On Monday, President Trump released his budget request for the 2020 fiscal year, aiming once again to cut funding to major scientific agencies including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Under Trump’s “Budget for a Better America,” the EPA is poised to take the biggest hit, seeing its funding slashed by 31 percent, up from the 25 percent targeted in 2018. And for the third year in a row, that cut would include a 90 percent reduction in funding to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an Obama-era program backed by widespread bipartisan support. In the final spending plans approved in both 2017 and 2018, Congress has maintained the program’s full $300 million budget.
“The Trump administration just doesn’t get it and is once again gutting funding for the Great Lakes,” Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow told the Detroit Free Press. “Just like last year, and the year before, the people of Michigan will make their voices heard.”
Listed among the EPA programs that would be eliminated in the new budget are the Global Change Research program, which conducts research to support policymakers and the public in their response to climate change. Others, including programs to study endocrine disruptors and reduce lead in drinking water, the budget notes, would also be eliminated and absorbed into or supported by other programs.
Also among Trump’s proposed cuts is a 12 percent reduction in funding to the NSF and a 13 percent cut to the NIH, which critics see as baffling given the president’s pledge to reduce HIV cases by 90 percent by 2030. While the budget does put $291 million towards that goal, experts say much more is needed and call attention to the cuts proposed to crucial supporting programs. This includes a 14 percent cut to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH which funds HIV research, as well as to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, under which many of those affected by the illness are covered.
“This administration’s AIDS and health policies are at war with each other, internally,” Peter Staley, an HIV/AIDS activist, told NBC News. “What one hand gives, the other takes away.”
Also in the news:
• In a move likely welcomed by the medical establishment, but clearly decried by a small but vocal assortment of alternative-medicine adherents and anti-vaccination activists, Amazon this week confirmed that it was removing two books from its marketplace that peddle dubious “autism cures.” Among other things, the titles, “Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism” and “Fight Autism and Win,” included recommendations that children with autism be encouraged to drink and bathe in chlorine dioxide, a chemical compound used at pulp mills and public water-treatment facilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no evidence that this or any treatment being peddled in books and videos online have any impact on autism, and the move by Amazon comes amid growing concern over the proliferation of health-related misinformation on prominent platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Those companies announced last week that they would be working to tweak their algorithms and take other steps to suppress anti-vaccination propaganda percolating on their websites. (The New York Times)
• The international student climate change protests that began in Sweden last year and swept through five continents have now arrived in the U.S. Today, students in more than a hundred American cities are expected to skip school in the name of reducing global greenhouse emissions. Led by 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor, 12-year-old Haven Coleman, and 16-year-old Isra Hirsi — daughter of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar — the protestors are demanding that lawmakers declare a national emergency on climate change, halt fossil fuel infrastructure projects, and pass a Green New Deal, among other measures. The strikers will be a part of a global protest that’s expected to include students from more than 100 countries. It all stems from the actions of a lone 16-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg, who last August began skipping school once a week to protest her government’s inaction on climate change. Now the world seems to be taking notice: In February, with Thunberg by his side, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledged to spend billions to mitigate climate change, and members of the Norwegian parliament recently nominated Thunberg for a Nobel Peace Prize. (Vox)
• The Food and Drug Administration issued a new policy this week intended to curb underage and teenage use of e-cigarettes. The policy limits the sales of fruit and candy-flavored vaping products to retailers that do not allow minors in their stores or have separate adult-only sections and demands that online sellers do more to prevent sales of any vaping products to underage users. The policy was a top stated priority for FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, whose resignation will take effect next month. In September, Gottlieb declared vaping a growing epidemic among youth, after federal data showed that it had increased by 78 percent among high schoolers during the last two years, primarily due to the surging popularity of vaping devices sold by Juul Labs. Gottlieb said that if data shows the trend in teen vaping continues to climb, the FDA may consider additional steps, such as banning flavored e-cigarettes entirely. (The Washington Post)
• For the first time ever, investigators used a combination of DNA testing and online genealogy databases to identify the body of an abandoned newborn. The infant, dubbed Andrew John Doe, was found in a ditch in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1981. Nobody reported him missing, and the case remained open for the next 38 years. Then last Friday, investigators matched DNA from the body to 57-year-old Theresa Rose Bentaas and identified her as the mother. Bentaas was arrested and charged with murder. Although investigators have used DNA testing to track down suspects in old murder cases, including the infamous Golden State Killer, this is the first time the technology has been used in a neonaticide case. In fact, when DNA analysis first became an option, investigators were hesitant to use it on cases involving abandoned infants. Margaret Press, the co-founder of the nonprofit DNA Doe Project, told the Atlantic: “What if you find a 16-year-old girl who was raped by her father and years later we haul her off to jail?” (The Atlantic)
• On Wednesday, President Trump grounded all Boeing 737 Max planes in the U.S., following a fatal crash in Ethiopia on Sunday and one in Indonesia last October. The decision comes after action taken by safety regulators in 42 other countries to ground the planes worldwide. Previously, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was hesitant to make the call, saying there was no evidence of a systematic error. But the agency changed their tune this week after analyzing data from the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which occurred just minutes after takeoff on March 10 and killed all 157 people on board. Noting similarities with the crash of the 737 Max 8 plane operated by Indonesian carrier Lion Air in October, experts are looking into the possibility that a new flight-control system might be to blame in one or both of the crashes. According to the FAA, the new flight information warrants “further investigation of the possibility of a shared cause for the two incidents that needs to be better understood and addressed.” (The New York Times)
• And finally: Facial recognition systems are refined by feeding algorithms vast sets of training data — i.e. pictures of faces — so that they can better spot and characterize the features that make each one unique. But an investigation by NBC News published Tuesday found that IBM collected nearly a million pictures posted under creative commons licenses on the hosting site Flickr without asking for users’ consent in order to develop its facial recognition systems. Flickr users’ photos may have ended up used in countless other projects, since IBM made its “Diversity in Faces Dataset” available to academic researchers “to advance the study of fairness and accuracy in facial recognition technology.” While photographers had mixed feelings about their work being used in the development of such technology, almost all told NBC News that they would have preferred if IBM had asked for permission. Digital privacy and civil rights advocates have criticized IBM and other companies for collecting personal data without permission, particularly from the minority groups they argue could be disproportionately affected by the abuse of facial recognition systems for surveillance and policing. According to a privacy statement on IBM’s website, individuals who wish to have their photos removed from the dataset must contact the company with links to the pictures in question. (NBC News)