Some news and views from over the last week. For anyone interested in science, and the huge role that government plays in science in America…it’s been one damned depressing week,as details of the first Trump budget come trickling out. Overall, it’s an absolutely devastating picture for science and environmental funding. A few stories on federal science and environmental funding, followed by some other more cheery stories.
Trump Budget Kills NOAA Climate Science — Who needs satellites to study weather? And who needs scientists to actually do the science? Evidently not the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The proposed Trump budget that has trickled out this week proposes drastic cuts to NOAA, with a 17% cut overall for the program. For programs that deal with climate change, it’s even more ominous, such as a 26% cut to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research branch. Observing what’s happening to our earth’s weather systems? The budget proposes a 22% cut to the satellite data division. This is a pretty common theme across all of the Federal science agencies, with science evidently something the Nation can afford to sacrifice, so we can build more missiles that are too expensive to actually use, or build outrageously expensive planes that are $164 BILLION over budget and are lacking key functionalities. Government science in aggregate is only 3.4% of the entire budget…yet to pay for a ridiculous $54 billion increase in defense spending (with the U.S. already spending nearly 40% of ALL global military expenditures), science takes a disproportionate hit compared to many other programs.
EPA Budget set for 25% cut — It’s not just NOAA taking a hit. The Environmental Protection Agency, LONG in the cross-hairs of conservatives who don’t appreciate trivial things like environmental regulation getting in the way of making money, is currently slated to be slashed by 25% in the Trump budget. The budget proposes cutting 20% of EPA employees, and eliminating or sharply scaling back some major environmental programs. Great Lakes cleanup funds are proposed for a ridiculous 97% cut. Funding for restoring ecosystems in the Puget Sound would be slashed by 93%. Environmental justice programs would be cut by 79%. A program to help cut emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane has a proposed 70% cut. I have friends and acquaintances who work for EPA. The mood there is nothing short of apocalyptic. Wall Street is loving it, given the salivating leaders of corporate America who envision a world without regulation, where they’re free to pollute and destroy the environment, all to squeak out a little bit more in short-term profit. I’ve said it before…I honestly wonder if any of these people have children, and for those that do, how they can so COMPLETELY ignore their future health, safety, and well-being, all because of short-term selfishness and greed.
Department of Interior head “not happy” — If (just theoretically speaking of course) a scientist was a part of the Department of Interior, things may seem apocalyptic right now as well, but perhaps with just 2 or 3 horsemen of the apocalypse roaming Department halls instead of the full-out 4 horsemen that are set to rampage through some of the other Federal science agencies. The new DOI secretary is Ryan Zinke, who was confirmed this week, and promptly decided to ride a horse to work for his first day. Rumor has it that Mr. Zinke also has a penchant for proudly proclaiming he’s an ex Navy SEAL, which of course as we all know has direct relevance to managing our Nation’s lands, and the science behind it. To be fair, Zinke has SAID the right things. As this article points out, he’s “not happy” with the Trump’s proposed 11% cut to Interior. Few details have emerged so far, but what has become apparent is the disparity in how that cut would be applied across DOI. Fish and Wildlife is set to take a massive cut compared to other DOI components, primarily because of their role in providing the science that supports the Endangered Species Act. You can’t enforce the ESA if you don’t have the science behind it, and evidently the strategy of the Trump administration is to simply eliminate the science! Problem solved, just as eliminating climate science “solves” the climate change issue! Zinke is a fisherman and hunter, and DOES value the outdoors. That helps. Zinke also has a 5% lifetime score form the League of Conservation Voters. That’s what’s sad, is that someone who has been very environmentally hostile in the past is viewed as a BRIGHT spot in the Trump administration. Here’s hoping that his early rhetoric is actually translated into meaningful action to protect the function of Department of Interior science. Here’s hoping Zinke means what he says, and he isn’t just saying what’s politically or personally convenient.
Yes, it CAN get too hot for life on Earth — Past theory was that despite the potential for massive global warming to occur, temperatures in the tropics were somehow regulated by an “internal thermostat”, feedback mechanisms that prevented tropical areas from experiencing the same kind of temperature increases found elsewhere in the globe. It was an important theory, because the implication was that the Earth could warm significantly, yet the tropics would be somewhat shielded from that warmth increase, and would still support life. New research demonstrates that this likely isn’t true. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred 56 million years ago, a time of the highest global temperatures of the last 100 million years. Evidence shows that tropical areas did indeed experience drastic temperature increases, increases that resulted in widespread die-off of tropical biomes that couldn’t handle the increased temperatures. The most drastic temperature increases we’re currently seeing are in Arctic regions, with temperature increasing over two times as fast as the planet on average. However, as this study shows, there’s no place on Earth that’s immune from the effects of climate change. As this study shows, it IS quite feasible for temperatures to warm up so much that some parts of the earth become inhospitable for life.
Ten million lives saved – Vaccine effectiveness — Certain Trump administration officials, including Trump himself, have expressed skepticism about vaccines, with some even perpetuating the myths about vaccines causing autism and other harmful effects. Here’s one of the BRILLIANT tweets from Trump, showering the world with his “wisdom” about vaccines:
I’m not against vaccinations for your children, I’m against them in 1 massive dose. Spread them out over a period of time & autism will drop!
There you have it, straight from “Doctor” Trump’s mouth. I’m sure he’s done a lot of research on linkages between autism, and the timing of vaccinations. He has some other gems as well regarding vaccines, and there have been some suggestions that he’s partnering with well-known vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to assess the “dangers’ of vaccines. Although there shouldn’t be any need to provide more empirical evidence to shut the anti-vaxxers up, new research from the University of Illinois-Chicago has gone to the trouble of quantifying just how many lives have been saved due to the widespread use of vaccines. It was the early 1960s when vaccines against these diseases became widespread, thanks to the development of new human cell strain that allowed for safe and rapid production of vaccines. According to the research, from 1963 to 2015, over 200 MILLION cases of polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis A, rabies, and varicella were prevented in the United States ALONE. Over 450,000 deaths were prevented by vaccine use. Globally the numbers are staggering, with over 4.5 billion individual infections prevented, and over 10,000,000 lives saved.
Climate change…vaccination use…evolution…the science behind all of these is quite clear. I find it hard to see how any rational human being can deny actual empirical evidence such as that provided in the study above.
The cost of Volkswagen’s deception – 1,200 shorter lives — When Volkswagen installed “defeat” devices on their vehicles from 2008 to 2015 to fool pollutant measurements, it did more than increase air pollution. A new study shows that due to the lower air quality induced by Volkswagens sold in Europe during that time, that around 1,200 people will have substantially shorter life spans, by around a decade. Volkswagens were emitting 4 times as much nitrous oxide as allowed by European law, contributing to the estimates of premature death for hundreds of Europeans. Retrofitting all remaining Volkswagens on the road is necessary to avoid 29,000 “life-years lost”, and over 4 BILLION Euros in increased health care costs. THIS is the type of world being currently pushed by the Trump administration, where regulation is greatly reduced, and companies like Volkswagen can worry more about profit and less about the health and well-being of people.
Why Pandas are Black and White — Well, screw the esoteric research many scientists devote their lives to. Here’s a basic “research “question people can relate to…why are pandas black-and-white? I’m not exactly sure of the value of the research (I’m sure other scientists might say the same about my research), but they looked at the black and white patterns on pandas and tried to relate to other carnivore species to see if there were survival or adaptation advantages to the black-and-white pattern. Doesn’t sound like much of a surprise in terms of results. They are largely white because it helps them hide in snowy areas. The black? The body markings help them blend in areas of dappled light and shade, while markings on their head are thought to help them differentiate among each other and communicate with other pandas. Another supposed finding is that things like the black ears will deter predators by providing a “sense of ferocity”. OK, it may be pretty basic research, but at least they had me interested until that last point. I have a very hard time looking at a panda bear and having any “sense of ferocity” conveyed my way.
Seven Earth-like planets a potential hotspot for life — Trappist-1, about 39-million light-years from Earth, is very unlike our sun. It’s an “ultracool dwarf star”, with a temperature much cooler than our sun. However, scientists recently found that 7 rocky, earth-like planets orbit the star, with three of them potentially in the “Goldilocks” zone where temperatures are just right for life. They’re very different than our earth. Given that they’re much closer to their sun, they make complete orbits in as little as 1 1/2 earth-days for the innermost planet, to around 20 days for the planet furthest from Trappist-1. They also are likely gravitationally locked, with the same side of each planet always facing the sun. The next step will be to try to take measurements of the atmospheric composition of each planet, which will give clues to the potential for each to host some form of life.
Refugee scientists on the run, scared — From Nature.org, a fascinating story of “refugee scientists”, scientist from regions of conflict like Syria who have had to adapt to keep their research alive. Not to mention their very lives. Obviously scientists are only one small segment of the populations that are affected by these conflicts, but stories like this really help put a human face on things. The article provides the stories of four different researchers and the lengths they’ve had to go to to escape their home countries and rebuild their lives.
Women feel more pain then men? — According to new research from scientists at Georgia State University, women feel more pain on average than men because cells in their brains that process pain signals are more active than those in men. Guys, I hate to say it, but this REALLY makes us look like wimps. During cold and flu season such as right now, there are plenty of stories of men being incapacitated for days by a virus, while the women in their lives soldier on and struggle through it without stopping their normal lives. I guess I had always held out hope there was some biological driving force behind the general wimpiness of men, but no, evidently even biology favors more pain-free lives for men. We have no more excuses guys…we truly ARE wimps.