Tuesday 24th of November 2020

reinvigorating the scientific workforce...


Science  16 Oct 2020 — If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election, he will face high expectations from the U.S. scientific community. Its members will be counting on him to bring science and leadership to the fight against COVID-19 while reversing a host of moves by President Donald Trump that many researchers regard as disastrous. A President Biden will have vast authority to move quickly to undo many Trump policies. But he could be hampered by forces beyond his control, including which party controls the Senate, the ideological complexion of the courts, and—when it comes to fighting COVID-19—the progress of science itself.

Here's a look at some science-related actions Biden will likely pursue, and how quickly he might be able to accomplish them.

Tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden has made confronting the pandemic the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. The most dramatic immediate shift is likely to be in the tone and consistency of messaging coming from the Oval Office and federal health agencies. On his first day, Biden has promised to “stop the political theater and willful misinformation that has heightened confusion and discrimination,” hold daily briefings that “put scientists and public health leaders front and center,” and ensure that government scientists “do not fear retribution or public disparagement for performing their jobs.” He's also pledged to rejoin the World Health Organization and boost funding for its pandemic efforts.

At home, Biden says he'll work with governors and local officials to encourage greater use of physical distancing and masks—possibly even mandating their use at federal facilities and on federal lands. And he's vowed to reverse the erosion of public trust in two key health agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), by appointing new leadership and improving the transparency of decision-making.

Yet getting new agency leaders confirmed by the Senate could take months, observers say, and repairing the damage done to the credibility of those agencies could be slow. Efforts to mandate mask wearing or limit gatherings could face opposition, and how soon a vaccine or effective new treatments arrive is largely out of a president's control. But a Biden administration could make headway against the pandemic by encouraging and coordinating a wide range of tactics including mask wearing, physical distancing, testing, contact tracing, and the development and distribution of treatments and vaccines.


Confront climate change.

Biden advisers say climate change is one of “the four crises” he will put a priority on addressing. (The others are the pandemic, the economy, and racial injustice.) Biden says the United States will rejoin the Paris climate accord on his first day in office—which he can do with the stroke of a pen—and he will issue executive orders to strengthen climate protections. Advocates want him to roll back Trump rules that weakened limits on power plant emissions set by former President Barack Obama, and to set even stiffer limits for cars than Obama did. Overall, Biden wants the United States to cease to be a net emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050, and the federal government to invest at least $1.7 trillion over 10 years in clean energy technologies.

Achieving that ambitious agenda will likely require that Democrats control the U.S. Senate. Even with a Democrat-led Congress, however, Biden might only have a 2-year window, as the party in power often loses control of one chamber of Congress in midterm elections. Biden could also face pushback from conservative judges, especially on the Supreme Court, if he relies heavily on executive authority to push his agenda.


Change course on foreign policy.

A president has great leeway in deciding how the United States interacts with other nations, and research groups hope Biden will move aggressively on several fronts. Many want the country to re-engage with Iran to revive the nuclear deal—from which Trump withdrew in 2018—that limited its ability to produce nuclear weapons. Biden says he will “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy” if Iran “returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal.”

Another tough challenge will be establishing the rules for U.S. research collaborations with China. Under Trump, law enforcement agencies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies have stepped up investigations of scientists who failed to disclose funding ties to foreign institutions, leading to criminal, civil, and administrative punishments. Many of the known cases involve researchers who were born in China or had links to Chinese institutions. Critics say the effort has been racially tinged and has also hindered efforts to recruit foreign-born talent. They hope Biden will ease the scrutiny. But Biden has traditionally been a defense hawk, and China's harsh treatment of Uighurs and other religious minorities may limit moves to ease tensions.

On immigration, industry groups and universities hope Biden follows through on promises to ease restrictions on visas for students and high-skill workers. And some have applauded Biden's vow to protect the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and end Trump's de facto ban on immigrants from many majority-Muslim nations.


Reverse Trump environmental policies.

Environmental scientists have a long wish list. They want Biden to undo changes in how agencies review the environmental impacts of major projects and evaluate the risks posed by toxic chemicals, which critics say downplay the risks and inflate economic benefits. The Environmental Protection Network, made up of former Environmental Protection Agency officials, wants Biden to kill a proposed rule that could bar the agency from using health and other data that can't be made public because of concerns about patient privacy or trade secrets.

Conservation scientists, meanwhile, hope he will block federal permits for several high-profile energy and mining projects, including proposed pits in Alaska and Minnesota that threaten aquatic habitats. Paleontologists are looking to Biden to restore fossil-rich lands that Trump removed from several national monuments in western states, while ocean scientists want him to reimpose fishing limits that Trump lifted at a marine monument off the coast of New England.

But many of Trump's environmental policies could take years to unwind because of lawsuits and federal rules that require extensive comment periods. Democratic control of the Senate, however, could speed the process: Under a rarely used law, just a simple majority of both houses is needed to cancel rules finalized near the end of the Trump administration. (Republican lawmakers used the law to void many Obama-era rules at the start of Trump's term, when they controlled both chambers of Congress.)


Insulate health agencies from politics.

Biomedical researchers have been appalled by the Trump administration's baldly political moves to influence the work of NIH, CDC, and FDA. Those moves have included ordering NIH to cancel a grant that supported research into bat viruses in China, because Trump alleged—without evidence—that the pandemic virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan involved in the project. Trump also blocked or rewrote CDC and FDA policies and guidance that contradicted his views on the pandemic. And he instituted a de facto ban on using fetal tissue from elective abortions in research.

Biden promises to “let science lead,” raising hopes that he will reverse these moves and end political interference in the health agencies. Researchers are also optimistic that Biden will select a stellar replacement for NIH Director Francis Collins, whom many expect to depart after 11 years in the job.


Go big on spending.

Keeping the economy afloat through the pandemic will require massive federal spending, Biden says, and he will likely ask lawmakers to approve a host of spending initiatives early in his term. Universities and research groups want some of the money, saying federal science agencies need tens of billions of dollars to help them recover from the pandemic. And clean energy advocates are hoping the stimulus package would make combating climate change a clear priority at the Department of Energy (DOE). “We'll see much more pressure on [DOE to do work] that might lead to reductions in emissions,” predicts Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund and a former DOE chief of staff.

To pay for new spending, Biden is likely to propose restoring higher taxes on the wealthy and killing programs he sees as wasteful. One potential target is the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA's troubled heavy-lift rocket for the human space program. The SLS has cost $20 billion so far and, after years of delays, isn't scheduled to launch until late 2021. Many NASA observers argue that commercial space firms, such as SpaceX, can do the job for less.

Still, with budget experts warning that the federal government's debt is soaring to record levels—it will soon exceed the size of the entire U.S. gross domestic product—the pressure to contain spending will grow. And tax revenues may fall if the economy continues to struggle, crippling Biden's ability to advance his agenda.


Reinvigorate the scientific workforce.

Under Trump, many researchers who work for the federal government have said they don't feel valued or respected. Employee surveys show job satisfaction at several science agencies has taken a nosedive, and there have been many anecdotal reports of researchers leaving their jobs. Biden says he wants to reverse that trend, starting by replacing Trump appointees who have suspect scientific credentials or hold views far out of the mainstream. “The house cleaning could be remarkable; in some cases you are going to see hacks who are flat-out science deniers replaced by appointees who not only understand the science, but have done it themselves,” says one lobbyist who requested anonymity because he still interacts with the Trump administration. Others speculate that Biden might raise the profile of science—and improve morale—by quickly filling the White House science adviser position. (Obama named John Holdren to do the job the month before he was sworn in.)

But it could take years to rebuild the expertise that some agencies have lost, a union that represents public employees warned earlier this year. And former government officials say a Biden administration will also need to strengthen current policies to protect researchers from political interference. Rick Spinrad of Oregon State University, Corvallis, a former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says, “What we have seen [under Trump] is abuse and violation of scientific integrity policies—with no consequences.”


Science  16 Oct 2020:

Vol. 370, Issue 6514, pp. 284-285


passionfruit flower...



Pictures by Gus Leonisky

are you kidding me?...

by Erin Brockovich

The president-elect has tapped a former DuPont consultant to join his Environmental Protection Agency transition board

For years, I’ve been trying to impart a simple concept that Superman is not coming.

Dare I say, I had hopes that this new administration would usher in the dawning of a new day. As picks for President-elect Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team were announced, I felt concerned and disheartened about a chemical industry insider being on the list. Are you kidding me?

Michael McCabe, a former employee of Biden and a former deputy Environmental Protection Agency administrator, later jumped ship to work as a consultant on communication strategy for DuPont during a time when the chemical company was looking to fight regulations of their star chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) also known as C8. The toxic manmade chemical is used in everything from waterproof clothes, stain-resistant textiles and food packaging to non-stick pans. The compound has been linked to lowered fertility, cancer and liver damage. The Guardian reported this week that Harvard school of public health professor Philippe Grandjean, who studies environmental health, warns that PFAS chemicals, of which PFOA is one, might reduce the efficacy of a Covid-19 vaccine.

This smells of the dawn of the same old. To quote the Who: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

It should go without saying that someone who advised DuPont on how to avoid regulations is not someone we want advising this new administration.

PFOA pollutes the blood of nearly every American and can pass from mother to unborn child in the womb. This toxic product of industry is a stable compound not easily broken down in the environment or in the human body, giving it the nickname “forever chemical”. Scientists have found it in living beings across the globe – from animals living in the depths of the sea to birds on remote islands.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set no enforceable national drinking water limits for perfluorinated chemicals, including PFOA. Tens of thousands of community drinking water systems across the country have never even tested for these contaminants.

McCabe started managing DuPont’s communications with the EPA about the toxic chemical in 2003, according to an article in the Intercept. This was the time in which DuPont faced a barrage of litigation after the company dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA-filled waste in West Virginia, which made its way into the drinking water of 100,000 people. Countless members of the community faced debilitating illnesses as a result. The legal battle with the company was turned into the film Dark Waters in 2019.

Mind you, DuPont suspected that their product was harmful since the 1960s – experiments they conducted in 1961 showed that PFOS affected the livers of dogs and rabbits. McCabe’s work inevitably contributed to staving off costly clean-up and additional regulation headaches for the company.

Are we the people supposed to trust a former DuPont man in a transition team tasked with reviewing the Chemical Safety Board? Is this how the newly elected leadership wants to start what is supposed to be a healing and unifying administration? Are we already falling back on the old and antiquated, hide-and-seek, conceal, dodge and deny leadership or are you going to come out and be the change and the hope needed when it comes to the environment?

I don’t see how picking someone from industry is moving us toward that goal.

The science is in. Research has linked exposure to this chemical to the following illnesses: kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol.

This newly elected president says we need to listen to the science. Are you really listening to the science or are you listening to an industry insider, who is controlling the message?

With a lack of federal guidance on these dangerous chemicals, states have been left to create their own rules to enforce guidance and regulations. This chemical, and others like it, have been poisoning us for decades. Now is the time to act.

This is not about being rightwing or leftwing. It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on. We cannot keep making picks from this inside, leaving we the people, once again on the outside.

What will it take to get our leadership to work with the people?

Stop working against and separately from your communities. Put your transition team on the ground and make them talk with those affected by these chemicals. Go out and see for yourself, learn and hear from those who you represent about what the heck is happening to them on the ground – those living and breathing in the toxic mess we have created.

It is time to keep your promise and give the people a voice and a seat the table in order to find a meaningful solution for the environment and for the people. Don’t close the door on us again.

We are in this mess because we continue to do the same old thing.

Let us not forget where these chemicals came from and who is responsible for putting them in our environment. Let us not bring the fox back into the hen house. DuPont executives should have no place in the Environmental Protection Agency.

I call on Joe Biden to do the right thing.


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