01/08/2021

Trump’s New EPA ‘Transparency’ Rule Could Hamper Science

12:11 minutes

a White man in a suit in front of a microphone with a wall that says "national press club" behind him
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at the National Press Club on June 3, 2019. Credit: Shutterstock

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency passed the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated that “the American public has the right to know what scientific studies underline the Agency’s regulatory decisions.” 

But critics say that this outgoing policy by the Trump administration can be used to hamper new environmental regulations. Amy Nordrum lines out the policy and other science headlines from the week. 

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is commissioning 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. Deaths from Covid-19 are setting new records– topping 4,100 per day this week. Covid-19 vaccinations in the US have been rolling out for nearly four weeks. Some people are fearful of taking the shot. They say they are concerned about possible side effects. This week, the CDC published a study looking at a handful of allergic reactions to the vaccine.

Amy Nordrum is here to fill us in on that story and other science headlines from the week. She’s an editor at MIT Technology Review. Always good to see you, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. All right. Let’s get into our questions about this. Everyone is interested in the possible side effects of these vaccines. Politicians were taking them on camera to show it was safe. What did the CDC data tell us?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, there have been a few severe allergic reactions to the coronavirus vaccines being rolled out right now. But they’ve been very few, so fewer than two dozen for almost two million people who are covered in that new CDC report about it.

And when the CDC announced these numbers on Wednesday, the agency emphasized that these reactions are rare, and that the benefit of getting the vaccine and being protected against the virus far outweighs the risk of any allergic reaction.

IRA FLATOW: And we know allergic reactions to some people do happen with all vaccines, right?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, that’s right. They can happen with flu vaccines as well, though it’s extremely rare in that case. And in the case of the coronavirus vaccines, they mostly happen in people who have had a history of allergies. If it does happen, it’s treatable. The CDC is suggesting that you stay on site for 15 to 30 minutes after you’re vaccinated just in case, as a precaution. The virus killed 4,000 people just yesterday, as you said. It was the deadliest day yet in the pandemic. So it’s still definitely worth getting vaccinated when you have the chance.

IRA FLATOW: Later in the hour, we’re going to fact check your feed and talk more about vaccine news that has been popping up. Let’s move on to your next story. There are less than two weeks until inauguration day. And President Trump is rolling back some rules, issuing new ones on his way out. One rule that was finalized is the EPA’s transparency rule. What does this rule do?

AMY NORDRUM: Right. This rule announced on Tuesday. It’s effective immediately. And it changes what evidence the agency can consider when it’s making decisions or publishing guidance or information to the public. The rule basically says the agency should give more weight to scientific studies with data that’s publicly available and less weight to studies that rely on data that hasn’t been made public.

And so, the EPA said that this is for the sake of transparency. But critics have said that this will make it harder for the EPA to include important studies that haven’t been published publicly, perhaps because they have sensitive health or medical information about people who participated in the studies, who were promised confidentiality. And in particular, critics are worried about what this might mean for studies used in toxicology and epidemiology to determine someone’s exposure to the risk of something like a chemical substance.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re basically saying that this rule is an attack on science.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. The American Lung Association has come out against it, the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association. The EPA’s own scientific advisors had said that this rule could make the EPA less efficient. Obviously a lot of these groups are for having more data publicly available. And they’re for data transparency whenever possible. But the scientific community in this case is arguing that we shouldn’t demote this other important group of studies that don’t have public data available, but which are still scientifically very useful and valid.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know how the Biden administration might handle this rule? Could it roll back some of these rulings?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. There’s many changes that the Trump administration has made to environmental rules that Biden administration might take another look at. Trump administration has also loosened restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas wells, just as one example.

So Biden administration could certainly change this. And in the meantime, the rule does allow the EPA administrator to grant exemptions to this rule. So in the meantime, they could use that to kind of work around it if they want.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to your next story because it’s really an interesting one about a law that would create a White House AI– artificial intelligence office. Tell us about that.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. So a week ago, on New Year’s Day, the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act became law. It was kind of tucked into this very long defense bill that Congress had passed and President Trump vetoed. And then, Congress overrode the veto to make it law.

And this one chunk– this AI act– lays out basically a national strategy for how the government plans to invest in AI research moving forward. It was supported by many large research universities and engineering associations, and by companies like Google and Amazon and IBM that are active in this research.

And it does a number of things. It creates a White House AI Office to coordinate AI research. And it expands a network of AI research centers that were already operating under the National Science Foundation. And it also gives billions in new funding in that to AI research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

So there’s a lot of different changes that this has laid out. Funds would still need to be appropriated by Congress in order to make all of this actually happen. But now the plan is in place. The framework is there.

IRA FLATOW: Whenever AI technology comes up, there is also a conversation about ethics and how it will affect people, and not equally. How will this tech– should be used? Will this office put that conversation in the spotlight, too?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, there’s a number of things that this act could do on that question specifically. So the funding that would go to NIST in particular would be focused on creating standards and guidelines for trustworthy AI, and how we should think about that, and how programs should be designed with ethics in mind.

And then, a few of those centers– the research centers that have already started up are focused on specific topics that might help improve people’s lives through AI research. So there’s two in coordination with the USDA studying how AI could be applied to agriculture.

Biden administration has also been supportive of these centers. And the National Science Foundation has a number of funding programs already devoted to fairness and ethics and AI research, too. So more of those could certainly come or be expanded under this new act.

IRA FLATOW: That leads me to ask you, do we know where some of the federal projects are located? What are the projects that this office will fund?

AMY NORDRUM: They haven’t gotten specific into the projects yet. They have mostly focused on supporting more of these centers. And then, typically the National Science Foundation decides how to award that money, where to grant it moving forward if it is funded.

So there are seven centers already now in place. And so, this funding would likely expand those centers and provide more universities and companies with opportunities to get that funding.

IRA FLATOW: We know there was this huge hack of government agencies and computers. And officials say it was from the Russians. Would this law combat that or affect it somehow? Or is that a totally different area?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, cyber security– AI is increasingly being used in cybersecurity. And there are programs within the NSF and probably also within this act that would contribute to research in that area. It’s hard to say whether it would have prevented it in that specific case. It would depend on what that research was able to do. But there will be more funding through this act, certainly for AI for the purposes of national security and for cybersecurity in particular.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let’s move on to another story you’re working on. And that is a disease that has been affecting sea stars that scientists have been studying for years. We have reported on that here on Science Friday. There’s a new idea about what might be causing this.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right, yeah. Millions of sea stars have died from what’s called sea star wasting disease. That causes them to shrink up and turn colors and eventually die. And for a while, researchers thought this was caused by some kind of virus, or maybe a bacteria. But this week, a new study in Frontiers in Microbiology showed that wasting disease is actually caused by the sea stars’ surrounding environment and not some kind of pathogen.

So the sea stars need to absorb oxygen from the water in order to survive. But if there’s enough microorganisms right around them, the microorganisms take up all the oxygen. And there isn’t enough for the sea star. So it basically suffocates. And those researchers now believe that these microorganisms that never actually touch the sea star itself that are just kind of floating in the water around it are the cause of this very common disease.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know what is changing the water around it? Could it be climate change playing a role here?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, definitely. Climate change is definitely playing in a role here. The driving factors that they’ve been able to identify are things like sudden changes in water temperature that create more microorganisms in the water, high concentrations of ammonia in the water, upwelling of nutrients from down below, deeper in the water.

Climate change is driving a number of changes, including just decreasing the amount of oxygen in sea water generally and increasing microbial activity. And so, it makes it a more difficult problem to solve because it’s not as simple as just a virus or one single pathogen, which in itself wouldn’t be an easy problem to tackle. But it’s this very multifaceted problem of climate change.

IRA FLATOW: It’s always been talked about that climate change is usually not the only cause of something, especially when we’re talking about water and how it affects the life in it. Usually they say, it’s also probably run off from agricultural fertilizers things like that, that cause the blooms in the water and suck up the oxygen.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, definitely. Anything that would increase that microbial activity or contribute to sudden changes in the water temperature could play a role here, and even the type of sea star itself. They found that sea stars with rougher surfaces were more susceptible to this because water moves more slowly over the top of them than it does over smoother sea stars. So the oxygen in the water isn’t as quickly replenished. So there’s even some differences among the sea stars themselves that make them more or less susceptible to this.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. I never thought about that– different surfaces of the sea stars. Final story for you because I can relate to this story–

[LAUGHTER]

There is a neat story about a group of scientists who have created conductive ink. Is this really new?

AMY NORDRUM: , Well it has been possible for a while to use printers and conductive inks of different kinds to print an electronic circuit onto a surface or an object. You can make this kind of ink by mixing a highly conductive material like graphene or carbon nanotubes into water.

But researchers at Wuhan University in China found a way to make it so that this ink could be used not just in a printer, but in a ballpoint pen. So it’s the first of its kind and the cheapest of its kind to be used in a ballpoint pen, which means it’s possible to draw circuits wherever you like very quickly. And you don’t need a printer in order to do that.

IRA FLATOW: I thought this was something hobbyists did. I remember when I was 15, 16, 17– when I was a teenager, I used to create printed circuits. And we would use conductive ink or just the opposite of that. And I know that back in the 1860s when there was something called the pantelegraph, which was the forerunner of the fax machine. That used conductive ink on it. And that’s why I say it’s not a new idea. But can I buy this pen? I’d love to get a hold of one of these pens.

[LAUGHTER]

Can I get it yet?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, actually, they do have a company. They’re making a bunch of these pens with their conductive ink inside of it. They say they cost about $1– only $1 each. Right now they’re using these pens in schools to teach kids about electricity. So I don’t know if they’re much more widely available beyond that. But they’re certainly getting these produced and getting them out there.

IRA FLATOW: I love it. I love it. Thank you very much, Amy– great way to end your reporting.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum is commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review.

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