Science: Theoretically ..

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The Independent Online
Did the 1997/8 budget for science, announced last week by the Department of Trade and Industry, go up or down? It depends on who you listen to.

The DTI says that the figure of pounds 1.33bn is an pounds 18m cash increase over the previous year. Most of that is new money - pounds 17m - allocated to research into BSE and CJD.

But Save British Science, the pressure group, points out that to maintain the real value would have required a cash increase of about pounds 32m.

Simple maths suggests that this makes the budget announced equivalent to a pounds 14m funding cut.

The row, however, may be rendered academic by the general election and consequent changes in public spending.

BSE isn't caused by misshapen PrP proteins, claims a French team of researchers. Their surprising result follows experiments in which BSE-infected material was injected into lab mice. About half of the mice did not have any of the insoluble 'prion' protein in their brain at death; but the disease could be passed on by inoculating extracts from those brains into other mice, said Corinne Lasmezas of the French Atomic Energy Commission's research labs.

While not demolishing the 'prion' theory, the work will reinvigorate those who claim that the theory is fallacious, while antagonising its supporters. Expect pitched battles in the journals.

Hepatitis vaccination could one day require a visit to the grocer. A team in Japan intends to grow genetically engineered tomatoes that would express the antigen (the protein that stimulates the immune response) to hepatitis B.

They have already produced tobacco plants whose leaves contain the antigen, and which can be used to test for infection in humans. The next step? The edible vaccine.

Abysmally black and lifeless, filled only with a soup of sub-atomic particles: no, not your least favourite seaside resort, but our very own universe in the distant future. The very distant future, that is. The lifeless existence described at last week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society by astrophysicists Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin won't start until the year 10200.

However, it does suggest that the universe won't head towards a 'Big Crunch', but will keep expanding and cooling. Plenty of time to visit Blackpool first, though.

A mild correction to last week's article on fusion. The wrong conversion rate was used to derive the sterling equivalent of the ecu. The Joint European Torus (Jet) project points out that the total spending on fusion projects in Europe has been about 4.4 billion ecu over the past 10 years - equivalent to about pounds 3.3bn, not pounds 6bn as reported.