A full year after the United States and Vietnam agreed the first bilateral research programme to investigate the health and environmental damage caused by the defoliant Agent Orange, the initiative remains stuck on the starting blocks.

The United States and Vietnam signed a memo formally establishing the joint programme in March last year, following a four-day conference in Hanoi that brought together epidemiologists, toxicologists and environmental scientists from 13 countries (see Nature 416, 252; 200210.1038/416252a).

But so far the two nations have not even set up the joint advisory committee needed to run the initiative, approve areas for support, and thrash out the ground rules for the project. These would include ethical guidelines, publication and authorship policies, and allocation of resources for training and equipment in Vietnam. Researchers fear that any lapse in the initiative could stop them following up on new, more specific findings about where Agent Orange was sprayed by US forces during the Vietnam War (see Nature 422, 649; 2003).

US officials associated with the programme accuse Vietnamese officials of failing to get the plan moving. “The United States proposed its members of the joint committee last June and invited Vietnam to do the same, but we have not yet had a response,” says Anne Sassaman, a director at the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a signatory of the memo along with Nguyen Ngoc Sinh, director of Vietnam's National Environmental Agency.

Sassaman says that a Vietnamese delegation visited the United States last September, and she herself went to Vietnam the following month to get the project on track. But she says that “since then we have had no communication with Vietnamese officials”. Last month, the US ambassador in Hanoi, Raymond Burghardt, wrote to deputy prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, asking him to move the initiative forward, according to Sassaman.

Vietnamese researchers and officials who are involved in the project, including Sinh, did not respond to requests for information on the plan's current status in Vietnam.