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Science Policy Around the Web – October 26, 2018

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By: Mohor Sengupta, Ph.D.


Source: Pixabay

Environmental Problems

A 14-year-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico verges on becoming one of the worst in U.S. history

In the year 2004, hurricane Ivan leveled an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico, owned by Taylor Energy. Its striking magnitude destroyed the colossal platform which had drilled into several oil wells. The result was a huge mound of muck, filling the broken steel structure and leaking oil. To date, efforts to seal off the leakage have not been successful.

Taylor Energy at first denied that there was any leakage and then underreported the extent of the leakage. According to current estimates, about 700 barrels of oil are leaking per day, with each barrel holding 42 gallons of oil. The company has kept this information a secret for many years, and few people are aware of the actual level of spillage. The Taylor Energy spillage in fact pre-dates the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also called the BP leak), so far the largest marine oil spill in history at 168 million gallons. While BP has coughed up $66 billion for fines, legal settlements and cleanup, Taylor Energy is a comparatively smaller operation and financially too cash-strapped to afford cleanup on such a large scale.

In these actions Taylor Energy flouted both the EPA’s Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which mandates that spillage must be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center (NRC), and the Clean Water Act of 1972, which created a structure for regulating water pollutants. Taylor Energy was taken to court by environmentalists, and Taylor Energy and the NRC have been jointly found accountable in presenting false numbers and data. In an assessment submitted to Taylor Energy in 2009 by Waldemar S. Nelson and Company, a private firm, risks involved in ingesting fish from the affected area were discussed. A recent and independent analysis by the Justice Department showed that the original estimate of 1 to 55 barrels of leakage per day provided by NRC was inaccurate. After several spillage tests Oscar Garcia-Pineda, the author of the article, concluded that his results didn’t tally with those reported by NRC and the actual rate of spillage was 48 to ~1700 barrels per day.

These disturbing findings have arrived at a delicate time for environmental protection policy. Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed a wide expansion of leases to the oil and gas industry. This would render all off-shore areas on the continental shelf, including those along the Atlantic coast, amenable to drilling. Oil and gas representatives are lobbying for this cause and have provided financial justifications including billions of dollars’ worth of annual economic growth, increased jobs and lower heating costs. However, multiple governors representing states across the four planning areas, from Maine to the Florida Keys, are opposed to this proposal.

Reports show that on average there are 20 uncontrolled releases of oil per 1000 wells under state or federal governments. In Louisiana alone, approximately 330,000 gallons of oil are spilt from off-shore and on-shore rigging platforms. With changing climate patterns, hurricanes on the Atlantic are predicted to be more intense in future, and given the government’s plans to extend rigging along the Atlantic coast, a bleak prospect looms ahead.

(Darryl Fears, Washington Post)

Health Supplements

The Problem with Probiotics

The healthy balance or maintenance of the natural flora of the gut, also called the gut microbiome,is essential for a healthy digestive system. Antibiotics have been shown to disrupt the gut-microbiome, resulting in diseases such as diarrhea and infections with Clostridium difficile. As an antidote, it has been common practice to pop in “good bacteria”, or probiotics, while on antibiotic treatment. These probiotics are essentially a mixture of supposedly healthy gut microbiota and are meant to replace those disrupted by the antibiotic.

Although people commonly take probiotics, this class of product is not regulated by the FDA and there are rising concerns about the standard of manufacture and quality of these commonly sold over-the-counter health supplements. Most recently, Dr. Pieter A. Cohen cautioned against overlooking the harmful effects of widely marketed probiotics in his recent article published in “JAMA Internal Medicine”.

There have been several studies discussing the benefits of probiotics, so much so that the journal “Nutrition” recently published a systematic review of systematic reviews. In a nutshell, all the studies ever done on efficacy of probiotics have produced very limited positive results and only pure microbial strains were used as the probiotic supplement in these studies. On the other hand, there has been no evidence to show that probiotics have been beneficial in treating conditions such as Crohn’s Disease, chronic diarrhea, ulcerative colitis or liver disease, all related in some way to the gut microbiome.

Safety assessment studies have found probiotics to be contaminated with unwanted microbial strains, and without FDA regulation of the manufacturing process production doesn’t often follow a well-defined pipeline. It is not known what kinds of health hazards might be caused by these contaminants, warns Dr. Cohen, and they can be lethal. In a notorious case, the death of an infant was attributed to a contaminated dietary supplement.

Unfortunately, none of these events have deterred Americans from using probiotics. Almost four million people, or 1.6 percent of adults in the United States used probiotics in 2012 and the global market for probiotics is steadily on the rise. In this situation, it is of great importance for dietary supplements be given the rigorous assessment and quality control checks that a prescription drug undergoes. There should be increased efforts to make consumers aware of adulterations in probiotics.

(Aaron E. Carrol, New York Times)

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October 26, 2018 at 12:36 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 19, 2018

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By: Ben Wolfson, Ph.D.


Source: Pixabay

Climate Change


Climate Change prompts a rethink of Everglades management

The Florida Everglades is a large area of tropical wetlands that has received significant attention due to the degradation of its unique ecosystem by urban development. The Everglades were designated a World Heritage Sitein 1979 and Wetland Area of Global Importancein 1987, and in 2000 Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restorative Plan (CERP) to combat further decline and provide a framework for Everglades restoration.

For the past 18 years, these efforts have been directed towards curtailing damage from urbanization and pollution. However, as outlined in a congressionally mandated report released on October 16th by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, new strategies may be necessary. In the biennial progress report, an expert panel called for CERP managers to reassess their plans in light of new climate change models. The report focuses on the 7 centimeters of sea level rise seen since 2000, and points out that Southern Florida is especially at risk from climate change and is expected to experience a 0.8-meter rise in sea level by the year 2100.

It is clear that as more is learned about the realities of climate change, the goals and methods of conservation projects are shifting, and past strategies must be adapted to fit the realities of a warming world.

(Richard Blaustein, Science)

Animal Research

NIH announces plan for chimp retirement


In 2015, the NIH announced that it would no longer support biomedical research on chimpanzees, two years after pledging to significantly reduce the numbers of chimpanzees used in research. These decisions were made based on a combination of reduced demand for chimpanzees in research and the designation of captured chimpanzees as an endangered species in 2015.

On Thursday October 18th, the NIH announced the next step in the process of retiring research chimps. While research was stopped in 2015, many of the chimpanzees had nowhere to go and remained housed at laboratories. One federal chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven, exists in Keithville, Louisiana, however lack of space and the difficulty of relocating some animals has slowed their transition to better habitats.

In the Thursday announcement NIH director Francis Collins outlined the guidelines for future chimpanzee relocation. These include streamlining medical records and determining whether chimpanzees are physical healthy enough to be relocated. Many of the chimpanzees are at an advanced age, meaning they have developed chronic illnesses similar to those experienced by humans. However, Collin’s emphasized that there must be a more acute medical problem for relocation not to take place. In addition both the research facility and Chimp Haven must agree that the former research chimpanzees are capable of being relocated, and disagreements will be mediated by a panel of outside veterinarians.

Collins additionally stressed that while transfer to Chimp Haven is the ideal outcome for all retired chimps, those housed at NIH-supported facilities do not live isolated in cages or in laboratories and are housed in social groups with appropriate species-specific accommodations.

The development of these clear guidelines will expediate chimpanzee relocation while emphasizing chimpanzee health and comfort.

(Ike Swetlitz, Statnews)

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October 19, 2018 at 3:25 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – September 10, 2015

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By: Courtney Pinard, Ph.D.

Kris Krüg via Photo Pin cc

Climate Change

California leads the way to curb greenhouse gas emissions

California lawmakers are debating a new bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions. This bill comes after President Obama’s visit to Alaska, during which he declared that the fight against climate change is an urgent national priority. The bill aims to double energy efficiency in buildings, cut petroleum use in half, and derive 50% of electricity from renewable sources in California, all by 2030. While oil industry advocates assert that the bill will result in gas rationing and a ban on minivans, there is no language in the bill to support these claims. Backers of the bill said that reductions would be achieved instead by increasing the fuel efficiency of existing cars, expanding the number of electric cars, and using innovative technologies and incentives to make buildings more energy efficient. Washington, D.C.-based Resources for the Future says these goals are both ambitious and feasible. (Adam Nagourney, New York Times; Pauline Bartonlone, NPR)


International group approves genetic editing of human embryos for basic research

A consortium on stem cells, ethics, and law, comprised of members from eight countries, decided that editing human embryos to research early human development and disease is ethically justifiable. The decision comes after a few months after Chinese scientists published the first paper describing the use of the genome editing technique, CRISPR/Cas9, in human embryos. One possible application of the technique is to introduce genetic changes in immune cells to prevent HIV infection. Although the gene changes in the Chinese study were minimal and were not used for reproductive purposes, the work ignited debate and criticism among scientists and bioethicists. Members of the consortium met earlier this week and issued the following statement: “We believe that while this technology has tremendous value to basic research and enormous potential for somatic clinical uses, it is not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes at this time.” (Gretchen Vogel, ScienceInsider)

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September 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 7, 2015

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Drug Policy

First 3D-printed drug approved by FDA

In an unprecedented move, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a prescription pill formulated using 3-D printing. The drug, Spritam levetiracetam, will be used to treat seizures that arise in people suffering from epilepsy. The drug’s manufacturer, Aprecia Pharmaceuticals, says it creates the pill using a 3-D printing process which adds layers upon layer to the pill until the right dosage is reached. Using 3-D printing technology, the manufacturer claims that the pill is more readily dissolved after oral administration thereby delivering a higher dosage of medicine to the patient efficiently and quickly. “As a result, Spritam enhances the patient experience – administration of even the largest strengths of levetiracetam with just a sip of liquid,” Aprecia said in a statement on Monday. “In addition, with Spritam there is no measuring required as each dose is individually packaged, making it easy to carry this treatment on the go.” Be prepared to see more medical manufacturers using this approach to not only produce new drugs but to also use this technique for tissue regeneration, bone replacements, and even prosthetics. (Hope King, CNN Money)

Climate Policy

What you need to know about Obama’s biggest global warming move yet — the Clean Power Plan

On Monday, President Obama unveiled a major climate change plan called the Clean Power Plan. What is the Clean Power Plan? This is a ‘plan’ of regulation advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act that strives to cut carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants 32 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2030. Although federally mandated, this regulation allows states to make their own cuts due to the diversity in energy needs across the U.S. This legislation is stricter than the existing Clean Air Act and the finalized plan can be found on the White House fact sheet. Here, it outlines that although the Clean Power Plan is stricter than the Clean Air Act, the new legislation adds two extra years to get started on cutting emissions. A clear difference is that the Clean Power Plan does not rely upon natural gas as a source for electricity generation. Rather, the Clean Power Plan incentivizes “early deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency.” Many see this as a push back from the Administration to slow down the switch to natural gas and promote other renewable resources for energy. The U.S., along with other nations, has promised, as part of the United Nations climate negotiations, to reduce total emissions by 2025 to 26-28 percent below 2005 levels. The newly released Clean Power Plan will be a key component of getting there. (Chris Mooney, The Washington Post)

Government Science and Public Access

Reporters See Barriers to Science Information at Federal Agencies

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a new report on August 4, “Mediated Access,” that found that journalists find it hard to keep the public informed about government science due to barriers put in place by federal agencies. The journalists identified difficulty in conducting interviews with scientists because agency public information officers would frequently sit in on the interviews making open conversation more difficult. Additionally, pre-approval rules put in place by government agencies often required science writers/journalists to submit questions beforehand. In some cases the interviews were denied or interview questions evaded. “Federal agency scientists set policies that affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the products we buy,” said Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy. “When agencies limit access to those scientists, the public loses. We need better media policies and better practices to make sure scientists can share the work they’re doing in a clear, straightforward way.” Perhaps not only government agencies should increase their transparency regarding scientific and medical issues. This rhetoric is even more applicable amidst the Planned Parenthood controversy over aborted fetal tissue. Many argue that increased Planned Parenthood visibility would allow the public to have input regarding fetal tissue distribution and research. Agencies should strive to increase transparency to the public maintaining the integrity and safety of the working place. (Union of Concerned Scientists)

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August 7, 2015 at 11:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 5, 2015

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By: Amy L. Kullas, Ph.D.

Global Health

Antibiotic Resistance: Combating Deadly ‘Superbugs’ Weak In Most Countries, World Health Organization Report Says

According the the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recent report, most countries are still failing to address the serious issue of antibiotic misuse, and are ill-prepared for the resulting increase in drug resistant microbes, allowing previously-treatable diseases to become killers. This statement was delivered approximately a year after the organization released its first global report on antibiotic resistance, which should have sounded an emergency alarm to the world, but essentially went unheard or ignored. At that time, Charles Penn, WHO coordinator on antimicrobial resistance, had this warning for reporters: “We will lose the ability to treat a range of serious conditions such as blood stream infections, pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV, and the benefits of advance medical treatment, such as cancer chemotherapy and major surgery will also become much riskier and may well be lost.”

For the current report, a only dismal 34 of the 133 countries that even responded to the WHO survey, currently have comprehensive national plans to combat resistance to antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines. Counterfeit and low-quality drugs plague many regions of the globe, “resulting in sub-optimal dosing.” Additionally, many countries do not have standard treatment guidelines, which may allow the overuse and over-consumption of drugs. As a result, the WHO has drafted a Global Action Plan for addressing antimicrobial resistance and plans to ask all 193 member states to approve the plan at the next World Health Assembly, being held in Geneva, Switzerland later this month. By approving the plan, the countries will agree to develop their own national plans over the next two years and hopefully try to stem the tide of antimicrobial resistance. (Elizabeth Whitman, International Business Times)

Climate change policy

Analysis: In boosting climate goals, California daring others to follow

Californian governor, Jerry Brown, took action for climate change policy by issuing an executive order on April 29th requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% of the 1990 level by 2030. This level is consistent with scientifically established levels needed in the United States to limit global warming below 2oC, the threshold implicated for “major climate disruptions,” such as rising sea levels, changes in the ocean currents or extensive droughts. Governor Brown stated, “With this order, California sets a very high bar for itself and other states and nations, but it’s one that must be reached-for this generation and generations to come.” Californians usage of renewable resources, such as LED lighting and electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars, will have to leap from the current “25% to at least 50%” while halving their oil consumption. Further, Dan Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California-Berkeley, has estimated “$27 billion of venture capital and other financing has flowed into California clean technology companies since 2006” and almost 460,000 payroll positions have been generated in the past year. California’s effort will be successful on a global level only if other states and nations make set similar goals for themselves. (Marianne Lavelle, ScienceInsider; Adrienne Alvord, The Equation)

Gender equality in science

‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online

Controversy has erupted after comments made by a reviewer for the journal PLOS ONE about a manuscript submitted by two female researchers were made public last week on Twitter. The reviewer felt that “one or two male biologists” co-authors would improve the manuscript written by the two female researchers to verify that data were interpreted appropriately and to “serve as a possible (fact)check.” The anonymous peer reviewer further stated that men have “better health and stamina” which may contribute to why men publish in higher impact journals and more successful in the highest jobs in science.

Dr. Fiona Ingleby, a postdoctoral fellow in evolution, behavior, and environment at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, tweeted sections of the letter that she and her co-author, Dr. Megan Head, received after rejection of their manuscript. The manuscript highlights the progression of Ph.D. graduates in the life sciences to postdoctoral positions and “found that men finished their PhDs with more other-author papers than women, but no difference in number of first-author publications.” According to Dr. Ingleby, “the reviewer acknowledged that they had looked up our websites prior to reading the manuscript” suggesting that the reviewer may not have been an unbiased referee.

As a result, PLOS ONE has requested the editor involved in the situation to step down from the editorial board and removed the anonymous reviewer from the database. Furthermore, the journal “sincerely apologize(s) for the distress the report caused the authors, and …completely oppose(s) the sentiments it expressed.” This incident highlights that while women in science have made significant strides towards gender-equality, more still needs to be accomplished. (Holly Else, Times Higher Education; Rachel Bernstein, ScienceInsider)

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May 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 17, 2015

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

photo credit: MJ/TR (´・ω・) via photo pin cc

Genomics in Medicine

Personalizing Cancer Treatment With Genetic Tests Can Be Tricky

Since the New Year, President Obama, backed by National Institutes of Health Director, Dr. Francis Collins, has rejuvenated an initiative to use the human genome to make more informed medical decisions in health care. Since the completed endeavor to sequence the human genome was published in 2001, scientists and physicians have used this information to better understand the underlying complexities of human behavior, health, and disease. As a consequence, many areas in medicine use human genetic information as a diagnostic to guide treatment regimens.

More and more oncologists, or cancer doctors, are relying on genetic tests of a patients’ tumor to help guide cancer treatment. However, given the complexity of our genome coupled with our limited understanding of the millions of A, T, C, and G’s encoding our genetic information, oftentimes much of the information generated from genetic tests can be ambiguous. Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine say there is a way to make these tests more meaningful.

One of the main issues with genetic testing of tumors is that they harbor mutations and it is unclear which mutation is the key to killing the cancer cell, thus, making a therapeutic decision difficult. In this regard, the researchers suggest not only conducting genetic tests on the cancer of the patient, but also conducting genetic tests on healthy, normal tissue of the patient. In this way, physicians and researchers can detect cancer-specific mutations as these mutations would only be present in the cancer, but not the normal, healthy tissue.

This is not to say that current genetic tests conducted on cancer are not trustworthy. They, indeed, are quite reliable at identifying mutations that are clearly linked to certain cancers. This group asserts that in those cases where this approach does not work, that additional sequencing of the normal, healthy tissue as a means of comparison may help improve the diagnostic quality of those tumors that produce ambiguous results. The future of cancer diagnostics is a booming, changing, field and much is to remain to be seen in regards to consistency of tactic used. (Richard Harris, NPR)

Federal Research Funding

Controversy awaits as House Republicans roll out long-awaited bill to revamp U.S. research policy

The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007, or America COMPETES Act, was signed by President Bush in 2007 and it became law on August 9, 2007. The COMPETES Act sets funding targets for select physical science agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and two offices with the Department of Energy (DOE): the Office of Science, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.

Authored by the panel’s chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), there are provisions to the reauthorization act that scientists are likely to find interesting.

  • NSF spending: The bill would authorize $126 million less than President Obama requested but $253 more than NSF’s current budget. It relocates NSF’s budget to the natural sciences and engineering at the expense of the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences. To add injury to insult, additional cuts from the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences are expected.
  • DOE R&D: At least in 2016, the bill funds most Office of Science programs but the budget remains flat in 2017. Cuts will occur in the more applied renewable energy programs and new energy technologies. Interestingly, funding will boost in the areas on fossil and nuclear energy.
  • Peer review: Since Smith became chair in 2013, this has been a major area of debate regarding how NSF reviews the 50,000 or so requests for funding it receives from scientists every year. Apparently Smith and the NSF Director, France Córdova, have agreed upon legislation that will not “[…]alter[ing] the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.”
  • NSF’s portfolio: This section of the bill gives NSF the responsibility “to evaluate scientific research programs undertaken by [other] agencies of the federal government.” This language apparently wants NSF to judge other research agencies about how they are facilitating their research programs. This is quite an awkward and broad demand. It still remains to be seen how this will play out.
  • Large new facilities: This section of the bill tries to rein in “wasteful spending” by requiring the NSF to correct any problems identified by an independent audit on a project’s expected cost before starting construction. However, the bill also restricts spending from contingency funds “[…] to those occurrences that are foreseeable with certainty … and supported by verifiable cost data.” This is interesting language given the need of a contingency fund is to fund unexpected occurrences.
  • Administrative burden: This part of the bill supports reducing administrative oversight in the form of government oversight and regulations. The bill argues that administrative costs are high and costly and these monies could be used to fund research. Instead, the bill will have the White House science advisor convene an inter-agency panel.
  • NIST: The bill increases NIST’s budget; however, falls short of President Obama’s request.

The good news is that the COMPETES bill has finally been reauthorized. However, controversy awaits as to the effectiveness of the reauthorized bill. (Jeffrey Mervis and David Malakoff, ScienceInsider)

Climate Policy

Climate change: Embed the social sciences in climate policy

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) needs to broaden its perspective by adding more social scientists. The organization is akin to a moth to a flame— focusing attention on a well-lit pool of the brightest climate science. But the insights that matter are not readily viewed and are far from the bright light of the debate. The IPCC has involved only a narrow slice of social-sciences disciplines: economics. The other social sciences were mostly absent. Bringing the broader social sciences into the IPCC may prove challenging, but it is achievable if they adapt a strategy that reflects how the fields are organized and which policy-relevant questions these disciplines know well. The IPCC has proved to be important. But presently, it is too narrow and must not monopolize climate assessment. In the future, reforming the organization will benefit the conversation surrounding climate change greatly and move contentious work into other forums. (David Victor, Nature)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 17, 2015 at 9:00 am