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Science Policy Around the Web – September 28, 2018

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By: Patrice J. Persad, Ph.D

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source: pixabay

The Environment

Long-banned toxin may wipe out many killer whales

“The past can come back to haunt, or hurt, you,” one adage forewarns. If “the world” replaces “you” in this line, then the saying aptly describes recent findings regarding the enduring effects of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on marine species, namely killer whales (Orcinus orca), or orcas. In the 1970s, the United States banned PCBs, organic constituents in mediums, such as flame-resistant insulation and hydraulic fluids. According to research studies, these compounds led to immune- and reproductive-compromised conditions, along with cancer, in organisms including humans. However, it took nearly half a century after PCBs went into commercial use for the country to halt using them. Other countries followed suit banning PCBs, with the latest enactment to go into effect at least a decade ago.

From a Science report published last month, we learned one harrowing fact: although most nations eschewed PCBs, the negative impacts on the endangered killer whale populations live on. PCBs take a long time to break down, and, consequently, these pollutants can amass in prey species and the predators that eat them over time. The levels are especially high in the killer whale, an apex predator at the top of the food-chain. PCB concentrations increase exponentially from lower to upper trophic levels through a process known as biomagnification. Killer whales’ prey—ranging from seals, sea lions, penguins, dolphins, sharks, smaller fish, and even whales—accumulate PCBs as they digest the microorganisms that absorb PCBs as a consequence of runoff from industrial plants or insecure dumping sites near water ways.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Desforges and his team, the aforementioned study’s authors, constructed statistical models based on global killer whales’ PCB concentrations in blubber (mg/kg lipid weight) and PCB concentrations corresponding to mortality from immune- and reproductive-related disorders. From surveying 19 killer whale populations around the planet, the research group predicted declines in population sizes stemming from PCB-induced reproductive and immune complications for the next century (100 years). Overall results revealed that health complications arising from PCBs will contribute to the decline of more than half (> 50%) of killer whale populations. For killer whales comprising the highest PCB exposure groups, those living near the United Kingdom, Brazil, Japan, Strait of Gibraltar, and the Northeast Pacific (Bigg’s), Desforges and colleagues predict a “complete collapse.”

Humans, too, are at risk for PCB contamination and subsequent health complications or cancer. A proportion of countries are prominent consumers of dolphins, sharks, other fish species, and whale species—all higher trophic level organisms with elevated PCB concentrations. Garbage and contaminants in the environment, the world, cycle back as garbage and contaminants in wildlife species and people’s bodies.

(Elizabeth Pennisi, Science)

Wildlife Conservation

Discovery of vibrant deep-sea life prompts new worries over seabed mining

September’s Deep-Sea Biology Symposium, highlighted the biotic treasure trove that the underwater Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). The CCZ, a six million km2 plot of sea floor in the Pacific Ocean, which harbors a series of ecosystems—thriving “Atlantises.” As testament to its biodiversity, Dr. Craig Smith’s team uncovered 154 marine worm species (most unknown), gummy squirrels (wispy-looking sea cucumbers), and squid-like worms. Another biologist, Dr. Adrian Glover, ran into rare, miniscule invertebrates (including Porifera), and xenophyophores (organisms whose running moniker may well be “slimeballs”). Dr. Diva Amon, at the symposium, discussed images of whale skull fossils adorned with metal remnants; these fossils may be 1 – 16 million years old and represent six different whale species. The noted metal on the skull fossils hint that these mammals may consume trace metals to upkeep buoyancy mechanisms.

Although researchers are steadily unearthing the eastern CCZ’s biological secrets many companies wish perform massive mining of the zone’s seabeds for economic profit, which are thought to contain precious metal elements (manganese and cobalt). The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the regulatory entity whose jurisdiction is underwater mining, allowed 29 companies 17 years ago to investigate mining in seabeds—17 of which are part of the CCZ. The year 2020 is the anticipated deadline for the ISA to issue definite regulations on global sea mining. Even though companies must conduct evaluations on the environmental impact mining might have on deep-sea life, outside scientists are relentless in advocating for the establishment of wildlife preserves in the eastern CCZ.

With the life and fossil record that have and are yet to be surveyed, the eastern CCZ presents an opportunity for nations, researchers, and companies to work together. Dr. Amon champions policies directing companies to disclose fossil discoveries in mining sites for future scientific analyses with proposed candidate United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Meanwhile, Dr. Smith is coaxing the ISA to promote monitoring of pollutants, which can have unforeseen ecological impacts, in open waters above CCZ areas that companies are testing mining or planning to mine.

(Amy Maxmen, Nature News)

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October 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 22, 2018

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By: Patrice J. Persad, PhD

Species Conservation

Massive Eradication Effort Ends Rodents’ Reign Of Terror On Forbidding Isle

In an era when biotechnologies, such as gene drives and in-vitro fertilization, pulsate as pending alternate strategies for species conservation, two seemingly outdated tactics emerge victoriously: man power and canine power. Because of collaborations, for almost ten years, between the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) and Friends of South Georgia Island, the South Georgia pipit, a native avian species, regained habitat from plaguing invaders—rodents, predators of both chicks and adult birds. After scaling approximately 1,500 miles (area of 400 square meters) of the South Atlantic island’s icy, merciless terrain, “a blessing incognito,” conservation project human members and three dogs, expert ”rodent sniffers,” confirmed the region to be absent of rats and mice. This is giving the South Georgia pipit something to merrily sing about.

How exactly did the 200-year dynasty of the rodent collapse on South Georgia Island? With helicopters furnished by the Friends of South Georgia Island, an American-headquartered organization, pilots circulated poison targeted to the invasive species. Geographical barriers also trapped the whiskery mammals; Goliath-sized glaciers stalled rodents from scurrying to and populating other places on the island. Project members two years later then positioned low-tech chewy apparatuses smothered with tantalizing bait—sticky substances like vegetable oil and sweet peanut butter. These served as checks to record any remaining rodents; any captured teeth impressions signaled rodent infestation. The trinity of dogs, Will, Ahu, and Wai, roamed with their handlers and sniffed amongst the other native wildlife—elephant seals, penguins, and fur seals—while on their quest to determine the deadly invaders’ survival. Fortunately, the rats were history, and this event marked the conservation efforts as successes.

Where one chapter ends, another starts. This characterizes the neverending book of conservation. To permanently keep rodents off the island, the SGHT prudently enforces safeguards. Travellers to South Georgia face examination of their persons and belongings. International governmental officials transfer these individuals to land on miniature vessels from major sea vessels. This is to permit ease of keeping eyes (and canine noses) on any vagabond rats and mice since the vessel area to hide decreases.

As human beings (and dogs) work to restore South Georgia pipits’—and other seabirds’—home into their wings, hope awashes and renews the wildlife conservation front. Given that the triumphant primary actors, the SGHT and Friends of the South Georgia Island, are non-profit organizations, this shows that federal agencies or other government institutes may not be the only ones to fly to species’ rescue. With funding, proper planning, perseverance, and global cooperation [in this case, various networks spanning the United Kingdom (primarily Scotland, the SGHT’s location), the United States, New Zealand, and South Georgia], the inconceivable transforms to the imminent. As Professor Mike Richardson of SGHT envisions, the win over the rodents in South Georgia will inspire others—yes, even “mere” citizens—to take a stand in protecting both native species and their habitats across the hemisphere.

(Colin Dwyer, National Public Radio)

Environment

Air pollution inequality widens between rich and poor nations

Injustice again accompanies the impoverished throughout the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), poor air quality (more air pollutants) equals poor health, with the highest percentage (45%) of pollution-linked deaths (total worldwide: 7 million) corresponding to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 25% of these deaths corresponded to stroke, the second global leading cause of death. An interactive map of related air pollution annual mean measurements [micrograms of particulate matter (less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) per cubic meter—PM2.5] highlights Southeast Asian, African, and Middle Eastern lower-income regions with the greatest numbers (PM2.5 > 70 micrograms per cubic meter). Individual cities with monstrous PM10 peaks (micrograms of particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter per cubic meter) include Delhi (292), Cairo (284), Dhaka (104), and Mumbai (104). North America, specifically the United States and Canada, on the other hand, overall inhaled better air quality (PM2.5 < 10 micrograms per cubic meter).

When comparing rich areas to poor areas, what accounts for the disparate distributions of air pollution? In economically struggling communities, dwellers can only purchase cheap means of creating fire or generating heat for cooking and other everyday uses: coal, wood, or kerosene. Governmental policy setting standards and restrictions on PM10 and PM2.5 levels impacts air quality, too, such as the United States’ long-standing Clean Air Act and China’s recent air pollution regulations. However, despite high-income countries’ regulations and air quality management, these dominions, too, are not immune to miasma; well-to-do cities, such as Manchester and London, fail to fall under the WHO recommended PM2.5 threshold (10 micrograms per cubic meter). Thus, existing acts must be evaluated for shortcomings and amended, if not rewritten, for improvements. Jenny Bates, a Friends of the Earth member, suggests championing more research. Studies on air pollution levels during periods/intervals and effects of certain practices on these levels pave the trail for effective policy measures. Research will also uncover pollutant levels in countries—mainly those in Africa—currently missing these data.

(Jonathan Watts, The Guardian)

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May 22, 2018 at 8:02 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – April 20, 2018

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By: Jennifer Patterson-West, Ph.D.


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source: USEPA via flickr

Food waste

Grocery Stores Get Mostly Mediocre Scores On Their Food Waste Efforts

Food waste is often thought of as unavoidable. Everyone creates food waste. However, steps can be taken to minimize or eliminate waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued simple guidelines to reduce food waste. These ‘guidelines’ have been outlined into a hierarchical ranking based on their effectiveness at preventing food waste. The most effective tier is ‘Source Reduction’, which entails reducing the total volume of food generated. Source reduction reduces pollution and cost associated with the growth, preparation, transport, and disposal of excess food.   Producers can save money by reducing the cost of labor and other resources (such as water and pesticides) associated with unused food.

The second tier is focused at ‘Feeding the Hungry’ by donating extra food. In 2016, it was estimated that ~15.6 million American households faced low or very low food-security at some point. Low food security is defined as households that obtained enough food by participating in food assistance programs, such as community food pantries, whereas very low food security applies to those that experienced a disruption in normal eating patterns due to insufficient money or other resource for food. Taken into account, that over 38 million tons of food was wasted in 2016 alone, the donation of excess food could significantly reduce food-insecurity in America. Food donation programs have already been implemented by the 10 largest U.S. supermarkets. To promote donations by corporations, potential tax deduction for food donation are available to companies and they are protect from liability by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.

The third tier promotes diverting food scraps to ‘Animal Feed’. Converting food scraps to animal feed is often cheaper then transporting it to a landfill. Although this practice has been implemented by farmers for centuries, corporations can also participate by donating extra food to producers of animal feed or zoos. The fourth and fifth tiers are ‘Industrial Uses’ and ‘Composting’, respectively. For industrial purposes, food can be converted into biofuel or other bio-products. Composting, which creates nutrient-rich soil amendments, is a great option for inedible parts of food waste that remains after all other actions are taken.

These guidelines were recently used by the Center of Biological Diversity and The Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign to score the 10 largest U.S. supermarkets for their handing of food waste. A report of their findings was recently released. They found that the surveyed companies focused on donating and recycling food waste instead of preventing it with none of them achieving an A scoring. A limitation to this survey is incomplete tracking and reporting of the amount of food waste throughout an entire company. Some practices that were specifically noted as reducing food waste include Whole Food’s use of produce that is pulled from shelves to make prepared meals, Walmart’s replacement of eggs within partially damaged packages to reduce waste, and Walmart’s standardization of expiration labels.

(Menaka Wilhelm, NPR)

The opioid crisis

Nursing homes routinely refuse people on addiction treatment – which some experts say is illegal

Opioids account for more than 50% of all drug overdoses, however, total deaths are likely underestimated due to under coding in mortality data The opioid epidemic which was largely isolated to Appalachian communities and minority populations in the 1990s has rapidly spread across the United Stated into more affluent suburban communities. The surge in opioid use correlates with an acceleration in the prescription of legal opioid pain relievers, such as OxyCotin. For this reason, many individuals with opioid use disorder (OUD) became addicted due to long-term use of prescription pain medication. This link between prescription drugs and addiction are likely why evidence-based medication-assisted treatments (MAT) are treated skeptically by the public.

MAT has been shown to reduce symptoms of withdrawal, thereby significantly reducing the risk of relapse and overdose. These drugs, such as methadone or buprenorphine, reduce cravings associate with withdrawal by activating the same receptors in the brain without providing the euphoria associated with other opioid use. Contrary to evidence, many patients are directed away from medications and toward treatment programs that have no scientific or medical evidence supporting their efficacy. In fact, only 1 out of 5 OUD patients receive MAT of any kind.

Two major barriers to MAT, including prescribing restrictions and issues finding extended care facilities. Currently, authorized physicians can use buprenorphine to treat a maximum of 275 patients for opioid dependency. In order to get authorization to prescribe buprenorphine, physicians must apply for a waiver from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. However, the physician must have already been authorized under the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 to prescribe buprenorphine to up to 30 patient for one year prior to applying. These restrictions are thought to be essential to limit over use of these drugs; however, they increase the administrational burden on physicians and decrease assess to MAT. In an effort to expand access to treatment, the declaration of public health emergency under the Trump administration in 2017 gave doctors the ability to prescribe medications for addiction remotely through telemedicine services.

In addition to limited access to MAT treatment, patients also face the possibility that if they receive MAT they may be refused for admittance into nursing home facilities. For instance, a trade group in Ohio released a written statement that none of its more than 900 member facilities will accept patient receiving either methadone or buprenorphine for addiction. Experts exert that refusal of OUD patients receiving MAT is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for nursing facilities. Despite an unknown prevalence of such restrictions, Massachusetts Department of Public Heal release a circular letter in 2016 providing guidance for nursing facilities caring for patient on medications for addiction. Similar efforts can be expanded by other states to educate nursing facilities of their legal obligations and to provide guidance for proper care.

(Allison Bond, STAT news)

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April 20, 2018 at 9:29 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 2, 2018

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By: Patrice J. Persad, PhD

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source: pixabay

The Environment

Plastic Pollution Is Killing Coral Reefs, 4-Year Study Finds

Plastic, plastic everywhere / Disease of corals on the flare. A large-scale investigation surveying coastal regions of the Asia-Pacific, including parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia, found that approximately 11.1 billion pieces of plastic littered coral reefs. Given that the populous China and Singapore were omitted from the analyses, the bona fide count may be higher than this published value. Supporting the hypothesis that plastic, a manmade product, may find it’s way into coral reefs proximal to regions with more humans and with less developed waste management systems, the less densely populated Australian locations had the smallest numbers of plastic items while heavily populated Indonesian sites had the largest numbers.

Although quantification of plastic occupying the seas, especially on the visible surface, were pursued by other research groups, a link between plastic and the physiological state of the corals beneath was understudied and, thus, never established. Upon viewing diseased phenotypes of coral reefs imprisoned by plastic, Joleah B. Lamb and colleagues constructed regression models to determine if coral disease presence was associated with the presence of plastic debris. The likelihood of having skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes, or black band disease increased significantly in the onslaught of plastic debris. The team also noted differences in disease likelihood for coral anatomy/morphology categories; the massive coral morphology, the most intricate coral structure, had the highest disease likelihood when engulfed with plastic items (although this category had the lowest likelihood of plastic waste encounters).

How does plastic precisely contribute to coral disease? Researchers are not completely sure. However, there are several hypotheses. Plastic debris cloak coral reefs and bar contact with the sun’s rays. Solar interaction is vital because coral species—those involved in reef generation—have a symbiotic relationship with the photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae. The algae nurture these corals and assist with the formation of the reef’s calcium infrastructure. Another sea of thought is that the plastic items on reefs may be gouging coral tissue and allowing pathogenic microorganisms from surrounding waters to creep in. A third explanation is that the chemical compounds constituting plastic itself may incite disease outbreak on coral reefs.

The coral reef is an ecosystem with brilliant biodiversity rivaling that of the terrestrial tropical rainforest. Like the mangrove forest and seagrass communities, the coral reef is both a nursery and asylum for various fish and invertebrate species. If these facts on the mere ecological worth of protecting coral reefs do not compel citizens, then the economic worth might. These natural underwater marvels rake in billions of dollars from tourism, aquaculture, and fishing. Coral reefs prevent beach battery in the midst of titanic tempests. The oceans and waterways are interconnected, along with the ecosystems and accompanying food webs. Even though the Asia-Pacific was the center of Lamb et al.’s study, citizens everywhere can engage in recycling plastics or diminishing use of non-biodegradable plastic items.

(Christopher Joyce, National Public Radio)

Wildlife Conservation

China’s lust for jaguar fangs imperils big cats

One fang, two fangs, three fangs, four / Of the jaguar gone in gore. Imagine you are a police officer in Bolivia. Your duty is monitoring wildlife trafficking and apprehending any individuals who are exploiting native species. Recently, you have encountered several decapitated jaguars, an endangered species, in local canals. Aside from these decapitated jaguars, other retrieved cadavers were fangless if not headless. After communicating with colleagues in neighboring Brazil and Belize, you learn that these are recurring patterns in jaguar fatalities. The next week, you discover pamphlets and posters advertising payment for a single jaguar fang: $120 – $160 USD. Your division confiscates almost 200 jaguar fangs. During a briefing with your supervisor, you gravely state, “Sergeant, I think this [wildlife trafficking] is getting bigger than we thought.”

From the above scenario, why are jaguar fangs such a popular commodity? For generations, tiger body parts, such as bone, teeth, and skin, have been important components of traditional Chinese medicine. Fortunately, authorities are successfully limiting the tiger parts trade. As a result, many in China are now directing attention, unfortunately, to another big cat, the jaguar, as a proxy. However, the jaguar is not the only big cat grievously affected by this shift. As one case in Belize features, poor species recognition by poachers ended an ocelot’s life. As the wildlife trade is highly profitable around the globe—superseded by only weapons and drugs—the conservation front in the form of law enforcement can gain little economic or corporal support. In fact, consequences for those who violate wildlife trafficking laws rarely involve incarceration. Prominent ecologist, Vincent Nijman, feels this may stem directly from the international society’s indifference to the fate of poached species, especially if the immediate reward of killing or capturing species brings in more money than saving them.

The jaguar’s plight—the species’ decimation—emerges from more than China’s hunger pangs for fangs. Urbanization has down-sized this big cat’s habitat, a range of tropical rain forests and savannas. Because of losses in sanctuary and hunting grounds, the jaguar may prey upon cattle and other agricultural animals. Consequently, irate farmers lash out by killing these feline threats. Agricultural stakeholders have several options to share the land peacefully: incorporating guard animals into herds, securing baby farm animals in complexes/shelters, granting loans on the basis of cattle/agricultural animal management history, and deterring predators with innocuous barriers, such as moats and man-made lights.

The exploitation of the jaguar, South America’s prime big cat, impacts other species’ survival and spawns from previous misdeeds against other species. Many sets of individuals are responsible for and partake in such a transgression against the jaguar. Cooperation among international conservation organizations and law enforcement agencies will be needed given the scope of wildlife trafficking and the low-key sense of emergency from society. Perhaps a beautiful friendship will cultivate between the International Criminal Police Organization’s (INTERPOL’s) environment crime division and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) or TRAFFIC (if such a bond has not already deepened).

(Barbara Fraser, Nature News)

 

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March 2, 2018 at 9:34 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 27, 2017

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: pixabay

Influenza

An Arms Race with Nature

H7N9, a new bird flu emerging in China, has infected roughly 1,500 people and killed 40% of them. The virus is contracted directly from infected birds but is not yet easily transmissible between humans, however researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have evidence H7N9 could potentially become transmissible between humans fairly easily. They examined a fragment of the virus that interacts with receptors on animal cells to gain entrance, and identified three minor mutations that could cause the fragment to shift from preferentially entering avian cells to preferentially entering human cells. If these mutations were to occur, it could rapidly result in a pandemic.

Tests in a viral fragment do not prove functionality in the intact virus; that would require mutating H7N9 itself. A 2014 moratorium on mutating three types of viruses (SARS, MERS, influenza) to more dangerous forms is expected to lift when the Department of Health and Human Services finishes current work drafting a new policy establishing reviews designed to assess benefit/risk ratios before funding research.

The subject is divisive, even among scientists in the field. Stanford researcher David Relman says he would support efforts to test mutations in a weakened strain of flu, but not in the H7N9 virus.  Bioterrorism expert Thomas Inglesby opposes increasing the contagious lethality of a virus, and opposes publishing such procedures due to concern that less benevolent actors would be enabled to replicate the process. NIH funded researcher, Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands, whose alteration of H5N1 to become highly contagious between ferrets (the animal model for humans) in 2011 influenced the moratorium, believes examining dangerous virus mutations in a controlled lab environment is important to identify potential pandemic viruses.

Many of these topics were discussed at the recent Immunology and Evolution of Influenza Symposium, and are sure to be a hot topic at the July 16 – 19 Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance meeting. With policy guidance needed on benefit/risk, potentially safer models, security, and publication limitations, the new HHS policy will be critical. (Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR)

Conservation

Modeling with Dough – Pick your Species

The Supreme Court found the Endangered Species Act was “intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction—whatever the cost.” Today, in light of the cost, conservation policy makers are being invited to triage species extinctions. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives recently met with ecologist Dr. Leah Gerber to discuss her proposed use of an algorithm guiding conservation funding.

A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Gerber says her model suggests that defunding “costly failures,” including the spotted owl, golden-cheeked warbler and gopher tortoise, could help save about 180 other species. Gerber says policy makers may opt to continue to support species that her algorithm rejects, as was done for the koala in Australia where algorithm triage has been used. In this case, a popularity contest may determine who lives and who goes extinct.

Details of the algorithm are not explicit, but Dr. Gerber’s recent publication in PNAS is a straightforward return-on-investment calculation analyzing the mathematical relationship between funds requested, spent, and species success or decline.  Gerber finds “the cost–success curve is convex; funding surpluses were common for the species least likely and most likely to recover” so it’s not simply ‘money in – species out’. Other factors – endemism, keystone status, level of species risk – are also important, though Gerber acknowledges they are not currently included.

While proponents call use of the equation “doing the best you can with what you have,” lack of data on its predictive validity make it a frightening policy tool governing something as permanent as species extinction. What if region affects costs, population growth is slower in species reaching sexual maturity later, a break-through in understanding one species’ requirements is just around the corner or we haven’t yet discovered the significance of the niche occupied by another species? What if business or political interests conflict with a species’ needs? What if the algorithm developer seeks intellectual property legal status, as is happening now with a proprietary algorithm used in parole and sentencing situations? Algorithms impacting public policy should be vetted by multiple experts in germane disciplines, validated, and kept publicly accessible for healthy scrutiny. (Sharon Bernstein, Reuters)

 

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June 27, 2017 at 11:42 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 01, 2016

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: pixabay

Climate Change

Nations, fighting powerful refrigerant that warms planet, reach landmark deal

Over 170 nations agreed to limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the key climate change-causing pollutants found in air conditioners and refrigerators. This deal reached in Kigali, Rwanda could help prevent a 0.9°F rise in temperature by the year 2100. Although the negotiations did not produce the same publicity as the climate change accord in Paris of last year, the outcome may have an equal or even greater impact on the efforts to slow the warming of our planet.

Adopting an ambitious amendment to phase down the use and production of HFCs is “likely the single most important step that we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Kigali, in remarks before the passage of the agreement. President Obama called the deal “an ambitious and far-reaching solution to this looming crisis.”

Total global HFC emissions are still far less significant contributors to climate change than the combined emission of other greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. However HFCs are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide on a pound-per-pound basis, making them an obvious target for international efforts to combat climate change.

Many experts still believe that international efforts have moved too slowly as research continues to show significant effects and large scale of global warming. Scientists say 2016 will top last year as the hottest year on record with some months showing a temperature rise close to the 3.6°F benchmark. (Coral Davenport, New York Times)

Wildlife Conservation

Nations agree to establish world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica

Twenty-four countries and the European Union agreed to establish the world’s largest marine sanctuary in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. This area is home to “50 per cent of ecotype-C killer whales (also known as the Ross Sea orca), 40 per cent of Adélie penguins, and 25 per cent of emperor penguins,” according to a statement from the United Nations Environment Programme.

“The significance of this is that most of the marine protected area is a no-take area,” acknowledged the State Department’s Evan Bloom, head of the U.S. delegation to the meeting. More than 600,000 square miles of the Ross Sea around Antarctica will be protected under the deal. This means that an area about the size of Alaska will be set aside as a no-take “general protection zone”.

No-take areas are zones set aside by authorities where any action that removes or extracts any resource is prohibited. These actions include fishing, hunting, logging, mining, drilling, shell collecting and archaeological digging. (Merrit Kennedy, NPR)

Science Funding

Budget cap would stifle Brazilian science, critics say

Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer proposed a constitutional amendment to limit public spending growth for up to 20 years as a solution to curb a rise in public debt. The proposal, known as PEC 241, would prohibit all three branches of Brazil’s government to raise yearly expenditures above the inflation rate. This would essentially freeze spending at current levels for two decades. The effect of the bill, if passed, would put Brazilian science in a budgetary straightjacket. “It will be a disaster,” says Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro.

The 2016 federal budget for science, technology, and innovation was approximately $1.5 billion, the lowest in 10 years when corrected for inflation. (The National Institutes of Health in the United States currently has a budget of about $30 billion.) Agencies have been reducing scholarships and grants to adjust for the lack of funding. For example, the Brazilian Innovation Agency has slashed funding for national programs and is delaying payments on research grants. This has led to consequences such as finding money to pay for electricity bills. “There is no way we can survive another 20 years like this,” says Davidovich, who is also a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“Smart countries increase funding for science, technology, and innovation to get out of a crisis,” says Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science in São Paulo. “We are doing the opposite.” (Herton Escobar, ScienceInsider)

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November 1, 2016 at 9:14 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 13, 2016

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By: Daniël P. Melters, PhD

Giraffe by Muhammad Mahdi Karim through Wikimedia

Conservation Policy

There are four species of giraffe – right?

Recent work published in Current Biology by Axel Janke’s group at Göthe University in Frankfurt, Germany looked at seven genes to determine the genetic relationship between different giraffe found throughout Africa. Previously, giraffes had been grouped in sub-genera based on their coating pattern, but the study of genetic relationships showed that over the last 1 to 2 million years, four distinct groups of giraffes have evolved. The authors argue that their findings represent four distinct giraffe species.

This finding has profound implications for our understanding of African bio-geography and subsequently conservation policy, especially after the latest report that states that in the last two decades 10% of earth’s wilderness has been destroyed. But using genetic data to guide conservation policy is a poorly developed area in part because of our limited understanding of how genetic variation can tell us if two groups of animals are indeed two distinct species. Genetic analysis showed that the forest and savannah elephant are indeed distinct from each other, but they can form hybrids if they do meet. To prevent conservation limbo, the International Union of Conservation of Nature still considers the African elephant as a single species. With regards to the giraffe study, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne wrote a critical note on his blog in response to Janke’s article and subsequent media coverage. In short, the geographical dispersion of giraffes limits the potential for hybrids to be formed; yet zoo giraffes can form hybrids without much trouble. (Chris Woolston, Nature News)

US Cancer Moonshot Initiative

Blue Ribbon Report lays out wishlist for moonshot against cancer

Vice-president Joe Biden proposed a moonshot to cure cancer last year after his son died from brain cancer. In the last State of the Union, President Obama vowed to accelerate 10 years worth of scientific advances in five years. To create a framework, a blue ribbon panel of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) consulted 150 experts and reviewed more than 1600 suggestions from researchers and the public. This culminated in a list of 10 recommendations.

One recommendation that stands out is the push for clinical trials for immunotherapy, a promising approach to harness the bodies’ own immune system to fight against the disease. Another recommendation is the creation of a new national network that would allow patients across the country to have their tumors genetically profiled and included in the new database. This latter recommendation overlaps with another health initiative that recently came out of the White House, the Personalized Medicine Initiative.

This leaves one question unanswered: will Congress fund the moonshot. So far lawmakers have not included money in the draft-spending bill and inclusion in another bill remains uncertain. With the release of this Blue Ribbon Report, the NCI NCAB hopes it will implore Congress to fund the moonshot. Nevertheless, co-chair Dinah Singer suggests that even without new funding, NCI could begin funding some projects in the report on a small scale. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science Insider)

Drug Policy

Public libraries frequently used for drug use

Libraries are an ideal location for studying and reading, with its public access, quiet corners, and minimal interaction with other people. An unforeseen consequence is that people who abuse heroin are using public libraries more and more.

The problem of heroin and painkiller resulting in overdoses is a growing epidemic. This was further exemplified by a recent controversial picture, made public by Ohio’s East Liverpool police, that has made world wide head lines, as it depicted two adults unconscious as a result of a heroin overdose and their 4-year old son in the backseat. Public libraries are especially exposed because everyone can walk in freely and linger around if they please. No transaction or interaction is required. As a result, public libraries are turning to strategies to limit their space being used for drug-abuse. The American Library Association encourages libraries to get training on interacting with special populations, such as drug users and the homeless. In addition, librarians are partnering with the police and social workers. Altogether, the role of a librarian now includes that of a mix of first responders and social workers. (Kantelo Franko, Stat News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 13, 2016 at 9:06 am