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Homegrown Apocalypse: A Guide to the Holocene Extinction

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By: Andrew Wright BSc

Homegrown Apocalypse: A Guide to the Holocene Extinction

One of the unifying factors of mass extinctions is a rapid change in global average temperature. The end-Ordovician extinction, the second largest, occurred when newly forming mountains made of silicate rock quickly absorbed atmospheric CO2. The global average temperature plunged, leading to the formation of enormous glaciers, drastically lower ocean levels, and much colder waters. Since complex life was still relegated to the oceans, this killed 86% of all species. The most well-known extinction is the end-Cretaceous or K-Pg event caused in part by a massive asteroid impact in Chicxulub, Mexico. The immediate impact, roughly one billion times stronger than the atomic bombings of Japan, was devastating in its own right. However, the subsequent ejection of sulfate-bearing rock into the atmosphere was the real killer, dropping global temperatures by 2-7°C, inhibiting photosynthesis, and acidifying the oceans. Coming right after a period of global warming, this extinction killed about 76% of all species.

            These extinctions pale in comparison to the end-Permian extinction, also known as the Great Dying. When Pangea was the sole continent, an enormous pool of lava called a flood-basalt plain slowly erupted over what is modern-day Siberia. Over 350,000 years, magmatic rock up to a mile thick solidified and covered an area roughly half the size of the United States. This igneous cap forced underground lava to move sideways and spread in paths called sills. As the lava traveled, it vaporized increasing amounts of carbonates and oil and coal deposits, leading to an immense build-up of CO2. Once the sills reached the edge of the cap, these gases were violently expelled, ejecting up to 100,000 gigatons of CO2. The immediate effect was a global average temperature increase of roughly 5°C. Subsequently, oceanic methane hydrate (or methane clathrate) crystals, which become unstable at high temperatures, broke down. Since methane is 20-80 times more potent than CO2as a greenhouse gas, global average temperature increased a further 10°C, bringing the total to 15°C. This left the planet barren, desertified most of Pangea, strongly acidified the oceans, killed 96% of marine life, and 90% of all life on Earth.

            We are currently living through the beginnings of the sixth mass extinction event, known as the Holocene. Species are dying off 10-100 times faster than they should and that rate is accelerating. Insects, including pollinators, are dying off so quickly that 40% of them may disappear within decadesOne in eight birds are threatened with extinction, 40% of amphibians are in steep decline, and marine biodiversity is falling off as well. At current rates, half of all species on Earth could be wiped out by the end of the century. 

What is the commonality between our present circumstances and the past? As with previous mass extinctions, global average temperature has increased. Since 1880, global average temperature has increased by 0.8°C and the rate of warming has doubled since 1975. This June was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, with global average temperature reaching 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Greenland lost two billion tons of ice in one day. This increase in temperature is because we are currently adding 37.1 gigatons of CO2 per year to the atmosphere, and that number is rising

            From the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, we know that the best outcome is to keep the increase in global average temperature below 1.5°C. Instead, let us consider what would happen if current trends stay the same and CO2 emissions continue to increase at similar rates until 2100. This is known as the RCP 8.5 model. Under this paradigm, atmospheric CO2 levels will rise from 410 parts per million (ppm) to 936 ppm. The global average temperature will increase by 6°C from pre-industrial levels. That puts the Earth squarely within the temperature range of previous mass extinction periods. 

Given this level of warming the following can be expected to occur: first and foremost, the extreme heat on the planet will massively decrease glaciation, causing a surge in ocean levels. Since water expands as it gets warmer, ocean levels will increase even further to about 12ft higher than current levels. This means most coastal areas will perpetually flood while others will be completely underwater. Unfortunately, non-coastal areas won’t be free from hardship as high air temperature will cause desertification, crop die-off, drought, and widespread wildfires. Secondly, as the ocean absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, it will become increasingly acidic. So far, the pH of the ocean has only changed by 0.1, but under an RCP 8.5 model, that decrease could be as high as a 0.48 reduction in pH. Since this measurement is on a logarithmic scale, this means that the oceans will be acidic enough to break down the calcium carbonate out of which shellfish and corals are built. Warmer water cannot hold oxygen as effectively as cold, meaning many water-breathing species will suffocate. In combination, these two factors will serve to eliminate a huge source of the human food supply. Finally, since weather patterns are based on ocean and air currents and increasing temperatures can destabilize them, massive hurricanes, dangerously cold weather systems, and flood-inducing rainfall will become the norm. 

One parallel to the end-Permian extinction might result as well. Over millions of years, methane clathrate re-stabilized in the permafrost of Siberia and in the deep ocean floor. But in what has been termed the clathrate gun hypothesis, if methane clathrate destabilizes again at high temperatures, then the resultant methane emissions and planetary warming could form a positive-feedback loop, releasing even more crystallized methane until we end up in another “great dying”. While short-term warming probably won’t cause a runaway temperature increase, a 6°C increase in global average temperature might. New research suggests methane release may not even be necessary as the ocean is reaching a critical point in the carbon cycle where it could rapidly expel an amount of CO2on par with flood-basalt events. Moreover, like the end-Permian extinction, anthropogenic climate change is occurring on a near instantaneous geological time scale and species, including our own, will not have the requisite time to adapt.

Of course, none of these effects exists in a vacuum. They will be alongside increasing deforestation for agriculture, plastic and chemical pollution, and resource extraction. The end result would be a planet with less space, little food, mass migration, and devastating weather. So, what can be done to stop this scenario from coming true? The latest IPCC report essentially places humanity at an inflection point. Either CO2output is cut in half by 2030 and humans become carbon neutral by 2050, or the planet is irrevocably thrust past the point of no return. 

This timeframe may seem short, but it takes into account that even if civilization were to completely stop emitting greenhouse gasses today, it would take hundreds of years for global average temperature to  go back down since it takes time for the ocean to absorb CO2from the atmosphere. Like any problem of scale, there is no one solution to reaching carbon neutrality and it will take a multivariate approach. Some solutions include enacting carbon tax measures, subsidizing and implementing renewable energy (while divesting from new coal and oil production), an increased reliance on nuclear power, large-scale reforestation, livestock reduction, and carbon-sequestration technology. Some of these efforts have come a long way and some have gone in the wrong direction.

This is, of course, a global problem to be solved. At a time when the United States has signaled its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord as soon as possible and states are rejecting carbon cap-and-trade measures, other nations are moving ahead with unprecedented boosts in renewable energy and bold commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. India, the third-largest polluter after the United States, is on track to surpass its Paris Accord commitments. Should the United States re-engage with and lead the international effort to tackle what is an existential threat, then it is not improbable that the end of this century could be a pleasant one. So, if the idea of living through a global extinction event is disconcerting, one can be assured that the problem is still just barely a solvable one. 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 14th, 2019

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By: Andrew Wright BSc

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

The Pentagon emits more greenhouse gases than Portugal, study finds 

A recent study published by Brown University quantified the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions from 2001 to 2017 using estimates from the Department of Energy and fuel consumption data. The results demonstrated that during the time period studied, the Pentagon’s emissions were “in any one year…greater than many smaller countries‘ greenhouse gas emissions”. In 2017 alone, the Pentagon output 59 metric tons of CO2, ranking it higher than Sweden (42 metric tons), Portugal (55 metric tons) , or North Korea (58 metric tons). The Pentagon’s energy consumption is largely from air emissions (~55%) and diesel use (~14%), while the rest is dedicated to powering and heating military facilities.

Were it to be considered a standalone country, the Pentagon would be the 55th largest contributor of CO2 emissions, according to the study’s author Neta Crawford. In a separate article, she noted ”…the Department of Defense is the U.S. government’s largest fossil fuel consumer, accounting for between 77% and 80% of all federal government energy consumption since 2001″. While measures have been put into place by the Pentagon to reduce its emissions in recent years, given the threat assessment the Pentagon produced that warns fully two-thirds of military installations in the U.S. are or will be at risk due to climate change, further efforts may be needed.

 (Sebastien Malo, Reuters

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June 14, 2019 at 3:58 pm

How human health depends on biodiversity

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By: Lynda Truong

Image by V Perez from Pixabay 

By many measures, the Earth is facing its sixth mass extinction. The fifth mass extinction, a result of a meteorite approximately 10 km in diameter, wiped out the dinosaurs and an estimated 40-75% of species on Earth. This time around, the natural disaster that is threatening life on Earth is us.

In May, the United Nations released a preliminary report on the drastic risk to biodiversity (not to be confused with the recent report on the drastic consequences of climate change).  The assessment, which was compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), draws on information from 15,000 scientific and government sources with contributions from 145 global experts. It projects that one million species face risk of extinction. Scientists have estimated that the historical base level rate of extinction is one per million species per year, and more recent studies suggest rates as low as 0.1 per million species per year. At the established base level rates, it would take one to ten million years to see the same magnitude of extinction the planet currently faces. This accelerated rate of extinction can be linked to a variety of man-made causes, including changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and the introduction of invasive species. 

For some, that may not seem important. If humans are not on the endangered species list, why should it matter? As the IPBES Global Assessment indicates however, healthy ecosystems provide a variety of services, including improving air quality, purifying drinking water, and mitigating floods and erosions. The vast canopies of rainforests worldwide sequester 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. Plants and soil microbes found in wetlands can remove toxins from water, including explosive chemicals such as nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene (TNT). Mangrove forests serve as an important buffer against ocean storm surges for those on land. Nature is a powerful resource, and declines in biodiversity have broad implications for global development and health. 

The importance of biodiversity on global health is immediately apparent in middle- and low-income countries, which rely heavily on natural remedies and seasonal harvests for health and nutrition. The loss of entire species of plants can eliminate valuable sources of traditional medicine for indigenous communities. Genetically diverse crops are more resilient to pest and disease, ensuring a stable food supply and bolstering food security. Beyond this, ecosystem disturbances also have complex implications for infectious disease, which are often endemic to developing nations. 

However, these effects are also seen in first world countries. A well cited example for the impact of biodiversity loss on infectious disease involves Lyme disease, which is endemic to parts of the United States. The white footed mouse is a common carrier of Lyme disease, and in areas with high densities of these mice, ticks are likely to feed on the mice and subsequently transmit the disease to humans. However, the presence of other mammals that the tick can feed on dilutes the disease reservoir, lowering the likelihood of an outbreak (commonly referred to as the “dilution effect”). While biodiversity has complicated effects on the spread of infectious diseases, drastic changes to ecosystems often provide a breeding ground for disease vectors and lead to increases in transmission.

In addition to the direct effects of declines in biodiversity have on global health, an often-neglected aspect of its importance for health is as a resource for biomedical science. The IPBES assessment reports that 70% of cancer drugs are natural or inspired by natural sources such as traditional medicines. This merely scratches the surface of the influence of nature on modern biomedical research. 

Much like the communities that rely on natural products as medicine, many drug compounds produced by pharmaceutical companies are derived from nature. Morphine has been one of the most revolutionary drug compounds in history, effectively treating both acute and chronic pain. The compound was originally isolated from the opium poppy, and its chemical structure has since been modified to reduce negative effects and improve potency. While the current opioid crisis in the United States has highlighted the importance of moderate use, morphine and its analogues are some of the most useful and reliable pain relievers in modern medicine. Similarly, aspirin has been regarded as a wonder drug for its analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and cardioprotective effects. Aspirin is a chemical analogue of salicylic acid, a compound originally isolated from willow tree bark. 

Beyond general pain relief, many naturally derived drugs have also been useful for disease treatment. Quinine, the first effective antimalarial drug, was extracted from the bark of cinchona trees, and quinine and its analogues are still used to treat malaria today. Penicillin, serendipitously discovered in a fungus, has been useful for treating bacterial infections and informing modern antibiotic development. These medicines and many more have been crucial to the advancement of human health, yet could have just as easily been lost to extinction.

On a more fundamental level, scientific research has benefited from many proteins isolated from nature. Thermophilic polymerases, isolated from a bacterium residing in hot springs, are now an essential component of polymerase chain reactions (PCR) – a common laboratory technique that amplifies segments of DNA. This method is critical in molecular biology labs for basic research, and forensic labs for criminal investigations.Fluorescent proteins, which have been isolated from jelly fish and sea anemone, revolutionized the field of molecular biology by allowing scientists to visualize dynamic cellular components in real time. More recently, CRISPR/Cas systems were discovered in bacteria and have been developed as a gene editing tool capable of easily and precisely modifying genetic sequences. These basic tools have vastly improved the scope of biomedical research, and all of them would have been close to impossible to develop without their natural sources.

In addition to medicines and tools, nature has often informed biomedical research. Denning bears are commonly studied for potential solutions to osteoporosis and renal disease. Their ability to enter a reduced metabolic state where they do not eat, drink, or defecate for months at a time provides valuable insight into how these biological processes may be adapted to benefit human disease and physiology. Even more interestingly, there are a few species of frogs that become nearly frozen solid in winter, and thaw fully recovered in spring. In this frozen state, much of the water in their body turns to ice, their heart stops beating, and they stop breathing. When temperatures rise, they thaw from the inside out and continue life as per usual. Crazy cryonics and immortality aside, the freeze/thaw cycles could inform improved preservation for organ transplants.

Nature is a much better experimentalist than any human, having had billions of years to refine its experiments through the process of evolution and natural selection. Depleting these living resources, which provide invaluable benefits to human health and ecosystems, lacks foresight and is dangerously reckless. The techno-optimist approach of ceaseless development in the blind belief that whatever problem humanity encounters can be solved with research and innovation neglects to account for the dependency of research and innovation on nature. Most biomedical scientists, most physicians, and much of the general public have probably devoted a minimal amount of consideration to the importance of biodiversity. But for the one million species currently at risk, and for the hundreds of million more yet to be discovered, it’s worth a thought.

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June 7, 2019 at 9:51 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 30th, 2019

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By: Andrew Wright, BSc

Source: Pixabay

North American drilling boom threatens big blow to climate efforts, study finds

At a time when the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has determined that CO2emissions must be halved by 2030 to prevent irreversible climate change (and the consequences thereof), it would appear that energy investments are following an opposite trend. According to the Global Energy Monitor’s assessment on pipeline infrastructure, 302 new pipelines are under development, 51.5% of which are being developed in North America. This reflects a current pipeline expansion investment of $232.5 billion as part of a total $1.05 trillion in investments that include processing, storage, export, and other oil and gas related expenses. Even though 80% of these pipelines are dedicated to natural gas infrastructure, should each project be completed and be fully utilized in the United States they would approximately lead to an 11% increase in national CO2emissions by 2040 at a time when those emissions should be approaching a 75% reduction. 

            Ignoring the impacts on global climate, human health, and the associated societal cost, the authors of this infrastructure assessment argue that these pipelines may yield a poor return on their investment. To start, the output of the new North American pipelines far exceeds domestic energy demand and thereby will rely on exporting oil and natural gas to foreign markets.  However, these same markets are boosting their own capacity for fuel production and will likely be less reliant on imports from the North American market. Furthermore, renewable sources of energy have become as cheap or cheaper than their oil and gas counterparts and are expected to continue becoming more affordable as technology improves. Both of these factors threaten to upend the future market these pipeline investments will require in much the same way that cheap natural gas production disrupted the US coal market, which was relying on the same foreign export model before its collapse.

(Oliver Milman, The Guardian

Sexual harassment is pervasive in US physics programs

Sexual harassment is a problem across United States academia. For example, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM)  report from 2018 found that within non-STEM majors roughly 22% of female respondents said they experienced sexual harassment, whereas within STEM majors that percentage ranged from 20% in the Sciences to 47% in Medicine.  However, research published in the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research shows that sexual harassment is particularly pervasive among women pursuing an undergraduate in physics. Of women who responded, 338 of 455, or 74.3%, reported experiencing harassment. In addition, 20.4% of respondents said they experienced all three forms of sexual harassment evaluated: sexual gender harassment, sexist gender harassment, and unwanted sexual attention.

            Much like the NASEM report indicated for all academic fields, the high incidence of sexual harassment observed in physics programs is correlated with negative academic outcomes for those experiencing it. This includes a negative sense of belonging and a higher propensity towards the imposter phenomenon, or attributing personal success to external factors. While large funding institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, have made a stronger push recently to combat sexual harassment, it is clear that such efforts should be expanded and particular attention should be paid to certain academic fields.

(Alexandra Witze, Nature News



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April 30, 2019 at 10:46 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 5, 2019

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By: Janani Prabhakar Ph.D.

Image by Cally Lawson from Pixabay 

Have you herd? It turns out cows have feelings, too.

The idea that nonhuman animals have feelings seems not only far-fetched, but a tad bit Disneyesque. We are used to anthropomorphizing nonhuman animals in movies and television, but the idea that a cow can feel emotions seems unbelievable. Part of this is because the concept of feeling rests on specific behavioral indices. Humans express feelings through facial expressions, through sound, and through language. We can infer others’ emotions by watching people’s actions and what they tell us. How can we possibly gain these kinds of insights from animals? How can we infer a nonhuman animal’s mental states?

With the rise of behaviorism came a focus on concepts of thoughts, feelings, and consciousness. The notion that these concepts are difficult to probe using standard empirical methods in nonhuman animals, behavioral scientists thought less of animals for several decades. Industrialization caused a further rift between humans and nonhuman animals such that the plight and treatment of nonhuman animals did not factor into the everyday ethos of behavioral science. This has since changed. 

Professor Frans de Waal, a primatologist from Emory University, has argued that nonhuman animals do indeed show emotions and in fact, they show emotions in similar ways to humans. The challenge is to determine what emotion they are conveying, when, and why. As Alexandra Horowitz, a canine cognition psychologist, points out, we cannot measure nonhuman animal emotion using the same methods we use to study human emotions. It would be too presumptuous to assume direct overlaps. Instead, she emphasizes that scientists must let the animal show us what the emotion is. This paradigm shift toward understanding how animals show emotion (and not if they do at all) has already had policy impact. Many countries have increased restrictions on using animals for research, with some outright banning use of primates in behavioral science. Restrictions on factory farms may be coming not too long from now.

Beyond policy, independent farms and rescues have heard cry of these notions. VINE Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue mission in Vermont, has taken on this perspective in creating an open, free space for farm animals of different species to roam and mingle. This represents a “radically different way of life for domesticated animals.” According to Pattrice Jones, the goal of this mission is to liberate, in a sense, animals who have been tortured or held in captivity, allowing them to live in a safe space where their emotional well-being and their individual rights can be maintained. That is something we can all get on board with.

(Eoin O’Carroll, Christian Science Monitor


Copenhagen Wants to Show How Cities Can Fight Climate Change

By 2025, Copenhagen hopes to transition from an industrial town to a net carbon neutral city. To achieve this, it will have to generate more renewable energy than dirty energy that it consumes. If Copenhagen achieves this, it will be a big achievement and will set a great example for cities worldwide. If cities can change toward using less dirty energy, then our negative impact on greenhouse gas emissions will substantially drop. Copenhagen is a great test case for the extreme measures that this will require: it is a city with a small population that is rich and who care about climate change. 

Copenhagen has already made great strides toward this goal. It has cut its emissions by 42 percent since 2005. To go even further, it has to change the way people commute and their heating choices, and how the city deals with trash. To really make effective strides, the city needs the support of the national government. However, the national government, led by a center-right party, has been reluctant to impose restrictions on gas-fueled vehicles, which is the largest contributor to the country’s carbon footprint. Contrary to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the national government has lowered car-registration taxes, allowing more individuals to own cars. So, as many in Copenhagen would like to see a reduction in their carbon footprint, this footprint is increased with greater personal mobility through car ownership. This is a problem that is faced by many nations trying to reduce their emissions. 

Despite these hurdles, Copenhagen has implemented several key initiatives to help toward their goals. They have several bike lanes on busy city routes. Some of these lanes are three lanes wide, owing to how widely they are used. A new metro line connects more residents, allowing them to take the metro over driving their own cars. Garbage is beginning to be burned in a high-tech incinerator that contributes to heating sources for buildings. Furthermore, natural winds that are common in Copenhagen has made wind energy a viable renewable source. 

However, progress sometimes has a negative side to it as well. For example, the city’s power plants have begun to use wood pellets rather than coal. However, burning wood causes emissions, especially if the trees that were cut cannot be replaced by new trees. The new garbage facility comes with a year-round ski slope as well as a slew of trucks that must bring garbage to its furnaces daily. This also has a carbon footprint, but it may be outweighed by what it can give back in terms of heat to the city. The other part to all this is motivating behavioral change. So far, the city’s residents have utilized the bike paths to a large extent and this is good for the city’s goals. Generalizing this to other cities requires similar paradigm shifts in individual’s behaviors and the city residents to all be equally cognizant of how their choices impact climate change. When people are concerned, as are the residents of Copenhagen, it can help swing policy. Copenhagen, as such, is a perfect test case for this paradigm shift.

(Somini Sengupta, New York Times


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April 5, 2019 at 5:45 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 26, 2019

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By: Neetu M. Gulati Ph.D.

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Sunscreen ban aimed at protecting coral reefs spark debate – among scientists

Corals around the world have begun “bleaching,” turning white and expelling the algae that live within them. After a 2015 study found that oxybenzone can harm corals, environmentalists have worked to bar the sale of sunscreens containing the chemical. Last year, Hawaii was the first US state to ban sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone, as well as another harmful chemical octinoxate, which are found in up to 75% of sunscreens on the US market. The ban will go into effect in 2021. Florida and California are considering similar laws. However, while some are fighting to limit the use of these toxic chemicals, others say the major issue is not sunscreen – it’s climate change.

Evidence indicates that harmful chemicals and warming oceans due to climate change are both damaging corals and leading to bleaching. Scientists agree that the major contributing factor is climate change and the chemicals play a lesser role. Nevertheless, they disagree about what should be done. C. Mark Eakin, an oceanographer and the coordinator for NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program, commented “if we don’t deal with climate change, it won’t matter what we do about sunscreens.” Furthermore, some people believe there is not enough clear evidence explaining how damaging these chemicals can be. While many scientists share this viewpoint, others think that every step towards saving the corals matters. Some lawmakers agree with this philosophy; Teri Johnston, the mayor of Key West, Florida, said of banning the harmful chemicals, “if it’s something we can do to minimize damage to reefs, it’s one small step we’re going to take.” The city of Key West banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate last month, an act that will go into effect in 2021.

Damage to coral reefs is a complicated issue, with multiple stressors likely to be involved: not only climate change and sunscreens, but also pollution and other harmful chemicals. While many are worried about protecting the reefs, there is also concern as to how these bans will affect human health. In response to the Hawaii ban, the Skin Cancer Foundation put out a statement which said, “by removing access to a significant number of products, this ban will give people another excuse to skip sun protection, putting them at greater risk for skin cancer.” 

One possible solution is to expand the number of ingredients permitted in sunscreen, to allow for other protective chemicals that are less harmful to the environment. The FDA has not expanded its list of approved ingredients in approximately 20 years. Comparatively, Europe allows for more chemicals, hopeful that any one single chemical will have a less harmful environmental impact when more diversity of ingredients is allowed. Towards this end, the FDA recently proposed new regulationsto improve American sunscreens.

(Rebecca Beitsch, Washington Post

In a first, U.S. private sector employs nearly as many Ph.D.s as schools do 

The career landscape for burgeoning PhDs has changed drastically in the last 20 years; while the number of PhDs awarded has increased, especially in the fields of life and health sciences, the proportion of PhDs employed in tenured and tenure-track positions has declined. This is in contrast to what some current faculty members, who may assume that tenure track positions are the standard path for PhDs, and other career paths are “alternative.” According to the Survey of Doctorate Recipients from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), in 2017, for the first time, private sector employment of PhDs (42%) is nearly equivalent to employment by educational institutions (43%). This is in stark contrast to 1997, when educational institutions employed 11% more PhDs than the private sector. While the survey takes into consideration all PhDs under the age of 76 who are employed full-time in the US, it is expected that newer PhDs are less likely to secure tenure-track positions. 

As career trajectories change, some universities are using new information about PhD outcomes to improve programming for current graduate and prospective students. According to the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science, ten academic institutions have released data onlineabout the career outcomes of their PhD graduates, with more institutions planning to release similar data by the end of next year. The data indicates the traditional model of training, which treats graduate school like an apprenticeship to becoming faculty, is outdated. Other skills that transfer beyond educational institutions, may be necessary to successfully train the next generation of PhDs. 

(Katie Langin, Science)



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March 26, 2019 at 5:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 18, 2019

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By: Allison Cross, Ph.D.

Source: Pixabay

Scientists track damage from controversial deep-sea mining method

The extraction of rare and valuable metals and minerals from the deep sea is highly attractive to mining companies.  Scientists, however, have long raised concerns about potential harmful effects of these activities on marine ecosystems.  Next month, the mining company Global Sea Mineral Resources is scheduled to harvest precious metals and minerals on the seafloor in the remote Pacific Ocean for eight days with a team of scientists working alongside them.  The scientists will be using deep-sea cameras and sensors to monitor sediment plumes created by the mining activity.  

Scientists are concerned that sediment plumes created during deep sea mining could extend tens or hundreds of meters above the seafloor and “bury, smother and toxify” the marine communities in these regions.  The research exhibition scheduled for next month is intended to help scientists understand the potential impact of deep-sea mining and inform the development of an international code of conduct for deep-sea commercial mining.  

The code of conduct for deep sea commercial mining will be created by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an organization founded in 1994 to organize, regulate and control all mining activity in international waters.  The ISA is planning to finalize the code by 2020, allowing companies that have been granted licenses to extract minerals from the deep sea to begin full scale mining in the Pacific Ocean.  

Though the experiment scheduled for next month will provide key insight into how long it takes for sediment plumes to resettle, and how far they can travel, the experiment is just too short to gauge potential long-term effects of mining activities.  Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu cautions “We will not really understand the actual scale of mining impacts until the effects of sediment plumes from full-scale mining are studied for years”.

(Olive Heffernan, Nature Briefing)

U.S. blocks U.N. Resolution on Geoengineering

Last week, during the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil joined together to block a resolution aimed at studying the potential risks of geoengineering.  “Geoengineering”, also referred to as climate engineering or climate intervention, aims to mitigate effects of global warming using techniques like solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal.

Geoengineering technologies are not yet operational and while proponents believe these techniques could help curb the impact of climate change, opponents worry about the potential risks of these techniques on both people and nature. Notably, one proposed method of solar radiation managementinvolves using aerosols to reflect a portion of inbound sunlight back out to space. Research in this area is still in its infancy and some worry that infusing the atmosphere with aerosols could lead to undesired side effects, like severe weather.  

The proposal raised at the UNEA meeting last week, backed by Switzerland and nine other nations, aimed to direct the U.N. Environment Programme to study the implications of geoengineering and compile a report by next year on current scientific research in this area. 

While there is some consensus that issuesof geoengineering technologies need to be explored, countries disagree on who should be overseeing these efforts. It has been reported that the United States prefers questions about geoengineering to be dealt with by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), rather than by UNEA. The IPCC is reported to be assessing geoengineering as a part of its next report set to be published in 2021 or 2022. 

(Jean Chemnick, Scientific America)

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March 19, 2019 at 7:45 pm