Tom Zeller Jr.
The latest weekly news roundup from Undark: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigns, hybrid rhino embryos spark hope, and more.
It was a Tweet from President Trump that environmental organizations, many scientists, and no shortage of flabbergasted citizens had actually been yearning for: “I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,” the president declared on Twitter Thursday afternoon, adding that Pruitt — who was the subject of more than a dozen investigations into sundry charges of influence peddling, nepotism, and conflicts of interest — had done “an outstanding job”.
The resignation — which the president insisted was not forced — sent shockwaves through social media, and immediately triggered scrutiny of Pruitt’s successor (for now), EPA deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist and climate change skeptic who nonetheless was portrayed as a more buttoned-down, bureaucratic alternative to Pruitt’s somewhat self-interested and acquisitive style of leadership.
Whether the shakeup will come with any sort of course adjustment for the environmental agency, which has spent most of its energy under Trump dismantling or stonewalling environmental protections in favour of industry-friendly policies, remains unclear — though there appeared to be little reason for environment-minded stakeholders to expect a turnabout. “Before everyone gets excited about Pruitt, remember we’re going to get all the same horrific policy under Andrew Wheeler, without any of the comic, attention-drawing personal corruption,” Vox columnist David Roberts declared on Twitter. “There’s no happy ending to this story.”
Case in point: Trump’s EPA is currently working to roll back the ambitions of an Obama-era study that sought to bring more of the nation’s waterways under the protections of the federal Clean Water Act. The problem, agency officials now say, is that the Obama report was too … empirical.
“It’s baffling for a science-based agency,” said Ken Kopocis, who headed up the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water under Obama, in an E&E News story published just a few hours before news of Pruitt’s departure broke, “to say that they relied too much on science”.
Also in the news
• In an effort to save the critically endangered northern white rhino, a group of European scientists have created hybrid rhino embryos, the start of a project that they hope will eventually help to rebuild the nearly vanished population. In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the researchers note that this is the first time such viable embryos have been created for the species and add that the technique “could have broader impact if applied with similar success to other endangered large mammalian species”. But they and other scientists caution that such research advances are only a small part of saving species from extinction. If the northern white rhino goes extinct, says study co-author Thomas Hildebrandt, biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, it won’t be because science didn’t have some answers. It will be “because it is not bulletproof”. (Science News)
• There’s at least one thing Americans across the political spectrum still have in common: They’re strongly in support of government investments in science and medical research. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, 57 per cent of Americans believe government funding is essential for scientific progress, while 42 per cent say private funding alone will ensure enough progress is made. But even that gap has been steadily widening since 2001, when there was no significant divide between parties on the issue. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Partisan divides over budget issues have long existed, and are not limited to scientific research. Last year, a survey also conducted by the Pew Research Center found that Republicans were less likely than Democrats to favour increased spending on 11 of 14 government programs, including health care, veterans benefits, education, and environmental protection. They were, however, more likely than Democrats to support spending increases on military defence and anti-terrorism. (Pew Research Center)
• Records obtained this week by ProPublica Illinois are raising even more troubling questions in the case of Dr Mani Pavuluri, a prominent pediatric psychiatrist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who resigned last weekend amid misconduct charges relating to her clinical trial studying the effects of lithium on children. Pavuluri is accused of violating numerous protocols and recommendations in mounting the study, including administering lithium to children under 13, failing to alert parents to the study’s health risks, and falsifying data to hide her misconduct. Dr Pavuluri’s research program was shut down by the National Institute of Mental Health when a child enrolled in the study fell ill. Later, NIMH ordered UIC to repay $3.1 million in grant money upon determining that university failed to provide adequate oversight and ensure the safety of its participants. Records obtained by ProPublica Illinois this week further reveal that Pavuluri enrolled her own sons, ages 10 and 14, in the study, a violation of the university’s protocols and widely-accepted ethical practices. (ProPublica)
• And finally, if someone flirted with your girlfriend, would you break a beer bottle over his head? Some people would, apparently: 40 volunteers in a study by scientists in Singapore and at the University of Pennsylvania rated the likelihood that they’d do something similar at an average of 2.19 on a scale of 0 to 10. But then the scientists tried a novel intervention, delivering a small amount of electrical current to the brains of a second group of volunteers (in a region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, behind the top of the forehead). That group reported only half the likelihood of committing such an assault (1.15 on the 0-to-10 scale), and there was an even greater decline in the likelihood of committing date rape — 0.26 compared with 0.86 in the control group. The researchers suggested that the intervention, transcranial direct-current stimulation, might offer “a new, different approach to try and reduce crime and violence in society.” But they had to acknowledge that when the volunteers were asked to commit actual, if simulated, violence — sticking pins in a voodoo doll representing a close friend — the brain stimulation appeared to have no effect. (The Guardian)