voice. They want the world to create a “Physical Internet” that will move goods in much the same way as its digital namesake moves data. Like the cyber network, the Physical Internet would promote collaboration by developing standardized containers (think data packets), common protocols and tools (open-source software), and shared transport and technological assets (distributed computing). Manufacturers, shippers, retailers, regulators, and customers would be able to communicate seamlessly with each other and their goods. Advocates say it would also tap into underutilized capacity, improve working conditions for those in the logistics industry, relieve urban congestion, and reduce carbon emissions.

    “I see what [computer scientists] did for computing as an inspiration for what we are trying to achieve in logistics,” says Benoit Montreuil, an industrial engineer at Laval University in Quebec City, Canada, which last month hosted the field's first international conference. By shifting from expensive mainframe computers to personalized computing and the World Wide Web, he says, “they reinvented their field, and revolutionized society.”


    Montreuil concedes that there is resistance to the idea of upending a mature industry from all corners—the retailers and manufacturers, as well as those who move the goods. But he still hopes the Physical Internet can achieve a similar revolution in logistics by 2050, if not sooner.

    YOU DON'T have to be FedEx, UPS, or DHL to care about what the Physical Internet could accomplish. “Everybody is affected by logistics,” says J. Rod Franklin, a professor and head of executive education at Kühne Logistics University (KLU) in Hamburg, Germany. “It's the most-used industry in the world. But it's also the least visible.” For most people, he adds, logistics actually has a negative connotation: “It's those guys who get in my way on the road.”

    One reason there are so many trucks on the road is the inefficient way in which they are deployed. One 2004 British study, for instance, studied a 24-hour cycle for 1000 food delivery trucks and found that they were actually transporting goods only 10% of the time. The rest was devoted to less productive tasks: One-quarter were offline, 16% were carrying empty loads (“shipping air” in the industry parlance), and 14% were being loaded or unloaded. Such practices help explain why logistics now accounts, on average, for more than 10% of a finished product's cost and about 15% of the world's gross domestic product.

    Despite its economic importance, research on logistics has never been seen as a priority—and gets little respect within the industry. For instance, although DHL has a director of research who manages a 60-person “innovation team” outside Bonn, Germany, the company's annual report notes that DHL is “a service provider.” As a result, it notes, DHL “does not engage in research and development activities … and therefore has no significant expenses to report.”

    That attitude may be changing, however, as governments start to pay attention. In the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF) began funding an academia-industry consortium based at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, more than a decade ago. The Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution (CELDi) helps businesses solve logistics challenges and trains students in the field. And a few years ago, an NSF-funded study it conducted concluded that the Physical Internet initiative “represents a ‘win-win-win’ virtuous cycle” for raising profits and lowering pollution.

    The European Union feels the same way. Its research arm is backing a €5 million project called Modulushca (Modular Logistics Units in Shared Co-modal Networks) that aims to develop a standardized, modular container for trucks and trains and the protocols needed for the container to “talk” to its handlers through radio tags and other technologies. Such a system will be essential to realizing the Physical Internet, which aims to put goods on the best possible routes from the factory to their final destination.

    The Physical Internet is not just about getting packages to the right place in the most efficient manner, however. Its advocates expect it would also improve working conditions and reduce high employee turnover in the logistics industry. With pooled warehouses and transport fleets, cross-country trips by half-empty trucks would be replaced by a series of short hauls that would allow drivers to return home at night. At the same time, dank and dirty warehouses could ultimately disappear as 24-hour communications between shipments and handlers allows for just-in-time deliveries and does away with the need for intermediate storage.

    The Physical Internet could also reduce urban road congestion by rationalizing and downsizing the vast fleet owned by autonomous companies that now provide last-mile delivery to homes, stores, and offices. Fewer vehicles would also mean less air pollution and lower carbon emissions, they note.

    In the last year, such potential benefits have helped the concept move out of the shadows. Last month, for example, some 200 researchers and industry officials gathered in Quebec City for the 1st International Physical Internet Conference, a 3-day opportunity to present new research, network, and spread the gospel. In the United States, White House officials have asked for a briefing on the concept from leading academics. And in April, a European working group that includes P&G and other major companies declared that “A Physical Internet Vision is possible!”

    TO MAKE IT a reality, however, most companies will need to venture outside their current comfort zone. Kevin Gue, an associate professor of industrial engineering at Auburn University in Alabama and one of the keynote speakers at the Quebec City conference, tells industry executives that “it's not about a better way of doing what you now do. It's about doing things you've never thought of doing before.”

    One example: pooling assets, such as trucks and warehouses, that are often now locked into proprietary networks owned by individual logistics companies. Many of these players, Gue says, are reluctant to share information about customers, shipping routes, distribution networks, or markets, fearing competitors could gain an advantage. Some even consider having their own supply chain to be an integral part of their business strategy, Gue notes. “They think that, if I can lock you into my brand of material handling equipment, it'll be harder for you to switch to another company.”


    A few firms have formed an alliance with a competitor, says Eric Ballot, a professor of industrial management at MINES ParisTech and one of the founders of the initiative. But he reminds them that such an arrangement is not enough. “I have to say, ‘Excuse me, I don't think you get it. Maybe you have a one-to-one agreement with another company. But the Physical Internet would be a network shared by many companies.’”

    Achieving the Physical Internet, KLU's Franklin believes, will require companies to drop their emphasis on optimizing the use of existing assets. Instead, he says, the goal needs to be optimizing delivery of the product, using available assets regardless of who owns them. “With the Physical Internet, you wouldn't care about the route,” he explains. “You care about the timeliness, the cost, and the quality of the service.”

    Packages head out to the runway at a UPS freight center in Germany.


    Similar challenges confront the Physical Internet's vision of developing standardized, highly modular shipping containers. In the 1950s, such containers seemed like a no-brainer to U.S. transport entrepreneur Malcom McLean, who first deployed the now ubiquitous 12-meter containers piled on ships worldwide. But it took the Vietnam War—to be precise, the U.S. military's need to transport massive amounts of material halfway around the world—to create the demand needed to realize McLean's vision. Even then, it wasn't until the 1980s that his container became the industry standard.

    Unfortunately, that revolution never established a beachhead on land. It turned out that the container's dimensions are incompatible with the way trucks are loaded and how goods are stored in warehouses. “So in spite of its tremendous success on the water, transport by containers remains primarily confined to the maritime sector and in an almost forced partnership with rail,” explain Ballot, Montreuil, and Russell Meller, former director of CELDi, in a new book, The Physical Internet: The Network of Logistics Networks.

    Europe's Modulushca project hopes to change that by developing prototypes for modular, land-based containers. Having a small number of such containers would make it much easier for goods to be rolled out of factories and onto trucks and trains. Some researchers even envision containers being shuttled right to a customer's door—where they would be emptied, picked up, and reintegrated into the supply chain.

    The container and pooling challenges, however, highlight one huge challenge facing proponents of the Physical Internet—remaking a mature industry—that the pioneers of the digital Internet didn't have to worry about. “Conceptually, the notion of embracing the standardization and interchangeability that's part of the Web has real appeal,” says Ernest Nichols, director of the FedEx Center for Supply Chain Management at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. “But remember, you didn't have to replace your old Internet. Everybody likes the idea of standardization, as long as you agree to use my standards.”


    WHAT WOULD it take to move the world to adopt the needed standards? One step is to show industry that the Physical Internet is no utopian vision that is 35 years away—but something practical that could have an immediate impact. “If you talk to them about 2030 or 2050 they will stop listening,” Ballot says. “So I try to be more pragmatic.”

    A few years ago, Ballot and Montreuil ran a Physical Internet simulation, using real logistical data provided by French retailers Carrefour and Casino. It showed that the envisioned reforms could significantly increase profits, lower prices, reduce pollution, and lead to less turnover among drivers. Now, the pair is taking the next step, conducting a pilot research project in southern France in which the two companies are using a shared distribution and scheduling system to both receive supplies and ship products.

    Such proof-of-concept efforts should help persuade companies that the Physical Internet would allow them to compete on their core strengths, rather than get diverted by logistical issues. “P&G makes consumer goods, and that is what we should be concentrating on,” says the company's Barbarino—not on how to get those goods to retailers and customers.

    Experts expect regulators will also play a major role in developing any standards, because the logistics industry is heavily regulated. But many would prefer that governments pave the way for change by funding research and acting as a referee —enforcing rules jointly developed by private-public partnerships—rather than simply decreeing change.

    Companies “are doing the best they can, considering the organization they have to work with,” Ballot says. “When people start talking about shipping air and running empty trucks, the implicit message to the company is, ‘You're a dummy.’ Of course they would like to put more in the truck. But right now they just can't.”

    Auburn's Gue says he hopes to see evidence of the Physical Internet “in my lifetime—and I'm 50.” He doesn't think the current logistics industry will disappear, but he does foresee major disruptions—just as the Internet is remaking the communications and publishing industries. And Montreuil says it's worth recalling the early history of the Web, which is marking just its 25th anniversary this year.

    “Remember, at one time the metaphor for the digital Internet was building an information superhighway,” he says. “People said, ‘If we can do it for cars, why can't we do it for bits and bytes?’” He and other Physical Internet advocates are trying to reverse engineer the analogy, with the goal of making logistics as sexy as the Web.