A Proposed Science Budget, Hacking Via Sound, and a Fluorescent Frog

6:50 minutes

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This week, President Trump’s White House unveiled its proposed budget for the coming year. Although the document is just a proposal—any actual budgetary action would need to be enacted by Congress—the prospect of cutting the NIH’s budget by 20 percent and the EPA’s by 31 percent startled many. Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum joins Ira to walk through the president’s proposed budget, and other news from the week in science, including the discovery of the world’s first fluorescent frog in South America; a trick that allows researchers to meddle with a smartphone accelerometer using carefully-crafted sounds; and word of vision loss in some patients involved in a stem cell treatment trial.

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow later in the hour we’re going to be talking to author Kim Stanley Robinson about life in a future submerged New York. But first, this week, the White House unveiled the president’s proposed budget with a hefty boost to defense spending and cuts for science. Like slashing the EPA by over 30%.

Joining me now to talk about how science fared and other selected short subjects in science is Amy Nordrum, associate editor at the IEEE Spectrum, back here in our New York studios. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about what are some of the numbers we saw or we should be watching from the proposed White House Budget cuts?

AMY NORDRUM: Sure, this is a $1.1 trillion spending plan for discretionary spending. It represents a cut of about 5.6% over the last fiscal year budget. And so in order to trim that, like you said defense funding has increased, so the scientific agencies have certainly taken a hit.

You mentioned the EPA reduction of 31%, the National Institutes of Health also suffered an 18% proposed reduction. This is a 15-year low for that agency, which has generally received pretty strong bipartisan support. Now they’re doing work on cancer research, looking into heart disease, epidemiology studies, things of that nature.

IRA FLATOW: Now this is just a proposal. Things obviously are can and usually do change once it goes through Congress, right?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. They were calling it a blueprint, and they’re actually putting forward a more detailed proposal in about two months. So we should know more then. I mean there were certain agencies that weren’t even on this plan at all, like the National Science Foundation, and very little was said about the Food and Drug Administration. So we’re still waiting for details about what will happen or what’s the plan in store for those agencies.

IRA FLATOW: Does it look like, in general, an anti-science theme about the budget cuts?

AMY NORDRUM: A lot of agencies across the board received at least some intense reductions. NASA’s budget probably fared the best of any, and it was about a 5% reduction. And also a kind of a change in mission there. They’re telling NASA to maybe stop focusing so much on Earth and look more for deep space science and other planetary exploration. There’s some more subtle changes in there as well that we might see over the next year.

IRA FLATOW: They said they’re going to cut out the Europa mission to go to sample something on Europa, which everybody was hoping for.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah there were a few specific programs that they’ve named that they will actually be cutting or hoping to cut. Another one was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s longtime Sea Grant program that helped support ocean and coastal research at a lot of universities across the country. There were a couple of specific programs named, and then as far as the other budget cuts, we’ll just have to kind of wait and see how those agencies handle them.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to something different. This week news about stem-cell research and the eye that is sort of good and bad news here.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. Stem cells in the right hands seem to be a very promising potential treatment for a lot of different diseases. But there are also a lot of unregulated clinics that are doing treatments here in the United States that can sometimes take a negative turn. There were two interesting reports published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine that show both sides of that picture.

One was from a Nobel Prize-winning team. Stem-cell researchers in Japan did a very careful and meticulous job treating one eye of a single patient from macular degeneration. And they used cells of the retina that were derived from stem cells, injected them into the eye to form a sort of sheet behind the photoreceptors of the eye.

And this treatment, one year after it was done they believe has led to the stopping of the visual loss that you would typically see with macular degeneration. This is considered a success and no adverse effects.

The second report, unfortunately, talked about three patients who received treatment in Florida in which doctors performed liposuction, collected a slurry of cells– some of which were probably stem cells but some of which could have not been– and injected those cells into both eyes of those three patients. Of those three patients, one of them went completely blind and two others suffered substantial visual loss.

So this is just a story of two contrasts here. I mean we’re talking about a very well-done scientific research trial in Japan, very carefully done and meticulous, and then unfortunately these unregulated stem-cell clinics in the US where you don’t really know what you’re getting all the time when you walk in

IRA FLATOW: It’s a cautionary tale about going too quickly, and not doing some peer-reviewed science. You have a story about hacking a phone with sound waves.

AMY NORDRUM: This was a fun demonstration done by the University of Michigan. So in our smartphones and lots of other devices we have accelerometers. And they can tell us which way is up and down and they track the motion of users typically. A team at the University of Michigan has shown they can fool these accelerometers into thinking that they’re moving when they’re really not using sound waves.

So this is an interesting trick. They did it by using the resonant frequency of the accelerometers. So that’s the frequency at which every sound wave, the vibrations within it, reinforce the effect on the accelerometer of the previous sound waves. So you get a larger effect than you would have otherwise.

They used this they did a couple of neat demos. For example, one of them they showed a Fitbit that was logging 2,100 steps in just 40 minutes, and that was because they were broadcasting sound at the right frequency toward the accelerometer.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Good. Great story. Finally, there’s news about a fluorescent frog?

AMY NORDRUM: This is the world’s first fluorescent frog, which is a bit of a tongue-twister.

IRA FLATOW: You did very well.

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you. It was found by some herpetologists at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. And it’s called the South American Polka Dot Tree Frog. Not only does it fluoresce, but it also has red polka dots all over it.

The researchers found that this frog, unlike any other amphibian that we know of and many terrestrial animals, animals, can fluoresce. So that’s different of course than bioluminescence, in which animals produce their own light, such as fireflies. Fluorescence is actually pretty rare in terrestrial animals. It’s a lot more common in ocean creatures. So this was a neat discovery and a fun one for them to explore.

IRA FLATOW But it takes ultraviolet light, black light, for it to flouresce.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. In order for you to be able to see it. So now they’re suggesting herpetologists go around in the forest carrying UV lights so they can shine them over the frogs and see if there’s more species like that.

IRA FLATOW: Does that mean a frog can see UV light? If it fluoresces in it–

AMY NORDRUM: So that is one of the topics that they’re hoping to follow-up study. Can the frog actually see its own fluorescence? Or can the frog see the fluorescence of another frog of its species? And they don’t know that yet. They’re going to be studying the photoreceptors figure that out.

IRA FLATOW: Imagine the wild bedroom photos, posters in the frog’s bedroom with UV light.

AMY NORDRUM: It’s pretty neat trick.

IRA FLATOW: It is a neat trick. Thank you very much, Amy. Amy Nordrum, associate editor at the IEEE Spectrum. Thanks for being with us today.

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