News in brief

    Agreement close on strategy to flush out alien stowaways


    The International Maritime Organization is hosting a meeting in London this week in an attempt to stop alien species from invading seas where they're not usually found.

    Ships unwittingly transport thousands of plant and animal species in their ballast tanks, which are filled with sea water at one port to provide stability and emptied at another. Species that hitchhike in the tanks can badly damage ecosystems. Ships brought the American comb jellyfish to the Black Sea, for example, causing fish populations to crash.

    The organization, which is part of the United Nations, has been considering for more than 10 years a convention to ensure that ballast waters are filtered or treated. It anticipates that an agreement will be drawn up by the end of this week's conference.

    Space agency grounds fractious astronauts


    Fearing a bout of space rage, officials at the Russian space agency have told two astronauts that they cannot go to the International Space Station.

    Russian Valery Tokarev and American Leroy Chiao had been due to travel to the space station on 19 April, but it has been hinted that the astronauts do not see eye to eye. “It's not that the crew was unprofessional or ill,” a spokesperson for the agency told Reuters. “But on certain conditions it was not ready. They should get on like good friends.” Squabbling astronauts would be difficult to manage onboard the space station, which hosts crews in cramped conditions for six months at a time.

    With NASA's shuttle fleet grounded, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft is the only means of ferrying people to and from the space station. The pair's stint will now be carried out by NASA astronaut Michael Fincke and Russian Gennady Padalka.

    Royal Society split over merits of ‘popularizer’


    Fellows of the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific body, have threatened to resign following a leak that a popular science figure had been nominated for a fellowship.

    Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, who was nominated in a secret ballot in December, is professor of pharmacology and senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, but is perhaps best known for her prolific newspaper articles and television appearances. She has even posed for UK celebrity gossip magazine Hello!.

    Anonymous criticisms of the nomination, which was meant to be confidential, came from Royal Society fellows who view Greenfield's research achievements as unworthy of election to Britain's oldest scientific academy. “Her science is not of the stature that would get her into the Royal Society,” sniffs one fellow, who wouldn't be identified. “But she is one of the best public faces in science and one has to admire that.”

    In a statement, Greenfield said “it is a great pity that those who do not have the courage to identify themselves can make unsubstantiated criticisms both of my science and of my activities in public communication.”

    Poll says young scientists lack the talent for teamwork


    Poor interpersonal skills are hampering the careers of young researchers, according to a poll by an online panel of scientists.

    The Science Advisory Board, whose goal is to improve communication between the scientific community and the outside world, surveyed 1,400 scientists and asked them whether they thought that young trainees are well equipped to handle their new careers. Some 44% of the scientists surveyed said that researchers who are just starting out lack essential skills for resolving conflicts they might encounter at work. One-third of those surveyed said that new researchers aren't good at working in teams. And 22% said that young scientists don't know enough about negotiation techniques.

    The survey did not compare young scientists with trainees in other occupations, which could indicate whether these low rates of interpersonal skill are limited to the sciences. But the board's director, Tamara Zemlo, nonetheless says that young scientists are putting a crimp in their careers early on if they lack good negotiation and communication skills. She suggests that these skills should be part of graduate and medical-school curricula.

    South Africa's science minister quits his post

    Cape Town

    The South African politician who oversaw the country's readmission into the international science arena after years of isolation during the apartheid era has resigned.

    Ben Ngubane has held the cabinet position of minister of arts, culture, science and technology since the advent of democratic government in 1994, except for two-and-a-half years between 1996 and 1999, when he was premier of the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

    Ngubane's resignation has caused concern among the scientific community in South Africa, as he has been a strong advocate of increased government spending on research. He will not be replaced until after the forthcoming general election on 14 April. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, minister for mineral and energy affairs, will act as a caretaker minister. Ngubane is set to take up a diplomatic post as ambassador to Japan.

    Scientists win right to pick over old bones

    San Diego

    The bones of Kennewick Man should be given to scientists for study, an appeals court ruled last week. The fate of the 9,200-year-old remains has been debated for seven years, with four Native American tribes claiming the skeleton for burial (see Nature 407, 548; 2000).

    The San Francisco court ruled on 4 February to uphold the rights of a group of archaeologists and anthropologists to study the Kennewick Man skeleton (plastic cast of skull, right), which was found in 1996 in the Columbia River at Kennewick, Washington. It is one of the oldest and most complete skeletons found in North America.

    The tribes tried to block the examination on the grounds that the remains are of an ancestor. The court ruled that the evidence so far doesn't prove that the skeleton is of a Native American. An attorney for the tribes said they are considering their legal options.

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    News in brief. Nature 427, 578 (2004).

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