Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Science Policy Around the Web – February 13, 2015

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By: Julia Shaw, Ph.D

Climate Change – Geoengineering

Elite science panel calls on U.S. to study climate modification

A panel of experts selected by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently released a report recommending government-sponsored research on the “risks and benefits” of geoengineering to alter albedo. “Albedo” in this context relates to how much light the Earth reflects back into space and albedo modification is one potential approach to counteracting the effects of global warming. Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science, former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and chair of the committee stressed that the recommendation reflects a harsh reality and the need for action: “That scientists are even considering technological interventions should be a wake-up call that we need to do more now to reduce emissions, which is the most effective, least risky way to combat climate change.” The report supports “small-scale field experiments” provided an appropriate entity governing geoengineering research and the surrounding ethical issues is established and recommends researchers design studies to simultaneously improve basic knowledge of climate regulation. Some of the albedo experiments could include the injection of large volumes of sulfate particles into the atmosphere and marine cloud whitening through the introduction of salt particles into coastal cloud belts. A separate report released by the National Research Council addressed the topic of carbon dioxide removal, a much less controversial tactic for moderating the effects of climate change. However technological and financial hurdles continue to beleaguer removal approaches. (Chris Mooney, The Washington Post)


Agricultural researchers rattled by demands from group opposed to GM foods

Last month U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit opposed to genetically modified (GM) food targeted at least four universities with freedom of information requests asking administrative officials to give them all correspondence between certain researchers and specific companies associated with GM-produced foods, including Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Dow and public relations firms Fleishman-Hillard and Ogilvy & Mather. The researchers involved had all written articles for GMO Answers, a website supported by food and biotechnology firms. According to Gary Ruskin, Executive Director of USRTK the goal of the correspondence search is “ to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.” Although Kevin Folta, a researcher at the University of Florida, Gainesville, is willing hand over his records, he is wary of USRTK’s intentions saying, “They’ll report, ‘Kevin Folta had 200 e-mails with Monsanto and Syngenta’ as a way to smear me.’” Many researchers are waiting for the final say from university lawyers before responding to USRTK’s requests. Although USRTK contends their requests are only meant to increase transparency, some researchers are concerned about repercussions on academic freedom. As another targeted researcher, Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis, put it, “Your first inclination . . . is to stop talking about the subject. But that’s what they want. And I don’t want to be intimidated.” (Keith Kloor, ScienceInsider)

Health and the Environment

In Nevada, a Controversy in the Wind

Two geoscientists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf, together with Francine Baumann, an epidemiologist from the University of Hawaii are raising concerns about the effect of naturally occurring asbestos on cancer incidence in Nevada. Historically, naturally occurring veins of asbestos were actively mined; however the health risks of such activity are now more fully appreciated. Asbestos fibers can be easily inhaled and will lodge in the lungs, causing inflammation that can lead to mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases over time. Buck and Metcalf previously published research identifying numerous asbestos deposits in the state and the presence of potentially harmful asbestos fibers near Boulder City, eastern Henderson, and Las Vegas possibly caused by natural erosion and commercial development in the area. More recently they teamed-up with Dr. Baumann who used data from Nevada’s cancer registry to draft a preliminary report in 2012 noting an unusually high number of mesothelioma cases in younger residents and women in the aforementioned areas, which suggested exposure to asbestos at an early age. The response from the Nevada Department of Health was unequivocal. The department revoked Dr. Baumann’s access to the state cancer registry and forced her to remove an abstract and cancel a pending presentation on their findings for the Geological Society of America’s national meeting upon threat of legal action. Department officials maintain that their own analysis found no significant asbestos risks and further contend that “Dr. Baumann gave too much weight to a few anomalous cancer cases.” Nonetheless the Nevada Department of Transportation delayed plans for a highway project through Boulder City and the health department recently increased its monitoring of airborne fibers in southern Nevada. Determined to publish what they saw as an important health concern, Dr. Baumann and her colleagues instead evaluated cancer data reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Tuesday their study, which reported elevated rates of mesothelioma in adults under age 55 and increased disease rates in women, all found in southern Nevada and all potentially linked to exposure to naturally-occurring asbestos, was published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology. Rather than run from controversy, Dr. Baumann believes that “with public health research, the important thing is getting information into the open and then discussing it.”   (Deborah Blum, The New York Times)


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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

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