Science  06 Jul 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5834, pp. 29

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  1. Sarkozy Assumes, Bestows Control

    PARIS, FRANCE—French president Nicolas Sarkozy is fulfilling a campaign promise by moving quickly to give more autonomy to his country's 85 universities. His cabinet is reviewing a bill on the topic this week expected to be debated this month in the National Assembly, where Sarkozy's UMP party has a majority. University presidents and the French Academy of Sciences have welcomed the bill, but a group of trade unions calls it “unacceptable” because they say inequality between schools will increase with the competition.

    Many in France say the government controls universities too tightly (see page 69). The new bill gives universities more freedom to manage budgets, investments, and real estate, and bestows new powers on school presidents, such as more control over personnel matters. Some controversial elements of the bill—including allowing universities to select students entering the master's level, instead of admitting all applicants—were scrapped after the government negotiated with unions and student movements last week. But unions still have called on their members to protest the revised bill.

  2. Souring on Fake Sugar

    Fearful it causes cancer, 12 U.S. environmental health experts and activists last week asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to review the potential health risks of the artificial sweetener aspartame, which appears in everything from medicines to diet sodas. A study published last month in Environmental Health Perspectives found somewhat more leukemias and lymphomas in male rats receiving less aspartame than the recommended maximum for humans; at higher doses, the rats had a marked increase in cancers throughout the body. Pregnant rats were fed the sweetener, and animals received it once they'd been weaned.

    The work, by scientists at the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences in Bologna, Italy, is “more sensitive and more realistic” than earlier aspartame studies, says James Huff of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who signed onto the FDA letter drafted by the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest. But because the study conflicts with earlier work, FDA spokesperson Michael Herndon says that the agency finds the study unpersuasive and that “aspartame is safe.” FDA's European counterpart has not responded publicly to the study.

  3. Blueprint for Children's Study

    Researchers can now weigh in on the National Children's Study (NCS), a proposed $3 billion effort ordered by Congress. Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, described how it intends to track the health of 100,000 U.S. children. The roughly 600-page research plan, developed by NIH staff and outside scientists, outlines research methods and the study's 30 hypotheses—from whether pesticides cause neurological problems to how social programs influence children's health. Officials soon will post the document online, and submit it to the National Academies for a fast-track review. A more detailed protocol must be approved by the White House before the study can begin enrollment, now set for mid-2008. NIH hasn't wanted to fund the NCS, but Congress gave it $69 million in 2007 with $110 million pending for 2008.

  4. Spending Measure Pleases Robot Constituency

    NASA earlier this year canceled plans for a series of lunar landers as precursors to the human return to the moon. Not so fast, a Senate spending panel said last week. A report accompanying a bill containing the agency's 2008 budget includes $48.7 million to keep robotic moon landers on track in the wake of a recent National Research Council report that backed such missions as scientifically valuable. Legislators also includes $2.3 million for a joint NASA-Department of Energy mission to study dark energy that the space agency wants to delay because of budget constraints, and added money for earth sciences research in line with their House counterparts. But the two bills disagree on the need to hunt for extrasolar planets. Although the House increased funding, the Senate suggests that NASA scale back its plans even more.

  5. Ecology Lab: Not Dead Yet

    Some 40 of roughly 100 staff members at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory were let go 29 June by the University of Georgia (UGA), which manages the lab. After the Department of Energy cut $2.2 million in 2007 funding (Science, 18 May, p. 969), UGA failed to make up the loss. The dozen or so faculty will stay, says former director Paul Bertsch, although officials are “still trying to figure out” how to support research that is continuing with outside funding; a UGA official says “university efficiencies” will pick up much of the slack.