While headlines focused on President Trump’s meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the White House announced the nomination of Scott Hutchins, an entomologist who has spent decades in Dow’s agrosciences division, to serve as the USDA’s chief scientist.
If confirmed by the Senate, Hutchins would be the third former employee of that division, now known as Corteva Agriscience following Dow’s merger with DuPont last year, to hold a top post within the USDA since Trump took office. But the relationship goes back farther than that.
In 2016, Dow donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration ceremony (something they hadn’t done for either of Obama’s.) And last year, Dow and two other manufacturers pushed the Trump administration to ignore findings from federal scientists showing that a family of pesticides known as organophosphates are potentially harmful to endangered species.
The request came just one month after then-EPA head Scott Pruitt decided to reverse an Obama-era effort to ban chlorpyrifos, one of the pesticides in question, despite agency researchers’ inability to find any level of exposure that they deemed safe.
According to E&E News, Hutchins’ work at Corteva centers on “chemical solutions to pest management.” As undersecretary for research, education, and economics within the USDA, he would be responsible for overseeing the agency’s $2.9 billion research budget.
Holding a Ph.D. in entomology, Hutchins was tapped to comply with rules stipulating that whoever holds the USDA position have a background in science. (Trump’s previous pick, Sam Clovis, withdrew his name from consideration last year after facing backlash for his lack of credentials, along with his skeptical comments on climate change.)
Also in the news:
• The federal Environmental Protection Agency, ostensibly among the nation’s leading research-based regulatory bodies, has had a higher profile under Trump than perhaps any administration in its nearly 50-year history — though little of the attention has had to do with science. One pending agency rule, however, very much does, and it has continued to draw the ire of actual scientists. The pending policy shift would, critics say, prevent the agency from using the very best health science when setting public policy — and perhaps even force the rollback of environmental protections already in place. This week, critics of the plan showed up in droves on Capitol Hill to make their opposition known, and in a sharply written letter, nearly 70 leading science organizations, from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Lung Association to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Women’s Health Network, made clear their disdain for EPA’s plan. “These efforts are misguided,” the letter stated, “and will not improve the quality of science used by EPA.” (Pacific Standard, The Atlantic)
• Two scientific reports published this week sounded alarm about the increasing rate of liver disease-related deaths in the United States. On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an analysis showing that liver cancer death rates have been rising sharply — increasing 43 percent in 16 years. The report attributed much of that to lifestyle effects, ranging from obesity to alcohol intake. On Wednesday, the British Medical Journal independently published an analysis showing that deaths from liver disease, notably cirrhosis, have been increasing in the United States since 2009. Cirrhosis, which destroys tissue in the liver, is largely caused by alcohol abuse. The most notable increase in the death rate — slightly above 10 percent — occurred in Americans aged 25 to 34, the researchers reported, leading them to warn that a new generation is being harmed by “alcohol misuse and its complications.” (CNN, The Washington Post).
• A drug-resistant strain of the bacterium that causes typhoid fever is spreading in Pakistan, raising fear among public health experts that it could soon spread to other countries. While improvements in food handling and sanitation, as well as vaccinations, have dramatically reduced the number of typhoid cases in industrialized nations, the disease still causes 200,000 deaths globally each year. The strain in Pakistan, which has infected more than 2,000 people in the last six months, is resistant to all but one of the oral antibiotics commonly used against it. And according to Myron Levine, a typhoid vaccine developer at the University of Maryland, it’s only a matter of time until this strain becomes resistant to that drug as well. The remaining treatments, which require hospitalization and an IV drip, are not practical for widespread use in low income countries like Pakistan. With monsoon season approaching, experts expect the situation to worsen. (Science)
• As Europe continues to face severe drought, wildfires have made their way to Sweden, now burning as far north as the Arctic Circle. According to Dagens Nyheter, a national newspaper published out of Stockholm, some 50 fires are burning around the country, including in counties in Swedish Lapland. Visiting one of the worst affected areas on Thursday, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called the situation “extreme.” Current estimates put the damage at 1.6 billon acre-feet of forest, equal to $70 million in lost value. On Friday, Dan Eliasson, head of Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency, called the situation “the most serious and difficult…Swedish fire and rescue services have ever been in.” Even with assistance from Norway and Italy, the largest fires will likely continue to burn until rainfall comes. “It could take weeks, and meanwhile there is a risk that thunder storms and winds could make the situation worse,” Eliasson said. (New York Times, The Local SE)
• And finally: as if worsening droughts, insect infestations, and melting glaciers weren’t enough, the managers of America’s national parks have yet another problem to grapple with: Research published this week in Science Advances found that from 1990 to 2014, average concentrations of ozone — an air pollutant — in 33 U.S. national parks were “statistically indistinguishable” from nearly two dozen major metropolitan areas. The authors of the study also found that visits to parks fell on high ozone days, particularly during summer and fall, when peak levels occur. While they speculate that concerns about health and poor visibility are keeping visitors away, other researchers are skeptical that travelers who make plans months in advance, for example, would so easily abandon them, and believe more would have to be done to determine whether these factors actually impact park visitation decisions. (The Conversation)