WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking.A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study's conclusions. EPA officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently."We are committed to the highest quality science," Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, told a congressional committee in September. "Good science is science that can be replicated and independently validated, science that can hold up to scrutiny. That is why we're moving forward to ensure that the science supporting agency decisions is transparent and available for evaluation by the public and stakeholders."The measure would make it more difficult to enact new clean air and water rules because many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements. And, unlike a version of the proposal that surfaced in early 2018, this one could apply retroactively to public health regulations already in place."This means the EPA can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths," said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.Public health experts warned that studies that have been used for decades -- to show, for example, that mercury from power plants impairs brain development, or that lead in paint dust is tied to behavioral disorders in children -- might be inadmissible when existing regulations come up for renewal.For instance, a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University project that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths, currently the foundation of the nation's air-quality laws, could become inadmissible. When gathering data for their research, known as the Six Cities study, scientists signed confidentiality agreements to track the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 people in six cities. They combined that personal data with home air-quality data to study the link between chronic exposure to air pollution and mortality.But the fossil fuel industry and some Republican lawmakers have long criticized the analysis and a similar study by the American Cancer Society, saying the underlying data sets of both were never made public, preventing independent analysis of the conclusions.The change is part of a broader administration effort to weaken the scientific underpinnings of policymaking. Senior administration officials have tried to water down the testimony of government scientists, publicly chastised scientists who have dissented from President Donald Trump's positions and blocked government researchers from traveling to conferences to present their work.In this case, the administration is taking aim at public health studies conducted outside the government that could justify tightening regulations on smog in the air, mercury in water, lead in paint and other potential threats to human health.Scott Pruitt, the former administrator of the EPA, had made publication of underlying scientific data a top priority and tried to rush a proposal through the regulatory system in 2018. After he resigned that July, Pruitt's successor, Wheeler, delayed the transparency rule and suggested the EPA needed time to address the chorus of opposition from environmental and public health groups.But a draft of the revised regulation headed for White House review and obtained by The New York Times shows that the administration intends to widen its scope, not narrow it.The previous version of the regulation would have applied only to a certain type of research, "dose-response" studies in which levels of toxicity are studied in animals or humans. The new proposal would require access to the raw data for virtually every study that the EPA considers."EPA is proposing a broader applicability," the new regulation states, saying that open data should not be limited to certain types of studies.Most significantly, the new proposal would apply retroactively. A separate internal EPA memo viewed by The New York Times shows that the agency had considered, but ultimately rejected, an option that might have allowed foundational studies like Harvard's Six Cities study to continue to be used.An EPA spokeswoman said in an emailed statement, "The agency does not discuss draft, deliberative documents or actions still under internal and interagency review."On Wednesday, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology will hold a hearing on the EPA's efforts. A top pulmonary specialist and a representative of the country's largest nonprofit funder of research on Parkinson's disease, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, are expected to testify that the EPA's proposed rule would eliminate the use of valuable research showing the dangers of pollution to human health.Pruitt's original proposal drew nearly 600,000 comments, the vast majority of them in opposition. Among those commenting were leading public health groups and some of the country's top scientific organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science.The National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners said it was "deeply concerned" that the rule would lead to the exclusion of studies, "ultimately resulting in weaker environmental and health protections and greater risks to children's health." The National Center for Science Education said ruling out studies that do not use open data "would send a deeply misleading message, ignoring the thoughtful processes that scientists use to ensure that all relevant evidence is considered." The Medical Library Association and the Association of Academic Health Science Libraries said the proposal "contradicts our core values."Industry groups said the rule would ensure greater public understanding of the science behind regulations that cost consumers money."Transparency, reproducibility and application of current scientific knowledge are paramount to providing the foundation required for sound regulations," the American Chemistry Council wrote to the EPA in support of the plan.The new version does not appear to have taken any of the opposition into consideration. At a meeting of the agency's independent science advisory board this summer, Wheeler said he was "a little shocked" at the amount of opposition to the proposal, but he was committed to finalizing it.Beyond retroactivity, the latest version stipulates that all data and models used in studies under consideration at the EPA would have to be made available to the agency so it can reanalyze research itself. The politically appointed agency administrator would have wide-ranging discretion over which studies to accept or reject."It was hard to imagine that they could have made this worse, but they did," said Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group. He added, "This is a wholesale politicization of the process."Academics are not typically required to turn over private data when submitting studies for peer review by other specialists in the field, or for publication in scientific journals, the traditional ways scientific research is evaluated. If academics were to turn over the raw data to be made available for public review, the EPA would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to redact private information, according to one federal estimate.The Six Cities study and a 1995 American Cancer Society analysis of 1.2 million people that confirmed the Harvard findings appear to be the inspiration of the regulation.The proposal gives the public 30 days to offer comments on the changes to the EPA's plan. Agency officials have said they hope to finalize the measure in 2020."The original goal was to stop EPA from relying on these two studies unless the data is made public," said Steven Milloy, a member of Trump's EPA transition team who runs Junkscience.org, a website that questions established climate change science and contends particulate matter in smog does not harm human health.He dismissed concerns that the new rule could be used to unravel existing regulations, but he said he did expect it to prevent pollution rules from getting tougher."The reality is, standards are not going to be tightened as long as there's a Republican in office," he said.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company
As more and more advocates and organizations work to dispel the myths that boys are better at math than girls or that women don't belong in STEM fields, new data is supporting their case. Boys and girls show the same brain activity when it comes to math, according to a new study published Friday in the journal Science of Learning. The seven-year study, conducted in Rochester, New York, tested the brain activity of more than 100 children ages three to 10.
"You cannot use a regular telescope or binoculars in conjunction with solar viewing glasses,” according to NASA. If you can’t make it to your local astronomy club, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory will be posting close-up images of the transit, and Slooh is livestreaming the event.
SpaceX sent its second set of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit today, atop a Falcon 9 rocket that featured the fourth go-round for the first-stage booster and the first reuse of a nose cone. Liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida came on time at 9:56 a.m. ET (6:56 a.m. PT). One of SpaceX's launch commentators gave a nod to Veterans Day as the rocket rose: "With gratitude to our veterans, today and always, go USA!" Minutes afterward, the rocket's first stage flew itself back to what has now become a routine touchdown on a drone ship in… Read More
Sea otters and seals in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Alaska, are infected with a virus that once was seen only in animals in the Atlantic.A new study suggests that melting ice in the Arctic may be to blame -- and that climate change may help spread the disease to new areas and new animals.Tracey Goldstein, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, got curious when sea otters in the Pacific tested positive for phocine distemper virus -- a cousin of canine distemper virus -- in 2004, two years after a major outbreak among European harbor seals.Genetic analysis showed that the infections in the two groups were connected. Goldstein wondered how a virus usually passed through direct contact with a sick animal had managed to get from one northern ocean to another.Until 2002, the seas around the Arctic Circle remained largely frozen even during the late summer. That year, though, the Arctic Ocean between the North Atlantic and Pacific was passable at the end of the summer, she and her colleagues found.Although sea otters don't venture far from home, seals conceivably could have borne the virus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Goldstein said.Melting sea ice is a viable explanation for the spread of viruses -- but not the only one, said Charles Innis, a veterinarian and director of animal health at the New England Aquarium in Boston."A skeptic could make arguments that maybe this virus could be transmitted through an intermediate host, like a bird that can fly long-distance," said Innis, who was not involved in the new study. "Or maybe it's being transmitted in the ballast water of ships or something like that."Even the illegal pet or wildlife trade, or tainted meat shipped from one coast to another, might spread a virus, he added.Goldstein and her team also looked at antibodies to the virus in the animals. There was no evidence of antibodies in tests conducted before the year 2000.By 2002, though, the new study found "quite a difference" in antibody levels in Steller sea lions, Goldstein said, suggesting the animals had active infections or had recovered from them.Phocine distemper virus is quite lethal among harbor seals in the Atlantic. Hundreds of harbor seals and gray seals were found dead in 2018 along the New England coast, from Massachusetts to Maine, because of infections with distemper and the flu.But harp seals seem to be better able to survive phocine distemper, Goldstein said, and may serve as its reservoir -- the ecological niche in which the infection persists. Outbreaks may begin when a sick harp seal comes into contact with a gray seal.The outbreaks seem to arrive in cycles, Goldstein said, because the animals build immunity to the infection. Every five to 10 years, as new seals and otters are born and overall immunity wanes, the population becomes susceptible again and another outbreak occurs.The new study identified a second wave of viral antibodies in 2009 in several seal species, including ice seals, northern fur seals and Steller sea lions. The current study ended in 2016, so it's not clear if the virus has been spreading since then, Goldstein said.But she worries that another cycle of infection may not be far off. "These channels in the ice seem to be open every year, so these rare events might become more common," she said.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company
‘Pernicious’ campaign is unfair on well-meaning people who want to help – expert. The battle between climate change deniers and the environment movement has entered a new, pernicious phase. That is the stark warning of one of the world’s leading climate experts, Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. Mann told the Observer that although flat rejection of global warming was becoming increasingly hard to maintain in the face of mounting evidence, this did not mean climate change deniers were giving up the fight. “First of all, there is an attempt being made by them to deflect attention away from finding policy solutions to global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes that affect people’s diets, travel choices and other personal behaviour,” said Mann. “This is a deflection campaign and a lot of well-meaning people have been taken in by it.” Mann stressed that individual actions – eating less meat or avoiding air travel – were important in the battle against global warming. However, they should be seen as additional ways to combat global warming rather than as a substitute for policy reform. “We should also be aware how the forces of denial are exploiting the lifestyle change movement to get their supporters to argue with each other. It takes pressure off attempts to regulate the fossil fuel industry. This approach is a softer form of denial and in many ways it is more pernicious.” Over the past 25 years Mann has played a key role in establishing that rising fossil fuel emissions and increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are heating the planet at a worrying rate. He was also involved in the 2009 Climategate affair in which thousands of emails – many to and from Mann – were hacked from the University of East Anglia’s [UEA] Climate Research Unit. Climategate marks its 10th anniversary this month. At the time, deniers on both sides of the Atlantic claimed the emails from UEA showed climate scientists had been fiddling their data, claims that may have contributed towards delay in the implementation of measures to tackle climate change over the next decade, say observers. Subsequent inquiries found no evidence of any misbehaviour by researchers, however. The denial machine lost a lot of its credibility as a result, added Mann, and there has been a gradual rise in public acceptance of the idea of global warming. However, deniers have not given up their opposition to plans to curtail fossil fuel use and among their new tactics they have also tried to encourage “doomism”, as Mann put it. “This is the idea that we are now so late in the game [in tackling global warming] that there is nothing that we can do about the problem,” he added. “By promoting this doom and gloom attitude this leads people down a path of despair and hopelessness and finally inaction, which actually leads us to the same place as outright climate-change denialism.” This is the new climate war, said Mann, and it is just as dangerous as the old one which focused on outright denial of the science. This new approach has a veneer of credibility, he added. It seems reasonable to many people. And that makes it, to some extent, even more dangerous, Mann concluded.
We should be wary of what authorities can do with such sensitive genetic information. Last week, at a police convention in the US, a Florida police officer revealed he had obtained a warrant to search the GEDmatch database of a million genetic profiles uploaded by users of the genealogy research site. Legal experts said this appeared to be the first time an American judge had approved such a warrant. “That’s a huge game-changer,” observed Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University. “The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out and that’s been overridden by a court. It’s a signal that no genetic information can be safe.” At the end of the cop’s talk, he was approached by many officers from other jurisdictions asking for a copy of the successful warrant. Apart from medical records, your DNA profile is the most sensitive and personal data imaginable. In some ways, it’s more revealing, because it can reveal secrets you don’t know you’re keeping, such as siblings (and sometimes parents) of whom you were unaware. It can also contain information about inherited vulnerabilities that might be of great interest to, say, insurance companies. And, of course, your genetic profile contains information about your ethnic antecedents. As these things go, the GEDmatch database is small. It’s dwarfed by the data troves of companies such as 23andMe, which has 10 million users and Ancestry.com, with 15 million. The scale of these databases means they could be used to identify a DNA profile even through distant family relationships. A 2018 study based on analysis of 1.28 million individuals in the databases and published in Science reported that “about 60% of the searches for individuals of European descent will result in a third cousin or closer match, which theoretically allows their identification using demographic identifiers”. The report predicted that “the technique could implicate nearly any US individual of European descent in the near future”. At the moment, police forces are likely to have difficulty getting access to the vast databases of 23andMe and Ancestry.com, because people whose profiles are stored there didn’t know they might be used for law enforcement and couldn’t therefore have given their consent. But it turns out that GEDmatch had warned its users that their DNA could be used for “non-genealogical uses”. This, presumably, was what enabled Californian police to use it last year to identify and arrest a man suspected of more than 50 rapes and 12 murders in the 1970s. Using DNA to solve such “cold” cases makes for great copy and is softening up public opinion for more extensive access to DNA databases for law enforcement. In that sense, it’s analogous to the campaign by the FBI and police forces everywhere for “ back doors” to be engineered into encrypted messaging services. After all, so the reassuring argument goes, these special powers would require officials to get warrants from a judge under oversight from an independent commissioner (as, for example, in the UK Investigatory Powers Act). What could go wrong? Surely fighting crime strategically is always in the public interest? Well, our experience over the past two decades should make us less complacent about the durability of democratic safeguards and norms. One thinks, for example, of the wholesale (and warrantless) mass surveillance undertaken by US government agencies in the wake of 9/11, practices that were supposedly overseen by a secret court and in some cases subsequently found to be unlawful. And we only found out about some of them by accident when Edward Snowden broke cover in 2013. Years ago, an earlier National Security Agency whistleblower, who had built some of the NSA’s most effective surveillance tools, observed that the agency’s technology could put the US “a keystroke away from totalitarianism”. After the Snowden revelations, I put this to a very distinguished British politician who had held some of the highest offices of state. He looked at me with a pitying smile. Did I not realise that the UK and the US were democracies? he asked. The likelihood that a politician using such tools would rise to high office were zero. Three years after that conversation, Donald Trump was elected president. Six years later, Boris Johnson became prime minister and appointed as his strategic adviser a fanatical technocrat with apparently only a passing acquaintance with the rule of law. And the moral of all this? It’s the old story with technology. On the one hand, as Iceland’s extensive research programme on genomics has shown, DNA databases have enormous potential for good, in terms of identifying genetic patterns in disease, devising preventive and curative strategies, understanding human evolution and so on. On the other hand, the data these databases contain is so sensitive that access to it has to be rigorously controlled and protected. And politicians – and their advisers – should never be allowed near them. Just as I finished that sentence, a story from Reuters flashed on to my screen: the Trump administration is proposing to take DNA samples from immigrants detained by US authorities. Truly, in some areas, only the paranoid survive. What I’m reading Nature nurtured Ten of the most important papers to appear in Nature make a fascinating list. They include studies of monoclonal antibodies, the structure of DNA, the first exoplanet and the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole. Character forming A sobering analysis by the New York Times on how Trump reshaped the presidency in 11,000 tweets. Amazing what one can do with 140 characters. Higher, further, faster Rock climbing and the economics of innovation is an intriguing post on softmachines.org about, among other things, the importance of rubber.
On Monday, you can witness Mercury in motion as the tiny planet waltzes across the face of the sun. This celestial dance, known as the transit of Mercury, last occurred in 2016 and will not happen again until 2032. North American skywatchers will have to wait until 2049 for an encore."This is a poetic moment to me where you're seeing Mercury doing this amazing thing: crossing in front of this gigantic ball of nuclear burning that is our sun," said Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.From here on Earth, our solar system's innermost planet will appear as a black dot cruising over a gigantic glowing red disk -- although don't look directly at it, as staring into the sun will damage your eyes.But if you're lucky enough to watch the transit with proper viewing equipment, you'll be taking part in an astronomical tradition that dates back to at least 1631 when French astronomer Pierre Gassendi observed the phenomenon. You'll also experience firsthand how astronomers today hunt for exoplanets orbiting stars light years away.What is a transit of Mercury?Cosmically speaking, a transit is when a celestial body -- like a planet or moon -- moves between a larger object and some observers, typically us on Earth.The most famous transit is a solar eclipse, when the moon passes in front of the sun, like during the 2017 Great American Eclipse. There is also a lunar eclipse, where Earth passes directly between the sun and the moon, casting a reddish shadow on the lunar surface.Because Earth is the third planet in our solar system, we can see the transits of Mercury and Venus. Mercury transits occur about 13 times every century, according to NASA. Because of Mercury's and Earth's orbits and tilts, such crossings tend to occur near May 8 or Nov 10.Transits of Venus are even rarer. The last one was in 2012 and the next won't be until 2117.Where and when can I watch it?The entire show will take about five hours, 30 minutes. Those watching from the East Coast of the United States will be in luck. The entirety of the transit will be visible during daylight hours.Viewers on the West Coast of the United States can catch part of the show after the sun rises. People living in South America, western Africa and western Europe will also see much of the event. Parts of Australia and southern and west Asia will also catch some of the trip.According to timeanddate.com:-- Mercury will make first contact with the sun at 7:35 a.m. Eastern time.-- It will be closest to the sun's center at 10:20 a.m. Eastern time.-- At 1:04 p.m. Eastern time, the transit will end.How can I watch the transit of Mercury?Remember: Do not look at the sun directly. You will damage your eyes.With proper solar filters, you can view the event through a telescope or binoculars. Check with the manufacturer of your viewing device to find out what the proper filters are.You can also use binoculars or a telescope to project an image of Mercury as it skids across the sun. Space.com published a guide for making your own safe viewing device.If you don't have your own equipment, contact your local science museum, planetarium or astronomical society, which may be hosting a live viewing party. The Amateur Astronomers Association of New York will be hosting public events in several locations around New York City. In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution's Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory will also have a public viewing.If you can't get to a place that is showing the transit, tune into a livestream using high-powered telescopes:-- NASA will show the event live.-- NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory will show a view from its orbiting telescope.-- The Slooh network of telescopes will show the event from the Canary Islands and other observatories across the world.-- The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles will also stream it live.What is the scientific significance of a Mercury transit?After Gassendi made his sighting in 1631, astronomer Edmund Halley (whom Halley's comet is named after) saw the Mercury transit in 1677 and formulated the idea that you could use transits of Mercury and Venus to calculate the distance from Earth to the sun, according to NASA.Since then, scientists have traveled across the world using transits to figure out our place in the solar system."The transit of Mercury was one of these gigantic scientific experiments to see if we could get the timing down to make this very important measurement of how far away the sun was," Faherty said.Some expeditions to follow transits came at great risk to the astronomers involved. During the 1761 transit of Venus, French astronomer Alexandre Guy Pingre was ambushed by British pirates while traveling to the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean near Mauritius, and then hijacked by the British Royal Navy during his trip home to France.During Monday's transit of Mercury, there will be citizen science projects across the world. One, the Citizen Transit of Mercury, will try to calculate the distance to the sun using the transit, according to Skyandtelescope.com.The transit of Mercury provides amateur astronomers with another scientific bonus."It's a representation of one of the most important techniques that's currently being applied in astronomy to find worlds around other stars," Faherty said.NASA's Kepler space telescope located more than 2,600 exoplanets during its nearly 10 years in service by searching for celestial transits in front of distant stars. A similar experiment, the TESS satellite that currently orbits Earth, is on the hunt to discover potentially 10,000 more exoplanets using the same technique.By looking at Mercury as it glides across the sun, you too can become a planet hunter within your own solar system.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company
Which will go into commercial service first: Blue Origin's orbital-class New Glenn rocket and Blue Moon lunar lander, or the Lego toy versions? The answer will depend not only on how much progress Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' space venture makes on the real things, but on how many people support the Lego Ideas project as well. The 2,670-piece set would include a 1:110 scale version of the two-stage New Glenn and the human-capable variant of the Blue Moon lander, plus extras including a launch tower, rovers and a satellite. The rocket would be about 40 inches high. The whole assemblage… Read More
Mercury is putting on a rare celestial show next week, parading across the sun in view of most of the world. The solar system's smallest, innermost planet will resemble a tiny black dot Monday as it passes directly between Earth and the sun. The entire 5 ½-hour event will be visible, weather permitting, in the eastern U.S. and Canada, and all Central and South America.
The planets will be aligned on Monday for a rare astronomical event known as the transit of Mercury, and skywatching fans are sure to see it even if the skies are cloudy, thanks to this little thing called the internet. For folks in Western Washington, watching the action online will be the best bet when the tiny black dot of Mercury's disk crosses the sun. Mercury will make its first contact at 4:35 a.m. PT, when the skies will still be dark in Seattle. It'll be another two and a half hours before the sun creeps over the Cascades. By… Read More
Anthropologists in Mexico say they’ve uncovered more than 800 bones from 14 mammoths, in two human-made traps north of Mexico City, which are thought to be 15,000 years old. The pits -- which are 6 feet deep and 25 yards in diameter -- were discovered when the site was excavated to be used as a garbage dump, according to a statement from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. Researchers think that groups of 20 or 30 prehistoric hunters herded the mammoths with torches and branches, attempting to separate one animal from the group and lead it into a trap.
At the height of its empire, the inhabitants of ancient Rome genetically resembled the populations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, according to a DNA study published Thursday. The paper is based on genome data of 127 individuals from 29 archaeological sites in and around the city, spanning nearly 12,000 years of Roman prehistory and history. Rome and central Italy's antiquity is well-documented in the rich archaeological and historical record, but relatively little genetic work had been carried out until now.
For want of a pin, the use of a spaceship's parachute was lost. That may be a simplistic way to explain why one of the three parachutes on Boeing's CST-100 Starliner space taxi failed to open. It does, however, serve as a cautionary tale about the one obvious glitch in Monday's pad abort test of the Starliner, a craft that's due to start transporting NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station next year. Overall, the test was judged a success: The uncrewed Starliner fired the rocket engines on its launch abort system, slowed its descent with the aid… Read More
Vaping devices and the chemicals they deliver -- increasingly popular among teens -- may damage the cardiovascular system, a study said Thursday, adding to a growing chorus of concern over injury and deaths related to e-cigarettes. The latest findings, published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, come after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month declared an "outbreak of lung injuries" linked to vaping. "E-cigarettes contain nicotine, particulate matter, metal and flavourings, not just harmless water vapour," senior author Loren Wold of Ohio State University wrote in Thursday's study.