What’s the News: President Obama gave a major address outlining his plan for U.S. energy security yesterday. His major goal is quite ambitious: to cut American oil imports by one-third by 2025. And towards that goal, he listed a number of initiatives that many news organizations see as a rehashing of old ideas, however good they might be. According to The Economist, “it is hard to see his recycled list of proposals as anything more than a reassurance to the environmentally minded, and to Americans fretting about rising fuel prices, that the president feels their pain.”
Rumors are flying that President-elect Barack Obama will nominate retired fighter pilot Jonathan Scott Gration to lead NASA, a surprising pick due to Gration’s very limited experience with NASA and the space community. However, the 32-year veteran of the Air Force is close with Obama–the two traveled through Africa together in 2006–and space policy expert John Logsdon says that personal history augers well for the agency: “Obama has picked one of his close personal associates to be the head of NASA. It would make no sense for Obama to send a close associate to an agency (and) then not support the agency” [Houston Chronicle].
Gration spent one year in the 1980s as a White House Fellow working for NASA’s deputy administrator, but that is his only direct experience with the space agency. However, he may have been studying up recently. People familiar with the selection of Gration said he helped craft Obama’s space policy, which calls for the U.S. to minimize the gap between the 2010 retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet and the first piloted flights of successor spacecraft in 2015. Released last August, the policy also calls for returning American astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a precursor to missions to other more distant destinations, such as Mars [Florida Today].
Health care workers who have a moral or religious objection to a medical procedure can’t be punished or discriminated against if they refuse to perform it, according to a sweeping new rule (pdf) announced by the Bush administration yesterday. The right-to-refuse rule includes abortion, but [the department of Health and Human Services] said it extends to other aspects of health care where moral concerns could arise, including birth control, emergency contraception, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research or assisted suicide. The rule will take effect the day before President George W. Bush leaves office [Baltimore Sun]. If a hospital, clinic, pharmacy, health plan, or any other medical establishment refuses to follow the new law it will forfeit all federal funding.
The rule has been eagerly anticipated by anti-abortion activists, but has raised furious objections from family planning groups and much of the medical establishment (groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association opposed the regulation). Officials at hospitals and clinics predicted the regulation will cause widespread disruptions, forcing family planning centers and fertility clinics, for example, to hire employees even if they oppose abortions or in vitro fertilization procedures that can destroy embryos. “It is going to cause chaos among providers across the country,” said Cecile Richards of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The regulation could also make it difficult for states to enforce laws such as those requiring hospitals to offer rape victims the morning-after pill, experts said [Washington Post].
NASA officials have long pronounced themselves ready to move on from the aging space shuttles, which could be retired as soon as 2010, but the incoming Barack Obama administration has raised new doubts about what the next step should be. Last week, news reports surfaced that Obama’s transition team was questioning NASA about alternatives to the Ares I rocket that is currently under development as the shuttle’s replacement, and now transition team members are reportedly considering using modified military rockets instead. No decision has been made and the concept raises major technical, funding and policy issues. But in recent weeks, the transition team assigned to [NASA] has been asking aerospace industry officials about the feasibility of such a dramatic shift in priorities [The Wall Street Journal].
The Ares I rocket is designed to bring the new Orion crew capsule to the International Space Station, and eventually back to the moon and on to Mars. Technical difficulties and budget problems have raised doubts about the program, but NASA officials have dismissed these issues as a normal part of the process, and have argued against a change in plans. NASA officials stressed that moving away from the current Ares rocket designs almost certainly would entail extra costs and lengthy delays in getting the shuttle replacement off the ground. With the first Ares 1 test flight tentatively scheduled for next summer, “going to completely different hardware would put a big gap” in the workforce focusing on rocket development, said Steve Cook, Ares program manager. “We would really be stepping backward” by deciding that the shuttle replacement could ride safely on an alternate rocket [The Wall Street Journal].
The health benefits of eating more fish outweigh the risks of mercury poisoning, according to a new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposal that would revise current federal seafood advisories. The proposal is drawing fire from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and environmental groups that accuse the FDA of pandering to the seafood industry. Richard Wiles, director of an environmental advocacy group, said, “This is an astonishing, irresponsible document…It’s a commentary on how low FDA has sunk as an agency. It was once a fierce protector of America’s health, and now it’s nothing more than a patsy for polluters” [Washington Post].
Currently, the government advises young children, pregnant women, and women of child-bearing age to restrict overall fish consumption to 12 ounces per week and to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, which are known to have particularly high mercury levels. Mercury in the environment accumulates in fish and studies have linked the element to developmental problems in fetuses and young children as well as cardiovascular disease in adults. However, the new FDA report says recent studies suggest “a beneficial impact on fetal neurodevelopment from the mother’s consumption of fish, even though they contain methylmercury…The net effect is not necessarily adverse, and could in fact be beneficial” [AP]. The report argued that nutrients in fish, including omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and other minerals could boost a child’s IQ by three points [Washington Post]. The new analysis places ideal fish consumption—for optimal IQ-boosting—somewhere above 12 ounces per week.
President-elect Barack Obama has thrilled the scientific community with the leaked news that he plans to nominate a Nobel Prize-winning physicist with a passion for green technology for the post of energy secretary. The likely nominee, Steven Chu, currently heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and shared the Nobel in physics in 1997 for developing a method to cool and trap atoms.
Recently, however, Chu’s interests have shifted away from particle physics and towards finding scientific solutions for global warming. In an interview last year, Chu said he began to turn his attention to energy and climate change several years ago. “I was following it just as a citizen and getting increasingly alarmed,” he said. “Many of our best basic scientists [now] realize that this is getting down to a crisis situation” [Washington Post]. Since he became director of Lawrence Berkeley Lab in 2004 he has focused on making it a world leader in alternative energy research, spearheading research initiatives on solar energy and biofuels.
Obama is also expected to nominate Carol Browner, the EPA administrator under President Clinton, as the top White House official on climate and energy policy, and Lisa Jackson, who was until recently was New Jersey’s environmental protection chief, to head the EPA. Along with Chu, these people will be at the center of Obama administration’s energy and environment policy, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions growth and have energy efficiency play an important role in an expected economic stimulus package [CNET].
Sophisticated computer hackers are as big a threat to the United States as weapons of mass destruction and global jihad, argues a new report on cybersecurity. The report, which was produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, contains recommendations for the incoming Obama administration, and issues a dire assessment of the government’s current efforts to prevent cyberattacks. “America’s failure to protect cyberspace is one of the most urgent national security problems facing the new administration that will take office in January 2009,” the report states. Cyber safety is “a battle fought mainly in the shadows. It is a battle we are losing” [DailyTech].
The federal government has been embarrassed in recent years by intrusions into the computer networks of many different agencies, including the Defense, State, Homeland Security, and Commerce departments, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Defense University. An investigation last year by The Washington Post showed that multiple compromises of unclassified computer systems for the Transportation Security Administration and DHS headquarters went unnoticed for months in 2006 because the agency failed to effectively monitor its own networks [Washington Post]. In some cases the breaches have been linked to Chinese computer servers, indicating a possible convergence between hacking and espionage.
In a signal that president-elect Barack Obama will take a drastically different approach to global warming than the outgoing Bush administration, Obama sent a video message to a group of governors who had gathered to discuss climate policy. He reiterated his campaign promise to establish a nationwide cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible, and repeated his ambitious goals: “We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them by an additional 80 percent by 2050,” he said [Reuters].
President George W. Bush famously pledged to tackle global warming when campaigning for the presidency in 2000, but backtracked when in office, saying that the science had not yet been settled. In contrast, Obama made clear that he had no intention of retreating from his campaign promises despite the worsening economic climate, and said that the science is beyond dispute. “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” Obama said. “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high, the consequences too serious” [San Francisco Chronicle].
The issue of the First Dog came to national attention with Barack Obama‘s first press conference as President-elect, when he announced that the lucky puppy would have to be hypoallergenic due to older daughter Malia’s allergies. Since then, nominations for First Dog have come from all sides, even from foreign countries: Peru has offered to send a Peruvian Hairless Dog, prized by Incan kings, to the Obamas. But all the buzz has prompted a reality check from the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), which released a statement today reminding people that there is no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic dog.
Avoiding dog allergies completely may not be an option. It’s a misconception that dog allergies are caused by the dog’s hair. Allergies are caused by protein from the animal’s dander, which can be found in dead skin cells, saliva and urine. These microscopic proteins travel through the air and are inhaled, triggering an allergic reaction in, well, quite a few people [Los Angeles Times]. Studies suggest there are about 10 million Americans who suffer from dog allergies, but sensitivity varies and some people may do fine with certain breeds that are more allergy-friendly. These breeds may produce less dander or are groomed more often to keep dander at bay. Breeds often considered allergy-friendly include poodles, Kerry blue terriers, schnauzers, bichons and lhasa apsos.
The U.S. Department of Energy is lobbying to expand the controversial plan to store nuclear waste inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, even as the entire project’s fate is thrown into uncertainty with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s next president. The locally unpopular project has been repeatedly delayed due to lawsuits and safety concerns (the federal government originally promised to start accepting waste from nuclear power companies in 1998, but is now scheduled to open in 2020), and Obama has previously signaled that he might scrap the facility all together.
Yet recent statements by the Energy Department’s Edward Sproat underscored the urgency of finding some safe, final destination for the United States’ growing piles of nuclear waste. Sproat told Congress last week that the 77,000-ton limit Congress put on the capacity of the proposed Yucca waste dump will fall far short of what will be needed and has to be expanded, or another dump built elsewhere in the country…. He said within two years the amount of waste produced by the country’s 104 nuclear power plants plus defense waste will exceed 77,000 tons [AP]. Sproat suggested that Congress scrap the limit, or else empower the Department of Energy to search for another site for a secondary facility.