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Our World — 07 March 2009


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: An experimental way of making food safer ... Sipping for science: studies show young and old react differently to alcohol ... and science struggles along with the economy:

DALE DORSETT: "It gets so competitive that even really deserving projects, or very productive scientists who are doing really good work can not get funded."

Those stories, free university courses on our Website of the Week, and more.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."



Top science official urges continued federal research funding


President Obama's proposed federal budget for next year includes increased funding for basic research, for space exploration, for environmental studies, and for cancer research.

Congress makes the final spending decisions, but the proposed science increases, coming at a time of deep economic uncertainty, signal the Obama administration's focus, as the president pledged in his inaugural address.

OBAMA: "We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age."

Congress has been holding a series of hearings on the proposed spending plan, including money for science programs. To help sort it out, lawmakers heard testimony this week from, among others, the head of the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the government on science matters. Ralph Cicerone stressed the role that federally-supported science has played.

CICERONE: "Continuing federal investment has led to unmatched growth in prosperity through the creation of technology, and technological advances themselves have increased the quality and span of life for Americans and for people around the world. Our science has also led to amazing discoveries about our universe and about life itself. And altogether, it has also contributed greatly to the high opinion in which the United States is held in most countries."

Basic research was once common in corporate research labs but is now largely done at universities with government or foundation money. Cicerone pointed out that so-called pure science - research that doesn't have a particular product or service or cure in mind - may eventually contribute to the things that make life better. GPS satellite navigation and modern computer chips, for example, were based on laboratory discoveries.

CICERONE: "None of these were 'invented.' That is, they were done because research was getting done and students asked questions and their supervisors asked them questions about how things work. And then some entrepreneur came forward and said, you know, I could make something useful out of that."

The president of the National Academy of Sciences also reminded the Congressmen that American science has long gained from immigrants who left their homeland, fleeing oppression or just seeking better opportunities. And Cicerone said the role of immigrants in U.S. science has been increasing. He noted, for example, that about two-thirds of doctoral students in engineering at American universities are from other countries.

CICERONE: "This flow of human resources to the United States continues, but as we place more barriers against the entry of talented people, and as more opportunities develop in their home countries, we will not be able to rely on them as much as we have."

However, while students from around the world flock to American universities, science education for American youngsters has lagged behind. Cicerone said giving those kids a strong grounding in math and science is important for several reasons.

CICERONE: "Not only do we want to increase the flow of human talent into high level science and research, we also want to fill the pipeline with science students so as to equip the nation's workforce to be able to create and manufacture products which take advantage of scientific breakthroughs. And we need a scientifically literate population to comprise an electorate informed on many contemporary issues."

Ralph Cicerone of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences at the Capitol on Tuesday. He also told members of the House Appropriations Committee that many of the weather and science satellites that monitor conditions on Earth are aging and will need to be replaced at a cost of billions of dollars in the coming years.

Later in the show we'll have another story on science and the economy, but first -



Microbicide show potential to protect against HIV infection

In this week's edition of the journal Science, a group of researchers describe the challenges of finding a cure for AIDS.

Efforts to develop a vaccine that would prevent HIV infection have so far failed. Drugs now allow HIV-infected people to live a normal life, but the medicine is expensive and has to be taken every day because the AIDS virus is never completely eliminated from the system. The authors of the Science article, led by Douglas Richman of the University of California, San Diego, say a new approach is needed.

Meanwhile, in the journal Nature, scientists describe a cheap, commonly-used compound that blocks infection of the primate version of HIV. It's still a long way from preventing AIDS in humans, but as VOA's Jessica Berman reports, researchers are hoping the compound might eventually be used by humans to fight transmission of the virus that causes AIDS.

BERMAN: In the new study, published in the journal Nature, researchers tested a common compound called glycerol monolaurate, or GML. The compound is already licensed as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent and is used in cosmetics and food products.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota tested GML on a group of monkeys, applying the microbicide to the female sexual organs of five of the primates. One hour later the monkeys were exposed to a large dose of SIV, the primate version of HIV.

None of the GML-treated group showed any acute infection, even after being exposed to the disease a second time.

Researcher Ashley Haase says GML breaks what he describes as a "vicious cycle" of immune-system signaling and inflammatory response that is triggered by exposure to the AIDS virus.

HAASE: "And we found that GML could in fact prevent systemic infection of five of five animals, of the treated animals, whereas four of the five controls [untreated monkeys] were infected. So, that's very good news, very exciting news."

BERMAN: Haase says while it appears to offer some promise in preventing HIV infection in women, he cautions that a long road lies ahead before the microbicide can be verified as safe and effective for humans.

HAASE: "Vaginal transmission of SIV to rhesus macaques is regarded by many as the best animal model for [human] vaginal transmission. But still it is an animal model. And so we certainly need further studies, and much longer term follow-up because we discovered at five months in one of the animals that had been apparently protected by GML - it was now positive for SIV."

BERMAN: Sharon Hiller is principal investigator with the Microbicide Trials Network, which is funded by the U.S. government to conduct microbicide safety investigations worldwide.

Hiller says this is the first time GML has been studied as a microbicide against HIV.

HILLER: "This really new research and I think provides the first convincing evidence that these simple kinds of molecules may in fact be very effective in blocking transmission."

BERMAN: If it's eventually approved for use by humans, researchers say GML could turn out to be a safe and effective topical cream or gel that women could use to keep them from becoming infected with the AIDS virus during sexual intercourse. Researchers say such a development could save millions of lives.

Around 33 million people around the world have HIV, two-thirds of them in sub-Sahara Africa. Globally, women make up 50 percent of all HIV-infected people, but in Africa, the number is nearly 60 percent. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.



Alcohol use affects older drinkers more

Drinking alcohol has been common in many cultures around the world for a very long time. The ancient Egyptians brewed beer. And residents of what is now Georgia were making wine 8,000 years ago. Scientists are still studying alcohol and how it affects us. Recent research indicates, for example, that red wine has some health benefits and may even help you live longer.

Another interesting new study comes from researcher Sara Jo Nixon.

NIXON: "We wanted to see whether or not older adults were differentially sensitive to really, quite low doses of alcohol - the kind of thing that you would probably acquire in a couple of drinks over dinner."

In other words, does alcohol affect people of different ages differently?

To answer the question, Nixon and her colleagues at the University of Kentucky set up an experiment. They gave alcoholic drinks to one group of younger people in their 20s and early 30s, and also to an older group over 50. And a little while after they served the drinks, they gave the drinkers a standard test used to measure impairment. In the test, you have to connect labeled dots on a sheet of paper - in order, and as quickly and accurately as possible.

NIXON: "They're alternating numbers and letters and having to keep track. So they have to go from 1 to A to A to 2 to 2 to B to B to 3 to 3 to C."

Hard enough to say, let alone do it when you've been drinking. Anyway, the older drinkers did worse than the younger drinkers.

The researchers also asked the drinkers to estimate how drunk they were and also how much the drinking impaired their performance on the dot-connecting test. The older drinkers underestimated their impairment when the alcohol was most affecting their ability to connect the dots. Nixon says that might be because they're used to having a moderate amount of alcohol with no serious problems caused by losing a few seconds of reaction time.

NIXON: "And until something out of the ordinary comes up, you may never see a negative outcome. However, if you're driving home and an animal runs in front of you or somebody runs a stop sign. Or you're walking home and you don't quite pay attention and a car comes through an intersection faster than you think, that five seconds that you lost could be life and death."

Sara Jo Nixon, who is now at the University of Florida, says her study suggests that health care providers need to educate older people about the hidden pitfalls of even moderate drinking. The subtle impairments of which older drinkers may be unaware can be dangerous, and even life threatening. Simply waiting around for a while after your last drink may be all it takes to be safe.

Nixon's study was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.



Ozone treatment may increase safety of packaged food

Packaged foods are regularly implicated in outbreaks of food-borne illness, such as salmonella. A researcher at Purdue University is working on a new way to reduce the risk of dangerous bacterial contamination in packaged foods such as spinach, tomatoes, or lunch meat. Rose Hoban has details.

HOBAN: Every day, people get sick from eating food that has spoiled or been contaminated by bacteria, molds, or viruses.

Kevin Keener, a food scientist at Purdue University, says he's found a way to eliminate any bacteria from fresh foods after they've been packaged, in a way that preserves their freshness. He does it by using ozone.

KEENER: "Ozone is an oxygen with an additional oxygen molecule on it, it's actually an O3. It's very reactive molecule that will kill bacteria."

HOBAN: Ozone can be made from the air in a sealed package by zapping it with electricity

KEENER: "We take a voltage, thousands of volts, and because of this voltage there, it will cause electrons to be removed from a small number of the molecules, and those electrons then will react and cause this formation of ozone and other types of reactive oxygen molecules that will then attack whatever might be in there."

HOBAN: Keener says it doesn't affect the taste. The best thing, he says, is that the process can be done after the food is in its packaging, and it uses a surprisingly small amount of electricity.

KEENER: "And ozone is well established, it will kill spores, it will prevent these bacteria from growing and so on. So there is a lot of data that's already out there on the quality and effect of ozone concentrations on different quality."

HOBAN: Keener is talking to some food manufacturers about trying his system on a small scale.

His research is published in the journal LWT - Food Science and Technology. I'm Rose Hoban.



Academic Earth website offers free university courses

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week, it's a front-row seat in classrooms at some of world's best universities.

LUDLOW: "AcademicEarth is a free website that gives people around the world access to full courses and video lectures from some of the world's top universities."

Richard Ludlow is the founder of AcademicEarth.org, a website that collects video courses and lectures from leading teachers at six of America's top universities.

To get started, you might try Yale professor Alan Bloom's introduction to psychology course.

LUDLOW: "Another one that's very popular is Walter Lewin's physics course from MIT. And then some of the guest lectures that have been really hot are Thomas Friedman's 'The World is Flat,' and then the Alan Blinder lecture on the origins of the financial mess."

Alan Blinder is a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, so he ought to know something about the economy. You can also hear what Google co-founder Larry Page has to say about entrepreneurship. He ought to know, too.

AcademicEarth just launched in January, but Richard Ludlow says it's already attracting a wide variety of users.

LUDLOW: "We've got older individuals who are retired and have free time on their hands. Then we have students using it to help with courses. We've seen professors saying they're using it to learn how other professors are teaching. So we've got a really wide variety of uses."

In some cases, course materials are suggested to accompany the video lectures, such as outside readings and even exams, complete with answers.

It can easily cost $50,000 a year to attend Harvard or Stanford. Watching videos of their top teachers isn't the same as attending classes, and you can't earn course credit, but then again, you can do it for free at AcademicEarth.org, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week, from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Louis Jordan - "School Days"

Learn more at VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.



Small water animals make greenhouse gas in their gut


More than 200 years ago, an English scientist named Joseph Priestly discovered nitrous oxide, which has been used by dentists since the mid 19th century as an anesthetic. Inhaling nitrous oxide deadens pain, and it also gives you a kind of happy, giddy feeling ... which is why the chemical is also called laughing gas.

Now, scientists in Germany and Denmark have discovered that snails, larvae, and other small animals that feed on the sediment at the bottom of lakes and streams are producing nitrous oxide, which is also a greenhouse gas that's 300 times more potent a climate-changer than carbon dioxide.

Lead researcher Peter Stief and his colleagues found that the animals were producing the nitrous oxide - chemical formula N2O - because of their diet, which includes nitrates and a variety of organic material.

STIEF: "And these organic particles - it could be little fragments of leaf, for instance - they are densely colonized with bacteria. So what the animals actually ingest is not only this organic piece of a leaf, for instance, but also the living bacteria."

The nitrates come from water they take in with their food and mainly originate in agricultural fertilizer.

STIEF: "You know, fertilizers contain lots of nitrogen compounds. And nitrate is the most mobile form of it. It can be washed out with the rain. and it arrives in the groundwater, and from there it arrives in our streams and also lakes and will also, sooner or later, arrive in the coastal marine zones."

Without nitrates in the water, these small water animals don't produce nitrous oxide. The researchers proved that in laboratory experiments in which letting the animals feed in purified water switched off their production of N2O.

Although nitrous oxide is a very potent greenhouse gas, Peter Steif says the small animals he is studying aren't producing enough to have a major effect on global climate. But that doesn't mean the nitrate fertilizer runoff is harmless.

STIEF: "It will make algae grow. And if too many algae grow in aquatic ecosystems we get these algal blooms, which, after having died, they sink down to the sediment, and the degradation of these dead algal cells consumes lots of oxygen, and this will again make it more difficult for other life forms to survive because of [a] shortage of oxygen."

Peter Stief's paper was published online in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. We reached him at his office at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany.

Economic downturn hits scientific research

And finally today ... The economic mess is hitting all sectors of the U.S. economy, including the business of science.

Researchers are finding it harder to win financing for their projects, and they have to take more time away from science to raise money. And as we hear from reporter Adam Allington, the effects might not be as obvious or immediate as home foreclosures and the credit crisis, but the effects on science jobs and innovation may be just as bad:


ALLINGTON: At first glance there's not much in Dale Dorsett's lab beyond the usual - you know, grad students in white lab coats, centrifuges, test tubes.

Even though his lab is relatively small, his costs aren't.

He takes me toward a locked room in the back of the lab containing a single microscope.

DORSETT: "It's a laser scanning confocal microscope, which is essential for part of our work. That cost $350,000."

ALLINGTON: Dale is a molecular biologist at St. Louis University. He studies a genetic disorder that affects about one in 10,000 humans.

Well, that is, when he can.

These days Dorsett says he spends more of his time filling out grant applications than he does on his research.

And he's not the only one in this pickle. Winning grants for research is much harder than it used to be.

DORSETT: "The problem becomes when it gets so competitive that even really deserving projects can not get funded. And that's the situation we're in right now."

ALLINGTON: Funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and the National Science Foundation [SNF} has been slipping for years. It's a big problem.

It used to be about 30 percent of grant applications were successful. Now, that success rate has slipped into the teens.

And even those researchers who do get funded say grant preference is often given to projects that produce immediate results - which just isn't the way most science works.

KROLL: "I would love to be more aggressive about what we go after."

ALLINGTON: Kristen Kroll runs a lab studying stem cells at Washington University.

KROLL: "I think I've curbed what we could be doing to a point where what we are doing is sustainable in the current funding climate."

ALLINGTON: Kroll says there is such a backlog of quality grant applications on file at the NIH and NSF, grant reviewers aren't even separating wheat from chaff any more. They're separating wheat from wheat. So a lot of good research just doesn't happen.

And in a world economy the U.S. isn't the only player in the market for innovation. Other countries could gain an advantage in science.

James McCarter is the chief scientist for Divergence, a St. Louis-based biotech company.

McCARTER: "It's a much more competitive playing field right now. The emergence of India and China, in addition to Japan and Korea and Europe. There are sizeable countries out there now that are serious in these spaces and are making serious investments and have the talent."

ALLINGTON: So, you might be thinking, won't that big stimulus package send wave of cash into the coffers of government research agencies? Problem solved right?

Not so much. While a billion dollar shot in arm might be welcome news for some labs, many advisors worry that the long-term effect might actually exacerbate the funding crisis.

John Russell is the associate dean for graduate studies at Washington University. He says, a big pile of cash all at once does nothing for ongoing research that can take years to complete.

RUSSELL: "One of the concerns about a big bubble is that if it's just a bubble, it takes five years to train somebody so it needs to be more spread out, I think, to be effective."

ALLINGTON: Russell warns universities considering a building and spending spree to plan carefully, so current projects don't reach beyond future budget realities.

For The Environment Report, I'm Adam Allington. (© 2008 Environment Report)




MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week.

Adam Allington's story on science funding came from the Environment Report, with support from the Joyce Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can find out more at EnvironmentReport.org.

And if you'd like to get in touch with us - maybe you've got a science question we can answer on the show - our email address is ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak is our editor. Bob Doughty is the technical director.

And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.

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