Science  23 Apr 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5414, pp. 565

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  1. Diplomatic Overture

    The State Department wants to have some frank and fruitful exchanges with leading scientists. Under a proposal outlined by Under Secretary Frank Loy last week, members of the diplomatic corps would join with experts in a particular area—such as genetically modified crops—for roundtable discussions designed to increase the envoys' understanding of technical controversies.

    The idea is one of five early responses to the findings of a National Academy of Sciences review panel, which last fall concluded that U.S. diplomats lack science savvy. Other potential improvements include appointing a special science ambassador to advise the secretary of state and beefing up science training for the agency's 25,000 employees, of whom 5% hold technical degrees. “We have heard the criticism,” Loy said at a Washington conclave sponsored by AAAS, publisher of Science.

    The plans—which Loy says are moving ahead—please panel leader Robert Frosch of Harvard University. “Sounds like a promising beginning,” he says. His committee hopes to release its final communiqué on the issue this fall.

  2. Deep Impact: The Sequel

    A year after astronomers had to humbly retract one warning of a possible catastrophic asteroid impact with Earth, another doomsday asteroid report has scientists up in arms. The flap began earlier this month, when Benny Peiser, who runs an electronic mailing list on neocatastrophism, found a Web preprint of a paper by Italian astronomer Andrea Milani. Milani concluded that there is a remote chance that asteroid 1999 AN10, discovered last January, will slam into Earth in August 2039. In a press release, Peiser accused Milani's group of hiding the news, “instead of informing the interested public about their potentially explosive findings.” The story made headlines around the world, although many reporters emphasized the one-in-a-billion odds of impact.

    The attack on Milani and the ensuing coverage have outraged many astronomers. In posting the unpublicized preprint for other researchers to review, “Milani did the right thing,” says David Morrison of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. But astronomers could use guidance on how to handle predictions and the press, he adds. He and others will try to hammer out guidelines for releasing potentially scary news at a meeting in Turin, Italy, in June. Says Morrison: “We're still in a learning process.”

  3. Comet Tale

    A nifty NASA plan to land a probe on a comet's head appears to be back on track after a budget scare. Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, want to send the Champollion spacecraft to a 2006 rendezvous with comet Tempel 1. But earlier this month, the $158 million project seemed imperiled by budget strains caused by unplanned expenses in other science programs, including a $76 million emergency repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (Science, 19 March, p. 1827) and mounting expenses related to the delayed Chandra X-ray Observatory. Worried that his dream child would be sentenced to death, project scientist Paul Weissman earlier this month sent a letter to colleagues appealing for help.

    This week, however, Weissman said the scare turned out to be much ado about nothing. After presenting a revised design to NASA brass, who were worried that the project was over budget, the cancellation demon is “back in the bag,” he says. However, sources say agency officials are still looking for savings elsewhere in the space science portfolio—a threat that has some researchers looking over their shoulders.

  4. AIDS in Spain

    Stepping up its fight against AIDS, Spain—the nation with Europe's highest per capita AIDS rate—last week created a new fund to support research into the disease. Five international drug companies have teamed with the Spanish government to establish the Foundation for Research and Prevention of AIDS, which will spend $3 million a year on peer-reviewed basic research, clinical trials, and public health studies.

    The foundation starts with a $600,000 kitty, endowed equally by the Ministry of Health and the five companies: Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Glaxo Wellcome, Merck Sharp & Dohme, and Roche. Each firm will chip in another $670,000 a year, starting next year. About 120,000 Spaniards were infected with HIV in 1998; another 53,000 have AIDS. AIDS researcher Josep Mallolas of the University of Barcelona Hospital Clinic calls the new foundation “very good news—not only for AIDS research but also for [Spain's] biomedical sciences in general.”

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