News this Week

Science  17 Sep 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5691, pp. 1477

    House Votes to Kill Grants, Limit Travel to Meetings

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    For most scientists, having their research cited on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives would be a crowning achievement. But for University of Missouri, Columbia, psychologist Laura King, it was part of a “really scary, bizarre day” that culminated in a vote to block her work and that of a second psychologist. It came minutes after the House imposed a cap on international travel to scientific meetings. While fiscal conservatives are touting the events of 9 September as a victory against government waste, scientific organizations are fuming about what they see as an unwarranted intrusion into the scientific process.

    The setting for last week's legislative fireworks was the 2005 budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its parent body, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Last year House Republicans narrowly missed pulling the plug on several NIH studies on sexual behavior on the grounds that the work was inappropriate and a waste of money. An amendment to block funds for the projects failed by just two votes. This year, however, an amendment by Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) to bar HHS from using 2005 funds for two psychology grants passed on a voice vote. The immediate victims were King's work on college students' perceptions of themselves and a study by Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas, Austin, on how students' choice of dorm room décor can reflect their personality and mental health.

    The vote would not impact funding for the two grants, which has already been disbursed. And the prohibition could be altered or dropped when the bill is reconciled with one passed by the Senate, which has not yet acted. But scientific groups are alarmed by the precedent. “There's no question that Congress has an oversight function here, but we don't think that extends to making decisions about individual grants,” says David Moore, head of governmental relations for the Association of American Medical Colleges. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni says, “We need to do everything possible to preserve our historically successful system of independent peer review.”

    Trivial pursuit?

    Psychologist Sam Gosling's work on how personality can shape work and living spaces took a hit in the House.


    King's momentous day began with a phone call from the office of her congressman, Representative Kenny Hulshof (R-MO). Armed with a quick e-mail from King, Hulshof defended King's work and placed her entire CV in the official record. But his arguments, along with those defending Gosling, did not prevail. “It's very disheartening,” King says. “Any grant in the social sciences or behavioral sciences could be attacked on this same basis.” “I was dismayed,” says Gosling, adding that, like King, he believes House members lack the knowledge to assess the grants.

    Neugebauer disagrees. “Taxpayer dollars should be focused on serious mental health issues like bipolar disorders and Alzheimer's,” he told his colleagues. He derided Gosling's research as “interior decoration” and summed up King's work as asking students to define a “meaningful day,” which he said “the federal government has no business paying someone” to study.

    Although the legislation doesn't require King or Gosling to return any money, the two investigators may not be out of the woods. King is planning to apply for funds to renew her grant, and because her grant number is included in the amendment, she may need to submit a completely new proposal to continue her work. This summer Gosling received a 3-year, $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). A spokesperson for Neugebauer says the congressman is weighing whether to introduce a similar amendment when NSF's spending bill, now mired in committee, comes before the full House.

    Scientific societies are urging the Senate to reject the Neugebauer amendment when the NIH bill comes before it. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology president Paul Kincade also hopes that a pending NIH plan to require grantees to provide a lay-language summary of the public-health importance of their grants will help prevent such attacks in the future. “It's important for scientists to explain what we do,” he says.

    The House floor vote also approved another amendment exerting control over NIH. The proposal, from Representative Scott Garrett (R-NJ), orders HHS to send no more than 50 staff members to any single international conference. Garrett objected to the $3.6 million spent on the 2002 international AIDS meeting in Barcelona, to which HHS sent 236 people. The money might have been better spent on buying drugs for AIDS patients, he says. HHS global health chief William Steiger has recently announced a similar goal of sending no more than roughly 50 staffers to international conferences (Science, 10 September, p. 1552).

    Strict enforcement of that limit—which genome institute director Francis Collins this week called “alarming”—could have a serious impact on several upcoming conferences, an NIH official notes, including a human genetics meeting in Toronto and two Keystone conferences on AIDS. The House and Senate could revise the wording to give HHS some wiggle room, for example, by exempting meetings in Canada. “It certainly is fixable,” a staffer says. But in the meantime, for HHS scientists, foreign travel just got a little more complicated.


    Aiming for the Sun, Crashing to Earth

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    It was a gut-wrenching sight. As the capsule carrying precious samples of the solar wind collected by the Genesis spacecraft approached its Utah landing site, NASA TV viewers around the world could clearly see the 1.5-meter-wide, discus-shaped capsule tumbling earthward with no sign of its stabilizing parachute. Within seconds, the capsule slammed into the desert floor, abruptly ending the $264 million mission to return a sample of the sun for study of the solar system's origins.

    All is not lost for Genesis, however. “There is still hope for science from this mission,” says Genesis project manager Donald Sweetnam of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The 205-kilogram capsule weathered its 360- kilometer-per-hour return surprisingly well, although it embedded itself halfway into the ground and cracked open. “We're quite confident we can achieve a high degree of success from a science point of view,” says Genesis co- investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “Key collector materials have been determined to be very intact,” says Donald Sevilla, Genesis recovery lead engineer at JPL. Brittle sample collectors did shatter, but pieces of collector may suffice for analysis.

    With desert dirt driven inside the capsule and broken sample wafers falling out, “the major problem we have is contamination,” says Sevilla. During its 3 years in space, Genesis had exposed various sorts of sample-collecting surfaces to the onrushing solar wind of atomic particles. Back on Earth, researchers planned to extract the embedded particles and determine their elemental and isotopic composition, which would precisely reflect the sun's present composition and thus the solar system's starting composition. That would help researchers understand everything from the formation of the solar system to the sun's acceleration of the solar wind. But the spacecraft's precious cargo is embedded only about 50 nanometers beneath the surface of the collectors. So specialists at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, will have to not only put Humpty Dumpty back together again but also figure out how to clean collector surfaces without removing the samples.

    Down and dirty.

    Genesis PI Donald Burnett of Caltech sorts through some of the more heavily damaged solar-wind collectors (right) following last week's crash landing of the sample-return capsule.


    And technicians won't be the only ones facing unexpected challenges. The disaster also aggravates NASA's struggles with its Discovery program of low-cost missions to the solar system (Science, 23 July, p. 467). Discovery's CONTOUR spacecraft blew up in 2002 on its way to a comet, and several missions in the works or recently launched have encountered cost overruns and development problems.

    What, if anything, NASA can do to shore up management of ongoing missions will depend on the nature of the Genesis failure. Although the probe wasn't designed to send back data while entering the atmosphere, the recovery crew quickly determined that none of the explosives that deploy the parachutes had gone off, suggesting that the capsule's computer had never sent the command to fire. An onboard battery that had been acting up during the flight fell under immediate suspicion, but a mishap investigation board will take the next few months to determine a probable cause.

    The Genesis disaster worries Peter Tsou of JPL, the deputy principal investigator of the Discovery program's Stardust mission, launched in 1999. Tsou notes that Stardust's sample-return capsule carrying comet dust was designed and built by the same industry partners as the Genesis capsule. “I'm keeping my fingers crossed” for the 2006 return, he says, but “frankly, there's not much we can do now.”


    The Candidates Speak on Science


    On 2 November, U.S. voters will decide whether to give Republican President George W. Bush a second term or put Democrat John Kerry in the White House. Continuing a presidential election-year tradition, Science has asked each candidate to lay out his views on more than a dozen science-related issues facing the nation. Their answers and an accompanying editorial are available online ( The candidates' comments will also appear in the 1 October issue of the magazine.


    Possible New Role for BRCA2

    1. Jean Marx

    Cells with mutations in BRCA2, a breast cancer susceptibility gene, display a wide range of chromosomal abnormalities—everything from simple breaks to the gain or loss of whole chromosomes. Researchers think that this genomic instability, apparently the result of the inactivation of BRCA2, helps generate additional mutations that drive cells to become cancerous. New findings, described by Ashok Venkitaraman and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge, U.K., and published online this week by Science (, now point to a novel way in which BRCA2 inactivation may lead to cells that have abnormal chromosome numbers, a condition known as aneuploidy.

    This work suggests that the loss of BRCA2 function perturbs how dividing cells separate. If so, “that would be a new way to get [genomic] instability … and potentially interesting,” says cancer gene expert Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

    Researchers, including Venkitaraman, had previously shown that the protein made by BRCA2 is needed to repair chromosome defects, particularly the breaks in the DNA strands that can occur during DNA replication. Yet a mystery remained. Defective DNA repair resulting from BRCA2 mutations “explains the abnormal chromosome structures [seen in cancer cells] but doesn't easily account for large changes in chromosome numbers,” Venkitaraman says.

    In the right place.

    As chromosomes (blue) separate during cytokinesis, BRCA2 and proteins such as aurora-B kinase that are known to be involved in this last stage of mitosis colocalize (yellow).


    Work by others had hinted that BRCA2 loss might also interfere with events during mitosis. To test this further, the Cambridge team determined how long it takes normal cells and cells in which either one or both copies of BRCA2 was inactivated to progress from the onset of chromosome separation to complete daughter-cell separation. Cells with one inactive BRCA2 copy took slightly longer than normal cells to separate. That interval was much longer—it was more than double the time for controls—for cells with two inactive copies. Indeed, many of those cells didn't separate at all and ended up with two nuclei.

    Still, a holdup in cytokinesis could have simply been the indirect result of unrepaired DNA strand breaks. Dividing cells have ways to check for damaged chromosomes and can hold up mitosis until the damage is repaired. But the Venkitaraman team has other evidence that suggests to them that BRCA2 plays a direct role in regulating cytokinesis.

    In particular, they found that its protein localizes, along with proteins known to be involved in cytokinesis, in the central portion of the dividing cell and in the bridge that connects the daughters as they pull apart. “It's the first evidence to show that [BRCA2] is at the critical [cytokinesis] site rather than where we normally expect to see it in the nucleus,” says breast cancer gene expert Simon Powell of Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital. BRCA2 “not only has a role in repair, … but it has this additional role in cytokinesis,” he concludes.

    Cytokinesis experts aren't so sure, however. Alexey Khodjakov of the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center in Albany says he is “not impressed” by the work, arguing that Venkitaraman's team has little evidence beyond the observed problems with cytokinesis in the mutant cells. “They don't have an explanation for how it happens,” he says. Given that, there's still a possibility that the cytokinesis inhibition is the indirect result of impaired DNA repair in the mutants.

    Venkitaraman concedes that that is still a possibility, but he says he and his colleagues are currently working to define BRCA2's mechanism of action and hope to resolve the issue soon.


    Report Upholds Public Access to Genetic Codes

    1. David Malakoff

    The possibility of bioterrorism shouldn't stop scientists from freely sharing genome data, concludes a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC). The study, requested by the CIA and the National Science Foundation, says that limiting public access to genome data on potential bioweapons is impractical and would do more scientific harm than good.

    The U.S. government typically requires all federally funded scientists to make their genome data public. Since scientists sequenced the first viral genome in 1975, they have released the genetic codes of more than 1100 viruses and 150 bacteria, including those of the dangerous pathogens that cause smallpox, anthrax, and the plague. In the wake of the October 2001 U.S. anthrax attacks, however, some analysts have proposed restricting access to such data to make sure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. They worried that would-be bioterrorists might draw upon the growing mountain of gene sequence data in public databases to engineer new bioweapons, such as unusually infectious viruses or toxic bacteria that resist drugs.

    Force for good.

    Academy panel wants genomes of potential bioweapons such as anthrax to remain public.


    But “open access is essential if we are to maintain the progress needed to stay ahead of those who would attempt to cause harm,” says Stanley Falkow, a microbiologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who led the new study ( It is unlikely that raw sequence data would help bioterrorists develop superweapons, the NRC panel says, and locking away information would harm efforts to improve biodefenses and fight emerging diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome. Coming up with workable restrictions would be difficult, the panel adds. The genomes of many dangerous pathogens are already in the public domain, and there is little agreement on what kinds of information should be put off-limits. If the government needs to keep genomic secrets, it says, it should use its long-standing authority to classify information.

    The panel's approach sits well with several scientists concerned about biosecurity. “This is the right decision, from the standpoints of both public health and security,” says Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a bioweapons expert at the State University of New York's Purchase College. “Stringent restriction would pose unacceptable costs,” agrees molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “There are no ‘biohackers’ using genome data in basements.”


    Harvard Faculty Decry Widening Gender Gap

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    The percentage of women offered tenured slots in Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has shrunk by half in the past 5 years. In a letter sent this summer to President Lawrence Summers and obtained by Science, some two dozen women faculty members called the dramatic drop an unintended result of policies put in place since Summers took office in 2001. Summers, in turn, blames departmental search committees for not looking harder for strong women candidates. Both sides agree, however, that the issue is worth talking about and have scheduled a sit-down next month to figure out how Harvard can do better.

    “The whole concern about increasing diversity on campus has been downgraded,” says a senior faculty member who, like other signers who spoke to Science, requested anonymity. “We'd hate to go back to a 1980s world at Harvard in which only 7% of tenured FAS faculty are women.”

    Women are generally underrepresented among the faculty of major research universities, and the situation becomes more pronounced as they ascend the professorial ranks. In theory, Harvard is in a better position to correct a gender imbalance than most universities, because it rarely awards tenure to those already on campus. But the share of women offered those coveted slots has slumped from 37% of the total pool in 2000–01 to 16% in the academic year that just ended (see graph). That's below the overall faculty ratio of 19.6%, posing a threat to hard-won gains during the 1990s.

    Wrong direction.

    Women faculty members say Harvard has taken a step back in providing opportunities for women.


    On 18 June, 26 tenured faculty women laid out their concerns in a three-page letter to Summers and FAS Dean William Kirby. They cited several possible contributing factors, including the elimination of an affirmative action dean in 2001 and the university's emphasis on hiring “rising young stars,” an age cohort that one of the signers says “corresponds to a woman's child-bearing years.”

    On 23 July, Summers and Kirby wrote back. The quest for younger faculty, said Summers, should actually narrow the gender gap, because “the pool of women available in most fields is larger in cohorts at an earlier career stage.” Kirby explained that affirmative action is a priority for four new division deans—positions created since Summers arrived—and added that new hiring policies will ensure more “broad and thorough” searches.

    Summers and the petitioners concur that the key to improving the situation lies with how department chairs choose to fill their tenured slots. But the signers say Summers needs to lean more heavily on those chairs. “Most members of the search committee are men,” says one petitioner, “and they'll often bring in a token woman candidate after they've decided to hire somebody else.”

    The two sides will discuss the matter at a lunch on 6 October. “We're hopeful about change,” says a signer, “because Larry is smart and very educable.”


    Signs of a Warm, Ice-Free Arctic

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Drillers returned to Tromsø, Norway, this week with sediment cores from the first holes ever drilled into the deep, ice-covered Arctic Ocean. The cores contain evidence of a dramatic defrosting of the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole 55 million years ago and a long, slow slide toward the perennial ice cover of recent times. Somewhere in the hundreds of meters of mud cored should be a record of the last ice-free Arctic summers of millions of years ago, conditions that may return in the greenhouse world of 2100.

    The deep-drilling success of the $12.5 million Arctic Coring Expedition (ACEX) comes after decades of merely picking at the upper few meters of Arctic sea-floor sediments. Since the 1960s, scientific ocean drilling in other seas has returned 160 kilometers of rock and sediment cores. But scientific drill ships had to flee at the sight of ice, and in the Arctic only the top few meters of sediment could be sampled through the oceanwide ice.

    Now, under the new Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (Science, 18 April 2003, p. 410), the 13-member European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling has fielded a three-ship flotilla: an ice- reinforced drill ship to float 1300 meters above the drill hole plus two icebreakers—one of them nuclear-powered. At the drill sites, just 220 kilometers from the North Pole, ice as much as 4 meters thick covered the surface, usually with only a few small gaps. Despite a string of mechanical breakdowns—a crucial high-pressure pump valve broke three times—the ships were equal to the task. “We found that even in heavy ice conditions, we could stay [over the same hole] as long as 8 days,” says Kate Moran of the University of Rhode Island, Narragansett, who with Jan Backman of Stockholm University in Sweden was an ACEX co-chief scientist. “We can probably go any place in the Arctic Ocean and drill.”

    Ice eaters.

    Icebreakers (bottom and middle) run interference for the stationary drill ship (top).


    In 3 weeks of drilling operations, ACEX bored through all 410 meters of sediment at one site on the underwater Lomonosov Ridge and drilled to shallower depths in five other holes. All told, the 19 shipboard scientists from eight nations gathered a total of 339 meters of sediment as old as 80 million years.

    Their biggest find was a couple of hundred thousand years' worth of sediment from 55 million years ago. It contains animal and plant microfossils typical of 20°C subtropical waters, not the subzero waters of today. The fossils mark the so-called Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) recorded around the globe in marine sediments of the time. “Getting the PETM was a fabulous result,” says Moran. Seismic probing of the site had suggested that sediments of PETM age were missing there.

    Now, paleoceanographers can try to sort out the Arctic Ocean's role in the PETM. The warming seems to have been triggered by a massive release of methane, a greenhouse gas, stored beneath the sea floor as an icy hydrate (Science, 28 January 2000, p. 576). It's unclear what drove the methane release, but a geochemical peculiarity of the ancient Arctic might have been involved. ACEX scientists found strikingly low Arctic seawater salinities during most of the past 60 million years, due partly to large influxes of river water. Such low- density waters might have altered ocean circulation globally if they leaked into the Atlantic, Moran notes.

    Once global Eocene warmth began to wane, the world was on its way toward the deep chill of the past few million years. The first sure signs of Arctic ice—bits of sand that must have rafted to mid-ocean in one-time grounded ice—appeared in 40-million-year-old sediments. That's earlier than some scientists had expected. Seven million years ago, the delivery of ice-borne sand picked up sharply, suggesting more and possibly year-round ice. But pinning down when Arctic summers last saw ice-free waters—a condition global warming might bring on by the end of the century—will require close inspection of the cores on shore, says Moran. She can hardly wait.


    Legislators Propose a Registry to Track Clinical Trials From Start to Finish

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    Data from company-sponsored clinical trials are often treated as business secrets, but that practice may soon change. In the wake of allegations that a few companies have suppressed negative results to promote their drugs, some members of Congress say they intend to make it easier for the public to track clinical studies. Democrats plan to introduce legislation in both the House and Senate this month to create a mandatory public registry. It would require that all clinical studies be described publicly at their inception and that results be added when a trial is complete.

    The proposal is part of a surge in efforts to overhaul the rules of clinical reporting. Last week, an international consortium of 13 medical journals announced that it would publish results only from clinical trials that were publicly registered when the trial began. Hurrying to head off legislation, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an industry trade group, reported that it will start a voluntary registry next month. Even pharmaceutical executives acknowledge a problem: “There is clearly a societal crisis in terms of credibility of drug company results,” said John Hayes of Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis, Indiana, at a hearing in the House last week.

    One source of trouble, advocates of a registry say, is that clinical research suffers from “publication bias,” a tendency to trumpet good results and bury the bad. A dramatic example came to the fore last year in a controversy over the safety and effectiveness of antidepressant drugs in children (Science, 23 July, p. 468). When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) review of the antidepressant Paxil found that children taking it had higher-than-expected rates of self-harm, Paxil's maker, GlaxoSmithKline, released a batch of unpublished studies. The newly released data suggested that Paxil was ineffective in treating their depression. Glaxo's published study on Paxil in depressed youngsters had suggested that it worked. FDA later admitted that only three of the 15 pediatric antidepressant trials submitted to it by various companies had found the medications effective.

    More data.

    Concerned about access to drug test data, Representatives Edward Markey (left) and Henry Waxman are drafting a bill to require registration of all clinical trials from their inception.


    At a hearing last week in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, FDA official Janet Woodcock came under sustained fire for the agency's reluctance to release negative data submitted by companies. Legislators asked Woodcock whether FDA had a responsibility to the medical community to publicize negative results. She said, “This is a conundrum for the agency,” which must normally protect proprietary information.

    Observers trace the current furor to the 1997 FDA Modernization Act, which offers drug companies a 6-month patent extension as a reward for testing drugs in youngsters. The legislation was prompted by the fact that many drugs approved for adults are often prescribed to children “off-label.” The law didn't ensure that these study results would be released, however. A 2002 law sought to remedy the data gap by requiring FDA to post online summaries of results of all pediatric trials submitted to it for extra patent protection.

    But the problem is bigger than pediatric testing, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) said at last week's hearing. “The pharmaceutical industry has systematically misled physicians and patients by suppressing information on their drugs,” he said. Waxman and Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) are crafting a mandatory registry bill in the House, while senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and two others are writing a companion bill in the Senate.

    View this table:

    The Waxman-Markey bill will hew closely to recommendations made by journal editors and the American Medical Association, according to a statement released by Waxman's and Markey's offices. It will demand disclosure of a trial's objectives, timeline, eligibility criteria, and funding sources. It also will require that results be promptly released. Because the bill's authors are concerned that earlier attempts to create a public registry were not backed by enough muscle, a congressional aide says, this version will be stringently enforced. For example, violators may be subject to fines.

    Pharmaceutical companies, meanwhile, are racing to set up their own registries or pledging to participate in PhRMA's. “If we are running a trial, the public will know it,” says Lawrence Olanoff, executive vice president of Forest Laboratories in New York City. Forest Labs, which makes the antidepressant drugs Lexapro and Celexa, last week announced that it would set up a trial registry as part of an agreement to end an investigation by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Other companies, including Eli Lilly and Pfizer, have pledged to release trial information and results, although the details differ.

    Still, some say voluntary registries may prove disappointing, especially given that past attempts of this sort have faltered. Legislation “is the only route” to guarantee that a registry works, says Kay Dickersin, a clinical trials expert at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Even a mandatory registry, though, isn't without potential pitfalls: Although she worries about “losing the moment,” Dickersin concedes that some trial results could be confusing and will require careful handling when posted.


    Visiting the Hermit Kingdom

    1. Richard Stone

    North Korea rarely grants visas to foreign journalists, and those it does invite are often steered to tourist zones or choreographed events such as festivals. For the most part U.S. journalists are persona non grata. But early this year the North Korean government signaled a willingness to allow some scientists to interact with Western peers. In June, a few days after North Korea and the United States exchanged substantive proposals in nuclear talks in Beijing, the Academy of Sciences of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea invited me to visit some of its premier labs. As part of the deal, I also got a fascinating glimpse of life in this reclusive country.

    On my first morning in Pyongyang I was awakened at 5 a.m. by a melancholy sound blaring from loudspeakers on the street. The melody, more than 3 minutes long, is titled “Where Are You Now, Our Great General?”—a hymn to Kim Jong Il, the current leader. His deceased father, Kim Il Sung, is the Great Leader. Except when preempted by occasional tests of the city's air-raid sirens, the tune is played every hour on the hour from early morning to late evening. After a hotel breakfast of rice, fish, and kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage), my escorts, one a conservation biologist and the other an academy officer, met me in the lobby. As we waited for the van to arrive, I noticed that the biologist was wearing a different loyalty badge from the previous day. All adults wear them, small pins with the face of Kim Il Sung often set against a red background. “What happens if you forget to wear it?” I asked her. “Nothing, it's not a problem,” she insisted before adding earnestly, “but we would never forget our Great Leader.”

    Exotic land.

    A tour guide wearing a traditional hanbok at Tongmyong temple.


    As we drove across town later that day we passed the Grand People's Study House, the city's central library built in a majestic pagoda style—a refreshing departure from the general vista of bland concrete office buildings and apartment towers. In lieu of traffic lights, shut off to conserve electricity, traffic wardens—attractive young women wearing white caps, smart white jackets cinched with brown belts with big silver buckles, royal blue skirts, and short white boots—stand ramrod straight in the middle of major intersections, their eyes darting in each direction before using batons to signal to drivers. Cars need a special permit to operate on Sundays, so on that day the streets are nearly empty—and the traffic women get a day off.

    The few dozen scientists I met in North Korea struck me as warm, open-minded, and eager to cooperate with Western colleagues. Such collaborations will rely on the government's good graces, of course. Nothing can be taken for granted: Government operations are more opaque than ever, with Party conferences and other meetings once reported in the state newspaper now held behind closed doors. “We have no idea how decisions are made,” a Swedish diplomat told me. Yet my visit left me feeling that scientific exchanges are inevitable—and will benefit Koreans and Westerners alike.


    A Wary Pas de Deux

    1. Richard Stone

    At once coy and eager, North Korea's scientists are striving to forge new alliances with Western researchers without abandoning their unique philosophy of steely self-reliance

    PYONGYANG—Ri Hak Chol leads the way out of the main building of the Institute of Experimental Biology, under a façade declaring that “only our Great General lives, the rest of us fight.” We walk past a volleyball court—the game is a popular lunchtime activity at the institute—and enter a dim room filled with wooden cages and the pungent smell of animals. Under a window letting in weak light on an overcast day, one of the most remarkable achievements of North Korea's scientific community sits passively behind bars: a white rabbit. It's one of a half-dozen that Ri and his colleagues claim to have produced since 2002 through somatic cell cloning, the technique that gave birth to the famed Scottish sheep Dolly in 1997.

    Western scientists may soon get the chance to scrutinize the cloning claim, published only in North Korea, and take the measure of the country's finest young scientists, including the 37-year-old Ri. In a momentous shift in policy, the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) this year has given a green light to select scientists to team up with Western colleagues on joint research projects.

    Some veteran watchers of the Hermit Kingdom say that its version of glasnost offers historic opportunities. Any light shed on the country's largely enigmatic scientific community will help Western experts gauge its capabilities. Moreover, the possibility now exists for an innovative brand of diplomacy to proceed in parallel with traditional channels. “Scientific diplomacy can help North Korean intellectuals to survive and can inject, very gradually and cautiously, modern values into North Korea's still very isolated society,” argues Vasily Mikheev, chair of the Asia security program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.

    Science policy officials attuned to the promising signals from Pyongyang are scrambling to seize the initiative. Next month, for example, a three-member delegation from the Academy of Sciences of the DPRK (ASK), with sponsorship from the Ford Foundation in New York City, is planning to visit London to discuss with officials and granting bodies the ground rules for potential collaborations. And a major symposium on scientific cooperation with North Korea, to be held in Moscow, is in the works for April 2005.


    A pair of young researchers performs embryo transfer on a rabbit in a clean room at the Institute of Experimental Biology.


    Any joint project would entail some risk. There's the matter of Juche, for starters. The word stands for an all-encompassing credo conceived by longtime leader Kim Il Sung and described as a “man-centered philosophy” grounded in steely self- reliance. Some experts warn that Juche could turn collaborations into a one-way vacuuming of information and expertise by a regime that has recently set the world on edge over its attempts to develop what it calls a “nuclear deterrent” (see p. 1698). Would-be partners must vet projects for potential usefulness to North Korea's military, with the assumption that any equipment and materials provided under a grant could be diverted for weapons R&D. “If there's even the slightest possible military application, they will use it,” warns a Swedish diplomat who has lived in Pyongyang. “That makes everyone very nervous.”

    North Korean officials have reasons of their own to be anxious. Interactions between their intellectual elites and Western scientists inevitably would raise awareness of modern Western life. With the Internet off-limits to most North Koreans, the government has imported scientific information primarily through its diplomatic posts and distributed it by means of a countrywide “intranet” (see p. 1701). A freer diffusion of knowledge could undercut the chillingly effective cloak of naiveté about the outside world that the North Korean government has draped over its citizenry. “It could put a strain on the system,” says the Swedish diplomat.

    In an unprecedented trip by a Western journalist, Science in July toured a handful of ASK's premier biotech and computer science laboratories and its science university. The picture that emerged is one of dedicated scientists toiling in largely antiquated and poorly supplied facilities—and hungry for contact with the outside world.

    Leading the charge.

    A 10-meter-long mural at the Academy of Sciences' Unjong regional branch depicts Kim Jong Il “giving guidance” to researchers.


    Self-reliant scientists

    After rising from obscurity to lead North Korea in 1945, Kim Il Sung, a former guerrilla fighter against Japanese colonial rule, rapidly consolidated power and ruled the North until his death in 1994. Kim remains the country's “president for eternity,” chemically preserved and lying in rest in the lavish Kumsusan Memorial Palace, his former state residence. After his death, the palace was converted to a “supreme temple of Juche,” displaying mementoes of his rule, including a railway carriage he used and honorary awards such as doctorates and a pin from an Italian lawyers' association. Hewing to a songun, or “army-first,” policy, North Korea is perhaps the most heavily militarized nation in the world, with a standing army of approximately 1 million soldiers and enough artillery trained on Seoul—just 40 kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that separates the two countries—to obliterate the South Korean capital if war were to break out.

    Just below the military on the state's pedestal of honor is the scientific community. One of its heroes from North Korea's early days is Li Sung Ki, a chemist who with two Japanese colleagues during World War II invented a polymer, vinalon, still used in the production of everything from clothing to fishing nets. During the 2 decades after the Korean War (called the “Fatherland Liberation War” here) ended in 1953, the economy of the heavily industrialized North was booming. Seduced by the apparent economic miracle, Sweden got an early foothold in North Korea, establishing an embassy in Pyongyang in 1975. It began selling Korea everything from mining machinery to Volvos, but even then North Korea wasn't playing by the rules. “At first they paid for some of the stuff they bought, then they stopped paying and accumulated a huge debt,” the diplomat says. Trade with Sweden and the rest of Western Europe dwindled.

    Dead ringer?

    One of the claimed clones.


    Korean science, meanwhile, was flush with cash into the 1970s, researchers say. “We were extremely well supplied by the state,” says Choe Sung Ho, director of ASK's Institute of Microbiology. During the Cold War, North Korea dispatched hundreds of its top scientists for training in Soviet labs, including the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research in Dubna, as well as labs in the Eastern Bloc. But tensions between North Korea and the Soviet Union were always near the surface, especially as Kim's government in the 1970s began weaving a mythology about his life and the nation's history. “We would tell them to cut down on the propaganda and fantasy—and that was coming from the Soviet Union!” exclaims Mikheev, who served as a diplomat in the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang in the early 1980s and returned to North Korea for a visit last July.

    Relations quickly soured after the Soviet breakup, to the extent that in the early 1990s several dozen Russian missile experts were arrested as they tried to travel to Pyongyang, Mikheev says. “Now there are no DPRK scientists working in Russian institutes,” says an official with Russia's Ministry of Science. North Korea's on-again, off-again relationship with China became more important, and scientific ties between the two countries increased. “Our country was in a very difficult situation,” says Ju Song Ryong, director of the Central Information Agency for Science and Technology in Pyongyang. “But our Great Leader set forth a ‘science first’ policy,” he says—raising science's prestige, if not its funding, to that of the military. The North Koreans also cottoned on to one skill essential to entering the scientific mainstream. “In the past, we older scientists learned Russian,” says Choe. “Now young people have come to know that English is important for science.”

    After the elder Kim's death in 1994 and a series of devastating floods and crop failures, Kim Jong Il, echoing his father's words, turned to his scientists for a way out of the country's miseries. Kim has called science and technology one of three pillars for building a prosperous nation, the other two pillars being ideology and the military. In a 1997 treatise on Juche, he proclaimed the necessity of “expanding and developing scientific and technical exchanges with different countries and introducing advanced science and technology from other countries.” The policy statement reaffirms a core Juche principle: “There's no restriction on North Koreans using the outside world for their own betterment,” says the Swedish diplomat.

    Ambiguity about whether Kim's guidance meant that North Korean scientists had carte blanche to reach out to the West or whether it implied a more furtive acquisition of knowledge from abroad prevented any significant movement, however. But in recent months, government missives have clarified the situation: ASK and university researchers have explicit orders to bring in foreign grants whenever possible. Still, lack of contacts—especially e-mail links—and funds continue to present major barriers.

    Today North Korea claims to have 1.8 million “intellectuals,” including an estimated 100,000 working scientists. But the state has the means to pay only utility bills and meager salaries. ASK scientists earn between $20 and $40 per month at the official exchange rate, but one-tenth that at the black-market rate. Institutes have scant funds for foreign travel, and these are largely reserved for train tickets to China for training courses.

    Nurture then nature.

    After raising acacia shoots in culture for a month, Un Song Gun's group transfers the hardiest specimens to the field, where the trees grow about 2 meters per year.


    Even so, a substantial proportion in this favored occupation is doing better than their compatriots, who in rural areas must eke out a hardscrabble existence. For residents of Pyongyang, at least, the Communist-style food distribution system introduced by Kim Il Sung remains intact, providing monthly rations of staples such as rice, bread, and eggs. “We know very little about who's getting what and why,” says the Swedish diplomat. Scientists still receive rations, says an ASK official.

    A party policy paper published last month in the state newspaper Nodong Sinmun reaffirms science as a high priority, declaring: “It is our party's unwavering determination and will to raise the country's science and technology to the world standard in a short period of time and, based on this, to open up a phase of turnaround in the construction of a powerful state.” Juche or no, North Korea can't do this alone. Many factories are shuttered due to a lack of energy and raw materials, and there is little private enterprise. “The North Korean economy is in a very deep crisis,” says Mikheev.

    Science for the masses

    North Korea's homegrown civilian science, at least the portion that Science was allowed to glimpse, is mostly tied to areas of potential economic growth. A plant genetics lab has introduced a line of virus-resistant potatoes into commerce and is trying to transfer insect-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis genes into corn, rice, and oilseed rape. Chinese agricultural scientists have come to North Korea to collaborate on transgenic experiments, including field trials, says Kim Song Jun, director of the Branch of Cell and Gene Engineering. Another team is growing acacia shoots in tissue culture to clone the hardiest trees. “Many trees were cut down freely during the Korean War and after the war,” says Un Song Gun, chief of the institute's tissue culture lab. “We'd like to reforest entire mountains” with both imported and native acacia varieties, he says.

    Other efforts aim to improve public health. One team, for example, is cloning the gene for erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the body to make blood cells, with a goal of infusing the protein in anemic patients. So far they have succeeded in expressing the gene in Chinese hamster cells. Another group extracts tetrodotoxin from puffer fish for use as a drug to treat tuberculosis, a particular scourge in North Korea; plans are afoot to export the preparation to China and Vietnam. Malaria is another woe, with approximately 300,000 cases per year. And an untold number of children are malnourished. The Swedish diplomat puts it bluntly: “A very ordinary disease in the West will kill you here. If you're malnourished and get the flu, you're dead.”

    Still life.

    The Biology Branch's museum room displays pickled critters from across the country.


    The World Health Organization aims to combat this health crisis by stepping up its support to North Korea. Until last year WHO was mainly providing medicine and equipment to North Korea's Ministry of Health. “The plan now is to provide more technical expertise,” including assistance for training North Korean public health specialists abroad, mainly in Thailand, says Diego Buriot, a WHO special adviser who traveled to Pyongyang last year to initiate these discussions. He and other WHO officials have also floated the idea with their North Korean counterparts of organizing an international conference in Pyongyang to review communicable disease surveillance systems in the region, with a goal of improving information exchange.

    Also hoping to make inroads into easing the country's health woes is ASK's Institute of Microbiology, which specializes in medicinal polysaccharides. One preparation, Jangmyong, is a pair of polysaccharides derived from mushrooms that grow on pine trees. It is touted as an immune-system booster—it's claimed to rev up T cell production in bone marrow—for curing everything from brain cancer to epilepsy. Jangmyong is now being exported to China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea, says its developer, Mun Ho of the Institute of Microbiology. Further work is stymied by a shortage of supplies, says Mun: “There are many polysaccharide standards in the Sigma catalog we would like to have, but there's no way to buy them.”

    Closer to the ethical fringe, the North Korean government has a policy of administering human growth hormone to all children, aged between 12 and 15, who are deemed “unusually short”—less than 140 centimeters tall. The injections add about 1 centimeter in extra growth per year, says Kim Song Jun. His institute is conducting clinical trials of growth hormone for use in promoting health, from improving metabolism and softening skin to promoting faster recovery after operations.

    The pride of ASK's Biology Branch is its claimed cloning breakthrough. The impetus was a visit by Kim Jong Il to the Institute of Experimental Biology on 13 June 1999. Kim's appearances at institutes, and far more frequently at bases of the People's Army, are portrayed as opportunities to “give guidance” to his people. During the 1999 visit Kim “came to know that we lacked equipment,” says branch president Son Kyong Nam; Kim later “personally” provided the institute's Cloning and Reproductive Technology Center with a centrifuge, microscopes, and other equipment. Also crucial were key articles on cloning from overseas sent back by North Korean officials. Armed with equipment and knowledge, the team—“almost all of them young scientists,” says Kang Gyu Chol, scientific and technical counsellor at the DPRK Embassy in Moscow—set to work.

    After producing cloned rabbits using embryo transfer, the researchers claim they succeeded through trial and error in the far more difficult technique of somatic cloning. The first such pair of rabbits, cloned from fibroblasts derived from a 15-day-old fetus, was born on 1 July 2002. If true, that would mean that the group was the second in the world to clone rabbits from somatic cells. The first North Korean pair proved fertile, and the lab has since produced two more pairs, the latest born in August 2003. Ri notes that Kim Jong Il personally thanked the group for its breakthrough. The cloning center also has a keen interest in launching a stem cell research program with Western assistance, with the ultimate aim of developing treatments for paralysis and kidney diseases.

    One giant leap.

    Asia expert Vasily Mikheev, an advocate of science diplomacy, with two Korean colleagues at the Goethe Institute's new reading room in Pyongyang.


    Breeding supergoats

    The experimental farm where ASK intends to raise its agbiotech game lies an hour's drive east of Pyongyang. Our journey begins on a six-lane highway leading out of the city. Traffic is heavy—but it's not vehicular. Scores of people, adults and children, some bedraggled, are walking along the shoulders of the quiet road; public transportation outside Pyongyang appears to be virtually nonexistent. Occasionally we pass a farmer driving an ox yoked to a wooden plow. After about a half-hour on the highway we turn off onto a bumpy dirt road that wends through a broad valley lined with jagged hills, past cornfields and rice paddies and the occasional long, wooden sign with white letters on a red background extolling the glory of Kim Il Sung. It's the rainy season, and in a few spots the rivers have overflowed their banks, washing out the road. Our van forges ahead.

    We pull into one of ASK's experimental farms. “This doesn't look like much now,” says Son, nodding to a collection of spare wooden outhouses and pens. He has big plans to transform the farm into a stock breeding center for the creation of herds of supergoats using embryo transfer and someday, he hopes, cloning. “This is our base for the introduction of embryo transfer throughout the country,” he says. The state recently approved the construction of a facility to house several hundred elite goats—breeds that ASK hopes to import with Western money—as well as labs for reproductive technologies.

    Mountains cover roughly 80% of North Korea, leaving little arable land, and the country has suffered from crop failures in recent years. Thus in the late 1990s the government made it a policy to raise the productivity of goats and rabbits, which are adept at grazing on rough terrain. (As with all major policy decisions, Kim Jong Il is credited with the inspiration to breed better goats.) Native goats produce between 150 and 200 liters of milk a year, whereas a Swiss breed, Saanen, can churn out much more. ASK has fewer than a dozen Saanen and wants to purchase a couple of hundred next year.

    After conquering embryo transplantation in mice in 1988, Son says, a year later North Korean scientists succeeded with artificial insemination and surgical transplantation in goats. Son says Korean scientists hope to improve their skills through training and ultimately move to nonsurgical embryo transfer. By transferring embryos of Saanen or other well-bred species into native goats, they hope to multiply their herd of elite goats to more than a quarter-million by 2010. Also on the agenda is impregnating indigenous goats with Saanen sperm, with the aim of breeding more than 4 million hybrids in the next 5 years.

    “The overall goal is to meet the needs of our people for meat and milk by developing and applying new reproductive techniques,” Son says. But research materials are in short supply. “We feel the lack of infrastructure,” says Son, who notes that his researchers have had to improvise, for example by using special methodology for freezing and preserving sperm with Soviet-era equipment. “Importing new equipment would not be a problem,” he says. “The only problem is money.”

    Well, not quite the only problem. One expert with a U.S. nonprofit that has worked extensively with North Korea to provide agricultural assistance says that the goat-breeding proposal “is typical of the ideas we have seen and received: too much, too fast, an emphasis on high-tech solutions rather than basic management, and an underestimation of the technical resources needed to initiate the project.” He cites a cautionary tale from his own experiences in Korea. A few years ago the organization shipped purebred boar and bull semen to the DPRK Academy of Agricultural Sciences to upgrade their herds. The academy failed to inseminate any cows and produced only two small litters of pigs. Although it was unclear where the problems lay, the expert concludes that “they were clearly substantial for such an abysmal result.” Nevertheless, he says, aid organizations should be ready “to support something reasonable in this area of work.” He envisions a project that could involve training a handful of North Korean scientists abroad to bring them up to speed before providing equipment and reagents. “Otherwise it will just get wasted,” he says.

    Goats are not the only animal on the menu. In the early 1990s, ASK researchers collaborated with a Czech team on embryo transfer in cattle, and they hope to try cloning as well. On a hill a few hundred meters away, workers are laying cinderblocks for the facility to conduct such experiments on goats and cattle. “Our government is paying much more attention now to this site, because it's a place where we can link scientists and farmers,” says Son. “At the end of this year it will be ready.”

    Window to the world.

    The Asia Foundation has donated thousands of books and journals to the Grand People's Study House (center).


    One thing that would help is a better road. On the way back to Pyongyang our van, avoiding a washed-out section of road, got stuck in a gully. A passing unit of the People's Army, mostly boys in their late teens, appeared out of the blue and pushed the van out. I decided to keep my mouth shut, recalling my visit the previous day to the War Museum in Pyongyang, where I was told that America's “puppet regime” in the South attacked the North to start the Korean War in 1950—exactly the opposite of what the rest of the world is taught. There I had heard a litany of war crimes and cowardly acts that the North Koreans attribute to U.S. forces. “You can understand why we hate Americans,” one of my escorts had explained in a rectitudinous tone. If it weren't for the unwitting assistance the soldiers provided to the enemy—North Korea and the United States are still technically at war—we might have been stuck there all night. I wondered, though, whether U.S. scientists would have to bear such enmity for the sake of a joint project.

    Promises and perils

    Nearly a half-century ago, when the Soviet Union in 1957 launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite, many observers feared that the Soviets had overtaken the United States in the physical sciences. But because there was virtually no contact between the Soviet and U.S. scientific communities, westerners could only speculate. By 1959, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) had struck up a scientific exchange program with its Soviet counterpart, in which approximately 20 specialists from each superpower visited the other. The U.S. side quickly gleaned that fears of Soviet scientific dominance were overblown. “The myth of the superiority of Soviet science would not have spread so far if scientific contacts with the Soviet Union before 1957 had not been so few,” concluded an influential 1977 review of the exchange program by an NAS panel chaired by political economist Carl Kaysen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The exchanges, the Kaysen report concluded, achieved “striking success” in learning about Soviet strengths in science and generally improving U.S.-Soviet relations.

    The model may work for North Korea as well, but—as with the Soviets—there are risks and benefits to consider. On the one hand there are tantalizing opportunities to expose Korean scientists, some of whom may exert influence on future governments, to Western ideas. Engaging them could strengthen the positions “of those in North Korea who hopefully will be able to support reforms if, or when, they start,” says Mikheev.

    But on the other side are concerns about so-called dual-use technologies: the potential diversion of equipment from benign research to weapons R&D. That could doom some projects before they get off the ground. “Strong control is needed over what kind of equipment and supplies will be provided to North Korea,” says Mikheev. The Institute of Microbiology, for example, would like to expand its work on medicinal polysaccharides. “We need fermenters,” says institute director Choe, who notes that quality fermenters can cost thousands of dollars. But fermenters, a major quarry of weapons inspectors in Iraq, could be diverted for use in cooking up pathogens.

    Dual-use concerns boil down to a dearth of trust. “We run into a problem: Who are we talking to?” says the Swedish diplomat. “Is it really a biochemist, or is it a colonel in the army? Or the head of their bioweapons program? We have to try to find programs that will not strengthen their military or boost their economy at this stage.” In negotiations on a cooperation agreement last year with ASK, Russian officials steered discussions away from activities that could involve dual-use technologies. “We agreed to exchange open, unclassified scientific literature,” says the Russian science ministry official. North Koreans, too, are wary, assuming that foreign visitors have government connections, no matter what their affiliation.

    Overcoming such suspicions will require that joint projects be fundamentally benign or benevolent. “Projects should be based on humanitarian needs,” says Shunichi Yamashita, chair of the Atomic Bomb Disease Institute at the University of Nagasaki, who has worked extensively on scientific aid projects in the former Soviet Union. One area that gets top marks as a confidence-builder is the environment. In a rare joint effort with South Korea, for example, ASK's Biology Branch is translating into English a compendium on North Korea's roughly 4000 native plants.

    Raring to go.

    Many scientists want to go abroad for training, says Choe Sung Ho of the Institute of Microbiology. “But now we're just sitting here.”


    Agricultural exchanges too have borne fruit. For example, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker-founded nonprofit, has brought North Korean delegations to the United States, China, and Vietnam to study topics such as rice and corn breeding, potato seed generation, and poultry production. “The North Koreans can freely interact with researchers and have an extremely valuable opportunity to acquire copies of journal articles, research reports, and other published information,” says AFSC program representative Randall Ireson, who has traveled to North Korea. The study tours, he says, have resulted in, for example, more economical feed formulation for poultry and swine, better rice breeding, and the use of legume cover crops for improving soil fertility.

    University exchanges also could build bridges. Since 2002, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has sponsored exchanges between German universities and several institutions in Pyongyang, including Kim Il Sung University, ASK, and the Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Academic relations “are improving steadily,” says DAAD's Ursula Toyka-Fuong, with plans in 2005 to invite two Korean researchers for long-term stints in Germany, as well as offer short-term scholarships for up to 6 months to several promising young scientists.

    A similar exchange program with Kim Il Sung University was launched last year by Far Eastern National University in Vladivostok, Russia, which already had South Koreans among its student body. “At first the North Koreans and South Koreans got into a lot of fights. It was a big problem for us,” says Valery Dikarev, vice president for international affairs at Far Eastern. “But at the end of the year the South Koreans saw off the North Koreans at the train station—and they all were crying.” Dikarev visited Pyongyang in July as part of a delegation to expand Far Eastern's academic agreement with Kim Il Sung University to include joint research; initial projects will probe the biochemistry of traditional Korean medicines. Kim Il Sung University's economics institute, meanwhile, has asked the Swedish Embassy to help devise improved course materials. “I find it intriguing that we can change their curriculum,” says the Swedish diplomat.

    The United States sees an entrée as well. Syracuse University in New York and Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang have exchanged delegations and are working to establish twin laboratories for joint research on integrated information technology. The project, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Ford Foundation, suggests “the possibility of serious, sustained, and mutually beneficial collaborations between an institution in the DPRK and one in the U.S.,” according to a recent status report from the team.

    Another budding initiative is a U.S. committee now being organized with members from some 50 nonprofits, universities, and other organizations to engage North Korea in a range of areas, including science. And NAS and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) are discussing ways to cooperate with ASK on energy and agricultural projects. The discussions were initiated in Pyongyang last January by Siegfried Hecker, senior fellow and former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a member of NAE's council. Hecker is now serving as a liaison between the U.S. and North Korean academies.

    “I'm convinced there are interesting research programs in North Korea, including those interesting to world science. We just have to discover and support them,” says Zurab Yakobashvili, director of the International Centre for Scientific and Technical Information in Moscow, which is helping to organize a symposium next spring to bring together North Korean and Western scientists to discuss joint projects in areas such as biotechnology, information technology, and materials science. North Korea's rank-and-file researchers are raring to go. “We have many young scientists who are very well qualified,” says Choe. “If even one is able to travel to Europe, we can learn a lot. But now we're just sitting here.”

    Mikheev, who has long advocated a cautious approach to North Korea, views scientific cooperation as an exceptionally constructive tool for engaging the DPRK. “From a strategic perspective, scientific diplomacy seems to be very important to provide peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he says. Forging contacts with key individuals could well help shape North Korea's future and give rise to the exhilarating possibility of bringing an entire nation in from the cold.


    Nukes for Windmills: Quixotic or Serious Proposition?

    1. Richard Stone

    PYONGYANG—The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) often resorts to fiery rhetoric when faced with challenges from the outside, but it knows about conciliatory tactics as well. Indeed, an unofficial envoy who spoke with Science here in July claimed that the government is ready to make a remarkable concession: It would abandon its nuclear program in its entirety—both weapons and power generation—in exchange for “clean energy technologies” such as wind power. The proposal, if backed by the government, could set the stage for progress in high-level discussions over the fate of North Korea's nuclear program. But like many other signals from Pyongyang, this one is hard to interpret.

    “It's the first time we've heard of [trading nuclear power for clean energy technologies]. It's very intriguing,” says Mikio Mori, who until last month was director for multilateral nuclear cooperation in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That fits with what Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, told Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, in talks in Pyongyang last June. “He tried to persuade Koizumi that having nuclear weapons is not in [North Korea's] benefit and that dismantlement is their final objective,” Mori says. A request for clean energy technologies would be “a big plus, very positive,” adds Robert Alvarez, a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) who helped implement the Agreed Framework, a 1994 accord in which North Korea agreed to mothball its plutonium facilities for energy aid and other incentives. Alvarez is now at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Representatives of six countries—China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—have met intermittently since August 2003 to try to solve a crisis stemming from North Korea's efforts to acquire what it calls a “nuclear deterrent.” At the most recent round of talks last June, North Korea proposed what it terms a “reward for freeze”: energy aid in exchange for a promise to suspend its plutonium program once again. The United States, in contrast, offered that non-U.S. parties would provide heavy fuel oil only after North Korea agrees to dismantle all its nuclear programs. “There are major gaps between the North Korea and U.S. proposals,” says Mori. “We need to define clearly what the parties want.” The next round of talks had been expected to take place in Beijing later this month. However, revelations about uranium-enrichment experiments in South Korea and a recent flare-up in the war of words between North Korea and the United States threatened a delay until after the U.S. presidential elections.

    The true nature of North Korea's “deterrent” is far from clear. The country's ambitions to build a nuclear weapon first came to light in the late 1980s. At a meeting of deputy foreign ministers of Soviet bloc states in Pyongyang in 1988, North Korean officials leaked to the Soviet Embassy that their military had started a nuclear weapons program, says Vasily Mikheev, Asia expert for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. After an investigation, the KGB concluded that it was unlikely—but not impossible—that North Korea could devise a working bomb, Mikheev says. Russia's opinion remains unchanged, he says: “North Korea has a nuclear weapons program, but there is no reliable proof that it can produce nuclear weapons.”

    Plutonium production line.

    The reprocessing facility at Yongbyon.


    U.S. analysts are more bullish on North Korea's odds of pulling it off. “Per capita, the DPRK has probably invested as much in its weapons programs as the Soviets did,” notes a State Department official. Erring on the side of caution, perhaps, the CIA estimates that North Korea has made as many as eight plutonium bombs. At the Yongbyon nuclear facility last January, North Korean scientists showed what appeared to be plutonium metal to a delegation including Siegfried Hecker, senior fellow and former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (Science, 23 January, p. 452). But the jury is out on whether Korea's nuclear specialists have devised the precise configuration of explosives needed to get a plutonium bomb to fission. A global surveillance network assembled under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not picked up the telltale seismic signals of a successful nuclear test in North Korea. “As far as we know, no testing has been done,” says Tetsuya Endo, vice chair of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission. (Western experts are, however, keenly watching a recent flurry of activity at suspected test sites in North Korea.)

    More alarming is the prospect of North Korea enriching uranium, analysts say, because it's easier to get a uranium bomb to undergo fission. That concern triggered the current crisis. In October 2002, U.S. diplomats confronted their North Korean counterparts with evidence that the reclusive state was secretly attempting to enrich uranium. Although the U.S. dossier has not been made public, elements have been leaked. For example, U.S. officials claim that A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, has admitted to having provided North Korea in the 1990s with nuclear technology, including a design for a gas centrifuge for concentrating weapons-grade uranium. North Korea also may have imported equipment for an enrichment facility through Korean-run export companies in Japan. “We have a history of stopping exports from Japanese companies,” says Mori.

    Japanese and U.S. officials who spoke with Science acknowledge that they have few clues to the location of the uranium-enrichment program or how advanced it is. “No one has seen it,” says Mori. North Korean officials steadfastly deny that a uranium program exists. That has thrown up a hurdle at the six-way talks, in which Japanese and U.S. officials have insisted that the uranium program's dismantlement is integral to any deal. “It's a major stumbling block,” says Mori.

    Despite the political barriers, U.S. nonproliferation officials see a tantalizing possibility in these negotiations. They may offer a way to redirect North Korea's nuclear scientists—and perhaps even its cadre of researchers involved in biological and chemical weapons R&D—to peaceful research. According to one U.S. official, there may be several hundred North Korean weaponeers “of interest.”

    Still unknown is whether the North Korean government will echo the unofficial suggestion that it is ready to abandon its nuclear program for clean energy technologies. In addition to describing this possibility, the unofficial envoy—who spoke with Science at an unusual meeting arranged by other diplomats—reiterated old themes: that North Korea desires bilateral talks with the United States to solve the nuclear issue and that it is ready to discuss diplomatic relations between the two countries.

    A State Department official told Science that the U.S. government is preparing to raise the amount of aid offered to North Korea in the next round of talks in exchange for dismantling the uranium program. The prospect of a better deal would strengthen the hand of advisers to Kim Jong Il who advocate cooperation with the United States, argues Mikheev. But the U.S. commitment will need to be solid, he says, adding that North Korea is unlikely to settle for anything less than an agreement ensuring the present government's survival. After all, its nuclear program is its only real bargaining chip. “Without nuclear weapons North Korea would be just a poor country with no attention,” asserts Endo. “Kim Jong Il is fully aware of that.”


    The Ultimate, Exclusive LAN

    1. Richard Stone

    PYONGYANG—North Korea's success in integrating itself with the rest of the world, beginning with science, could hinge on whether it opens up lines of communication to foreign information and ideas. But that's a risky notion in this isolated country.

    Leader Kim Jong Il inherited from his father, Kim Il Sung, a distrust of alien influences and an enthusiasm for technology. This skittishness is embodied in North Korea's strategy for importing and disseminating technology. Spearheading the effort is the Central Information Agency for Science and Technology (CIAST). By the mid-1990s CIAST had developed its own database engine and in 1997 began installing a national computer network—a simulation of the World Wide Web that's unconnected to the outside world.

    Ri Hyok, who heads CIAST's Computer Center, shows off the home page for the countrywide intranet (one your browser will never find). It's as slick and easy to navigate as Yahoo. It provides access to tens of millions of records, according to Ri, including several online North Korean journals, a science encyclopedia, and a wealth of analytical information compiled by a 600-strong staff on topics from agriculture and construction to the writings of Kim Il Sung. The system, called “Kwangmyong,” or “light,” was upgraded recently with fiber-optic links to major North Korean cities and now has approximately 10,000 subscribers, says Ri. Subscriptions are free; users only pay telephone charges. “We don't know how their intranet works,” confesses a Swedish diplomat. CIAST says it raises funds through the export of software, such as a Japanese-Korean translation program now being sold in Japan and other countries.

    North Korean Webmaster.

    Ri Hyok's team at CIAST has built a formidable countrywide computer network.


    Ri says he and his CIAST colleagues are keen to boost capacity and access Western literature electronically. That would be straightforward if they could tap external Web sites. Asked whether there are plans to connect to the Web, Ri offers a strained smile. “No plans,” he says.

    The Academy of Sciences has external e-mail—a single address for the entire organization. (Internet access in North Korea is restricted to a small, trusted fraction of the population.) If CIAST were to make portions of its Web site available to the outside world, it could solicit external funding or collaborators. But for now that's not feasible, says Ri: “It's an administrative issue.”

    Access to up-to-date scientific information through printed books and journals is also lacking. On a leafy campus a half-hour's drive south of Pyongyang, the Academy of Sciences runs an intellectual hothouse—the University of Sciences, part of its Unjong regional branch. This university, with a student body of 3000, cherry-picks “genius” students from throughout the country, of which 60% continue in postgraduate studies, say university officials. Faculty members, including about 100 Ph.D. lecturers and professors, also maintain laboratories that work on everything from the production of cisplatin for cancer therapy to studies of laser-ignition of dynamite and a magnetometer for detecting hidden weapons. The university's Korean-Chinese Friendship Laboratory features a laser setup, donated by China more than a decade ago, for the study of plasmas.

    Yet a glimpse of the university's library shows how disconnected the students and faculty may be. It's a Friday morning; classes are in session. But the reading room, desks aligned to face the visage of Kim Il Sung, is deserted except for a solitary librarian. When asked for examples of the library's English-language science journals, the librarian disappears momentarily into the stacks, a room no bigger than a 7–11 store. She retrieves a half-dozen issues, bearing the treasures to her desk. They look old, and they are. An issue of the Journal of Quantum Electronics from 1977. Genetics—1981. Microelectronics—1973. A generation of science has passed them by.

    Some foreign organizations have tried to help fill the information void. For example, the Asia Foundation, with headquarters in San Francisco, has provided more than 70,000 books and journals to the Grand People's Study House, or central library, Kim Chaek University of Technology, and Pyongyang University for Foreign Studies, all of which are in Pyongyang. And the Goethe Institute of Berlin last June opened a reading room with some scientific literature in the Chollima House of Culture in Pyongyang. Still, as the Swedish diplomat observes, the vast majority of North Koreans “have very little idea of the outside world.”

    Missing student bodies.

    On a Friday morning, the University of Sciences' library does not appear to be a top draw.


    Sometimes the government's efforts to catch up are too quick for its own comfort. Last year it launched a cell phone network, issuing about 10,000 handsets, estimates a Russian diplomat. He says that within a few days after the deadly train explosion at Ryongchon last April, which occurred several hours after Kim Jong Il's train from China passed through the station, the government began recalling most of the phones. The network is still operating—diplomats in Pyongyang say they use it for their cell phones—suggesting that some North Korean elites have kept their handsets. It's unclear why the government clamped down, although the diplomat speculates that it is nervous about “horizontal communication.” Perhaps, he says, in the hours after the Ryongchon accident, the cell network was abuzz with gossip over whether the explosion was an assassination attempt, an idea that has since been discounted.

    “To achieve a free flow of people and knowledge, the society has to be ready,” notes Mikio Mori of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For now North Korea's intellectual community is extending a hand to the outside world with trepidation, unsure of who will grasp it or how new contacts may shape the country's future.


    In Mass Extinction, Timing Is All

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    A new, apparently improved, way to date the greatest mass extinction points to a volcanic cause but fails to resolve geochronologists' long-running differences

    For earth scientists trying to lay the blame for the all-time greatest mass extinction some 250 million years ago, the secret is in the timing. The professional timekeepers—the geochronologists—are trying to place a volcanic catastrophe at the moment of the extinction, thus linking cause and effect to explain an event that wiped out 95% of animal species on Earth.

    But nailing down the time of the Permian-Triassic (P-T) extinction has revealed problems in the often competitive business of geochronology. P-T daters must draw their conclusions from vanishingly small isotopic remains of radioactive decay. For years, different laboratories using uranium-lead radiometric dating—the gold standard of geochronology—have been getting entirely different ages for the P-T extinction.

    On page 1760 of this issue of Science, Roland Mundil of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California and colleagues weigh in with their latest P-T age using a new way of preparing samples for uranium-lead dating. By their reckoning, the extinction and the largest volcanic eruption of all time are older than thought, but coincided precisely. “It's an impressive piece of work,” says geochronologist Michael Villeneuve of the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa. The new treatment seems to remove much of the subjectivity of traditional approaches, but still, “all dates are interpretations,” Villeneuve notes. “It needs a bit more proving out.”

    Uranium-lead dating seems straightforward enough. The analyst simply crunches a rock, picks out microgram grains of the mineral zircon, grinds off an outer layer, dissolves the remaining grain in acid, spikes the solution with a calibration standard, and measures the amounts of four isotopes using mass spectrometry. Two are isotopes of radioactive uranium that have not yet decayed, and two are picogram quantities of lead isotopes that have accumulated from the steady decay of the uranium since the zircon crystallized in magma. The ratio of each uranium isotope to its decay-product lead isotope tells how long each of the two radioactive clocks has been running and thus how old the rock is.

    Geochronologist Samuel Bowring of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues followed just such an approach to date rocks bearing fossils from the time of the P-T extinction in southern China. Analyzing zircons from nearby layers of volcanic ash, they got an age of 251.4 ± 0.3 million years (Science, 15 May 1998, p. 1039). And late last year Sandra Kamo of the University of Toronto, Canada, and colleagues published a uranium-lead date of 251.4 million years—right on Bowring's P-T age—for the eruption of the massive Siberian Traps, thick layers of ancient lava that once covered millions of square kilometers (Science, 21 November 2003, p. 1315).

    Better for it.

    Hot acid has removed degraded parts of this zircon that would have skewed its apparent age.


    Mundil, however, doesn't believe that either the eruption or the extinction happened that recently. He thinks Bowring engaged in “arbitrary data culling” by throwing out more than half his zircon ages before averaging the rest of them together. But Bowring says his choices were judicious, although “necessarily somewhat subjective.” In some of his zircons, the two different uranium-lead ratios gave different ages, suggesting that lead had leaked out of those zircons during the past quarter-billion years. And other zircon ages looked distinctly old, as if those zircons had crystallized earlier than the rest and had later gotten mixed in with them. By taking into account how volcanic ash beds are stacked around the rock layer that shows the extinction, Bowring believes he can confidently select the reliable zircon ages and discard the rest.

    Mundil set out to take this “picking and choosing” out of uranium-lead dating. Over the years, researchers had tried various pretreatments to get rid of the parts of a zircon that had lost lead. To prepare new samples from southern China, Mundil and colleagues adopted a technique recently developed by James Mattinson of the University of California, Santa Barbara. They baked the southern China zircons at 850°C for 36 hours and then leached them with hydrofluoric acid under pressure at 220°C for 16 hours, with the intention of removing the parts most weakened by radiation damage.

    This rugged pretreatment narrows the range of zircon ages from a single ash bed from about 20 million years to a few million years, with no picking and choosing. Of the 79 zircons dated in the P-T study reported in this issue, the researchers discarded only three, all for being obviously too old. Their age for the P-T extinction is then 252.6 ± 0.2 million years—about a million years older than Bowring's age but coincident with a decade-old argon-argon radiometric age for the Siberian Traps that Mundil and his colleagues—after making a 2-million-year correction to it—prefer over Kamo's uranium-lead age.

    The new preprocessing technique “is very promising,” says Drew Coleman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It appears to be very fruitful.” Bowring agrees. “This is a step in the right direction,” he says. “Mattinson's annealing is the big breakthrough, though I have no idea why it works.” But Bowring points to the later date that his group estimated for the P-T extinction in China and Kamo's group independently got for zircon and other minerals from the lavas of the Siberian Traps. Mundil hasn't explained how subjective interpretation could have produced such a coincidence, he says.

    What uranium-lead geochronologists need now, all agree, is more cooperation. “They've been competitive and secretive for decades,” says geochronologist Randall Parrish of the British Geological Survey in Keyworth, U.K. “There's not enough cooperation among workers seeking out best practice, but we're going to hash out a lot of these issues in October.” That's when uranium-lead and argon-argon daters will gather near Boston under the auspices of the new EARTHTIME program for a frank and open discussion of all those little details that don't make it into the literature.


    Biosecurity Goes Global

    1. David Malakoff

    The 2001 anthrax letters triggered a strong U.S. response. Now the rest of the world is starting to take biosecurity more seriously—but not necessarily by adopting the U.S. approach

    Three years ago, the small number of life scientists using the term “biosecurity” were talking about ways to keep diseased crops and livestock from crossing national borders. Then came the fatal October 2001 anthrax letter attacks against several U.S. targets. In short order, thousands of U.S. scientists were confronted with an avalanche of new and often unpopular rules designed to keep potentially dangerous pathogens and toxins away from bioterrorists. Researchers who break those rules could face significant criminal penalties.

    Despite these aggressive steps on the home front, U.S. officials readily acknowledged that unilateral action was insufficient and that the world needed to form a united front against increasingly sophisticated biotechnologies. But many nations were skeptical of the threat. They also doubted the value of what critics call “the guns, guards, and gates” approach to biosecurity. The result, says Reynolds Salerno, a biosecurity expert at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been “tremendous confusion and concern in the international life sciences community about biosecurity.”

    That confusion may be giving way to cooperation, however, as an increasingly global effort to define and implement biosecurity is gaining speed. Nations are moving to pass new biosecurity laws, while public health and security experts are hammering out voluntary biosecurity guidelines and debating “codes of conduct” for life scientists. Many countries are thinking about looser rules for less risky agents than in the United States, which critics say has imposed a one-size-fits-all approach, and few are likely to require the extensive criminal background checks carried out by U.S. agencies.

    The new world order may not resemble the U.S. model. But like it or not, life scientists worldwide are about to become much more familiar with the term biosecurity.

Log in to view full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution

Navigate This Article