Science  02 Jan 1998:
Vol. 279, Issue 5347, pp. 19

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  1. Sink Hole Could Swallow Climate Pact

    And you thought last month's agreement in Kyoto to curb greenhouse gas emissions was contentious. This year, scientists must sort out the pact's devilish details, starting with a major question: Where is the natural “sink” that absorbs up to half the heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) pumped into the atmosphere?

    The answer—due by a follow-up meeting in November in Buenos Aires—is crucial because the treaty allows industrialized nations to offset their greenhouse emissions by planting carbon-sequestering trees, but also penalizes them for logging or other practices that release carbon into the atmosphere. So scientists need to come up with a way to account accurately for the amount of carbon stored by different kinds of natural sinks, including forests, wetlands, and soils.

    Details, details.

    Treaty calls for tracking carbon sinks, like forests.


    But like trying to track the flow of Mob money, accounting for the world's carbon will require avant-garde investigations into the shadowy activities of nonhuman lifeforms and processes. For one thing, climate scientists are still stymied by the “missing sink”—the unidentified biological system that appears to absorb up to 4 billion tons of CO2 each year. The sink “might be in the ocean, but it is probably in forests or soils,” says climatologist James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City—not much to go on. It's also unclear how much carbon gets absorbed by different forest types—say, a replanted forest versus a virgin one.

    Given the uncertainties, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the Kyoto pact's scientific panel—will be hard pressed to come up with credible estimates before the November deadline. As Princeton University's Daniel Kammen points out, “There is still a lot of basic ecosystem science to be done.”

  2. Europe's Stern Test for Biotech Crops

    This year could mark a watershed for genetically altered crops in Europe. Although biotech firms have one reason for optimism—a new European Union directive that should essentially forge a single biotech patent law across the continent in 1998—a tidal wave of public concern is threatening to wash out prospects for getting new crops onto the market any time soon.

    The unannounced arrival of genetically modified foods from the United States—particularly tomatoes and soybeans—in products sold in Europe in 1997 prompted advocacy groups to call for labeling such foods. Groups including Friends of the Earth are worried that foreign genes in the products might spread to wild plants or harm the nutrition of consumers. Some companies have already voluntarily started labeling foods, but others are resisting.

    Lobby groups are also demanding a moratorium on trials of bioengineered crops until government agencies can look more closely at environmental risks—even though many trials have already been carried out across Europe. U.K. officials are now preparing a policy statement on a proposed new food agency that could tighten rules for licenses to grow genetically modified crops. The new agency may “strengthen our case for a moratorium,” says Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth.

    In Switzerland, resistance to altered foods may run even deeper: A national vote is planned this year on a raft of biotech issues, including whether to ban deliberate releases of bioengineered crops.

  3. Tobacco Deal To Boost R&D?

    Biomedical scientists may end up with a windfall this year thanks to the proposed settlement between tobacco firms and the government. The $368.5 billion agreement will go into effect only after Congress passes a law to codify it. Four Senate bills introduced so far—some with matching House bills—would set up a trust fund for biomedical research. All approach the matter differently: John McCain's (R-AZ) bill would set aside $67.5 billion over 25 years in part for research on helping tobacco users quit, while a plan from Orrin Hatch (R-UT) would collect higher punitive damages from companies to endow a $95 billion trust for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And Edward Kennedy (D-MA) wants to raise cigarette taxes by $1.50 a pack for a fund to be spent partly on child health research.

    The favorite of medical lobbies—more than 160 of which have endorsed it—is a bill from Connie Mack (R-FL) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) calling for a $100 billion trust funded from settlement cash. NIH would decide how to spend the money.

  4. Banner Year for Science on Capitol Hill?

    As the once-unthinkable—a federal budget surplus—now appears possible, R&D advocates are hoping Congress won't forget them this year. The signs are encouraging. Representative Joe Kennedy (D-MA) intends to introduce legislation this month urging the government to double civilian R&D spending over a decade—similar to a bill introduced last fall by Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX). While those measures are purely symbolic, aides say congressional budget panels are preparing to back up the rhetoric with dollars. Look for Congress to bump up the White House's proposed 1999 budgets—due out next month—for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and other R&D agencies. Also expected to trigger action—or at least brawls—in the coming year in Congress are:

    • Stockpile stewardship. A fight is brewing among advocates of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program—which funds several major research facilities—and those who fear the program's $4.5 billion budget is out of control.

    • Endangered species. The Senate could move on a bill backed by the Administration to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act. But environmentalists oppose the bill.

    • 2000 census. Congress has agreed to let the Census Bureau use sampling to increase accuracy in a pilot run, but most Republicans are still hoping to block use of the technique in 2000; they prefer a head count, which is likely to miss more inner-city residents.

    • NASA squeeze. A declining budget and soaring space station costs will tempt space agency managers to cut back on science programs. Congress is likely to veto that approach.

    • Regulatory reform. A moderate Senate bill requiring cost-benefit analyses of environmental rules and more rigorous risk assessments stands a chance at passage, unlike a host of other recent proposals.

    • National math tests. The White House won approval to keep developing the voluntary test for eighth graders, but a 1998 funding bill gives congressional critics another shot at the issue before kids get tested.

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