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Wanted: Engineers

In March, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a non-profit medical research organization in Maryland, launched a national competition to select up to 70 early career scientists for a pretty enviable prizeâ''if you win, you get a six-year appointment that includes full salary and research support (HHMI is putting over $300 million into the program) while you retain your affiliation with your home institution.

HHMI is seeking the usual suspectsâ''scientists specializing in all areas of basic biological and biomedical research and areas of chemistry. But whatâ''s new here is that theyâ''re also actively courting physicists, computer scientists and engineers.

They're looking for researchers who have been running their own labs for two to six years, and now want to establish independent research programs.

The condensed criteria are as follows (the long version is here in PDF format).

You have:

* a doctoral degree.

* a tenured or tenure-track position as assistant professor or higher; if at an institution that doesnâ''t do tenure track, an equivalent appointment.

* at least 2 but no more than 6 years of experience. That means your first faculty position as assistant professor started no earlier than June 1, 2002 and no later than Sept. 1, 2006.

* only one other early career award

Dates

The actual application deadline is June 10, 2008, BUT to be considered, you must indicate your intention to submit an application by April 30, 2008. HHMI expects to make its selections by February 2009. (And if youâ''re not quite at the point of being able to make this move, don't worryâ''HHMI is planning a second competition in 2011 to select 70 more scientists.)

Detailed information about the competitionâ''including the list of eligible institutions and access to the secure application site are at the HHMI web site.

PSA: This is not an April Fool's joke. It would be a really lame one.

Bush to Science: "Let's Be Friends"

In today's issue of Science Online, David Grimm reports that U.S. President George W. Bush has undergone a "dramatic shift in his attitude toward science."

"Critics have accused my Administration of ignoring scientific advice and even of twisting science to suit its own political agenda," Bush said at a speech today at the National Center for Biochemical Medicine here. "Today, I say to those in the scientific community: 'Let's be friends.' "

The news only got better from there. The president offered a $10 billion boost to the National Institutes of Health, earmarked funds for a "second war on cancer," and vowed to relax his stem cell policy. Grimm reports that the reconciliation led California representative Henry Waxman, a longtime Bush critic, to declare, "Now I can finally retire."

Read the full article at Science Online.

Arthur C. Clarke, the Space Elevator, and Nanotechnology

With the recent passing of the acclaimed science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke (the last interview before his death can be found here), I thought I would take a look at what was happening in the field of the Space Elevator, which Clarke helped inspire.

About five years ago, the space elevator was one of those applications for nanotechnology that people trotted out with a wink to say, â''It could even make this possible.â''

In one of the more recent reviews of what is happening with the Space Elevatorâ''s development, Nanowerk ran a piece back in August based on a Wall Street Journal article, and it appears that the idea has not been abandoned.

According to Brad Edwards, a former Los Alamos National Lab physicist, who is quoted in the piece and has become one of the lead theorists of the space elevator, a working elevator could be built.

Edwards suggests that a 31,000-mile-long ribbon would be anchored to an oil-rig off the west coast of Mexico and launched into space in a rocket that would carry two spools of the ribbon and anchor it at an orbit of 22,000 miles.

However, just recently the New Scientist has run an article based on new research from the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Republic that suggests that 31,000-mile-long ribbon may be more susceptible to environmental forces than previously anticipated.

In the animation below provided in the New Scientist article, you get a sense that you may need a bigger weight at the end of the tether to keep it from wobbling.

Energy Department Awards Grants to Solar America Cities

The head of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said on Friday that the federal government has awarded $2.4 million to 12 cities that are leaders in using solar energy.

At the New Frontiers in Energy Summit 2008 in Denver, DOE Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced grants of $200 000 to the dozen selected cities that best exemplified a commitment and comprehensive approach to the deployment of solar technologies and the development of sustainable solar infrastructures, in order to make electricity from solar photovoltaics cost-competitive with conventional electricity by 2015.

These so-called Solar America Cities will also receive funds from private resources that should boost the overall benefits of the program to some $12 million this year, the DOE said in a press release on Friday.

"These Solar America Cities aim to jumpstart integration of solar power and encourage other cities across the nation to follow suit," Bodman stated. "The innovative programs already underway in each city will help us raise the bar of whatâ''s possible and will help cities and towns across America harness the tremendous potential of the sun."

Bodman said the 12 new Solar America Cities are: Denver, Houston, Knoxville (Tenn.), Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Antonio (Tex.), San Jose (Calif.), Santa Rosa (Calif.), and Seattle.

The DOE said it will also provide hands-on assistance from technical experts to help cities integrate solar technologies into energy planning, zoning and facilities; streamline local regulations and practices that affect solar adoption by residents and businesses; present solar financing options; and promote solar technology among residents and local businesses through outreach, curriculum development, and incentive programs.

The 2008 Solar America Cities join 13 others from last year, which received $5.4 million from the DOE initiative. Those metropolises consisted of Ann Arbor (Mich.), Austin (Tex.), Berkeley (Calif.), Boston, Madison (Wis.), New Orleans, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland (Ore.), Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, and Tucson (Az.).

All 25 are expected to adopt a variety of approaches to build up their solar infrastructures and deploy cutting-edge technologies that include solar water heating, photovoltaics, and large-scale solar thermal technology, according to the DOE.

[Editor's Note: Please see our feature "Solar-Cell Squabble", in the current issue, for an update on low-cost organic photovoltaic technology.]

Out of Africa: a backlash against spending on malaria research

Ten years ago I made a visit to the London School of Tropical Diseases. The British research institute, one of the world's best in its field, had just received it first grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. The aim: jump-start the then-moribund project to find a vaccine for malaria. One of the Holy Grails in preventive medicine, a vaccine for malaria was by the late 1990s considered impossible, and only pursued -- fitfully at that -- by a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Gates money, which began as a trickle, became a flood over the past ten years. Today, malaria research is booming and one big pharma company, GlaxoSmithKline, even has a malaria vaccine -- aimed at children and promoted as 50% effective -- ready for field trials. By any narrow measure, the Gates intervention into malaria -- accompanied by many varied programs to treat the disease and to prevent its spread through non-pharma means -- is a smashing success (Disclosure note: I have consulted for the Gates foundation on various African issues, though never on malaria or health generally).

Yet the very revival of malaria research has spawned some curious objections, which I might categorize as a variant of the old "rising expectations" problem. Critics say that the Gates money devoted to malaria is so large that the foundation dominates the field, making an independent assessment of funded work impossible. Others grouse that GSK's vaccine, which hasn't worked in half of the children tested so far, isn't effective enough to justify the costs associated with mass vaccination campaigns in poor African countries. More attractive, in the minds of these pragmatists, are programs like the one in Zambia that emphasize traditional prevention, such as bed-nets and early-detection and treatment of the illness.

The wrangling over malaria is of course ironic. For decades people have complained that Western scientists ignored African problems, from health-care to information technology to energy. At least in one area, malaria, scientists in the U.S. and Europe are now completely absorbed in engineering a solution to one of black Africa's greatest scourges. What could be the problem?

As Nature magazine wrote recently, "For years the global malaria effort has been asking for more resources. Now the field needs to figure out a systematic strategy for spending the money effectively." Yet using money effectively is of course a no-brainer, to invoke a term that Bill Gates himself did much to popularize in his heyday at Microsoft. To urge malaria researchers to use money wisely would seem to be giving voice to a concern beyond debate.

So why the venomous arguments? Critics say that a malaria vaccine isn't enough -- and even might distract attention from the broader need for African countries to monitor diseases more thoroughly. Nature, for instance, insists that Africans need new networks of laboratories, better disease monitoring, and regional -- not just individual country -- approaches to disease-fighting. Nature calls such steps "essential," and without which "the billion-dollar malaria effort is flying blind."

The conclusion from one of the most influential science organs in the world seems too harsh to me. African societies are indeed deeply flawed, but they can only start from where they are -- not from some ideal place that they might never reach. In injecting new technologies into sub-Saharan Africa, we must worry about presenting them as panaceas. A malaria vaccine is surely not. But it is a step forward. And in the debate over how to fight malaria in Africa more effectively, this simple fact should not be forgotten.

Activists Slam California ZEV Revisions

Howls of protest greeted the California Air Resources Board decision this week to reorient its zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate to promote plug-in hybrids over fully battery-electric vehicles. Activists came to Sacramento in force (and in EVs -- see video below) to decry what EV booster group Plug In America called a "shameful weakening of the ZEV Program.â''

The ZEV directive requires car manufacturers to market ultraclean and emissions-free vehicles (or buy credits earned by others making such vehicles). The California Air Resources Board decision yesterday reduces the quantity of emissions-free battery or fuel cell vehicles mandated for the 2012-2014 period from 25,000 to as few as 5,357, responding to automaker concern over the cost and reliability of EV batteries and fuel cells.

CARB says this reduction is offset by new rules recognizing the transitional value of plug-in hybrids. The agency claims that the ZEV rules will require automakers to produce up to 58,000 plug-in hybrids over the 2012-2014 period, thereby mainstreaming electric vehicle components and charging infrastructure that will hasten the day when the pure EVs go mainstream.

However, Plug In America claims the new rules will actually lead to 18,000 less plug-in hybrids over 2012-2014. It's difficult to say who is right because the ZEV rules are devilishly complex, and automakers are not currently required to disclose how many credits they have banked (a transparency gap the new rules would fix).

Plug In America charges that California legislators should take back responsibility for driving electrification of the automobile, but ironically one of their proposals seems to affirm the very battery qualms underlying CARBâ''s revisions. Specifically, Plug In America proposes that legislators free manufacturers from providing the 15-year, 150,000-mile warranty CARB requires for hybrid batteries. That hardly seems like a recipe for driving mass confidence in the electric car.

Lessons from Northstar's botched study of a brain implant

northstarbrain_white.jpg I spoke with John Bowers, the chief executive of Northstar Neuroscience, about the electric brain stimulation trial Northstar will launch this year for the treatment of depression. This small medical device company hopes to soon market its brain implant, which sends pulses of electricity from a device inserted in the neck to an electrode that sits on the outside of the brain, just underneath the skull.

Up to one-third of patients fail to respond to conventional antidepressant drugs, and a number of medical device companies are exploring the use of brain stimulators--both implanted and external--to help correct problematic electrical activity inside mood-controlling regions of the brain. But Northstar started off 2008 on the wrong foot: a study of the same device used in stroke rehabilitation showed it wasnâ''t any better than intensive physical therapy.

Ever a fan of neural prostheses, I asked Bowers what we could learn from the stroke trial to improve the one for depression. Here's what he had to say.

1. Include more patients. â''Youâ''ll probably see us do a much larger number of implants than we did with stroke,â'' Bowers says. Itâ''s not uncommon for a number of severely depressed patients to equally fail to respond to antidepressant drugs but to each exhibit different sets of symptoms and behaviors, meaning that depression doesnâ''t follow along one simple pathway in the brain.

2. Pay extra attention in choosing the comparison group. The durations of these clinical trials are usually several months, often a year--far too long for patients to go without any treatment. So whatâ''s the best therapy for the group that doesnâ''t receive electric stimulation? The choice is always difficult.

3. Make sure the chosen patients are really, truly resistant to antidepressants before getting into the heart of the study, by building in an 8-week pre-trial period, during which patients will receive other treatment. If they improve, the subjects should be excluded. Once the subject pool has been refined, the chances of observing a placebo effect are much slimmer. â''These patients will have already failed 9 or 10 therapies, so their hope in a new one is already low,â'' Bowers reasons.

4. Donâ''t take the stroke trial too seriously: â''Weâ''ve always said that the stroke trial couldnâ''t be a predictor for the others, even before it started,â'' he says. â''The basic hardware is similar, but the treatment algorithm and stimulation parameters are different.â''

I have my own reservations about the upcoming study, but Iâ''m not a medical device company, so I donâ''t really know. [[CORRECTION APPENDED]] Northstar believes the outcomes of the depression trial will be positive enough to enable them to apply for FDA approval for the device. But you may wonder how they configured the device, given that they were, presumably, equally confident in the stroke trial. The settings of the depression treatment algorithmâ''stimulation frequency, duration, target location, and so onâ''were refined in the lab and tested on 11 patients in a preliminary human study.

But is data from 11 people really enough to work out all the kinks? To be sure, a solid body of research supports the company's choice of the brain region to stimulate, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. But to me, basing a companyâ''sâ''and a therapyâ''sâ''success on results from 11 people seems like quite a gamble.

CORRECTION: A Northstar rep tells me that the depression study will not culminate in FDA approval and is a more preliminary study of the technique's feasibility.

Thermoelectrics take center stage and nanotech can play a part

In a feature article in this monthâ''s Spectrum, which can be found online here, inventor Lonnie Johnson, who was previously best known for his invention of a high-powered squirt gun, has developed a thermoelectric generator that could operate as an entirely self-contained system, recirculating hydrogen within the generator to be cooled and then heated again in a continuous loop. The beauty of the system is that its design is all-solid-state thereby eliminating the moving parts such as turbines and pistons that result in parasitic losses.

With thermoelectric systems, the basic principle is that the difference between temperatures generates electricity, and in Lonnie Johnsonâ''s proposed system the difference in temperatures could be extreme with the hot side reaching 1100 °Celsius while the cool side remaining at room temperature, 25 °Celsius. This extreme temperature difference imparts high conversion efficiencies for changing the heat difference to electricity of 78 percent Carnot efficiency. This compares rather favorably to both photovoltaic devices that have net conversion efficiencies in the teens and thermionic (or thermoelectric) chips reach only a little higher than 20 percent of Carnot.

This story coincides with recent reports (which can be found here in Spectrum online and was originally reported in the journal Science) of two researchers from MIT and Boston College, Gang Chen of MIT and Zhifeng Ren of BC, who employed the low-tech process of ball milling to the common thermoelectric material bismuth antimony telluride (BiSbTe) and were able to break up the material into random nanostructures that increased the materialâ''s figure of merit, or ZT of the alloy, by 40% from 1 to 1.4.

US Government laboratories over the last 10 years have been focusing on research to develop and improve thermoelectrics, and the results of this work seems to be coming fast and furious.

Everything from computers that power themselves from their own heat generation to automobiles that can power their electrical systems through exhaust heat are being discussed as possibilities. And perhaps most importantly, a technology that can more efficiently than photovoltaics turn the energy from the sun into electricity.

Richard Smalley in his final years took it upon himself to see if nanotechnology could be used to fend off the worldâ''s developing energy crisis. If he could see recent developments, he certainly would be encouraged in general and pleased to see the role nanotechnology is playing.

Endeavour Returns Safely; Jules Verne Approaches Space Station

As the space shuttle Endeavour touched down safely on the tarmac at Cape Canaveral last night, NASA was telling the media about plans to broadcast the approach and docking of the newest vehicle to work with the International Space Station (ISS), the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

Wrapping up an intensive 16-day mission to the ISS, Commander Dominic Gorie (Capt, USN) aimed the Endeavour orbiter toward the Kennedy Space Center from the other side of North America and hit its landing strip on schedule, following a short delay for clouds to clear.

The flight of the STS-123 mission taxed its crew with the delivery of two vital components to the bulging space station: the first component of the Japanese Experiment Module known as the Kibo and the Canadian Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator known as the Dextre robot (please see our prior entry "Work Finished, Space Shuttle Heads for Home").

In the meantime, the new Jules Verne ATV, launched on 9 March 2008 on a mission to deliver supplies to the ISS and help boost the orbital platform to a higher altitude, began its long docking approach. The unmanned cargo vessel is on a proof-of-concept flight to test its automated systems, designed by the European Space Agency. NASA-TV will provide live coverage of the vehicle's test approach to the ISS on 31 March at 10:00 am EDST and docking maneuver on 3 April at 10:40 EDST.

According to an item from United Press International, the Jules Verne will remain at the space station until early August, when it will undock and burn up after entering the Earth's atmosphere (please see our entry "Two Spacecraft Prepare for Space Station Meetings").

Moto Rola

Motorola announced today that it would split into two companies, one for handsets, the other for, well, everything else. You can be forgiven for not knowing which of those two parts isn't doing well -- it's the one you see every day in people's hands as they walk down the street making phone calls. The everything else part, which Bloomberg (â''â''Motorola to Split Into Two After Phone Sales Slideâ'') summarized as "network equipment, cable TV set-top boxes and two-way radios," is doing fine.

Handset manufacturing is the most visible part of Motorola, but it's hardly the biggest.

Motorola's handset business will probably have a value of $1.69 a share next year, while the other divisions could be worth $7.49, Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst Tal Liani in New York said today in a note to clients.

The handset business lost $388 million last quarter. The networks and set-top box unit had a profit of $192 million on 11 percent sales growth, while the unit making radios and scanners had a profit of $451 million and a 35 percent revenue increase.

Motorola hit a home run in the super-slim Razr in 2005, but there are no real home runs in telecommunications manufacturing. Within a year or so, competitors like Samsung had their own super-slim phones. Everything that looks like a home run is really a ground-rule double, and you need to keep them coming.

What's really happened are two things.

Apple entered the market with its iPhone and grabbed market share from everybody, including Motorola. And corporate investor and raider Carl Icahn, the closest thing to a real-life Gordon Gekko (the financial vulture from the movie Wall Street), swooped in last year to do his "preserve shareholder value" thing. He's now up to 6.3 percent of Motorola's stock, and of course by â''improving value,â'' he means â''improving the price-per-share.â'' Today.

As it happens, Motorola had the ear of tech journalists and analysts this morning for an entirely different reason. In advance of next week's annual CTIA conference, the company had a web-and-phone briefing of the technologies and products it would touting there. CTIA is the main trade association for manufacturers of wireless products.

And as luck would have it, some of the announcements were pretty interesting. For example, Motorola said it had demonstrated packet-switched handoffs between LTE and CDMA base stations. That's a pretty big deal.

CDMA is the wireless standard used by Verizon, Sprint, and a handful of other important carriers around the world. LTE is the next-generation wireless standard for GSM-based carriers, but several CDMA carriers have said they too will switch over to it as well. Handoffs between older GSM base stations and LTE ones will be easy; LTE is being designed as a smooth upgrade from GSM. Carriers like Verizon can't possibly move to LTE unless old and new phones and base stations work together.

Two other interesting announcements concerned WiMax, the 4G wireless standard that LTE will compete with over the next few years. Motorola announced the CPEi 150, a terminal device for homes that's fully compliant with the latest version of IEEE 802.16, the underlying standard for WiMax. Importantly, the 150 is "plug-and-play," meaning that someone in the household need only plug it in -- no technician housecall is needed. A technician's "truck run," as it's called, can triple the cost of an end-user device.

The other WiMax announcement concerned a broad range of products offering automotive support for WiMax. For reasons that I outlined back in January ("Ford in Sync, But Out of Step"), automotive systems like GM's Onstar and Ford's Sync need high-speed bi-directional wireless networks exactly like WiMax. If Motorola is in the lead providing products for them, it will pay off.

Given that LTE and WiMax will the two dominant wireless standards for the next generation of cellphones and cellular services, it's also pretty important that Motorola also announced a common platform for them. Though the two are competing standards, they are both based on the same underlying air protocol, orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing, or OFDM. Motorola said it has been able to reuse "about 75 percent" of its WiMAX development for LTE.

It's crazy to make all those advances on the network side, and not parlay them into accompanying innovations on the handset side. There's an entire new generation of handsets coming -- handsets that are will work on more than one carrier's network. Sprint's new WiMax network is a bring-your-own-device one (see "Sprint's Broadband Gamble").

Similarly, Verizon announced last fall a policy called "open access," allowing compatible phones onto its networks. (I liked Scott Fulton's BetaNews story, "Verizon Wireless' open access move: The historic details," but the best-titled article about it had to be Wired's "Pigs Fly, Hell Freezes Over and Verizon Opens Up Its Network -- No, Really.")

Announcements like these are opening the door what we can expect to be waves of innovation coming at us at a furious pace. Another door to innovation was opened last summer by Apple and its iPhone. While that hurt Motorola in the short run, it convinced changephobic carriers that had, for years, resisted touchscreens and the like, that they were wrong.

Motorola is already shipping phones with touchscreens and announced one on a new Mobile TV device today. Back in January, at CES, Motorola showed some phones with soft keypads that do the one on the iPhone one better by providing haptic feedback. So in the same way Motorola wasn't able to hold the Razr advantage for very long, neither can Apple -- to Motorola's benefit, this time around.

This is, in other words, exactly the wrong time for a company with good ideas to get out of the handset business. Unfortunately, those ideas don't produce the "shareholder value" -- today -- that some shareholders want .

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