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Public Health at Stake in Proposed Legislation

Public Health at Stake in Proposed Legislation

Union of Concerned Scientists

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is urging members of Congress to oppose a trio of seemingly innocuous bills that could threaten federal agencies’ ability to create rules based on the best available science.

In a letter sent to House members Nov. 30, UCS asked them to oppose H.R. 10, the Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act; H.R. 527, the Regulatory Flexibility Improvement Act; and H.R. 3010, the Regulatory Accountability Act.

All three bills are up for consideration in the House and, if passed, will undermine the credibility and effectiveness of agencies’ scientific decisions. In some cases, the bills would hurt the very small businesses proponents of these bills say they want to protect.

“While the three pieces of legislation seem to be very different, they are fundamentally the same—Each would make it nearly impossible for federal scientific agencies to fulfill their legislative mandates and fully utilize the best available scientific information to protect public health, safety and the environment,” Francesca Grifo, director of UCS’s Scientific Integrity program, wrote in the letter to lawmakers.

The REINS Act would effectively make it impossible for federal agencies to move forward with meaningful public protections by requiring both houses of Congress to approve any rule with an annual economic impact of $100 million or more. Congress would have to do so within 70 legislative days, a near impossibility given the gridlock that now affects both chambers, Grifo said.

H.R. 527, the Regulatory Flexibility Improvement Act, would subject any regulation that could possibly affect small business to a lengthy review process. That would make it much harder for agencies to respond to emerging hazards ranging from defective toys to new strains of E. coli bacteria in beef.

Grifo noted that agency regulations grounded in science are already subjected to robust review processes that include many opportunities for public comment and afford special consideration to small businesses. While the process is not perfect, Grifo said, these bills would make the process far worse, creating long delays and regulatory uncertainty for businesses, especially if regulations drastically change from one Congress to another.

H.R. 3010, the Regulatory Accountability Act, would force agencies to adopt the least costly rule possible, regardless of how effective the rule may or may not be. Grifo wrote that the bill would make the science underlying federal agency regulation more vulnerable to court challenges, take scientific evaluations out of the hands of experts, and undermine the regulatory process’ scientific integrity.

Grifo noted that had H.R. 3010 had been in effect 20 years ago, it is doubtful that the U.S. would have been able to work with other countries to adopt a ban on CFCs (chloroflourocarbons) in products like refrigerants and hair spray that created a hole in the earth’s ozone layer.

“The legislation creates a framework that virtually guarantees that agencies will not be able to move forward with any effort to protect the public,” concluded Grifo. “It represents a step backwards for federal science and for our system of public protections.”

For more information, click here.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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