News briefing: 24 September 2009

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    The week in science

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    Science advice: Europe will have a chief scientist , European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has promised. He made the pledge in a 15 September speech at the opening of the newly elected European Parliament, which also voted to extend his presidency for a second term. Barroso added that he would review the way the commission uses scientific advice — a move welcomed by researchers. For more, see

    Refrigerant curb: Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) inched closer to regulation as greenhouse gases under the Montreal Protocol , after the United States, Canada and Mexico joined a growing movement to amend the treaty. HFCs, which are used as refrigerants, were introduced to replace chemicals that destroy stratospheric ozone. Their regulation falls under the United Nations climate framework, but many say they could be phased out faster and more cheaply using the Montreal ozone treaty. The issue could be decided as early as November, when Montreal Protocol delegates convene in Egypt for their annual meeting. For more, see

    Vaccine sharing: Nine countries have pledged to share up to 10% of their pandemic H1N1 flu vaccines with developing nations . Australia, Brazil, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the United States and Britain all said they would make vaccines available through the World Health Organization, which has been asking for such donations.

    Biology initiative: The US National Research Council called last week for a new inter-agency, multidisciplinary life-sciences programme that would tackle problems in the fields of food, environment, energy and health. The 10-year "new biology" initiative should be supported by new dedicated funding, not from existing agency research budgets, the report from the Board on Life Sciences urged. Report co-author Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, estimates that at least US$2 billion per year should be earmarked for the scheme.

    Research assessment: Details of a new way to assess the quality of research in UK universities were published for consultation on 23 September. The proposed Research Excellence Framework will inform decisions on how to carve up around £1.76 billion (US$2.9 billion) per year between institutions, and will use bibliometrics — such as citation counts — to aid peer-reviewed judgements of work quality. It is due to come into force in 2013, replacing the Research Assessment Exercise. For more, see

    Climate clamour: Ahead of United Nations climate meetings in preparation for the Copenhagen summit, a flurry of reports warned last week of the impact of climate change on the developing world. Alongside calls for strong political leadership came the World Bank 2010 Development Report , a biennial assessment which estimated that poor nations would need more than US$500 billion a year to adapt to climate change and develop low-carbon technology — in line with earlier UN estimates. And in a letter to the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, doctors warned of a "global health catastrophe" resulting from climate change — with effects ranging from widespread malnutrition to the spread of tropical diseases.


    Stem-cell trial: The biotherapeutics firm Neuralstem in Rockville, Maryland, has received permission from the US Food and Drug Administration to inject neural stem cells into the spinal cords of 12 patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). The trials — the first stem-cell approach for the condition — will focus on safety rather than efficacy, and are expected to take place at Emory University, Georgia, subject to approval from the university's patient-safety board. For more, see

    Business Watch

    Credit: SOURCE: EIA

    The US geothermal industry is anticipating a boost in investment, as the Department of Energy prepares to announce recipients of US$400 million in stimulus grants for research and demonstration projects in the sector.

    Geothermal energy is a consistent source of clean power, but electricity investors are not used to risking the large up-front cost of exploratory drilling. The department's money will "help drill a lot of holes", says Ethan Zindler, of consultants New Energy Finance in London. Geothermal's contribution to US electricity generation (see chart) has been constant for more than a decade. But the country's 3 gigawatts of installed capacity — the largest of any nation — could double over the next ten years if projects already planned work out, says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association in Washington DC.

    In July, Magma Energy, based in Vancouver, Canada, raised more than Can$110 million (US$103 million) in an initial public offering. Private geothermal developer Ram Power, in Reno, Nevada, raised Can$180 million by private subscriptions and is expecting to merge with three Canadian geothermal firms. But in California, a US$17-million project was halted earlier this month after operator AltaRock Energy in Sausalito encountered problems at its drilling site.


    Resignation: The head of research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, has resigned over concerns that spectroscopic data published by his research group in 1999 and 2000 had been faked. Peter Chen, a physical organic chemist, stepped down as vice-president for research after a commission that he had requested in January concluded that two papers and a doctoral thesis contained falsified data. Chen denies any involvement in handling the data and is retaining his post as a professor. For more, see

    Stem cells: The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) began accepting applications on 21 September to evaluate which human embryonic stem cells will be eligible for federal dollars. A panel of nine scientists, lawyers and ethicists will check that the submissions meet new requirements for informed consent from embryo donors. The working group has not yet appraised any cell lines — including the 21 lines approved under former US President George W. Bush, which must be reassessed — and will start considering particular lines after scientists submit their petitions on the NIH website.

    Plague death: A molecular geneticist at the University of Chicago died on 13 September after exposure to an attenuated strain of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. Malcolm Casadaban, 60, was working with a strain of the bacterium that has been used in vaccines in some countries and is approved by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, for laboratory studies. He died about 12 hours after being admitted to hospital. The bacterium was not identified as the cause of death until 18 September.

    Planck on course: The Planck telescope enjoyed a successful test run, said the European Space Agency (ESA), as it geared up to map the sky's cosmic microwave background. ESA reported on 17 September that preliminary results showed excellent data quality.

    Stem-cell collaboration: California and Germany are collaborating on stem-cell research. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research announced plans last week to work together on joint research projects, focusing on immunology. The agreement makes it easier for researchers in both jurisdictions to apply for joint funding. The California stem-cell agency already has international collaborations with Australia, Canada, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom.

    European appointment: Gérard de Nazelle, a former global manager for research and innovation at Shell, has been appointed the first director of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, at its Budapest headquarters.


    Arctic ice

    Credit: S. FLOOD/GETTY

    Arctic sea ice has reached its third-lowest level since satellite radar measurements began in 1979. Scientists with the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder announced on 17 September that the sea-ice extent of 5.1 million square kilometres observed on 12 September was the low point for the year. This year's minimum is higher than in both 2007 and 2008, but does not indicate any reversal in a marked 30-year decline in summertime ice extent, scientists said. For more, see


    Enrico Fermi Award: This year's winners, announced on 17 September, were John Goodenough , now at the University of Texas at Austin, and Siegfried Hecker at Stanford University, California, and previously director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. They share US$375,000. Goodenough developed cathode materials for the lithium-ion rechargeable battery; Hecker was cited for his research on plutonium metallurgy, and his leadership on global nuclear non-proliferation.

    The week ahead

    28 September–9 October The United Nations Framework convention on climate change holds its fourth round of international climate talks this year, this time in Bangkok.

    30 September A US National Academy of Sciences panel releases a report on security and screening measures for labs working with biological agents and toxins.

    30 September By the end of the US government's fiscal year, the National Institutes of Health will have allocated a considerable chunk of its allotted US$10.4 billion in stimulus funds. A rush of grant announcements is due.


    News maker

    Arun Majumdar

    The director of the environmental energy department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California has been nominated to head the US Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

    Number crunch


    The aviation industry pledged to halve its carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2050 at the United Nations' climate summit in New York

    The director of the environmental energy department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California has been nominated to head the US Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Credit: Arun Majumdar

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    News briefing: 24 September 2009. Nature 461, 452–453 (2009) doi:10.1038/461452a

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