President Trump unveiled his 2019 budget request on Monday, which for the second year in a row, called for sweeping cuts to federal scientific research. While a second document quickly rolled back some of the proposed cuts — leaving funding levels for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation fairly flat — climate science and environmental protection are still poised to take a hit.
Under Trump’s proposal, the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget would be slashed by 25 percent, reducing it its lowest level since the administration of George H.W. Bush in 1991.
The EPA cuts would include a 90 percent reduction in funding to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — an Obama-era program with wide bipartisan support — and cut all agency funding for cleanup programs in the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound, and the Everglades, among other areas. Trump took aim at these same programs last year, but Congress pushed to protect them.
Also among Trump’s proposed cuts is a $2 billion reduction for the Department of the Interior. The agency’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, which invests earnings from offshore oil and gas drilling to protect and restore federal public lands, would be reduced by 92 percent.
Money allocated to NASA under the proposal would stay largely the same as last year, though Trump wants to end government funding for the International Space Station by 2025, and instead turn space exploration over to private enterprise.
Among the agencies that would get a boost under the proposal are the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump’s budget puts $5 billion towards combatting the opioid epidemic over the next 5 years, though experts say much more is sorely needed.
For all this, critics of the president’s attitude toward science point out that more than a year into his term, he still has not appointed a science adviser.
Also in the news:
• The Affordable Care Act greatly expanded the rolls of Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that guarantees medical care to low-income Americans. Now 10 states have gained or are seeking Trump administration approval for rule changes that would let them impose work requirements (and, in some cases, monthly premiums) on able-bodied Medicaid recipients. In Kentucky, for example, adults who are not elderly or disabled would have to show they are putting in 20 hours a week of work, job training, or volunteering. Most Medicaid recipients around the nation are already working, but health care experts worry that the new requirements will discourage eligible people from signing up or even kick them off the rolls. (New York Times)
• A study published on Tuesday in Nature Communications found that some cells in the human body continue to show gene activity after death. While it has long been known that DNA survives after death, the finding confirms that RNA can also remain stable. Medical examiners typically rely on body temperature and physical signs like rigor mortis to determine time of death, but tracking post-mortem gene activity may one day help solve criminal cases. (Science News)
• A project out of the MIT Media Lab has revealed that three commercial face classification AI algorithms have up to 34 percent higher error rates for dark-skinned female faces, compared to light-skinned male faces. To conduct the study, lead author Joy Buolamwini and the Gender Shades team created a benchmark dataset composed of 1,270 images of real faces, labeled by gender and skin type. The researchers found that facial recognition technology from IBM, Microsoft, and the Chinese startup Face++, which boast overall accuracy rates of between 87 and 93 percent, are less accurate when detecting female faces than male faces and when detecting dark-skinned faces versus light-skinned faces. The project raises important questions about potential biases in the current design of popular facial recognition systems, which are increasingly used by law enforcement. (FastCoDesign)
• The already fast-growing list of new digital science publications got a bit longer recently with the launch of LeapsMag, which describes itself as “an editorially independent online magazine that aims to foster a society-wide conversation about the impact of groundbreaking advances in the life sciences and related fields.” The catch? It’s funded entirely by Bayer, the German biotech and agricultural sciences conglomerate. Whether that warrants some measure of journalistic skepticism is an open question — particularly if the site’s editors or contributors ever decide to take aim at Bayer itself. But it’s also a challenge that the editor of LeapsMag acknowledged forthrightly in an interview this week. “For this to have any credibility with readers,” Kira Peikoff said, “it really has to be this neutral thing.” (Undark)
• By sifting through thousands of samples of dirt, collected by citizen scientists across the United States, researchers say they have isolated a promising new kind of antibiotic, one that shows strong activity against bacteria known to be resistant to a host of more traditional drugs. The new class of antibiotics, called malacidins, killed several types of multi-drug resistant superbugs in preliminary laboratory tests, according to a report published Monday in the journal, Nature Microbiology. According to Rockefeller University professor Sean Brady, the treated bacteria showed no signs of developing resistance to the malacidins. He hopes that this is the first of a vast “reservoir of antibiotics” still awaiting human discovery in the unexpected corners of the Earth’s environment. (The Washington Post).
• And finally: Milwaukee’s new health department head, Patricia McManus, drew criticism last week after stating on a local radio show that “the science is still out” on whether there’s a link between vaccines and autism. Several public health officials emphasized the findings by the CDC, NIH, and countless studies that clearly show no link between childhood vaccines and autism. McManus, appointed as the city’s interim health commissioner last Tuesday, later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she was not questioning the science or telling anyone not to get immunized. But, she said, “I would like to have more research done on the whole issue in the first place.” The city’s mayor, Tom Barrett, took issue with McManus’ comments and reiterated the health department’s policy to promote immunizations. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)