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As the Dietary Guidelines Process Begins, Health Experts Want to Keep Science Front and Center

The Trump administration is now laying the foundation for the next quinquennial (five-year) makeover of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the public health community is taking notice.

These guidelines are the cornerstone of the food and nutrition programs that help protect our most vulnerable populations—including millions of kids, seniors, and low-income families—from hunger and malnutrition, and provide the public with information about what makes a healthy diet. But the Trump administration’s record of sidelining science and catering to industry interests doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that leading government agencies are prepared to prioritize public health. That’s why more than 200 public health experts from 42 states have signed onto a letter asking administration officials to keep science at the center of the dietary guidelines process.

Ensuring science is the main ingredient of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. Source: Wikipedia Commons

HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Source: Wikipedia Commons

In the coming months, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are expected to announce the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of up to 20 experts that will be charged with developing the nation’s next set of science-based nutrition guidelines. This committee is typically made up of experts with combined decades of experience in nutrition, medicine, and public health research. (Take a look at past committee membership—if nutrition science were a sport, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee would be its dream team). And, with some notable exceptions, the scientific recommendations made by this committee form the basis of the final dietary guidelines issued by the USDA and HHS.

But the political circumstances and cast of characters surrounding the development of the next Dietary Guidelines aren’t necessarily typical. Here are a few of the key reasons public health experts are paying close attention to this process—and urging the agencies to keep science at its center:

1. The Trump administration has a poor track record when it comes to pursuing evidence-based policymaking and relying on scientific expertise.

The process to develop the dietary guidelines has historically been rigorous and evidence-based, bolstered by the advisory committee’s outstanding credentials and the expertise of dedicated career staff.

Yet there are dozens of documented examples of the current administration disregarding data, silencing scientists, and compromising scientific integrity in policymaking—which has frequently extended to scientific advisory committees. In a January 2018 report, UCS analyzed 73 science advisory committees across six federal departments and agencies (not including the USDA and HHS) during the administration’s first year. The report found that membership on these advisory committees had decreased, and the committees met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997—nearly two-thirds of them met less often than their own charters specified.

2. USDA leadership in food and nutrition lacks scientific expertise, and the department’s existing expertise has been marginalized.

The Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNCS) at the USDA, who plays a lead role in overseeing the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, has yet to be appointed. Currently serving as the Acting Deputy Undersecretary for FNCS is Brandon Lipps, Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). With a background in agriculture, applied economics, and law, Lipps lacks any education or experience in public health or nutrition science—making him poorly qualified to oversee the process that will produce the nation’s next dietary guidelines. And though highly qualified career staff have retained positions within the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP), the recent reorganization implemented by the administration has placed CNPP under the direction of FNS—potentially compromising its ability to independently review the advisory committee’s report.

3. Other USDA appointments indicate that the food industry—with heightened incentive to influence the 2020 DGAs—has improper access to the process.

To be clear, food companies and trade associations have long had interest in shaping dietary guidelines to favor their products. But for the first time, the guidelines will include key nutrition recommendations for pregnant women and infants from birth through 24 months—providing critical information to health professionals and food service providers, and inadvertently offering a major market opportunity for makers of children’s foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and infant formula.

 And industry need not rely solely on influencing the development of the dietary guidelines from the outside. The appointments of deeply-conflicted individuals to influential positions in the USDA may give the industry unprecedented backdoor access to the process. Most notably, in July 2017, Kailee Tkacz—who until 2017 lobbied for corn syrup and snack food manufacturers—joined the USDA to work on the update of the DGAs. Tkacz was issued an ethics waiver contending that her participation in these issues at the USDA “is in the public interest”—though she has no training in science, public health, or nutrition, and has previously lobbied for two firms that have attempted to weaken federal recommendations on added sugar.

What’s next?

The agencies are expected to announce the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee as soon as this month, or early in the new year. The committee will then begin its work to develop the scientific report that should serve as a blueprint for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To the agencies’ credit, there will be ample opportunity for stakeholders—aka, all of us who eat—to get involved throughout the process: according to the USDA, there will be a total of five scientific advisory committee meetings open to the public, accompanied by requests for public comment. In the meantime, you can learn more by reading some of the Frequently Asked Questions on the USDA website, or checking out our website.

Gutting Protections in a Marine Sanctuary: Trump and Zinke Take Aim at Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument

Photo: Derrick Jackson

With congregations of cetaceans and fish rarely seen and a wealth of corals and critters new to science, it is unconscionable for President Trump to reopen the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument to commercial fishing.

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, as established by President Obama in 2016.

The Canyons and Seamounts, 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, is one of three watery US national monuments and it has been recommended for plunder by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. (The other two are in the Pacific—Rose Atoll and Remote Pacific Islands.) All three monuments are currently protected under the 1906 Antiquities Act signed by President Teddy Roosevelt to stem the looting and vandalism of indigenous artifacts and archaeological sites during America’s westward expansion.

Despite their vast differences on issues of science and the environment, both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama saw fit to use the Antiquities Act to protect some of the most rich, rare, and undisturbed oceanic ecosystems on Earth.

In creating Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands in 2009, Bush called them “ideal laboratories for scientific research.” When christening the Canyons and Seamounts in 2016, where 24 coral species and three species of fish have been seen for the first time in the North Atlantic, Obama said it would make possible “new discoveries and improve our understanding of ocean ecosystems.”

Political vandalism

In contrast, the Trump administration is choosing to play the role of vandal and looter. On land, Trump issued an executive order last year that removed massive portions of land from the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, paving the way for oil and gas drilling to advance on these sacred natural landscapes. Both of these reductions, discussed in the new UCS report Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, are being fought in the courts by Native Americans and environmentalists claiming that coal mining and oil and gas exploration will exacerbate pollution, artifact loss, and global warming emissions.

At sea, the gutting of protections willfully ignores scientific warnings that high-tech fishing fleets are vacuuming fish out of the ocean to an unprecedented extent and destroying habitat in the process. A study this year in the journal Science found that industrial-scale fishing now operates in more than half, and perhaps up to three-quarters of the globe’s oceans. That has grave implications as the global numbers have plummeted from 90 percent of fish stocks being harvested sustainably in 1974 to just 66.9 percent of the stocks being sustainably managed in 2015, and upwards of a third of the world’s fish now reportedly being caught illegally.

New England is a sobering part of that picture as prized species like cod have been driven to commercial collapse and other species have been subject to stringent catch regulations. Even with management, climate change is moving seafood such as lobster and herring northward and deeper. That makes it even more important to preserve pristine sites to understand the unprecedented changes wrought by humans.

Overblown claims

In attacking the national monument, the administration is ignoring the science and abetting falsehoods spread by a fishing industry desperate to own every teardrop of ocean. The Canyons and Seamounts monument comprises two segments covering 4,913 square miles—infinitesimal in oceanic terms. It accounts for only just one  tenth of one percent of all US waters now sanctioned for fishing and just 1.5 percent of such waters in the Atlantic, according the New England Aquarium and the Mystic Aquarium.

Because of its distance from mainland ports and its topography, with canyons as deep as the Grand Canyon and undersea mountains rising 7,000 feet from the seafloor, commercial fishing in the Canyons and Seamounts monument has thus far has been limited. A small amount of red crab and lobster fishing has been grandfathered until 2023.

But the fishing industry, desperate to keep all water open for future exploitation, bitterly fought the creation of the monument. Its lobbying succeeded in shrinking the monument from an originally-proposed 6,000 square miles and eliminating permanent protection for a pristine kelp forest that is a nursery for the cod that the fishing industry keep wishing would come back. Despite overblown claims, such as those from the right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation that the monument “could sink commercial fishing in New England,” in the region’s $1.3 billion-a-year fishing industry, fish from the Canyons and Seamounts monument account for just $1.3 million dollars, according to NOAA data.

Photo: Derrick Jackson

Science sidelined 

In fact, the amount of fishing in the monument is so small, the administration tried to hide that fact in making the case to re-open the sanctuary. In July, the Washington Post reported that, in the review President Trump ordered of 27 national monuments, officials at the Department of Interior cooked the books and purposely ignored the benefits of the national monuments for tourism and science while exaggerating the potential for mineral, fossil fuel and timber extraction.

In the case of the Canyons and Seamounts monument, the administration was caught between a rock and no hard evidence pointing to the site’s commercial value. Randal Bowman, a special assistant at the Department of Interior, even recommended in an email that the review of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts exclude all mention of impacts on commercial fishing. In his memo, Bowman deleted the fact that just four of 186 vessels fishing in the area drew more than 25 percent of their annual income from the resource. The vast majority, 123 vessels, drew five percent or less of their annual revenue from the territory now protected as a national monument.

Bowman concluded that the data on the paucity of fishing at the site “undercut the case” that the designation of the national monument was harmful to the industry.

Ominous signs

Bowman’s concerns do not rule out the potential for future harm, however, especially if the fishing industry runs out of other areas or if technology keeps evolving to find fish even more efficiently in the abyss. Ester Quintana, lead mammal marine scientist for the New England Aquarium and an expert in aerial surveys, says she sees plenty of ominous signs of what will happen if the monument is reopened for industrial-scale fishing.

She has seen plenty of fishing gear at the edges of the monument and fishing vessels skirting its edges. “It’s clear the fishermen are aware of the boundaries and are pushing the limits,” she said. “What this suggests to me that if those boundaries, were reopened, those fishermen would be more active.”

It’s easy to understand why boundaries are getting pushed.  The monument is a menagerie. An April aerial survey by the New England Aquarium counted 74 pilot, beaked, or sperm whales and more than 250 dolphins of three different species. In a September aerial survey, researchers spotted more than 600 large animals in just four hours. There was a “superpod” of about 250 common dolphins, a huge ocean sunfish, a giant oceanic manta ray more frequently spotted hundreds of miles to the south and a species of rarely-seen beaked whale that breaths very briefly at the surface, then dives as much as nearly 10,000 feet into the abyss to feed.

Scott Kraus, chief scientist for marine mammal conservation at the New England Aquarium noted, “Large squids usually don’t come to the surface in daylight. But we’ve seen them being chased by dolphins. The monument is like a fast-food restaurant for dolphins.”

Combine those sightings with 73 recorded species of corals and, as Peter Auster, senior research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium and emeritus professor of marine science at the University of Connecticut, proclaims, “It’s like a walk in a trail in a new forest that you’ve never been in. Except that instead of trees, it’s the corals that the other animals use.”

Brian Benedict, interim superintendent of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which has major jurisdiction over boat traffic over the Canyons, said that such places serve as critical reference points from which to judge the health of other parts of the ocean. For instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says a coral reef can take up to 10,000 years to form and barrier reefs and atolls can take from 100,000 years to 30 million years to form.

As Benedict notes, in the two years since the monument’s creation, commercial fishing companies have respected the new borders. He said one major company rerouted a proposed trans-Atlantic fiber-optic cable rather than risk the “bad optics” of laying it through the monument, even though it was possible under its regulations to get a permit for it. “It’s not every day that you get to protect an environment in the North Atlantic with seabirds on top and corals at the bottom,” Benedict said. “Most people seem to get it.”

Except the Trump administration.

Outlook uncertain

The fate of the ocean monuments is unclear. A federal court in October ruled against the fishing industry’s claim that Obama illegally created the monument and made it too large. But the industry plans to appeal, and there are other voices in the administration pushing to exploit the monuments.

In July, the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that NOAA’s acting administrator, Tim Gallaudet, made a controversial presentation, suggesting that the agency drop from its mission statement the desire to “understand and predict changes in climate.” In that presentation, Gallaudet also suggested that fishing in national monuments could reduce America’s so-called “seafood deficit” of importing 90 percent of the seafood it consumes.

The argument makes scientists like Quintana all the more incredulous. Many studies show that protected marine areas benefit the fishing industry as their healthy biomass radiates outward. Other animals benefit tourism. Only over the last five years has it been discovered that puffins, a bird whose restoration spawned a thriving summer bird-watching boat tour industry around islands off the coast of Maine, feed in and around the monument in late winter.

“With all the biodiversity, it doesn’t make sense why you would not want this to be protected,” Quintana said. “Why are we being forced to fight over such a small part of the ocean? Leave it the way it is. We don’t need to be this greedy.”

Priscilla Brooks, director of ocean conservation at the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the top environmental groups that advocated for the creation of the Canyons and Seamounts, said it should be clear that political responsibility for the monument goes well beyond the Trump administration. Fearing the wrath of fishermen at the polls, New England’s generally liberal congressional delegation and governors have long shied away from fully protecting the ocean ecosystem to the point of sometimes even joining the fishing industry in railing against NOAA science in calculating catch limits.

This is despite the painfully obvious fact that the fleet is highly diminished from a quarter century ago with the depletion of stocks. Brooks said the monument is one of few places in New England waters where, “you see the whole food chain at the surface.” The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument is such a link in the food chain; we should not allow it to be broken.

Scientists to EPA: Stop Sidelining Science in the Air Pollution Standard Update for Particulate Matter

Photo: dog97209/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

More than 200 air quality and public health experts have penned a letter expressing concern about the limited scientific input into an air pollutant standard update. The 206 scientists are deeply troubled by recent actions of the EPA on its update to the health-based standard for particulate matter, a pollutant comprised of tiny solid particles that has been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular effects and early death.

The EPA recently dismissed its particulate matter review panel, a group of experts who have provided vital input into EPA’s particulate standard updates since they began more than a decade ago. Addressed to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the experts write, “As professional scientists and engineers, we strongly object to sidelining science in this decisionmaking process. We strongly urge you to reinstate the Particulate Matter Review Panel to provide the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, as well as your agency, with the best-possible scientific understanding.”

“Science is an objective search for truth.  When it is used to protect public health, it benefits everyone. When science is ignored, it is the public that is harmed,” said Dr Richard Peltier, Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who led the letter.

This should be about science

The scientists’ outcry is notable because this stage is normally NOT politically controversial. Air pollution policy decisions have been politicized in the past, but we are still at the stage in the process where we should just be talking about the science.

For four decades, the EPA has relied on the advice of pollutant review panels in addition to its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee in order to ensure it has the best scientific evidence on the connection between ambient air pollutants and health effects. After the science is reviewed and revised, CASAC makes a recommendation to the EPA about what level of pollution would protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. The EPA Administrator then makes a decision on the standard.

This process has worked remarkably well over the years. It has enabled the best scientific advice to inform EPA decisions, it has provided ample opportunity for public participation, and importantly, it has allowed our country to keep the science separate from the policy—minimizing the potential for politicization in what should be scientific decisions.

Acting Administrator Wheeler is cutting science out of air pollution protection decisions

In light of this, it is no wonder that scientists are upset. Under Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler, this well-oiled process is being shaken up. The PM review panel was nixed in October, at the same time that independent members of CASAC, mostly from academic institutions, were removed and replaced almost entirely with members from state regulating industries (even though CASAC’s charter requires only one state representative).

On top of these changes, Wheeler’s EPA has made clear it is looking to expedite the whole review process—cutting out public drafts of the Integrated Science Assessment, limiting public and expert input, minimizing the analytical documents that have historically ensured careful science and policy impact assessments.  (For more about the new changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards and what they mean, check out my prior post here.)

The scientists will submit their letter as an oral comment this Wednesday at CASAC’s meeting to discuss the draft Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter. It remains to be seen whether the new CASAC will take the advice of the letter signers and reinstate the Particulate Matter Review Panel, but it is clear the 206 air quality and public health experts are making their voices heard.

The text of the letter is below:

To: Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Mail Code 1101A, Washington, DC 20460

We write to express our deep concern with the recent dismissal of the Particulate Matter Review Panel, a long-standing and indispensable group of technical experts reporting to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).

For the past 40 years, the United States has been well-served by independent, data-driven science, and this has enabled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to meet part of its fundamental mission by protecting the public from air pollution. Non-political, fact-guided examination by scientific experts, such as those formerly comprising the Particulate Matter Review Panel, is essential for the EPA to receive the best scientific advice needed to protect public health. This process has always taken place in a transparent environment in order for all voices to be considered and decisions to be grounded in evidence.

The science of particulate matter’s impact on public health is a complex one that requires a qualified panel of experts. Particulate matter is an especially complicated pollutant because, unlike other EPA criteria pollutants, it is comprised of a mixture of many different chemical compounds that vary in concentration, composition, and physical size. Some of these compounds—even at low concentrations—are likely to pose disproportionate health risks to vulnerable populations throughout the country. In fact, exposure to particulate matter causes more than 88,000 early deaths (i) per year in the United States—more than firearms and motor vehicle traffic deaths combined (ii)—and this number appears to be growing over time. New science continues to be reported each week that requires interpretation by qualified experts who can apply understanding, scrutiny, and constructive criticism to each published report.

Without sufficient expertise by qualified, independent scientists, the EPA’s air pollution decisions are likely to lack the information necessary to provide an honest assessment of particulate matter impacts on health. The end result may be particulate matter standards that insufficiently protect the United States public, especially our most susceptible populations such as children and the elderly.

As professional scientists and engineers, we strongly object to sidelining science in this decisionmaking process. We strongly urge you to reinstate the Particulate Matter Review Panel to provide the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, as well as your agency, with the best-possible scientific understanding.

(i) Cohen AJ, Brauer M, Burnett R, Anderson HR, Frostad J, Estep K, et al. 2017. Estimates and 25-year trends of the global burden of disease attributable to ambient air pollution: An analysis of data from the global burden of diseases study 2015. Lancet 389:1907-1918. (ii) Murphy SL, Xu J, Kochanek KD, Curtin SC, Arias E. 2017. National Vital Statistics Reports: Deaths: Final Data for 2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vol 66 No 6. Online at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr66/nvsr66_06.pdf.

Congress Can Finally Secure Our Right to an Equally Weighted Vote: Here’s How

Source: Michael Fleshman/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

When the 116th Congress convenes in January, the new Democratic House majority has promised to make electoral integrity literally its first priority: House Resolution 1.

Led by veteran reform advocate Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), House Democrats hope to have a bill ready to go on January 3. The odds of eventually passing such a bill with the GOP-controlled Senate and getting it signed by President Trump are slim. Yet in true Madisonian fashion, the new House majority is seeking to thwart their opponents by siding with voters, who just passed a historic set of reform initiatives across states and localities.

This bill will cover campaign finance, ethics, and voting rights, but the voting rights section is arguably the most complex and controversial. A broad range of reforms to address electoral design and performance throughout the election cycle, from voter eligibility through the allocation of legislative seats, is required to upgrade US democracy.

“Thou shalt not use state power to discriminate against voters. Period.”

As voting rights scholar Justin Levitt recently noted, an optimal performance standard for Congress to secure voting rights through its Elections Clause authority is rather straightforward. The simplest and most effective way to break down discriminatory eligibility and registration requirements would be to explicitly prohibit states from imposing any voting qualifications, leaving constitutional (age, citizenship) requirements as the default.

Prohibition against additional voting qualifications, including registration qualifications, will empower states to empower voters, as any evidence of an election administration regime’s discriminatory effects could be used to overturn it (see below). Automatic voter registration (AVR, which has already been adopted in 16 states and D.C.) and election day registration (EDR, adopted by 17 states) would replace discriminatory registration requirements. Congress should also provide a centralized registration process, for example through federal tax filing information (No Taxation Without Representation, anyone?) and other data exchange with the federal government. Additionally, language requiring pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds as part of high school civics and citizenship education would further boost participation. These changes alone would have the single biggest impact on improving voter participation, as a recent UCS analysis demonstrated.

Crucially, Congress must ensure that states’ voter registration lists are maintained securely and without discriminatory effects, especially since the Supreme Court allowed the state of Ohio to continue its exclusionary voter purging techniques, and to anticipate more outrageous voter suppression tactics like those identified in Georgia. Specifically, Congress should prohibit purging based on demonstrably flawed “exact match” criteria, and require that any removal of voters from registration lists be based on positive evidence of ineligibility, as opposed to non-voting.

“Thou shalt provide equal and early access to the ballot.”

To ensure equal ballot access and reduce resource-related barriers to voting, H.R.1 should mandate the provision of early-in-person voting, at least two weeks prior to the end of the election period, along with no fault absentee/mail voting. Previous research has demonstrated the discriminatory impact of restricting early-in-person voting. While the research on “convenience” voting and overall turnout is mixed, the goal of Congress ought to be to provide every institutional opportunity to vote available, given the pervasive impact of socioeconomic inequalities on voter participation.

Ballot access mandates would not require total uniformity among states, in fact it would encourage experimentation in the cost/benefit analysis of ballot availability and processing returned ballots. Key standards that Congress should implement in this area are performative: prohibiting waiting times longer than one hour; prohibiting voters from being turned away for ID or similar restrictions without allowing them to cast a provisional ballot; prohibitions against disproportionate numbers of rejected ballots, ballots wasted, ballots not accepted, etc. Such performance standards would ensure security and voter eligibility requirements within a non-discriminatory framework, all the while providing the necessary data collection to monitor voting rights violations.

This is a crucial and widely underappreciated barrier to voting rights enforcement that Congress needs to break down. Enforcing election law requires support from election scientists to analyze and understand voting patterns, and this analysis is often difficult to conduct as a result of the poor quality of data availability. In a recent analysis of early voting, the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald noted that while some states have great data management practices, others, not so much: “Take Alabama. When we called local election officials for their absentee ballot counts we literally were told that they had to look in a folder so they could count them.”

Uniform data publication requirements are essential to the effective enforcement of the law, and would greatly strengthen our ability to identify voting rights violations, as well as potential election fraud and other irregularities. Full disclosure and transparency are an unmitigated good here, and by requiring local administrators to provide election returns by precinct in at regular intervals for early voting and for results on election night, not only can irregularities be identified within hours on election night, evidence-based litigation can proceed immediately after elections, not months after the injury has occurred.

Administration, oversight and legal enforcement would also be enhanced by a uniform national ballot for all federal elections (which would also incentivize uniformity for state and local elections), as advocated by Richard Pildes. We still rely on local election officials to design and administer unique ballots across races, and the results are predictably awful. Uniformity in ballot design would benefit data management, auditing and analysis of results through the public provision of election data in a user-friendly format.

“Thou shalt not dilute the weight of votes for any reason.”

Ah, gerrymandering, what’s a Congress to do? Plenty. At a minimum Congress should require non-partisan, citizen-focused redistricting practices for all states, as is done in California and some other states. However, the most effective solution for both racial and partisan vote dilution is moving away from the single-seat district system that incentivizes gerrymandering in the first place. Congress should allow states to elect members using proportional representation (PR), as already outlined in the Fair Representation Act and recently endorsed by an increasing number of public intellectuals, as well as the New York Times. Under PR, every voter’s vote counts whether they are with a majority or minority of voters in their multi-seat districts.

Further, the adoption of PR would address more than the bug of gerrymandering; it would also minimize voter inequality that is a feature of our current First Past the Post (FPTP). This year in California, Republican voters earned just 13% of House seats with 35% of the statewide vote, not because of gerrymandering, but because of the way our system amplifies the voting strength of the largest party. Adoption of proportional representation should be a bipartisan reform if ever there was one.

The move to proportional representation would also help to integrate the currently bifurcated case law on partisan v. racial gerrymandering. As Rick Hasen has articulated, courts are currently forced to determine whether racial or partisan factors predominate a Voting Rights Act violation, though the two are increasingly blurred empirically. The constitutional integration needs to be clarified by Congress, such that an upgraded Voting Rights Act would prohibit any deviation from sound election administration practices that burdens any voters without justification based on nondiscriminatory reasons and rigorous evidence.

“Thou shalt pay the price of pre-clearance for discriminatory effects.”

How does the Voting Rights Act need to be resuscitated after the overturning of the section 4 coverage formula, and the subsequent re-emergence of Jim Crow-style voter suppression? The real damage done by the Shelby v Holder decision was eviscerating preclearance, or the requirement that “covered” states with a history of discrimination were required to get advance approval by the Department of Justice or federal courts before making any election administration changes.

At a minimum, Congress should accompany uniform data standards with an expanded (section 3) trigger that will “bail-in” states to preclearance for findings of discriminatory effect, as discussed recently by Travis Crum. While critics like Hasen are skeptical that the Supreme Court would allow jurisdictions to be bailed into coverage for conduct that is less than unconstitutional, the nature of the coverage could be “congruent and proportional” to the crime; if only registration or redistricting laws were found to be discriminatory, only those parts of election administration would be covered. It would make bailing in jurisdictions easier, and possibly getting settlements easier and faster.

Upgrading the Voting Rights Act to enforce all these reforms ultimately needs more than an enhanced bail-in trigger. As Lisa Manheim has explained, enhanced bail-in capacity is no substitute for the pre-Shelby preclearance regime that fully shifted the burden of protecting voters onto jurisdictions, rather than voters who have already suffered injuries. However, any new coverage formula, which Congress should develop, will of necessity be a product of legislative compromise. Building a new preclearance regime by protecting against discriminatory effects in the Voting Rights Act would be a great start, a major victory for voters, and a strengthening of our democratic republic.

Monumental Disaster at the Department of the Interior

This is a tough time to be a federal scientist—or any civil servant in the federal government. The Trump administration is clamping down on science, denying dangerous climate change and hollowing out the workforces of the agencies charged with protecting American health, safety and natural resources.

At the Department of the Interior (DOI), with its mission to conserve and manage America’s natural and cultural resources, the Trump administration’s political appointees are stumbling over one another to earn accolades for disabling agency operations. I should know; I was one of dozens of senior executives targeted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for reassignment in a staff purge just six months into the new administration.

From that day onward, Zinke and his political staff have consistently sidelined scientists and experts while handing the agency’s keys over to oil, gas and mining interests. The only saving grace is that Zinke and his colleagues are not very good at it, and in many cases the courts are stopping them in their tracks. The effects on science, scientists and the federal workforce, however, will be long-lasting.

A damning report

In a new report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has documented some of the most egregious and anti-science policies and practices at the DOI under Secretary Zinke. The report describes suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of agency staff, and attacks on science-based laws that help protect our nation’s world-class wildlife and habitats.

It is a damning report and required reading for anyone who values public lands, wildlife, cultural heritage, and health and safety.

It would be impossible to cover everything this clumsy political wrecking crew is up to, but the report provides details on the most prominent actions that deserve greater scrutiny, such as: the largest reduction in public lands protection in our nation’s history; a systematic failure to acknowledge or act on climate change; unprecedented constraints on the funding and communication of science; and a blatant disregard for public health and safety.

Why is this administration so scared of science? Why cancel a study into the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining so soon after lifting a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands? Why keep scientists from speaking with the press? Because, while science provides the best evidence we have for making policy decisions that serve the broader public, Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public.

The attacks on science never stop

It is challenging to keep up with the relentless attacks on science coming from Secretary Zinke and his team of political appointees. Since the finalization of UCS’s report, we have seen Secretary Zinke blame “radical environmental groups” as the cause of wildfires, with no mention of climate change, which scientists know is creating the conditions for bigger, hotter, more ferocious fires. Like President Trump, he continues to suggest that poor forest management is the real reason for the deadly fires, regardless of whether they occur in suburbs or shrublands, far from federally managed forests. His ignorance of science is perhaps only surpassed by that of his boss.

It has also recently come to light that DOI has taken steps to roll back protections for individuals impacted the most by the agency’s anti-science actions. In November, it was reported that DOI rescinded two environmental justice policy memos that were put in place over 20 years ago to reverse decades of environmental racism and the marginalization of low-income communities. This is an affront to Native American communities suffering from the ongoing impacts of fossil fuel development.

Zinke’s disdain for science was on display again the day after Thanksgiving, when the Trump administration quietly released two groundbreaking climate reports that featured the work of DOI scientists: the 2018 National Climate Assessment (NCA) and a report on the greenhouse-gas emissions produced from fossil fuel development on federal lands. The NCA describes a stark future for the United States if climate change is left unchecked: destructive sea-level rise, long-lasting droughts, infectious disease outbreaks and crippling economic costs. The federal lands emissions report pointed out that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels produced on federal lands represent nearly 24% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. These are vitally important reports sounding a clarion call that climate action on federal lands is essential to the safety and well-being of the American public.

How did Zinke respond? With the standard anti-science lies being trotted out by Trump and others in the administration. Like his colleagues, Zinke claimed that the NCA was based only on extreme scenarios, when in fact it considered a broad range of emissions scenarios; he also claimed that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at DOI had “concerns” with the NCA when in fact dozens of USGS staff, as well as scientists from other DOI bureaus, were co-authors and contributors to the report. Apparently he didn’t have time to get to the other administration talking point about how climate scientists are just trying to get rich off of their work—a laughable assertion for anyone familiar with the compensation afforded to scientists who volunteer to contribute to such reports. He had nothing at all to say about the federal lands emissions report that was produced entirely within DOI.

A desecration of public service

It is a desecration of the concept of public service for Zinke to ignore science aimed to protect the public’s best interest, and an insult to the taxpayers who pay his salary and those of his political colleagues. Zinke won’t be around forever, but he has filled the ranks of political appointees at DOI with like-minded industry lobbyists and climate deniers, so things are not likely to change at Interior anytime soon unless Congress, with a vocal public behind it, insists on transparency, scientific integrity and immediate climate action.

America’s public lands, and the natural and cultural resources they contain, belong to all of us. It is astounding that a small group of ideologues thinks they can hand these resources, and the agencies that manage them, over to industries eager to carve them up for private profit. To do so with blithe disregard for the impact upon our planet’s operating system is careless and dangerous, and we must demand better.

In addition to the comprehensive new report, UCS is providing resources and support for Americans eager to fight for science in our democracy while supporting federal scientists under siege. A new Congress will soon be asking harder questions and holding DOI leadership accountable for its actions. We can make it much harder for Zinke and his colleagues to run roughshod over the agency at the expense of our health, our safety, our heritage and our shared public lands.

This post originally appeared on Scientific American

Will Koch Pull the Plug on Electric Cars?

Photo courtesy of General Motors

When multibillionaire industrialist Charles Koch perceives a potential threat to his fossil fuel empire, he doesn’t mess around.

To undercut the burgeoning wind industry, Koch’s network of advocacy groups, think tanks and Capitol Hill friends fought to terminate the federal production tax credit, and Congress ultimately agreed in 2015 to phase it out over the following four years.

To slow the exponential growth of solar power, his network has been lobbying state legislatures to curtail the practice of net metering, which gives solar panel owners credit for the excess energy they generate and send back to the grid.

Now Koch wants to kill a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500 for electric vehicle (EV) buyers for the first 200,000 EVs each automaker sells. Although EVs make up less than 2 percent of total vehicle sales nationally, 123,000 of them were snapped up in the first six months of this year, more than twice the amount sold in all of 2015, and more carmakers are expected to introduce new EV models over the next few months. Alarm bells are going off at Koch Industries headquarters.

Last year, the initial draft of the House Republican tax reform bill included a provision ending the EV tax credit, but it survived in the final, end-of-the-year tax package President Trump signed in December. This year’s tax-break-extenders bill finds the Koch network back at work to block the EV tax credit, and it got a boost this week from White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who said the Trump administration wants to end EV subsidies.

A fight looms

The rationale behind the tax credit, which Congress passed in 2009, is to create a stable market for EVs much in the same way government policies helped the gasoline-hybrid market grow. Congress has a long history of providing tax breaks to help emerging and established industries alike, and EVs are a natural candidate because auto industry entry barriers are steep, and electrifying the US transportation sector is one of the most important steps the country can take to address global warming.

The battle over the EV tax credit’s future is expected to play out before Congress adjourns for the holidays. Leading the fight in favor of the tax credit is Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who introduced a bill in mid-September that would remove the 200,000-unit cap—which Tesla has already hit—and  extend the credit until 2028. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced the same bill in the House.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) introduced a pair of bills in mid-October that would eliminate the 200,000 sales cap but begin to phase out the credit in 2022. That would still help out Tesla, which built an electric car battery factory in Nevada, and Nissan, which manufactures its Leaf EV in Tennessee.

On the other side: Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas), other strategically placed Republicans, and at least 20 advocacy groups—all making the same specious arguments, and all beneficiaries of Koch largesse.

In early October, Barrasso introduced a bill in the Senate that would not only eliminate the EV tax credit, but also slap EV owners with a user fee that would go to the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by the federal gasoline tax. Koch Industries has been one of the senator’s top 10 supporters since 2013, donating $45,400 to his campaign and leadership political action committees.

Before the EV tax credit gets to a floor vote as a part of a tax-extender package, it has to go through the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, and Charles Koch has cultivated a critical mass of friends on both. Since 2013, Koch Industries has given $253,600 to 11 of the 14 Republicans on the Senate committee and $374,000 to 21 of the 24 Republicans on the House committee, including Chairman Brady. (The company gave nothing to the 13 Democrats on the Senate committee and only $1,030 combined to two of the 16 Democrats on the House committee.)

Koch-funded groups—and Koch Industries—enter the fray

Three weeks before Barrasso introduced his bill, 30 seemingly independent, self-described free-market organizations signed a letter to Brady urging Congress to either retain the cap on the first 200,000 EVs sold—which would penalize US automakers Tesla and General Motors for selling more EVs than their Asian and European counterparts—or just “eliminate the tax credit entirely, as the House proposed in last year’s tax bill.”

But it turns out that they are not true free-market groups at all. Yes, they argue that the government shouldn’t subsidize any energy technologies, but they confine their objections to tax breaks for clean energy alternatives, claiming all the while that the oil and gas industry receives no subsidies. In fact, since 1918, permanent oil and gas tax breaks and other subsidies have averaged $4.86 billion per year in 2010 dollars, according to a 2011 study by investment firm DBL Partners. Taking inflation into account, that amounts to an average of $5.62 billion today.

Why would free-marketeers make such an exception?

Perhaps because they get significant funding from fossil fuel interests, most notably Charles Koch, whose privately held Koch industries owns three oil refineries, thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines, and bulk coal delivery services. These think tanks and advocacy groups essentially function as public relations arms of their benefactors, representing their interests under the guise of being neutral, albeit conservative, policy shops.

Consider the group that organized the anti-EV tax credit letter: the American Energy Alliance. AEA is the political lobbying arm of the Institute for Energy Research, and the president of both groups is Thomas J. Pyle, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. Between 2012 and 2016, Koch foundations gave $8.9 million to the groups—which together employ only a dozen people—and in previous years, ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute were among their patrons.

Like AEA, 15 of the other 29 organizations that signed Pyle’s letter, including Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heritage Action—the Heritage Foundation’s political lobbying arm—are Koch grantees, collectively receiving $142.6 million over the same five-year time period. And two other groups on the letter—the National Black Chamber of Commerce and Taxpayers Protection Alliance—got AEA grants in 2015. Including those two, at least 18 of the 30 signatories are known cogs in the Koch network.

Koch Industries itself weighed in on October 24, when company lobbyist Philip Ellender sent a letter to members of Congress opposing the Heller and Black bills that would extend EV tax credits for four more years and eliminate the 200,000-unit cap. “Congress should not be in the business of picking winners and losers by subsidizing one form of energy over others,” Ellender wrote, “regardless of its source.” Left unsaid, of course, is the bogus Koch World claim that oil and gas industry tax breaks are not subsidies.

Koch-funded think tanks provide deceptive arguments

If direct funding of politicians and advocacy groups weren’t enough, Koch foundations also underwrite the libertarian think tanks that produced the studies cited by Barrasso, Pyle and Ellender to make their case: the Pacific Research Institute, which received $200,000 from Koch funds between 2012 and 2016, and the Manhattan Institute, which received $954,500 in Koch grants and another $535,000 from ExxonMobil over that same five-year period. The two studies’ spurious arguments are that the EV tax credit largely benefits wealthier Americans and reduces US tax revenue, and that the internal combustion engine-powered cars are as clean as EVs.

The Pacific Research Institute study found that nearly 80 percent of EV tax credits in 2014 went to households with an adjusted gross income of at least $100,000 and more than half went to households with adjusted income levels of at least $200,000. What the study failed to mention, however, is the fact that upper-income Americans are generally the only ones who can afford to buy any kind of new vehicle, whether electric, hybrid or gasoline-powered. As a 2018 study by the National Center for Sustainable Transportation pointed out, the average income of households buying new cars in 2012 was $119,400; accounting for inflation, that would equal an average annual income of $131,000 today.

The Pacific Research Institute study also ignores the fact that some EVs are a relative bargain, and the federal tax credit makes them even more so. The average price of a new vehicle across the country in January of this year was $36,270. The tax credit reduces the cost of a 2018 Nissan Leaf to $22,490 and a 2018 Chevy Bolt to less than $30,000, making these two EVs more affordable options for middle-income households.

The Manhattan Institute study, meanwhile, argues that the EV tax credit is cheating the US Treasury out of tax revenue. Last year, the EV tax credit amounted to $670 million. Compare that to the cost in lost tax revenue of the oil and gas industry’s permanent tax breaks in 2014, which totaled $4.7 billion.

Unlike many of the other Koch-funded groups, the Manhattan Institute grudgingly concedes that the oil and gas industry indeed gets tax breaks, but insists that those subsidies provide consumers a “tangible benefit” by reducing the retail cost of oil and gas. In other words, it’s fine for the government to pick winners and losers as long as it picks your preferred subsidy recipient.

EVs significantly cleaner than gas engines

The Manhattan Institute study also makes the ludicrous claim that new internal combustion engines emit next to no pollutants while EVs, which are powered by the electricity grid, likely produce more pollution and will not significantly reduce carbon emissions.

Wrong.

Experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a truly independent energy think tank, posted a thorough take-down of the Manhattan Institute report last July. In a nutshell, they found that it used “flawed methodology and flawed assumptions” when comparing monetary damages  associated with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from EVs and internal combustion vehicles and completely ignored the damages associated with carbon dioxide emissions. “A methodology that accurately accounts for all emissions,” they concluded, “results in a dramatically different result.”

“Nonpartisan institutions, including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Electric Power Research Institute, have published accurate and reliable studies of these questions that found the opposite of what [the Manhattan Institute report] concludes,” they added, “as have others cited by the Energy and Policy Institute.”

In fact, according to UCS Senior Engineer Dave Reichmuth, 75 percent of Americans live in areas where an EV is cleaner than a gasoline-powered car that gets 50 miles per gallon, and the carbon emissions from an average EV sold in the United States this year are equivalent to that of gas-powered car that gets 80 MPG. “And the good news,” he says, “is EVs will only get cleaner as the US electricity grid adds more renewable energy.”

Will the EV tax credit survive?

The Koch network is working overtime to pull the plug on the emerging electric car market, but the momentum is not in its favor.

Demand for EVs is growing. An AAA survey published this spring found that 50 million Americans will likely buy an EV for their next car, 5 percent more than in 2017.

The supply of EVs is growing as well. The number of available EV models jumped from only two in 2010 to more than 40 today.

Sticker price, as with any vehicle purchase, remains a sticking point. Falling manufacturing costs, aided by the EV tax credit, are already starting to help. The cost of an EV battery, for example, plummeted 80 percent between 2010 and 2017 and will become even cheaper as more automakers ramp up electric vehicle production. And EVs have built-in cost advantages over internal combustion cars: They are much cheaper to maintain—and they save owners a ton on gas. Keeping the EV tax credit in place for another decade and removing the 200,000-unit cap would certainly help ensure that EVs can become cost-competitive with gas vehicles.

Finally, Tesla, Nissan and General Motors—which manufacture EVs in California and Nevada, Tennessee, and Michigan, respectively—as well as Ford and Fiat-Chrysler will be pressed to compete with automakers in Asia and Europe that are getting significant support from their governments to go electric. Encouraging EV sales here at home may threaten Charles Koch’s fossil fuel empire, but retaining the EV tax credit will not only help combat climate change, it will fortify the US auto industry, which—even with the recent layoffs at General Motors—still employs more than 2 million people.

Want to stay up-to-date on EVs? Text “EV” to 662266 to receive special updates and opportunities to get involved on all things EV.

Danya AbdelHameid provided research assistance for this article. Koch grant data came from the following Koch-controlled foundations’ 990 tax forms (which can be found at ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer and the Foundation Center’s 990 Finder): American Encore, Charles Koch Foundation, Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Campaign contribution data came from the Center for Responsive Politics website, opensecrets.org.

Understanding Local Impacts to Inform Wildlife Conservation

Photo: mopictures/Flickr

It’s 16:30 in rural Myanmar and my field crew, who had spent the day surveying for elephant dung, are racing our caravan of motorbikes back to the field camp before dusk descends. As the day fades tempering the oppressive heat, elephants emerge from the shade of the forest to begin foraging, sometimes in the sugarcane and rice paddies that are increasingly spreading across the country. Running into one of these giants as they too use the network of dirt roads to travel through the landscape can be fatal, necessitating a strict policy of returning to camp before dark for the safety of the team. While my field season lasts a short three months, this is one of many concessions residents are forced to make or risk their lives encountering an elephant as night falls.

A large chunk of elephant skin

It is unsurprising that most of the remaining endangered charismatic mega fauna are in some of the poorest areas on earth. It is in these areas where wildlands still exist, and the lack of economic development has prevented the boom of industry and infrastructure that could spell the end for remaining mega herbivores and carnivores. It is also in these areas where the people tasked with the burden of living with the species disproportionately bear the brunt of human-wildlife conflict. Though local community members indicate they value elephants for religious and cultural reasons, as well as the important role they play in the ecosystem, increasing human-elephant conflict may lead to a greater acceptance of elephant poaching as a way to prevent crop-raiding and reduce human injury and death from run-ins with their giant neighbors.

I began using satellite-GPS collars to monitor elephant movements 2015 with the hope of using this data to inform conservation policy and develop ways to mitigate human-elephant conflict. Instead, these collars turned into beacons that allowed us to locate the carcasses of the elephants after they had been killed by poachers. Further groundwork revealed an astounding rate of elephant poaching occurring throughout Myanmar. And what’s more, poachers aren’t just killing elephants for their ivory- elephant skin, genitals, and other parts are increasingly being sought after for export into neighboring countries such as China.

To Chinese markets

Grey, dry, and wrinkled. Cut into palm-sized pieces, hard as a rock, yet lighter than expected. You would be forgiven to mistake it for any of the countless kinds of roots and herbs also laying on the table – if it weren’t for the thick black hairs sprouting out. This is what elephant skin looks like in a Chinese market. A few inconspicuous chunks nestled among dried seahorses, pangolin scales, muntjac antlers, and gibbon skulls. Typically, elephant skin is turned into a powder by mixing with talcum and applied externally to treat muscle soreness, ulcers, and open wounds. Of course, this is all very illegal. Elephant poaching and trafficking are prohibited and China’s recent decision to shut down its ivory trade was a milestone for the conservation community. But old habits are pervasive, and traditions die hard.

Tiger bone

Traditional Chinese medicine has an extremely long history dating back thousands of years and its practitioners number among the millions, many of whom are old, live in the rural countryside and have relied on these sorts of medicines all their life. Never heard of aspirin, but a regular shot of snake wine to improve constitution is common knowledge. Chinese demand for exotic animal ingredients is a primary driver of illegal poaching, not just in China, but in other countries including bordering Myanmar. Exacerbated by the rise of the Chinese middle class, this demand has created a biodiversity crisis in Southeast Asia and is a direct threat to many protected and endangered species around the world. Fortunately, growing domestic environmental concerns and calls to protect natural resources have resulted in greater focus on these issues in recent years with China’s new wildlife protection law taking effect in 2017.

Steeped alcohol with various species of animals

One popular form of traditional Chinese medicine involves steeping plant and animal material in high-proof alcohol for days to years. Steeping is thought to extract the medicinal properties into the liquor and often endangered animal parts are used including bear gall bladders and tiger bone. These ingredients can be degraded or removed prior to sale, which makes monitoring difficult. In collaboration with the Wildlife Forensics Center of the Yunnan Endangered Species Commission and the South China DNA Barcoding Institute at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, I am currently working to

develop a genetic method to identify which animals are being used directly from the liquor itself.

Conservation is local first

Cultural attitudes, long-standing traditions, and the economic realities of life in rural developing nations contribute to the realities of human-wildlife conflict and the illegal wildlife trade. Conservation is inherently a multi-faceted, human issue that involves many kinds of stakeholders. Conservation policy doesn’t work when foreign scientists simply come in and tell the locals what they can and cannot do. In order to reduce conflict and achieve coexistence, scientists need to engage with local communities and include their input in wildlife management strategies. Scientists can gather the data needed to answer specific questions and develop methods to solve specific problems, but we need buy in from local communities to implement effective mitigation and anti-poaching programs. Successful conservation programs require sensitivity to local cultures and working with communities to fully understand the challenges they face when saving a species: whether it’s the danger wildlife pose while they are alive or the value they hold when they are dead. As conservation scientists, we need to be open to addressing the needs of people to ultimately protect the wildlife under our care.

 

Dr. Christie Sampson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Clemson University, working in collaboration with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to address issues of human-wildlife coexistence and poaching. More information about her work in Myanmar can be seen at: arcg.is/0HjnLS. You can follow her on twitter at @WildEcology.

Charles C.Y. Xu is a Ph.D. student in the Redpath Museum & Department of Biology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He is interested in using genetics to discover, study, and protect biodiversity. For more information visit his website or follow him on twitter at @CharlesCongXu or on instagram at @DRYBAR.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

 

Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu

Scientific Integrity and Privacy at Risk in Census

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

When the Framers of the U.S. Constitution determined that political power should be allocated proportionally based on population and race (as opposed to wealth, heredity, or religion), they needed a scientific means of measuring population. That is the primary reason that we have the Decennial Census, so that population traits can be identified geographically. Since then, the Census has become the largest scientific endeavor that the nation undertakes on a regular basis. In recent days, however, testimony in several court cases challenging the current Administration’s attempt to politicize the Census has revealed an alarming threat to its scientific integrity, and by extension, countless political and economic functions that rely on the Census.

As a scientist, I understand that a central component of any behavioral research is the protection of human subjects. We are continually trained, and training young researchers, in the ethics of human subjects protections, and in the case of the Census, we are all human subjects. Institutional review boards and human subjects protocols across the behavioral sciences have been developed to ensure ethical practices among researchers and confidentiality of personal information for participants. The greatest risk of participation in social research is that information about identifiable persons will not be held in confidence by researchers after data is collected, information which could harm the reputation, social status, or even legal standing of participants.

So you can imagine my anger when I saw recent court documents revealing that under Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, scientific expertise at the Census Bureau is being ignored and the quality of Census data, including the confidentiality of information, is under threat unless protected by the courts. This is not how democracies are supposed to work.

In deposition this week for a lawsuit brought by New York and 16 other states, former assistant attorney general John Gore acknowledged that Ross (and not AG Jeff Sessions, as previously claimed by Ross) initiated a request to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, even though the Census Bureau’s lead scientist John Abowd had explained in a memo that adding a citizenship question would cost the agency millions while actually decreasing the accuracy of the decennial count. The Bureau’s own research showed that the addition of the question could depress non-citizen response from 5-12%, probably a conservative estimate, given the current political climate and the administration’s public hostility toward migrants at the border.

More alarmingly, in another case in the U.S. District Court in Northern California, a recently released email from former Justice Department attorney Ben Aguiñaga suggested that the Trump administration discussed the possibility that federal law protecting the confidentiality of responses to the U.S. census may eventually be reconsidered, and that Census information could be shared with other government entities, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

Handing confidential information on residents over to security agencies is a violation of our most basic rights of privacy, and it has happened before: during World War II, confidential information from individuals was used to identify Japanese Americans in Washington D.C., and aggregate data was used for Japanese internment practices. Publicly available data was also used by the Department of Homeland Security to identify Arab American communities in 2004, but the confidentiality of individual data was apparently protected.

Census data is used to identify population traits down to the neighborhood level, as in this migration map.

Aguiñaga, who was serving as Gore’s chief of staff at the time, suggested in an email that sharing individuals’ census information with law enforcement and national security officers may “come up later for renewed debate.” When Gore was asked by ACLU attorney Dan Ho if it was his understanding that “this administration will not reconsider the view that the Patriot Act does not compel disclosure of otherwise confidential census information?” Gore did not answer, having been instructed by another attorney that he avoid disclosing “information subject to deliberative process privilege.”

In response, current CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta cleared up any ambiguity over the law: “There is no debate about whether to keep census information protected — census confidentiality is protected by law.” A vocal consensus in the scientific and legal community echoes Gupta’s conclusion that this administration’s failure to protect the scientific integrity of our data “is cause for great alarm.” In the words of New York plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Colangelo, damaging the integrity of the Census and violating the confidentiality of the American people would “permanently impair core elements of our constitutional democracy.”

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr Source: https://americanmigrations.uic.edu/censustools.htm

Scientists Call Out EPA Over Ozone Pollution Standards

Photo: Dave Herholz/Flickr

On Thursday, November 29, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) will meet (via phone) for the first time since the recent upheaval in its membership. The agenda? To discuss the Integrated Review Plan for updating the ozone standard. And recently ousted scientists have something to say about it.

A science-based process to protect people from ozone pollution

Ozone is one of the last remaining ambient air pollutants we don’t have under full control. Many places in the US have struggled to meet the federal standard designed to protect public health and ozone pollution at current levels affects millions of Americans, particularly those with lung diseases like asthma.  Thankfully, we’ve long had a science-based process to ensure we can set an ozone standard that protects public health. The process has always allowed for robust scientific assessment and public input, and importantly, clear separation between the science and the policy. For more background, I’ve written about this process and the history of the ozone standard here.

A Compromised CASAC and an expedited process

But under the Trump administration, this process has changed. In October, the Trump administration replaced the CASAC’s independent scientists hailing mostly from academic institutions with individuals from local and state agencies. The new seven-member committee now includes only one member primarily from an academic institution, a stark shift from CASAC’s long history of being comprised primarily of academic researchers who publish regularly in the field of air pollution and health effects.  The difference is dramatic.

In the same announcement, the administration announced it would not convene an ozone review panel—the group of experts that have informed ambient air pollution standards for four decades.  The ozone Integrated Review Plan released this November revealed the EPA’s plan to update the standard will now also be streamlined in other ways that compromise the level of scientific and public input. The schedule is greatly expedited compared to past updates to the ozone standard. The agency also indicated it would be streamlining the scientific and policy assessment documents that inform the EPA administrator’s decision on the final standard.

An ozone standard protective of public health?

Together, these changes are likely to mean less science feeding into the process of updating the ozone standard. Given the pervasiveness and serious health impacts of ozone pollution, this is concerning. When EPA last updated the ozone standard in 2015, it set the standard at 70 ppb. This was the upper limit of what the independent scientists on CASAC recommended to the EPA administrator. CASAC recommended a standard of 60-70 ppb but noted that a standard of 70 ppb might not adequately protect vulnerable groups liked children, the elderly and those with lung diseases, as the Clean Air Act requires.

In other words, scientists considered the current ozone standard only minimally protective. As a result, we cannot afford to walk back this standard.  If the Trump administration sets a standard looser than 70 ppb, we can be certain that it won’t have followed the science on ozone and health, it won’t be consistent with the advice of scientific experts, and it certainly won’t protect public health.

Scientists dissent

Scientists aren’t happy about this new process. This week, 19 former members of the ozone review panel, many of them former CASAC as well, penned a letter criticizing the new EPA process.  The scientists write that the changes to the ozone review are “collectively harmful to the quality, credibility, and integrity of the scientific review process and CASAC as an advisory body” and provide 30 recommendations for what the current CASAC should do to ensure the appropriate science-based process is followed.

I too have thoughts. Below is the public comment I will deliver at the CASAC ozone meeting:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I am the research director at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. On behalf of more than half a million citizens and scientists, we advocate for the use of science for a healthy planet and a safer world. The Center for Science and Democracy works to advance the roles of science and public participation in policy decision-making. We have never advocated for an ambient air quality standard different from the CASAC recommendation, only to ensure the proper process is followed and scientific advice is heeded.

With respect to the ozone standard update, I am concerned about this process. The greatly expedited schedule and document merging proposed in the draft Integrated Review Plan are likely to limit the ability of the EPA and its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) to follow a science-informed process that leads to ozone standards protective of public health and welfare. Typically, the process of EPA staff, CASAC, and the ozone review panel compiling, reviewing, and revising the Integrated Science Assessment, Risk and Exposure Assessment, and Policy Analysis requires far more time than this schedule allows.

Additionally, the expedited timeline with fewer drafts and fewer public meetings will mean fewer opportunities for public input. Some 124 million Americans live in areas with ozone pollution levels that exceed the current standard, with serious public health consequences for many, including those with lung diseases such as asthma, children, and the elderly. The public deserves sufficient opportunity to weigh in on a regulation with such far-reaching impacts.

The effects of this expedited timeline document skimming are compounded by the agency’s failure to convene an ozone review panel. In past reviews of the ground-level ozone standard, the panel has provided vital expert input and necessary peer review of the wide-ranging fields represented in the Integrated Science Assessment. Indeed, for more than four decades, such expertise has helped ensure EPA leadership is presented with the best available science on the effects of criteria pollutants on health and the environment. These panels provide the needed range of perspectives on critical science and science policy issues.

It would be challenging for any seven-member CASAC to compensate for this lapse of expert input. Moreover, because the current CASAC lacks experts in key fields, such as epidemiology, it is difficult to imagine that the EPA’s science assessment will receive the robust scientific review that is necessary.

The expedited time frame and merged documents, combined with gaps in expertise on CASAC and the lack of review panel and public input opportunities, are likely to undermine the ability of the EPA to set a science-based standard for ozone, protective of public health with an adequate margin of safety, as required by the Clean Air Act.

I urge you to reconsider the decision not to convene an ozone review panel. As you hear in these comments, many qualified scientists are willing to volunteer their time and expertise for such a task, as they always have since the EPA began setting ambient air quality standards decades ago. An ozone review panel would help ensure that the EPA can make decisions based on solid scientific assessment.

I urge you to follow a careful, robust process to assess the current state of the science on ozone and health, regardless of whether it meets the arbitrarily aggressive timeline laid out in the Integrated Review Plan. And I urge you to ensure there are sufficient opportunities for public input for a pollutant standard that will affect more than a third of the nation’s population. The EPA’s mission, the Clean Air Act and broad public opinion compel you to make a decision that protects the public health.

The current CASAC should use its authority to recommend that the EPA follow a science-based process that protects public health. At Thursday’s meeting we will hear their thoughts.

Photo: Dave Herholz/Flickr

EPA Chemical Office Nominee Alexandra Dunn Must Prioritize Science and Public Health

Photo: US Air Force

Behind the headlines of the Trump administration’s attacks on science is a quiet army of government scientists continuing to do their jobs protecting the nation’s public health, safety, and the environment. This week, we have the opportunity to ensure a new EPA leader can carry out that mission. On Thursday, the Senate is holding a hearing on the nomination of Alexandra Dunn as Assistant Administrator to run the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, the EPA office charged with protecting us from toxic chemicals and pesticides. Here’s what Senators should demand and expect her to prioritize at the EPA:

At the most basic level, Alexandra Dunn should prioritize protecting the public from harmful chemicals. The EPA oversees chemicals used at homes, in workplaces and the environment and helps ensure people can avoid hazardous exposures. This is a matter of life and death for many and a job that she should take seriously. For example, the EPA has so far failed to ban methylene chloride, a chemical in paint thinners that is responsible for more than 50 accidental exposure deaths. This is the kind of issue that EPA should be addressing immediately and Ms. Dunn can make a difference here.

Alexandra Dunn should resist pressures to bend to industry wishes. Ms. Dunn should resist the ever-present pressure from the chemical industry to weaken and delay chemical regulation of all kinds. The chemical industry lobby, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), has a long history of these efforts. For example, the group spent more than $11 million annually lobbying Congress while the Toxic Substances Control Act was under debate. The ACC has questioned the science around chemicals shown to cause harm and pressured the EPA to alter its science and delay public protections. Such pressures are amplified under the Trump Administration where we know officials are willing to lend an ear to industry voices.

Alexandra Dunn should stand up to colleagues who wish to compromise the science. Specifically, Ms. Dunn should stand up for science against her potential colleague  Dr. Nancy Beck, the deputy assistant administrator in the chemical safety office, who came directly from working as the ACC’s director of regulatory science policy. For more than a decade, Dr. Beck has been fighting to question the rigorous EPA science that backs its chemical policies and delay implementation of life saving protections. When she worked in the White House under President George W. Bush, she helped the Department of Defense slow down EPA efforts to protect drinking water from perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel. At the EPA now, Dr Beck has worked internally to narrowly interpret chemical policies in ways that minimize public protections, which brings me to my final point…

Alexandra Dunn should implement the Frank R Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act consistent with what Congress intended and prioritizing public protection. Enacted in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) charges EPA with overseeing some 84,000 chemicals in consumer products. The law was overhauled in 2016 in response to its overwhelming ineffectiveness. (It successfully regulated just nine chemicals—far under 1%!) The reasons for this ineffectiveness were many and the bipartisan 2016 update was designed to address some of these problems. Ms. Dunn should work to ensure EPA is implementing the law as intended—to protect people from toxic chemicals and do so at a faster pace than the previous law enabled.

Unfortunately, Dr. Beck and colleagues have already wreaked havoc at EPA in TSCA implementation. Several interpretations of the revamped law serve to weaken its effectiveness. In one example, EPA guidelines look to exclude certain scientific studies from agency scientific assessments. Studies where all methods and data aren’t public along with the (mostly academic) studies that don’t employ a standard known as Good Laboratory Practices common in industry studies would be excluded from EPA assessments. Such needless exclusions on what scientific studies can be considered by the EPA are likely to restrict the agency’s use of the best available science and to result in favoring of industry studies over those by independent scientists.

In another example, the EPA is now employing a narrow interpretation of the law, considering only exposures involving a product’s intended use. This means the EPA wouldn’t worry, for example, about exposures to harmful chemicals through the air or water resulting from the disposal of a product. Such an interpretation doesn’t make a lot of sense when we look at the reality of how people are exposed to harmful chemicals. I have two kids under three. I can assure you they will put it in their mouth if they find it. Anything. This kind of exposure—children being exposed to chemicals by putting products in their mouth—wouldn’t be the intended use of many products, but it is reality. It is easy to see how excluding exposures outside of a product’s intended use overlooks many harmful exposures that the EPA should be thinking about how to prevent. Ms Dunn should work to change this and ensure that TSCA is as strong as its sponsors intended.

Additionally, here’s a list of other priorities that Ms Dunn should take on if she is confirmed:

The EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention has an important job. I hope Alexandra Dunn is up to the task.

Photo: US Air Force

Hope and a 250-mile Bike Ride Through Colorado with a Mother-Daughter Duo

Melissa and Natalie Valentin are a mother-daughter duo devoted to sports and biking for the planet. But, with wildfires raging across the West and a president actively reversing our country’s progress on climate change, they have been finding it very hard to be hopeful about the future of the planet lately. Rather than give in to climate despair, they joined Climate Ride Colorado in order to meet other inspiring riders and to become a part of the Climate Ride community. They were looking to reinvigorate their optimism and activism by raising money for charities working on climate (one antidote to a lack of spending on our government’s part) and surrounding themselves by similarly committed activists. The week of mother-daughter time was supposed to be icing on that cake.

Activism runs in the family for the Valentins.

Both mother and daughter have made climate change a focus in their lives. Natalie has attended a number of community-organized conferences on the intersections between gentrification and environmental issues, and how we can make sure cities include ALL neighborhoods in sustainability initiatives. She has also worked in a variety of environmental fields – energy efficiency, environmental stewardship, environmental education, and sustainable food systems. Natalie studied Environmental Policy, and channeled her drive into organizing city-wide beach cleans in Chile, leading groups of volunteers on trail building projects in the San Juans, and selling energy efficiency solutions to building owners. Then she heard a few colleagues rave about their experiences with Climate Ride, so she decided to give it a go and convinced her mom to join her!

Melissa has made science her career and like many scientists in the US, she has been scrambling to replace climate change research funding that has been stalled or eliminated. She researches the effects of climate change on watersheds in cold regions and consults with businesses to help them understand how their operations are impacted by weather and climate change. This lack of funding interrupts critical ongoing research and careers. The administration’s budget plan for 2019 includes cuts to funding for environmental projects and research that is 70% below the average spending of the previous administration according to the New York Times. While some hope that Congress will mitigate these cuts as they did for 2018, overall, spending for environmental research and especially climate change is decreasing rapidly despite the growing impact of climate change.

Melissa is acutely aware of how climate change is having a dramatic impact on Western US forests and watersheds.

Because of her scientific background and career, she has been tracking the effects of climate change. According to Melissa, starting around 2002, warmer winters enabled bark beetles in the Rocky Mountains to overwinter, and longer summers enabled them to double their reproduction rate. This, combined with forest stress caused by a multi-year drought, led to an unprecedented bark beetle outbreak that decimated Rocky Mountain forests. The West is experiencing larger and more frequent wildfires, associated with drier and hotter summers. As of four days before the start of Climate Ride Colorado, much of the route was under an air quality advisory due to wildfires. Fortunately, due to a weather change, much of the smoke cleared out, but smoke-free summers and falls have become less common across the West.

Additionally, the timing of streamflow that originates in the snow-dominated headwaters of Colorado is changing, with more winter rain and earlier snowmelt. Ski resorts in Colorado are diversifying to include warm-season recreational activities due to the shorter ski season. The effect of climate change in Alaska (the focus of Melissa’s research) is even more profound because temperature rise there is four times greater than the global average, causing a dramatic loss of glacier ice and permafrost. Meltwater from Alaska’s glaciers are important contributors to sea level rise, and salmon may be impacted as glacial meltwater changes the timing and quantity of streamflow. As permafrost thaws, infrastructure becomes unstable, soil dries out, hydrologic pathways change, and previously stored carbon is released to the atmosphere. That’s why Melissa decided to get back on her bike after a long break and raise money to combat climate change. She rode to support the Union of Concerned Scientists because, as she put it “they stand up for integrity in science, policy, and democracy.”

Natalie has put a lot of energy into working against the outsized impact of climate change on our most vulnerable communities. She knows resiliency planning is critical to ensure that everyone in our communities, not just those with the most money or political sway, will have access to healthy food, water, and pollution-free neighborhoods. According to the UN, “Families living in poverty systematically occupy the least desirable land to damage from climate hazards, such as mudslides, periods of abnormally hot water, water contamination and flooding. Climate change has the potential to worsen their situation and thereby worsen pre-existent inequalities. ” That’s why Natalie chose to ride on behalf of Denver Food Rescue. DFR’s bike-powered volunteers rescue fresh produce from grocery stores and community gardens and deliver it to No Cost Grocery Programs in 20 underserved neighborhoods. They pull this off with only 3 full-time staff thanks to their resourcefulness and an army of dedicated volunteers. Their Board of Directors is comprised of residents of their partner communities, which ensures that food justice and health equity stay central to their mission, alongside the environmental impact of reducing food waste.

Without change, these cycles of dryer summers, more fire, and invasive species will continue to become more severe. That reality alongside a diminished effort on the part of our government institutions is enough to drive most of us towards despair. But motivation and hope weren’t the only obstacles that Melissa and Natalie faced in taking on this 250-mile ride with 20,000 feet of vertical gain up and down the rocky mountains.

These intrepid bikers also overcame physical and mental blocks to get ready for Climate Ride Colorado.

In May, Natalie tore a tendon in her wrist while rock climbing. Her doctors said the injury would take 4-5 months to heal completely and prevented her from riding for a number of weeks. For a while, she was constrained to stationary bikes where she could rest on her forearms instead of gripping the handlebars while training. With the help of a burly wrist brace and an awesome occupational therapist, she got back on her bike at the end of June, giving her just about a month of on-the-road training for the ride. She’s developed a goofy tan line from her brace, but she feels it’s worth it.

Melissa also saw the ride as a way to overcome a fear of biking that followed a serious bike crash in 2013. Before she started training for Climate Ride Colorado, just the thought of biking downhill made her re-experience the crash and brought her to tears. But her drive to raise awareness and money for climate research pushed her past her fear. She knows how crucial that work is, and felt it was more important than her fear of biking. After easing back into riding, she is happy to report that she is totally at ease on her bike again.

Building a community around the fight for our climate keeps us rolling even when the climb looks too steep.

Both mother and daughter told us that community was something they hoped to find on Climate Ride before they left. They were hoping to meet “other people who are willing to work hard and volunteer their time to raise money for environmental research.” Being connected to a wider community advocating for climate research and support of environmental non-profits helps lift the tide of hope when things are looking bleak. Everyone here at Climate Ride knows the power in this community every time we go out on one of our events, but we’re always hopeful that riders have the same experience.

Originally posted on Climate Ride, September 14, 2018. 

Melissa McShea Valentin currently works at 2100 and researches how climate change may impact natural resources and organizations.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The 2018 House Elections May be Historic Enough to End the Redistricting Wars

Photo: North Charleston/Flickr

This post originally appeared on LSE US Centre.

This year’s midterm elections saw reforms to the way US House districts are drawn in four states. Alongside these successful measures, write Alex Keena, Michael Latner, Anthony J. McGann and Charles Anthony Smith, Democratic takeovers of gubernatorial mansions and successful voting rights reforms such as Florida’s felon re-enfranchisement are likely to signal the beginning of an era of significant electoral reforms in the US.

The US midterm elections were historic in part because of the success of reforms to state redistricting processes. Citizens in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah passed initiatives that take control of redistricting US House districts out of the hands of state legislatures. Reformers went undefeated, and this is a major achievement on its own. However, the 2018 elections are likely to be far more consequential for the future of redistricting, fair representation, and political equality in America than an increase in the number of non-partisan redistricting commissions. We may be entering an era of major electoral reforms in the United States, unseen since the Civil Rights Movement.

First, even though the Democratic Party gained majority control of the House with what looks to be about 54 percent of the popular vote, gerrymandering still constrained their seat share. Democrats look to control between 231-237 seats when the vote counts are complete. Compare the Democrats’ gains in 2018 with 2014 (the last midterm election), when Republican candidates managed to win 247 seats with only about 53 percent of the two-party vote. Gerrymanders in states like Ohio and North Carolina held strong, while a big Democratic vote swing in Texas yielded only two flipped seats. Perhaps only in Michigan did we see a gerrymander fail, as Democrats picked up two seats, moving the state from a 9/5 Republican advantage to a 7/7 split. There are still a lot of state partisan majorities that benefit from gerrymandering in the US House.

Figure 1 – Democratic votes vs US House seats percentages in 2018 midterm elections

Let’s take a closer look at what the election results mean for the immediate future of redistricting. In addition to the four states that will now require a less partisan process for redistricting, several states are still in litigation as a result of the Supreme Court’s reluctance to evaluate the merits of last year’s big gerrymandering cases. These cases, when and if decided, will shape future redistricting nationwide. Until then, we can see how the election results impacted the partisan composition of existing gerrymandered House delegations and the future potential for gerrymandering in those states.

Table 1 displays features for the states we identified in Gerrymandering in America as having significant partisan Congressional gerrymanders after 2012, as well as Colorado and Utah. The first numeric column shows 2012 partisan bias, as well as this year’s vote-seat bias, or the difference between the percentage of votes and percentage of seats for the majority party. These results provide a rough gauge of the advantage the majority party has gained. Finally, the last column lists relevant changes in redistricting status for these states that gerrymandered Congressional delegations in 2012.

Table 1 – Redistricting bias and 2018 midterm results by state

Source: Gerrymandering in America
Positive bias scores favor Democrats, negative bias scores favor Republicans
*Neither Colorado or Utah had statistically significantly biased Congressional plans in 2012, but Utah’s state House is heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans. Partisan bias is even more pervasive in state legislatures.
**Vote counts and seat allocation are not complete in these states as of November 15th
***Litigation over gerrymandered state house (still under R control though D’s swept statewide offices, including Governor)

Even if the US Supreme Court again declines to set standards to prohibit partisan gerrymandering, Wisconsin, as well as Virginia will now have divided party control of government, where Democratic gubernatorial vetoes can restrain legislative gerrymandering. As a result, this combination of institutional reforms (redistricting reform) and current political features (the pre-election redistricting ordered by the state Supreme Court in Pennsylvania and divided government in Virginia and Wisconsin) means that 2022 is not likely to result in the sort of extreme partisan gerrymandering that we witnessed in 2012.

At the same time, the North Carolina legislature has prohibited their (now Democratic) governor from vetoing districting maps, and citizens there just passed another version of a voter ID law that was struck down by the courts in 2016. The Tar Heel State will therefore remain a centerpiece in the battle for fair representation. Additionally, we look to Florida (which has some constitutional restraint on gerrymandering), Georgia and Texas as future focal points in the redistricting wars. Each of these states currently has unified (Republican) party control, competitive national elections, and will be adding House seats to their delegation after the Census. These are the very conditions that we found produced extreme gerrymanders in 2012.

Yet the very success of these statewide redistricting reforms increases the probability that other states will follow, as part of a broader reform movement. The historic success for reformers in 2018 went far beyond redistricting. Florida has enfranchised ex-felons with 64 percent support, and large, bipartisan majorities passed campaign finance reform in Baltimore, Denver, New York City, and Portland Oregon. Fargo, North Dakota adopted a preferential “approval voting” method to elect their city council, while reformers defended ranked choice voting in Memphis, Tennessee. The grass roots campaigns that led to these victories were rewarded for their outreach to voters of both parties, and for bringing new voters into the political process.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of the 2018 elections is the potential for the new governing majority in the House to harness this groundswell of reform and support legislation to guarantee fairer representation for all Americans. Voting rights will be a important political issue going into 2020. Two bills, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Representation Act, which would allow for multi-member, proportional elections for Congress, await scheduling in the new Congress.

While it would seem historically odd for a governing majority to want to change election laws, this is the rare case where the majority party is more often the target of vote dilution and vote suppression. The country’s largest newspaper and some of our best-known public intellectuals now support structural reform. And given the evidence that even these substantial electoral reforms are likely to leave the two-party system not only intact, but possibly less polarized, we believe that there is a broad coalition of Americans who would support putting an end to the redistricting wars. Now that would be historic.

 

About the authors

Alex Keena – Virginia Commonwealth University

Alex Keena is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, where his research focuses on political representation, Congress and elections.

Anthony J.McGann – University of Strathclyde

Anthony McGann is a Professor at the School of Government and Public Policy in at the University of Strathclyde.  He is also affiliated with the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences and the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine.

Charles Anthony Smith – University of California, Irvine

Charles Anthony Smith is Professor and Associate Dean at the University of California-Irvine, where his research is grounded in the American judiciary.

 

Photo: North Charleston/Flickr Photo: North Charleston/Flickr

As Congress Revives its Oversight Responsibilities, Science Should Be on the Agenda

The midterms brought checks and balances to Washington, complete with new opportunities for accountability and oversight, and some members of Congress have already signaled that science will be on the agenda. Today, a diverse set of environmental, public health, and good government organizations released a report outlining what Congress can do to address recent actions that sideline science from policymaking. Contributing and endorsing organizations are listed below.

Truth and science cartoon

Accountability for political interference in science can come through congressional oversight. It’s now up to Congress to choose what topics are most ripe.

We know that oversight works. Political appointees during the George W. Bush presidency rewrote scientific reports, compromised science advisory committees, and threatened scientists across a wide variety of issues. As a result of oversight, appointees resigned and scientific analysis was made right. To support this process, it was tremendously useful for civil society to come together to identify patterns and build public awareness about the public harm caused by attacks on science.

The report “describes new and ongoing threats to the communication of science and its use in public health and environmental decisions,” and recommends steps Congress can take in response, from exposing abuses of scientific integrity to holding appointees accountable to passing good government laws. Issues addressed include:

  • Politicization of science within agencies
  • Threats to scientific advisory committees and science advice
  • Unqualified and conflicted government leaders
  • Constraints on the communication of science
  • Whistleblowing and scientific integrity
  • Low-information approaches to enforcement of existing public health and environmental laws

I’m thrilled to see so many respected organizations coming together around common themes: scientific advice is essential to public health and wellbeing; attacks on science and scientists decrease faith in the institutions that are designed to keep us safe; and the sidelining of scientists and science advice deserves to be scrutinized and reversed.

It’s so impressive that all of these organizations with desperate interests have come together because they recognize the harm Trump administration actions have had on topics as diverse as workplace injuries, reproductive health, the Census, chemical contamination, tipped workers, endangered species, climate change, and air pollution.

The report recognizes that political interference in science is a constant temptation for policymakers—and that recently, that interference has become more sustained and pervasive. This highlights the need for better systems and protections that strengthen the role of science in policymaking.

The recommendations are intentionally broad so that any public interest organization can use them as a guide when they talk with congressional offices about more specific oversight recommendations that are relevant to their areas of expertise. I hope others who see value in the role of science in policymaking will use this report to inform their work to protect public health and the environment.

Jurisdiction over the federal scientific enterprise falls to several House committees, including The House Energy and Commerce Committee, House Natural Resources Committee, and the Committee on Space, Science, and Technology. The ball is now in their court to conduct fair oversight of the federal scientific enterprise and slow down the most egregious attempts to make evidence-free public health and environmental policy.

A Stealth Move to Undermine Science at the US Department of Agriculture

NIFA research teamA team of scientists gathers data for a NIFA research project. Photo: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

In its latest scheme to undermine science, the Trump administration is brazenly trying to—pun intended—farm out to the hinterlands the most important research arms of the Department of Agriculture.

When Secretary Sonny Perdue recently boasted that 136 entities in 35 states are vying for the relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), his press release claimed that the move would place scientists closer to many “stakeholders” who live and work far from Washington, DC, would give “significant savings on employment costs,” and would “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture.”

It sounds benign enough, but the rhetoric of moving these divisions closer to farming “stakeholders” purposely masks the likely damage to the far bigger world of stakeholders—the American people. The truth is, the move by Perdue and the Trump administration will further disconnect the perspective and expertise of USDA scientists from direct contact with policymaking on Capitol Hill.

Key data and research agencies

The 57-year-old ERS is no household acronym, but it is the principal agency that scours data on the impact of agricultural practices on the environment. It studies nutrition, food safety and food access for the poor, employment in rural economies, and the pros and cons of international agricultural trade proposals and regulations.

NIFA, created in the 2008 Farm Bill, funds research and programs that guide policymakers on improving nutrition and food safety, promoting sustainable agriculture, and keeping American agriculture competitive at a global level.

The data collected and questions explored by these agencies cross-pollinate in Washington, DC with research from the 12 other federal statistical agencies to help Americans understand economic trends and realities in our nation’s urban, suburban, and rural populations. Here’s the rub: these agencies’ collaborative and impartial search for facts is often at odds with the skewed and sometimes false narratives of lobbyists and politicians, such as in pleas for farm subsidies and stereotypes about how low-income mothers abuse food assistance benefits.

Widespread opposition

The Trump administration wants to break up this science-based collaboration, which runs parallel to its more highly publicized efforts to defang science in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Not only that, but the move by Perdue follows an effort earlier this year to cut the ERS budget in half—a request Congress rightfully dismissed. And this latest attempt to hamstring both ERS and NIFA has similarly drawn the ire of leading scientists around the nation. More than 1,100 of them signed a letter, coordinated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, urging key Senate and House agriculture committee members to block the move of the ERS and NIFA.

“The world class research carried out through NIFA and ERS comprises part of the science-based bedrock of our food and farm system,” that letter explains. “It empowers producers, businesses, and decisionmakers across the country with the accurate, unbiased data they rely on every day.”

In a stunning display of how seriously this professional community takes the proposed move, 56 former senior administration officials and heads of statistical agencies wrote a similar letter to congressional leaders. The signatories include Susan Offutt, who ran ERS from 1996 to 2006, under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations; her successor Katherine Smith Evans; and former leaders from the Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, the Internal Revenue Service, the Energy Information Administration, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics. They say the move “jeopardizes” the independence of federal data gathering by increasing “the potential for interference in the direction, design, analysis and release of studies and reports.”

Fears of political interference

Interference should be inconceivable when public health is at stake, as with food safety. For instance, ERS studies whether salmonella testing programs on poultry are effective. A report last year concluded, based on the evidence, that tougher and more clear federal regulations reduced salmonella contamination.

Top critics of the relocation proposal see it as a form of interference. Smith Evans, who ran ERS from 2007 to 2011, under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, told me that her former agency “will be decimated. It will not be able to hire the best and the brightest and compete for skilled people if it is relocated in an isolated area.”

Those fears are gaining political traction on Capitol Hill as the USDA Inspector General is now reviewing the proposed move at the request of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) and Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland). Equally concerning is the fact that Perdue has also proposed to reorganize ERS out from under the Office of Research, Education and Economics and into the Office of the USDA’s Chief Economist. Since the chief economist reports directly to Perdue, many worry the shift will further compromise the agency’s independence.

Steve Gliessman, an emeritus professor and founding director of agroecology at the University of California Santa Cruz, is one of many scientists concerned about the proposal. From 2004 to 2008, Gliessman used a NIFA grant to improve the technique for growing strawberries organically. His research demonstrated that strawberries could be grown without pesticides by rotating cover crops that did not play host to diseases that bedevil the berries. Such techniques helped increase acreage for organic strawberries from 134 acres two decades ago to 4,000 today.

Gliessman says he fears that moving NIFA to a more rural state gives big producers more opportunity to influence the direction of research while their lobbyists remain in DC to work over the politicians. Between the two, he worries that advocates for more sustainable, diversified and safer food production will be drowned out.

“I see this resulting as a return to a focus on production and profit rather than a deep understanding of the ecological and social impacts of that mode,” he said. “We’ve seen more than enough of the unsustainable nature of the industrial food model. We really should be moving toward an ecological model.”

A wealth of research and data at stake

The fact is, ERS data and NIFA research have shown why the nation should be moving toward an ecological model of agriculture and a more nutritious food system. ERS has shown that conservation compliance programs, which tie more sustainable agricultural practices to eligibility for federal price supports and relief, work to reduce erosion. It has shown that programs that pay farmers a rental fee to take millions of acres a year out of production work to reduce erosion, pollution, restore wildlife and diversify rural economies through recreation.

Analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists built upon ERS research to show that measures to reduce fertilizer pollution in the Corn Belt could save taxpayers, farmers and businesses $850 million a year, instead of costing the nation $157 billion in lost tourism, fishing, health care costs and water treatment. UCS has also found that sophisticated three-crop and four-crop rotations that preserve soil can lead to higher yields than two-crop rotations.

Among its other contributions, ERS developed the definition for US food deserts and a national atlas of low food access areas, giving the federal government and states specific geographic areas to target with programs, data that helped inform Obama-era healthy food initiatives and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program. An ERS report last year found that the percentage of low-income census tracts with large grocery stores or supercenters nearly doubled, mirroring the growth for moderate- and high-income census tracts. Another ERS report showed how the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program helps low-income individuals and families alleviate food insecurity while pointing out a myriad of social and educational challenges to securing the best nutrition.

Those successes are a reminder that you cannot have progress unless you have data as a reference point. “People should understand that it takes decades to assemble the data on issues like this,” Offutt says. “You just don’t go out and instantly collect data on grocery stores or how food is cooked and processed. Home waste is different than waste in restaurants. Food choices change. There’s no single university or institute that can put together the intellectual firepower necessary to get the entire picture as can the federal government.”

As Smith Evans put it, “ERS never says USDA must do this or that. We say: ‘Let’s lay out the facts, and the facts will inform without prescribing. That’s so hard for other institutions to do. It would seem we need that more than ever.”

Offutt added, “My philosophy at ERS and government research in general is that you want to look over the horizon and ask questions two, five, six, 10 years down the road. That’s an important function for a public agency. With this proposed move, I’m really concerned that longer-term view will be lost. If your biggest public agency isn’t doing this work, who will?”

Put another way, if your biggest public agency isn’t doing this long-term work, who is there to protect your food, your health and the environment? If Perdue is allowed to move ERS and NIFA out of the mainstream of federal data gathering, the answer from the USDA will likely be: no one.

Photo: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Forensics, Justice, and the Case for Science-Based Decision Making

Photo: Lonpicman/Wikimedia Commons

Forensic science—and the language forensic scientists use to talk about their findings–has real-world impacts, sometimes life-or-death impacts, for real people. If the criminal justice system is going to really serve the cause of justice, it needs to be informed by the best available science. Unfortunately, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is ignoring scientific best practices, reversing progress toward improving forensic science in the U.S.

At the end of July 2018, the DOJ announced the release of eight new Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting documents (ULTRs) at the annual meeting of the International Association for Identification. An ULTR is a document meant to ensure that all forensic practitioners from the same discipline in DOJ forensic science laboratories use the same language in reporting the results of their analyses to police, lawyers, judges, and juries. While an ULTR is only binding on DOJ laboratories, state and local laboratories often follow DOJ’s lead.

The Deputy Attorney General said at the meeting that these documents “meet the highest scientific and ethical standards.” But do they?
All nine of the ULTRs use what is sometimes described as a “categorical” reporting framework. This framework sorts all reports into a small number of categories. For example, the categorical framework for firearms evidence is:

  1. Source identification (i.e., identified)
  2. Source exclusion (i.e., excluded)
  3. Inconclusive

Categorical reporting has long been widely criticized because the artificial boundaries between the categories render the system prone to perverse cliff effects. A better way would be what might be called “continuous” reporting, in which the weight of the evidence is reported as it is, rather than by reference to its place in a relatively crude three-category framework.

Another criticism of categorical reporting is that it implies certainty, as for example in the firearm example above in which the analyst would tell the jury “that two toolmarks originated from the same source.” Science doesn’t deal in certainties, and these ULTRs violate basic probabilistic reasoning. They are neither logical, nor scientific. That very point was made in the public comments on the draft ULTRs by several commentators and in a recent report on latent print analysis by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AASS).

A discouraging omen

In April 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions shut down the National Commission on Forensic Science, a roughly 30-member advisory panel of scientists, forensic and non-forensic, and legal and law enforcement professionals. The Commission had been launched in 2013 after a 2009 report by the National Research Council, the official science advisor to the US Congress, found “serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system” and called “for major reforms.” With the closing of the Commission, the DOJ turned its forensic reform effort over to the Forensic Science Working Group, the current publisher of the ULTRs.

Given that the ULTRs are the first official documents produced by the Forensic Science Working Group as part of its “plans to advance forensic science,” these documents are a discouraging sign for a future in which forensic reform is driven by the DOJ. Since the ULTRs were supposed to “serve as a model for demonstrating” the DOJ’s “commitment to strengthening forensic science, now and in the future,” their flaws don’t portend well.

Not making sense

After stating that the forensic experts should report that they know the source of a forensic trace, the ULTRs go on to make a number of statements that sound more uncertain. It might seem like the ULTRs are trying to tone down their claims of certainty, but the result is that the ULTRs try to support reports of certainty with statements of uncertainty. That doesn’t make any sense.

It also seems like the ULTRs are suggesting that small probabilities can be rounded down to zero for the “consumer” of the evidence. But it is unclear why that would be a scientific, or a just, thing to do.

It is helpful that the ULTRs contain lists of statements that should not be said, such as “zero error rate” and “100% certain.” These statements were made for years, including by DOJ forensic analysts, and they have now been largely discredited. However, a lot of the “banned” statements are what I call “false concessions.” It appears that the DOJ is conceding something important, but in fact they are conceding little or nothing because analysts are still permitted to make statements that are logically equivalent to the banned statements.

Scientists, not just forensic scientists, can weigh in to protect the role of evidence

In recent years, some progress has been made toward recognizing the inherently probabilistic nature of all scientific evidence and seeking ways of communicating those probabilities to lay audiences. The ULTRs signal that the DOJ is not yet ready to join that effort. This is unfortunate, given the DOJ’s power and influence.

Scientists don’t need to know anything about forensic science to understand that categorical statements of certainty are not plausible. Any scientist can help by letting the DOJ know that their statements are not scientifically credible and that the opinions of individual scientists and scientific institutions should be taken seriously by the nation’s most important purveyor of justice.

Overstating the certainty of forensic evidence has been implicated in many miscarriages of justice. And it is scientifically wrong. The people who are the ultimate consumers of forensic evidence deserve better.

 

Simon A. Cole is a Professor at University of California, Irvine’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Voters have Spoken: Time for Checks and Balances to Make a Comeback

Photo: PeopleImages/iStockphoto

The election is all but over, and the result is a divided Congress.

Take a deep breath, scientists, and remember that divided government in these United States is what our Constitution was designed for.  A guiding principle was one of checks and balances – a check on dominance of one point of view and balance in the resulting policies for the people.  Something that, in my view, has been sorely missing for the last two years because adherence to party has superseded service to constituents and country.

So now what?  In Washington-speak, there will be an increased appetite for serious “oversight” of the Executive branch by the House of Representatives.  That means that Congress is likely to focus on how the Trump Administration is implementing the laws and mandates put in place to serve the public’s interest.  This is literally one of the “checks and balances” the framers of the Constitution created.

How does that happen?  Congress can hold hearings to question agency officials as well as solicit views from the affected public, experts, and other stakeholders about impacts of agency actions.  Also, as appropriators of federal dollars, Congress determines funding levels for each agency and can set the terms of use for those funds.  And Congress can demand information in writing, investigate problems through the Government Accountability Office (GAO) or Inspectors General’s (IG) offices in each federal agency, and hold agency officials accountable both in the court of public opinion, along with referring cases to the courts as needed.   These are powerful tools that have been semi-dormant for a couple of years.  Time for a change.

I like to think of Congressional efforts toward checks and balances coming from three sources:

  1. Pursuing specific constituent concerns
  2. Ensuring the intent of Congress is carried out
  3. Highlighting controversial issues
Constituent services

Every member of Congress is elected to serve both their constituents and the Nation as a whole.  And every member is attentive to issues raised by their constituents, whose welfare (and votes) matter to them.  When a member of Congress hears similar concerns from multiple constituents, he/she can and should see what can be done to address the issue writ large from DC.  Your calls, your letters, your visits to local state or district offices matter.  Every scientist is also a constituent; communicating with your elected representatives can often be more important and effective than the voice of a famous expert speaking broadly from elsewhere about a policy.  So, scientist/constituents can be the impetus for congressional oversight.

Let’s consider a few ways this could happen right away.  Without notifying the public, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this past year made a legal interpretation that the rules for industrial facilities that emit hazardous air pollutants will change — with the potential to dramatically increase emissions of these toxic and sometimes cancer-causing substances.  Suppose one of those facilities is in your neighborhood (and we have mapped them all by congressional district)?  You and your neighbors could ask your member of Congress to demand more information from the EPA or even to call for reconsideration of that policy change.  Tell your elected representative you expect them to hold the EPA accountable for public health impacts in your community.

Or perhaps you live near a military base, and your water supply has been contaminated by toxic per- or polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), endangering the health of your family and your neighbors.  We mapped many of these sites too.  The EPA has taken little to no action to clean up these hazardous pollutants despite overwhelming scientific evidence, and the Department of Defense (DoD) is moving slowly.  Your elected officials need to know that this isn’t acceptable.  It’s up to you to tell your member of Congress that you want them to hold the EPA and DoD to account for cleaning up the pollution.  That’s their job – to serve the public interest, not the interest of companies like Dow, Dupont, or 3M that made these compounds and are pushing back on improving the safety standards.  Your members of Congress can insist on better information, a timeline for cleanup, funds to make the water safe, and clear commitments to action by the agencies and the Administration, if they think it matters to you.

Intent of Congress

Another important part of oversight is to monitor and constantly question whether agency actions are meeting congressional intent.  In other words, ensuring that the agencies are doing their jobs on behalf of the public. Every law passed and perhaps periodically reauthorized and updated by Congress has specific goals in mind.  The Clean Water Act aims to make the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable.  The Clean Air Act seeks to ensure that the existing and future sources of air pollution are curtailed to protect public health and welfare.  The Endangered Species Act is designed to prevent the extinction of species.

Executive branch agencies implement those laws through policies and regulations specifically designed to meet the intent of Congress as written in the statute and interpreted by the courts.

Again, consider some examples.  Congress intended the Clean Air Act to clean up the air and to use the best available science to determine threats to public health and safety and then enact safeguards to protect the public against them.  Recently, the EPA has taken actions that fly in the face of this statutory mandate.  They intend to restrict the science that EPA can consider in implementing public health and safety regulations; they have dismissed the expert panels to advise on the scientific evidence for major air pollutants; and they have reshaped the agency’s science advisory boards to give industry and states a greater role than independent academic scientists.  Is this what Congress intended when it told the agency to use the best available science?  We should ask our elected officials to question these actions and demand justification from the agency. Scientist/constituents can call on Congress to withhold such that they can not be used to implement agency policies that sideline science.  And, of course, we can advocate for stronger laws that the agency can’t easily wriggle out of that ensure the use of science.

Controversial issues

There has seldom been lack of controversy in how our governments decides to deal with particular issues, but lately concerns about climate change, for example, have reached fever pitch.  These will continue, as different stakeholders have different priorities, preferences, and even values.  But our policies will not get better under any circumstances by ignoring the scientific evidence.  At the Department of Interior there have been across the board actions to remove consideration of climate change from agency planning and actions.  That includes virtually hiding reports that describe global warming impacts.

In addition, there are controversies related to conflicts of interest of political appointees and the culture of corruption in agencies and to advisory committees, as well as clear indications of political interference in agency science.

This is not just politics as usual; there are serious challenges we face as a nation.  Questions Congress could and should address in hearings, investigations and demands for information include:  Is our government and our governmental agencies putting the public’s interest first and foremost when it acts?    How should we be using public resources?  When are we going to get serious about addressing climate change — one of the greatest challenges we face globally and as a nation?

Our role as constituent scientists

There are many issues of concern that are a combination of sidelining of scientific evidence and impacts on people in our communities directly.  So, lets speak about the science, but also local impacts when contacting our representatives and asking them to pursue a strong oversight agenda.  Let’s bring the facts forward, demand information and look for solutions.  These are not esoteric or theoretical problems.  We need to speak as both scientists and constituents.

The checks and balances of Congressional oversight that I am talking about are often motivated by constituent concern, when it is voiced directly, clearly and productively.  As scientists, we are constituents but with a particular knowledge set and training on how we approach problems that is particularly valuable in shaping the oversight discussion.  As community members, we have a strong role to play in ensuring these health and safety issues get the attention they deserve, and responsible action from our federal government.

Voting in the midterms was incredibly important.  Now we need to follow up on the opportunity created by a new Congress by speaking truth to power, calling on our representatives to do the crucial job we gave them of checking and balancing the Trump Administration.  Let us know if you want to join us, and we’ll be in touch!

 

 

Photo: PeopleImages/iStockphoto

Can the EPA Protect Us from Ozone and Particulate Pollution Without Its Experts? What to Watch

This week, the EPA announced that its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) alone would be reviewing upcoming ozone and particulate matter reviews. On October 10, the EPA nixed its ozone and particulate matter review panels—breaking with EPA’s use of expert science advisers for ambient air quality decisions since the 1970s and consistent with this administration’s trend of abandoning science advice. That same day, the EPA replaced the independent scientists on CASAC, leaving a committee of mostly state and local regulators. On December 12, the EPA will bring together the new CASAC for the first time in person to discuss the state of the science on particulate pollution. Will the EPA be able to assess the science and make science-based decisions to protect public health? Here’s what to watch for.

A history of independent science advice

Using science to set ambient air pollution standards has worked remarkably well in the US. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, our nation has been able to follow a science-based process to set air pollution standards that protect public health. Not to say there has never been political interference (see examples under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama), but the process by which EPA gets science advice on pollution standards has remained intact, even under tremendous pressure from industries and political actors to compromise the process.

Here’s how it works (at least up until now):

For major ambient air pollutants, the EPA assesses the state of the science on a pollutant and its health effects every five years or so, gathering all relevant peer-reviewed science into what’s called the Integrated Science Assessment (ISA). The exhaustively comprehensive ISA looks at all the relevant scientific literature that sheds light on the relationship between a pollutant and human health and welfare. (Fun Fact: The current particulate matter ISA includes extensive discussion of my own academic research on air pollution measurement and exposure error.)

The scientific teeth of the ISA are found in its causality findings—these summarize the weight of the evidence for linkages between the pollutant and different health effects. They range from “not causal” to “inadequate evidence” to “likely causal” to “causal.” It is important to note there is tremendous scientific backing behind each of these statements. A finding that the association between particulate matter exposure and mortality is causal, for example, is backed by science from multiple lines of evidence—epidemiologic studies, toxicology studies, controlled human exposure studies, and biological plausibility knowledge. The robust causal determination framework used by EPA has been vetted and endorsed broadly by experts in the scientific community. These causal findings inform EPA decisionmakers on how to best protect people from harmful pollutants.

To ensure that EPA scientists get the science right, they get help from the independent scientists on CASAC. In addition, since the 1970s the agency has relied on pollutant review panels to get input from experts on specific pollutants. CASAC, too of course, is comprised of air pollution experts, but it is only seven people. It is not possible for this small committee to capture the breadth and depth of the ISA and properly assess all aspects of the science. For example, to assess particulate pollution’s health impact, you’d want experts in epidemiology, toxicology, exposure assessment, instrumentation, modeling, and a host of other specialties. As a result, the EPA has always relied on larger groups of experts like the particulate matter review panel to peer-review its ISA and ensure it gets the science right.

An ill-equipped EPA

But now, EPA is going through the PM and ozone review processes with far less scientific expertise. The Trump administration dismissed the particulate matter review panel entirely, failed to constitute an ozone panel, and removed the independent scientists serving on CASAC. Now the agency is left with a seven-member committee of mostly air pollution regulators. This leaves very little subject matter expertise on air pollutant science and health.

In one striking example, our scientific understanding of particulate matter’s health effects is based in no small part on epidemiologic studies. And yet, not a single epidemiologist will be at the table when EPA assesses the ISA. (The EPA even admits this glaring omission in its recent announcement.) To say that the EPA is ill-equipped to have a scientific discussion on particulate matter in December is an understatement.

This lack of preparedness is exacerbated by the remarkable speed at which EPA is moving. The agency plans to set new ozone and PM standards by 2020—markedly faster than reviews have typically happened given the necessary steps required to gather scientific information, incorporate reviews from CASAC and the pollutant review panels, solicit public impact, analyze policy implications before making a policy decision. To meet this arbitrary deadline, EPA intends to streamline the process, combining analyses that used to be separate documents and likely cutting down on the number of meetings and draft documents. Such measures are almost certain to mean less public input and less scientific assessment feeding into the process.

How should we protect people from particulate matter?

So how should the administration protect people from the harms of particulate matter? The science suggests the EPA should be doing more. The draft ISA finds causal links between PM2.5 (that is, particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers) and premature death and cardiovascular disease, and likely causal relationships between particulate matter and respiratory and nervous system effects and cancer. The scientific assessment also finds a likely causal link between ultrafine particles (PM less than 0.1 micrometers) and nervous system effects. This is the draft—prior to scientific review and public input—so the linkages are subject to change. But if these scientific findings hold, we should expect EPA to take action, in order to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety—as the Clean Air Act requires. Historically, when a pollutant is linked to a serious health impact, a standard is set to curb pollution. These linkages to health impacts suggest that EPA could consider tightening the PM2.5 standard in order to protect public health and that the agency could potentially propose a new standard for ultrafine particles. Historically, these are the kinds of considerations that CASAC and the PM review panel would vigorously debate at public meetings and calls, with opportunities for public input. But it is difficult now to see how the agency could do the same this time.

A need for science advice

Will this EPA take the further actions required to protect people from these health impacts? One thing is for sure, they are likely to get less science-based input on the decision. With a weakened CASAC and no pollutant review panels, EPA won’t get the direct and robust feedback it needs from the scientific community. Without that scientific input, it is easier for the administration to make a decision that’s politically convenient rather than scientifically backed.

To compensate for the lack of science advice formally being provided to the EPA, it will be especially important that the EPA hear from scientific experts at the December meeting on PM and the November 29 CASAC call to discuss the ozone review process. It is also crucial for the EPA to hear from the public at these meetings because the compressed timeline will mean fewer meetings and thus fewer opportunities for the public to provide comment. Both air pollution experts and members of the public can (and should!) provide comment for the ozone call (November 29) and PM in-person meeting (comments in writing by December 11) and in person (sign up by Dec 5) at the meeting in Washington DC December 12-13. Join me there. I’ll be asking the EPA to listen to the scientists and you can too.

After Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks, Will New Congress Push for Gun Safety Research?

Photo: M&R Glasgow/Flickr

The night after mid-term elections, our nation suffered another gruesome tragedy at the hands of an armed gunman, and I’m still ready for Congress to demand a science-based conversation on gun violence. Last night in Thousand Oaks, California, 12 people- including the gunman and an officer- were left dead and at least 10 others injured at a popular college bar. It is believed that several survivors of last year’s mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival were present.

Between the antisemitic attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27th where 11 people were killed and last night’s shooting in Thousand Oaks that left 12 people dead…there have been 11 other mass shooting incidents resulting in 10 deaths and 46 injuries. That is less than two weeks’ time.

My colleagues and I have written extensively in the past on gun violence and need to remove barriers for federal research (find them here). We have seen some progress, with Congress clarifying this past spring that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may pursue research on gun violence prevention. Previously, legislative language in spending bills (known as the Dickey Amendment) had effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence since 1996. Gun violence is a public health issue, and as with all public health issues, it requires scientific evidence to build the most effective policies to protect people. But is that research actually happening now? We need to ensure that it is.

Just yesterday afternoon, the National Rifle Association (NRA) railed against the medical community for its peer-reviewed firearms studies. Shockingly, the NRA questioned whether doctors should weigh in on gun violence prevention, focusing their ire on a position paper written by the American College of Physicians (ACP) that was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Someone should tell self-important  anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves. https://t.co/oCR3uiLtS7

— NRA (@NRA) November 7, 2018

Ironically, the NRA itself steps out of its lane, weighing in the details of a scientific paper by medical professionals.

Congress can change this. Legislators should provide researchers specific funding and explicit instructions to study gun violence. Perhaps, then our nation can rely on even more conclusive evidence on the causes of gun violence and develop solutions to prevent it—instead of relying on a powerful gun lobby to sway the decision-making with their dollars and nonsense.

We have a new Congress. The new leadership in the House must prioritize oversight of gun violence research at the CDC and take this opportunity to appropriate more dollars to help solve this crisis.

Thousands of people in America lose their lives to gun violence every year. Just this year, there have been 12,477 firearm casualties. It is unfair to the people who have lost their lives to gun violence that we care only after a mass shooting, and that’s only while it’s in the news’s short issue-attention cycle. It is unfair and unacceptable that, despite the tireless work of advocates and activists, the nation has made little progress on gun violence reform.

Photo: M&R Glasgow

The Elections, and What They Mean for Climate, Energy, and Science

If you are like me, you arrived a bit blurry-eyed to the office this morning after staying up watching election results last night. You’ve undoubtedly already heard and read commentary on what this election means for the country, but may be wondering what the outcome means for climate, security, energy, and science policy. I sat down with my colleague, Alden Meyer, UCS Director of Strategy and Policy, and put our usual water-cooler deconstruction on paper.

Alden: So the Democrats have taken control of the House, but the Republicans expanded their control of the Senate. What’s your take on the overall meaning of the election results? Did environmental issues have any resonance in this election?

Ken: Rahm Emanuel’s prediction of about a week ago seems to have been true—a blue wave, with an equally-strong red undertow. The blue wave is the new majority in the House and several new governors, many in swing states; the red undertow is the gains Republicans made in the Senate.

That being said, a clear overall message is that voters want to see checks and balances. One-party rule has had a corrosive effect on democracy. Major pieces of legislation (e.g., the $1.7 trillion tax cut and Affordable Care Act repeal proposal) have been crafted in backrooms, with very limited public input and opportunities for the opposing party to offer their ideas, and then enacted with little debate or even knowledge of what our representatives were voting for. That’s a problem. The voters are saying no to this, and as an organization that promotes public decision-making based on science, facts, and the competition of ideas, from my perspective at UCS, this is very positive.

I also must add, though, that the President’s fear-mongering in the final days may have worked to energize his base in some of the states with close Senate and Governors’ races; if so, this is not a healthy sign for our democracy and for government based on reason.

I also think that environmental issues, long considered second tier ones, played a role in this election. In several of the Rust Belt states, for example, water quality in both urban and rural areas was a major issue, and in the state of Nevada, voters championed clean energy ballot initiatives. Perhaps most impressively, voters elected new governors in Nevada, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and New Mexico who acknowledged the need to address climate change and showed interest in making their states clean energy champions.

One major disappointment was the defeat of the carbon fee ballot initiative in Washington state. Unfortunately, the big oil companies, many of whom claim they support carbon pricing as a climate solution, spent about $30 million to defeat this initiative, arguing cynically that the initiative did not go far enough. This hypocrisy needs to be strongly called out.

Alden: Indeed. It’s also notable that climate change was raised as an issue in a number of Senate debates. In 2016, we had to work intensively with the Republican mayor of Miami and others to get a single question asked on climate change in the Republican presidential candidate debate in Florida. This year, questions on climate change—many of them citing the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the devastating impacts of further increases in global temperature—were asked by moderators in at least seven Senate candidate debates (in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, and Texas). The increased prominence of the issue, especially in so many red states, demonstrates that increasing voter awareness and concern about the costly impacts of climate-related extreme weather events is making it more difficult for politicians to say that climate change isn’t a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Ken: Looking out over the next two years, I think the election gives us three important new opportunities. Congressional oversight, or even the threat of it, is a key way to keep the executive branch operating within the bounds of law and reason; it has been sorely lacking in the last two years. UCS will work with new leadership in key House committees to ensure that there is oversight and accountability, particularly in the many instances in which science has been suppressed, maligned, or ignored.

Second, there are opportunities for bi-partisan progress on issues we care about, and we can and will try to cobble together majorities for centrist legislation that can move the country forward.

Third, we can help craft and push in the House more ambitious legislation that can lay the groundwork for a healthy debate in the 2020 election and potentially get enacted thereafter.

Alden: Congressional oversight is really important. We’ve been working closely with quite a few House members who care deeply about facts and evidence over the last two years to shine a spotlight on the Trump administration’s attacks on science-based safeguards across a wide range of federal agencies. While this has helped to raise the visibility of these abuses in the media and has provided grist for activists to use in their interactions with their members of Congress in town hall meetings and other venues, it has not produced a meaningful change in the administration’s behavior.

But with control of the House, these pro-science legislators will have a lot more tools at their disposal to address Trump administration officials’ blatant conflicts of interest, their lack of enforcement of laws and regulations to protect public health and worker safety, or their efforts to undermine the independent science advisory process, restrict the use of scientific research in policymaking, and to sharply cut back the scientific staff capacity of their agencies to carry out their missions. Through a combination of information requests, staff investigations, and hearings, House committees and subcommittees can shine a spotlight on policies and activities they believe are against the public interest or that fail to execute laws according to the intent of Congress.

They can compel testimony and response to follow-up questions from Cabinet and sub-cabinet officials, can request agency Inspector General investigations where appropriate, and can draw on analysis by the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accountability Office. They can also use a combination of expert witnesses and everyday citizens to put a human face on the impacts of executive branch actions, such as the rollback of regulations to protect public health and safety.

Ken: Great point. Our staff has been working with these incoming committee chairs and their staff on their oversight strategies for next year, on issues ranging from scientific integrity in policymaking to ineffective and destabilizing missile defense programs and new nuclear weapons systems, from political interference in climate and energy technology research to harmful changes in federal dietary guidelines for all Americans. Needless to say, it’s a target-rich environment!

Alden: As far as new legislative opportunities, there are a few areas where it may be possible to garner bipartisan support for legislative action in the next Congress: targeted incentives for electric vehicles, energy storage, and other clean energy technologies, or the limited but still useful energy bill introduced by Senators Murkowski (R-AK) and Cantwell (D-WA) that would boost energy efficiency in buildings, increase energy system cybersecurity, spur investments in power grid modernization, among other things. House Democrats have made clear that a federal infrastructure bill addressing not just investments in transportation, but in the water, electricity, natural gas distribution system, and other sectors as well, will be among their top priorities; it seems unlikely that Senate Republicans and the White House would be willing to reach an acceptable deal on such a bill, but it’s not out of the question.

There are a much broader set of issues where we expect House Democrats to move positive legislation forward to floor passage, despite low prospects that it would be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Trump; the goal would be to raise public awareness and support and to help shape the debate going into the 2020 elections. We will be working to promote the scientific integrity legislation that Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) introduced in the House and that has 156 cosponsors, as well as opportunities to support science-based safeguards and public health protections. We will also work with Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee, to move forward his bill establishing a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.

Climate change and energy will also be a priority for several incoming committee chairs, such as Frank Pallone (D-NJ) of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) of the Natural Resources Committee, and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) of the Science Committee. It is also a priority for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who just last week indicated her interest in creating a select committee on climate change, modeled on the one chaired by now-Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) from 2007 to 2010. We are discussing legislative options with these and other House Democrats, as well as with our allies in the environmental, clean energy, labor, and climate justice communities, ranging from comprehensive climate policy to more targeted bills focusing on the electricity or transportation sector, or on ramping up assistance to local communities that are struggling to cope with the mounting impacts of climate change.

But yesterday’s elections also resulted in a number of new governors. What do you see as the opportunities for progress at the state and regional level?

Ken: I’m particularly excited about the new governors in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. UCS and others have been working for years on a project to modernize the electric grid in the heartland of the country to fully unleash the power of clean and cheap wind and solar, and we believe that many of these new governors can help champion this transformation.

UCS is also busy working in the Northeast on a regional plan to reduce transportation emissions. Key governors who are supportive of the idea (Cuomo in New York, Baker in Massachusetts) won their races, and some promising newcomers, such as Governor-elect Mills in Maine and Lamont in Connecticut, can add to the critical mass.

In Illinois, with governor-elect Pritzker in office, we will now have increased opportunities for passage of comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation; while in Michigan, with governor-elect Whitmer in office, we will now have new opportunities to advance modern grid policies that can deliver greater quantities of clean electricity to communities, support electric vehicles, and increase the resilience of the electricity grid to the impacts of climate change. In addition, we have new governors in Kansas, New Mexico, and Nevada, and we will look to help these states become clean energy champions.

I know you warned me last week that the 2020 election kicks off today (ugh!). So I’m curious what you think last night’s results might mean for the 2020 elections.

Alden: I think the new governors who ran on a clean energy platform and won their elections will add a lot to the national conversation over the next two years. Not only will they work to push through strong policies, but they will be strong messengers on how these solutions are good for their states’ economies and job creation, bring strong public health benefits by cutting conventional pollutants, and reduce their energy consumers’ vulnerability to fossil fuel supply disruptions and price shocks. Their advocacy and visibility on clean energy and the need to address the mounting impacts of climate change will help make clear that these are priorities for states in the heartland, not just on the coasts.

Put these new governors together with the active agenda we expect to see in the House on climate and clean energy issues next year, as well as the growing public support for climate action that’s demonstrated in recent opinion polls, and it’s safe to say that these issues will be front and center going into the 2020 elections. Of course, health care, immigration, the economy, national security, and terrorism will continue to be top-tier issues, but it will be more difficult than ever for candidates for federal office to deny the reality of climate change.

And, as long as we’re talking about 2020, can you say a little about the work we’re doing with other groups to lay the groundwork for ambitious climate action in 2021?

Ken: Absolutely. UCS, along with many other partners, such as labor, science groups, environmental advocates and so many others are already focusing our sights on a prize—comprehensive, federal climate change legislation by 2021. We can’t let another opportunity slip, we need to get ready for it, and that means starting now. Among other things, we have to learn a key lesson from the Obama era—relying exclusively on regulations doesn’t work, as a successor administration or a hostile court can undo them. We need to lay the groundwork for a durable solution that is set in law, and that means bringing in Republicans to offer their best ideas and ensuring that they too have skin in this all-important game. This is also true for our work on nuclear weapons and sustainable and healthy farms—we need to set our sights on bi-partisan legislation and get to work on it now.

Alden: As we’ve discussed, there are some opportunities to make progress on our issues at the federal level over the next two years, and even more opportunities at the state and regional level. But let’s be honest, we still face tremendous challenges, central among them a president who has no respect for science, makes up his own facts, and continues to take a wrecking ball to the capability of the EPA and other federal agencies to protect public health and the environment. As you rightly note, solutions to all the issues UCS works on need to be worked out on a bipartisan basis to be durable. The good news is that more and more Republicans privately acknowledge the need for action on climate change and other issues; the bad news is that their willingness to stand up to President Trump remains extremely limited. Creating incentives for them to do so—in coordination with allies in the business, faith, security, and conservation communities—is one of the key challenges we need to meet to be successful.

Ken: It is good to remember that politics in America resemble a pendulum. The pendulum swung far in one direction in 2016. The election of a new majority in the House, new governors in key swing states and many young, diverse and exciting new leaders shows that the pendulum is starting to swing back. Our job, as I see it, is to help push the pendulum back in favor of leaders from both parties that support science-based policies. And to be ready when the pendulum swings back far enough to make progress again.

Climate Changes Health: The Backstory is the Front Story

Photo: FEMA

12 years. That’s how long scientists say we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially to heed off the global catastrophic effects of climate change.  As such, climate change is arguably the greatest public health threat of our times as it already contributes to increased trauma, morbidity, and mortality from extreme weather events and displacement.

Climate justice is intersectional

Often missing from this conversation is a dialogue on climate justice. The term climate justice draws heavily on the environmental justice (EJ) movement and affirms that climate change is a scientific, political, and human rights issue. It defines climate change as a great multiplier, exacerbating existing health inequities among socially, economically, and politically vulnerable populations. And, per the Bali Principles of Climate Justice, the term also recognizes “the rights of communities dependent on natural resources for their livelihood and cultures to own and manage the same in a sustainable manner and is opposed to the commodification of nature and its resources.” Policies that overlook disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color—as well as inaction—are perpetuating climate injustice globally.

As Dr. P. Qasimah Boston at the Department of Children and Families in Tallahassee, Florida explains with regards to climate change, “The backstory is the FRONT story.” In other words, the stories of communities experiencing climate injustice cannot be the “backstory,” but must be recognized in mainstream conversations around climate change and health.

Coming together around solutions

In attempts to shift the narrative within public health and make climate justice the front story, over 115 EJ and scientific experts came together for a pre-conference summit at the 2017 American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting— Climate Changes Health: Ensuring Environmental Justice Underlies Public Health’s Climate Change Work.

While many scientists and public health professionals understand climate change’s disproportionate threats to health, this summit was meant to help prepare them to actually address climate justice in their research and practice in partnerships with communities and climate justice leaders already doing the work.

This report was compiled from thematic analysis of rich conversations between leaders in the room and reflects the combined insights of the group. Written for diverse audiences, it shares important recommendations and resources to advance public health’s capacity to address climate justice related to policy, youth involvement, the role of funders, and comprehensive suggestions for the field of public health.

What you can do

Review the recommendations in Climate Changes Health: Ensuring Environmental Justice Underlies Public Health’s Climate Change Work.

We all need to vote for candidates who state their position on climate change. A good starting point is declaring that a warming climate is caused by human activity, is threatening the health and safety of everyone, but that low-income communities, many of which are of color, are facing the heaviest burdens.

Scientists and public health and technical experts – use your position as a researcher, a member of an educational institution, a member of your community, and as a constituent to push forward climate justice by:

  • Working with communities to learn and offer your expertise where appropriate. UCS has a guide and several resources to help you think through how to do this in a meaningful way.
  • Talking to colleagues and people in your institution to bring diverse voices, including those from impacted communities, into the conversations and work around climate change.
  • Engaging with policymakers, offer your expertise, and voice your support for climate justice work that is centered in communities that are most affected.
  • Elevating the issues in the media to make climate justice a focal part of the climate change conversation

 Concerned members of the public – leverage your standing as a voter and concerned community member to work towards climate justice by connecting with a local justice-based community group and engaging with elected officials and the media.

This takes an all hands-on deck approach. It means centering our work in equity and supporting justice organizations and leaders. It means supporting the work of leaders of color. It means showing up and taking action.

 

As a community-engaged researcher, Natalie Sampson brings interdisciplinary evidence to climate change, land use, and infrastructure planning and policy efforts in Metro Detroit to address environmental health inequities. As an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn, she teaches courses in public health, health promotion, environmental health, and community organizing. Dr. Sampson co-chairs the American Public Health Association (APHA)’s Environmental Justice Committee with Charles Lee.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo: FEMO

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