In Brief

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Nanodialogue’s Big finish

Nanorobots circulating in the blood. A likely scenario for the near future? Nanorobots circulating in the blood. A likely scenario for the near future?

The scientific and industrial revolution in nanotechnology is under way, promising countless useful innovations in numerous fields, such as health and new materials. But this progress in manipulating matter at the atomic level is accompanied by ethical questions on its consequences and potential risks, which still remain under-explored.

Where does society currently stand on such matters? The EU-supported Nanodialogue initiative, coordinated by the Fondazione IDIS-Città della Scienza (IT), has taken stock of the debate in this field, at European level. Through exhibitions and discussions held in eight countries of the European Union, the project has gauged public opinion regarding expectations and doubts raised by the new power of nano-sciences.

Nanodialogue built to a big finish in February 2007 in the political arena of the European Parliament. Several key players from the project, with the human sciences having played an important role, put forward their conclusions regarding nanotechnology’s perceived impacts on society to an audience of scientists, political and industrial decision-makers, as well as associations. Their report calls for informing ordinary citizens and facilitating their transparent participation in major research issues. It also recommends the development of access to knowledge bases and the requirement for a more in-depth study of ethics and research.

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The challenge of smart objects

Microchips are everywhere. Increasingly, everyday objects contain microprocessors endowing them with ‘intelligence’. This can be activated either automatically, without the user’s knowledge, or via a choice of options. These so-called ‘embedded’ or ‘built-in’ systems are to be found in a host of everyday applications, such as telecommunications, medical innovations, domestic appliances, toys, vehicles, etc.

European industry is currently among the front runners with regards to innovation and development in this field. In order to maintain and reinforce this position, the main technological and manufacturing protagonists involved in the development and multiplication of these systems have just launched the first Joint Technology Initiative unveiled within the framework of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Artemis (Advanced R&D on Embedded Intelligent Systems) brings together several major European companies, such as Nokia, Philips, Thales, DaimlerChrysler and STMicroelectronics. The aim is to coordinate the transfer of expertise between the different companies and disciplines, and pool resources that influence progress in this field. The Artemis budget is estimated to be € 3 billion over seven years, with more than 50% coming from industry and the remainder being financed by FP7 and the Member States.

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ERAWATCH – European research online

In January 2007, the European Commission published a new centralised information source regarding research systems and policies on the web, covering the whole of the European Research Area. Thanks to ERAWATCH, analysts and political and scientific decision-makers can access, via a single site, concise and up-to-date information – strategic documents, programmes, results, sources of funding, recent indicators - as well as analyses relating to the evolution of research systems in all of the Member States and beyond.

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The atmosphere viewed from Cape Verde

A new international atmospheric observation station – bringing together British, Cape Verdean and German research organisations – has just entered into operation on the Cape Verdean island of São Vicente, off the coast of Mauritania. It aims to provide a better understanding of ocean/atmosphere interactions and their role in climate change. This observatory will, in particular, be responsible for monitoring and measuring changes affecting the chemical, biological and physical composition of the air which comes in contact with tropical waters. It is at this level, referred to by scientists as the marine boundary layer, that a process of atmospheric self-cleansing occurs, by means of hydroxyl free radicals capable of breaking down greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxide, etc.). It is estimated that approximately 75 % of methane elimination takes place in tropical zones. Very few scientific studies have been carried out to date in this region, which is well placed for providing information on atmospheric and oceanic change at these warm latitudes.

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Sleeping sickness – mutation discovered in India

The human form of trypanosomiasis, an illness classified as ‘rare’, is known as sleeping sickness in Africa and Chagas disease in Latin America. In these two historical breeding grounds, it is traditionally believed that this parasitic disease is transmitted by livestock. However, an isolated case of this pathology involving an infected farmer has recently been identified for the first time on the Indian subcontinent.

This appearance has piqued the interest of its discoverers, a team headed by Philippe Truc from the French Institute of Research for Development (IRD - FR), and working with Etienne Pays’ team from the Free University of Brussels. Analysis of the patient’s blood has revealed that the onset of the illness was caused by a genetic mutation, leading to the absence of the antibody apolipoprotein L, which ensures human defence against this parasitic disease.


Waterjet technology – cutting edge, cutting clean

A new waterjet machining technology centre opened its doors in January 2007 at the University of Nottingham, (UK) – the first of its kind in Europe. Waterjet technology (WT) is a very precise cutting process using extremely fine and strong jets of water mixed with sand, used for various materials, especially metals.

Previously, WT European facilities have been limited to flat-bed techniques – cutting two-dimensional objects like sheet metal. The new UK equipment has the ability to shape three-dimensional objects. The technology, used in the aeronautics industry, is not only highly precise, but also environmentally friendly. Classical alternative methods usually use corrosive acids that are difficult to dispose of, while the waterjet method does not cause any pollution. The new € 1.6 million centre is a partnership between the University of Nottingham, Rolls Royce, the East Midlands Development Agency, and the Midlands Aerospace Alliance, and is expected to help Europe compete in the global aerospace technology market.


Neutralising dengue fever

Especially widespread in tropical countries, dengue fever is a viral disease, transmitted by mosquitoes, which can cause plasma to leak from the blood vessels. In order to acquire a better understanding of what may cause this plasmatic deficiency, French, British and Thai researchers have identified the role played by specific enzymes, the metalloproteases, naturally present in low concentrations in the body. These enzymes attack the intercellular cement in the vessel walls and may play a part in the development of certain cancers. A series of in vivo experiments has allowed researchers to reproduce the vessel-rupturing mechanisms that give rise to plasma leaks – and, more importantly, to neutralise them. Could this be a new step towards a treatment or a vaccine?


Less risky water

Potable water quality is an absolute necessity for good health, but this precious resource is at risk when circulating through the distribution network. Water is not a sterile product, nor are the pipes, which therefore have to be constantly monitored to prevent the risk of microbial contamination. After four years of research, the European consortium Safer, which brings together universities and distribution companies from six countries (FR, PT, UK, DE, FI, LV), has completed its work on new methods for carrying out monitoring and microbiological checks on tap water. The researchers have established criteria and systems for the early detection of pathogenic biofilms that are likely to appear. They have also developed ex-post disinfection procedures, which reduce the need for resorting to those chemicals traditionally used.

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KEYS TO FP7

CORDIS: the participation portal

On the occasion of the launch of the Seventh Framework Programme (2007-2013), CORDIS, the Internet information portal for those involved in the European Research Area, is adopting a new image. Amongst other things, users will be able to find a list, which is constantly updated, of all thematic work programmes set up by the Commission, and calls for project proposals. Furthermore, CORDIS provides extensive online assistance for forming research consortia for all potential participants and parties concerned.

The portal also offers:

  • specific thematic pages dedicated to different research sectors (ICT and the information society, nanotechnology, research regarding safety issues), as well as cross-disciplinary approaches (small and medium-sized enterprises, innovation, international cooperation, researcher mobility, science and society, women and science);
  • pages dedicated to the European Union’s research policies, as well as research activities within the country holding the presidency of the Union and those within the other European Union Member States and countries eligible for FP7.

Goodbye helpdesks, hello Europe Direct

A new service for all queries, whether general or specific, regarding European research – and, more specifically, regarding FP7 – has just been set up for the Commission’s Research DG by the Europe Direct Contact Centre. It replaces the various help desks that existed before, where each specialised in certain research topics.

With the exception of very complex matters, the contact centre will reply to queries within three working days. If you need answers more urgently, you can also consult the Frequently Asked Questions, which cover a large number of the most common queries.


The 2007 Descartes Prizes

Janez Potočnik. Janez Potočnik at the Descartes award ceremony.

Awarded in March 2007 by an international jury, the Descartes Prizes for European Research – worth a total of € 1 million – were shared among three teams. The winners had beaten competition drawn from 66 nominated candidates, subsequently reduced to 13 finalists. As the fruit of cooperation involving some one hundred researchers in six European Union countries (DE, FR, UK, IE, PL, CZ), as well as Armenia, South Africa and Namibia, the high-energy stereoscopic system was awarded a prize for revolutionising astronomic observation techniques. The teams from the Hydrosol project, bringing together Greek, German, Danish and British universities and companies, developed a method of producing hydrogen by the dissociation of water. Using solar power, the process could lead to the ecological production of hydrogen as a source of energy. The third research project (AT, DK, IT, SE) awarded a prize, Apoptosis, enabled considerable progress to be made in our understanding of apoptosis (programmed cell death), which should lead to new developments in the future treatment of cancer and AIDS. As for the Descartes Prizes for Scientific Communication, these were awarded to five winners: Sheila Donegan and Eoin Gill for Eureka, a weekly scientific publication specially designed for children; the documentary series Europe, A Natural History, co-produced by the ORF, BBC and ZDF; Professor Vittore Sivestrini, from Città della Scienza in Naples; Odd Askel Bergstad and other scientists from the Mar-Eco network, for their work involving the participation of the general public in a marine life census; and Wendy Sadler for her project relating to schools, Science Made Simple.


The emergence of modern Europe

A former European civil servant involved in the Esprit programme and the Information and Communication Technologies programmes, Attilio Stajano lectures at the University of Bologna. He has just summarised his many years of experience, which is highly valued in the United States where several universities have invited him over on several occasions, in a book published by Springer. This work analyses how the competitiveness of the European economy, compared with its main competitors, is dependent more than ever on its ability to seize the opportunities offered by the information society and to build a durable strategic advantage in terms of quality. The book was described as ‘a fine summary and a very clear overall vision of the determining factors for the emergence of modern Europe’, by Luc de Brabandere, Vice-President of the Boston Consulting Group.


PROJECT LAUNCHES

Greener and quieter aircraft

The fight against the main environmental pollution factors from aircraft – noise levels and CO2 emissions – is an unavoidable political and economic issue facing all major engine manufacturers. In this field, the leading aeronautics and space company, Snecma Moteurs, serves as an example. Attaching great importance to its innovation policy, which targets environmental effects (20 % of its R&D budget is given over to this), it was the key player in the launch, in January 2005, of the Vital (EnVIronmenTALly Friendly Aero Engine) project. With a duration of four years, Vital has a budget of € 90 million, half of this being financed by the European Union under FP6. Under Snecma Moteurs’ supervision, it brings together 53 partners, including major European engine manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce plc, Volvo Aero and the aircraft manufacturer Airbus, as well as countless small and medium-sized equipment manufacturers, universities and research centres. Between now and 2009, this programme aims to reduce engine noise levels by 6 dB and CO2 emissions to 7%. Moreover, it aims to develop innovative technical solutions for producing lighter turbines, which would reduce fuel consumption considerably. In conjunction with two other European research programmes, Silence (Significantly Lower Community Exposure to Aircraft Noise) and EEFAE (Efficient and Environmentally Friendly Aero-engine), Vital is included in the list of initiatives implemented for the objectives of ACARE (Advisory Council for Aeronautical Research in Europe) which aims to reduce these two major pollution factors of air travel by half, by the year 2020.

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Emergency vessel for oil slicks

Are catastrophes involving oil spills at sea avoidable? They may be prevented by the draconian reinforcement of maritime technological safety measures, but zero risk can never be guaranteed. Efforts must therefore be made to overcome the inadequacies of the response options currently available, when, like the Erika in 1999 and the Prestige in 2002, tankers in distress in stormy seas discharge their toxic cargoes into the sea.

A consortium of major European shipyards has been formed, with support from the European Union, for the design and development of a vessel for ‘sucking up’ heavy hydrocarbon slicks at shipwreck sites, and which are capable of braving the oceans in bad weather. The Oil Sea Harvester (OSH) project is aimed at creating a revolutionary trimaran (138 m long and 38 m wide) which will suck up oil slicks into its enormous central hull. The two lateral hulls lend it stability, thus allowing it to withstand storms of force 9 and swells of force 7. The OSH could recover up to 6 000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, at a rate of 250 tonnes an hour. The emergency vessel, with a cruising speed of 20 knots, must be capable of arriving on site speedily and, once in place, drastically reducing its speed to one knot for oil recovery operations.

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Canary robots for fire crews

A consortium of researchers from universities and companies, led by Sheffield Hallam University, has just launched two projects, financed by the EU, for developing a series of small robots intended to make fire crews’ missions safer. Just like the canaries that were once used in mines for identifying any trace of gas (if the canary stopped singing, it had suffocated), these sophisticated automatic mini-alarms, the size of a child’s toy, are fitted with infrared cameras, ladars (laser-radars) and detector devices for chemical and toxic substances. They could be the first to enter sites of fires and could directly inform fire crews of the various types of danger present.


Cell therapies – patients as part of the team

Stem cell therapies have a very important and innovative field of application in the treatment of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic pathology causing serious disability in over 30 000 people in Europe. Research is making progress in this field – in particular, research centred on the technique known as exon skipping (1). The Myoamp project, which is supported by the European Union, has been given the green light for systematising this knowledge, dispersed within a new Best Practice module, for validation of the methods of transfer of myogenic (muscular) stem cells. This work will enable the subsequent move to the first clinical trials. A very innovative feature of the Myoamp approach lies in the desire on the part of scientists to closely involve patients’ representatives in the creation of these practices.

  1. The exon is the specific portion of a gene coding for a protein

SCIENCE WITHIN ARM’S REACH

Communicating European Research 2005

brings together texts written by experts who attended the Conference organised on this topic by the Commission (Brussels, November 2005). In it, you will find analyses by European scientists and ‘mediators’ regarding scientific communication, obligations and new related strategies, as well as the sometimes difficult relations between the parties involved in this process. Is it so difficult to ‘talk science’ with non-specialists? What is the situation with true and false impressions regarding relations between researchers and journalists? Can media coverage serve as a trap for scientists? Should they, in the future, look upon communication as being one of the obligatory elements of their profession? Some forty or so articles point out some of the focal points of scientific communication, whereas examples of scientific publication in specific fields (environment, nanotechnologies, etc.) complete this general overview. ‘The dissemination of results is, by the way, a contractual obligation on the part of participants in research projects supported by the European Union, since the 2002-2006 Sixth Framework Programme,’ Michel Claessens, the Conference organiser and editor of the book, points out. ‘The aim is to promote the sharing of knowledge, raise public awareness of research, to raise the level of transparency and also education. Communication is the key to a knowledge society.’

To find out more
  • Communicating European Research 2005 – edited by Michel Claessens, 248 p., Springer 2007
  • www.springer.com

Hands-On Guide for Science Communicators: A Step-by-Step Approach to Public Outreach

takes the form of a practical guide to science communication. ‘Getting the media to listen to you is a constant battle. Science is competing with political events and more exciting subjects ... The two main parties involved, the scientist and the journalist, have a lot in common, like objectivity and an inquisitive mind, but they also have many differences, which may result in conflict. That is why the role of the PIO (Public Information Officer), as a professional mediator, is important, and contributes to the best possible scientific communication,’ Lars Lindberg Christensen, from the European Space Agency (ESA) explains. With or without a PIO, his book allows the reader to investigate the mysteries of presenting topics to the general public: methods, strategies, budgets, target groups, the various parties involved, types of ‘products’, crisis communication, advertising, etc. In it, you will find useful links, and a glossary (terminology and concepts). It also includes a case study that centres on Hubble, a favourite area for the ESA author who has taken the opportunity to slip in some very attractive astrophysical images. Furthermore, a ‘User’s Guide’ section is included for an effective dip into these waters, which could convince those who are still somewhat reluctant to dive in.

To find out more
  • Lars Lindberg Christensen, Hands-On Guide for Science Communicators: A Step-by-Step Approach to Public Outreach, 270 p., Springer 2007
  • www.springer.com

Your Science in Their Hands.

This is the direct and expressive title of a DVD produced by EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organisation). It aims to makes scientists aware of communication strategies. It contains 45 minutes of arguments, examples and advice to convince scientists of the need to allow themselves to be interviewed, participate in debates, present their research, etc. Andrew Moore, the person in charge of EMBO’s Science & Society programme, did not launch into this audio-visual adventure without previous experience. He has been organising workshops and giving talks on researcher/media relations for some years now and has collaborated, on this exercise with Bernard Dixon, OBE (editor in chief of the New Scientist and a well-known British populariser of science). The document also includes extracts from an EMBO workshop organised by the latter, as well as other teaching materials that put the subject into context. ‘This film does not replace meetings, workshops and practical sessions, but it does make people aware of the matter,’ Andrew Moore points out. ‘For some years now, I have noticed that young scientists are interested in communication aimed at non-specialists, but their seniors often attach less importance to this. But it is often difficult, for a young researcher, to get away from their laboratory, in order to attend a workshop on this subject. I hope our DVD can make up for this problem of availability...’ The next Media Workshop organised by EMBO, entitled Fun and games with media communication, will take place next July.

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The complete Darwin collection online

Reproduced with the permission of Cambridge University Library and William Darwin © Reproduced with the permission of Cambridge University Library and William Darwin

Publishing all of Charles Darwin’s works on the Net, that is the challenge taken up by the prestigious Cambridge University in Britain. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online currently offers more than 50 000 pages of text (manuscripts, original and subsequent editions, catalogues, etc.) and 45 000 images. Unpublished material is to be unveiled to the general public, including accounts of Darwin’s expeditions to South America, Australia and the Galapagos, between 1831 and 1836. This project is being overseen by John van Wyhe, a devoted researcher at Christ's College. His passion is indeed shared, judging by the success of the site: opened in October 2006, it receives 25 000 visits day. Between now and 2009 (the bicentenary of the birth of this visionary and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of the Species), this Darwinian encyclopaedia should become even more substantial, particularly with translations, more recent editions and most of the archive images from Cambridge University library.

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The bridges built by ‘science shops’

Neighbourhood residents complain about the quality of the water. Some students come along and check it out, contact the Council representatives and suggest technical solutions that would improve the situation. This is one example of the services offered by Science shops. These unique ‘shops’ serve, in their own way, as a bridge between society and the world of research. Often linked to universities, the persons in charge of them answer questions posed by associations, and rarely charge a fee (and if so, just a small one) for their expertise. Their international network, Living knowledge, offers a site that is well worth a visit. Here, you will find case studies, publications, data banks, useful addresses, the possibility of receiving a newsletter about the network and taking part in discussion groups ... An initiative supported by the Commission.


Child’s play…

TryScience is an interactive tool that allows children (even the very young) to carry out experiments at home, to visit science centres in every corner of the globe, and to find out more about state-of-the-art subjects. They can, for example, discover the secrets of DNA by taking part in a police investigation, or carry out experiments, in a fun way, to show that yeast really is a living organism.

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Long-term exhibition

Brrrr ... the Ice Age

The melting of alpine glaciers, proof of present-day global warming. Large glacier at Aletsch (Valais) in 1900 and 2004. The melting of alpine glaciers, proof of present-day global warming. Large glacier at Aletsch (Valais) in 1900 and 2004.
© WWF/Gesellschaft für ökologische Forschung

Are you familiar with Louis Agassiz? This Swiss zoologist, palaeontologist, glaciologist (1807-1873), who was passionate about natural history, and had an especially fertile mind (over 20 books containing 2000 plates in 14 years), focussed on the glaciers in his own country, before pursuing a brilliant career in the United States. Active on both sides of the Atlantic, he founded the Natural History Museum in Neuchâtel (CH) and the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge (USA). The first of these is now paying homage to him through an educational exhibition on glaciers. Here, we find out what is meant by the terms moraine, an erratic block, the terrestrial albedo, and so on. But, above all, the way in which these mysterious bodies ‘move’, the alarming threats to our ice fields and, more generally, global warming, their number one enemy. In parallel, the Swiss museum is also housing the exhibition The Age of the Mammoth which was put together by the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

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EDUCATION CORNER

Splash or plop?

The plop (on the right) and the splash (on the left): the only difference between these two cases is the surface of the marbles, which hit the surface at the same speed. The plop (on the right) and the splash (on the left): the only difference between these two cases is the surface of the marbles, which hit the surface at the same speed.

What could be more commonplace than the splash you hear when you throw a pebble into the water, often accompanied by a spray of water? But sometimes, instead of a splash, you hear just a little plop, and the pebble slips into the water practically without disturbing the surface.

What makes these two cases different? Researchers in the condensed matter and nanostructures physics laboratory (CNRS/ Lyon 1 University) have shown that the speed of impact of the pebble must exceed a certain threshold before you hear a splash, produced by closure of the air cavity caused when the pebble enters the water. So far, nothing too surprising. The most remarkable feature of their work lies elsewhere, namely in the fact that the value of the speed threshold is dependent on the surface of the pebble. In other words, a hydrophilic marble (one that attracts water), such as a well-polished glass marble, simply produces a small plop, even at high speed, whereas a hydrophobic marble (one which repels water), for example a marble covered in a silane coating several nanometres thick, produces a large splash, irrespective of the speed of impact. Researchers have carried out experiments using two marbles under identical speed conditions (see illustration). Using this approach, the characteristics of the impacts can be altered through molecular-scale modifications to the surface of the solid object. That such microscopic detail should determine macroscopic phenomena was unexpected, as it runs contrary to prevailing theories held until now. The ability to control the formation of air cavities, especially when they are undesirable, such as when ships plough through waves, could prove particularly useful.


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