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Policy|Funding|Events|Research|Awards|Business watch|The week ahead|News maker|Sound bites


DNA bar codes: A combination of two gene regions, known as rbcL and matK, will be used as a 'bar code' to uniquely identify every species of land plant, biologists announced last week at the Third International Barcode of Life Conference in Mexico City. The two-gene identifier beat a pair of other proposals put forward by the 52-member plant working group of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life in July (see The panel plans to re-evaluate the decision in 18 months.

Climate stand: The American Physical Society (APS) last week rejected a call from some of its members to reverse its position on climate change. The society's 2007 statement acknowledges anthropogenic global warming. But a petition, delivered in July and now signed by more than 200 people, including Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever, had asked the APS to adopt a statement that climate change is a natural phenomenon. After a review, the society's council decided to retain its current statement. A separate committee will examine whether future "improvements in clarity and tone" can be made.

Italian reform: The Italian government has approved a draft law granting public research organizations greater independence. Under the changes, bodies such as the National Research Council, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics and the space agency, will be able to write their own statutes and regulations. If parliament approves the law, which it may do by the end of the year, all the institutes will get new heads, selected for the first time by committee, rather than by direct government appointment. Under the law, a small proportion of institutional research funds will be distributed according to merit, but no new money will accompany the reform.

Ecosystem economics: Countries will gain huge fiscal returns by protecting and restoring ecosystems, according to a 13 November report aimed at policy-makers and backed by the United Nations Environment Programme. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study pointed to the ample financial returns of investment in protecting natural areas such as mangroves, tropical forests and grasslands. It also advocated cutting subsidies for environmentally harmful fossil fuels. See also page 277.

Security screen: Five gene-synthesis companies in a new International Gene Synthesis Consortium have adopted practices that are intended to address the biosecurity risks of the technology. The consortium's members will screen incoming orders against a single database — still being developed — that contains gene sequences "identified as potentially hazardous by authoritative groups", such as those within the European and US governments. The consortium will compete for members with the International Association of Synthetic Biology, based in Heidelberg, Germany, which released its own code of conduct earlier this month (see Nature doi:10.1038/news.2009.1065; 2009).

Censorship row: Australia's national science agency has sought to defuse accusations that it is gagging scientists by allowing the publication, after some rewording, of a paper critical of the effectiveness of cap-and-trade schemes in controlling carbon emissions. The paper, by Clive Spash, an ecological economist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Canberra, was accepted by the journal New Political Economy earlier this year but then withdrawn from publication by the acting chief of his division. The agency had said that the article breached CSIRO rules by commenting on government policy — a charge Spash denies. See for more.


Cash squeeze: The board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the major funding channel for controlling these diseases, last week approved US$2.4 billion in extra funding over two years. The money includes$2 billion for the fund's main focus — proposals put forward by affected countries themselves — but is still $200 million short of that requested. The meeting, held in Addis Ababa on 12 November, was the agency's ninth funding round since its creation in 2002, and brings the total sum it has disbursed to $18.4 billion.


Pelican recovery


The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis, pictured) is being removed from a list of threatened and endangered species under the US Endangered Species Act after the government declared it officially recovered. Pelican populations were devastated by hunting, habitat destruction and the pesticide DDT, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service says there are now more than 650,000 in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. So far some 20 species have been delisted after recovering. Nine of these have been in the twenty-first century, including the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and the Northern Rocky Mountain grey wolf (Canis lupus).


Lunar splashdown: A NASA probe sent crashing into the Cabeus crater near the Moon's north pole on 9 October ploughed up a plume containing water, hydrocarbons and, unexpectedly, mercury, the agency said last week. Parts of the crater remain in permanent shadow, and so contain a record of the Solar System's chemistry and evolution because material that falls in freezes, becoming trapped. The water vapour and hydrocarbons detected by the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite could have reached the Moon through impacts with comets rich in organic compounds. See for more.

Carbon cutters: Brazil has pledged to reduce its projected carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 by 36–39% below business-as-usual levels, increasing pressure on other countries less than a month before the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen. The voluntary commitment builds on an existing pledge to cut the rate of deforestation by 80% by 2020; the government announced last week that roughly 7,000 square kilometres of forest were cleared this year, a drop of about 45% from last year's levels.

University unrest: Student protests against tuition fees, overcrowded courses and excessive workloads in newly established bachelor-degree programmes spread last week to 20 German cities. On 12 November, universities in Berlin and Tübingen called in police to evict students who were occupying lecture halls, although no violence was reported. German education minister Annette Schavan called on the country's federal states to streamline degree requirements. In Austria, where students have been demonstrating against overcrowded courses for weeks, pressure mounted to limit an influx of German students facing tuition fees and restricted admission at home.

Pathogen negligence: Canada's government laboratories are doing a poor job of keeping track of some pathogens, according to an audit by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The audit found that the labs' inconsistent tracking systems — a mixture of manual and electronic recording — might result in a pathogen being lost or used inappropriately. The audit included the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, which handles samples of H1N1 pandemic flu, and which earlier this year lost track of 22 vials containing harmless Ebola-virus genetic material. Tracking systems for the most dangerous pathogens are more rigorous but could still be improved, the audit found.


Youth-development prize: Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been awarded the first Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for Productive Youth Development. Steinberg's interests include brain development in adolescents and its implications for juvenile criminal justice. He received the prize of 1 million Swiss francs (US$985,000) from the Jacobs Foundation, based in Zurich, Switzerland, which was set up by the late chocolate and coffee magnate Klaus Jacobs. The award, which will be presented on 3 December, must fund research.

Business watch


One of the questions facing climate negotiators in Copenhagen next month is how to handle surplus carbon allowances in Russia and the former Eastern Bloc countries whose economies collapsed after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Oslo-based consultancy Point Carbon projects that surplus carbon allowances will add up to the equivalent of 9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide during the period 2008–12. That is nearly six times higher than emissions reductions required under the Kyoto Protocol. This excess of allowances looks set to continue. Point Carbon also analysed a 2013–20 scenario that takes into account the economic downturn and current commitments by developed countries. It projected an additional surplus of 16.3 billion tonnes, which increases to 25.4 billion tonnes if surplus allowances are carried over from the period to 2012. That compares with pledged emissions reductions of 18.5 billion tonnes. In theory, these surplus allowances could eliminate any incentive to reduce emissions. Few countries have been willing to buy credits, however, because they do not represent new greenhouse-gas reductions. European Union officials would like to eliminate them altogether in a new global-warming treaty, but countries holding the allowances could push for some kind of a compromise that maintains a discounted value going forwards.

The week ahead

25 November In a combined event to be held in Washington DC and London, scientists and politicians will release findings on the public-health effects of policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

25–27 November Planetary scientists will discuss observations and lay future plans for studying the methane detected on Mars, at a workshop at the European Space Agency's centre for Earth observation in Frascati, Italy.

21 NOVEMBER Part of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act takes effect in the United States. The act, which was signed into law on 21 May 2008, prohibits discrimination in employment and health-insurance coverage on the basis of genetic information.

News maker

Lee Myung-bak

The president of South Korea is backing a plan to increase total R&D spending to 5% of GDP by 2013. The country will also pump US$865 million into materials science. See for more.

Sound bites

"I couldn't find a professional job in my chosen field because I didn't have my PhD yet."

Brooke Magnanti, now a cancer epidemiologist at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health, UK, reveals that she was the anonymous sex worker and blogger Belle de Jour. Magnanti says she worked for an escort agency, charging £300 (US$500) an hour, after running into financial difficulties during her PhD.

Source: The Sunday Times