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Posts Tagged ‘climate change

Science Policy Around the Web – January 20, 2017

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By: Jessica Hostetler, PhD

Climate Change

Earth Sets a Temperature Record for the Third Straight Year

The New York Times reports that scientists named 2016 the hottest year on record. This follows the record set in 2015, which followed the record set in 2014 and marks the first time in history a temperature record was set three years in a row. The data is in agreement from three governmental institutions: the USA’s NOAA and NASA and the United Kingdom’s Met Office. The findings were based on “measurements from ships, buoys and land-based weather stations” used to compute an average global temperature of the earth’s surface. The El Niño weather pattern “released a huge burst of energy and water vapor into the atmosphere” and intensified warming in 2015 and 2016, but scientists agree the upward trend over many years is caused by increasing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

The warming increases were particularly pronounced in the arctic with “temperatures in the fall running 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above normal across large stretches of the Arctic Ocean” potentially exacerbating sea ice melting and coastal erosion. The heating of the ocean has implications for rises in ocean levels and increased tidal flooding. The calculations from NASA showed over a half a degree Fahrenheit of warming from 2013 to 2016 which is the largest three-year increase since records were started in 1880 and of “the 17 hottest years on record, 16 have now occurred since 2000.” Both NOAA and NASA will soon report to cabinet members appointed by the Trump Administration, with concerns raised from “agencies about whether their data will now be subject to political manipulation.” (Justin Gillis, New York Times)

Human Research Policy

New Rules Ease Consent Requirements for Scientists Using Patient Specimens

STAT News reports that the outgoing Obama Administration issued new rules on Wednesday, January 18th for conducting research with human participants referred to as the “Common Rule” , which include “stepping back from proposals that would have imposed significant new regulatory requirements on scientists.” Earlier versions of the proposal would have required informed, written consent for the use of biospecimens such as “cells, blood, tumor samples, DNA” etc. that were obtained during medical procedures even if the samples had all identifying information removed. Scientists argued that such a change would stifle research; for instance if researchers wanted to use specimens from a previous study where consent was given for a new study, a new consent would be required which would require tracking down each participant.  This would prove challenging for several new White House initiatives such as the Precision Medicine Initiative or the Cancer Moonshot. The proposed change drew 2100 comments during a 90-day public comment period following release in September 2015, and the Department of Health and Human Services responded by making changes to the proposal. (Sharon Begley, STAT News)

The final rule, as posted by the HHS website, includes the following:

  • The requirement for consent forms to provide potential research subjects with a better understanding of a project’s scope, including its risks and benefits, so they can make a more fully informed decision about whether to participate.
  • Requirements, in many cases, to use a single institutional review board (IRB) for multi-institutional research studies. The proposal from the NPRM has been modified, however, to add substantial increased flexibility in now allowing broad groups of studies (instead of just specific studies) to be removed from this requirement.
  • For studies on stored identifiable data or identifiable biospecimens, researchers will have the option of relying on broad consent obtained for future research as an alternative to seeking IRB approval to waive the consent requirement. As under the current rule, researchers will still not have to obtain consent for studies on non-identified stored data or biospecimens.
  • The establishment of new exempt categories of research based on the level of risk they pose to participants. For example, to reduce unnecessary regulatory burden and allow IRBs to focus their attention on higher risk studies, there is a new exemption for secondary research involving identifiable private information if the research is regulated by and participants protected under the HIPAA rules.
  • Removal of the requirement to conduct continuing review of ongoing research studies in certain instances where such review does little to protect subjects.
  • Requirement that consent forms for certain federally funded clinical trials be posted on a public website.

(Sharon Begley, STAT News)

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January 20, 2017 at 10:58 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 17, 2016

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By: Kseniya Golovnina, PhD

Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Copyright (c) 2004 Richard Ling, under Creative Commons

Biodiversity

The Mysterious World of Antarctica is More than Penguins

On December 21, 2016 the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) released a video, which was made under the sea ice in O’Brien Bay, south of Casey research station in East Antarctica. This was the last part of the Australian Antarctic program, led by Dr. Johnny Stark, with the aim to observe the effect of climate change and ocean acidification due to increased carbon dioxide emissions on the Southern Ocean seafloor communities.

AAD biologist Dr. Glenn Johnstone and his team launched a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) through the small hole drilled in the ice and captured a rare glimpse of wonderful colorful Antarctic underwater world. They discovered a flourishing community of sea life below the massive ice sheet, at 30 meters below the surface, where the water temperature is −1.5°C year round, and the sea is covered by ice that is 1.5 meters thick for more than 10 months of the year. The video surprisingly revealed “a habitat that is productive, colorful, dynamic and full of a wide variety of biodiversity, including sponges, sea spiders, urchins, sea cucumbers and sea stars.”

About 30% of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean and increases its acidity. According to NASA Earth Observatory, increased acidity will increase the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, making the carbonate shells of marine organisms such as corals thinner and more fragile. Higher water temperatures would also decrease the abundance of phytoplanktons, which play an important role in the carbon cycle absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The increased carbon dioxide in the ocean might facilitate the growth of a few species of phyplanktons that take carbon dioxide directly from the water, but overall excess carbon would be detrimental to most ocean species.

Scientists are only now beginning to understand the complex underwater Antarctic ecosystem. Antarctica may be one of the first places where the detrimental effects of ocean acidification are seen, says Dr. Stark. These studies could be a good future indicator of the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on ocean ecosystems. (Australian Antarctic Division)

Food Policy

One or Two Tablespoons of Nutella?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has closed collecting public comments about a regulatory change that would cut Nutella’s labeled serving size by half. More than 650 comments were collected. “One tablespoon or two tablespoons?” – The Washington Post explains the difference. The issue was about the appropriate reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) and product category. Nutella is classified as a dessert topping, with a RACC of two tablespoons. The serving size typically indicates how much Americans consume at a time and not how much they should, to make it easy for people to compare different products.

Its manufacturer, Ferrero, has asked that Nutella be reclassified as a jam or put in a different product category. This would cut the serving size that Nutella displays on its labels to one tablespoon, which would also decrease the sugar and calorie counts. It is already the second request from Nutella’s company since 2014. As they said to the Washington Post “it was simply seeking clarity as it and other companies prepare their new Nutrition Facts labels, slated for release in 2018”. However, critics of Nutella’s FDA petition including Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, warn people about the marketing ploy to trick people into thinking that it has less calories. If Nutella’s serving size is changed to one tablespoon, it could advertise a mere 100 calories per serving — versus roughly 188 calories for two tablespoons of peanut butter, or 196 calories for almond.

At the same time the question of one or two tablespoons seems not so relevant if one takes a look at the company’s website, where they say “you could circle the world with the amount of Nutella produced every year”. U.S. sales of Nutella are up 39% — from $161.4 million to $224.3 million — in the past five years in comparison with 5% for other nut butters. (Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post)

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January 17, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Perspective on Climate Change: Supporters versus Skeptics

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

        A recent United Nations report shows that earth’s surface temperature is rapidly hurtling towards a two degrees Celsius increase. Scientists say that the world must stay below two degrees to avoid the worst effects of climate change. However solving this issue can be challenging and overwhelming. The science used to generate the evidence for climate change is complicated and the predictions carry many caveats and asterisks. Nonetheless the major question that stands out is, “What is climate change and why people are skeptic about it?”

The definition of climate change itself triggers a difference in opinion. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change refers to “A change in the climate that persists for decades or longer, arising from either natural causes or human activity”. This definition differs from that in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where climate change preferentially refers to “A change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere.” Instead, UNFCCC defines a change in climate over comparable time periods because of natural causes as climate variability.

Keeping these definitions aside, many policymakers and major corporations worldwide have agreed and expressed willingness to address climate change. They believe the scientific evidence generated so far demands action. But some scientists, economists, industry groups, and policy experts continue to insist that there is no need for policy changes. Ironically many people concede with them and insist that the entire problem is exaggerated. The debate between the supporters and the skeptics is ingrained, and both groups deride each other with countless claims and counterclaims on both the science and proposed policy solutions.

Surprisingly, some climate-change skeptics do admit that the earth is warming. But they debate the cause, its potential impact, and whether human intervention is affecting it. As Myron Ebell, the president elects’ select candidate for leading the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency, stated his views on climate change “I agree that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and its concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing as a result of human activities—primarily burning coal, oil, and natural gas, where I disagree is whether this amounts to a crisis that requires drastic action.”

So what are the premises on which the skeptics insist that the current policies addressing the issue of climate change are unwarranted and dispensable? Broadly, this question can be answered by discussing the views of skeptics versus supporters on three major points of concern.

First, what is global warming and is it really happening?

Skeptics

The skeptics argue that the earth is not warming. They contend that the satellite-based temperature measurements, taken across the earth’s surface, indicate no measurable change in the last 30 years, and that the measuring standards are different in every place resulting in inconsistent readings. Besides, the IPCC’s graph of “global” temperatures is incorrect as they do not state the earlier cool period of about 1400 or a very warm period from about 900 to 1050 when the temperatures in Europe were several degrees warmer than today. They also make the point that warming is natural and if the earth was warmer during those periods and consecutively cooled down via some natural mechanisms, then that will happen in the future too.

Supporters

According to IPCC and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), records of temperature that date back to the distant past, generated by analysis of ice cores and sediments, are quite accurate and suggest that the warming in recent decades is way higher than any period over the past millennium. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said, “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years.” 15 out of the 16 hottest years in NASA’s 134-year record have occurred since 2000.

Second, is there any real impact because of climate change?

Skeptics

Skeptics believe that climate change has no impact whatsoever and is not responsible for the extreme weather catastrophes in recent times. It has happened in the past and has no connection with either global warming or increased levels of carbon dioxide.

Supporters

The supporters says that the impacts are everywhere starting from the melting of polar ice sheets to endangered biodiversity, which will eventually risk human health and society. In the US alone, numerous weather and climate-born billion-dollar disasters have occurred from 1980-2016, the most recent being the historic flood devastating a large area of southern Louisiana.

Third, and the most disputed subject is…

Are human beings really responsible for climate change?

Skeptics

According to skeptics the carbon dioxide levels are not high enough to elicit concern as the current carbon dioxide levels were exceeded in the last 150 years. Besides, they argue that water vapor, and not carbon dioxide, is the significant greenhouse gas because it absorbs more radiant heat than carbon dioxide and makes up about 3% of the atmosphere compared to 0.03% by carbon dioxide. The current level of carbon dioxide contributes to about 3% of the total warming and hence the anthropogenic carbon dioxide contribution to total warming is, at the most, about 0.1%. Therefore carbon dioxide generated because of “human interference” has no discernible role in global warming. They consider carbon dioxide as beneficial for the environment and attribute other factors like aircraft exhaust, cosmic rays, solar winds, magnetic fields and solar intensity as causes of climate change. They state that no definitive factor for climate change has been established yet and any assertive statements about current and future climates should be regarded with skepticism.

Supporters

IPCC in its 2014 climate change report states, “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” Global warming is primarily a problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This carbon overload is caused mainly when we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas or cut down and burn forests. Burning of fossil fuels to make electricity is the largest source of heat-trapping pollution. Though water vapor is the most abundant heat-trapping gas, it has a short cycle in the atmosphere and cannot build up in the same way carbon dioxide does. Preventing dangerous climate change requires very deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, as well as the use of alternatives to fossil fuels worldwide.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement was made within the UNFCCC to deal with climate change by reducing greenhouse gases emissions starting in 2020. So far, 114 out of 197 countries have ratified with the agreement and vouched to cut down emission. On September 2016, the United States of America joined the Paris agreement along with China, another big emission producing country. President Obama called it a top concern and said “For all the challenges that we face, the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other challenge”. In contrast, president-elect Donald Trump has shown a skeptic view on this matter and has described climate change as “bullshit” and a “hoax. He vowed to dismantle the EPA and withdraw United States from the Paris Agreement to reduce the damage on economy created by climate change alarmists. However, there are a handful of elected members who offer some hope to fight the cause of climate change in coming years. Five candidates with strong climate credentials won offices in Congress, and they have impressive personal and political backgrounds. In the present situation it’s critical that the world stays on course with rational, prompt and comprehensive action to mitigate climate change.

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December 8, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – December 02, 2016

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Public Health

Childhood Bullying and Adult Overweight

Bullying is, without a doubt, a big problem in U.S. schools, as “40% to 80% of school-age children experience bullying at some point during their school careers” according to the American Psychological Association. What influence will bullying have on child development? Bullying can not only affect mental health, but also have a lasting effect on a person’s physical health. A recent study finds that bullied children were more likely to be overweight than non-bullied children at age 18.

Scientists studied a cohort of twins from 2,232 children who were followed to age 18. Bullying victimization was reported by mothers and children during primary school and early secondary school. At ages 10, 12 and 18, they collected data for indicators of overweight. To index genetic and fetal liability to overweight, co-twin body mass and birth weight were also used. They found that the association between childhood bullying victimization and being overweight at age 18 was influenced by the chronicity of exposure, as children bullied in both primary school and secondary school showed the highest risk of being overweight. They also measured whether childhood psychosocial risk factors (socioeconomic disadvantage and food insecurity) contributed to a higher risk of being overweight at age 18. To their surprise, the result showed that the elevated risk of bullied children becoming overweight is independent of their psychosocial risk.

The researchers further dug into the mechanisms of why childhood bullying puts kids at high risk for being overweight as a young adult. One possible reason is the allostatic load theory prediction, which states that “more chronic exposure to psychosocial stress is associated with the greatest metabolic abnormalities”. This theory has been supported by a study, in which they found that children being bullied may eat more due to impaired inhibitory control over feeding linked to prefrontal cortex abnormalities. In addition to explanations from the biological aspect, social mechanisms may also need to be taken into account. Bullied children may avoid participating in group sporting activities to reduce the risks of victimization from peers. It is important for school, clinical practice and public health agencies to identify the mechanisms and develop anti-bullying interventions, which could support bullied children to have a healthy life later and help reduce the large public health burden due to overweight. (Jessie R. Baldwin et al., Psychosomatic Medicine)

Climate Change

Will Climatic Warming Affect Soil Respiration?

It is estimated that nine times more carbon dioxide (CO2) is released from soils to atmosphere via soil respiration annually when compared with anthropogenic emissions. This efflux of carbon from soils is attributed to both plant root respiration and microbial respiration. Rising temperatures are expected to increase rates of soil respiration, which potentially provides a positive feedback to climatic warming. However, there were discrepancies in the observations from recent years, so the interaction between soil respiration and climate warming remains uncertain in climate projections.

To understand the complex relationship between soil respiration and temperature, 43 researchers from the United States and Europe conducted a global synthesis of 27 experimental warming studies spanning nine biomes, which results in >3,800 observations. There are numerous interesting findings. With the exception of boreal forest and desert, they didn’t observe significant differences in the temperature sensitivity of soil respiration between warmed or control treatments within other biomes (temperate forest, northern shrubland, southern shrubland, grassland and temperate agriculture). This finding suggests that acclimation of soil communities to warmer conditions is likely to have a greater impact for soil carbon dynamics in boreal forest and desert systems, while climatic warming will have little effect on other biomes. They also investigated the relationship between soil moisture, respiration rate and temperature, and found that the magnitude of the respiration response to warming decreased linearly with the degree of soil drying across the entire dataset.

Interestingly, they found a universal decline in the temperature sensitivity of respiration at soil temperature >25°C for non-desert biomes, while deserts have a higher temperature threshold at 55°C for reduced respiration. The significant difference in soil respiration in response to temperature could be due to a number of factors, such as different plant and microbial communities in the desert compared with other biomes, or abiotic decomposition as a major component of litter decomposition in deserts. Compared with lower latitudes, higher-latitude sites more often experience soil temperature <25°C, where soil respiration rates correlate positively with temperature. So higher attitudes will be more responsive to warmer temperatures. This study helps project future shifts for different geographic regions with the climatic warming. (Joanna C. Carey et al., PNAS)

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December 2, 2016 at 11:51 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 25, 2016

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By: Alida Palmisano, PhD

Source: pixabay

Climate Change

2016 Set to Break Heat Record Despite Slowdown in Emissions

An article published in the Washington Post discusses recent news about climate change. Temperatures around the globe are reaching a record high this year, according to a report from the U.N. weather agency. Another report from the World Meteorological Organization showed that while emissions of a key global warming gas have flattened out in the past three years, preliminary data through October showed that world temperatures are 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. That’s getting close to the limit set by the global climate agreement adopted in Paris last year. It calls for limiting the temperature rise since the industrial revolution to 2 degrees C or even 1.5 degrees C. Environmental groups and climate scientists said the report underscores the need to quickly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for warming the planet.

Another recent report delivered some positive news, showing global CO2 emissions have flattened out in the past three years. However, the authors of the study cautioned that it is far too early to declare that the slowdown, mainly caused by declining coal use in China, is a permanent trend. Even if China’s emissions have stabilized, growth in India and other developing countries could push global CO2 levels higher again. Even the recent election in the United States — the world’s No. 2 carbon polluter — could also have a significant impact.

Some researchers stressed that it’s not enough for global emissions to stabilize, saying they need to drop toward zero for the world to meet the goals of the Paris deal. “Worryingly, the reductions pledged by the nations under the Paris Agreement are not sufficient to achieve this,” said climate scientist Chris Rapley of University College London. (Karl Ritter, Washington Post)

Information and Technology

Facebook, Google Take Steps To Confront Fake News

Are we, as a society, really prepared for today’s way of receiving information from the web? In a recent article, NPR reporter Aarti Shahani talks about the issues related to viral fake news.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has addressed (multiple times) the issue of fake news, which are inaccurate or simply false information that appears on the Web in the guise of journalism. Zuckerberg said that the notion that fake news on his platform influenced the election in any way is “a pretty crazy idea.” But many disagree; and as a former employee, Antonio Garcia-Martinez says Zuckerberg’s comment sounds “more than a little disingenuous here.” Facebook makes money by selling ad space inside its news feed. It also makes money as a broker between its advertisers and other online companies. A company spokesperson told NPR that it is not doing business with fake news apps as these outside parties are not allowed to use the ad network. But the company did not address the reality that fake news in the Facebook news feed attract people and clicks, which translate to money.

Google, another tech giant, said that it is working on a policy to keep its ads off fake news sites. Garcia-Martinez says that it’s “ambitious” of Google to make this promise. “Where does it end? Are they just going to limit it to advertising?” he asks. “Are they not going to show search results of things that are obviously false? I mean, even false content itself is free speech, even though it’s false speech.”

These issues are emerging in today’s society because of technological advances; however policy and legislation struggle to keep up with the evolving way we interact with the world. (Aarti Shahani, NPR)

Public Health

Could the FDA be Dismantled Under Trump?

A recent article reflects on how the President-elect may change the work of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Public health policies shift may include a surrender of the FDA’s rules for off-label promotion of drugs, the importation of more drugs from other countries, and fewer requirements for clinical trials (the gold standard for determining whether medicines are safe and effective). “Between a Trump presidency and a radically pro-business Congress, the next few years may see a removal of numerous consumer protections,” said Michael Jacobson, co-founder and president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The FDA’s balancing act between patient protection and the drug and device industry’s push for a quicker path to market has never been easy. Over the past few years, spurred by patient advocacy groups and much of the pharmaceutical industry, lawmakers have fought over bills that would change how the country regulates prescription drugs and medical devices. Regardless of whether that legislation advances, Trump’s presidency is likely to enable the industry to get much of what it wants in terms of deregulation. “At the very least, President-elect Trump will support ‘Right-to-try’ laws that attempt to provide access to unapproved drugs,” the authors wrote.

One former FDA official, who spoke anonymously, said that the support for the right to try movement signals a broader disapproval of regulation. “The people who believe in that don’t believe there should be an FDA,” the former official said. Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that Congress could easily cut the FDA’s budget thereby “crippling programs to prevent foodborne infections, prevent dishonest food labels, and keep unsafe additives out of the food supply.” Others said even if he intends to overhaul the FDA, Trump may be surprised to find that there are limits to what he can do. “You can be against regulation all you want but the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is not something that is malleable within executive orders,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser to Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, which has long battled the agency for better patient protection. “There are laws, many laws, and it took a long time to get them.” (Sheila Kaplan, STAT)

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November 25, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 18, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: pixabay

2016 Presidential Elections

How the Trump Administration Might Impact Science

Donald Trump is now the President-elect of the United States of America. Mr. Trump’s loose speaking (and tweeting) style, affinity for controversy, relative disregard for facts, and his lack of experience in domestic and foreign policy, led him to make a number of vague, and sometimes contradictory statements about his specific policy positions over the course of his campaign. In light of this, there are few people on earth – and perhaps no people on earth, including Mr. Trump – who know exactly what to expect from his presidency. In Nature News last week, Sara Reardon, Jeff Tollefson, Alexandra Witze and Lauren Morello considered how Mr. Trump’s presidency might affect science, focusing on what is known about his positions on biomedical research, climate change, the space program, and immigration. The authors’ analyses are summarized below:

Biomedical Research – Mr. Trump will be in a position to undo the executive order signed by President Obama in 2009, which eased some restrictions on work with human embryonic stem cells, a decision criticized at the time by the current vice-president elect, Mike Pence. In his characteristically brash speaking style, Mr. Trump also called the NIH ‘terrible’ in a radio interview last year, but beyond this, he has said little about his plans for biomedical research.

Climate Change – Early signs suggest that Mr. Trump will dramatically shift the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and undo some of its work to curb greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan implemented by President Obama. Mr. Trump has already appointed Myron Ebell, a denier of climate change, to lead the transition at the EPA and other federal agencies involved in climate change and environmental policy. Mr. Trump has also vowed to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement which, under the terms of the agreement, may not happen immediately, but it may influence how and whether other countries participate in the agreement in the future.

Space Program – Based on writings from Trump’s campaign advisers there may be continued support for deep space exploration, especially through public-private partnerships with companies such as Orbital and SpaceX, but not earth observation and climate monitoring programs, which account for one third of NASA’s budget.

Immigration – A central pillar of Mr. Trump’s campaign was his strong and divisive stance on immigration. He has vowed to build a wall on the US border with Mexico, deport millions of illegal immigrants, defund ‘sanctuary cities’ throughout the United States, impose “extreme vetting” of immigrants, and stop immigration from countries where “adequate screening cannot occur”, which he believes includes Syria and Libya, and set new “caps” on legal immigration into the United States. These proposals have drawn objections from human rights advocates, and scientists worry that they may discourage international students and researchers from working in, and contributing their expertise to, the United States.

It remains to be seen how Mr. Trump will shape the future of science in the United States and the world, but it is clear that he is taking office at a pivotal moment. He would do well to seriously consider how his policies and his words will impact research, discovery, and innovation within the United States, and more importantly, the long-term health of vulnerable populations, economies, and ecosystems around the globe. (Sara Reardon, Jeff Tollefson, Alexandra Witze and Lauren Morello, Nature News)

Public Health

Soda Taxes on the Ballot

Given the focus that has been placed on the outcome of the Presidential election, you may NOT have heard about the results of smaller ballot items including a decision to begin taxing sodas in four US cities – San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, California, and Boulder, Colorado – as reported by Margot Sanger-Katz for the New York Times. These cities join Berkeley, California and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which passed soda taxes of their own in 2014 and June of 2016, respectively. The victory for proponents of soda taxes came after a costly campaign, with total spending in the Bay Area region campaign on the order of $50 million. Former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Laura and John Arnold spent heavily in support of taxing sodas, but did not equal the spending by the soda industry, which opposed the taxes. During his time as mayor, Mr. Bloomberg attempted to ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces in New York City in 2012, but this was struck down in the New York State Court of Appeals in 2014.

Soda tax advocates see the outcome of this year’s ballot initiatives as a sign of a sea change in public acceptance of programs intended to discourage soda consumption (and increase revenue for municipalities), but it is indisputable, especially in light of the results of the presidential election, that the set of relatively liberal cities that have adopted soda tax measures do not accurately represent the thinking of people throughout the United States. Though it is still too early to know if soda tax programs lead to improvements in public health, evidence from Berkeley and Mexico – which passed a soda tax in 2013 – indicates that these programs have the potential to decrease soda consumption. Regardless of how similar initiatives may perform in other cities on future ballots, the increasing number of cities participating in soda tax programs will provide valuable data to inform policy decisions aimed at reducing obesity and diabetes. (Margot Sanger-Katz, New York Times)

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November 18, 2016 at 9:00 am