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News in brief

UK ecologists pledge $1m to keep in touch with Africa

Helping hand: African ecologists battling against desertification will get assistance from Britain. Credit: C. SHIRLEY/PANOS

The British Ecological Society has pledged US$1 million over the next five years to support environmental researchers in developing nations, mostly in Africa.

The initiative is aimed at boosting communication between scientists in poor countries and established ecological societies in the developed world, says the society's president, Alastair Fitter. He made the announcement on 9 August in Montreal, at a gathering of the heads of 13 ecological societies. Participants emphasized the importance of helping local ecologists find regional solutions to environmental issues such as habitat loss, desertification and species conservation.

“The major environmental challenges faced by developing nations will require new scientific understanding as well as infrastructure and tools,” says Jerry Melillo, outgoing president of the Ecological Society of America, which will hold a conference in Mexico in January to foster research by young ecologists in Latin America.

Leaking Japanese X-ray satellite loses its cool

Japan's X-ray astronomy satellite Suzaku has suffered a crippling loss. On 8 August, the the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency discovered that all the liquid helium inside the satellite's X-ray spectrometer had evaporated because of a leak.

Suzaku's scientific capability will be severely curtailed because the helium kept the instrument's sensitive detectors cold enough to function. The spectrometer was designed to measure X-ray intensities using detectors 20 times more sensitive than those on ordinary instruments. Astronomers had planned to use it to measure gas moving in galaxy clusters and around black holes.

“The loss of the X-ray spectrometer has a large impact on Suzaku and high-energy astrophysics,” says project scientist Richard Kelley of NASA. This is the second blow for Japan's X-ray astronomy programme. Suzaku was a replacement for Astro-E, which suffered a launch failure in 2000.

No news is good news for donations to tissue banks

Even positive media coverage does more harm than good to tissue banks, says an analysis of the media's impact on tissue donations in Britain.

The study, published on 13 August in the BMJ, catalogued UK newspaper stories between 1998 and 2004 on children's tissue being removed for research purposes. The stories included coverage of a scandal in 1999, when organs were found to have been removed from hundreds of dead children at a Liverpool hospital without their parents' consent. Two years later, there were fewer than 100 donations to tissue banks during a six-month period, compared with more than 200 over a comparable period before the scandal. Donations dropped as media coverage of tissue donation increased — even when newspapers ran positive stories.

The study's authors, led by Mary Dixon-Woods of the University of Leicester, think that media scrutiny makes families reluctant to donate tissue, and the staff at tissue banks feel squeamish about requesting such donations. “Media reporting of science can have important implications for those who conduct and regulate science,” the team writes.

Multimillion-dollar physics experiment cancelled

The US National Science Foundation has cancelled a multimillion-dollar physics experiment over fears that the proposed project may run over budget.

The Rare Symmetry Violating Processes (RSVP) experiment was to use an accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, to probe extremely rare particle decays in the hope of refining the standard model of particle physics.

The project was originally budgeted at US$145 million, with construction slated to begin this year. But a 2004 analysis warned that project costs could double, in part because RSVP would require extensive upgrades to an existing accelerator. Based on that review, the National Science Board, which oversees the foundation, announced on 11 August that it was cancelling the RSVP project.

Laurence Littenberg, a Brookhaven physicist and co-spokesperson on one of RSVP's two experiments, says it could be a decade before another group performs similar work, perhaps at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex that is currently under construction.

Biologist takes control of science at NASA

NASA has named former astronaut Mary Cleave as the head of its science office. She replaces Alphonso Diaz as associate administrator for science. The change was one of several announced last week during a shake-up by NASA chief Michael Griffin.

Cleave is a biologist and engineer who has served as project manager for the SeaWiFS satellite, which monitored marine chlorophyll on a global basis, and then headed NASA's Earth–Sun research division. Her deputy is Colleen Hartman, who worked as agency liaison with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which advises the White House on science issues.

The appointments were announced on 12 August, although rumours had floated around Washington for several months.

All eyes on Madagascar's tiny discovery


A new species of mouse lemur has been found thriving in a relatively well-studied area in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar. Genetic analyses revealed that the creature, dubbed Microcebus lehilahytsara, probably diverged from the other mouse lemurs that lived nearby more than two million years ago.

The same study, which was carried out by researchers at the German Primate Center and Georg-August University of Göttingen, also identified the second known species of giant mouse lemur, Mirza zaza, which is about the size of a grey squirrel. Together the discoveries bring the number of known lemur species to 49.

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News in brief. Nature 436, 901 (2005).

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