Published online 2 December 2009 | Nature 462, 548-549 (2009) | doi:10.1038/462548a

News: Briefing

News briefing: 3 December 2009

The week in science

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


Controversial cuts: China will cut its carbon intensity — the amount of carbon dioxide emitted relative to its economic output — by 40–45% from 2005 levels by 2020, China's State Council decreed on 26 November. The announcement came the day after US President Barack Obama pledged to reduce emissions by 17% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. See page 550 for more.

Sceptic victory: The Australian Liberal Party, the main opposition to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's governing Labor Party, elected climate-change sceptic Tony Abbott as its leader on 1 December. The move has jeopardized Rudd's attempt to pass legislation on an emissions-trading scheme before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next week. Abbott replaces Malcolm Turnbull, who backed amended cap-and-trade legislation, triggering sceptics in his party to try to oust him last week.

Enrichment move: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ratified an order calling on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to draw up plans for ten gas-centrifuge enrichment plants similar to the one already being constructed in Natanz. The directive comes just days after the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna urged the Islamic republic to halt its enrichment activities.

HIV decline: The death toll from AIDS has topped 25 million people, but new HIV infections are dropping sharply, according to a report released on 24 November by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2008, some 2.7 million people became infected with the virus, but the rate of infection has dropped by 17% over the past eight years. Meanwhile, the WHO recommended on 30 November that the widely used antiretroviral drug stavudine be phased out because of its "long-term, irreversible" side effects, which include nerve damage.

Science stimulus: The Spanish government announced on 26 November which universities would benefit from the inaugural round of a €150-million (US$226-million) annual programme to bolster teaching and research in the country. See page 552 for more.

Radiation contamination: The Nuclear Power Corporation of India has ordered a probe into what it believes to be sabotage that exposed 55 workers at its Kaiga plant in southwestern India to radiation last week. The workers were treated for poisoning after drinking from a water cooler contaminated with tritium — a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, says the tritium may have been introduced into the cooler in a "malevolent act" by a disgruntled employee.

Saving science: Japanese researchers have launched protests against budget cuts proposed by the country's new government. The move coincides with the end of hearings on 27 November to help government-appointed working groups recommend where the axe should fall. See page 557 for more.


Record breaker: Just ten days after it was restarted, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has become the world's highest-energy particle accelerator. On 30 November, the giant machine, located at CERN, Europe's premier high-energy physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, accelerated two beams of protons to energies of 1.18 teraelectronvolts (TeV). That beats the previous record of 0.98 TeV set by the Tevatron at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. The LHC hopes to reach energies of 3.5 TeV by early 2010.

Old bird: NASA's decade-old Quick Scatterometer or QuikSCAT satellite can no longer fulfil its main mission of measuring global wind speeds and direction after the failure of its key instrument. The satellite's radar dish antenna stopped spinning on 23 November. Data from the satellite, which was designed to last only two years, were used by weather forecasters worldwide.

Antarctic melt: Global sea levels could rise by 1.4 metres by 2100 — around twice as much as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 — owing to the melting of ice sheets in western Antarctica, according to an international review of the continent's climate published on 1 December. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research predicts that Antarctica will warm by around 3 °C by 2100 in part because the hole in the ozone layer above the continent, which has shielded the continent from global warming, is healing. See for a copy of the report.

Healthy carbon cuts: Reining in greenhouse-gas emissions could improve public health, says an international task force publishing in The Lancet. The team, led by epidemiologist Andrew Haines at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that an Indian programme to replace 150 million indoor biomass-burning stoves with low-emissions stoves could, for example, save 12,500 disability-adjusted life-years as well as the equivalent of 0.1–0.2 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per million people in a year (P. Wilkinson et al. Lancet doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61713-X; 2009). See for more.


Tragic anniversary


Local authorities have delayed plans to open the site of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, that was responsible for a chemical leak that killed thousands of people 25 years ago this week. The state government of Madyha Pradesh said in early November that it would allow visitors to tour the plant in a bid to reassure people that it was now safe, amid protests from victims' groups (above). But the state's Gas Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Babulal Gaur said last week that the opening would be pushed back until after municipal elections in December, in line with rules forbidding major policy announcements in the run-up to the polls.



Early exit: Leszek Borysiewicz (pictured), chief executive of Britain's Medical Research Council (MRC), will step down in October 2010 to become vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, UK. He will leave a full year before his term was due to expire, prompting concerns over the council's future. See page 553 for more.

European reshuffle: Ireland's Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is to be the European Union's next commissioner for research and innovation. Geoghegan-Quinn, appointed on 27 November, is currently a member of the European Court of Auditors. If approved by the European Parliament, she will take up office in January and succeed Slovenia's Janez Potočnik, who will take over the directorate for the environment. The new climate directorate will be headed by Danish environment minister Connie Hedegaard, who will preside over the Copenhagen climate summit this month. Germany's Günther Oettinger has been named as energy commissioner.

Ethics appointments: US President Barack Obama has created a panel to make policy recommendations on bioethical issues. Political theorist Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, will chair the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Its vice-chair will be materials scientist James Wagner, president of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The commission is expected to produce more policy guidance and be wider ranging than President George W. Bush's bioethics advisory council. See page 553 for more.

Business watch


Companies are racing to produce treatments that exploit RNA interference (RNAi), a natural process that silences gene expression in cells. PharmaVision, a biomedical consultancy based in Chichester, UK, estimates that the market for RNAi therapies could be worth more than US$2.9 billion by 2020. But no RNAi therapy has yet completed phase III clinical trials.

Results from a phase Ib trial of an RNAi therapy developed by a consortium including TransDerm of Santa Cruz, California, were published on 24 November (S. A. Leachman et al. Mol. Ther. doi:10.1038/mt.2009.273; 2009). A patient treated for pachyonychia congenita, a rare inherited skin disorder, saw some benefit after a series of RNAi injections into lesions on the sole of one foot. But the injections are too painful to treat the disease in the long term and many cancers, for example, cannot be treated by direct injection of an RNAi product.

Delivery is not the only problem facing RNAi. In May, a treatment for wet age-related macular degeneration was ditched by Allergan, a biotech company based in Irvine, California, after the therapy failed to improve patients' vision.

With concern growing over the side effects of RNAi-based treatments, firms must now "conclusively prove the mechanism of action of their products", says PharmaVision consultant Cheryl Barton.

The week ahead

5–9 December The American Society for Cell Biology meets in San Diego, California.

7–18 December Governments attempt to reach a deal on greenhouse-gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. and

9 December NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Number crunch

€20 bn

Amount of GDP that will be lost each year by the European Union if global temperatures rise by 2.5 °C

Source: European Commission Joint Research Centre

Sound bites

"I hope that I will have the key to the door so that I do not let the buggers out until they have done a deal."

John Prescott, the Council of Europe's rapporteur on climate change, presses home the urgency of getting a climate deal in Copenhagen this month. 

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