News this Week

Science  20 Aug 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5994, pp. 888

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  1. Gulf Oil Spill

    After Outcry, Oil Data Inches Into the Open

    1. Lauren Schenkman

    Fisheries scientist James Cowan wasn't put off when a private consulting firm contacted him about helping BP with its oil spill research—indeed, he welcomed the opportunity. “I don't want [BP] to take samples that give them the wrong information, so I'd just as soon help,” says Cowan, a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU), Baton Rouge. For instance, when a team under the direction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and BP went out with an acoustic instrument to verify the oil plumes reported by academic scientists, they came back empty-handed—until Cowan told the consulting firm that the team was likely using frequencies that couldn't resolve the oil droplets at the depths they were searching. He suggested a different technique, and “now no one can deny the existence of the plumes, which many did for a very long time,” he says.

    But Cowan has been careful to give his advice pro bono. One reason: He's married to a restoration scientist at NOAA. That agency leads the so-called Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), the legal process during which the government and BP collect evidence on the extent of the oil's impact—evidence that will factor, eventually, into BP's liability. But Cowan was also uneasy about the consulting contract the firm offered him, which would have banned him from discussing or publishing any data collected on their dime for up to 3 years. “My biggest concern [was] that the data we'd collect under direct funding would be tied up in litigation,” he says.

    Now, in a largely unexpected and welcome move, BP has revised its contracts to remove these restrictions. And with NOAA relaxing its own restrictions on publishing assessment data, scientists are hopeful that the NRDA process will be less adversarial than they'd feared. A sample contract provided to Science by BP allows signers to publish “written research papers, presentations and similar documents reporting any environmental data obtained or produced” as a consultant after giving BP 30 days' notice and a copy of the intended publication.

    The change comes after a public cry of outrage sparked by a damning story in the 16 July Mobile, Alabama, Press-Register that blasted BP for “buying up” gulf scientists by the department. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote an editorial in Inside Higher Ed asking scientists not to sign—and urging university officials to prevent their faculty members from doing so. One LSU scientist who is consulting for BP received several threatening e-mails after being quoted in the press.

    A group of scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg first agreed to consult for BP but backed out when they saw the contracts barring them from publishing. Last week, however, after BP lawyers came back with the new contracts, several of them signed on again, says Denis Wiesenburg, USM's vice president of research. “Our understanding is that any environmental data our faculty produce when they're working as consultants for BP will be made public,” he says.

    That's quite a contrast to the scientific feuding that ensued after the oil tanker Exxon Valdez broke open on a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound on 24 March 1989. “Shadow studies” were common, says Tom Brosnan, a NOAA environmental scientist who's worked on NRDAs for 11 years. The government, for example, would sample an area, and Exxon scientists would follow—then claim different results.

    Then, in August 1990, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, which laid out the current NRDA process. It also requires the environ mental trustees—in this case, NOAA, several Department of the Interior agencies, affected states' environmental agencies, and possibly tribes—to give BP the opportunity to collaborate.

    “It's better if you can agree with a responsible party on the basic facts of the case,” says Brosnan. And so far the assessment process following the Deepwater Horizon disaster seems to be collaborative. During the first part of the NRDA, which involves taking baseline data and determining whether resources have been harmed, BP and the trustees have—for the most part—been working together, even sending scientists out on the same boats to take a single set of samples. “If you're out in a marsh assessing a shoreline, and you're on a boat together, and you agree on how [samples] are going to be collected, what that marsh looks like in that data, you're a lot further along.”


    BP, NOAA, and state of Louisiana scientists check marsh sediment for oil.


    After being lambasted with phone calls from a concerned public, and given that BP was seeing the data anyway, NOAA decided on 8 July that it would post its vetted data online and began doing so in a matter of weeks, which Brosnan admits is “a very unusual situation for us.” With this spill, he explains, “the public wants the information, the academic community wants the information, and we're trying to get it out as quickly as we can.”

    Brosnan says NOAA's open-data policy applies to “everything where we have an agreed plan and are sharing the data with BP.” But he admits that some of the data collected during the NRDA process does not fit in this category, and so it isn't going online.

    Nor is collaboration guaranteed to continue into the next phase of NRDA—quantifying the damage and planning restoration—which begins in the next few weeks, he cautions. The trustees and BP might disagree on which studies to do or how, or “there may be … a time when we say, ‘This isn't working for us, and we need to go separate ways.’” And because NRDA data may ultimately wind up in court, NOAA “must reserve the right of what can be released and when”—and that applies to data collected by academic scientists working as consultants for the trustees.

    For now, however, the détente is a relief to the academic scientists who are eager to be involved in research that will determine how the region is restored, says USM's Wiesenburg. And that's the way it should be, says the LSU scientist who received threatening e-mails for signing BP's original contract. Academic scientists “can and, I believe, do keep the NRDA process honest and objective, … [acting] as independent checks on the data and the inferences derived from the data,” he says. “Their reputations as credible scientists are extremely important, … [so] they have too much to lose by biasing their results or opinions, whether they are consulting for NOAA or for BP.”

  2. Gulf Oil Spill

    The Case of the Missing $470 Million in BP's Promised Research Fund

    1. Lauren Schenkman

    It was a rare piece of good news in the early, dark days of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. On 24 May, as scientists fretted about what the oil gushing out of BP's blown Macondo well might do to deep-sea corals, wetland birds, and young fish, BP pledged $500 million over the next 10 years to support independent research to answer such questions. But just 3 weeks later, a presidential directive put the money on hold. Now that 2 months have passed with few clues about the fate of the money, scientists are worried that what many saw as their best hope for a long-term, comprehensive research plan will disappear along with the oil slick.

    BP announced the $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative after a 19 May meeting with academic and government scientists convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. On 15 June, after a second meeting at Louisiana State University (LSU) sponsored in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and attended by 200 scientists, BP announced that $25 million would go immediately to four consortia of gulf universities, which could then distribute the funds to individual projects. (BP promised an additional $5 million to a fifth consortium in early July.) That same day, BP named a crack science advisory board, headed by former National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell, and announced its intent to launch a request for proposals.

    But the next day, it all ground to a halt, thanks to a paragraph at the bottom of a White House fact sheet on the $20 billion escrow account BP would use to pay future claims. The Administration, referring to the $500 million pledge, directed BP to “work with governors, state and local environmental health authorities to design the long-term monitoring program to assure the environmental and public health of the Gulf Region.”

    But BP's original approach “would have been a good thing,” says Kevin Wheeler, vice president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit representing oceanographers. “It was a more coordinated science initiative than what the government has put out. … Now we're 6 to 8 weeks out [following the decision to involve governors], and there's no plan” to distribute the rest of the money.

    Local academics suspect that state governors lobbied the White House because they were worried that the funds would leave the gulf region if any institution were eligible to send in a proposal. “I think people got concerned that if you did it like that, then the big boys, like Woods Hole and Scripps, that always seem to get a lot of the money … would get the lion's share,” says Michael Carron, the director of the Northern Gulf Institute, a NOAA cooperative institute in Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

    Denis Wiesenburg, vice president of research at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, thinks such parochialism was unfair—and unneeded. “The money ought to be devoted to the best science,” he says. “We think our scientists would be very competitive for BP research funding.” But now that the money is in the hands of the governors, he says, “it sounds like [distributing it] is going to be a political rather than a scientific decision.”

    Over the past 2 months, academic scientists and administrators have heard nothing about the remaining $470 million. The advisory panel established by BP is on the sidelines; it hasn't met since the money was announced, says Colwell. In an e-mail to academics last week, a BP ecologist involved in the research plan said, “As of late last week, we were still working with the various governors' staffs on a way forward that would be acceptable to all parties.” Scientists from four Louisiana universities, hoping to help guide the state-level negotiations, sent a detailed research proposal to their governor's office but received no response. Three governors' offices contacted by Science failed to provide a comment in time for this article.

    The silence has frustrated scientists in the region, especially given that many of them were hopeful about BP's initial plan. “Right now, [the BP money] is where the scientific community sees the long-term data coming from,” says Wiesenburg. Chris D'Elia, dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at LSU, says he was “very surprised and discouraged. … We've really lost some wonderful opportunities here by failing to get a substantial funding opportunity out there for the academic community.”

    The situation isn't dire, says Carron: The $30 million already distributed is a lot to spend. But the lack of a long-term funding strategy limits scientists' ability to plan research over several years and to hire staff or graduate students, he says. The delay has him and others wondering if the promised funding will ever materialize. “The important thing is that the money doesn't disappear now that they've got this thing capped.”

  3. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Postdocs at the University of California (UC) have voted to adopt a 5-year contract that would raise their pay by between 1.5% and 3% this fall and give them new protections. The UC system's 6500 postdocs represent roughly 10% of all U.S. postdocs.

    The National Science Foundation's governing body, the National Science Board, is exploring whether the foundation ought to be more receptive to large, out-of-the-box research proposals not solicited by its staff members. The new study will look at proposals larger than the traditional award size to investigators but smaller than major facilities.

    A flawed satellite sensor set to fly late next year may be able to record ocean color ScienceInsider has learned. The sensor, VIIRS, was to fly on the NPOESS Preparatory Project mission next year, but in 2008 officials decided not to fix a flaw preventing accurate measurements. New tests by government engineers, however, suggest that the problem was less severe than thought.

    The European Space Agency has published a road map of favored space missions for physics between 2015 and 2025. The program includes efforts to test the fundamental laws of physics, find gravitational waves, and obtain antimatter.

    The H1N1 pandemic that started in the spring of 2009 is now officially over, the World Health Organization declared. Scientists believe the real toll is much higher than the 18,500 confirmed deaths.

    Nobelist Roald Hoffmann has called for a boycott of an upcoming Eurasian chemistry conference in Jordan because he suspects that organizers have deliberately excluded Israeli speakers. Organizers say that's not the case and that it's too late to reshuffle the lineup of speakers.

    For more science policy news, visit

  4. Cognition Research

    Investigation Leaves Field in the Dark About a Colleague's Work

    1. Greg Miller
    Monkey puzzle.

    A Harvard investigation has raised questions about Marc Hauser's primate research.


    The Boston Globe dropped a bombshell last week when it reported that Harvard University cognitive scientist Marc Hauser was on leave following an investigation of his research by the university. Hauser is a popular teacher, successful author, and leading researcher on animal cognition. In work spanning 3 decades, he has produced notable insights into the richness and complexity of primate cognition that have helped erode notions of human uniqueness. More recently, his work on the evolutionary roots of morality, along with his writing and public speaking on the topic, have earned him something close to celebrity status.

    So far, one paper co-authored by Hauser—a 2002 report in Cognition—has been retracted as a result of the investigation, and concerns have been raised about several others, including one published in Science. Hauser is the only author common to all of them.

    But exactly what went wrong with Hauser's research is still not clear. Citing the need to protect privacy, Harvard has not made its findings public. The federal agencies that fund Hauser's work, citing their own privacy policies, would neither confirm nor deny any ongoing misconduct investigations. Hauser did not respond to requests for an interview.

    Several of Hauser's former postdocs, students, and collaborators discussed the case with Science but declined to speak on the record. Some said they felt torn between a desire to set the scientific record straight and a reluctance to speak ill of someone they saw as a brilliant thinker and caring mentor. “I fully believe the allegations.” says one former lab member. “That said, I consider him the best adviser that I've ever had. He is a creative, energetic, and charismatic person.”

    Other researchers are frustrated by the lack of information. “Hauser's rights are being protected, the university's rights are being protected, but who's protecting the scientists working in this field?” asks Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “This screws us up all over the place because we don't know what to cite and what not to cite; we don't know what we can believe and what we can't believe.”

    Even in the best of times, primate cognition is a controversial field, and researchers are often skeptical of the work of their colleagues, says Dario Maestripieri, a behavioral biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “This work is so amenable to subjective interpretation,” he says. “You're trying to make inferences about cognition by observing behavior. It's not something you can prove with hard evidence.”

    Before the Globe's revelations, however, there were already hints that some of Hauser's colleagues had misgivings about his work. In a 1995 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Hauser and colleagues reported that cotton-top tamarins, a New World monkey, could recognize themselves in a mirror, a sign of self-awareness. Previously, only great apes and humans had been shown to pass the mirror test. Extending the capacity for self-recognition to tamarins, a distantly related species generally assumed to have less cognitive firepower, made quite a splash.

    Gordon Gallup Jr., the researcher at the State University of New York in Albany who developed the test (Science, 2 January 1970, p. 86), says he doubted Hauser's findings from the beginning. He had done extensive work with several monkey species and failed to find any evidence for self-recognition. Hauser eventually agreed to send Gallup the videotapes for the tamarin experiment. “When I sat and watched the tapes, I just couldn't believe it,” Gallup says. “There was a total disconnect between the claims that were being made in the paper and what was depicted in the videotape.”

    Hauser and colleagues then repeated the tamarin experiment and reversed their original finding, concluding that tamarins do not recognize themselves in a mirror. They published this result in 2001 in the American Journal of Primatology. The PNAS paper, however, has not been corrected or retracted.

    The retracted Cognition paper reported that cottontop tamarins can learn abstract rules about strings of syllables (for example, that la ta ta and ni gi gi have the same pattern, but wo wo fe does not). Human infants can make this kind of inference, which some researchers argue is tied to the uniquely human capacity for language.

    That paper also met with skepticism early on. Its conclusions hinge on a single data point representing the number of monkeys that turned to stare at a loudspeaker when it switched from playing one sequence of syllables to another, an indication that the animals recognized the difference, says psychologist Kim Wallen of Emory University in Atlanta. That's not very convincing, Wallen says: “It's a high-impact conclusion based on low-impact data.” Gerry Altmann, editor of Cognition, says the journal received an e-mail from Hauser on behalf of all three co-authors stating that “An internal examination at Harvard University … found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article. MH [Hauser] accepts responsibility for the error.” Altmann says no further explanation was given.

    Editors at Science and at the Proceedings of the Royal Society B have been notified of problems as well, but in both cases Hauser and a co-author informed editors that they had replicated the experiments and verified their original conclusions. Proceedings noted this in an addendum published in July. The original papers, both published in 2007, described the ability of various primates to understand gestures made by a human experimenter, such as pointing to a hidden source of food. This ability to infer another's state of mind was once considered to be uniquely human (although recent research suggests that dogs can do it). Again, Hauser's findings seemed to narrow the cognitive gap between humans and our primate cousins. The Science paper, for example, reported that not only chimpanzees but also rhesus monkeys and tamarins could interpret human gestures—though some researchers weren't convinced (Science, 7 September 2007, p. 1308).

    According to Ginger Pinholster, spokesperson for AAAS, which publishes Science, the journal's editorial staff received a letter in June from first author Justin Wood, now at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, informing them that “an internal examination at Harvard University determined that there are no field notes, records of aborted field trials, or subject identifying information associated with the rhesus monkey experiments.” Wood's letter goes on to say that results from a replication of those experiments “matched those reported in the paper in terms of statistical significance.” Science has sent the newly submitted data out for peer review and will decide on a course of action after receiving the reviewers' comments, Pinholster says. Harvard has told Science editors that it will comply with a request for more information, but it had not sent more details about its investigation as this issue went to press.

    Whether Hauser's fault was merely sloppy record-keeping and perhaps a rush to publish splashy findings or something more serious may not be known for some time. Robert Seyfarth, a veteran animal-behavior researcher who, along with his wife, Dorothy Cheney, was Hauser's Ph.D. adviser at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1980s, says the couple never had any reason to suspect Hauser of deliberate misconduct during his time with them. “However, even at this early stage, Marc was developing a reputation as a young man in a hurry, and … we repeatedly urged him to slow down and be more thoughtful and cautious in his work,” Seyfarth says. Now Seyfarth worries that Harvard's silence will cause some researchers to judge Hauser's postdocs and students guilty by association. “This would not be fair or true,” he says.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Lasers Set Hearts Aflutter Consider it a different kind of light therapy. Researchers have for the first time used a laser beam to control a heartbeat, an advance that provides a new tool for studying how hearts form and a possible step toward light-based pacemakers.


    'Killer' Volcanoes Not Guilty For years researchers have blamed quick, massive volcanic eruptions for numerous large-scale extinctions. That includes the largest one 250 million years ago that exterminated more than three-fourths of the species on Earth, an event so catastrophic it now carries the name the "Great Dying." There's just one problem: One of the biggest eruptions on record—an event that spewed 1.5 million cubic kilometers of lava over what is today southern Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and southwestern Africa—didn't cause much damage at all.

    Stars Steal Their Planet's Moons Planning a honeymoon to a "hot Jupiter"? You might want to think again. It's bad enough that these giant planets orbit so close to their suns that they sizzle at temperatures exceeding Mercury's. But if an astronomer in France is right, you won't even have a romantic crescent to admire—because the planet probably has no moons.

    How Tiny Drips Can Crumble a Building It doesn't take a flood to destroy a building. Mere moisture over many years can do the same. Now, materials scientists have found a way to predict how moisture works its way through a given building and location, something that should lead to better assessments of the health of historic structures.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more at

  6. Molecular Genetics

    One-Two Punch Elevates Rats to the Knockout Ranks

    1. Dennis Normile

    Fans of the rat as a lab animal have watched in frustration as a parade of mice with specific genes deleted became available to researchers over the past 2 decades. While knockout mice have become models for many human diseases and developmental biology, scientists have longed for knockout rats because “the anatomy and physiology of the rat is closer to humans than is the mouse,” says Timothy Aitman, a molecular geneticist at Imperial College London and the Clinical Sciences Centre of the U.K.'s Medical Research Council. Time and again, however, knockout tricks that work in mice failed in rats.

    That maddening species barrier has now been breached. Last week, a group led by Qi-Long Ying, a stem cell biologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, reported online in Nature about having successfully adapted to the rat the most widely used mouse knockout technique. This complements a different method for deleting rat genes described last year in Science. In addition to having two ways to knock out target genes, other groups have reported advances in techniques to produce transgenic rats as well as random knockouts that could be screened for interesting mutants. “It is an exciting time for rat genetics,” says Aitman.

    KO'd at last.

    In a first, researchers got knockout rats (white animal, left) by manipulating embryonic stem cells (right).


    The breakthroughs were a long time coming. The first knockout mice were created in 1989, using homologous recombination of embryonic stem (ES) cells—a technique that netted a trio of researchers the 2007 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. It relies on creating a DNA string that can replace or disable a target gene. Inserted into ES cells, the substitute DNA is incorporated into some of the cells as they proliferate. Adding the cells to an early embryo implanted in a surrogate mother results in some pups carrying one copy of the original gene and one copy of the altered genetic material. Selective breeding can deliver mice lacking the target gene. Researchers have used homologous recombination to produce several thousand lines of knockout mice—but they could not apply it to rats because no one could find a way to culture rat ES cells.

    The lack of rat knockouts has been a major impediment to biomedical research, says Aitman, who describes the rat as “an exceptional model for human disease.” The rat heart, for example, beats about 300 times a minute, which is much closer to the human average of 70 than is the mouse heart rate of up to 700 beats a minute. The patterns of electrical signals in rat and human hearts are also similar. The advantages even extend to behavioral studies, because rats, like humans and unlike mice, are sociable and easily trained. Rats, being more intelligent than mice, are also expected to be better models of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. “And rats are bigger, so it's much easier to get blood and other samples for analysis and to perform other mechanistic studies,” says Xiaohui Wu, a geneticist at Fudan University in Shanghai.

    Researchers have developed other rat knockout techniques. One relies on ENU, a chemical agent that triggers mutations when injected into animals. Another uses transposons, DNA segments that jump from one spot to another within a genome, occasionally disrupting a gene. But both approaches cause random mutations, which means researchers cannot target specific genes.

    Then last year, Aron Geurts, a molecular geneticist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and his colleagues surprised the field by reporting that they had adapted to rats a method used to knock out genes in fruit flies and zebrafish (Science, 24 July 2009, p. 433). The zinc finger nuclease (ZFN) technology relies on artificial proteins that, when injected into an early embryo, recognize and cut specific DNA sequences. The genetic change is passed to offspring.

    Meanwhile, Ying's group solved the rat ES cell problem: A new culture medium they developed for mouse ES cells worked for rat ES cells as well. Once they could reliably culture rat ES cells, Ying says, it was a matter of tweaking the homologous recombination technique, as they reported online in Nature on 11 August, generating a line of rats missing the p53 tumor-suppressor gene.

    Each method has advantages. Compared with other available techniques, “using ZFN technology takes less time and fewer resources,” says Roland Buelow, a molecular immunologist at Open Monoclonal Technology in Palo Alto, California, and a co-author of the Science paper. Ying explains that homologous recombination promises greater flexibility in restricting gene modification to specific tissues or to a chosen developmental period. “Researchers have full control of the type of mutations they want to make,” he says.

    There is no doubt about pent-up demand for the rat techniques. The ZFN method, available for just over a year, “has been quickly taken up by researchers across the world,” says Aitman. Geurts's group has already produced 54 of a planned 100 knockout rat lines that will be used to probe genes implicated in hypertension and renal disease.

    There have been other advances as well, particularly in the efficiency of transposons. At least two groups, one at Fudan University and one at Transposagen Biopharmaceuticals, a biotech start-up in Lexington, Kentucky, are using a transposon known as piggyBAC to generate large numbers of random rat knockouts. And Zsuzsanna Izsvák of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin and colleagues described in the June issue of Nature Methods what amounts to a transposon shortcut. Instead of breeding rats and screening for interesting phenotypes, they insert an improved version of a transposon called Sleeping Beauty into spermatogonial stem cells and then screen the cells for gene expression in tissue culture before they are used to produce transgenic rats.

    Clearly, lab-rat lovers needn't envy their knockout-mouse colleagues much longer.

  7. U.S. Science Budget

    Senator Builds His Legacy With University of Alabama Earmarks

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The recession has put a huge crimp in plans by many U.S. universities to expand their research capacity, with Harvard University's stagnant billion-dollar Allston campus a prime example (Science, 27 February 2009, p. 1157). But a sluggish economy has been no obstacle for the flagship campus of the University of Alabama, which is speeding ahead with a four-building, $275 million science and engineering corridor.

    What's Alabama's secret? Senator Richard Shelby (R–AL).

    Using his position as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Shelby has single-handedly implemented an ersatz federal academic infrastructure program for the Tuscaloosa campus over the past decade. Last month, Shelby won the committee's approval for a final round of financing for the project, due to be completed in 2014, with $30 million from the $48 million construction budget of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and another $15 million from the budget of a health services agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. If approved in the final 2011 spending bill, Shelby's earmarks for the project will total $135 million since 2008. The number jumps to $170 million with the inclusion of an earlier round of funding for the first of the four buildings, the $60 million, eponymously named Shelby Hall that opened in 2004.

    Academic earmarks have been around since the 1980s (Science, 25 July 2008, p. 480). Although most science policymakers believe earmarks weaken U.S. science by placing the preferences of individual lawmakers above those of the peer-review process, politicians have used them to benefit thousands of institutions in their home states.

    Earmarking is a sensitive topic for many universities, which support peer review but like federal funding, too. “We recognize that our institutions work with members to obtain earmarks, based on their ability to make a compelling case for their role in fostering economic development and building research capacity in the state,” says Jennifer Poulakidas, head of congressional and governmental affairs for the 218-member Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in Washington, D.C., of which the three-campus Alabama system is a member.

    Shelby's efforts, observers say, represent an unprecedented bounty for a single school at a time of growing opposition to the practice. This year, for example, Democrats in the House of Representatives have agreed not to propose any earmarks for companies and other for-profit institutions, and House Republicans have decided to eschew all earmarks. Their Senate colleagues have made no such promises, however.

    Heavy lifting.

    Senator Richard Shelby has provided $170 million for four science buildings on the Tuscaloosa campus.


    Running in November for his fifth 6-year term, Shelby says the earmarks he has secured for several of the state's universities have been good for Alabama's economy and its scientists. “The federal funding [I] have been able to help procure for math, science, and engineering facilities at Alabama universities has directly impacted the State's ability to compete on a national level,” he said in a statement to Science. “Before [I] began working to bring state-of-the-art math, science, and engineering facilities to universities across Alabama, only a few schools nationwide were able to compete for federal research funding. Now, Alabama has some of the best research facilities in the nation and regularly competes for these dollars.”

    Joe Benson, Alabama's vice president for research, says the corridor project has allowed the university, which in 2008 ranked 203rd among U.S. schools in the amount of research funding it receives from all sources, to improve the caliber of its faculty. “The facilities allow us to attract better faculty, and it makes them more productive once they're here,” Benson explains. That productivity stems in part from better graduate students; Benson says test scores for incoming students have risen 15% since 2003. The university is also pouring money into dozens of new faculty positions, especially in those departments, including chemistry and engineering, that occupy the two buildings already completed—the second opened last fall. “There are many institutions that are not hiring, or letting people go, while we've been able to grow,” he notes. “We've been very fortunate.”

    Benson hopes Alabama can increase its overall research expenditures by 50% over the next 5 years and move into the top 150 schools nationally. Shelby's help has made such a goal feasible, he adds. “Without the earmarks, we would have continued to invest in our infrastructure. But we wouldn't be nearly as far down the road as we are now,” says Benson. The earmarks represent slightly more than half the total cost of the four buildings, says Benson, with the rest divided nearly evenly between state-financed bonds and the university's own funds.

    Higher education officials say that earmarks like Shelby's demonstrate the need for a competitive academic infrastructure program within the federal government that would fund the most worthy campus projects. “A federal program would have a tendency to reduce requests for academic earmarks,” says Barry Toiv of the 62-member Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., one of several groups plumping for the concept. But a new report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which opposes earmarks, suggests that the practice may be ingrained in the political system. The nonprofit documents how Shelby has funneled $267 million since 2008 to clients of organizations employing several former staffers-turned-lobbyists. It also notes that, in the past decade, those lobbyists and their clients have given nearly $1 million to Shelby's political action committees.

    “It's become part of what's expected, for ex-staffers to hang out a shingle and then lobby their former bosses,” says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., another federal fiscal watchdog group. “They are such an easy target.” Ellis pauses, then adds, “But I have to admit that it's a pretty staggering number that Shelby has been able to direct to the Crimson Tide.”

  8. Astronomy

    U.S. Astronomers Unveil Stripped-Down ‘Short List’

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    In 2008, when a committee of U.S. astronomers led by Stanford University astrophysicist Roger Blandford was asked to recommend funding priorities in astronomy and astrophysics for the next decade, it was clear what the panel was not supposed to do. “The message from Congress was: Don't give us a list of 50 things to fund,” says panelist Debra Elmegreen, an astronomer at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Give us the things you really, really want to do.”

    That's exactly what the panel says it has done in its report of the sixth decadal survey, released last week by the National Research Council. Unlike previous decadal surveys, which often produced unrealistically long “wish lists” of priorities, the new report claims to have made some hard choices that hew to the realities of a tough budgetary climate. And for the first time, the survey had estimates of project costs vetted independently, which the panelists say makes those figures more realistic than in the past.


    The report identified four major projects each in the space- and ground-based categories (see graphic). The top choices in both groups concern dark energy, the mysterious force that is accelerating the expansion of the universe. On land, the panel chose the $463 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), an 8.4-meter optical telescope that will help investigate dark energy, supernovae, and other areas. In space, the top choice was the $1.6 billion Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)—until now known as the Joint Dark Energy Mission—which should enable researchers to study dark energy, find Earth-like planets, and survey galaxies, including our own.

    “It's great that the committee saw the excitement and possibility of studying dark energy,” says Adam Riess, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Riess says he is especially pleased with the endorsement for WFIRST, which he calls a “crucial capability in space that a number of disparate investigations need for their science.”

    Both projects have been in the works for a few years and have received public and private funds for planning and design. In fact, LSST was among three major ground-based initiatives recommended for support in the 2001 decadal survey. Led by a consortium of institutions headed by astronomer J. Anthony Tyson of the University of California, Davis, the project has already picked out a site in Chile and finished casting its primary mirror.

    “We are recommending that the National Science Foundation enter LSST into its MREFC line as soon as possible,” says Blandford, referring to the account through which NSF funds the construction of major research facilities. NSF officials seem receptive to that message. “We're very excited by having LSST as number one among ground-based projects,” says Jim Ulvestad, NSF's director for astronomical sciences.

    WFIRST's fate appears to be less certain, partly because delays in the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2014, could curtail NASA's ability to fund new missions. However, the project that WFIRST builds on has the support of both NASA and the Department of Energy. The two agencies are in talks with the European Space Agency about a possible partnership, which would boost WFIRST's prospects of being launched by the panel's recommended date of 2020. “The U.S. should play a leading role in such a partnership,” Blandford says.

    Blandford says the panel considered two budget scenarios: one in which U.S. funding for the physical sciences doubles over the next decade, and one that sees only modest increases. All of the projects recommended in the report could be implemented under a doubling. In the less-rosy scenario, Blandford says, a number of existing observatories—particularly ground-based ones—should be shut down to make room for the new initiatives.

    Of course, the viability of the panel's recommendations hinges on the accuracy of cost estimates of the different projects. Previous surveys have drawn fire for providing estimates as low as a fifth of the ultimate costs for some missions. This report's estimates are more believable, Blandford says, because they were evaluated by an independent contractor, Aerospace Corp., instead of by other astronomers as in previous surveys. “Astronomers are not really good business managers,” says panelist Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, Tucson. In this survey, some of the estimates submitted to the panel “drew gasps from the independent evaluators,” she says. “They looked at some of the concepts and said it was impossible to cost them because so much engineering needed to be done to even begin to estimate the project cost.”

    Blandford says the panel also tried to strike a balance between large and small projects. “We strove to protect the smaller and nimbler activities,” he says. That's why ranked second in the space category is a proposed augmentation to the Explorer program, which supports small- and medium-sized missions with specific science goals. Similarly, in the category of large-scale, ground-based projects, right behind LSST is a recommendation to fund a Mid-Scale Innovations Program within NSF to fund projects that cost more than $4 million and less than $135 million.

  9. Free Journals Grow Amid Ongoing Debate

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    A decade ago, three U.S. biomedical scientists vowed to start a revolution in science publishing. They wanted to persuade publishers to share research papers normally available only to paying customers in a free online library. The trio threw their weight behind a radical idea: charge authors a fee, give them copyright, and post their peer-reviewed papers on the Internet immediately for anyone to read.

    The scientists called their venture the Public Library of Science (PLoS), echoing a frustration among librarians over the escalating cost of journals. They argued that taxpayers shouldn't have to buy subscriptions to see the results of research they had already paid for. Making the world's research papers freely available would “vastly increase the accessibility and utility of the scientific literature, enhance scientific productivity,” and bring together disparate communities in biomedicine, wrote PLoS's founders, including Harold Varmus, the former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who now heads the National Cancer Institute.


    Today, the so-called open-access movement is claiming success. Publishers big and small are producing hundreds of free-to-read, peer-reviewed online journals that charge authors fees ranging from about $500 to $3000 per paper. (By various measures, between 7% and 11% of the world's peer-reviewed scientific journals are now open access.) The most prominent publisher, the nonprofit organization PLoS, launched its first journal in 2003. This year, PLoS is on track to make a small profit—a “landmark for PLoS, but also for open-access publishing as a whole,” testified Catherine Nancarrow, a managing editor of PLoS, at a U.S. congressional hearing last month.

    Many biomedical scientists are required by their funding agencies to practice a limited kind of open access by sending manuscripts of their published papers to free archives like NIH's PubMed Central. A recent study finds that 20% of peer-reviewed articles across all disciplines are now freely available mainly through journals or as manuscripts in online repositories (see graph, p. 898). (This includes journals that make them available after a delay; Science does so 1 year after publication.) The portion freely available is growing by about 1% a year, says study leader Bo-Christer Björk of the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki.

    Although the gains seem modest, “that is substantially further than anyone would have thought we would have gotten,” says computational and evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, one of PLoS's founders and a board member. The open-access movement “has been remarkably successful, and the momentum now is in our direction.”

    U.S. policymakers are considering whether to expand NIH's paper-sharing policy to other research agencies. This proposal—and the broader open-access campaign—remains rife with controversy, however. Debates rage about whether open access is speeding scientific progress. Some argue that academic researchers already have good access to the articles they need. Critics suggest that the open-access publishing model encourages mediocre work, noting that PLoS, for example, has succeeded financially only because one of its journals collects fees on thousands of lightly reviewed papers a year.

    Some traditional publishers—including many scientific societies—fear that at some tipping point in the future, libraries will drop subscriptions and put journals out of business. But so far, the journals haven't shown that public-access mandates have done them harm.

    Stick and carrot

    Although physicists have shared manuscripts publicly online for 2 decades, the practice was rare in biomedicine until 2000. That year saw the debut of London-based open-access biomedical publisher BioMed Central, founded by entrepreneur Vitek Tracz. The company initially charged authors no fees and planned to recoup costs through other publishing ventures. NIH the same year launched its PubMed Central archive, which Varmus had proposed before moving to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. It was also in 2000 that Varmus, Eisen, and Stanford University geneticist Patrick Brown founded PLoS. They collected more than 30,000 researchers' signatures on an open letter threatening to boycott journals that didn't allow their papers to be shared freely on PubMed Central within 6 months of publication.

    Rocking the boat.

    PLoS founders Brown, Eisen, and Varmus.


    The threat didn't have a big impact, but PLoS's leaders found a better way to foment revolution. With a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, PLoS launched a free journal, PLoS Biology, in 2003. The new money allowed it to hire talent from top journals such as Cell. The nonprofit burned through its grant rapidly at first, and PLoS sharply raised its initial author fee of $1500. (Today, fees at its six subject-specific journals range from $2250 to $2900; hard-pressed authors can ask for a fee waiver.) In 2006, PLoS's fortunes improved after it launched the multidisciplinary PLoS ONE, which featured a new peer-review model: Reviewers would check articles for scientific rigor but not for importance, and authors of accepted papers would pay a fee of $1350.

    Submissions to PLoS ONE have soared—along with PLoS's revenue. It expects to publish about 7500 papers this year, making it the world's largest journal in terms of volume, PLoS says.

    BioMed Central, which began charging author fees in 2002, now charges about $1300 to $2400 per paper in most of its 206 journals. It “has been profitable for some time,” says Managing Director Matthew Cockerill. As evidence, he points out that BioMed Central was snapped up in 2008 by Springer, which, like other giant commercial publishers, is starting its own open-access journals. Another success is the bargain-rate Hindawi, based in Cairo, which puts out more than 200 open-access journals in biomedicine and other fields, charging $600 to $1500 per paper. Some open-access journals published by societies, such as the New Journal of Physics and Optics Express, are at the top of their field in impact factor (a measure of how often a journal is cited). “They're working because the community got behind them,” says Mary Waltham, a publishing consultant in Princeton, New Jersey.

    An academic project called the Directory of Open Access Journals now tracks some 5000 scholarly and scientific journals (up from 861 in 2003). Only two-thirds are peer reviewed, and a couple of publishers, says Björk, “seem more interested in collecting author fees than assuring quality.” Still, the list includes respected journals, including many in developing countries that charge no author fees. Ulrich's Periodicals Directory counts 2888 of 27,252 peer-reviewed academic journals as open access, or 10.6%, notes Björk. Marie McVeigh of Thomson Reuters, which derives impact factors for high-quality science and social science journals, says 622 of these 9190 journals are open access, or 6.8%.

    The field has received a boost in recent years from so-called public-access policies at funding agencies. NIH, for example, has required grantees since April 2008 to submit copies of their accepted peer-reviewed manuscripts to PubMed Central for posting within 12 months. NIH's chief digital librarian, David Lipman, testified last month at a U.S. House hearing that business is booming. The hearing had been called to consider a bill to extend the NIH policy to 11 more agencies and shorten to 6 months the permitted delay in releasing manuscripts. Lipman says PubMed Central attracts 420,000 visitors each weekday. Only 25% of them are using university computers, which suggests that the archive “has become a broad-based repository” for patients, students, and clinicians as well as researchers, Lipman says.

    Several other U.S. and European funding agencies, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and Wellcome Trust, have adopted similar mandates for their grantees. Both also offer to pay authors' fees for publishing in open-access journals.

    Universities are keen on open access as well. A growing number of institutions, such as Harvard University's School of Arts and Sciences, now ask faculty members to deposit manuscripts in institutional repositories. And many are setting up funds to help pay author fees. Harvard's Stuart Shieber says the goal is to make it easier for publishers to convert journals to open access.

    Quantity subsidizes quality

    Detractors have criticized PLoS ONE, which publishes 69% of submissions, for making money by publishing marginal research. They point out that PLoS's highly ranked journals PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, which reject a much higher portion of submissions, aren't sustainable without a subsidy. The more selective the journal (and therefore higher ranked), the more it costs to produce. That's because it's expensive to manage a rigorous peer-review system, and each rejection represents a lost author fee. High-impact journals Science and Nature, which also publish news and nonresearch sections, say they have per-article costs of $10,000 or more—financed in part by subscriptions and advertising.

    But supporters of PLoS defend its business model. “There's no shame in the fact that PLoS ONE is fueling a profitable business,” says Eisen. And he says it has good papers. PLoS ONE recently received an initial impact factor that put it in the top 25% of biology journals. Even a skeptic of open access, Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society in Bethesda, Maryland, says, “They did damn well.” Like others, though, he is puzzled by the results and suggests that they may have been skewed by a few blockbuster papers. Open-access publishers are sensitive about the quality issue. Cockerill notes that one aim of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association founded in 2008 is to establish standards and distinguish “reputable journals” from the pack.

    Free for all.

    Open-access journals are on the rise; about 20% of a sample of 1837 articles published in 2008 were eventually free.


    Another key dispute centers on the claim that open access gives scientific results wider circulation and use. Several scholars have found that open-access papers are cited at least 100% more often than papers available only by subscription—suggesting that they are more widely read. But critics say these studies failed to control for a bias: Editors and authors tend to make only their most important papers available for free.

    A study last year found only an 8% citation advantage for open-access articles, although the rate was higher in developing countries (Science, 20 February 2009, p. 1025). Philip Davis, a graduate student in science communications at Cornell University, has done what he says is the only randomized controlled trial to examine the issue. For his unpublished dissertation, he worked with seven publishers of 36 journals (including Science), mostly in biomedicine and social sciences. The journals randomly made 712 of 3245 papers open access. Davis found that after 2 years the open-access papers weren't cited any more often or more quickly. “For the research community, access is essentially a nonissue,” Davis concludes.

    Davis found another story when he looked at usage: Open-access papers were downloaded twice as often as others in the first year. This result suggests that the public might be benefiting from open access, Davis says. But Eisen says such evidence isn't crucial: “It is a very hard thing to quantify. You sort of have to accept that it's a good thing on first principle to have papers freely available.”

    Free but expensive?

    The move to expand open-access mandates doesn't please traditional publishers. Some fear it will eventually kill subscription journals. Allan Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs for the Association of American Publishers, points to a 2006 survey of librarians finding that if two-fifths of a journal's articles became free within 12 months, 44% said they would cancel their subscriptions. A research study cofunded by the European Union involving 12 major publishers and 300 journals is studying potential impacts; results are expected next year. It's too soon to know what the impact of NIH's mandate will be, says Frank.

    Other experts see a strong economic rationale for open-access publishing. A model developed by John Houghton and colleagues at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, assumes that author-pays journals save costs and that wider access to papers helps industry scientists in particular. Houghton's group has projected that open-access publishing could save three European countries hundreds of millions of euros a year. In preliminary work, he finds that the proposal to extend NIH's policy to more U.S. agencies would yield benefits to the U.S. economy of more than $1 billion over 30 years—five times the cost. Because research investments have a high rate of return, says Houghton, even a 1% gain in access “can result in a substantial cost saving.” Publishers, meanwhile, have attacked Houghton's model as relying on flawed assumptions.

    Even advocates of the revolution admit they're not sure how publishing costs would be distributed in a world totally converted to open access. Questions loom about who will pay. Harvard's Shieber says that funding agencies can make up for what they spend on grantees' author fees by reducing the overhead money they add to NIH grants, because universities won't need to spend as much for library journal subscriptions. “It's all the same money,” he says. But Frank is skeptical that universities would tolerate a reduction in overhead rates. If the cost is charged to NIH grantees, Frank warns, that will leave less money for doing research: “It's going to come out of research dollars.”

    Despite the hoopla and contention, perhaps the chief obstacle to making more papers freely available is that the average scientist just isn't engaged. Two years after the NIH policy became mandatory, only 70% of eligible manuscripts are being deposited, and only 40% at the Wellcome Trust. Many “hybrid” journals that offer authors the option of paying a fee (as high as $5000 for Cell and Nature Communications) for immediate free access say uptake is less than 10%.

    “It's going to depend on the scientist,” says Avice Meehan, communications chief for HHMI in Chevy Chase, Maryland. For some, open access is of “paramount importance,” she says, but “for others, their priorities lie elsewhere.”

    The future of open access likely will depend on what funding agencies do—and particularly on the subsidies they provide. Tighter budgets will add to libraries' demands for more open-access journals, says industry analyst Claudio Aspesi of Sanford Bernstein. But tighter budgets could also limit public support for author fees. For the time being, Aspesi and many others expect that traditional and open-access journals will coexist. “It will be a mixed economy,” says Waltham. “I don't think it's ever going to take over entirely. And that's healthy overall.”

  10. Plant Science

    Pavlovsk's Hopes Hang on a Tweet

    1. Tom Parfitt
    On the block.

    Founded by N. I. Vavilov in 1926, the Pavlovsk station could be dismantled soon.


    MOSCOW—Scientists trying to save a unique gene bank of thousands of fruit and berry crops in Russia have taken heart from a surprise intervention last week by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He sent out a “tweet” from his Twitter account saying that he wants to review a court decision that threatens to destroy the collection. Medvedev's note came amid an international campaign to rescue the Pavlovsk Experimental Station of the N. I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry near St. Petersburg, whose lands have been approved for bulldozing by property developers.

    More than 6000 varieties of apples, plums, strawberries, and other fruits could be obliterated in what scientists say would be a significant blow to global food security. The station is the largest repository in the world of European fruits and berries. Its value lies in the immense diversity of its collection and the opportunities it offers plant breeders to screen for beneficial traits that can help crops adapt to climate change, pests, and disease. Up to 90% of its varieties—including more than 1000 strains of strawberries—are not held anywhere else. Many no longer exist in the wild.

    The station was dealt a blow on 11 August when Moscow's arbitration court approved a decision to pass 71 hectares of the station's state-owned land to the Russian Housing Development Foundation. An appeal concerning a separate 19-hectare plot was rejected in April, and some of the land is expected to go on sale as early as 23 September. But President Medvedev signaled a possible change of fortune 2 days after the arbitration court's decision, with a tweet that said: “Received the Civic Chamber's appeal over the Pavlov Experimental Station. Gave the instruction for this issue to be scrutinised.” That message appeared to vindicate the tactics of campaigners who had sent hundreds of tweets to Medvedev and lobbied Russian agencies such as the Civic Chamber, a Kremlin-appointed public watchdog.

    “This is excellent news,” says Emile Frison of Bioversity International, which has collaborated with Pavlovsk on researching the nutritional benefits of its collection. “I hope President Medvedev will look at it seriously and decide to save this invaluable resource, not only for Russia but for the entire world.” Before the tweet, Pavlovsk station director Fyodor Mikhovich had all but given up hope, telling Science, “Our legal options are almost exhausted. … We need to find some way to stop this madness.”

    Pavlovsk Experimental Station was created in 1926 by Nikolai Vavilov, the Soviet botanist and geneticist who is credited with inventing the seed bank. It is a field collection of plants that cannot be stored frozen as seeds. Because they are propagated by grafting, it would take a minimum of 10 years to relocate the collection. “You could say, why not just save the best apple or the best blackcurrant?” says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) in Rome. “But there is no such thing as ‘the best’ in an evolutionary, biological world. Today's best variety is tomorrow's lunch for a new insect.”

    GCDT is working with the Vavilov Institute to translate and digitize its records and hopes to add them to Genesys, a new software system giving access to information from gene banks all over the world. Fowler says not many foreign breeders and researchers have visited the institute to date because of the difficulties of accessing data in Russia. “The upshot of Genesys is that this collection, which is the biggest in Europe, is about to become visible to Europe and everywhere else in the world.”

    Fowler adds: “If Pavlovsk is destroyed, it'll be the biggest 1-day tragedy in my 30-year professional life. We've lost a few collections on the way, from neglect, civil strife, war. But this is preventable. A conscious decision is being made by human beings to destroy this diversity. It'll be gone forever.”

    Russian officials have taken little interest in the repository, even as the worst drought in 130 years has wiped out at least a quarter of the country's grain harvest. “With Europe experiencing unprecedented fluctuations in weather, it brings into sharp focus the need to have a flexible response, to have places like Pavlovsk to underpin crop improvement for the future,” says Mike Ambrose of the John Innes Institute, Britain's leading center for crop research.

    Pablo Eyzaguirre, a senior scientist with the nutrition program of Bioversity International, says the potential health benefits of the Pavlovsk collection are enormous. His organization has been working in partnership with the station and the Gabriel Lippmann Center for Public Research in Belvaux, Luxembourg, to investigate micronutrients in edible honeysuckle and berry varieties.

    “They have many northern berries that are tremendously important for functional diets where there isn't great access to a diversity of fruit and vegetables,” says Eyzaguirre. “So it's ironic that a country like Russia that is facing a major health crisis from chronic diseases would contemplate destroying such a resource. In fact, it's barbaric.”

    • * Tom Parfitt is a Moscow-based writer for The Guardian.

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