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News in brief

    Naturevolume 444pages1415 (2006) | Download Citation

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    German science academy stumbles at birth

    Power brokers in Germany's academic politics unexpectedly failed last week to approve the creation of a German Academy of Sciences.

    An academy that could speak for the whole of German science has been under discussion since reunification in 1990 (see Nature 443, 371–372; 2006 doi:10.1038/443371b). The heads of Germany's main research organizations had agreed on a detailed concept for such a body, which would also provide scientific advice for politicians. But final talks between the research ministers of Germany's 16 states and the federal government stalled when Peter Gruss, the president of the Max Planck Society, wrote a last-minute protest letter saying he feared that his society would lose decision-making power internationally.

    The ministers also failed to agree on how the costs of the proposed academy should be shared between them. They may reconsider the proposal next spring.

    Los Alamos computer disk was 'traded for meth'

    Classified data from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the first US nuclear-weapons lab, turned up last week at the home of a drug dealer in New Mexico.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the breach, the latest in a string of security-related embarrassments for the lab. In 2000, two hard drives containing classified data disappeared briefly. And in 2004, the lab was shut down for months after two disks were reported missing; it later turned out that the disks never existed (see Nature 433, 447; 2005 doi:10.1038/433447a).

    Local police have now found three flash drives containing classified material during a search of a trailer home occupied by a known methamphetamine dealer. A former subcontractor at the lab was also living there. At least one of the drives was traded for methamphetamine, the dealer told the local newspaper from his jail cell.

    Los Alamos director Michael Anastasio said the lab is trying to find out what went wrong. “This is a serious matter, and we are taking immediate steps to address it,” he says.

    NIH researchers fear ethics rules will hit recruitment

    The ethics rules drawn up by the US National Institutes of Health may look good to the public, but employees are still worried that they may cause staff to leave or deter researchers from joining the agency. Those are just two of the messages emerging from an independent survey commissioned by the NIH and released on 26 October, to assess the impact of the regulations.

    In August 2005, after scandals over conflicts of interest, the NIH announced more stringent rules, including a ban on outside consulting. The Internet survey, carried out this summer, received responses from some 8,000 agency employees (a 48% response), including around 3,300 scientists.

    Nearly three-quarters of employees thought the rules would improve the NIH's credibility with the public, but more than half thought they would harm the agency's ability to retain or recruit employees. Among tenure and tenure-track researchers, 18% said they were looking to leave the agency, or considering doing so. Yet nearly 90% of all agency scientists said they planned to still be at the agency in a year's time.

    The NIH will next survey employees who left the agency, along with potential new employees, to see the effect of the ethics rules on their decisions.

    South Korea finds time and cash for stem cells

    There's hope — and money — in South Korea for stem-cell researchers wanting to move on from the Woo Suk Hwang fraud scandal (see page 12). To get the word out, scientists are hosting a handful of one-day international symposia, including one on 3 November in Seoul on mesenchymal stem cells, which are found in bone marrow.

    The goal is to stimulate plans for the 430 billion won (US$450 million) that the South Korean government promised in May for research over the next 10 years; 30% of the money will be put towards research on embryonic stem cells, with the rest going on adult stem-cell research.

    Most of the embryo work will be led by the Stem Cell Research Center based in Seoul, which gets some $15 million a year until 2012. Another initiative, launched by the science ministry in August, will provide $4.5 million a year in grants for groups working on stem-cell differentiation and other related studies.

    DNA catalogue opens up new era of mouse research

    Mouse researchers, rejoice: scientists have completed a two-year, $13-million project that should catapult mouse studies into a new era.

    The project identified 8.3 million differences in DNA sequences — single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs — from 15 mouse strains. This SNP catalogue should enable studies among several different strains of mice, rather than single inbred strains. And it will allow researchers to examine the combinations of environmental and genetic factors that influence the risk of diseases and the ill effects of toxins and chemicals.

    The study, which was funded by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was conducted by Perlegen Sciences of Mountain View, California. All the resulting data have been made freely available.

    Sweet success shows you can count on the public

    Credit: WDR

    Are the masses stupid? A hundred years ago Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, analysed the results of a guess-the-weight-of-an-ox competition at a country fair. The average of the guesses from 787 participants was virtually spot-on to the real weight of the ox, Galton reported (see Nature 75, 450; 1907). The findings shook his belief in eugenics, a term he himself had coined.

    Last month, Ranga Yogeshwar, host of Germany's popular Quarks & Co science television show, repeated the experiment — but with a laboratory beaker filled with sweets. The average guess of the 16,000 viewers was again astonishingly close to the correct number of 5,780; the average was 5,714, and nearly one in 200 hit the right number exactly. “The masses are intelligent,” says Yogeshwar. “We can use them for all sorts of science TV–Internet experiments.”

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