In the Midterm Elections, Mixed Results for Science and the Environment
Voters around the United States headed to the polls for the midterm elections on Tuesday, representing the first major opportunity for critics to mount opposition to President Trump since he took office early last year.
While the so-called “blue wave” didn’t hit as forcefully as many had hoped for, Democrats did take back control of the House of Representatives, weakening the GOP’s grip on Washington.
Pushing back against the administration’s notoriously anti-science bent, voters elected seven congressional candidates with backgrounds in science and technology, including former nuclear engineer Elaine Luria in Virginia, and registered nurse Lauren Underwood in Illinois.
In all, 18 candidates with science backgrounds ran for the House, with many endorsed by 314 Action, an advocacy group formed with the direct goal of getting more scientists into office.
“They bring a real wealth of experience that’s really lacking in Congress today,” the group’s president, Shaughnessy Naughton, told CNN of those elected. “There are more reality show people in Congress, including our president, than there are chemists and physicists.”
While House Democrats will continue to face opposition from their Republican counterparts in the Senate, their newly bolstered ranks will at least allow them to bring climate change back to the national stage. After enduring years under the leadership of Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, a climate change denier, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will likely have a new chair in Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat and staunch critic of the Trump administration.
If elected chair, Johnson wrote in a statement Tuesday, she would “address the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real, seeking to understand what climate science is telling us, and working to understand the ways we can mitigate it.”
Still, opposition from fossil fuel providers will remain hard to combat. In Arizona, the state’s main utility company spent $22 million to defeat a ballot measure that would have mandated it to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Meanwhile, in Colorado, oil and gas companies spent $41 million to stomp out an effort to increase regulations on fracking.
Also in the news:
• Some 800 scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, have penned an open letter denouncing Plan S, a controversial new effort by European funding agencies to rein in subscription-based scholarly publishing. The letter comes just days after two of the world’s largest funders of biomedical research — the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — threw their weight behind the plan. Launched two months ago, Plan S will require any research funded by one of its 15 participating organizations to be published in an open access journal, starting in 2020. Proponents see it as a way to put pressure on publishers, and “fundamentally revise the incentive and reward system of science.” But, as things stand, the plan would prevent grant recipients from publishing in Nature, Science, and other high-profile journals that charge subscription fees. The signatories of the open letter say the plan is “unfair for the scientists involved and is too risky for science in general.” They argue that it amounts to a gift to open-access publications, which often levy substantial article processing charges up front to make a paper freely available. (Science)
• Humans are mending at least one problem they themselves created more than 40 years ago when they began emitting manufactured chemicals into the stratosphere, according to a new report from the United Nations. When scientists discovered that the chemicals, commonly found in aerosol cans, air conditioners, and refrigerators, were depleting the ozone layer and had the potential to lead to a host of problems — increased incidences of skin cancer and eye cataracts, and adverse effects on crops, among them — policymakers came together and inked The Montreal Protocol. Thanks to the 1987 international treaty, experts expect the upper ozone layer above the Northern Hemisphere to be repaired in the 2030s, and the hole above the Antarctic in the 2060s. According to Paul Newman, chief Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, if no action had been taken, the world would have lost two-thirds of its ozone layer by 2065. But the recovery has only just begun, and not every nation is in compliance: just this week, an environmental group has said it has new evidence showing that Chinese factories are behind the resurgence of one of the chemical compounds, trichlorofluoromethane, or CFC-11, banned by the protocol. (Associated Press)
• On Wednesday, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury, and Labor announced two rules that will give employers more freedom to deny insurance coverage for birth control. These finalized rules will take effect in January 2019 and are based on interim rules that were announced last year. Officials estimated last year that up to 120,000 people could be affected, and that the rules would have no impact on “99.9 percent of United States women.” However, their calculations included all women, including those who are not in their childbearing years. Experts say that these rules may incentivize more businesses with religious ties to follow suit and deny birth control coverage, which could affect an untold number of people, possibly reaching hundreds of thousands or more. In addition to preventing pregnancy, many take birth control for other reasons, such as managing debilitating health conditions like endometriosis. The rules could “reverse some of the important public health progress made under the Affordable Care Act in recent years,” said Clare Coleman of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. “It is baffling that the administration would support any policy that could diminish access to this essential preventive care.” (CNN)
• Dr. Otis W. Brawley, the widely admired physician who has headed up the American Cancer Society (ACS) for more than a decade, resigned this week over what colleagues said was the organization’s increasingly questionable funding relationships. Fundraising at the 105-year-old organization has dropped by hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 10 years, over which time it has entered into partnerships with some unusual corporate donors, including the fried seafood franchise Long John Silver’s, and the supplement maker Herbalife International. Critics have argued that the ACS was essentially giving such companies cover for their questionable health credentials — and in the case of Herbalife, a record of sanctions by the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission — in return for funding. Dr. Brawley declined to comment on his departure, but outside stakeholders were unequivocal: “The partnership with Long John Silver’s,” Jonathan H. Marks, associate professor of bioethics, humanities, and law at Pennsylvania State University, was quoted as saying, “undermines the integrity of the American Cancer Society.” (The New York Times)
• A decades-old assumption about people with long life spans has been that longevity is strongly influenced by family genetics — that the genes we inherit are major factors in how long we last. But a study published this week in the journal Genetics suggests that everyone, including aging researchers, has been overestimating that effect. By analyzing 54 million family trees posted on the Ancestry website, researchers estimate that genes accounted for less than 7 percent of people’s lifespans, compared to long-held assumptions that the percentage would range between 20 and 30 percent. One early tipoff from the analysis was the finding that spouses tended to have lifespans closer in length than they did with siblings, giving new power to the notion that environment — and its interaction with our genes — is the leading influence. The researchers also noted that the finding suggests extending lifespan by genetic tinkering may be more challenging than once thought. (STAT)
• And finally: Construction of the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline was blocked by a federal judge Thursday, representing a win for environmental and Native American groups battling against it. In his ruling on the 1,200-mile pipeline that would cross the Canadian oil sands in Alberta to U.S. gulf coast refineries, Judge Brian Morris of the United States District Court for Montana concluded that President Trump failed to consider environmental impacts when he signed an executive order approving the pipeline that had previously been blocked by former President Obama. Judge Morris found the Trump administration failed to update or respond to the findings of a 2014 environmental assessment that lead to the initial rejection of the project in 2015. Morris’ decision specifically cited the administration’s negligence in addressing arguments that the pipeline would hinder attempts to keep rising global temperatures at safe levels. Morris also cited a need to adequately address the pipeline’s economic viability and the potential for oil spills. (The New York Times)