Union of Concerned ScientistsUCS Science Network – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Thu, 21 Mar 2019 13:43:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png UCS Science Network – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics Continues to Weaken https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/the-puerto-rico-institute-of-statistics-continues-to-weaken https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/the-puerto-rico-institute-of-statistics-continues-to-weaken#respond Mon, 18 Mar 2019 19:50:14 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=64661

This letter was originally posted by our partners at the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN). PR-SPAN is a new initiative of Ciencia Puerto Rico that seeks to activate the Puerto Rican scientific community, wherever it may be, to inform the development and implementation of federal, state and local policies based on scientific basis. PR-SPAN and Ciencia Puerto Rico have been diligently following the important issue of the integrity of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics for many months now. As partners in support of science-based advocacy and policy making, the UCS Science Network is sharing their call for signatures to raise support for the independence and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.


Dear members of the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico,

We want to draw your attention and invite you to take action on an urgent public policy issue: the continued weakening of the governance of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS). We invite you to sign and share the petition below.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.

—The Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)


We demand strong governance for an independent and autonomous Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics

During the past two years, the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) has faced a series of threats that have undermined its autonomy, credibility, and reputation. From 2017 to date, the administration of the Hon. Dr. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has illegally removed members from the Board of Directors, tried to dismantle the Institute and outsource its functions, and made appointments to the Board that have been questioned by the international scientific community. In January 2019, there were allegations about the politicization of the Board of Directors and their ability to act independently and free of partisan influences. As of February 10, 2019 the role of executive director of the Institute has been vacant, after the resignation of Dr. Mario Marazzi Santiago, who had served in this role since 2007.

These events not only cast doubt on the future of the Institute of Statistics, but also create serious concerns about the capacity of the Puerto Rican government and society to make decisions and create public policies informed by scientific evidence and by statistics that are timely, reliable, and of high-quality.

Therefore, we ask the Government of Puerto Rico and the Board of Directors of the Institute of Statistics to take the following actions to strengthen the governance, independence and autonomy of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics:

  • Maintain the powers and faculties of the Executive Director to protect the independence of PRIS: Any future amendments made to the organic law of the Institute should seek to strengthen the governance and independence of the agency, but without weakening the powers and faculties of the Executive Director, and without granting more power to the Board of Directors or the Governor.
  • Dissociate the Governor and Puerto Rico Senate from the process of nominating and confirming members to the PRIS Board of Directors: Currently, the members of the PRIS Board of Directors are nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Puerto Rico Senate. To avoid the possibility of partisan influence, we ask that the nomination and confirmation process to the Board of Directors of the Statistics Institute be dissociated from the government in turn (similar to the nomination process for the Board of Trustees of the Puerto Rico Science Trust).
  • Strengthen the PRIS Board as an independent, objective body of experts: We ask that candidates to the PRIS Board of Directors (1) are nominated by scientific associations or professional and industrial groups that represent the relevant fields of specialization; (2) are experts with integrity, personal and professional objectivity, demonstrated expertise, and advanced academic preparation (a master’s or doctoral degree) in the use of statistics, economics or planning; (3) do not have direct connections to the current or previous government administrations (i.e. not having held elective public office during at least five (5) years prior to their appointment; not having participated, collaborated or made political or financial contributions to political candidates or campaigns, as suggested in Article 2 of P. de la C. 4409 from May 12, 2008 [Word document], presented by the Representative and now Resident Commissioner Hon. Jennifer González-Colón).
  • The search and appointment of the next Executive Director is done transparently and in consultation with the Puerto Rican and international scientific community: The scientific community has demonstrated time and again its commitment to the autonomy of the PRIS and government transparency in Puerto Rico. Therefore, the members of PR-SPAN and UCS, and members of the Puerto Rican and international scientific community are willing to actively participate in the nomination, search and selection process for the next Executive Director of the PRIS. It is of the utmost importance that the Executive Director has the relevant expertise, and is committed to the independence and autonomy of the Institute, and to keeping it free from partisan influences.

We urge the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico to join this petition and continue advocating for the autonomy, independence, reputation and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.


Carlos M. De León-Rodríguez is a PR-SPAN ambassador, was also part of the inaugural class of the Scientist Sentinels: Civic Engagement & Leadership Program. He is an advocate for evidence-based policy making.

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.

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The Journal of Science Policy and Governance (JSPG): Engaging early career researchers in science policy https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/journal-of-science-policy-and-governance-engaging-early-career-researchers-in-science-policy https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/journal-of-science-policy-and-governance-engaging-early-career-researchers-in-science-policy#comments Wed, 13 Feb 2019 20:22:23 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=64208

The Journal of Science Policy and Governance (JSPG) was established nearly ten years ago by a small cadre of students and science policy leaders who sought to create an open access, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed platform for early career researchers (ECRs) of all disciplines to publish well-developed policy assessments addressing the widest range of science, technology and innovation policy topics worldwide.

Today, JSPG is a non-profit organization that has produced 15 volumes addressing a myriad of policy topics including health, the environment, space, energy, technology, STEM education, and defense, as well as science communications and diplomacy. Publication in JSPG is, for many authors, their first experience writing on science policy issues in a format that is accessible to policy stakeholders. Even fewer authors have had the experience of publishing science policy pieces in a peer-reviewed format prior to this experience. JSPG volumes are published on an accelerated timeline (to keep fresh with current debate) and range from succinct op-eds to comprehensive policy assessments to rigorous technology assessments.

Our JSPG team has great fortune of working with an outstanding line-up of authors, as well as editorial board and staff comprised of ECRs and policy professionals, and finally a distinguished advisory board and a governing board of senior science policy thinkers and doers who share our belief that ECRs can and should hone their policy research and writing skills and engage in policy debates. We also do our best to honor JSPG leadership. Our most recent issue was dedicated to the late Homer A. Neal of University of Michigan, who served on JSPG’s advisory board until his passing in 2018, and was a long-time supporter of JSPG and the involvement of ECRs in policy.

More than a research journal: Maximizing impact through partnerships

What sets JSPG apart from other peer-reviewed publications is the outreach and engagement we undertake with our partners and collaborators, enabling us to reach more ECRs and achieve a greater depth of impact for published work.

NSPN-JSPG competition announced at NSPN Symposium in New York City. Photo credit: JSPG

Some examples of our accomplishments include:

UCS and JSPG: Engaging ECRs in science policy

Both JSPG and UCS seek to empower and encourage the meaningful inclusion of ECRs in science policy research, writing, and debate.

Young people comprise an important constituency in most countries, bring in fresh perspectives, and an infectious level of energy to their policy engagement. Whether ECRs seek to transition into policy-oriented careers or engage in policy in industry or academia, we believe they can play an important role in strengthening policy around the world.

At a time when political leaders are facing increasingly complex science and technology policy challenges, ranging from CRISPR to climate change, the need to equip the next generation of research professionals with policy engagement skills has grown. Despite this reality, few ECRs are encouraged to engage in policy during their academic training, and even fewer are offered training opportunities to sharpen their policy engagement skills.

JSPG’s mission and our own personal missions focused on addressing this challenge. In recognition of our long-standing partnership with UCS, we are very pleased to announce a 4-part blog series illustrating how JSPG has helped equip ECRs with science policy research and writing expertise. In these posts, we will explore the professional journey of current and past JSPG editors, authors, and staff, many of whom are also members of UCS Science Network.

This is the first post in the series. In the three subsequent blog posts, our team will:

  1. Connect the journal to international science diplomacy and policy debate
  2. Illustrate the impact of JSPG on the career trajectories of past editors
  3. Provide a perspective on how policy writing skills translate into science communication

We can’t do this alone. Let’s work together

JSPG is actively seeking partners and collaborators. Let’s team up. Please consider joining JSPG’s mailing list and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Together, we’ll strengthen the ability for ECR to substantively share their ideas on cutting edge science, technology, and innovation policy.


Adriana Bankston is the Director of Communications & Outreach at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Adriana manages communication and public relations, social media and marketing efforts on behalf of the journal. Adriana’s personal mission is to improve the biomedical research enterprise by empowering ECRs to advocate for change. Adriana is a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at The Society for Neuroscience, and a Policy Activist at the non-profit Future of Research. Adriana obtained her Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University. Find her on Twitter at @AdrianaBankston.

Shalin R. Jyotishi is the Chief Executive Officer of the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. His background intersects innovation policy and economic development. He has held positions at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the University of Michigan. He is a University Innovation Fellow of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum, a member of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, and an editor of the Journal of Economic Development in Higher Education. Find him on Twitter at @ShalinJyotishi.

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.

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People are the Purpose of Science https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/people-are-the-purpose-of-science https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/people-are-the-purpose-of-science#comments Mon, 11 Feb 2019 21:54:50 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=64158

Nakala was only four months old, a chubby and cherubic baby, when I saw her that summer for a routine check up at our pediatric clinic in Flint. Her mom Grace told me she was going to stop breastfeeding. That didn’t surprise me. I tried to convince her otherwise, but for young moms in Flint, it’s often regarded as a complicated hassle — and hard to do when you’re struggling to hold down a job.

Grace planned to mix powdered formula with tap water for Nakala. She asked me pointedly if the Flint water was okay for that.

“Sure,” I said without hesitation. “Don’t waste your money on bottled water.”

It was August, 2015. I’d heard some news reports of citizen protests about the drinking water; it had become background noise. As a pediatrician, all I had to go on, besides the fact that it was twenty-first century America, was what the other experts, the scientists who worked for the state, had to say.

And they were adamant. Oh yes. They were cocksure and confident — repeatedly issuing statements that there was no room for doubt. The tap water in Flint was fine. The mayor had even gone on TV, turned on a Flint faucet — and drank some.

What is science for?

Scientists like to talk about what they are “solving for” in their work. In classrooms all over the world, students are told that the purpose of science is “explaining and predicting our world.”

Is that enough?

I don’t think so. Not after what I discovered that summer in 2015. Explaining the world isn’t enough. Predicting isn’t either. In my book about the Flint water crisis, What the Eyes Don’t See, I share the story of how the most egregious present-day example of science denial unfolded — and how the government scientists knew that a powerful neurotoxic, lead, was present in the Flint water for months, but did nothing. Instead, they hoped their expertise and titles would shield their lies from being exposed. In Flint, ignoring science led to the poisoning of an entire city’s water system.

It pains me that so many of the people who should have been looking out for the children of Flint, but who failed them instead, were scientists: doctors, epidemiologists and engineers. I know it seems an exaggeration to compare what happened in Michigan to something as terrible as the Nazi doctors who participated in the Holocaust, or the scientists involved in Tuskegee syphilis study, or the military psychiatrists who participated in torture.

But is it all that different?

Our children cannot afford to have science and scientists shut their eyes, look away, and stay silent to injustices.

Solving for human progress

In What the Eyes Don’t See, I reflect on the work of some groundbreaking scientists — primarily the big troublemakers of public health, Alice Hamilton and John Snow. Rather than going along with consensus or standing on the sidelines, they were passionately involved in their communities. Their work wasn’t about abstract scientific discovery alone. It was about people and community, working in partnership.

That is what science should be about — and what scientists should be solving for. It isn’t just an academic exercise for the ivory tower, to rack up publications, grants, and offers of tenure. Sure, being able to increase our understanding of the world around us is essential. And making better predictions is crucial. Without question, scientific advances are a foundation of modern civilization and economy. But as twentieth-century history illustrates so well, scientific advances aren’t limited to wonders such as antibiotics. It also includes such evils as nuclear weapons. The consequences of advances in science, and the application of technology, cannot be divorced from scientific discovery.

Discoveries alone aren’t enough. Science should be solving for human progress. The promise of science is how people and communities – and the environment – benefit from scientific inquiry and innovation.

Simply put, the purpose of science must be to do good. And a logical extension is that the paramount mission of all scientists is to be charged with doing good. No matter what articles of faith obstruct the path. No matter how far we have to step from the comfort of classrooms, hospitals, laboratories, and campuses. Scientists must be constructive participants in the communities that we are privileged to serve, and do this in a spirit of humble partnership, walking and working together, shoulder to shoulder.

The point is people

The face of Nakala kept returning to me in the months that passed — throughout the stressful and contentious remainder of 2015, throughout the lawsuits, charges and trials that unfolded after the Flint Water Crisis was exposed.

Nakala’s face still comes to me now, three years later, whenever I’m asked if the tap water in Flint is finally okay to drink.

Speaking science to power should be part of the mission of the doctor, the researcher, the academic — all scientists everywhere. Disrupting the status quo for disruption’s sake alone is not enough. We should be elevating human life and protecting the environment.

Scientific education, be it in medical, engineering, natural or physical science, often misses this point. Graduate schools and scientific organizations tend to educate, and only educate, and wait for others to blow the whistle in the name of public health and the environment.

The point of a science education — any science education — should be about people. And not en masse, as a statistic, but person to person. It should be about benefiting lives, doing good, improving outcomes. There should be more training in communications, public speaking, and policy-making so scientists can be better communicators and advocates of our discoveries and the benefits.

Inclusion and diversity are a critical part of all this, not just as restorative justice, but as a means to connect to the higher purpose of science, which need to benefit more people and more places. The recipients of scientific advances have to extend beyond the rich and white. And the injustices associated with industry and technology must also not fall disproportionately on the poor and brown.

Science was an integral part of what happened in Flint – and is still happening. Ignoring science was a cause of the water crisis. Embracing science was how the fight to reveal the lies and cover-ups was won. And now, it is leading the city to solutions. The emerging science of child development and brain plasticity are helping to build resilience in our kids like Nakala, to buffer the impact of the crisis and create a playbook of hope for children everywhere.

My hope is that Flint will serve as a lesson of the consequences of science denial, and also of the incredible power that science and scientists hold – in beakers and at the bedside – to be catalysts for good.

Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician, scientist, and professor in Flint, Michigan. She is the founder and director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative. She is author of the 2018 New York Times 100 Notable Book and NPR’s Science Friday Best Science Book of 2018, “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American City.”

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.

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Organizing a Science Policy Workshop: What we learned in Bozeman, Montana https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/organizing-a-science-policy-workshop-what-we-learned-in-bozeman-montana https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/organizing-a-science-policy-workshop-what-we-learned-in-bozeman-montana#respond Tue, 22 Jan 2019 14:09:26 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=63645
Photo: Tim Evanson/Flickr

The Bozeman 500 Women Scientists pod held a science policy workshop in February 2018 for 30 female scientists from all career stages, undergraduate to professor and government-based scientists. Sound intimidating? Here’s how we got there.

In the summer of 2017, Emma Kate Loveday, Racheal Upton, Kelsey Wallisch Simon, and Chloe VanderMolen became the acting leadership for the local 500 Women Scientists pod. The 500 Women Scientists pod in Bozeman, Montana, meets regularly to act as a local support network, make strategic plans, and take action within the community. 500 Women Scientists is a grassroots organization started by women scientists, with the goal of promoting equality for female scientists and decreasing the anti-science agenda in global, national, and local politics. The group was founded following the November 2016 election, when the national leadership published an open letter re-affirming their commitment to speak up for science and women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA individuals.

Making the initial connection and building relationships with policymakers

When the four of us pod leaders stepped up to run the Bozeman pod, we were very interested in working with local policy makers to make sure that science had its place at the table when legislation was being crafted. We quickly discovered the process of policy making is not straightforward, leading us to want to develop a further connection with local politicians to gain greater insight into the process. How could we expect scientists here in Bozeman to work actively to support policy-makers within such a confusing framework? So we applied for and received funding from UCS to hold an all-day science policy workshop for female scientists in all career stages. And boy, did we have an amazing workshop!

Planning a workshop

One of our main objectives for the day was to bring policy makers in from both sides of the aisle to discuss openly how they utilize science in their policy making decisions.
But before we could have our workshop, we had to do the groundwork. Here are some highlights we recommend for planning a workshop:

Timing: Our planning started with laying out the framework of what we imagined a successful day looked like. We started the workshop at 10am so everyone did not feel to rushed for a Saturday morning workshop. We worked out breaks and lunchtime and planned to end our formal workshop at 5pm but continue it with a happy hour at one of our local breweries!

Speakers: The four of us met up every Sunday over coffee or beers to prepare for the workshop. We utilized our own networks in Bozeman to touch base with local politicians and nonprofit groups that had legislative experience. One of the amazing aspects of Montana is the ability to reach out and interact with our state policy makers. We were able to locate speakers with relative ease that were more than happy to participate in the workshop.

Logistics: We set up an online google form for registration and located a space associated with Montana State University for holding our event. In addition to setting up the space, food and speakers, we wanted to provide on-site childcare. Both myself (Emma) and Chloe have young children and it can be difficult to do activities such as this on the weekend. So we booked a teacher from my daughter’s daycare for the Saturday and offered fully paid childcare for this event; expanding our attendance to a greater range female scientists! It was an important aspect that we felt should be offered at all scientific conferences and workshops. We contacted the more than 100 women from our local Bozeman pod members to advertise registration and the 30 slots for the workshop quickly filled up.

Teaching women scientists how to get involved in the legislative process

We started our workshop with a discussion featuring Zach Brown (Democrat from Bozeman) and Walt Sales (Republican from Manhattan, a small town about 10 miles west of Bozeman). Brown helped us reach out to Sales, a multi generation rancher, and we could not have had a better duo to discuss different perspectives on important issues such as climate change, water policy and how they incorporated science in general. Following, Kathleen Williams gave us the nuts and bolts of policymaking: an overview of how a bill becomes a law in the Montana government, how she as a state legislator tries to utilize scientific input, and where and how scientists could reach out to the state government to provide insight into proposed legislature. Joanna Nadeau, from UCS, gave an overview of how local and state policies connect into the federal system. After lunch we heard from Beth Kaeding at the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC), a non-profit that works with ranchers across the northern plains, who provided a scientist’s perspective on policymaking. As a member of NPRC, Kaeding had attended every legislative session for the past decade and has provided expert testimony during the committee and rule making process. She is an expert in the state government system and was highly knowledgeable how to work within it. One of the key takeaways from Kaeding was that there are multiple opportunities to provide expertise in the legislative process. Initially we believed that we would need to get in from the ground up when bills are being drafted, but we can also provide expert testimony at committee hearings, where policy makers consider whether or not to advance a bill to the house floor. There is also a great opportunity to provide information and expertise during rule making meetings, which occur after a bill has passed.

Following Beth, David Quammen, a world-renowned science writer and author, provided insight into how to communicate our science with both the public and policy-makers. This was further explored with expert advice from Dr. Shannon Willoughby and Kent Davis, both professors at Montana State University and authors, in which they explored the way to “storytell” scientific expertise to the general public. Each of our invited speakers was excited to spend a day with a group of women scientists and learn from us as much as we wanted to learn from them! All of our speakers spent the majority of the workshop with us, giving attendees extra opportunities to meet and have more in depth conversations with them. The commitment from each of our speakers was unexpected and reflects our community’s appreciation of science. We finished up the workshop with a happy hour. All the ladies that were able to attend the happy hour had a better chance to get to know each other and discuss the day’s events.

What success looks like

We were so excited to have female scientists from all career stages, from undergraduate to professor and government scientists, attend the event. By having a broad range of individuals in the audience we were able to address how you are able to participate in the policy-making process at every career stage. All of our participants said that they had a better understanding of the political process in Montana following the workshop. Our participants also appreciated the opportunity to see and meet people in government and realize how approachable and kind they were to the attendees and to each other. With the partisanship that plays out daily, this aspect struck a chord with the majority of our attendees, as reflected in our follow up surveys. Overall, our participants provided very positive feedback and we are getting requests and inquiries to see if we are going to hold a follow up workshop in 2019. We are very grateful to have had the opportunity to hold this unique event in Bozeman, MT and it has instilled a desire to continue to work towards science-based policies in our local 500WS pod that continues today.

Since the workshop the pod worked on a get out the vote campaign that was headed up by a few participants from our workshop and included a discussion with local candidates in October. We continue to nurture and maintain relationships with the speakers from the workshop and hope to work with them more as the Montana legislative sessions returns in 2019. While our path ahead to continue our work may feel daunting at times we are invigorated by the local community’s support for our cause and the overall need to continue this important fight.


Dr. Emma Kate Loveday is a postdoc working on single cell virology at Montana State University in the laboratory of Dr. Connie Chang. Dr. Loveday earned her B.S. in biochemistry from Suffolk University on Boston and her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia. Her time in Canada provided a unique perspective on US politics. Dr. Loveday is also the leader of the Bozeman 500 W.S. Pod. Follow her on Twitter at @DoctorLoveday, or the Bozeman pod @Bozeman500women.

Dr. Racheal Upton is a postdoctoral researcher with expertise in microbial ecology, particularly above and belowground interactions in prairies and cropping systems. Dr. Upton earned her B.S. in molecular biology from Millersville University, PA and her Ph.D. in microbiology from Iowa State University, Ames, IA. She has a strong passion for mentoring the future generation of female scientists and engaging with her local community. Dr. Upton is one of the co-leaders of the Bozeman 500WS pod and serves as the representative for the local pod to the larger 500WS organization. Follow her on Twitter @erbforscience

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.

Tim Evanson
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A Failure of US Biosecurity: How Federal Regulators Helped a Japanese Beetle Cross the Border https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/a-failure-of-us-biosecurity-how-federal-regulators-helped-a-japanese-beetle-cross-the-border https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/a-failure-of-us-biosecurity-how-federal-regulators-helped-a-japanese-beetle-cross-the-border#respond Mon, 14 Jan 2019 21:28:11 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=63592

With a partial government shutdown now in its 3rd week, many Americans are learning the hard way about the wide range of functions their federal government normally serves. One of those little-known functions is preventing the spread of invasive plants, insects, and other species that threaten native ecosystems and valuable natural resources, costing the United States an estimated $120 billion every year. Just last week, the shutdown forced conference organizers at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to cancel an annual meeting of 300 scientists working to coordinate research and find solutions. Even before the shutdown, however, USDA regulators had failed to fully live up to their obligations—designated by law—to protect US resources from invasive species.

Science-based regulation is essential to control invasive species

L. naganoensis. Photo: World review of Laricobius (Coleoptera: Derodontidae); Zootaxa 2908: 1–44 (2011)

Efforts to control one invasive species sometimes involve introducing another non-native species to serve as “biocontrol” agents. Biocontrol uses natural enemies like predators or parasitoids to control weeds and pests, but this can lead to new problems. And so it was when, in 2010, the USDA permitted release of the biocontrol agent Laricobius osakensis, a beetle native to Japan, for control of the hemlock woolly adelgid—an insect pest that is killing hemlock trees, an important forest species in eastern North America. Colonies of the biocontrol beetle were subsequently found to contain another undescribed beetle species, also a Japan native later named Laricobius naganoensis. The discovery prompted research investigating possible hybridization between L. naganoensis and other species that could become a problem, for example, if varying behavior of hybrids might harm native ecosystems.

However, before scientists could fully understand what L. naganoensis eats, or its other interactions or natural history, its release was also permitted.  In December of 2017, the USDA approved unlimited “…field release of L. naganoensis for the control of HWA” as a contaminant because it “cannot be reasonably eliminated from L. osakensis cultures” despite efforts by researchers to help prevent its release.

Harmful impacts of poorly regulated biocontrol go back decades.  For example, the cane toad introduced to Australia in 1935 to control sugar cane pests instead caused declines in native predators; the small Indian mongoose wiped out native Fijian birds after its introduction for rat control; and the multicolored Asian lady beetle, introduced for aphid control, has become a serious pest to humans and ecosystems in North America and Europe.

Like many of my colleagues in the field of conservation biology, I believed such uninformed releases were a thing of the past. Biocontrol practitioners now agree that agents should be released only after an informed evaluation of potential risks and this consensus dominates the scientific literature, for example, in Bigler et al. 2006, Barratt et al. 2010, Van Driesche & Simberloff 2016Heimpel & Cock 2017, and Heimpel & Mills 2017. Information about the agent—how it behaves and interacts with other species in its native range—is needed to predict impacts in places it will be introduced. The importance of accurate identification of agents and avoidance of contamination, even with related species, has long been recognized. Legal safeguards now exist, for example in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States to ensure that regulatory officials and the public aren’t caught unaware.

A failure of science and public transparency

Unfortunately, in the case of the Japanese beetle L. naganoensis, the safeguards failed. The Plant Protection Act of 2000 (7 U.S.C. § § 7701-7786) requires the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to conduct biocontrol agent permitting and tasks the agency with ensuring the process is transparent, accessible, and based on scientific evidence. This usually happens through public review and comment on a USDA-prepared Environmental Assessment (EA) that presents risks and, if necessary, a subsequent and more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. These documents are supposed to be prepared and made public before permitting decisions happen.

Instead, the first mention of L. naganoensis’ release came via a two-page “final decision” document issued by the USDA in December 2017. That document references an EA associated with L. osakensis that was written before L. naganoensis was known to exist. And it gives this groundless rationale for the permitting decision: because L. naganoensis’ diet is assumed similar to that of other Laricobius species, because L. naganoensis makes up a minor component of L. osakensis colonies, and because L. naganoensis is unlikely to persist owing to difficulty finding mates.

All these assumptions are questionable because scientists simply do not understand L. naganoensis well enough to confirm them. Moreover, the referenced EA was never provided for public review and comment. If it had been, the public would have seen that USDA acknowledges “there are no biological studies on L. naganoensis” and “the feeding rate of adult and larvae of L. naganoensis is unknown”.  In short, the USDA’s finding of “no evidence…[of] adverse environmental effects” is misleading because such a conclusion must be based on review of a substantial amount of evidence, and little is known about L. naganoensis. 

The seriousness of circumventing policy meant to inform and involve the US public and ensure informed decisions is compounded by the irony of allowing introduction of a little-understood species to control a previously introduced invasive species. What could go wrong?


Christy Leppanen is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  She is interested in progressive and collaborative resource and pest management, particularly prevention and practices that minimize non-target impacts.  For more information visit her webpage.

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.

Further Reading:

Leppanen C, Frank D, Simberloff D (2018) Circumventing regulatory safeguards: Laricobius spp. and biocontrol of the hemlock woolly adelgid.  Insect Conservation and Diversity

USDA (2017) Approval of Laricobius naganoensis (Coleoptera: Derodontidae), a Predatory Beetle for Biological Control of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, Adelges tsugae (Hemiptera: Adelgidae), in the Continental United States, Draft Environmental Assessment 2017. Plant Protection and Quarantine, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Riverdale, MD. Publication forthcoming

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Climate Change Is Strengthening Typhoons, Hurricanes and Cyclones. The US Isn’t Paying Attention. https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/climate-change-is-strengthening-typhoons-hurricanes-and-cyclones-the-us-isnt-paying-attention https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/climate-change-is-strengthening-typhoons-hurricanes-and-cyclones-the-us-isnt-paying-attention#respond Mon, 17 Dec 2018 21:25:05 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=63324

On October 25th, one of the worst storms to strike US land hit the islands of Saipan and Tinian, killing two people and destroying thousands of homes. Because of Super Typhoon Yutu, the islands remain without power, and likely will for the months to come. Fresh water is scarce, and recovery efforts are hindered by lack of access and resources. (Read more about this here.)

Typhoons and hurricanes, or more generally, tropical cyclones, are all spinning storms of high winds (sustained winds of 73 miles per hour or greater) and intense weather like thunderstorms. The only nominal difference is the ocean basin where they originate. The most alarming factor they all share is that intensity and frequency of these cyclonic super storms is increasing with climate change.

Accordingly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change will lead to tropical cyclones with higher rainfall, greater intensity, and greater proportion of high intensity (Category 4-5) storms. These changes are largely caused by warming ocean temperatures, which drive cyclonic storm activity. But sea level rise also increases the damage caused by the storms by exacerbating the effects of storm surge, where waves generated by high winds inundate coastal areas.

Big storms ≠ Big coverage

Super Typhoon Yutu is the strongest storm of 2018, a year that included Hurricanes Florence and Michael. However, it received a small fraction of the news coverage. This comes just four years after Typhoon Suedolor, which took our power on Saipan for four months. Likewise, earlier this year Cyclone Gita was the largest storm to hit Tonga, causing devastating damage. Typhoon Mangkhut hit the Philippines as the strongest storm of 2018 months later, and also caused major damage. In addition to each storm being the strongest or one of the strongest seen in years, they share another characteristic. None received widespread media coverage even close to that of the hurricanes in the Caribbean and Atlantic, despite similar or greater damages and fatalities.

Scientists need to communicate the stories of the islands hit by these storms

As scientists, we are trained to collect, or extract, data from our study systems. This process must be altered – we can study systems without being extractive and instead be collaborative. Collecting data about climate change and its impacts, coral reefs, tropical forests, coastal fisheries, etc., must be paired with action to support resiliency in the places that we study.

One way to do that is spreading awareness. Ensure that the stories of those affected by climate change, whose reefs are destroyed or whose fisheries are exploited are lifted, shared, and centered in all climate change discussions. Use your platform on the mainland to bring attention to the lack of media coverage when storms destroy an ecosystem and community’s way of life. Boost the stories of the places that you study, told by the people who are living there. The social dimensions of the places we study are just as important, if not more, as the ecological dimensions.

Fight for evidence-based policy and change

The Fourth National Climate Assessment was released on November 23rd, outlining the extreme exacerbation of climate change’s impacts on communities. The authors wrote,

People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts. Prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities.”

Unfortunately, the President has not heeded the dire warnings of the nation’s top climate scientists, disregarding this report as a worst case scenario. That leaves the broader scientific community with a job – to fight for evidence-based policy and change with regards to climate action. The policies that enable fossil fuels companies to continue spewing carbon dioxide into our atmosphere are enabled by a colonizing government on mainland America. We have a long history of extracting from the Pacific, of dumping our problems in the ocean, and turning our back. But many of us on the mainland also have the power to vote for congressional representation and to work with our representatives to craft and pass meaningful policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions and center climate action, provide resiliency for infrastructure, and boost efforts of climate action that are happening in Oceania.

Climate change is strengthening storms in Oceania. The scientific community, especially those of us who have the privilege to work in Oceania or those of us from these islands, have the responsibility and obligation to spread awareness and impact policy changes.


Alyssa Frederick is a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine where she studies the impact of climate change and disease on abalone, an ecologically and culturally important group of marine snails. As a National Geographic Young Explorer and Fulbright Fellow, her recent work focuses on species both in New Zealand and the western shores of North America. You can find her on twitter and Instagram as @paua_biologist.

Steven Mana`oakamai Johnson is a Ph.D. student in geography at Oregon State University and conducts research on the diffusion of conservation norms in marine social-ecological systems. Steven is a proponent of diversity and inclusion in STEAM and advancing interdisciplinary efforts to tackle conservation and sustainability issues. Steven was born and raised on Saipan and continues to do research in Micronesia.

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.

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Understanding Local Impacts to Inform Wildlife Conservation https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/understanding-local-impacts-to-inform-wildlife-conservation https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/understanding-local-impacts-to-inform-wildlife-conservation#respond Tue, 04 Dec 2018 19:42:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62981
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 in 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
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Hope and a 250-mile Bike Ride Through Colorado with a Mother-Daughter Duo https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/hope-and-a-250-mile-bike-ride-through-colorado-with-a-mother-daughter-duo https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/hope-and-a-250-mile-bike-ride-through-colorado-with-a-mother-daughter-duo#respond Mon, 26 Nov 2018 21:25:41 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62766

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. They hope that their story inspires you to fundraise for the Union of Concerned Scientists or other climate charities by registering at climateride.org. 

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.

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Forensics, Justice, and the Case for Science-Based Decision Making https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/forensics-justice-and-the-case-for-science-based-decision-making https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/forensics-justice-and-the-case-for-science-based-decision-making#comments Wed, 14 Nov 2018 15:01:30 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62616
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 (AAAS).

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.

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How to Make Professional Conferences More Accessible for Disabled People: Guidance from Actual Disabled Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/how-to-make-professional-conferences-more-accessible-for-disabled-people-guidance-from-actual-disabled-scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/how-to-make-professional-conferences-more-accessible-for-disabled-people-guidance-from-actual-disabled-scientists#comments Thu, 08 Nov 2018 15:00:19 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62436
Photo by Yomex Owo/Unsplash.

Attending professional conferences is a key part of life as a scientist. It’s where we present our research, network, and reconnect with colleagues. But for disabled scientists like me, conferences can be inaccessible and frustrating. I talked to several other scientists with a wide range of disabilities about how conferences could be better, and put their advice together in this short summary (also available in a video, if you prefer that).

You should think of this as an introduction to conference accessibility, at best. There are many disabled consultants you can hire to improve your conference, and I highly recommend you do that! They will be able to help you on a much deeper, professional level, and deserve compensation for their time. I’ve also included links to more in-depth resources at the bottom of this page.

Thank you to my friends who helped with this piece: Dr. Alexandra Schober, Dr. Arielle Silverman, Dr. Caroline Solomon, Dawn Fallik, Susanna Harris, and several anonymous contributors. This is part of my Science + Disability series, which is supported by Two Photon Art.


If there’s one thing to remember about etiquette, it’s this:

Talk to disabled scientists about their research. We want to be seen as scientists, not just as disabled people. Avoid saying things like ‘That’s such a cool sign for molecule,’ or, ‘It must be so hard to find signs for all those science words.’”

— Dr. Caroline Solomon

Remember that being an ally can start by just striking up a conversation. You don’t have to go up to a stranger and say, “Wow, you’re the only scientist I’ve ever seen with a medical alert dog. That must be really tough. Can he go in the lab with you? Wow!” Instead, you can just be friendly, the same way you would with anyone else at the conference. I know that I’m far more likely to ask someone for support if I already have a personal relationship with them.

If you think a disabled person needs help, you should always ask them before stepping in. There’s a good chance that they can manage just fine on their own. You can simply ask, “Would you like some help?” and allow them to indicate their preference.

Tell fellow attendees and organizers about these accessibility suggestions! It is exhausting to always have to speak up and ask for accommodations or point out where the problems are. You can lessen that burden by giving your peers gentle reminders to do a better job with accessibility.

Physical Space

What can I say, we like seating options!

Several people had great recommendations around seating. A few of the ideas:

  • Arrange the chairs with plenty of aisles, so that people can easily exit the row to reduce anxiety and/or panic or to allow people with mobility aids enough room to get by.
  • Make chairs available for all speakers, preferably without arms to better accommodate people of all sizes.

Reserve seats at the front of the room for deaf and hard of hearing audience members, or leave some spaces open for wheelchair users.

In a large conference center, provide clear signage and places to rest when trying to get from one room to another. Some conference centers span multiple city blocks and can be exhausting for anyone to navigate, but this becomes even more of a challenge for physically disabled or chronically ill people.

Provide a quiet room where people can go to relax or have some privacy. There should be guidelines that specify that the quiet room is not a place for phone conversations. Quiet rooms are helpful for everyone who needs a break from the busy conference environment, but are also an important space for neurodivergent attendees.

Ask speakers and participants to be scent-free, meaning that (at a minimum) they don’t wear perfume or cologne or use any other scented products. Strong smells can be migraine triggers or distractions for neurodivergent people.


Prepare both digital and printed versions of conference material. Digital materials are more accessible to blind and low vision attendees (for use with screen readers), and printed materials can help people with ADHD or learning disabilities follow along more easily.

Indicate (preferably before the conference starts) whether food and drinks will be present. This helps people with health conditions and/or food allergies plan how much food to bring. Also, make sure you clearly label food with relevant allergens. Food allergies can be life threatening and can be a barrier to full participation if attendees aren’t sure what is in the food.

Presentations and Panels

Always use a microphone, even if you think you don’t need it, you have a loud voice, or it’s a small crowd. You don’t want to put someone who is hard of hearing or deaf in the position of having to publicly request that you use a microphone. Instead, it’s your responsibility to make your program accessible. If you are organizing a conference, make sure to provide the necessary AV equipment in each room and tell all speakers that they must use microphones.

Poster Sessions

Make sure there are volunteer or staff guides available to give directions and/or read posters to blind and low vision attendees. Poster halls are often giant and difficult to navigate, so this is a great example of a disability-related accommodation that would benefit everyone.


Buffets are inaccessible to people who are blind, have low vision, use mobility aids, have arm weakness, can’t stand for long, and many other people. That said, they’re often the fastest and easiest way to feed large groups of people. If a buffet is your only option, have volunteers and/or staff members available to provide assistance.

Create opportunities to socialize without alcohol. People with mental illness may avoid alcohol because of medication interactions, history of trauma, addiction, or a simple preference.

If the reception is being held outside of the convention center/main conference location, tell attendees how far away the event is and whether the venue is accessible. It’s always better to be honest than to hope there’s no problem. For example, if there’s one step to get into the restaurant, just make sure the attendees know that beforehand. Of course, it would be better to choose a fully accessible space for the reception!

Other Resources

There are so many resources available to help you make your events and physical spaces more accessible to disabled people. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Please add a comment below with other resources I should add!


Gabi Serrato Marks is a 4th year PhD candidate in marine geology in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. Her primary research focuses on ancient climate records. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @gserratomarks

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.

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