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News briefing: 28 January 2010

The week in science

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Policy|Research|Events|People|Business|Business watch|The week ahead|Number crunch|Sound bites


Israeli walkout: Israel's National Council for Research and Development has suspended its activities. The group advises the government on research and development policy, but its budget is controlled by the ministry of science. In a 20 January letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, council chairman Oded Abramsky — a medical neurologist — said the group would not perform its functions until it was granted statutory independence. The decision follows the rejection last month by the Knesset, Israel's parliament, of a bill that would have given the council independent budgetary and administrative standing (see Nature 463, 14–15; 2010).

Helium warning: A 1996 US law that orders the privatization of the helium market by selling off a national reserve is hurting science, according to a report released on 22 January by the US National Research Council. Researchers often use liquid helium, an exhaustible resource, to cool experiments close to absolute zero. The report finds that the sell-off of an underground reserve in Texas has destabilized the market price for helium, and warns that the United States could become a net importer of helium within 15 years.

Carbon-tax rethink: France's government has outlined plans to amend its tax on carbon dioxide emissions. A 29 December court ruling had stopped an earlier scheme because it exempted 93% of industrial emissions besides fuel use and unfairly penalized households. On 20 January, the government said that it would consult widely to draft a revised version, which would enter into force in July. It would maintain the tax at €17 (US$24) per tonne, but compromises might include compensation for households and variable tax rates for energy-intensive sectors.

Asteroid threat: The US$4 million that the United States spends annually to detect near-Earth objects is not enough, according to the 22 January report of a US National Research Council committee. In 2005, the US Congress set NASA a deadline of 2020 to characterize 90% of near-Earth objects bigger than 140 metres — the size thought to pose a significant risk if asteroids or comets hit urban areas. A new space mission could help to meet the target by 2022, and funding must also be assured for future ground-based facilities, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the report said.

Biodiversity calls: Delegates at a conference in London on 18–20 January began hammering out a new strategy for the Convention on Biological Diversity. In the first of many talks leading up to an October meeting in Nagoya, Japan, policy-makers and scientists called for an ambitious long-term vision, which could include halting extinctions by 2050. On 19 January, the European Commission laid out four possible visions for European Union biodiversity this decade — three of which include halting the loss of EU biodiversity by 2020. See for more.


Rooftop-protest success: Researchers from Italy's Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) have ended a two-month rooftop protest after winning a reprieve against job cuts. The lay-offs had been announced by the Italian government as part of its attempt to cut public research funds and restructure the civil service. Around 200 scientists at ISPRA — itself formed by a 2008 merger of three environmental institutes — would have lost their short-term, renewable work contracts. In an agreement signed on 20 January, Italian environment minister Stefania Prestigiacomo promised to renew all threatened contracts for one year, and to appoint new positions in the near future.

Academic explosion: The US Chemical Safety Board is to investigate an explosion on 7 January at Texas Tech University in Lubbock that injured a graduate student. The board is an independent federal agency that usually investigates chemical explosions and leaks at industrial facilities; this will be the first time that it has investigated an academic laboratory. "We see serious accidents in high school and university labs every year, including a tragic fatality a year ago at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]," said the board's chairman John Bresland in a 19 January statement. "I believe it is time to begin examining these accidents."

Childhood cancers: A medical school and a hospital have teamed up for a US$65-million project to sequence the genomes of normal and cancerous cells from more than 600 children with cancer. St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and the School of Medicine at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, announced the partnership on 25 January. The privately funded three-year project will generate "the most significant set of data we can imagine in paediatric cancer", says Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, which plans to do such sequencing in adults.


Jaguar death probed


An Arizona study that led to the death of the last known wild jaguar in the United States has been sharply criticized. A 19 January report by the Department of the Interior cited evidence gathered in an ongoing criminal investigation suggesting that Arizona officials and a subcontractor intentionally snared the jaguar (pictured), while trapping black bears and mountain lions. It also claimed they did not have a permit to cover even an accidental capture, as required under the US Endangered Species Act. The cat, called Macho B, was released, but fell ill and was killed after recapture. Officials from Arizona's Game and Fish Department say they had a valid permit and followed all laws.


Drug-agency loss: The agency that judges the effectiveness of medicines in Germany will lose its director later this year. Peter Sawicki, the founding director of the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG) in Cologne, will be replaced when his contract is up at the end of August, IQWiG's board announced on 22 January. Critics have questioned his management of IQWiG and its drug-evaluation process. See for more.

Early exit: Fotis Kafatos, the president of the European Research Council (ERC), which funds cutting-edge research in Europe, will leave his post on 1 March. His four-year term as president was due to end in February 2011, but announcing the move on 22 January, he said he wanted to devote more time to his research. Kafatos holds the chair in insect immunogenomics at Imperial College London. He will remain on the ERC's 22-member scientific council, which will elect a new president from its ranks next month.

Credit: G. OSAN/AP

Pachauri under fire: Rajendra Pachauri (pictured), the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has been facing a storm of criticism after conceding that a mistake was made in the IPCC's 2007 synthesis report. The IPCC admitted that it was wrong to state that Himalayan glaciers were likely to melt by 2035, and that the claim was based on "poorly substantiated estimates", not rigorous evidence (see Nature 463, 276–277; 2010). Despite calls from the media and some climate scientists that the IPCC's leadership should be reformed, Pachauri said he would not resign. "I am not going to stand down, I am going to stand up," he said.


Gene company reboots: Two months after filing for bankruptcy, the 14-year-old genomics company deCODE Genetics, based in Reykjavik, has been resurrected as a newly financed private company. Research will be headed by deCODE's founder, neuroscientist Kári Stefánsson, and the company will continue to develop gene-based diagnostics, perform personal genome scans, and contract with pharmaceutical firms, while abandoning its in-house drug-discovery efforts. The rebirth was orchestrated by the US venture-capital consortium Saga Investments, which purchased deCODE's drug-discovery and development programmes, as well as its subsidiary Íslensk Erfđagreining, with the approval of a Delaware bankruptcy court.

Business watch


Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies were perhaps the least affected by last year's collapse in US venture-capital spending, according to market tracker Dow Jones VentureSource. Venture capitalists invested $21.4 billion in US companies last year, a 31% drop from 2008.

But spending on biopharmaceutical companies (those involved in biotech, drug delivery or pharmaceuticals) dropped by just 11%, helping the health-care industry to become the leading venture-capital investment sector for the first time (see chart).

"I was surprised to see how resilient biotech has been," says Jessica Canning, VentureSource's global research director. She ascribes the sector's hardiness to US investors scenting industry change ahead of anticipated health-care reforms in the nation and the loss of patent protection for a series of blockbuster drugs. In the longer term, the retiring baby-boom generation is expected to create a new market for treatments.

Although 2009 saw just three initial public offerings (IPOs) by US biotech firms, by December, ten more companies in the sector have now filed their intention, says Canning. Biotech firms accounted for one-third of all IPO registrations in 2009.

The week ahead

1 February

US President Barack Obama announces his proposed federal budget for 2011.

2 February

In New York, a federal judge will consider a lawsuit that challenges the patents on human breast-cancer genes held by Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City, Utah. The case will either receive judgement or be referred to public trial (see page 413).

Number crunch

408 km h −1

The strongest gust of wind ever recorded that was not related to a tornado. It happened during Tropical Cyclone Olivia at Barrow Island, Australia, in April 1996.

Source: World Meteorological Organization review, 22 January

Sound bites

"I think you can describe it as a soft deadline, there's nothing deadly about it."

UN climate chief Yvo de Boer says that countries will be able to back the Copenhagen climate-change accord after 31 January — the date by which they were supposed to sign the document and list non-binding national emissions targets.

Source: AP


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News briefing: 28 January 2010. Nature 463, 406–407 (2010).

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