Science  14 Jul 2000:
Vol. 289, Issue 5477, pp. 225

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  1. Castle Revolt

    Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., are up in arms about what they see as a raid on their research funds. The new secretary, Lawrence Small, ordered his managers last month to freeze all discretionary money in a special account used to pay for small research projects, new initiatives, and special travel, according to a staff letter to Small that was obtained by Science. Most of this money—between $3 million and $16 million, according to a museum official—comes from researchers themselves, who solicit gifts and donate honoraria, consulting fees, and royalty payments. Staff scientists asked the secretary to reconsider. When he didn't respond, the Council of the Senate of Scientists at the National Museum of Natural History protested in a 22 June letter, warning that the move would be a “devastating blow to morale.” Small's failure to offer any explanation for the move, the memo states, “gives the impression of an arbitrary, ill-informed decision-making process.” Small, a former banking manager, is just trying to sort out the Smithsonian's finances, explains spokesperson David Umansky. “No money is being taken,” Umansky says. The secretary is merely “asking what these funds are used for.” Another spokesperson says Small likely will decide what to do in the next 2 weeks.

  2. Larger Pie

    Japanese R&D boosters are optimistic that the government will back an ambitious plan to raise science and technology spending to 1% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) within 5 years, with a special emphasis on funding information technology and life sciences. The 1998 level—the last for which complete figures are available—was $39 billion or 0.7% of Japan's GDP. (U.S. government spending that year was about 0.76% of GDP.) The goal may be included in a 5-year science and technology plan being drawn up now by the advisory Council for Science and Technology for the 2001 budget, which begins next April. Hiroo Imura, former president of Kyoto University and a key member of the council, says that because R&D spending has already grown rapidly the group initially had modest expectations. But backing for a more aggressive approach found “many supporters among the [ruling] Liberal Democratic Party,” Imura says. He warns, however, that the plan ultimately will have to win the backing of the powerful Ministry of Finance.

  3. Life Count

    It's a Herculean bookkeeping exercise, but taxonomists the world over are completing the first phase of an international effort to compile an Internet-based directory of all known life-forms. Dubbed Species 2000, the collaborative research project begun in 1996 aims to link existing databases on everything from blue whales to microscopic bacteria. The result would be a boon for basic research as well as biodiversity and conservation efforts.

    It's no easy task. “Our virtual catalog has to be created from an array of autonomous databases all around the world, which are on different platforms and quite variable in terms of quality and content,” says project coordinator Frank Bisby of the University of Reading, U.K. The software to make the links, however, is now in place, and by the end of the year, taxonomists will connect as many as 20 databases, comprising about 300,000 species. To complete the final catalog encompassing all 106 global databases and nearly a million species, however, researchers will need a hefty cash injection. “It costs well over $100 per species to set up a global database,” says Bisby.

  4. Sowing Solutions

    Genetically modified (GM) crops are critical to feeding the world's booming population, but scientists and industry must find ways to enhance and share their benefits, according to a report issued by seven science academies around the world this week. The backlash in Europe and the United States against GM foods was one impetus for the report, says U.S. National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts. Partly to counter what he calls the “hysteria,” his institution worked with the Royal Society of London and the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, and Third World science academies. The resulting report calls for more research on GM crops useful in developing countries, such as nutrient-enchanced foods and salt-tolerant plants.

    Perhaps the strongest message concerns patents and technologies that would prevent farmers from saving seeds. The academies urge companies and research institutions to “make arrangements to share GM technology,” including “special exemptions” for poor farmers. Says Alberts: “There has to be a solution that would help everybody to come out better.”

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