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News briefing: 14 January 2010

The week in science

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Policy|Research|Events|Business|People|Market Watch|The week ahead|Number crunch|Sound Bites


Biosecurity measures: In a long-awaited report, a top-level US government working group last week called for tightened security measures for scientists working with the most dangerous pathogens. The toughened measures include assessing individual scientists for their security risk every three years instead of every five as currently required. The working group also recommended that 82 biological select agents and toxins currently listed for tough security regulations should be graded according to the level of risk they pose, with biosecurity measures targeted accordingly.

Transparency call: The food industry should be more open about its research on nanotechnology for food and food packaging, the United Kingdom's House of Lords Science and Technology Committee recommended in an 8 January report. It said that companies were reluctant to talk about their work in the area, an attitude that might engender public suspicion. The report also repeated calls for more research into the health and safety risks of nanomaterials.

Smog crackdown: On 7 January, the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed to override a controversial decision made in 2008 by the administration of President George W. Bush that ignored the agency's science advisers in setting air-quality standards. The administration of President Barack Obama is now proposing to ratchet down the limit for smog, also known as ground-level ozone, from 0.075 parts per million (p.p.m.) to between 0.06 and 0.07 p.p.m.; before 2008, the standard was 0.084 p.p.m..

Science-prize inquiry: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is setting up a task force by the end of January to review how it creates its prizes. The move by the Paris-based organization follows complaints from some of its member states about a US$3-million life-sciences award sponsored by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Delegations had expressed concern over association with the country's record of human-rights abuses. The prize, due to be awarded in February, has been postponed pending the review's outcome in April, says UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams.

Cuts feared: British universities have protested that impending budget cuts could devastate the country's higher-education system. Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of 20 leading UK universities, together with Michael Arthur, who chairs the group's board, wrote in the newspaper The Guardian that the sector faced 'meltdown' and argued for special protection. Cuts to UK science and university spending are likely to fall between hundreds of millions and billions of pounds.


Animal-welfare violations: The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been ordered to report more frequently on its animal care to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), after an unannounced inspection by agency officials last month found numerous deficiencies. In an 18 December letter publicized last week by WISC-TV, the NIH ordered the university to enhance its oversight of the number of animals it uses in experiments, ensure appropriate temperature controls in animal transport vehicles and improve sanitation in chicken houses. Eric Sandgren, director of the university's Research Animal Resources Center, emphasized that, overall, federal officials "were pleased with the programme". Separately, it emerged last week that a primate had died of malnutrition in spring 2009 at the University of Washington's National Primate Research Center. A newly publicized US Department of Agriculture inspection report noted that the oversight deficiencies that allowed this to happen have now been corrected.

Funding depression: In the United States, inflation-adjusted spending on biomedical research grew by 3.4% a year between 2003 and 2007 — less than half the annual growth rate of 7.8% between 1994 and 2003, according to a recent study (E. R. Dorsey et al. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 303, 137–143; 2010). The analysis includes funding from all levels of government together with contributions from industry and private sources. For 2008, figures were available only from industry and the National Institutes of Health. Their combined 2008 spending of US$88.8 billion, adjusted for inflation, represents a 1.6% decline from 2007.



Whaling clash A boat owned by anti-whaling group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, based in Friday Harbor, Washington, has sunk after tangling with a ship from a Japanese whaling fleet. The society, which regularly spars with the fleet to disrupt whale hunting, claims that the harpoon vessel Shonan Maru 2 deliberately rammed its fast carbon-fibre trimaran, the Ady Gil, in the Southern Ocean on 6 January (pictured); it sank two days later. The Shonan Maru 2 is one of a fleet of ships owned by Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research, which organizes an annual whale hunt for 'scientific research' in Antarctic waters. The institute says that the protest boat collided with the ship after attacking it.


Satellite contracts: The European Commission has awarded key contracts for Europe's ambitious and long-delayed satellite-navigation system, Galileo. OHB System in Bremen, Germany, secured €566 million (US$810 million) to build the first 14 satellites for the network, which is intended to rival the US Global Positioning System. Arianespace, based near Paris, France, got a €397-million contract to launch the first ten spacecraft on Soyuz rockets. The network is scheduled to begin operation in early 2014. Contracts remain to be awarded for up to 16 more satellites and for ground-control operations.

Vaccine oversupply: Drug-company revenues from the supply of H1N1 pandemic-flu vaccines may be lower than expected because of slowing demand. Last week, France and Germany said they would cancel millions of doses ordered from major suppliers. Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland are among other countries hoping to halt supplies, return unused vaccines or donate surplus stock to other nations. The US government has not yet decided whether to cancel orders or sell surplus vaccines, although it has already scaled back its order from Australian firm CSL (as contractually allowed).

Asia's clean-energy appetite: Total investment in wind, solar, and biofuels systems surged by 25% to US$37.3 billion in the Asia-Pacific region in 2009. This put the region's clean-energy spending ahead of that in the Americas ($32 billion) for the first time. However, it was still behind the Europe, Middle East and Africa region ($42.2 billion), according to data released on 7 January by analysts New Energy Finance.



Director dismissed: In the face of a major financial crisis, the Royal Institution of Great Britain has made redundant its director, Susan Greenfield (pictured). Greenfield, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, UK, has led the institution since 1998 and had recently overseen a £22-million (US$35.5-million) refurbishment of its headquarters in central London. Last month it emerged that restricted endowments had been spent on the renovations and that the institution was short of funds (see Nature 462, 833; 2009). In a statement, Greenfield said she was "saddened and dismayed" by the decision, and would appeal to an employment tribunal over her dismissal.

Market watch


Trade in the carbon market skyrocketed in 2009, but the price of emissions permits — allowances to emit a tonne of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases with equivalent impact — fell heavily. Oslo-based consultancy Point Carbon estimates that 8.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent exchanged hands across the world market last year, up 68% from 2008. Yet its weighted-average world carbon price ended the year at €11.40 (US$16.55), down from €18.87 in 2008.

The European Union's emissions trading system (ETS) accounted for 77% of the world's carbon market last year. Its carbon prices, already dropping by the end of 2008, fell further as traders realized that power plants and other carbon-intensive industries had a large surplus of carbon permits. This was because the economic recession was lowering energy demand, as reflected by falling gas prices (see graph). In the end, says Point Carbon's analyst Stig Schjølset, carbon prices avoided the violent fluctuations seen in previous years.

The main event for 2010 carbon markets will be the United States' cap-and-trade scheme. If established in line with the proposal being debated in Congress, it would allot three times as many permits as the ETS's current cap, says Schjølset — vastly expanding carbon trade.

The week ahead

14–17 January Sigma Xi, the research society based in North Carolina, hosts ScienceOnline2010, the fourth annual conference exploring science on the Internet.

15 January An annular solar eclipse sweeps across Africa and eastern Asia: at its peak above the Indian Ocean, it will last for more than 11 minutes.

15 January The Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 — biennial statistics detailing the state of US science and engineering — are presented to the president and to Congress.

21–22 January The United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launches its exhibition on biodiversity in Paris.

Number crunch

2.7 trillion

The world-record number of digits to which Fabrice Bellard, a French software engineer, claims to have computed π, using only a desktop computer.

Sound Bites

"The future of human spaceflight will not be paid out of the hide of the science budget."

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, speaking at the American Astronomical Society's 2010 winter meeting, tells astronomers that NASA's science funding will not be plundered to support human spaceflight.


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News briefing: 14 January 2010. Nature 463, 140–141 (2010).

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