Nature: The Max Planck Society, which runs 80 research institutes in Germany and 13 international partner institutes, has selected Martin Stratmann as its new president. The society, founded in 1948, receives funding from the German federal government and from each of the nation’s 16 states; it currently has an operating budget of around €2 billion ($2.6 billion). Stratmann, a vice president of the society since 2008, replaces Peter Gruss, who has been president since 2002. Stratmann is currently the director of the department of interface chemistry and surface engineering at the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research, which is a partnership between the society and the German Steel Institute and is located in Düsseldorf.
BBC: Speculation surrounding this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics has rekindled the debate concerning the naming of the Higgs boson. Because key contributions were made by at least six people—Robert Brout (who died in 2011), François Englert, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, Peter Higgs, and Tom Kibble—many in the community object to the particle’s being named for just one of them. Yet naming it after all six would be unwieldy. Because the Higgs theory may be the focus of this year’s Nobel, and a maximum of three individuals can share the prize, the controversy over what to call the new particle is heating up.
New Scientist: Several recent large earthquakes have prompted scientists to ask whether a large quake can provoke another one elsewhere in the world. Tom Parsons of the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, conducted a survey of global seismic activity since 1979; he presented the results last week at the Seismological Society of America annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. Although he found that at least seven quakes of magnitude 5 or larger may have been caused by other quakes, they always lagged at least 9 hours behind. For a week after the 2012 Indian Ocean earthquake, there were so many smaller quakes around the world that researchers are convinced they must be connected. But why one quake can provoke another and why there is such a long time delay between them remain a mystery. It may be that an earthquake in one area can affect subterranean water pressure in another area, or that geothermally or volcanically active areas may be particularly susceptible.
BBC: In March 1953, Francis Crick wrote a letter to his 12-year-old son Michael describing the research that he had been working on with James Watson and the nature of their discovery. The seven-page letter, written more than a month before their paper describing the physical structure of DNA was published, also includes a sketch of the molecule. Crick’s family put the letter, Crick’s Nobel medal, and other items up for auction in honor of the 60th anniversary of the discovery; 20% of the profits will go to the Francis Crick Institute in London. The letter was expected by Christie’s auction house to sell for $1 million, but it set the record for a letter sold at auction at $5.3 million, to an anonymous buyer. The Nobel medal, which Crick received in 1962 along with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, is now expected to sell for just $500 000 but, like the letter, it could fetch a significantly higher price.
Science: The European Science Foundation (ESF) has temporarily suspended support for Spanish researchers and events because two Spanish member organizations have not paid their membership fees. Until Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC) and its Ministry of Economics and Competitiveness pay their dues, the ESF has discontinued providing funds to any projects or events organized by Spanish researchers beginning in July. Eusebio Jiménez Arroyo, CSIC’s adjunct vice-president for scientific programming, says that the organization will pay its roughly €700 000 ($910 350) dues as soon as the ministry provides it the necessary funds. However, the ministry has not indicated when it will provide the money or pay its own dues. Nonpayment is at odds with the Spanish government’s stated goal of increased science funding, but it continues a history of delayed contributions to CERN and dues to the International Mathematical Union.
Science: Editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts calls for scientists to work with teachers to “research the effect of current curriculum materials and teaching methods on students” and to “develop new, validated, Web-based curricula” for “inspiring, in-depth lessons.” He proposes that scientific societies in biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth and space sciences be “recruited” for the validating. Alberts sees a “superficial, skin-deep approach to science learning,” an approach that resists change and has a “disastrous, long-lasting effect” on students’ attitudes toward science. He charges that overly broad coverage of science subjects “kills student interest and makes genuine comprehension almost impossible.” He criticizes “state-based textbook adoption policies,” high-stakes examinations, and “a scientific community that largely fails to understand teachers’ needs.” Alberts uses an extended example from biology to illustrate how dull memorization undermines students’ chances to see, and to be motivated by, the beauty and fascination in science. “Badly needed,” he declares, “are materials for teachers that guide students to confront a phenomenon such as embryo development and then, working in small groups with skillful coaching, to imagine potential ways to explain it.”
Obama seeks agreement with lawmakers to lift automatic spending cuts and tax increases set for new year.
By David Kramer
Reaching agreement with Congress to avoid the fiscal cliff—across-the-board tax increases and spending cuts—is critical to prevent cuts to investments in basic research and education, President Obama told reporters this week. Touting his plan to raise taxes on Americans who make more than $250 000, Obama said at a 14 November press conference that the automatic budget cuts and tax increases that are due to take effect on 2 January can be avoided in a way “that does not hurt middle-class families; that does not hurt our seniors; doesn’t hurt families with disabled kids; allows us to continue to invest in those things that make us grow like basic research and education, [and] helping young people afford going to college.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) estimates that federal R&D budgets would decline $12.1 billion in fiscal year 2013 if the spending cuts mandated by last year’s Budget Control Act take effect. By agency, the Department of Defense would lose $6.9 billion in R&D; National Institutes of Health, $2.4 billion; Department of Energy, $972 million; NSF, $456 million; NASA, $763 million; and Department of Agriculture, $189 million, according to the analysis.
Matthew Hourihan, director of the R&D budget and policy program for AAAS, said as many as 19 states could lose $1 billion or more in federal R&D funding over the next five years if the mandatory cuts, also known as sequestration, proceed. Such reductions would bring the total R&D spending of the major federal funding agencies down to a level last seen in 2002 (measured in constant 2012 dollars). Through FY 2017, annual mandatory R&D cuts would total $57.5 billion.
Subra Suresh, NSF director, told a House hearing on 15 November that the sequestration would lower NSF’s $7 billion current year funding by 8.2%, which would result in 1000 fewer new grants and could impact thousands of scientists. The cutbacks would also discourage young people from pursuing science studies, he added.
Steven Fluharty, vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania, warned that sequestration would cost $50 million to $60 million in lost research grants for the university next year, and it would result in the layoff of at least 1000 employees and postdocs at the institution. “Some research programs will be halted on the cusp on some breakthrough; that is undeniable,” Fluharty told a 14 November AAAS Capitol Hill briefing.
Orlando Auciello, distinguished fellow at Argonne National Laboratory, said some DOE laboratories have already reduced their laboratory-directed R&D (LDRD) budgets by 5% to 10% in anticipation of the sequestration. The LDRD programs, he noted, are the source of support for a disproportionate number of the national labs’ postdocs.
Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) called the fiscal cliff “an artificial crisis.” Lawmakers, he told the AAAS briefing, should be focusing on “doing things instead of talking about what we can’t do.” The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has shown that investments in R&D do produce jobs in the short term. “Money spent on R&D, even borrowed money, pays back big,” Holt declared.
Washington Post: Robert Lefkowitz of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Duke University and his former postdoc, Brian Kobilka of Stanford University, are the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The two researchers work on one of the most important problems in biology: How cells receive and act on information from their environment. Using a range of experimental methods—including radioactive labeling and x-ray crystallography—Kobilka and Lefkowitz have elucidated the structure and function of a class of proteins known as G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs span cell membranes. When, say, a hormone molecule on the outside of a cell binds to a GPCR, the protein’s structure changes such that the part of it that protrudes into the cell’s interior becomes more attractive to G proteins. The double-binding process then sets off a chain of signaling reactions that are ultimately manifested in a response.
BBC: John Gurdon of Cambridge University in the UK and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan will share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced today. Gurdon’s and Yamanaka’s research revealed that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, a cell’s type is not fixed forever once the cell is mature. Rather, with judicious manipulation, mature cells can recover their youthful ability to develop into other types. Gurdon made the first important step toward that realization when, in 1962, he replaced the immature cell nucleus in a frog egg cell with the nucleus from a mature intestinal cell. A normal tadpole developed from the modified egg, demonstrating that the mature cell’s DNA retained the information needed for building all a frog’s cells. In 2006 Yamanaka discovered that he could turn mature mouse cells into immature stem cells simply by inserting a few additional genes. The modified stem cells are pluripotent—that is, they can develop into any other type of cell. The ability to reprogram mature cells could not only revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of human diseases but also circumvent ethical objections to using stem cells extracted from human embryos.
Science: The Golden Goose Award, which will be given out this Thursday in Washington, DC, is to be given to researchers who pursued research in unusual topics that led to significant breakthroughs. The recipients of the inaugural award include Nobel Prize winners in both chemistry and physics. Martin Chalfie, Osamu Shimomura, and Roger Tsien are being recognized for their work with green fluorescent protein from bioluminescent jellyfish, which is now used to track gene expression. Charles Townes conceived and developed the laser, which became a ubiquitous technology despite early criticism that he was wasting his time. Jon Weber, Eugene White, Rodney White, and Della Roy combined interests to develop a technique for creating bone grafts using coral as scaffolding.