Blue Marble - July 2009

Italy OKs Abortion Pill

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 6:22 PM EDT

The Catholic Church lost another round today when Italy approved the use of RU-486, the abortion drug. The Vatican warned of immediate excommunication for doctors prescribing the pill and for women taking it.

According to the Catholic News Service, Archbishop Fisichella announced that "it is obvious that the canonical consequences" of using RU-486 are the same as those incurred for getting a therapeutic abortion: automatic excommunication.

This is latest defeat for the Catholic Church in its efforts to ban abortion in the Vatican's home nation.

Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, a senior church bioethicist, told the Associated Press that RU-486 is "not a drug, but poison."

Dr. Gabriella Pacini of Woman's Life, a group that provides medical counseling to women, said RU-486 "has been used for years in Europe, on millions of women and is considered safe and effective. Why not give Italian women a choice between pharmacological abortion and surgical abortion?"

 

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Friday Frog Blog: From Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake to the Egg

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 5:46 PM EDT

Mudraker and his posse of fish are all alive and well in our tank and their community continues to thrive.

Here's your week in frog:

  • Heavily endangered cricket frogs in Pennsylvania (they're really tiny and cute) have been discovered in a new location.
  • Pesticides in the Chesapeake Bay are possibly linked to the decline of frogs in the region.
  • Frog eggs turn out to be sophisticated globs of matter.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, July 31

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Happy Friday. Here's what's happening in science, health, and environment news around our blogs:

Just say no to the Blue Dog deal: 57 House dems say they're just not down with Waxman's healthcare proposal.

Better late than never: Obama's bill of insurance rights.

Following the science money: It's been five months since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 delivered $21.5 billion in basic research funding. So what's happening with the science money now?

 

Obama's Science Boom

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 7:21 PM EDT

It's been five months since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, which delivered the largest increase in basic research funding in American history—$21.5 billion.

So what's happening with the science money?

According to The Science Coalition, ARRA research grants are creating new university jobs, creating thousands of research awards, expediting tens of thousands of grant applications, buying equipment, and supporting some $3.5 billion of science-related construction projects for research facilities and capital equipment.

And that's not all. The Department of Energy is establishing 16 Energy Frontier Research Centers on university campuses to accelerate development of new energy technologies. Each center will support a full staff of researchers, technicians, and grad students and postdocs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is using ARRA funds to support the construction of major new academic research facilities in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and Texas.

Some 3,000 college students, high school students, and teachers in 49 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico, are participating in ARRA-funded summer jobs programs, getting lab experience at the nation's leading biomedical research facilities.


Here's a small sample of projects funded by state:

  • West Virginia: $751,506 to Marshall U in partnership with West Virginia University to support 50 undergrad students and high school science educators for the next two years studying disease processes such as cancer and cardiovascular disease
  • Minnesota: $362,400 to the U of Minnesota to create jobs and encourage students from minority and underserved communities to pursue careers in health-related sciences, including internships in cancer research for 10 undergrads and high school teacher training in cancer biology
  • Ohio: federal stimulus money is fueling 15 NIH research projects at the Ohio State U this summer and supporting the lab work of five central Ohio science teachers and 49 students high school and college students
  • Tennessee: $1.5 million ARRA grant to the U of Memphis to fund a six-year program to recruit, train, and support secondary education math and science teachers for the Memphis City Schools
  • Michigan: $900,000 grant to Michigan Technological University to train 24 students and 12 professionals to teach STEM disciplines in high schools
  • California: a grant to the U of California Santa Barbara Cal Teach program providing $10,000 fellowships for 75 teacher candidates pursuing masters degrees
  • North Carolina: a $17.5 million grant to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for a center focusing on developing solar fuels from next-generation photovoltaic technology, supporting about 30 postdocs and grad students
  • Massachusetts: a $19 million grant to fund the Center for Excitonics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looking towards new materials for converting solar energy to electricity and for electrical energy storage
  • Michigan: $19.5 million to the U of Michigan to study solar energy research, supporting 22 researchers studying nanoscale materials to determine their potential for converting solar energy into electricity
  • Missouri: $20 million to Washington University in St. Louis to establish the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center to study forms of energy based on the principles of light harvesting and energy funneling, plus educational outreach to K-12, undergrad, and grad levels
  • Florida: $15 million to the U of Miami toward a Marine Technology and Life Science Seawater Research Building
  • Alabama: $14 million to Auburn U toward the development of a Center for Advanced Science, Innovation and Commerce
  • Texas: $11 million to Rice U toward the new Brockman Hall for Physics
  • North Carolina: $15 million to the U of North Carolina Wilmington for a new facility for the Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina program


And more:
 

U.N. Green Think Tank in SF?

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 6:50 PM EDT

San Francisco's famously beleaguered Hunters Point neighborhood is set to become the new home for a $20 million U.N. green technology think tank, Mayor Gavin Newsom's office announced today:

The proposed center would be part of the United Nations "Global Compact" and would be focused on promoting sustainable and clean technologies. A UN Global Compact Center would likely include a clean tech business incubator, offices of the UN Global Compact, and a retreat / conference center to facilitate the exchange of sustainability best practices and other innovations related to combating global warming.

Besides the obvious global merits of a world-class green think tank, there are local advantages as well, namely, much needed jobs in a poor section of town. But some neighborhood advocates are worried that if the city rushes to finish this ambitious 80,000-square-foot project by its 2012 target date, the neighborhood, which has been designated a Superfund site and holds a third of San Francisco's toxic waste sites, won't get the clean-up it's been promised:

Malik Looper, executive director of the Hunters Point nonprofit Literacy for Environmental Justice that works with neighborhood youth, said the U.N. center sounds like a fine idea, but he's more concerned that the land it's built on be thoroughly cleaned first. The Navy has said it will cap some parts of the land rather than fully excavate the toxics, which Looper said may be insufficient.

"The big issue in my mind is resolving the matter around what standards will be adhered to in terms of the cleanup, and until that matter is resolved, it's hard for me to be excited about a press release about a potential partnership," he said.

Another hurdle is the $20 million price tag. According to the S.F. Chronicle, Lennar Corp., the developer that is currently working on the Hunters Point revitalization efforts, will provide infrastructure and land, but the city will have to come up with the rest of the money on its own. Commenters over at S.F. Gate are already skeptical. One says, "$20 mil. to get it started, how much more to keep it running? This venture has fraud, abuse, and "gettin' over" written all over it." Given the 49ers stadium mess, the eyebrow raising is understandable.

There's no doubt that this is an exciting and potentially really cool project. The question going forward: Will the city be able to spin this project right, garner public support, and secure funding, and keep its promise to clean up the toxic waste?

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday, July 30

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Here's what's new around the site in health, science, and environment news:

Doesn't take a genius: Texting while driving is linked to truck crashes.

Healthcare headway: Cooperation in both the House and the Senate might not mean anything definitive, but Kevin Drum thinks it's a pretty good sign.

Solar for the rest of us: The city of Berkeley issues bonds to cover the up-front costs of installing solar panels on private homes, then homeowmers pay the city back over time. Smart.

Not so bad after all: There's already a popular single-payer healthcare plan the United States. It's called Medicare. 

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1 In 6 Health Workers Won't Report in Flu Pandemic

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 6:42 PM EDT

Just in case you were counting on them… 16 percent of public health care workers will not report for work in a flu pandemic emergency—regardless of the severity.

The survey published in PLOS ONE was conducted among 1,835 public health workers in Minnesota, Ohio, and West Virginia from November 2006 to December 2007. 

Among the findings:

  • Public health workers who were concerned about a pandemic threat but also confident they could perform their roles with a meaningful impact on the situation were 31 times more likely to respond to work in an emergency than those who perceived the threat low and their jobs unimportant
  • Workers who perceived the threat of the emergency to be low yet strongly believed in the importance of their jobs were 18 times more likely to say they would respond to work than those who thought the threat low and their jobs unimportant


The survey could help public health agencies design, implement, and evaluate training programs for health workers. The authors' recommendations:

  • Motivate public health workers with a better understanding of why their roles make a difference
  • Don't downplay the threat of a flu scenario in order to calm workers' fears, since a sense of threat is an important motivator
  • Training should include assurances of workers' personal safety, since 24 percent of respondents considered their work environments unsafe

How about combat pay?
 

Creationist Says Oil's From God

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 3:38 PM EDT

While most scientists agree that oil is abiogenic, or formed from biomass, creationist John D. Matthews (credentials unknown) has a different theory: Oil comes from God. In Answers Research Journal, which is published by the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (the same folks who reported on the creationist Girl Scout) Matthews argues that God made petroleum in right after he made the Earth, and that the oil moved during the great flood.

As evidence for his theory, Matthews offers Noah's Ark:

Some kind of oil derivative was used by Noah to waterproof the Ark. We also have to recognize that, in the pre-Flood landscape (although we do not have detailed descriptions in the book of Genesis), we do know that a wide range of minerals were available for human use. We read of gold, onyx, soil, building materials for cities, bronze and iron. The wide range of vegetation and the number of animal kinds also point to God who was liberal with his creative activity. So that although oil is not something simple (see earlier), the idea of God directly creating oil is not unreasonable when compared with other aspects of the young-earth creationist model.

Right. Read the Mother Jones story on evangelical oil prospecting here.

HT J-Walk blog.

Tanning Beds: Top Cancer Risk

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 2:20 PM EDT

Yet another reason not to fake bake: Today the World Health Organization elevated tanning beds' UV radiation from the "probable carcinogen" category to "carcinogenic to humans," its highest-risk designation. And if you're a young adult, it gets worse: A review of current studies found that artificial tanning before age 30 increases your melanoma risk by 75 percent.

This is pretty damning news for salons, but the industry seems to be rolling with the punches. The Toronto Star reports:

Steven Gilroy, executive director of the Joint Canadian Tanning Association, which represents 1,200 tanning salons across Canada, dismissed the international agency's report.

"When you dive into the research ... there is no increased risk," he said. The tanning industry has recently promoted the moderate use of artificial tanning as a way to boost vitamin D levels, which tanning proponents say may be associated with lower risk of some forms of cancer.

Yeah, except the WHO did dive into the research, and it found...a definitively increased risk. As for the Vitamin D argument, as I report here, we ain't buyin' it: Most people can get all the D they need from a supplement, with none of the cancer risk.

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday, July 29

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Blue-Marble-ish posts on our other blogs, for your Wednesday morning reading pleasure:

Obama not following doctor's orders? Obama's GP thinks the president is wrong about healthcare.

O'Reilly: oh, really? Bill O'Reilly thinks Americans don't live as long as Canadians because "we have ten times as many people as you do. That translates to ten times as many accidents, crimes, down the line." Really.

Cash for kidneys: The case for paying people to donate organs might be logical, but Kevin Drum isn't convinced.

Blue Dogs won't budge: Lawmakers who oppose a public healthcare option often represent the very districts that would benefit most from such a plan.