Today's news

September 9, 2004

Tories: it's sink or swim for universities
Universities will be left to sink or swim under Conservative Party plans for a market where students hold the purse strings and there is no financial safety net for unpopular institutions. The Tories this week announced their long-awaited proposals to charge interest rates of up to 8 per cent on student loans to cover the cost of the party's policy to abolish all tuition fees while maintaining investment in higher education. Under the plans, all teaching funding would be channelled through students, so universities' financial health would depend on their popularity. Shadow education secretary Tim Collins outlines his plans in this week's Times Higher .

- Conservative scheme urges private loans for students. Financial Times
- Tories to scrap tuition fees but raise student loan rate. Daily Telegraph
- Tories plan to scrap tuition fees and raise rates on loans. Independent
- Tory university funding plan condemned. Guardian
- Tories will scrap university tuition fees, says Howard. Daily Mail

Oxford goes to court over animal protests
The University of Oxford has applied to the high court for an injunction to protect its staff and students from attacks by animal-rights activists fighting plans to build a research laboratory there. Work on construction of the building has been halted since July when the main contractors pulled out after their shareholders received intimidating letters. Protesters have been holding regular pickets of the site of the £18 million facility, which is designed to combine all research on animals at the university into one building.
Guardian, Times Higher : Science fears attacks will rise with Act

One in four students nod off in lectures
One in four students admit sleeping in lectures at university, a survey of more than 1,300 students at 96 universities for The Independent reveals today. A staggering 58 per cent either skipped lectures or turned up late - with 10 per cent admitting to attending a lecture while drunk. More than 20 per cent of students admitted skipping at least one in five lectures during an academic year. Bahram Bekhradnia, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said he felt the percentage showing dissatisfaction was high, and that an equivalent survey in the US showed an 85 per cent satisfaction level.
Independent

Sun's secrets bury themselves in the sand
A £153 million mission to collect particles of the Sun ended in disaster yesterday when the probe carrying the precious samples crashed into the Utah desert. An ambitious retrieval exercise, involving Hollywood stunt helicopter pilots, was meant to have caught the 420lb pod as it fell to Earth after three years in space. But two parachutes failed to open when the pod was jettisoned from the Genesis spaceship. The probe was carrying billions of particles of "solar wind" captured on delicate wafers of silicon, sapphire and diamond a million miles above the Earth. Nasa was keen to stress that the crash was not necessarily a catastrophe as samples could still be recovered from the pod.
Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent, Times

Scientist warns of DNA fingerprinting mistakes
Sir Alec Jeffreys, the scientist who invented DNA fingerprinting two decades ago warned yesterday that the huge expansion of the national database - which now contains details of 2.5 million criminals - could contain mistakes and lead to miscarriages of justice. Sir Alec said that only 10 different DNA markers were used on the database to distinguish between individuals. "I think there is still a residual risk of a false match," he said. "They should use about 15 markers because otherwise it leaves open the possibility that the match from the crime scene sample is genuine but a fluke."
Independent

Stem cell breakthrough on cystic fibrosis
The first human embryonic stem cells with a mutation for cystic fibrosis have been produced at King's College London's Stem Cell Biology Laboratory. Stephen Minger, the lab's director, reported to the British Association science festival yesterday that researchers will now be able to study how the mutation affects cells, screen for new treatments, and also look at gene therapy.
Financial Times, Independent, Times

Stem cells hope for brain repair in womb
Stem cells taken from a developing foetus may one day be used to limit brain damage in premature births or during birth, and also to repair genetic defects in the womb, Huseyin Mehmet, a scientist at the medicine faculty of Imperial College, told the science festival yesterday. The technique was highly experimental, he said. Researchers needed to work with cells from an early stage of gestation, which posed risks for the embryo. But scientists elsewhere in the world had successfully taken blood samples to diagnose genetic diseases at an early stage.
Guardian

Giant batteries will form power plants of future
Large-scale rechargeable batteries will make renewable power a viable source of energy as attention turns to alternatives to fossil fuels, scientists were told yesterday. Peter Bruce, head of the school of chemistry at the University of St Andrews, said global warming had forced scientists to consider alternatives. Factories of rechargeable lithium batteries, modified and enlarged versions of those in mobile phones, will form the power stations of the future.
Financial Times

Reciting times tables is better than counting
Primary schools were urged yesterday to return to traditional maths teaching and bring back learning multiplication tables by rote. The shift away from rote learning may have undermined children's confidence and ability, Dr Sylvia Steel, an educational psychologist at the Royal Holloway College, University of London, told the science festival yesterday.
Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent

Secrets of the grave emerge from pollen count
Forensic scientists have a new way of reconstructing the history of a crime - from plant pollen on shoes, clothes, car tyres, or even in the hair or nostrils of criminals and murder victims. Tony Brown, of Exeter university, one of Britain's two forensic palynologists, told the British Association science festival that he had used techniques with pollen to unravel evidence of reburial after the massacre at Srebrenica, in former Yugoslavia, for a UN war crimes prosecution.
Guardian, Times

Part lizard, part parrot, all loving mother
The popular bloodthirsty image of dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex today suffers a blow after a remarkable fossil find in China. Palaeontologists from Montana State University and Chinese colleagues discovered a 125 million-year-old nest, preserved in red-grey mudstone in Liaoning province, in which an adult Psittacosaurus - a "parrot-lizard" named after its strong beak - is surrounded by 34 babies at the moment they faced a mortal threat. The sight of a parent with young huddled at its feet provides "strong evidence" that even dinosaur youngsters may have enjoyed some motherly love, the scientists report in the journal Nature .
Daily Telegraph, Independent, Times

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