Science  17 Oct 1997:
Vol. 278, Issue 5337, pp. 375

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  1. Ecologists to Study Life in the Fast Lane

    Border crossing.

    Scientists will look at interface between Phoenix suburbs and surrounding desert ecosystems.


    Some ecologists will have to hang up their hip waders and start pounding the pavement. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is expected to announce next week that it will fund two new sites for long-term ecology studies in—of all places—the booming metropolises of Baltimore and Phoenix.

    The awards grew out of a review panel's recommendation in 1993 that NSF's $12 million, 18-site Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) network pay more attention to human impacts. As part of its response, NSF is creating two LTER sites to pick up on urban ecology, a field in which U.S. researchers have lagged far behind Europeans. Such studies examine how trees help reduce air pollution, for instance, and investigate park designs that favor native species over exotic invaders.

    But the new LTERs—each funded for 6 years at $8.6 million, roughly half from NSF and half from universities and other agencies—plan to go further. “We're trying to understand how entire cities as ecosystems work,” explains Arizona State University's Nancy Grimm, co-director of the Phoenix site. The two teams—which include ecologists, social scientists, and geologists—will study plant and animal populations and the flux of nutrients between air, land, and water across neighborhoods, city parks, and even golf courses. “It's the same thing ecologists do anywhere, but you pay more attention to people as animals and as social organisms,” says Steward Pickett of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, head of the Baltimore site.

  2. Canada Launches Sequencing Center

    Canada, whose national genome program fell apart last year, will wade back into large-scale human genomics research next summer with the opening of a new gene-sequencing center in Vancouver devoted to the study of cancerous tumors.

    The center is being launched with $7.5 million from the British Columbia (BC) Cancer Agency for sequencing equipment and other start-up costs. Still to be raised from private and public sources is an annual operating budget of $3 million. The center's director, University of BC chemist Michael Smith, a Nobel laureate, says it will likely focus initially on the messenger RNA associated with breast, prostate, colon, and lung tumors in search of “better diagnostics and therapies for cancer.” But the center hopes to contribute to the international human genome project, perform mouse genome sequencing, and perhaps aid projects of interest to agriculture and silviculture industries, if they decide to contribute.

    Smith also hopes that the center will resurrect national interest in genomics and spur the restoration of funding for a $22 million national genome program that was severely curtailed last year (Science, 18 July, p. 303). “We have to try and compete [with the U.S.], at least on a pro-rated basis,” says Smith.

    The center will open shop in a renovated agency building and become fully operational within 2 years with of 30 to 40 staff. The ultimate goal is to sequence several million base pairs annually.

  3. Lawmakers Blast Megachip Deal

    A blockbluster agreement between the Department of Energy (DOE) and Intel to develop computer chip technology is under sharp attack on Capitol Hill. In a letter last week to DOE Secretary Federico Peña, four high-ranking House Democrats assert that the cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA)—by far the largest DOE deal of its kind—would give away U.S. trade secrets and compromise national security by granting foreign chip equipment-makers access to sensitive new technologies.

    Laying the groundwork for advanced weapons, DOE is refining a technique called extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUVL), which uses shorter wavelengths to etch more features onto silicon wafers than current methods can. The CRADA, signed in March, allows Intel and its partners to spend a projected $250 million to develop chipmaking equipment at three DOE labs, which will kick in $34 million in overhead costs.

    But concern has been growing on the Hill since it was reported that Intel plans to license the new technology to Japan's Nikon Corp. and the Dutch company ASML, makers of lithography equipment. In a 9 October letter, George Brown (CA), John Dingell (MI), Tim Roemer (IN), and Ron Klink (PA) of the House Science and Commerce panels argue that “the main beneficiaries of this CRADA, in addition to Intel, will be foreign manufacturers”—even though U.S. taxpayers have funded most EUVL research so far. According to a Dingell aide, the national labs “got stars in their eyes when they saw that money.”

    The letter includes a long list of questions and asks for a response by 21 October. The lawmakers say they ultimately want DOE to rework the agreement to better protect U.S. trade secrets. An Intel representative responds that the licensing agreements are not yet a done deal and will likely include many U.S. firms.

  4. NIH Leery of Clinical Research Bill

    Noticeably missing from a Senate review of problems facing clinical research last week was Republican endorsement of a proposal activists have been pushing for more than a year—one that would give clinicians a better chance at winning grants.

    At a hearing before a Senate subcommitee, clinical research advocates ticked off a series of now-familiar reasons to steer more funds to clinical research: scarce grant money, salaries too low to attract young doctors, and a loss of private revenue because of managed care (Science, 14 July 1995, p. 158). Prominent researchers—including Harvard clinician Alan Moses—also urged the senators to remedy an alleged bias in National Institutes of Health review panels by requiring better representation of clinicians. In fact, a proposed 1996 Senate bill authorizing the NIH budget would have asked NIH to do that, as well as set up a new clinical fellowship program.

    But NIH director Harold Varmus, who has seen no need for these congressional mandates, testified that patient-oriented research is already getting attention. He listed a series of initiatives he has taken, including training physicians and Ph.D. bench scientists interested in the mechanisms of human diseases. Varmus said he did not need new authority or funding to boost such research.

    Advocates of clinical research were hoping to counter with a revised version of last year's proposals in a bill drafted by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). But to their disappointment, the bill has not been introduced. One reason, according to an advocate, is that a suitable Republican co-sponsor has not yet been found. That suggests that—for now—Senate leaders may accept Varmus's argument that NIH can handle the problems of clinical research without any special help from Congress.

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