I'm due to be on jury duty beginning Monday, so my guess is that posts to the Log won't be as frequent until I'm back in the office.
I'm due to be on jury duty beginning Monday, so my guess is that posts to the Log won't be as frequent until I'm back in the office.
ACT via IRG
|Researcher Robert Lanza
wants the White House to
approve a new type of "no
embryo destruction" stem
cell for federal funding.
Embryonic stem cells can transform themselves into virtually any kind of tissue, holding out the promise of potential cures for spinal-cord patients, diabetics, heart-attack sufferers and many more of the world's afflicted. But how do you balance that promise against ethical concerns about the destruction of human embryos?
Some scientists have concluded that the potential benefits outweigh the ethical concerns, and are seeking to harvest the precious cells from surplus embryos or cloned embryos. Others avoid using embryos altogether, and instead work with adult stem cells, umbilical-cord blood, menstrual blood ... or even garden-variety cells that can be genetically reprogrammed to behave like embryonic cells.
And then there's stem cell pioneer Robert Lanza.
As chief scientific officer for Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, Lanza is building up a track record on both sides of the spectrum - and often hits upon controversy along the way.
Back in 2001, Lanza and his colleagues at ACT announced that they were the first to clone human embryos - but the cells died off soon after they were created, leading some to deride the development as "a publicity stunt."
In the same year, ACT notched yet another first by cloning an endangered gaur ox and implanting the embryo into a cow. The baby gaur died two days after its birth, due to dysentery - but at the time Lanza hailed the achievement as having "the potential to save dozens of endangered species."
Cloning isn't Lanza's only strategy: In the wake of last year's exciting revelation that skin cells could be made to act like stem cells, he's been researching ways to reprogram ordinary cells without the risky gene-transfer method that is the current state of the art.
But his main campaign nowadays is something completely different: a technique that takes a single cell from a human embryo at the eight-cell state to create stem cells - and keeps the embryo viable rather than destroying it in the process.
Back in 2006, Lanza and his colleagues reported in the journal Nature that they created new stem cell lines using the method, which is based on the procedure for diagnosing fertilized human eggs before they're implanted in the womb. Once again, controversy dogged the claim: The journal had to issue clarifications saying that the researchers removed several cells from the embryos to increase their chances of success - and destroyed the embryos in the process.
At the time, Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the method "raises more ethical questions than it answers."
"What we have here is hype, not hope," bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote in his column for msnbc.com.
In a paper published online today by the journal Cell Stem Cell, Lanza and his colleagues address the scientific and ethical questions: They report that they developed five new lines, using single cells taken from eight-cell embryos, and that the embryos were then allowed to develop into a state where they could be safely be frozen for later implantation.
The fresh round of research led Lanza to call on the Bush administration to clear the new lines immediately for research purposes.
"This research has been held up for too long, and hopefully the president will approve these stem cell lines quickly," he told me this week. "There's an urgent health crisis out there, and we can't afford to hold this research up any longer."
In an extended Q&A, Lanza discussed the research and how he hoped its implications will play out. Will there be a fresh round of controversy? This could quite easily turn into another case of hype over hope. But even if the impact doesn't live up to Lanza's expectations, his findings - and the controversies that surround him - will surely factor into the larger debate over stem cell science and ethics.
Here's an edited transcript of the exchange:
Cosmic Log: Can you explain what exactly you did, for a layman who doesn't understand all this stuff about "blastocysts" or "ICM niches"?
Lanza: What we did is we removed a single cell - and one of the problems unfortunately whenever you're trying to generate embryonic stem cells is that those cells have a mind of their own. At that early stage, they like to become what's known as trophectoderm. That's basically the part of the embryo that's going to go on to become the placenta when the embryo implants in the uterus.
Before those cells can become these trophectoderm cells, they have to differentiate. And there's a molecule known as laminin which we found ... that if you added it actually inhibits that process, and basically shifts the cell into becoming an embryonic stem cell.
The early embryo – the blastocyst – is basically a hollow ball. The outer surface of the ball is going to become the placenta. Inside that hollow sphere is a tiny little group of cells clinging on the inside, known as the inner cell mass or the ICM. By adding this molecule we're basically re-creating that ICM environment, so that the cell that we've removed becomes an embryonic stem cell.
It really improved the efficiency dramatically. In our previous paper, the proof-of-principle study that we published in Nature a year ago, the efficiency was only 2 percent. We're now talking anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, which is exactly comparable to what has been reported for using entire embryos.
So basically what you're doing is you're trying to fool the cell chemically into thinking it's on that inner cell wall where it's expected to become an embryonic stem cell?
Exactly. It's in the right developmental environment to become an embryonic stem cell.
What do you think this will do to the debate over embryonic stem cells? We've seen that the debate has already been changing over the past few months. What do you expect to happen now?
Well, this is a working technology, so it's here and now, and it can be used to increase the number of stem cell lines available for federal researchers immediately. We could actually send these cells out to laboratories tomorrow. And in fact, this new methodology is so efficient that we could effectively double or even triple the number of lines available within a few months.
The research has been held up for too long. If we had more research going on with these lines, anything we learn from these real embryonic stem cell lines – say, for instance, how to generate specific cell types to treat patients – can also be applied to reprogrammed stem cells. You've heard of the recent breakthrough where researchers were able to use various transcription factors to create pluripotent cells. Once that technology is safe enough to use clinically, we'll be able to apply all the knowledge that we've learned. So no time would be lost while we wait.
There's another very important point to make, and that is that we still don't know if the new technology to reprogram cells – which we call induced pluripotent stem cells or IPS cells – is going to be able to do all the same things that normal embryo-derived stem cells can do. We don't even know all the properties of regular embryonic stem cells. These have to be studied.
It might be that these IPS cells can only make neurons, but not insulin-producing cells. Or even if they can, they may not be able to do it as well. Until we have these answers, we cannot afford to abandon any line of research. So I think that there's a strong consensus in the scientific community that we really need to proceed with all these lines of research, and every advance gets us that much closer to the clinic.
One of the concerns that was pointed out about the induced pluripotent cells was that genes had to be inserted into the cells using a virus, and that one of the genes could lead to cancer. Can you talk about how your approach differs in that respect?
Right. So the new IPS cells, the way these cells were generated was basically by genetically modifying the cell. In several of those experiments, they used something known as c-Myc, which is very closely associated with cancer. In many of the animals where they use these cells, there was a high incidence of tumor formation. There was a new paper that allowed the researchers to eliminate c-Myc, the most offensive of those factors. However, even those cells were genetically modified – which in and of itself is associated with an increased incidence of cancer.
The FDA would never allow us to use those cells to treat patients. So right now, a number of groups – including our own – are working on methods to create these pluripotent cells without genetically modifying the cell. There's obviously a great deal of excitement and promise in doing that. But we don't know how long that's going to take. So in the meantime for one is we need to find out once we create those cells, are they the same? Can they do all the same tricks? There was one paper that suggested there was a difference in gene expression profile, which means they are different in certain respects. That has to be studied.
These cells that we're talking about in this particular paper are the real thing. They're true embryonic stem cells, and they were derived from embryos. We have a considerable amount of data on these cells, and we know they can do all sorts of exciting things. Just to give you an example: We created some embryonic stem cells from a single blastomere, and actually turned them into what's known as hemangioblasts. We found that these cells were able to cut the death rate after a heart attack in a mouse in half. Also, in animals that otherwise would have had to have their limbs amputated because of lack of blood flow, we were able to restore that blood flow completely to normal within a month.
These very same types of cells could be used in patients. Again, these are the cells we generated from human embryonic stem cells derived from single cells. So there's a lot of exciting potential here. And as this new IPS cell technology develops, we will have learned how to turn those cells into the cells that can help people. Right now we're working on making biological bypasses, and making blood, so we're going to have figured out how to turn the pluripotent stem cells into replacement cell types that can help people. So no time is going to be lost.
In terms of having these cells approved for use in federally funded research, what would be the procedure? Do the limits on embryonic stem cell lines apply in this case?
None of the embryos in this study were destroyed, so for all five of these lines, the parent biopsied embryo was frozen down and remains alive. ... Clearly these embryos were not destroyed. Now there is a question of 'were the embryos harmed?' I think in that particular case, the burden of proof really lies with proving the embryos were harmed. You can't say that these stem cell lines violate federal law without any facts, and they should not be denied federal funding because of religious opposition.
It's very clear that the biopsy procedure had absolutely no effect on the subsequent development of the embryos. … There are very objective scoring criteria to assess the health of the embryos. They're the best method we have to assess whether the embryos were harmed or not.
So I think these lines clearly should qualify for federal funding, and my understanding is that at the White House they're waiting for this published paper before they assess what course they're going to take.
When it comes to developing new therapies, one of the things about the pluripotent cells is that they're created from the skin cells of the donor, so they could be custom-made to fit the donor's genetic profile – whereas with these cells, it's a little more complex. If these cells can be used for therapies, how would you match a person with the cell that is needed?
Two major hurdles have plagued transplant medicine for the last several decades: One is the shortage of the cells and the tissues, and two is the problem of immune rejection. With any embryonic stem cell, the hope is that we can create unlimited numbers of these cells, and perhaps using tissue engineering, even grow up entire organs. But we still are confronted with the question of how you put those tissues back in the body. Say we have insulin-producing cells. You can't just plunk them back in the body because your body will reject them. The great thing about the new reprogrammed cells is that you're starting with the patient's own skin cell so you won't have to worry about immune rejection.
But the other thing to consider here is that if you do a little arithmetic, you quickly realize that a lot of this technology becomes economically prohibitive. If there over 200 million people with diabetes, and several hundred million people with cardiovascular disease, you'd be talking about literally creating billions of patient-specific cell lines. Whether that's going to be done through the reprogramming or cloning, it's a bit impractical.
Here's the way that'll probably be solved: If you look at the tissue types for the American population, you'll find that 100 tissue types would actually provide complete matches for 50 percent of the population. You could have cells that you expand – and of course the beautiful thing about embryonic stem cells or pluripotent cells is that they're immortal. They grow forever. Once you have a cell bank, you could use it for virtually everyone with that tissue type.
So say you had a heart attack, and you have a narrow window of opportunity, and you want to inject certain of these cells that repair the heart. You could have those all ready, and then once you know the patient's type you just thaw out a vial of those cells and use them.
Would you compare this to tissue typing for a bone marrow transplant?
Absolutely. The beautiful thing here is that we could pick people who are homozygous – that is, they have reduced complexity of their tissue type. To some extent it's like blood. And on that front, we can now create entire tubes of blood from embryonic stem cells. If we started with a line that was O-negative, it would be a universal blood type that would match everybody. So whether we use the reprogramming cells or we found a line that was basically O-negative, once you have that line – because it grows indefinitely – you could then use that to create literally unlimited amounts of cells that would be basically a universal donor to you, me, and everyone in the country. A similar kind of thing would apply to tissues. There are certain major tissue types, and by identifying the ones that are most common, we could make a very substantial dent in matching a large percentage of the population.
Since this still involves extracting cells from an embryo, I suppose people might ask the ethical question about what happens to those embryos that are sampled. Could you get into a situation where you're creating life to save a life, then have an open-ended fate for that life that you've created and frozen?
Actually, we're rescuing embryos, because these embryos would be slated to be destroyed, and we're not harming them so they're frozen down. By generating these lines, those embryos will be protected and will not be harmed. Period.
That's one thing. But the other thing to consider here is if you just look at PGD [preimplantation genetic diagnosis], these are couples who will have one of the cells from an embryo sent off to the lab to be tested. And of course when it goes off to the lab, that cell is destroyed.
What we could do is, before you send that cell off for testing, just let it divide overnight. Then send one cell off for testing, and you create a stem cell line from the rest of those cells. So you then have a genetically matched line for that child without any additional risk to the embryo. In other words, it has no impact on the clinical outcome of that procedure - but yet, there's a benefit in that you have a line that matches the child. And that line can also be used by the whole world.
What's next for your research? It sounds as if you're going to be doing some work with induced pluripotent stem cells as well as the cells described in this latest paper. Do you have a particular term for these cells?
In our paper we're calling them NED1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – because there's "no embryo destruction."
So if they came to be called NED cells, you wouldn't be opposed?
No, not at all. But also, you have to realize that as we move toward the clinic with these technologies, these studies can be very expensive. It could easily cost upwards of $100 million to bring some of these technologies through clinical trials. And pharmaceutical companies are going to be very wary before they invest money in something that's so controversial. So having a technology where they're actually using cells where the embryo was not destroyed might actually help in that regard.
We're going to be speaking with the FDA in a few weeks, and we're hoping to get permission to proceed this year to file an IND [investigational new drug application] for clinical trials, for using retinal cells to treat or prevent blindness. We also have some other projects that we're hoping in the next year or two to get into clinical trials. I know Geron, for instance, is hoping to use embryonic stem cell technology for spinal cord injuries.
So while we're moving ahead with developing these different cell types, we're still confronted with the challenge of moving into the clinic. For instance, I mentioned earlier that we can generate these hemangioblasts that can keep people from losing a leg or a foot. But we don't know how to use them without powerful immunosuppressive drugs. The hope right now is that we can use these reprogrammed cells, or therapeutic cloning, to create cells to bypass the problem of immune rejection. Either of those approaches would allow us to apply this technology and translate it into the clinic.
Scott Eklund / Seattle Post-Intelligencer file
University of Washington physicist John Cramer is preparing to perform
an experiment in reverse-time quantum causality with the use of lasers.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan popularized the saying that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," in reference to reports of alien visitations. Generating low-cost commercial fusion power, isolating antimatter and tracing reverse-time causality aren't as far out there as UFOs, but a similar rule might well apply: Extraordinary science requires extraordinary effort.
With that in mind, here's a progress report on three extraordinary science projects that have popped up in the news:
It's been more than a year since University of Washington physicist John Cramer proposed to test a spooky corollary of quantum theory: that it might be possible to receive a laser signal before you send it. The problem was that Cramer didn't really have enough research money to build the experiment, which required sending entangled photons through prisms, filters, optical fibers and other devices. What's more, Cramer worried that the apparatus he planned to use would be available only for a limited time.
Once the general public found out about Cramer's plight, the contributions started flowing in: Donors provided more than $40,000 - which allowed Cramer to move forward with the backward-time research. He was also able to find alternate lab space, which meant he didn't have to worry so much about running out of ... well, time.
It's taken longer than he expected to set up all the equipment for the first phase of the experiment, but this week Cramer told me that he's finally setting up the avalanche photodiodes required for making the fine measurements of single photons that will be required. "They're sort of like little geiger counters, made of silicon," he explained.
Cramer expected to start making measurements this week, but it will take still more time and effort to track down the retrocausality effect, if it exists. Happily, money is no longer an immediate concern. "I'm fine for the moment, as far as financial support goes," Cramer said.
During last summer's visit to the CERN particle physics center on the French-Swiss border, I looked in on the ALPHA experiment to trap stable atoms of antihydrogen - which would afford the first-ever opportunity to study the properties of antimatter in the lab.
The ALPHA team, led by University of Aarhus physicist Jeffrey Hangst, has been engaged in a friendly competition to achieve the feat, vying with another team of researchers headquartered just a few yards away at CERN's Antiproton Decelerator. "As usual, it's a race here - it's a race hour to hour," Hangst told me.
By all accounts, the race continues. Hangst e-mailed me this progress report just before Christmas:
"... The short answer is that we don't have any headlines for you. We made some nice progress this year, and our understanding improved greatly, but we did not yet succeed in trapping antihydrogen. We gave it a go at the end of the run. Although we see lots of evidence for positron-antiproton interaction in the magnetic trap, we have as yet no evidence that antihydrogen atoms can be caught.
"The good news is that we have much-improved techniques for manipulating antiprotons and keeping them in a very small radius cloud in order to maximize the chance of catching the produced antihydrogen. We also began commissioning our imaging detector for antiproton annihilations. This should really help us next year in diagnosing what is going on.
"I'll keep you up to date on our progress next year. We are looking forward to it."
Low-cost fusion power
Every time I write about the quest to develop a nuclear fusion reactor, I'm reminded that the $13 billion international ITER project in France is not the only game in town. Over the past year or so, there's been a lot of buzz on the Internet about under-the-radar research into what some believe could be a low-cost fusion technology. The technology, known as inertial electrostatic confinement or Polywell fusion, was championed by physicist Robert Bussard - who passed away in October after a long battle with cancer.
Bussard's mantle has been picked up by a small team led by Richard Nebel, who has taken a leave from Los Alamos National Laboratory to head up Bussard's EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. Backed by a Navy contract, Nebel's five-person team is trying to pick up the technology where Bussard left it.
"What's there is interesting, OK?" Nebel told me today. "And the bottom line of it is, what we've been charged to do is reproduce that. Find out if it's real. Find out if or if not all this stuff is what it seems to be."
EMC2 Fusion has built an upgraded model of Bussard's last experimental plasma containment device, which was known as WB-6. (The WB stands for Wiffle Ball, a whimsical reference to the structure of the device.) "We got first plasma yesterday," Nebel said - but he and his colleagues in Santa Fe, N.M., still have a long way to get the WB-7 experiment up to the power levels Bussard was working with.
"We're not out trying to make a big splash on any of this stuff at this point," Nebel said. But he said he's hoping to find out by this spring whether or not Bussard's concept is worth pursuing with a larger demonstration project.
The initial analysis showed that Bussard's data on energy yields were consistent with expectations, Nebel said.
"We don't know for sure whether all that's right," he said, "but it'd be horrible for Mother Nature to give you what you expect to see, and have it all be bogus."
Sure, there's a chance that all this - a low-cost route to fusion power, the ability to trap antimatter atoms, the potential for quantum causality to turn back the clock - will turn out to be bogus. But maybe that's what extraordinary science is all about. Stay tuned.
Update for 11:50 a.m. ET May 21, 2009: I traveled back in time to let you know about the status of Cramer's retrocausality experiment. He's gearing up for "phase 3," but there are still no results to report. Meanwhile, on the fusion front, Nebel has reported positive results and is continuing to receive Pentagon funding for further investigation.
If you're the speculating type, now's the time to sell high on Obama and buy low on Clinton: The past few days have seen a dramatic shift in the online political markets, where traders put down money to predict which candidates will prevail in the primary season. Since last week's Iowa caucus, prices for Democratic hopeful Barack Obama's stock on Intrade have shot up from the 20s to the 70s, while rival Democrat Hillary Clinton has experienced a market crash of similar proportions. It's enough to set economists wondering once more about how prediction markets work.
The reversal of fortunes for Obama and Clinton is reflected not only on Intrade, but also on the Iowa Electronic Markets - which pioneered the idea of using real-money trading to capture the "wisdom of crowds" and predict the outcome of events ranging from traditional market decisions to football games.
Ironically, the spark for the past week's big market move also came from Iowa, in the form of presidential caucus results that made Obama into the new frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
Some economists have suggested that prediction markets do a better job than polling when it comes to predicting political outcomes, because participants are backing up their opinions with real dollars. But the past week demonstrates the flip side of the relationship: Real events can have a dramatic effect on where that real money is going.
It's a bit of a puzzle for Justin Wolfers, a Wharton School economist who has been studying prediction markets for years. "We should really infer a lot out of Iowa," he told me today. In today's column for The Wall Street Journal, Wolfers notes that a relatively small, unrepresentative number of early voters in Iowa and New Hampshire can have an inordinately large impact on market trends.
Academics as well as political operatives are intrigued by this "momentum effect," and speaking as an economist rather than a political spin doctor, Wolfers said there might be a couple of reasons behind it.
"One view would be that everyone wants to vote for a winner," he told me. "But a different view would be that the people in Iowa and New Hampshire actually get to meet the candidates."
That could turn the voters in those states into a cadre of more knowledgeable, more respected players in the market - something that reminded me of the role that financial analysts play in traditional market sectors. "That's an interesting way of thinking about it," Wolfers said.
Brown University economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff delve more deeply into the momentum effect in a working paper analyzing the 2004 Democratic primary campaign for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The researchers find that "early voters have up to 20 times the influence of late voters, demonstrating a significant departure from the ideal of 'one person, one vote.'"
University of Iowa economist Tom Rietz, a member of the Iowa Electronic Markets' steering committee, said the big role played by the early primaries isn't surprising. "As they resolve uncertainty, they'll move the market one way or the other," he told me.
One of his big research interests is figuring out exactly when the political prediction market solidifies into a consensus pick. "It's usually sometime in between Iowa and Super Tuesday or Mini-Tuesday," Rietz said. "We're trying to research that question as we go."
Such questions aren't just academic. For one thing, the political prediction markets are providing insights into bigger-ticket markets where there's an eventual all-or-nothing payout, such as the binary options on the Chicago Board of Trade. "There are some unusual price dynamics where a contract is worth either a dollar or zero," Rietz said.
For another thing, some people are putting real money on political markets, although that's not strictly required. Accounts on the Iowa Electronic Markets are limited to $500. Intrade works with play money as well as real money, and other prediction Web sites, such as NewsFutures and Foresight Exchange, are strictly play-money operations.
Wolfers said he has seen some situations where traders (or bettors) "invest" tens of thousands of dollars in their political prediction. "There are definitely people taking these markets seriously and putting down significant amounts of money," he said.
If you caught the Obama surge at just the right moment, you could have more than doubled your investment just over the past week. Or, if you were a Clinton investor, you would have seen more than half of your stake disappear.
The University of Iowa's Rietz said the Republican race is currently more interesting than the Democratic race, because no one candidate is dominant in the market. As voters finish going to the polls in New Hampshire, GOP hopeful John McCain appears to have the hot stock on Intrade, while Mitt Romney has slumped since Iowa.
So is now the time to invest in a slumping candidate, based on the buy-low, sell-high principle? Well, on one hand, there's always the chance for another reversal of fortunes. But on the other hand, the current pattern for the Democrats reminds Rietz of the 2004 campaign, when Howard Dean's stock slumped during the lead-up to what turned out to be a screamingly unsuccessful performance in the Iowa caucuses.
"After the caucus, Dean dropped off much further," Rietz recalled.
So don't expect me to be a financial adviser here - or a political adviser, for that matter. But do feel free to weigh in below with your own thoughts about the wisdom of political crowds.
Update for 10:15 p.m. ET: Now this is getting interesting: In after-hours trading on Intrade, Clinton's stock has risen from a closing price of 27 to 54, while Obama's shares have fallen from 70.7 to 43. John Edwards has dwindled from 2.6 to 0.9. In contrast, McCain's stock has held fairly steady, heading up just a bit from 34.2 to 36.3. Keep a watch on how the numbers rise and fall as the night goes on - it's clear these folks are watching the results unfold in real time.
Update for 12:55 p.m. ET Jan. 9: The University of Iowa says more than 23,000 shares were traded on the Democratic market on Tuesday, with almost half of those shares relating to Clinton's contracts. Right now Clinton is at 55.6, Obama at 41.0 and Edwards at 2.7. Those fluctuating numbers reflect the market's perception of the percentage chance that each of those candidates will win the Democratic nomination. If you were the speculating type (see above), you could have doubled your money in one day.
Update for 1:50 p.m. ET Jan. 9: The Wharton School's Justin Wolfers points to his morning-after column for The Wall Street Journal, in which he calls Clinton's win "one of the most surprising upsets in U.S. political history." Here's his bottom line:
"While Sen. Clinton's unexpected victory has yielded red faces among the punditocracy, this also provides a useful opportunity for emphasizing just what a prediction market forecast says. That the price of a contract paying $1 if Sen. Clinton won in New Hampshire was selling for seven cents doesn't suggest that she was a sure loser. Rather, these prices suggest a probabilistic statement that the ultimate outcome was about a 7 percent chance. And as any horseplayer can tell you, sometimes the long shots do win."
|A worker crouches inside the wiring for the BaBar experiment at the Stanford Linear
Accelerator Center. SLAC has announced scores of new layoffs due to budget cuts.
Physicists are still scratching their heads and shaking their fists two weeks after Congress unexpectedly slashed support for big science projects, including the multibillion-dollar ITER fusion-power experiment and the yet-to-be-designed International Linear Collider. The Energy Department is still trying to figure out what to do, but hundreds of layoffs already have been announced - and more may be on the horizon, unless lawmakers provide relief. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama is among those who say they're riding to the rescue.
The cuts came in the omnibus spending bill patched together by Congress and signed by President Bush just before Christmas. Among the institutions hit hardest were Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois; and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC, in California.
Today, SLAC Director Persis Drell announced that the lab would reduce its workforce by 15 percent, or 225 full-time positions. About 125 of those layoffs are due to Congress' decision to cut anticipated spending in the current fiscal year by 20 percent, from $120 million to about $95 million. Another 100 are due to a previously planned restructuring of the lab's research program.
The lab's current main particle physics experiment, known as the B-factory or BaBar, will be shut down in March, six months early. In 2004, the BaBar team made headlines for a study that helps explain why matter dominates over antimatter in the universe (which is a good thing for us made-of-matter creatures).
Research and development aimed at paving the way for the International Linear Collider has stopped, at SLAC as well as at Fermilab. This is because the budget for the ILC project was basically cut back to the amount that's been spent since the current fiscal year began in October.
Other projects will have to be scaled back at SLAC, but on the plus side, the lab's big next-generation project, the Linac Coherent Light Source, is fully funded and on tract to begin operations in late 2009.
Meanwhile, the Intense Pulse Neutron Source will be shut down at Argonne, resulting in layoffs, the Chicago Tribune quoted Argonne Director Robert Rosner as saying. Operations at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source, the nation's brightest X-ray machine, will be reduced as well.
Fermilab spokeswoman Judy Jackson told me today that the layoff plan is still up in the air. "We want to avoid it as much as we can," she said. "We still don't exactly know if and how many people may have to go."
On the plus side, Fermilab's Tevatron experiment still has the go-ahead to continue until at least September 2009, Jackson said. There's still the option of extending operations in the giant accelerator ring until early 2010 if there's a chance of finding exciting new physics, such as firm evidence of the elusive Higgs boson.
Congress came down particularly hard on the U.S. ITER project, which is run from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Lawmakers nearly "zeroed out" the $160 million budgeted for support of what's expected to be a $13 billion demonstration fusion-power project in France - and forbade the Energy Department from shifting money around to fill the gap. Only $10.7 million was left in the budget for ITER-related research.
Gary Johnson, an Oak Ridge veteran who is now a deputy director-general at ITER, said the international partners were in a "wait-and-see mode" - basically waiting to see what the Energy Department is going to do. "For us, it certainly makes our life more complicated and difficult," Johnson told me from ITER's headquarters in France.
Over the next decade, the United States and ITER's six other partners (the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea and Russia) will provide most of their multibillion-dollar contributions in the form of in-kind goods. The United States, for example, will be responsible for the guts of the magnetic confinement device for the experimental reactor and a lot of the cryogenic plumbing.
For the time being, however, most of the U.S. contribution is in the form of cold, hard cash - "primarily paying the salaries" of U.S. scientists and engineers involved in the ITER planning process, Johnson said. For now, ITER can afford to be patient, but if the United States fails to contribute to the project, "the involvement of the U.S. would be minimal," he said.
"Eventually, it would have an effect on my salary ... but right now, that's not a worry of mine," Johnson said.
So what's the Energy Department going to do about all this? Department spokesman Jeff Sherwood said the discussions are continuing - and for now, this statement is as much as can be said:
"The omnibus budget legislation's cuts in the FY 08 DOE high energy physics program and the ITER fusion project are disappointing. DOE is reviewing the budget situation and its implications and remains committed to our stewardship of the U.S. high energy physics research program. The international ITER project's mission is to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of clean fusion energy. The Department of Energy is assessing options for the U.S. government to continue to meet its commitment to this important international research program. Fusion energy remains an important component of President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative, given fusion's potential to become an attractive long-range option for the U.S. clean energy portfolio."
Meanwhile, Illinois' two Democratic senators - Obama as well as Dick Durbin - have joined forces with Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., to call for increased funding for high-energy physics in the next fiscal year. In their statement, the lawmakers noted that the American Institute of Physics included two revelations from Fermilab on their top-10 list for 2007. (The institute and its allies have since expressed their disappointment over Congress' cuts.)
"We must work together to restore funding in basic physics research to maintain America's role as the innovator in technology, to retain our leading scientific institutions and their skilled workforces, and to provide opportunities for future scientists," the lawmakers said.
Fermilab's Jackson said Durbin's office was taking the lead in bringing together members of Congress "to ensure that this particular funding disaster doesn't get carried forward." Obama is also supportive, although he's not been able to devote full attention to the issue in the past couple of weeks.
"We heard he had some other things going on," Jackson joked.
The federal spending proposal for fiscal year 2009 is due to be sent to Congress in less than a month, and that will mark merely the opening shot in the election-year battle of the budget. The recent resurgence in congressional earmarks was thought to be one of the reasons why physics took it in the shorts this time around. That's always a danger, as long as big science isn't seen as that big of a priority.
"Quick fixes are very tempting," Jackson told me, "but really we need to address the overall commitment of our country to particle physics. Are we going to do this, or aren't we?"
Before you answer that question, consider where we'd be today without the fruits of physics. Then add your comments below.
Dispatches from the Big Science Tour:
|A suit-clad technician kneels inside the 59-foot-diameter TRIUMF cyclotron during a
maintenance session. The particle accelerator is the world's biggest cyclotron.
In this age of bigger, newer, more powerful mega-machines for particle physics, Canada's 33-year-old TRIUMF cyclotron is literally a blast from the past. Sure, it's the world's biggest cyclotron - but to some physicists that might sound a bit like gushing over the world's most advanced horse and buggy.
In terms of size and sheer power, TRIUMF's 59-foot-wide magnet is dwarfed by Europe's 5.3-mile-wide Large Hadron Collider. When it gets up and running this year, that super-duper-collider will pack a punch 28,000 times greater than TRIUMF's. Nevertheless, there are some things being done at the TRIUMF lab, next to the University of British Columbia's Pacific coast campus, that the bigger places just won't do - such as figuring out how one element turns into another inside an exploding star.
The newfangled big-bang machines in Europe and the United States may grab more of the headlines, based on what may or may not be found in the future - but in the meantime, Canada's 33-year-old supernova machine is working virtually 24/7 on its own assortment of cosmic mysteries.
TRIUMF stands for "Tri-University Meson Facility," but today the consortium actually takes in six Canadian universities, with most of the facility's roughly $60 million in annual funding provided by Canada's National Research Council.
Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
Researchers monitor TRIUMF's operations from a control room, making sure that
the cyclotron and beamlines are working right. "Mostly the training is 'on the job,'"
says physicist Des Ramsay. Click on the image for a larger version.
Hundreds of students and other visitors troop through TRIUMF every year - and I got my turn during a November trip to UBC, along with about a dozen researchers and journalists. At least one researcher remembered seeing the place as a high-school student. The cool stuff began right in the reception building, where a cloud chamber is set up behind curtains in a corner.
We took turns looking down through the glass at a dimly illuminated tabletop-sized tank, filled with what looked like a dark liquid. If you catch the light just right, you can see little lines and curlicues being drawn in the air beneath the glass.
"There's a little layer of supersaturated alcohol vapor - it's like this is a refrigerator," our tour guide, University of Manitoba physicist Des Ramsay, told us. "When cosmic rays come through, they leave tracks, like a contrail from an airplane. Occasionally a muon will hit a nucleus in there and knock off an alpha or some heavy, densely ionizing particle, so you see a short, fat track. And sometimes you'll see a track that curls around a lot, which is probably an electron."
This video clip gives you the idea - and making a cloud chamber is actually something you can try at home, assuming you're handy with dry ice, pure isopropyl alcohol and the home-brew construction supplies.
One thing you shouldn't try at home is building a cyclotron, which involves sending a beam of charged particles around a matched pair of D-shaped magnets, each as big as a backyard patio. The particle beam spirals from the center to the outside of the cyclotron, picking up energy every time it crosses the gap between the "dee" magnets.
It's impossible to ramp up the particles to the energies achievable in the ring-shaped Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois, or at CERN's Large Hadron Collider on the French-Swiss border. But you can get a steady, high-intensity beam at just the right energy for what you're looking for. In fact, you can get several different beams at different energies simultaneously - which is something you just can't do at the Large Hadron Collider.
Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
|Paper clips stand up straight on the top of a glass
case three stories directly above the TRIUMF
cyclotron, due to the device's strong magnetic field.
We weren't allowed to see the cyclotron itself, but we could feel its presence as we stood on a concrete slab three stories above the magnets. Even that far away, with all the shielding between us and the device, the magnetic field is strong enough to make paper clips stand on end - which is the coolest magic trick on the TRIUMF tour.
Once the accelerated protons leave the cyclotron, smaller magnets guide the beam to a variety of destinations. The principal destination is another facility called the Isotope Separator and Accelerator, or ISAC. The protons blast away at a target, creating a rainbow of radioactive isotopes. The isotopes of interest - for instance, potassium-37 - are separated out from the collisions, and those precious particles are accelerated into yet another high-energy beam.
"This is the home of the exploding-star people," Ramsay told us.
The exploding-star people on TRIUMF's DRAGON research team select short-lived isotopes that are thought to exist naturally only inside a star, and smash them into hydrogen or helium nuclei. The results shed additional light on the primordial nuclear reactions that gave rise to the heavier elements we see on Earth today - including the elements needed for life as we know it.
One of TRIUMF's triumphs was to study how smashing together a proton and sodium-21 can produce magnesium-22 and release gamma rays in the process. That's just the kind of reaction that may have taken place eons ago in supernovae. Similar studies have been conducted to trace the transmutation of aluminum isotopes into silicon, then into sulfur, argon and calcium, and at last into titanium.
|The worker at the center of this picture is dwarfed by the
hardware and concrete shielding in TRIUMF's Meson Hall.
Click on the picture for a larger view.
TRIUMF's beams produce more down-to-earth benefits as well: One beam is directed to the Proton Irradiation Facility, where satellite components can be tested for radiation sensitivity.
The BC Cancer Agency also uses the beam to treat eye cancer: More than 100 patients have received proton-beam therapy - including blogger Robert Lee, who is documenting his battle against cancer on MyOcularMelanoma.com.
Among TRIUMF's other medical products are radioactive isotopes for medical treatments and imaging - products that go to a Canadian company named MDS Nordion in exchange for royalties.
"They play our 'tune,' and they pay us every time they play it," Ramsay said. During 2006-07, MDS Nordion paid TRIUMF about $828,000 for those radioactive tunes.
Researchers from TRIUMF also harmonize with other physicists around the world - even at the Large Hadron Collider, which incorporates kicker magnets contributed by Canada. TRIUMF also provided the end-cap calorimeters for the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, and will serve as one of the main data distribution centers for the ATLAS experiment.
Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
|Physicist Des Ramsay checks his dosimeter at the
end of our tour of the TRIUMF particle physics lab.
Good news: We weren't exposed to any extra
radiation during our visit.
Someday, ATLAS may pick up the first evidence of the Higgs boson, an elusive subatomic particle that is thought to be responsible for giving other particles their mass. "The first guys who see it probably will get a Nobel Prize," Ramsay told us.
So even though the big news in physics will likely be coming from elsewhere for the next few years, TRIUMF will be sharing in the Large Hadron Collider's glories, as well as celebrating its own scientific triumphs back home in Vancouver. It all goes to show that although there may be rivalries in the race to solve physics' greatest puzzles, scientists around the world - at TRIUMF and at Fermilab as well as at CERN - are all really on the same team.
Update for 1:10 a.m. ET Jan. 23: I originally wrote that MDS Nordion paid about $4.5 million to TRIUMF in 2006 for radioisotopes, based on a line in that year's financial review for the lab. But the folks at TRIUMF tell me the actual royalty figures are a bit lower: $1.3 million for 2005-06, and $828,000 for 2006-07. My guess is that the financial review takes in other payments, or accounts for the funding in a different way. In any case, I've revised the item to reflect the lower figure.
More dispatches from the Big Science Tour:
Science / Comstock / Corbis
The latest roundup of the presidential candidates' stands (and non-stands) on science-related issues such as stem cells, climate change and energy policy illustrates why a debate focusing on those issues is so needed … and so unlikely to happen. Some hopefuls have been ducking so much you'd think they were out hunting with Dick Cheney. Nevertheless, analysts have come up with bits of data that run counter to the conventional wisdom.
For the most part, the candidates' stands on the issues have to be gleaned from sheafs of policy papers as well as past statements from office-holders and reassurances from advisers. That's how the journal Science put together this week's rundowns for nine top-tier presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson on the Democratic side, as well as Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson for the GOP).
"Although none of the campaigns afforded us direct access to the candidates themselves - a telling indicator of the importance of science in the campaign, perhaps - we've talked to some of their advisers, as well as to colleagues, friends and foes alike, who are familiar with their careers," Jeffrey Marvis, deputy news editor at Science, wrote in the leadoff to the journal's 10-page special report.
Some candidates were more forthcoming than others: Clinton has put the most effort into developing an overarching science policy, highlighted by her Sputnik-anniversary speech in Washington last October. In contrast, Giuliani's campaign "successfully discouraged key advisers from speaking to Science about specific issues," the journal noted. Thompson's aides were said to have declined repeated requests to discuss science and technology issues in detail.
Science isn't the only publication tracking down the candidates' views on science and technology:
The usual political spin is that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to call for tighter greenhouse-gas limits, more federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and more government support for basic research. But the analyses provide a more nuanced picture.
Republican McCain, for example, rates among the "most knowledgeable" candidates on the climate change issue, one expert told Science - and McCain turned up the heat on the Bush administration as a result. He's also taking advice from a former Clinton administration officials on energy security, and favors expanded stem cell research (although he draws the line on therapeutic cloning).
Giuliani is also more open to embryonic stem cell research, while Romney has distanced himself from the record he built on stem cells as well as greenhouse-gas limits during the early part of his term as Massachusetts governor. "His two-year honeymoon with the research community ended abruptly in 2005 ... just as Romney's presidential campaign was getting started," Science's Andrew Lawler wrote.
Even Huckabee, who has taken some knocks from the scientific mainstream for rejecting evolutionary theory and opposing embryonic stem-cell research, gets a somewhat softer image. Science summarizes the approach he took as Arkansas' governor thusly: "Take a strong stance, but don't impose your views on others."
Huckabee gets positive marks for his actions on health policy and research, but the environmental record is more mixed. He has said doing more about climate change was part of being "good stewards of this Earth," but has also referred to environmentalists as "wackos."
On the Democratic side, much has been made of Obama's statement that money should be diverted from NASA to help fund his proposed education programs - but on the Space Politics blog, Jeff Foust passes along a campaign clarification aimed at reassuring space advocates. This wouldn't be the first time Obama revised and extended his remarks on science-related issues: The Science report noted that Obama appeared to weave back and forth on the issue of liquefied coal as an energy source.
Biomedical researchers, meanwhile, expressed some reservations about the tactics Edwards used as a trial lawyer in a series of multimillion-dollar medical malpractice suits. "I know people who would never vote for him" because of that baggage, Nobel-winning biochemist Peter Agre told Science.
The main theme of all the roundups, however, is that a scientific perspective has been sorely lacking in the campaign up to this point. Now that the Iowa caucuses are officially kicking off the political season, it's time for that to change.
"Now is the time for the research community to catch the attention of the next president of the United States of America," Nature declares in an editorial this week.
Science's editor-in-chief, Donald Kennedy, notes that this year's presidential canididates aren't shy when it comes to talking about their religious beliefs - and then adds a twist:
"Given this new focus on religious disclosure, what does this U.S. election have to do with science? Everything. The candidates should be asked hard questions about science policy, including questions about how those positions reflect belief. What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins? Have you examined the scientific evidence regarding the age of Earth? Can the process of organic evolution lead to the production of new species, and how? Are you able to look at data on past climates in search of inferences about the future of climate change? ...
"... We need to know the candidates' qualifications for understanding and judging science, and for speaking intelligently about science and technology to the leaders of other nations in planning our collective global future. I don't need them to describe their faith; that's their business and not mine. But I do care about their scientific knowledge and how it will inform their leadership."
At least two broad-based efforts are trying to shine a light on on science and technology policy: For months, Scientists and Engineers for America has been gearing up to keep track of candidates' positions on key issues, not only on the presidential level but for all federal elective offices. Science Debate 2008's call for a full-bore debate on science and technology is quickly picking up traction, but that gets us back to the basic question: What will it take for the presidential campaigns to focus on scientific perspectives?
Maybe it's just too early for the campaigns to sound so, um, presidential. We're about to begin what's sure to be a bruising primary season, and the candidates are likely to be much more focused on securing their party base - people who generally aren't as concerned about the niceties of nuclear power and nuclear transfer. There'll be time enough to reach out to the geeks in lab coats after the convention. At least that's how I imagine the strategists are thinking.
What do you think? Feel free to pass along your perspective - or your pointers to policy clues - as a comment below.
It's a little weird to announce the top 10 winners of our 2008 Weird Science Award competition on the very day of the Iowa presidential caucuses and the official kickoff of the campaign season. The coincidence reminds me of the top headline I wrote years ago for my newspaper's food section, on the day after Election Day: "'Tis the season ... for fruitcakes." Nevertheless, here's our first annual crop of the Weirdies. Maybe we'll time the next Weirdy ballot for Election Day 2008.
NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute
|A backlit picture from the Cassini spacecraft, acquired in September 2006, shows
Saturn and its rings - including two faint rings that usually go unseen. Click on the
image for a slide show of Cassini's greatest hits.
The results are in from the latest "People's Choice" contest for the favorite image from Saturn, and the winners include a sure-fire stunner, a picture worthy of an abstract-art exhibit and a video flyover of a two-toned moon.
Over the past month, thousands of Internet users registered their personal favorites online in the contest - conducted by the imaging team for the Cassini spacecraft, a probe that has been orbiting the ringed planet for three and a half years.
"Many of these individuals wrote to us to say how difficult a choice it was: So many of our images and movies are such jewels that to choose one over the others was painful. In fact, a few told us the choice was so torturous they refused to vote!" the team said in a New Year's Eve statement announcing the winners.
The top picks were revealed in three categories: color imagery, black-and-white and video. In the first category, the runaway winner was a backlit view of Saturn and its rings - plus a pale blue dot representing a "you are here" perspective of Earth from hundreds of millions of miles away. The picture appears at the top of this page, but our tiny speck of a planet can be seen more clearly in the full-size imagery available via this Web page.
This picture, taken in September 2006, is already on its way to becoming a classic: A year ago, it was voted the top image in a similar "People's Choice" offering from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And last May, psychologist Steven Pinker rhapsodized about the picture, calling it "perhaps the most stunning photograph ever taken":
"This is truly awe-inspiring - not just visually beautiful, but a mind-boggling technical achievement, and a way to depict the finiteness and fragility of the planet in a way that we haven't experienced since the famous 'Earthrise' photo from the Apollo program in the late 1960s."
The competition was much tighter for the other two categories - so tight, in fact, that the Cassini imaging team declared ties for first place. In the black-and-white category, one of the co-winners was an infrared view of Saturn's shadowed side, filtered so that cloud patterns could be seen beneath the planet's top layer of atmospheric haze.
The other co-winner was a "Kandinsky-eque" view of Saturn and Titan, the planet's largest moon. The arrangement of Saturn's disk, its nearly edge-on rings and the crescent disk of Titan was so geometric that it reminded the scientists of the Russian painter's abstract masterpieces.
Both images have been added to our own slide show of Cassini's greatest hits.
The video winners document a couple of Cassini's wild rides through the Saturnian system. One time-lapse video was taken as the spacecraft descended to cross the ring plane at a distance of 500,000 miles from the planet. The camera focused on the rings as they shrank to a thin line and then widened again, while Saturnian moons zipped through the field of view. The "Great Crossing" is featured in this NBC News video as well as on this page of the Cassini imaging team's Web site.
"Our most technically challenging movie to date, this is a gripping, strap-yourself-in blast over the moon's high mountain peaks, and we were not surprised to see it rise to the top of this category," the imaging team said.
Some of those who participated in the contest will be selected to receive Cassini posters from the imaging team, which is headquartered at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. For more stunners from Saturn - and elsewhere in the cosmos - check out our space gallery.
While we're on the subject of contests, we should recognize the leading vote-getters in our own ballot for top space stories: As of today, your vote for the biggest story of the past year has resulted in a tie: The rising tide of international space missions (including China's first lunar probe) is sharing the glory with the quickening search for distant planets.
Your choice for the biggest trend to watch in 2008 is more clear-cut: Almost a third of you put the final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope on the top of your list. Here's hoping that we'll have good news to report about Cassini, Hubble, Mars Phoenix and the other marquee space missions a year from now.
Update for 9:20 p.m. ET Jan. 16, 2008: The Cassini imaging team gave away posters of the backlit Saturn image - basically, a Saturnian solar eclipse - as prizes to three randomly selected voters in the contest. The winners are:
Five of the volunteers who helped select the finalists also received posters: Carl Krauss, Christine Millsaps, Michael Rutkowski, Louise Sharples and Helen Sotiriadis.