News this Week

Science  28 Nov 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6213, pp. 1036

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  1. This week's section

    New research whaling plan still divisive

    A catcher ship of the Japanese whaling fleet hunts minke whales in the Southern Ocean in 2006.


    Japan's widely anticipated new whaling research program for the Antarctic, unveiled on 18 November, sets a target of capturing 333 minke whales annually as part of a 12-year-long research effort with the stated aim to “achieve conservation” of Antarctic marine ecosystem resources while also pursuing “sustainable utilization.” The New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean replaces JARPA II, a similar program halted by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague last March. JARPA II called for taking 850 minkes, 50 humpbacks, and 50 fin whales annually, which the ICJ found was not scientifically justified. The new draft plan addresses the ICJ's findings one by one and explains why collecting accurate data on the ages of minke whales requires killing them; it also includes an appendix detailing why 333 whales are needed. Conservation organizations immediately denounced the new plan, suggesting that the research program remains a fig leaf to sidestep the International Whaling Commission's (IWC's) 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling. The draft plan, which is open to revision, will now be presented to IWC's Scientific Committee.

    Galápagos guardian may shut its doors

    The research center that helped save Galápagos' giant tortoises is in jeopardy.


    A 50-year-old conservation organization in Ecuador's Galápagos Islands is about to fall off a financial cliff. The Charles Darwin Foundation has helped control invasive species such as goats and blackberries and helped restore endangered species such as giant tortoises and mangrove finches. Yet it's been on shaky financial ground after growing too fast a decade ago. A plan to sell off land and build a gift shop seemed to help—but a few months ago, a key sale fell through and local authorities shut down the store. The foundation has launched an online fundraising campaign (#savedarwin) and membership drive; last week, it approached its largest supporters for a bailout. But as Science went to press, no one had stepped forward to help. If the foundation should close before the year's end, as predicted, that would be “a disaster for both fundamental research and conservation,” says board member William Sutherland, a conservation biologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

    Restoring touch to reattached hands

    Donald Rickelman received a left hand transplant in July 2011.


    Roughly 85 people worldwide have undergone hand replant or transplant surgery, in which surgeons reattach a patient's hand or one from a donor by stitching together nerves and blood vessels. It takes about 2 years for nerves in the hand to regenerate after surgery—and studies suggest that even after the nerves have regrown, the surgically attached hand is less sensitive to touch than the original hand was. Last week, however, at the Society for Neuroscience's annual conference in Washington, D.C., scientists presented evidence that touch can return to near normal. Brain imaging data suggest that the brain's sensory map reorganizes after surgery, gradually adapting to new sensations from the reattached hand. Damage directly to the brain is trickier to repair, but people who have experienced spinal cord injury and stroke “may have more potential to recover than we ever thought,” says Scott Frey, a computational neuroscientist at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who led the work.

    “At times, I thought he was me.”

    Stephen Hawking, on Facebook, praising actor Eddie Redmayne, who played him in the new movie The Theory of Everything.

    By the numbers

    $2.6 billion—How much it takes to create a new drug and bring it to market, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development.

    $186 million—A high estimate of new drug development costs, according to Doctors Without Borders, which notes that the Tufts center receives some funding from pharmaceutical companies.

    Around the world

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Big payoff for disease nonprofit

    The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation announced last week that it made $3.3 billion by selling the royalty rights to treatments that its funding helped develop. The charitable organization invested $150 million in Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals to create therapies for the fatal lung disease. The new deal with Royalty Pharma will “supercharge” the foundation's efforts, president and CEO Robert Beall said in a 19 November press release, by funding more drug discovery research and helping care for cystic fibrosis (CF) patients at centers accredited by the foundation. This increasingly popular profit model for foundations has received some criticism, however, for netting large royalties while patients pay for costly treatments. Vertex's first CF drug to win U.S. approval costs $300,000 a year.

    Geneva, Switzerland

    UNAIDS's push to end epidemic

    No HIV vaccine exists, but advances in prevention and treatment have led to a growing conviction that the HIV/AIDS epidemic can be halted with existing tools. A report released 18 November by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) emphasizes this point, yet cautions that the epidemic will continue to grow if treatment and prevention efforts remain at 2013 levels. The report, Fast-Track: ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, notes that that although antiretroviral treatments in lower income countries have helped slow new infections and AIDS-related deaths from 2012 to 2013, more ambitious goals need to be set. Fast Track says the key is to increase three things to 90%: people who know their HIV status, receive treatment, and adhere to medication so that the virus in their blood drops below detectable levels.


    Science agency under threat

    Belgian researchers have launched a petition to save the country's federal science policy office (BELSPO). The new center-right government plans to ax the funding and management agency, arguing the move will make Belgian science more efficient. Although a large part of the nation's science funds are managed at the regional level, BELSPO is in charge of 10 federal science institutes, funds basic research projects that bring together scientists from the country's different language communities, and manages Belgium's contribution to the European Space Agency, among other tasks. In a petition launched on 13 November, scientists urged the government to reverse the decision, saying it would push the country “below the threshold of scientific … poverty.” The plea had some 8500 signatures as Science went to press.


    Kick-starting a moon mission

    Artist's conception of Lunar Mission One landing module.


    A British team is asking the public to donate £600,000 to send an unmanned lander to the moon in 10 years—and so far, the public is coming through. The crowdfunding campaign for Lunar Mission One kicked off on 19 November; as Science went to press, it had earned £293,354. Founded by David Iron, a former Royal Navy engineering officer and financial consultant specializing in space projects, the project has earned the support of space scientists and politicians alike. The probe, which will land at the moon's south pole, will drill 20 to 100 meters into the lunar surface and bury a time capsule in it. To sweeten the deal, the team is offering funders a perk: the chance to leave some remnant—from a digital message to a strand of hair—in the capsule.

    Washington, D.C.

    Immigration plan nods to science

    President Barack Obama announced changes to U.S. immigration policy on 20 November, including two moves that affect the research community. One would expand the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which enables foreign students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at U.S. universities to work in the United States for up to 29 months. Obama also wants to make it easier for foreign entrepreneurs to enter the country. Both steps will “make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy,” Obama said.

    Washington, D.C.

    Chinese undergrads flock to U.S.

    Almost as many Chinese students earn undergraduate degrees in the United States as do graduate work, the result of surging interest in undergraduate studies and a flattening of demand for graduate training. Those new numbers—110,550 versus 115,727—come from the Institute of International Education (IIE), whose annual Open Doors report tracks the flow of international students into and from the United States. A report out last week from the Council of Graduate Schools highlighted another trend: U.S. graduate schools continue to be a huge draw for Indian students. First-year enrollment is up 27% this fall, on top of a 40% rise last year. But Indians remain largely indifferent to U.S. undergraduate degrees, IIE reports, composing only 3% of the foreign-born undergraduate pool compared with China's 30% share.

    Sydney, Australia

    Pledges of new protected areas

    The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) concluded its once-a-decade World Parks Congress last week, trumpeting a list of more than 70 conservation commitments announced by countries around the world, including a promise from Bangladesh to create the country's first marine protected area and pledges from Madagascar and Gabon to expand marine protected areas in their territorial waters. “There has been a willingness to move beyond words to action,” said IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre during the closing ceremony. The commitments were seen as a step toward achieving new conservation goals set out by the congress in a document dubbed The Promise of Sydney, which calls for protecting at least 17% of the world's land and 10% of its oceans by 2020. The 8-day congress attracted 6000 participants from more than 170 countries.


    French chemist to head ITER

    ITER, the €13 billion international fusion reactor under construction in France, has chosen Bernard Bigot, chair of France's Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), as its next director general. Bigot will replace Osamu Motojima and will begin his 5-year term next year. Bigot, 64, studied physics and chemistry; he has held senior positions in government, academia, and industry and was appointed as head of CEA in 2009. ITER involves seven international partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States—and is years behind schedule and hugely over budget. Motojima, the second ITER director general, was heavily criticized in an external management review completed earlier this year.

    Obama nominates fatigue expert

    Mark Rosekind, a psychologist who has demonstrated the benefits of brief naps and in-flight sleeping berths for pilots, has been tapped to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Rosekind led research into fatigue among airline pilots in the early 1990s at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The beds he studied are now standard on such flights. In 2010, he was named to the federal National Transportation Safety Board, where he has advocated lowering the drunk driving threshold from 0.08 blood alcohol content to 0.05, something no state has done. The Senate must confirm his nomination to the highway safety agency, which has been criticized for not doing more to correct faulty car ignition switches and flawed air bags.

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