12/20/2019

Congress Approves Public Health Research Funds For Gun Violence Studies

7:43 minutes

This week, a Congressional budget deal approved $25 million in funding for gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health. For years, a 1996 policy known as the Dickey Amendment had been added to annual appropriations bills to largely block federal funding of gun violence research, especially studies coming through the CDC and NIH. The amendment said that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The new $25 million in funding is the first major push back against that policy. 

Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to talk about that news and other stories from the week in science, including the surprisingly active seismic life of Mars, and a DNA treasure trove found trapped in an ancient piece of birch pitch chewing gum, which allowed researchers to profile a woman who lived in what is now Denmark some 5,700 years ago.


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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a senior science reporter with FiveThirtyEight.com. She’s based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Coming up, did you know you may have a Pokémon region in your brain? We’ll talk about how the video game makes a lasting imprint on kids and how neuroscientists are now using those characters as a window into the brain.

But first, for years, Congress has added a policy known as the Dickey Amendment to their annual appropriations bills to largely block federal funding of gun violence research. The amendment was first written in 1996. And it said that, quote, “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the CDC may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This week, a Congressional budget deal started to push back against that, as they approved $25 million in funding for gun violence research at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.

Joining me to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight. She joins me from Minneapolis. Welcome back, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: So tell us, what’s going on with this budget line for gun violence research? Is this something absolutely new?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, it’s not exactly new. So a lot of places have been calling it the first federal funding for gun violence studies in 20 years, which is not exactly correct. Because federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, have been funding this all along. But it is a symbolic victory for the doctors and the scientists who think that gun violence should be studied more like the way that we study public health crises, including other kinds of fatal injuries.

And it’s also a branch of funding that’s likely to be put towards different kinds of research than what you see from the Department of Justice. So the CDC and the NIH, they are looking at gun violence in a very different way through that lens of public health rather than through the lens of criminal justice.

IRA FLATOW: Hm, that’s interesting. Let’s talk a bit about the history of how we got there. What is the story behind the sort of ban on gun violence research?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so back in 1996– well, back in the early ’90s, there were a couple of papers that were published that were sort of looking at the question of whether guns make us safer or less safe, whether having a gun in the home is something that is likely to make you less likely to be a victim of violence or whether people with guns in the home are more likely to be victims of violence.

And this was a very public health way of looking at gun violence, and it was something that gun rights advocates like the National Rifle Association, though, felt was a backdoor to gun control. So that ended up leading to an amendment in the 1996 spending bill that basically was kind of putting a limit on public health research of gun violence specifically. But scientists say that that’s actually a really important branch of gun violence research to do because it helps us answer a lot of questions about gun deaths that aren’t related to crimes.

So suicide, for instance, is the biggest cause of gun death by far in the United States. And the people who use guns to kill themselves, they’re often legal gun owners. So if you’re looking at gun violence only as a criminal justice problem, it’s a lot harder to study things like suicide. So this money ends up being really important to the kinds of studies that scientists say aren’t getting done enough.

IRA FLATOW: So where does the research go from here? What are the next steps?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, this is a really small amount of money. It’s kind of more of a symbolic victory than a real one yet. And it’s about half of what Democrats originally asked for. But it is there, and it is going to be useful. But don’t expect the situation to be settled. There are a lot more fights on this left to come.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move on to another topic, an interesting topic. There’s news this week about a fun word to say, Mars quakes. Not earthquakes, Mars quakes.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Mars quakes, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Not a candy bar.

MAGGIE KOERTH: We’re living in the future. We’re talking about Mars quakes. So just seven months ago, NASA landed this Insight Rover that had found the first known Mars quake, the first known earthquake happening on Mars. And now they’re finding that there’s actually a whole lot of shaking going on. Insight has documented about two quakes a day in the year that it’s been on the Martian surface. And that number actually seems to be on the rise.

And that’s kind of a big deal, because until we landed Insight and started finding these Mars quakes, we weren’t entirely sure whether earthquakes were a thing that even happened on Mars. So I was looking at one paper. I was looking at an article from back in 2012 that scientists were estimating then that a Mars quake happened once every million years. And now we know it’s about twice a day.

IRA FLATOW: Twice a day. So this is a really big discovery then.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, it’s a really big change in what we thought was happening and how we thought that Mars worked. One of the things that makes this really interesting is you know plate tectonics, where you have these giant chunks of the Earth’s crust that move around over millions of years. We’re not sure still how that happens on Mars, or whether it even happens on Mars. So knowing that there are earthquakes happening means that we are learning a little bit more about how the geology of that planet works.

IRA FLATOW: How strong would these quakes be classified? Are they strong, weak?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Oh, they’re real weak. They have to measure these things at night because if they do it during the day, there’s too much wind. And the wind can end up affecting the measurements almost as much as the earthquakes themselves. It’s very, very tiny. The two biggest ones that they found were magnitude 4. But knowing that they’re there is still a kind of a big difference.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ll bet. Lastly, you have some really cool news about chewing gum that’s thousands of years old.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, 57-year-old– 5,700, excuse me, year old chewing gum. Scientists found a hardened wad of birch tree pitch, which is this kind of blackish brown goo that you make by heating up birch bark. And it’s been used for thousands of years for a glue, for putting on the insides of boats to keep them waterproof. And there’s also been these theories that people chewed it, either to make it more pliable or even just as like a gum thing.

So they found this wad of it in Denmark, preserved in the mud, and it had teeth marks in it. And it was preserved well enough that researchers were able to pull a whole complete human genome out of this wad of chewed pitch. And it’s actually the first time that anybody has extracted an entire human genome from something other than bone.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So even back then, if you want to keep your privacy, don’t spit out your gum. This was what it is.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, because now we know a whole bunch about this lady. We know she was a lady. We know she probably had dark hair and dark skin and blue eyes. We know that she was lactose intolerant.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, no kidding.

MAGGIE KOERTH: We know she’s been eating a lot of duck and hazelnuts. There’s all sorts of things we know about her.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Maggie, that’s terrific. That’s a great year-ender for you. Thank you very much, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: And have a happy holiday. Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight, we’ll see you next year.

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As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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