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News briefing: 4 March 2010

The week in science

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


Temperature check: The UK Met Office has asked the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to create a new data set of global land-surface air temperatures. By reanalysing existing temperature measurements from meteorological stations, the "robust and transparent" data set would provide daily or perhaps even more frequent figures. At present, only monthly averages are offered by the three existing global data sets (maintained by the Met Office, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the US National Climatic Data Center). A WMO spokesman says that the concept will require three years of work and several million euros.

Artificial neutrinos: A neutrino beam fired across the width of Japan has found its target. On 25 February, physicists with the T2K (Tokai-to-Kamioka) multinational collaboration said the Super-Kamiokande detector in Hida, Japan, had spotted a neutrino generated at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex some 295 kilometres away. The T2K is looking at how neutrinos — almost mass-less fundamental particles — oscillate between different types, or flavours, as they travel.


UK science advice: British scientists seem to have won key concessions from the UK government over a draft set of principles outlining how it treats independent science advice. A specific reference to the "academic freedom" of advisers is likely to be inserted into the principles, and a controversial clause suggesting that science advisers and ministers should work to "reach a shared position" will be removed. Science minister Paul Drayson told a Parliamentary science and technology committee hearing about the changes on 24 February. The principles were called for after the sacking of drugs adviser David Nutt. See for more.

Climate-panel review: The United Nations (UN) will ask a group of scientists to independently investigate the work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, following criticism of the body's fourth assessment report. The unexpected action was called for by ministers at a UN Environment Programme forum in Bali, Indonesia, on 26 February. Full details of the review, and its scope, are expected by 5 March.

Research meets regulation: An initiative between two US agencies aims to strengthen links between biomedical research and regulatory science. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced their collaboration on 24 February. The latest science needs to be integrated into methods used to evaluate drugs and medical devices, the agencies said. The partnership is led by a joint NIH–FDA leadership council, and will start with a grants programme for work in regulatory science, funded with US$6.75 million over three years.

Indian budget: Space exploration and clean energy received boosts in India's 2010–11 budget plans, announced on 26 February. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee proposed a levy — of 50 rupees (US$1.1) a tonne — on domestic and imported coal to pay for a national clean-energy research fund. He also increased the renewable-energy ministry's project-spending power by 61% to $220 million; the space department received a total budget increase of 39%, to $1.25 billion, and the science and technology ministry saw its budget raised 25% to $1.05 billion. Companies were also permitted larger tax deductions on investment in research and development.


Giant icebreaker chips Antarctica


A giant 78-kilometre-long iceberg has calved off from East Antarctica's Mertz Glacier after being rammed by an even larger iceberg. The 97-kilometre-long assailant itself broke off from the continent's Ross Ice Shelf in 1987. Pre-existing fractures in the Mertz Glacier's tongue had left the northern extremity dangling like a 'loose tooth' before it detached some time between 10 and 13 February. A joint French–Australian research group began studying the glacier in 2007, during the International Polar Year. These European Space Agency satellite images showing the glacier before (above) and after the iceberg broke free were released on 26 February.


GM clearance: On 2 March the European Commission authorized commercial cultivation of a genetically modified (GM) potato, called Amflora, in Europe. It is the first time the commission has cleared a GM crop for cultivation in 12 years. German chemicals company BASF, which developed the potato as a way to yield higher-quality starch, says that it plans to start commercial cultivation this year. The commission also allowed three GM maize (corn) varieties made by biotech giant Monsanto in St Louis, Missouri, to be sold — but not grown — in Europe.

Pharma consolidation: German chemical and drug-maker Merck KGaA of Darmstadt will buy Millipore, the US manufacturer of life-science laboratory supplies, in a transaction valued at US$7.2 billion including debts. Millipore shareholders must still approve the deal, which was announced on 28 February.

Asian cancer alliance: Three pharmaceutical powerhouses will create a publicly available genomic database of two cancers common in Asia. On 23 February, Eli Lilly, Merck and Pfizer launched the Asian Cancer Research Group — a not-for-profit company that aims to analyse 2,000 tissue samples collected from Asian patients with lung and stomach cancer. The firms have not stated how much they will invest in the venture.


Fuel-cell glamour: Bloom Energy, a private start-up company based in Sunnyvale, California, unveiled its proprietary solid-oxide fuel cell in a glitzy event on 24 February at eBay's headquarters in San Jose, California. The cells are being tested by companies including Google, Wal-Mart and Coca Cola. Bloom's co-founder and chief executive, K. R. Sridhar (pictured with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) — a former NASA researcher — revealed few technical details at the launch, which generated huge publicity.

Business watch

Lower prices for crystalline-silicon solar cells are threatening the commercial viability of companies that make thin-film photovoltaic cells. Thin-film cells, micrometres or nanometres thick and made of materials such as cadmium telluride, are supposed to be cheaper — although less efficient — than conventional silicon units. But, in 2009, prices of crystalline silicon modules plummeted by 50% from their 2008 peak, converging on those offered by the leading thin-film supplier First Solar, based in Tempe, Arizona (see chart).

"The global photovoltaic module market flipped from under-supply to over-supply before any thin-film players, except First Solar, managed to get to scale manufacturing," says Jenny Chase, a solar-energy analyst at consultants Bloomberg New Energy Finance (NEF). She expects the price of crystalline silicon modules to dip below US$1.50 per watt this year.

First Solar, whose chairman sold more than 40% of his holding in the company last week, should cope despite the lower silicon price, says Chase, because of its established sales channels and lower costs than competitors. But only a handful of the 285 companies known by Bloomberg NEF to be working on thin-film photovoltaic technology will be able to establish the high-volume manufacturing needed to push down costs and compete with cheap crystalline-silicon modules, says Chase.


Patent election: Benoît Battistelli has been elected president of the European Patent Office (EPO) after four acrimonious rounds of voting among its 36 member states. Currently head of France's national intellectual property office, Battistelli takes over from Britain's Alison Brimelow in July for a five-year term. His major challenges include tackling tensions over devolving work from the EPO to national offices; dealing with challenges to patents on biological entities — such as stem cells — that appeal to the EPO's ambiguous 'morality' clause; and collaborating on a single European patent to confer continent-wide protection.

Unethical conduct: The prestigious Karolinska Institute near Stockholm has dismissed biochemist Karl Tryggvason from the post of dean of research for exerting "undue influence" over the allocation of funds to scientists. In a 2 March statement the institute said that Tryggvason had e-mailed an independent evaluation committee to advocate for particular professors to receive funds. "I take such unethical conduct very, very seriously," said Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, the institute's president. Additional action might be necessary pending further investigation, the institute added.

The week ahead

3–7 March

The European Space Agency's Mars Express probe makes its two closest approaches to Mars's largest moon, Phobos.

5–7 March

The fifth annual MIT Energy Conference (organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) takes place in Boston, Massachusetts.

10–12 March

The European office of the World Health Organization holds its Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Parma, Italy. It promises to set the European agenda on emerging environmental health challenges, particularly those affecting children.

Number crunch

134 m hectares

The area planted with genetically modified crops worldwide in 2009, a 7% rise from 2008.


Proportion of the 14 million biotech-crop planters who were resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, 23 February

Sound bites

"We are sorry that alerts lasted extremely long and caused inconvenience."

Yasuo Sekita, an official at Japan's Meteorological Agency, apologizes for over-zealous tsunami forecasts after the 27 February Chile earthquake. For more on tsunami responses, see page 14.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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News briefing: 4 March 2010. Nature 464, 12–13 (2010).

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