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News briefing: 1 October 2009

The week in science

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Policy|Events|Research|Business|The week ahead|News maker|Number crunch

Policy

Merkel wins: The German general election on 27 September returned Chancellor Angela Merkel to power. She aims to strike a new coalition with the Free Democratic Party, which has promised a liberal approach to contentious research issues such as human embryonic stem cells and genetically modified crops (see Nature 461, 456–457; 2009). Merkel is also expected to review the country's plans to phase out its nuclear power stations over the next decade.

Nuclear curbs: The United Nations Security Council unanimously backed a non-binding resolution to bolster efforts aimed at slowing the spread of nuclear weapons. It endorsed strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (which would outlaw nuclear bomb tests) and improving nuclear security.

Emissions reporting: The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced its nationwide reporting system for greenhouse-gas emissions. Large facilities will have to disclose their emissions every year, as part of a programme that the agency said should cover 85% of US emissions. Data collection begins in January 2010, with disclosure for that year happening in 2011.

Stem-cell oversight: The International Society for Stem Cell Research has created a committee to weed out companies that offer unapproved stem-cell 'therapies'. The society's president, Irving Weissman of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, launched the committee on 22 September at the World Stem Cell Summit in Baltimore, Maryland. The 18-member panel plans to create a blacklist of companies that don't provide documentation showing that their treatments have been reported in peer-reviewed literature, have been overseen by the institutional review board and have received regulatory approval. "That's the minimum beginning," says Weissman.

Click here for a longer version of this story.

Pesticide review: A review committee assessing the safety of methyl iodide — a pesticide used to fumigate soils — began work on 24 September in Sacramento, California. The chemical was approved for agricultural use by the US Environmental Protection Agency in October 2007, prompting protests from activists and scientists. California, Washington and New York have yet to approve the fumigant, and a 2009 report from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) warned of significant health risks. The DPR will wait to make a ruling until after the review committee reports its findings.

Click here for a longer version of this story.

Agriculture appointment: Roger Beachy, the founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St Louis, Missouri, was last week appointed to direct the US Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture , a new agency that will distribute the department's external basic research funding. For more, see page 580.

Unscientific review : Political influence led the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve a device to repair damaged knees against the recommendations of its own scientists, the agency has admitted. Scientific reviewers had twice turned down applications for Menaflex , made by ReGen Biologics of Hackensack, New Jersey, but FDA officials approved it last December after lobbying from four New Jersey congressmen. This was a "clear deviation from the principles of integrity", the FDA wrote in a report analysing its review process.

Carbon market confusion: The European Commission exceeded its authority in imposing tighter-than-requested caps for greenhouse-gas emissions on Poland and Estonia in the second period of the Emission Trading System , a court ruled last week. The price of carbon credits fell following the news, because traders thought the commission might have to grant additional allowances to Poland, Estonia and to six other countries that are also appealing against their caps. The ruling, which is subject to appeal, is limited to 2008–12 emissions, however — and its long-term effect on European carbon emissions is unclear.

Events

Credit: R. GALBRAITH/REUTERS

Thousands of students, professors and other staff at the ten University of California campuses staged mass protests on 24 September, objecting to deep budget cuts that have led to enforced periods of unpaid leave, higher fees and job losses. More than US$800 million has been sliced from $3.2 billion in state funds expected for the 2009–10 fiscal year, delaying the construction of new research facilities and halting recruitment efforts.

Uranium secret uncovered: Iran has admitted to having a second uranium-enrichment plant. On 25 September, the US, French and British premiers held a press conference to announce their intelligence on the site. Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna about the underground facility, near the city of Qom, four days earlier. The plant, not yet in operation, is thought to be big enough to hold around 3,000 gas centrifuges, which could enrich enough uranium for one nuclear weapon in a year.

Plagiarism allegation: Two Iranian government ministers , including Kamran Daneshjou, minister for science and education, have been accused of co-authoring plagiarized academic papers. Several of the papers in question have been retracted, and an Iranian parliamentary commission is considering an investigation. For more, see page 578.

Research

HIV vaccine : An experimental HIV vaccine has shown moderate success at preventing infection by the virus. A US$119-million study involving more than 16,000 HIV-negative men and women from Thailand found that a combination of two older drugs, which had failed to work individually, together reduced the risk of contracting HIV by nearly a third. "It's the largest step forward that's ever occurred in the HIV-vaccine field," says Dan Barouch of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Click here for a longer version of this story.

Mars delay: The launch of Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission to study Mars and collect soil samples from one of its moons has been postponed to 2011, together with China's first Mars probe, the orbiter Yinghuo-1. Both crafts were supposed to take off in October this year, carried on a Russian rocket, but Russian space agency Roscosmos said last week that Phobos testing couldn't be completed in time to meet this year's launch window.

High-risk awards: The US National Institutes of Health announced 115 new awards for high-risk research on 24 September. The grants, which total US$348 million over five years, come in three varieties: Pioneer Awards for creative researchers at any career stage; New Innovator Awards for early-stage investigators; and a new category, Transformative R01 (T-R01) Awards to support unconventional projects. Improving on previous gender disparities, women researchers made up more than a third of Pioneer and New Innovator awardees — well above the 2008 R01 average of 26%. But only 15.5% of T-R01 awardees were women. The gender ratios of applicants were not available.

Business

Drug deal: The drug company Abbott Laboratories in Abbott Park, Illinois, is to buy Solvay Group 's pharmaceutical business for €4.5 billion (US$6.6 billion). The company will pay cash for the deal, which includes Solvay's vaccines business, based in Belgium. The acquisition will also see Abbott increase its annual US$2.7-billion pharmaceutical research and development investment by $500 million.

Climate rift: Exelon of Chicago, Illinois, the largest US nuclear-power provider, has become the latest company to quit the US Chamber of Commerce because of differences over climate change. In recent months the chamber, which is among the nation's most influential business groups, has opposed a government plan to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Exelon's 28 September announcement that it would not renew its membership of the chamber came a few days after similar withdrawals by two other utilities: the Public Service Company of New Mexico and California's Pacific Gas and Electric.

Business watch

Credit: SOURCE: NASDAQ

A university spin-off company has got battery investors buzzing. A123Systems, which makes rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, raised US$380 million at $13.50 a share at its initial public offering, before watching its share price rocket (see chart).

The cash boost, together with earlier federal grants and private investments, made A123 a billion-dollar company, even though it has yet to turn a profit. It has also applied for a $1.8-billion loan from the US government to build a mass-production facility in Michigan, and has signed a deal with US car manufacturer Chrysler.

The company, based in Waterford, Massachusetts, was founded in 2001 by materials scientist Yet-Ming Chiang and his colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. It uses lithium iron phosphate in the cathodes, and is currently in a patent dispute with the University of Texas in Austin, where the material was developed. The compound is more stable than the lithium metal oxides used in today's laptops and mobile phones, but cannot store as much charge.

The week ahead

5–7 October The 2009 Nobel prizes for physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry are announced.

http://nobelprize.org

5–7 October Singapore hosts the Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Congress Asia.

http://www.terrapinn.com/2009/stemcellsasia

8–11 October The American Association for Cancer Research holds its 'Frontiers in basic cancer research' conference in Boston, Massachusetts.

http://tinyurl.com/aacrbost

Credit: J. BRINON/AP

News maker

Irina Bokova  

The Bulgarian diplomat is the first woman to be elected director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Number crunch  

4 °C  

The 'increasingly plausible' rise in global warming by 2060 if greenhouse-gas emissions are not curbed quickly, according to Richard Betts, presenting a UK study from the Met Office's Hadley Centre.

Credit: J. BRINON/AP

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News briefing: 1 October 2009. Nature 461, 574–575 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/461574a

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