You’re Fired! Trump Administration Shows Experts the Door
By Elliott Negin
An essential component of the Trump administration's campaign to roll back regulations that it considers "burdensome" is getting rid of experts whose inconvenient truth-telling refutes the rationale for its pro-industry agenda.
During its first two years in office, the administration pushed more than 1,600 federal scientists out the door, most notably "social scientists, soil conservationists, hydrologists and experts in the physical sciences — chemistry, geology, astronomy and physics," according to a recent Washington Post investigation.
At the same time the administration has been sidelining, muzzling and sacking federal scientists, it has been eliminating independent advisory committees that in some cases have been providing technical advice to the government for decades.
According to a General Services Agency (GSA) database, in fiscal year 2018 there were approximately 1,000 committees with more than 60,000 members advising federal agencies on a range of issues, from pollution control to nutrition guidelines to transportation safety. Nearly 600 of the committees are required by law. Each of them are made up of top experts from academia, industry and state, federal and tribal governments who volunteer to meet one to a dozen times a year, produce reports and provide recommendations. This extraordinarily cost-effective resource has made Americans healthier, the environment cleaner, and U.S. neighborhoods and workplaces safer.
The Trump administration started shutting down advisory committees soon after it took office, but on June 14 of last year, the president issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies to purge at least a third of the roughly 400 non-mandated panels by the end of September. Neither the White House nor the GSA has released a list of terminated committees, but my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), has been able to confirm that more than 50 have been targeted for elimination thus far and at least 10 were cut as a result of the executive order.
"For the past few years, the administration has been shrinking the role of advisory committees, and now it is making it even more difficult for agencies to access unvarnished scientific and technological advice," said Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst for the UCS Center for Science and Democracy. "If agencies won't listen to their own scientists or the independent experts who have donated their time year in and year out, the government will be flying blind."
Kill the Messenger
It is difficult to determine just how many committees have been killed because their websites — if they still exist — do not necessarily indicate their status. For example, the Interior Department notified the 12 members of its National Invasive Species Council (ISAC) in an early May 2019 phone call that their charter was ending in the fall. The council, which had been advising the department since 1999 on how to prevent and control invasive species that cost the United States more than $100 billion annually, was eliminated due to "budget constraints," according to the call minutes.
As of this writing, there is nothing on the council's home page that mentions its demise, but on a page listing the papers it produced from 2006 through last May, directly under the headline "Invasive Species Advisory Committee Products," it reads: "Note: ISAC is presently in an administratively inactive status." Apparently that's bureaucratese for "dead." At least three other Interior Department advisory committees met a similar fate before Trump issued his executive order.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scrapped at least two advisory committees: the 16-member Environmental Laboratory Advisory Board, which was founded in 1995, and the 27-member National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, founded in 1988. The EPA deleted their pages on its website.
The Environmental Laboratory Advisory Board, which counseled the EPA on testing protocols to ensure communities have safe drinking water, met a dozen times in 2018 and five times last year. At its last meeting, on May 15, the board discussed state drinking water testing protocols and testing for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination. The chemicals, which have poisoned the drinking water of more than 110 million Americans, have been linked to cancer and low infant birth rates.
The National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, which advised the agency on general environmental management and technological innovation, held its last meeting last July, its only meeting in 2019. It met three times in 2016, twice in 2017, and once in 2018. According to its now defunct web page, the council convened some 30 subcommittees and worked with more than 900 stakeholder groups since its inception and published more than 80 reports that made more than 1,500 recommendations to the EPA administrator. Most recently it provided suggestions on incorporating environmental justice communities into the agency's policymaking process.
The Commerce Department, meanwhile, canned the 19-member Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee and the 11-member National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) Smart Grid Advisory Committee.
As its name suggests, the marine committee — founded in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration — consulted with Commerce on designing, monitoring and enforcing marine sanctuaries. It did not meet in 2019, but it held three meetings in 2018 and four in 2017. A notice at the top of the committee's website states: "As of September 30, 2019, the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee has been terminated through [the June 14, 2019,] Executive Order 13875."
The Smart Grid Advisory Committee advised NIST on how to improve the electricity grid by incorporating energy meters, smart appliances and other digital components. It held its last meeting last June. It met twice in 2019, once in 2018, and twice in 2016. Unlike the marine committee, the smart grid committee's page on the NIST website does not mention that it was terminated.
Forging Ahead Without Federal Support
Two dismissed advisory groups have taken the unprecedented initiative to meet on their own: the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment, and the Particulate Matter Review Panel, which were terminated in August 2017 and October 2018, respectively.
The 15-member climate change committee was established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2015 to distill the conclusions of the quadrennial National Climate Assessment so that state and local governments could integrate them into their adaptation and mitigation plans. The Trump administration terminated the committee in August 2017 after the president announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.
With support from the American Meteorological Society, Columbia University's Earth Institute and New York State, 10 of the original members began working together again in January 2018. Since then, the group has doubled its size, renamed itself the Independent Advisory Committee on Applied Climate Assessment, released a report in an American Meteorological Society journal, and launched the Science to Climate Action Network to provide recommendations for updating infrastructure and building codes, reducing wildfire risk, managing flooding, and cutting carbon emissions.
Before it was sacked, the Particulate Matter (PM) Review Panel advised the EPA's congressionally mandated, seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which was established in 1978 to review the most recent scientific findings to ensure current air pollution standards adequately protect public health.
The EPA created this iteration of the PM panel in 2015 to evaluate the latest science on the microscopic particles emitted from smokestacks, tailpipes, farmland and wildfires that can cause respiratory, cardiovascular and other diseases, as well as — and especially — premature death. Fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less (PM2.5) were responsible for more than 88,000 premature U.S. deaths in 2015, alone, according to a 2017 Lancet study, more than all firearm and traffic deaths that year combined. Today, more than 20 million Americans live in areas that exceed current particulate pollution standards.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former coal industry lobbyist — axed the PM panel in October 2018 and replaced all but one of the scientists on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee with appointees from industry and Republican-controlled state agencies.
With UCS's help, the dismissed PM experts reconvened their group, which they now call the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel. Last October, the panel's 20 members met for two days and issued a 183-page report that concluded the current federal particle standards are inadequate. They recommended that the EPA lower the current annual limit for PM2.5 by as much as a third.
The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which acknowledged it was out of its depth and asked Wheeler to reconvene the PM panel, disagreed with the panel's conclusions. In mid-December, the committee sent a letter to Wheeler recommending that the current PM standards "be retained."
Pushback From Scientists and Legislators
The scientific community and some members of Congress have mounted an effort to blunt the administration's assault on expertise.
Last October, nearly 80 scientific, environmental and public health organizations sent a letter to the White House calling on the president to rescind his executive order, arguing that it "arbitrarily eliminate[s] essential advice that informs government decisionmaking."
"The justification for this order is to reduce costs to the government, but advisory committees provide substantial value to agencies for costs far below those of hiring additional staff or contractors to perform the duties they fulfill," the letter continued. "… Gathering premier experts who volunteer their time to deliberate on pressing matters is a bargain for taxpayers."
The administration did not respond.
In Congress, House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson sent letters to eight agencies asking how they planned to implement the executive order and how it could undermine their ability to solicit independent expert advice. Meanwhile, Reps. Sean Casten, Mike Quigley and Paul Tonko introduced the Preserve Science in Policymaking Act, which would prevent the president from shuttering federal advisory committees without the approval of Congress or key career officers at the agency that created them. It also would require public notice of termination and a comment period. It is unlikely that the House will take up the bill any time soon, however, and — if enacted — it would not revive any committees that have already been eliminated.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexander Richard Braczkowski, Christopher O'Bryan, Duan Biggs, and Raymond Jansen
A Cute But Threatened Species<p><a href="https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/what-is-a-pangolin" target="_blank">Pangolins</a> are the only mammals wholly-covered in scales, which they use to protect themselves from predators. They can also curl up into a tight ball.</p><p>They eat mainly ants, termites and larvae which they pick up with their sticky tongue. They can grow up to 1m in length from nose to tail and are sometimes referred to as scaly anteaters.</p><p>But <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128155073000332" title="Chapter 33 - Conservation strategies and priority actions for pangolins" target="_blank">all eight</a> pangolin species are classified as "<a href="https://www.pangolins.org/tag/endangered-species/" target="_blank">threatened</a>" under International Union for Conservation of Nature <a href="https://www.iucnredlist.org/search?query=pangolin&searchType=species" target="_blank">criteria</a>.</p><p>There is an unprecedented demand for their scales, primarily from countries in Asia and <a href="https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12389" title="Assessing Africa‐Wide Pangolin Exploitation by Scaling Local Data" target="_blank">Africa</a> where they are used in food, cultural remedies and <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/141072b0" title="Chinese Medicine and the Pangolin" target="_blank">medicine</a>.</p><p>Between 2017 and 2019, seizures of pangolin scales <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/02/pangolin-scale-trade-shipments-growing/" target="_blank">tripled in volume</a>. In 2019 alone, 97 tons of pangolin scales, equivalent to about 150,000 animals, were <a href="https://oxpeckers.org/2020/03/nigeria-steps-up-for-pangolins/" target="_blank">reportedly</a> intercepted leaving Africa.</p>
Reintroduction of an Extinct Species<p>Each year in South Africa the African Pangolin Working Group (<a href="https://africanpangolin.org/" target="_blank">APWG</a>) retrieves between 20 and 40 pangolins through intelligence operations with security forces.</p><p>These pangolins are often-traumatised and injured and are admitted to the <a href="http://www.johannesburgwildlifevet.com/our-hospital" target="_blank">Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital</a> for extensive medical treatment and rehabilitation before they can be considered for release.</p><p>In 2019, seven rescued Temminck's pangolins were reintroduced into South Africa's <a href="https://www.andbeyond.com/destinations/africa/south-africa/kwazulu-natal/phinda-private-game-reserve/" target="_blank">Phinda Private Game Reserve</a> in the KwaZulu Natal Province.</p><p>Nine months on, five have survived. This reintroduction is a world first for a region that last saw a viable population of this species in the 1980s.</p><p>During the release, every individual pangolin followed a strict regime. They needed to become familiar with their new surroundings and be able to forage efficiently.</p>
A ‘Soft Release’ in to the Wild<p>The process on Phinda game reserve involved a more gentle ease into re-wilding a population in a region that had not seen pangolins for many decades.</p><p>The soft release had two phases:</p><ol><li>a pre-release observational period</li><li>an intensive monitoring period post release employing GPS satellite as well as VHF tracking tags.</li></ol>
Why Pangolin Reintroduction is Important<p>We know so little about this group of mammals that are vastly understudied and hold many secrets yet to be discovered by science but are on the verge of collapse.</p><p>The South African and Phinda story is one of hope for the Temminck's pangolin where they once again roam the savanna hills and plains of Zululand.</p><p>The process of relocating these trade animals back into the wild has taken many turns, failures and tribulations but, the recipe of the "soft release" is working.</p>
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By Jake Johnson
In a move that environmentalists warned could further imperil hundreds of endangered species and a protected habitat for the sake of profit, President Donald Trump on Friday signed a proclamation rolling back an Obama-era order and opening nearly 5,000 square miles off the coast of New England to commercial fishing.
Why You Should Wash Fresh Produce<p>Global pandemic or not, properly washing fresh fruits and vegetables is a good habit to practice to minimize the ingestion of potentially harmful residues and germs.</p><p>Fresh produce is handled by numerous people before you purchase it from the grocery store or the farmers market. It's best to assume that not every hand that has touched fresh produce has been clean.</p><p>With all of the people constantly bustling through these environments, it's also safe to assume that much of the <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/fresh-vs-frozen-fruit-and-vegetables" target="_blank">fresh produce</a> you purchase has been coughed on, sneezed on, and breathed on as well.</p><p>Adequately washing fresh fruits and vegetables before you eat them can significantly reduce residues that may be left on them during their journey to your kitchen.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Washing fresh fruits and vegetables is a proven way to remove germs and unwanted residues from their surfaces before eating them.</p>
Best Produce Cleaning Methods<p>While rinsing fresh produce with water has long been the traditional method of preparing fruits and veggies before consumption, the current pandemic has many people wondering whether that's enough to really clean them.</p><p>Some people have advocated the use of soap, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/white-vinegar" target="_blank">vinegar</a>, lemon juice, or even commercial cleaners like bleach as an added measure.</p><p>However, health and food safety experts, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC), strongly urge consumers not to take this advice and stick with plain water.</p><p>Using such substances may pose further health dangers, and they're unnecessary to remove the most harmful residues from produce. <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/chlorine-poisoning" target="_blank">Ingesting commercial cleaning chemicals</a> like bleach can be lethal and should never be used to clean food.</p><p>Furthermore, substances like lemon juice, vinegar, and produce washes have not been shown to be any more effective at cleaning produce than plain water — and may even leave additional deposits on food.</p><p>While some research has suggested that using neutral electrolyzed water or a baking soda bath can be even more effective at removing certain substances, the consensus continues to be that cool tap water is sufficient in most cases.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>The best way to wash fresh produce before eating it is with cool water. Using other substances is largely unnecessary. Plus they're often not as effective as water and gentle friction. Commercial cleaners should never be used on food.</p>
How to Wash Fruits and Vegetables With Water<p>Washing fresh fruits and vegetables in cool water before eating them is a good practice when it comes to health hygiene and food safety.</p><p>Note that fresh produce should not be washed until right before you're ready to eat it. Washing fruits and vegetables before storing them may create an environment in which bacterial growth is more likely.</p><p>Before you begin washing fresh produce, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-should-you-wash-your-hands" target="_blank">wash your hands well</a> with soap and water. Be sure that any utensils, sinks, and surfaces you're using to prepare your produce are also thoroughly cleaned first.</p><p>Begin by cutting away any bruised or visibly rotten areas of fresh produce. If you're handling a fruit or vegetable that'll be peeled, such as an orange, wash it before peeling it to prevent any surface bacteria from entering the flesh.</p><p>The general methods to wash produce are as follows:</p><ul><li><strong>Firm produce.</strong> Fruits with firmer skins like apples, lemons, and pears, as well as <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/root-vegetables" target="_blank">root vegetables</a> like potatoes, carrots, and turnips, can benefit from being brushed with a clean, soft bristle to better remove residues from their pores.</li><li><strong>Leafy greens.</strong> Spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, leeks, and cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and bok choy should have their outermost layer removed, then be submerged in a bowl of cool water, swished, drained, and rinsed with fresh water.</li><li><strong>Delicate produce.</strong> Berries, mushrooms, and other types of produce that are more likely to fall apart can be cleaned with a steady stream of water and gentle friction using your fingers to remove grit.</li></ul><p>Once you have thoroughly rinsed your produce, dry it using a clean paper or cloth towel. More fragile produce can be laid out on the towel and gently patted or rolled around to dry them without damaging them.</p><p>Before consuming your fruits and veggies, follow the simple steps above to minimize the amount of germs and substances that may be on them.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Most fresh fruits and veggies can gently be scrubbed under cold running water (using a clean soft brush for those with firmer skins) and then dried. It can help to soak, drain, and rinse produce that has more dirt-trapping layers.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Practicing good food hygiene is an important health habit. Washing fresh produce helps minimize surface germs and residues that could make you sick.</p><p>Recent fears during the <a href="https://www.healthline.com/coronavirus" target="_blank">COVID-19 pandemic</a> have caused many people to wonder whether more aggressive washing methods, such as using soap or commercial cleaners on fresh produce, are better.</p><p>Health professionals agree that this isn't recommended or necessary — and could even be dangerous. Most fruits and vegetables can be sufficiently cleaned with cool water and light friction right before eating them.</p><p>Produce that has more layers and surface area can be more thoroughly washed by swishing it in a bowl of cool water to remove dirt particles.</p><p>Fresh fruits and vegetables offer a number of healthy nutrients and should continue to be eaten, as long as safe cleaning methods are practiced.</p>
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>