With New NASA Administrator, Legislators Sense Trouble Ahead

Since taking office in January of last year, President Donald Trump has made a number of head-scratching appointments, from tapping Ben Carson — a former pediatric neurosurgeon with no experience in housing policy — to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to putting Betsy DeVos — a billionaire who has for years directed money away from public schools — in charge of the Department of Education.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine was confirmed in the Senate Thursday in a 50-49 vote.

Visual: NASA

This week, Jim Bridenstine joins the ranks — and those of appointees without science backgrounds more specifically — as the nation’s space agency’s latest administrator.

More than a year after previous NASA head Charles Bolden stepped down, the U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Bridenstine, a Republican representative from Oklahoma, to be his successor. A former Navy pilot and three-term congressman, Bridenstine holds degrees in business, but unlike most previous NASA administrators, has no formal science education. Though that is not a requirement, perhaps more worrying for an agency that conducts climate research is Bridenstine’s disagreement with the scientific consensus that human activity is the primary cause of climate change.

Bridenstine is the first politician to hold the position of NASA administrator — a fact lawmakers raised concerns about during his fraught confirmation hearing. Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, called it “frightening to have a leader who has made a career out of ignoring scientific expertise.”

While Bridenstine has vowed to back NASA’s $1.9 billion earth science budget (which includes funding for research on climate change) and has reportedly said he will run the agency in a nonpolitical way, he’ll still be coming into his new position at a tumultuous time.

In charge of a staff of 17,000 and a $19 billion budget, Bridenstine will have to deal with the ever-delayed and over-budget James Webb Space Telescope, which is now set to launch in 2020, as well as oversee the future of the International Space Station, for which President Trump wants to end full government funding by 2025.

Also in the news:

• A new study could provide an important clue to help manage the spread of malaria, a notoriously stubborn and complex disease. Researchers found, after testing the socks of 56 children in Kenya, that mosquitoes are more attracted to the odor of those with malaria than their healthy counterparts. The more parasites the children had in their blood, the stronger they smelled to the insects, which gravitate to chemical compounds known as aldehydes. The study’s senior investigator, James Logan, hopes the findings will open the door to noninvasive diagnostic tools. “It is important to diagnose carriers of malaria parasites,” he told Newsweek, “even if they don’t feel sick [enough] to visit a clinic.” Since 2014, the number of estimated infections has ticked upward by some six million cases, even as global eradication efforts (and spending) continue to rise. (Newsweek)

• Robert Redfield, who started his new job as director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month, has resigned from his positions with four groups to comply with government ethics rules. In addition to leaving the organizations, which include a gene therapy company and a faith-based nonprofit that provides services to children and families living with HIV and AIDS, Redfield said he also got rid of stock holdings in two biotechnology companies and will avoid participating in matters related to the University of Maryland, where he is a professor. Redfield’s moves follow a lack of action by his predecessor, Brenda Fitzgerald, who resigned from the CDC in January after failing to divest her financial holdings. Fitzgerald had also purchased stock in tobacco companies while holding the position. (Washington Post)

• While humans continue to buy 1 million plastic water bottles per minute, with only an estimated 14 percent recycling rate, the planet might find some relief from pollution in the form of a mutant plastic-eating enzyme. Researchers at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. were studying an enzyme created by a previously discovered bacterium that had evolved to break down plastic and, in the process, created a more potent enzyme. They published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and found that while most plastics can take centuries to decompose, the new enzyme took only days to begin breaking down the PET commonly used in disposable water bottles. (The Guardian)

• From fragments of a meteor that exploded 23 miles above the Nubian desert in Sudan in 2008, scientists have found evidence of a lost planet that once inhabited the inner solar system. The meteor was full of diamonds — tiny by wedding-ring standards, but large for interplanetary debris. And inside the diamonds were minerals so dense, the scientists say, that they could have formed only under the kind of pressure that occurs inside a planet between the sizes of Mercury and Mars. Since the minerals don’t match those from any known planet, they must have come from a planet that was somehow destroyed or ejected from the early solar system. The findings, described in the journal Nature Communications, were to have been presented at the American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans last December, but the first author, an Iranian, was barred from visiting the United States. “I’m going to present it in Paris,” said the scientist, Farhang Nabiei of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, “but for now at least, the U.S. is off limits for us.” (Popular Science)

• Humans have apparently been drilling holes in one another’s skulls for millennia, but a new study suggests that this penetrating enterprise might well have been applied to other creatures’ noggins too. In their microscopic analysis of a 5,000-year-old bovine skull, unearthed in France, scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Museum of Man in Paris determined that a hole in the fossil was unlikely to have been caused by a violent run-in with another cow, as had previously been thought. Rather, minute scrape marks and other evidence suggest that the excavation had been performed by a human — though whether the intent was veterinary in nature, or mere practice for a budding Neolithic surgeon, remains unclear. (Science)

• And finally: For many years, one of the reassurances offered about rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has been the idea that higher levels of the gas would at least promote plant growth. But this week, scientists announced that a 20-year experiment in overdosing plants with carbon dioxide suggests that may be overoptimistic. Curiously, researchers working with the two-decade Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve experiment in Minnesota found that most plants did grow larger during the first 12 years of the experiment. But after that, the advantage ceased. For the last five years, the scientists instead tracked shrinkage in a majority of plants being tested, a reaction that they described as a flip-flop in the processing of the gas through photosynthesis. “We need to be less sure about what land ecosystems will do and what we expect in the future,” said one of the Minnesota scientists. (Science News)