Energy, Environment, and Conservation

  • The first 20 miles of Trump’s border wall have begun construction. The wall will be up to 30 feet tall and extend east from El Paso to replace current vehicle barriers. Conservations groups sued the administration, but Judge Gonzalo Curiel (previously accused of bias by Trump due to his Mexican heritage) approved the waiving of environmental regulations (Texas Tribune).
  • Air pollution in Houston and Galveston could more than double under a loophole created by EPA head Scott Pruitt which allows companies emitting toxic air pollution to be regulated under less strict rules once they bring their emissions under a certain threshold (Houston Chronicle).
  • A new executive order signed by Trump will weaken regulations on air emissions by allowing the EPA to consider economic impact of regulations and limiting the data that can be used in its decision-making (Union of Concerned Scientists).
  • Weakening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), the Department of the Interior published an opinion that individuals or companies should not be held accountable for killing the animals if it wasn’t their express purpose. One example given was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which the memo states would not be a reason to pursue MBTA claims (Washington Post).
  • The Kirtland’s warbler may be removed from the endangered species list. Environmentalists hail the recovery of the bird as an example that the Endangered Species Act is doing its job (AP News).
  • One hundred sixteen counties in Texas have methane pollution above the increased cancer risk threshold set by the EPA, likely because Texas does not regulate methane pollution from oil and gas wells that are not identified as major sources of pollution (Austin American Statesman).
  • Evidence of a wild individual of Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, the world’s rarest turtle, has been found using eDNA techniques, that is by sequencing small pieces of DNA from water where the turtle lives (Nhan Dan).
  • Bats across the USA have been undergoing drastic declines caused by a pathogenic fungus that results in a disease known as White Nose Syndrome. Developing vaccines and applying antifungal agents to infected colonies might help the bats recover (New York Times).

Congressional Committees

  • Congressional House democrats are requesting that speaker Paul Ryan allow a vote on the Scientific Integrity Act which would require all government entities to create and enforce baseline standards which protect scientific integrity. The bill now has 153 cosponsors (ProPublica).

Higher Education and Academia

  • Texas students fell in the national test rankings across reading, writing, and math this year, ranking especially low in reading. Given that students of color and low-income students have a lower likelihood of succeeding on these tests the demographics of Texas account for much of the low ranking. Controlling for demographics, Texas actually ranks 14th in reading (Houston Chronicle, Houston Chronicle).
  • A new study suggests that long-term collaborations result in higher scientific productivity (Phys.org).
  • A $100 million endowment given to the University of Chicago has allegedly not complied with the donation agreement; the donors are attempting to retrieve their investment (The Economist).

Federal Agencies

  • The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program was again awarded disproportionately to students at elite universities who have the resources to write successful applications, potentially increasing the disparities in science by awarding students who are less likely to come from diverse backgrounds (Massive Science, see award disparity here).
  • The EPA has been approved to clean a superfund site on the San Jacinto River, the removal of soil containing dioxin that was dumped there by a paper mill will cost $115 million and take 29 months (Houston Chronicle).
  • Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, has been confirmed by the Senate in a 53-45 vote as the EPA’s deputy administrator, the second highest appointment at the EPA. Opponents worry that if Pruitt is ousted, this puts a coal mining lobbyist in control of regulating coal mining and other public health issues (AP News).
  • EPA head Scott Pruitt has signed a memo giving himself final authority over all WOTUS (waters of the United States) geographic jurisdictions (The Hill).
  • Criticism of EPA’s Scott Pruitt spending habits continue, this time from five Democratic congressmen regarding his use of security details in Italy and expensive first class-flights (New York Times). Pruitt was also found to be using four different EPA email addresses, which may complicate compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (Washington Post).

Public Health

  • The Texas maternal mortality rate has been revised down from 38.4 to 14.6 deaths per 100,000 births. The miscount was due to human error in selecting options from a drop down menu. The previously reported value suggested Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and prompted a legislative task force on the issue. The significantly higher rates of maternal deaths for black women remains an issue (Houston Chronicle).
  • Texas has a doctor shortage due to medical school graduates leaving the state for residency which may impact the availability of care especially for elder patients (Texas Public Radio).
  • Canada is considering legalization of cannabis. The country plans to monitor marijuana usage by testing sewage water, hoping they may obtain a more accurate record of drug use before and after legalization. The difficulty lies in accurately extrapolating amount of cannabis use from metabolites in the waste waters (NPR).
  • New tiny robots that act like sperm are being developed to deliver drugs to tumor cells (Science Daily).
  • Overuse of smartphones can result in behavioral addiction, leading to anxiety and depression (Science Daily). Samsung recently released a new cell phone that is unable to connect to the internet (Gizmodo).

City of Austin

  • Four baboons that escaped the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio have been safely found (My San Antonio).
  • A report commissioned by the city details climate and weather effects possible by the year 2100. The report suggests upgrading or building new facilities with higher temperatures in mind (Austin Business Journal).
  • Austin’s annual environmental report came out this week. Along with standard monitoring of air and water quality, the report this year identified the arrival of zebra mussels to the region, along with a large dairy spill creating “milk sludge” and the identification of over 100 caves previously used as landfill sites (KUT).

Climate Change

  • Houston has experienced three 500-year floods since 2015. Residents are now using dirt to raise their homes above the floodplain, which may exacerbate flooding due to the reduction in stormwater storage (Austin American-Statesman).
  • More than $75 billion is slated to build new oil export infrastructure on the Gulf Coast (Houston Public Media).
  • Aerosol pollution can counteract greenhouse gases and mitigate warming effects, causing complicated implications for pollution reduction in cities (Science News).
  • The divide between the arid west and humid east regions of the USA appears to be shifting eastward by 140 miles. The changing environmental divide will affect agricultural practices and daily life in the region (Yale Environment 360).
  • The Atlantic Ocean currents are slowing, possibly due to climate change. This trend could result in more extreme weather in the northern hemisphere and sea level rise on the Atlantic coast of the USA. Environmentalists are concerned about whether currents will eventually slow to a halt (Washington Post, Washington Post).

Science Communication / Miscellaneous

  • Four months of reservations were made in the first 72 hours of sales for the first hotel in space, each reservation costs $80,000, the first stay at the hotel would cost $9.5 million for 12 days, and stays are planned to begin in 2022 (Austin Chronicle).
  • The Washington DC March for Science was this past Saturday. Thousands showed up to display their support of science in policy-making (USA Today, CNN)

Event this week

The Austin march for science is Saturday, April 21 alongside Earth Day events.

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