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Classroom volunteers inspire young ecologists

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  • Sir Colciencias, the Colombian agencyresponsible for funding scientific research,is trying to overcome critically lowinvestment in science and technology byestablishing scientific research consortia insix strategic areas. These centres ofresearch excellence will have a budget ofUS$1.7 million per centre over the nextfive years. The current call for proposals,which ends on 24 September, sadly ignoresresearch related to water resources and theenvironment. This is a major omission, butour efforts to correct it have been in vain.

    For the most part, the selected areas arerelevant and genuine priorities, includingbiodiversity and genetic resources; infectioustropical diseases; energy development; bio-technology and food innovation. However,critical areas most notably water andthe environment are being ignored in a

    country facing urgent challenges. Suchomissions are made more striking by theinclusion of nanotechnology in the list of national priorities: a field unlikely toflourish here, given the lack of expertise.

    Issues such as water availability andsupply, water-resource management andplanning, are continuing challenges inColombia. The provision of safe drinkingwater is an immediate necessity for ourchildren, dozens of whom suffer and dieevery day as a result of drinking pollutedwater. Intense tropical storms trigger flashfloods and avalanches along Colombianrivers; droughts claim an even higher toll.

    According to IDEAM (Colombiaspublic agency for hydrology, meteorologyand environment), the deterioration of theColombian environment is accelerating.The interaction between natural and social


    NATURE | VOL 431 | 9 SEPTEMBER 2004 | 125

    systems in the tropical Andes is one of ourmost urgent research challenges.

    Perhaps most worrisome is the processby which the Colciencias list was drawn up.Hundreds of leading scientists and scientificinstitutions in Colombia, including ours,did not participate in any way in itscreation. The priorities discussed ingovernment internal documents were not circulated publicly, let alone reviewedthoroughly by the wider scientificcommunity. It is essential that Colcienciasactively involves the community in theseprocesses, to guarantee their legitimacyand relevance for the country, in bothscientific and social terms.Germn Poveda Graduate Programme in Water Resources, School ofGeosciences and Environment, UniversidadNacional de Colombia, Medelln, Colombia

    Complexity of the bodycalls for animal researchSir The criticism of the UK animalregulatory system by Dan Lyons inCorrespondence (The animal-careregulatory system is a sham, Nature 430,399; 2004) calls for a response. Currently in my fiftieth year of pharmaceuticalresearch, I find it depressing to realize how many legislators and citizens acceptthe unsupportable position of the animalactivists regarding the need for animals inbiomedical research.

    In my lectures and writings on thissubject, I emphasize the unbelievablecomplexity of the intact animal body.Each day, the human heart pumps some7,200 litres of blood through the trillionsof cells in the body on a continuous basis.The cells and organs share biochemicalmessengers every second of the day.Despite all the information published onthe function of the animal body, my guessis that we know only a small percentage of the reactions going on at any moment.What conceivable system could be devisedoutside the intact animal that would be able to mimic the complexity of theanimal body?

    I agree that animals should be properlyhoused and maintained and sufferingreduced as much as it is humanly possibleto do so. Also, every surrogate test system(cell culture, enzymes, genomics,proteomics and so on), along withcomputers, should be and are used daily in the laboratories.

    But what logical human would agree to have a new chemical, never before tested

    in a whole animal, administered for thefirst time to himself or herself?

    If the animal activists prevail, new drugdiscovery and development will cease. Thisat a time when we have available to us thegreatest number of disease targets inhistory. Why can we not get this messageacross to our citizens and legislators? Whereis the activists protocol for discovering anew drug without using animals? Shouldthey not be required to detail a programmein which animals will not be used?Charles G. SmithUSA (full address supplied)

    Classroom volunteersinspire young ecologistsSir Your News Feature Doing it for the kids (Nature 430, 286287; 2004)highlights INSPIRE, a science-educationscheme in the United Kingdom wherepostdocs pursue a teaching qualificationwhile continuing with their research.Although there are many positive attributesto INSPIRE, your feature acknowledges theschemes heavy reliance on special funding,which may disappear in the future.

    As noted in the News Feature, theUnited States currently lacks programmesequivalent to INSPIRE. But there are otherUS programmes that achieve many of thesame goals with the help of volunteers,and without the need for additionalfunding. One example of this is Kids DoEcology (KDE), an outreach programmerun through the National Center forEcological Analysis and Synthesis

    (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, California.This programme pairs postdocs at

    NCEAS with classes of 10-year-olds at local schools. Each volunteer scientist visitshis or her class about six times during the spring, guiding students through thescientific process by helping them developa research question and hypothesis, designexperimental methods and conduct theexperiment. At the end of the semester,students from each class present theirprojects to other students and the NCEAS community at a poster session.A description of the experiments can befound on each classs web page, hostedthrough the KDE website (

    The benefits of KDE are many. Itprovides scientists with the opportunity toparticipate in community outreach, givesstudents some hands-on science experienceand introduces a scientist role-model tothe classroom. The programme requires a minimal time-commitment from thepostdocs, about 20 hours in total on avolunteer basis, and consequently has asmall budget. KDE is a sustainable modelfor getting scientific expertise into theclassroom, and participation has remainedhigh since its inception in 1997: 11scientists visited classes at four SantaBarbara schools this year.

    The framework for KDE is simple andeffective, and could easily be adopted byother research institutions wanting toinspire student interest in science.Sarah AbramsonNational Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, 735 State Street, Suite 300,Santa Barbara, California 93101, USA

    Science priorities ignore Colombias water needsThe government did not consult with the scientific community on reforms.

    9.9 correspondence MH 6/9/04 6:56 pm Page 17

    2004 Nature Publishing Group

    2004 Nature Publishing Group