In Brief

ZEITGEIST

String theory - untying the knots

Tests on the CERN LHC. ©Cern Tests on the CERN LHC. ©Cern

String theory was developed some thirty years ago in an attempt to bring together what had been two mutually independent pillars of physics - general relativity and quantum mechanics - under the same unifying principle, that of quantum gravity. String theory posits the existence of a 10 or 11 dimension universe made up of minuscule  strings of energy, the vibration of which gives different particles their properties. Where there’s a theory, there’s a debate. On 6 June this year, during a meeting organised to mark the publication of the French translation of Lee Smolin’s book The Trouble with Physics: the Rise of the String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, the Cité des Sciences in Paris was the scene of a confrontation of astrophysicists on this issue. On one side was Lee Smolin, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada, for whom this “collection of approximate calculations” places a brake on other alternative theories like loop quantum gravity. Opposing him, Thibaut Damour, who teaches at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques near Paris, for whom strings are nonetheless full of “experimentally verifiable phenomena”, which can be tested when the new large CERN  accelerator (LHC) comes into action in 2008.

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A star has died

With the help of NASA’s Swift satellite, a dead star with unusual properties has recently been identified not far from Earth, in theUrsa Minor constellation. It is a neutron star, created by the collapse of a massive star at the end of its combustion under the effect of its own gravity. Even though the mass of such stars, reduced to a few tens of kilometres in diameter, is too small to produce a black hole, their density remains impressive: a thimble of their substance would weigh almost 100 tonnes on Earth. Discovered by Robert Rutledge’s team at McGill University (Canada), Calvera – named after the bandit chief in the film The magnificient Seven – is the eighth known isolated neutron star, that is to say a neutron star unaccompanied by the remains of a supernova or a binary companion. Calvera lies between 250 to 1000 light years away, making it the closest isolated neutron star to Earth, and therefore an ideal object for studying stars of this type, in particular given its very strong X-ray luminosity.



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e-damage

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

WEEE: waste electrical and electronic equipment. Included under this heading are so-called “grey products” from office automation and IT equipment (screens, CPUs, keyboards, printers, etc.). Bearing in mind that a billion computers will be in use in the world in 2008, the total bill for e-waste (20 to 50 million tonnes in 2005) looks like it will be expensive. WEEE is rarely collected or recycled, but generally incinerated, giving off almost 36 tonnes of mercury and 16 tonnes of cadmium into the atmosphere (European Union report). As if this were not enough, the Internet and its many servers represent an estimated 123 terawatt hours of electricity consumption in 2005, equal to the production of 15 nuclear power stations. Whilst revolutionising our life styles, the web is contributing to an energy bill of over € 5 billion a year.



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Driving on aluminium

A research team from Purdue University (Indiana, USA) has just developed a fuel cell system in which hydrogen is created by the oxidation of aluminium, thereby removing the need for a hydrogen tank. The principle is simple: when aluminium comes into contact with water, the oxygen in the water combines with it (oxidation reaction) to form alumina (aluminium oxide). This process liberates the hydrogen in the water, which is immediately recovered  by the fuel cell to produce energy. But aluminium, on coming into contact with oxygen, forms a sort of impermeable skin. It is to sidestep this chemical barrier that researchers prefer to use an 80-20 aluminium-gallium alloy in place of pure aluminium. This latter component is relatively expensive, but can be reused as many times as desired, given that it comes out of the reaction intact. Alumina in turn can be easily recycled into aluminium. Researchers,   who are still a long way off a marketable device, are initially envisaging applications such as personal electronics, robots or wheelchairs for the mobility impaired. Will we one day see cars powered by aluminium?

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Paper batteries

Dilute cellulose (the main component of paper) in a saline solution, and then add a decoction of carbon nanotubes. With this original and self-organising mixture, you will obtain a sheet of paper which, once saturated in a lithium  salt, gives a solid, flexible film, with a metal-coated surface (the positive electrode) on one side and a layer of nanotubes (the negative electrode) on the other. Its particular use is as a battery or condenser that can fit into a pacemaker or an electronic device. This discovery by a team of researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (New York State, United States) has already proved its worth by powering a small 10 milliamp ventilator or a luminescent diode at a rate of 2 volts per gramme of paper. Tolerant to temperatures ranging between -70 and 150°C, this battery is 90% biocompatible and could, among other things, be of interest to medicine given its lack of toxic elements. The next stage is to develop an industrial manufacturing process.



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Dictionary of X

The Coma galaxy cluster as observed by XMM-Newton. © ESA The Coma galaxy cluster as observed by XMM-Newton. © ESA

191 870. This is the number of Xray sources identified until now in the Universe by XMM-Newton. This satellite, launched in 1999 by ESA in cooperation with NASA, is devoted entirely to searching out these X-ray sources.  These include active galaxies, black holes, pulsars (neutron stars) among others… The 191,870 X-ray sources are listed in a catalogue that has just been published. Like any dictionary, it is not exactly light reading, but is no less interesting for that. In fact, X-rays are the signature of particularly violent events taking place in the Universe at very high temperatures. Locating the sources of these X-rays is therefore of particular interest to researchers who want to know more about the origin of the different components of the Universe.

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Science and media, a questionable couple

It is hard, very hard for scientists to get journalists to understand them. And specialist journalists have the same problem with their readers. Even so, this scientistjournalist tandem needs to function harmoniously in order for research to be reported and understood at national, European and international levels. A good opportunity to tighten links between these two professions was provided in early December in Barcelona. The Commission organised a forum where the various parties concerned were able to discuss ways of improving the communication of scientific know-how. DG Research of the Commission also used this forum to reveal the results of recent studies on the perception of science and scientific journalism, together with the Eurobarometer on Research in the Media.



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Cancer: put colour on your plate

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

Radishes, bilberries, aubergines, red grapes, blue corn, myrtles… all fruits and vegetables with dark colours ranging from blue to red to black. Researchers at the University of Ohio in the United States have discovered that these pigments, known as anthocyans, have anti-cancer properties, in particular for cancers of the intestine and colon. How? Unlike other substances, anthocyan is poorly absorbed by the blood system during digestion. On the other hand, further down the digestive tract, exchanges appear to take place with intestinal and colon tissues. According to researchers, it is these exchanges, the mechanisms of which are still unclear, that makes consumption of these fruits and vegetables so beneficial. The facts are there to prove it: experiments on human cells and on rats have shown that anthocyan is able to halt, or even destroy, the development of cancerous cells.

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EUROPEAN NEWS

Russia and Europe to the Volga’s rescue

© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

Measuring 3 700 kilometres from its source to the sea, the Volga is Europe's longest river. Its 1.36 million km² basin is home to 40% of the Russian population, 45% of Russia’s industrial capital and 50% of its agriculture. But this basin is being threatened by the human activities taking place there. The risks are numerous – ecological, social and economic. Fish stocks are being exploited to exhaustion. Pollution from industry and river traffic, and sewage from residential zones, are damaging the quality of the very water on which these activities depend for their survival. To crown everything, the competent authorities are finding it difficult to coordinate their efforts to achieve an integrated, rational management of this gigantic basin. It is to remedy this central problem that the CABRI-Volga project has been set up. With a budget of €1.2 million, funded largely by the European Commission, local players and scientists are now working together to lay the foundations of better institutional cooperation for the integrated, multidisciplinary management of the Volga basin. The hope is also that one day the results of CABRI-Volga can be extended to all the main river basins of Europe and Russia.

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ERA: not enough players on stage

An overly institutional approach which ignores large parts of Europe’s researcher population. This is the main criticism leveled at the latest Green Paper on the European Research Area (ERA) in the joint response by the European Science Foundation (ESF) and the European Heads of Research Councils (EUROHORCs) to the vast consultation launched last May. Whilst applauding the initiative, the ESF and EUROHORC, two beacon institutions of the European science world, point out that excessive attention to the roles of the Commission and national  governments is obscuring the essential contributions of national financing organizations and of researchers themselves. Aware that the embedding of the ERA merits deeper debate, the ESF is organising a conference for politicians in Strasbourg on 28–29 November next. The programme does not shy away from the thorniest subjects for the ERA: setting up research structures, reforming peer review systems, mobility of scientists and the training of young scientists.

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Tsunamis : against the clock

© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

4 minutes 38 seconds. This is the time needed last August by the GITEWS (German Tsunami Early Warning System) to successfullydetect, locate and measure a major earthquake in Java (M=7.6). This performance was made possible by the SeisComP (Seismological Communication Processor). This programme, developed by the GFZ in Potsdam, forms the backbone of the tsunami alert system in the Indian Ocean, permitting, among other things, interactive analysis of the seismic data. It has also been significantly improved (SeisComP3) to rapidly identify potentially “tsunamic” earthquakes. By 2008, the joint efforts of GFZ Potsdam and the Jakarta Geophysical   and Meteorological Agency should give us the most sophisticated tsunami earthquake alert network anywhere in the world.



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“Nano” generator

The Laboratory of Condensed Matter and Nanostructure Physics (PMCN) at Lyon (France) has just developed the world’s first nano-AC generator. This innovative nano-electromechanical system (NEMS) is no longer dependent on an outside source of alternating current (passive) but is totally autonomous and able to emit a periodical electrical signal by means of an ingenious selfoscillating system, consisting of a silicon carbide nano-wire (or resonator) enveloped with an entry wire for the electrical signal and an exit wire. In this way a sufficiently large continuous voltage oscillates the metal, liberating electrons and generating an electrical charge. Moving down from millimetric scale (micro-electromechanical systems or MEMS) to nanometric scale, six orders of magnitude are gained at once, which considerably reduces electricity consumption. This invention could well become a vital component of tomorrow’s machinery, including telecommunications (mobile phones, WiFi, etc.) and cars (tyre pressure gauges, collision avoidance radars), which often need variable signals with frequencies in the gigahertz range.



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Before the floods come

Fire and drought or wind and floods, the likely consequences of climate change, are threatening our architectural heritage across Europe. To evaluate the risks and assess what action can be taken to protect our cultural heritage, the research institutes and universities of seven European countries have united their efforts in the Noah's Ark project. The results were presented in May 2007 in the form of a “European Vulnerability Atlas”,which lists historical sites and the risks to which they are exposed. The researchers have also put together a series of guidelines to help decision-makers identify the most appropriate protection measures. Noah’s Ark has identified various factors that play a major role in the degradation of heritage buildings. These include extreme temperatures, solar radiation, dust-bearing winds, freeze/thaw cycles, rain (including “horizontal rain” due to strong winds), acid rain, humidity  levels, water infiltration and sea levels. By integrating these parameters into a computer modelling system, combining them with factors like building materials and age of the building, and using our knowledge of physics, chemistry and microbiology, the researchers were able to produce this Atlas and “good behaviour guide”.

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Mobility in the service of animals

The well-being of farm animals is a growing concern for the Union’s consumers. At the same time, researcher mobility represents a major challenge for the creation of the European Research Area. The European Welfare quality® project combined these two imperatives when setting up the Training and Mobility activity directed at young researchers seeking to complete their training in animal welfare in the agriculture and food sector. The programme offers its expertise, essentially to doctoral and post-doctoral students, to encourage the exchange of laboratory workers between European institutions. This system does not provide direct financing, but has set up a support desk tohelp young researchers find bursaries from national and European institutions. Given the complexity of the many types of student financing that the European Commission offers, this can be a real help.

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Hope against HIV

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

The EuroSIDA research project financed by the European Commission since 1994 has just opened a promising avenue for HIV positive persons. Through long-term combination antiretroviral therapy (cART), the number of CD4  lymphocyte immune cells, normally low in the case of HIV positive patients, is expected to increase considerably and reach levels similar to those found in non-affected persons. According to a five-year study carried out by the Royal Free Centre for HIV Medicine and the Royal Free and University College London Medical Schools, this treatment permits a normalization of the CD4 count in the blood of infected patients by maintaining viral inhibition  for sufficiently long periods. The lower the initial CD4 counts (200 cells per microlitre of blood), the better the results.



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"Brain cannabis" connects neurons

Our brain naturally secretes molecules similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the active substance in cannabis. Like THC, these endocannabinoid compounds latch onto the CB1 receptors of the nerve cells. According to a Euro-American study partially financed by the European Union, this ‘brain cannabis’ plays a significant role in the formation of neuron connections during foetal development, by guiding the axons towards the right nerve cells. THC cannot do this, and indeed these researchers believe that the consumption of cannabis during pregnancy can inhibit this natural process. The potential consequences on the new-born child are many: cognitive disorders, concentration deficit, hyperactivity and social interaction problems, meaning actual cannabis may disconnect neurons.



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Humanising child-cyborgs

The Kaspar friend. © Adaptive Systems Research Group The Kaspar friend. © Adaptive Systems Research Group

Play is an important way of learning to communicate. The inability to do so can become an isolating factor among some children with disabilities. To counter these difficulties, the Iromec (Interactive Robotic Social Mediators as Companions), financed by the 6th European Commission framework programme, has brought together experts in pedagogics, psychology, ITC and robotics to develop robots that look and behave like children. For this it is important to understand the effects of the interplay and sensorial subtleties of the different parts of the human body on a child’s cognitive development. The Iromec programme, begun in November 2006 for a three-year period, includes research on autistic children who have difficulty in assimilating human expressions, which are too often overloaded with information and become a source of confusion. For example, the Kaspar family of cyborgs developed by the European RobotClub project has been studied by Iromec researchers as a therapeutic and educational tool for autistic children. Fitted with little cameras and a mobile face in silicon, Kaspar expresses emotions in the simplest possible way, as well as traditional gestures like those of joy, hurt or the wink of an eye. Reassured by its companion, the child interacts more easily with others and learns to develop strong social skills.

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Science remains macho…

Launched on 28 March 2006, the European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS) is seeking to create a structural link between female scientists and politicians by insisting on the need to include the gender dimension in science and to ensure transparency in recruitment policies. According to statistics published last September by EPWS General Secretary Maren A. Jochimsen, women represent 50% of European undergraduate students and 43% of doctoral students. However, this figure reduces to 15% at the level of decision-making bodies (deans of studies, institute directors, etc.). For Maren A. Jochimsen, these highly qualified female scientists who have been passed over could be a potential source for recruiting the 700 000 or so researchers that the EU needs if it is to achieve the Lisbon objectives.

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…. but is improving.

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

The European Science Foundation (ESF) brings together 75 scientific organisations from 30 European countries to promote scientific research, improve European cooperation and share resources in this field. It issues opinions on strategic scientific issues and encourages researcher mobility. This is a vast challenge, given the notorious weaknesses of our fragmented continent when it comes to collaboration and developing common platforms. From 1 January 2008, the executive body of the ESF will be led by a Finnish personality with an impressive CV. She is Marja Makarow, vice-rector for research and doctoral training at the University of Helsinki, professor of applied biochemistry and molecular biology, a member of the Finnish national council for scientific and technology policy, and the first woman to head the ESF since it was set up 33 years ago.



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Fresh water blocks salt

© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

When water tables are invaded by sea water, fresh water becomes unfit for consumption, and drinking water becomes a major problem in coastal zones. According to Professor José Benavente of the Water Institute of the University of Granada, 60% of the groundwater of the Spanish coast is polluted in this way. The reason lies in the obviousoverexploitation of natural freshwater reserves. These problems could be prevented, for example, by reducing the amount of water pumped out of the water table, in order to limit the infiltration of sea water. But right now a new technology is being tested in several regions of the world (Spain, California, etc.) and seems to work. It involves treating and re-injecting waste water from human activities back into the threatened water tables. These form a veritable “hydraulic wall” which prevents sea water from infiltrating.

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Nano-responsibility

Are nanosciences and technologies (NST) as innocent as they look? These emerging sciences of the 21st century, constantly seeking to study, manipulate and manufacture material on a nanometric (nm) scale, are raising serious  ethicaland security concerns. The fact is that nanoparticles takes us beyond our natural biological limits and allow us to foresee the day when living creatures will be coupled up to artificial systems and materials. This raises the question of the responsible management and control of nanosciences. To carry forward this debate, the Commission has just launched a consultation in allMember States, aimed at drawing up a code of behaviour to guarantee that nanotechnologies do indeed retain their innocence. For Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for science and research, it is vitally important to properly manage the use of these new technologies, which will represent a market of €110 billion by 2010.

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The malaria parasite deactivates its own genes

Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoan responsible for malaria. ©G.Doerig/Inserm Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoan responsible for malaria.
©G.Doerig/Inserm

A new malaria infection mechanism has recently been discovered by an Anglo-Spanish research team. Their research, partfinanced by the BioMalPal European network of excellence, has revealed how Plasmodium  falciparum, the parasite involved in around 80% of cases of malaria, is able to inhibit the synthesis of at least 7 proteins by deactivating the corresponding genes. The phenomenon was detected during the second stage of infection, during which the parasite passes from the liver to the blood cells in the form of merozoites. It is at this stage, before penetrating the red blood cells and continuing its life cycle, that the parasite is the most vulnerable, as it is directly exposed to the host’s antibodies and the potential action of vaccines. As these are based on a  single antigen, and hence a single protein, it is important not to target those proteins which the parasite can  activate and deactivate as it pleases.

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Natural cruelty

Bees suffocating a hornet © Emmanouil Filippou/CNRS 2007 Bees suffocating a hornet
© Emmanouil Filippou/CNRS 2007

Bees have a particularly voracious predator in the hornet. In Cyprus, hornets have left a trail of carnage, decimating entire hives, and ruining beekeepers’ livelihoods. What can be done? Perhaps simply let nature take its course. Greek and French researchers have in fact recently discovered a new technique that Cypriot domestic bees are using to defend themselves. They suffocate the hornet., Swarms of them - between 150 and 300 bees at a time - simply grab onto it, immobilise its abdomen and batten down the opercula covering the tiny abdominal respiratory orifices. Scientists first thought this was thermo-balling, a technique observed among Asian bees, dozens of which cluster around the aggressor, raising its body temperature to above 50 degrees, which kills it. But this temperature is equally lethal for the Apis mellifera cypria, the Cypriot bee. Their situation therefore called for a different technique.



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Erratum

There was an error in the 7th Framework Programme Special Edition we published in June 2007. Please accept our apologies. In the diagram of the JTIs on page 6, there should be six research fields, and not five:
(1) Hydrogen and fuel cells for the sustainable energies of the future;
(2) Aeronautics and air transport;
(3) Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES);
(4) Towards a nanoelectronic approach;
(5) Innovative medicines for Europe’s citizens
(6) Embedded computer systems (ARTEMIS).



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Science at our fingertips

Da Vinci, unique and multiple.

Codex sur le vol des oiseaux. Codex sur le vol des oiseaux.

“ … a rugged determination to experiment and carry out research, to forge his own convictions independently of received ideas, whatever authority they might carry, to set objectives to reach, and then pursue them with obstinate rigour.” These areLeonardo’s qualities that Paolo Galluzi, director of Florence’s Museum of the History of Science, likes to cite. Qualities that can serve as examples, he believes, “for Europe and its young people”. It is in Brussels that Da Vinci is in the limelight today, in a four-part exhibition devoted to Da Vinci the man, the artist, the engineer and the humanist. In the art section we discover a Mary Magdalene (58 x 45 cm), long attributed to his pupil Giampietrino. Confirmed recently as a real Da Vinci by a specialist, Carlo Pedretti, it is making itssecond public showing in Brussels. In a totally different format (8 metres long), the organisers have ordered a Last Supper, a copy of the one at the abbey of Tongerlo (BE), itself a replica of the original in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Leonardo the engineer is present with forty or so models based on his drawings (automotive   chariot, helicopter, bicycle, swing bridge, etc.) and his famous Codex on the Flight of Birds, testifying to the research work which led him to dream up all kinds of flying machines. Drawings by other Renaissance arts, audio-visual documents and various teaching tools shed light on the life and work of this multidimensional man, ever searching for a cosa bizarra.

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Communicating in silence

The silence “bar”, one of the areas of Schattensprache. © G2 Baraniak - 2007 The silence “bar”, one of the areas of Schattensprache.
© G2 Baraniak - 2007

For more than an hour, visitors say nothing. They are guided by experts in sign language and gradually learn to communicate, in particular by taking part in games or scenes from everyday life. The Scenes of Silence exhibition lasts until 5 March 2008 at the Heureka (FI) science centre. It is also on permanent display at the Provianthaus in Rendsburg (DE) under the title Schattensprache. In Finland, a similar event, Dialogue in the Dark, took place in 2001. Participants were plunged into total darkness in order to unveil to them the “invisible” world of the blind. “These concepts are all the stronger for the emotional charge that comes on top of the immersion and interactivity,” Heureka director Mikko Myllykoski, is keen to add. “After this experience visitors view the universe of the visually or aurally impaired in a different way, as they discover their skills and their abilities to perceive and communicate. It is one way of better understanding human diversity.”



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The global status of science

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In almost 300 pages of concise texts, backed up with a wealth of graphs and tables, the UNESCO Science Report provides a status report on R&D worldwide. “Knowledge society”, “innovation” and “private sector” have become key words here. Not to mention the fact that science is also shifting its position on the globalization chessboard. In 2002, 1.7% of global GDP was devoted to R&D. DERD (Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development) was down in North America (37% of world DERD compared with 38.2% in 1997) and in Europe (27.3% compared with 28.8%), whilst Asia jumped from 27.7% to 31.5%. Here too we need to be more specific: in the USA, six states produce 60% of total R&D – including one third in California. If Asian R&D is led by Japan, China and India, we should also mention South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. Latin America is treading water, whilst Africa (apart from South Africa) remains right at the bottom of the scale in a particularly alarming way. But the figures also reveal other facts. Russia, for example, ranks number three in the world in number of researchers per capita (3 400 per million inhabitants), but the expenditure devoted to R&D is low and working conditions are mediocre. Whilst the EU is ahead of the United States in terms of number of scientific articles published, the lion’s share of citations and articles appearing in influential scientific publications remains the prerogative of the USA. Developing countries represent 22% of world DERD, but just 10% of all patents delivered or applied for, with China reaching just 0.5%.The report also analyses the innovation dynamic symbolized by the “triple helix”: cooperation between companies, knowledge institutions and government bodies. Private sector financing of R&D is becoming   increasingly predominant, in particular in the USA and Japan. In the EU, the private sector represents just over half the average of 1.81% of GDP spent on R&D in Member States – against the Union target of 3% of GDP by 2010. If we are to believe Peter Tindemans, the Dutch expert who has written the introduction to the report, one of the biggest problems for the public authorities, who are paring back their financial commitments, remains the brain drain, which can increase imbalances. “This is a factor that should incite them to strengthen universities, to create an environment favourable to private enterprise, to do away with suffocating regulations and build an open society.”

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Animals and Humans

Nick Brandt, Exodus of the Elephants II, Amboseli, 2004 Nick Brandt, Exodus of the Elephants II, Amboseli, 2004

The often disconcerting relations between humans and animals are presented under the glass roof of the Grande Halle de la Villette (Paris) in an exhibition circuit covering an area of 3 500m². Dreamed up by architect Patrick Bouchain, this journey evokes the idea of lairs, caves and shelters. The atmosphere is dominated by four topics: “animals transform humans”, “animals are strangers to man”, “the animals have a job”, and “animals force us to make choices”. This original vision is that of Vinciane Despret, a lecturer at the University of Liège (BE). A passionate ethnologist, she has decided to explore “situations in which human and non-human animals have transformed each other, have affected each other, have exchanged proposals and changed their relations.” The exhibition raises many issues, like the reintroduction of bears in inhabited mountains, living conditions in zoos and circuses, concepts of breeding and racial diversity, and the way in which we see a reflection of ourselves in the great apes. Animals and Humans is an exhibition to challenge our ideas. We are reminded of Witold Gombrowicz, speaking in his diary of his “meeting” with a cow: “its cow-ness took my human-ness so much by surprise – there was such tension when our eyes crossed – that I felt confused as a man, and as a member of the human species.” Here it is not a cow asking the questions, but certain animals “in residence” (iguanas, bustards, crows, vultures, etc.), which have been injured and are being cared for by humans. The circuit includes works by a hundred or so contemporary artists who have worked on the concept of ‘animalness’. The exhibition is rounded off with  colloquies, workshops and a very attractive catalogue put together by Vinciane Despret (published by Gallimard).

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Initiatives

University Bodleian Library Oxford (UK) copy; Shutterstock University Bodleian Library Oxford (UK) copy; Shutterstock

Ricerca italiana, the official site of Italian public research, has launched a Communicare la scienza heading on its site. Those who can juggle with the language of Dante can “know everything” on the status of the projects, results and programmes that depend on this body.

www.ricercaitaliana.it/

 

An ideas competition has been launched by the University of Provence. The topic is young people’s lack of interest in fundamental scientific research. Participants are invited to analyse the reasons, the consequences and give their opinion on possible remedies.

www.up.univ-mrs.fr/

 

A multilingual heritage portal enables surfers to navigate through museums (including science museums),  libraries, archives etc., to discover the collections they contain, with direct links to their sites. Right now the data covers Italy, the UK and France.

www.michael-culture.org/en/home/



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Teaching corner

Sneezing in the sun

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

Are you affected by the photic sneeze reflex? It’s easy to find out. One day, when the sun is shining brightly, move out of a dark room and stare straight into the sun. If you suddenly start sneezing, this means you are one of the  11% to 36% of the world’s population that is affected by this mysterious reflex. According to the majority of  research studies on the subject, this characteristic, known also more evocatively as ACHOO syndrome, a retro- acronymn of Autosomal dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst, is due to a genetic mutation. Many  experts agree on this theory, because photic sneeze reflex seems to affect members of the same family. But there is no certainty, as no gene responsible for this characteristic has ever been identified. It could therefore just as well be an   acquired feature. How can light bring about such a reflex? Whilst several hypotheses are advanced in the scientific literature, that of crossed cables is largely accepted. This theory states that the anomaly is due to a fault in the transmission of a message inside the ganglion of the trigeminal nerve, a major nerve centre in the skull that is responsible among other things for facial sensations and sneezing. The trigeminal nerve is divided into three distinct parts, the ophthalmic nerve, the upper maxillary nerve and the mandibular nerve, which converge in the trigeminal ganglion. A sudden change in luminosity is believed to stimulate the ophthalmic nerve so strongly that the trigeminal ganglion reacts to the message its sends as if it came from the upper maxillary nerve. And with the latter nerve responsible for transmitting the message ‘irritation of the nasal mucous’, the reaction is a sudden and violent attack of sneezing. Bless you!



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Young researchers

Bruno, age 33, biologist

Bruno Danis in the Antarctic. Bruno Danis in the Antarctic

1 April 2004: we are sailing northwards, crossing back over the mythical 60th parallel south… The Polarstern icebreaker, 118 metres long and weighing 17 000 tonnes, used by the polar expedition, is heading for Chile,
after 8,600 sea miles in the Southern Ocean, also known as the Antarctic Ocean. Looking back. What led me
to quit everything back then? The Antarctic has always had a particular hold over me. This is what happens when you’ve been surrounded by Cousteau documents from the cradle, when you spend your adolescence climbing mountains and thentravelling the world with a rucksack on your back and a few coins in your pocket. I became a biologist, because biology deals with life. Following a thesis on marine ecotoxicology, during which I was able to measure just how far human activity affects life, I got the opportunity to launch into a highly ambitious challenge, SCAR-MarBIN, a structure aimed at giving free public access to data on Antarctic marine biodiversity. At the time this data was scattered, poorly structured, incomplete and therefore unusable. Before starting this project, I set out on a three-month expedition in order to keep a foot in the real world of research and understand the particular difficulties encountered by polar scientists. Looking forward. SCAR-MarBIN offers access to 500 000 data items
from 50 databases in 16 countries. 2 000 Internet users visit the siteevery month. The project is one of the largest initiatives anywhere in the world on biodiversity, conservation processes and management of the Antarctic environment. Looking to the future. We are passing through a period of massive extinction of species. Our economic system is founded on the assumption that the biodiversity, on which it is largely based, is inexhaustible.
Antarctic organisms, which are adapted to an extreme but stable environment, will suffer the effects of the fastest known warming of the planet. We can either wait for this to happen, or do something about it. I don’t want my  children to ask me one day: “and you, what did you do about it?”

Bruno Danis
scientific coordinator, SCAR-MarBIN network

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