New grants promote greater understanding of infectious disease

This post contributed by Lindsay Deel, a Ph.D. student in geography at West Virginia University and Intern with ESA’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Infectious diseases won’t know what hit them. A massive new collaborative effort between funding sources in the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) takes aim at infectious diseases from ecological and social perspectives, reported the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a recent press release. The overall goal of the suite of eight projects is to improve understanding of the factors affecting disease transmission, said NSF, but a major focus will also be on building models to help predict and control outbreaks. Each of these projects examines different themes within the global context of infectious disease. For example, Tony Goldberg (Professor of Epidemiology, University of Wisconsin–Madison) and colleagues will investigate the spread of HIV from its origin in monkeys to humans by examining similar viruses that are currently impacting wild monkeys in Uganda. This project will also study human social factors – such as awareness, beliefs, and behaviors – surrounding the transmission of such diseases. Another project helmed by David Rizzo (Professor of Plant Pathology, University of California–Davis) will explore how interacting forest disturbances – such as fire and drought – may control the emergence, persistence, and spread of invasive pathogens using the case of sudden oak death – a disease caused by a non-native pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum. “Over the past 10 years, potentially millions of trees in California and Oregon coastal forests have died as a result of this emerging disease,” explains Rizzo. “The goal of this new grant is [to] link this new disturbance agent (sudden oak death) with pre-existing disturbance agents (fire, drought) in coastal forests.” Samantha Forde (Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California – Santa Cruz) will lead a project using a simplified laboratory system of E. coli bacteria and its viruses as a model to study why some viruses have evolved the ability to infect multiple host species, while others can only infect one.  “This will further a general understanding of the dynamics of disease in natural systems and help to improve public health initiatives,” she says. From the modeling perspective, Armand Kuris (Professor of Biological Sciences, University of California at Santa Barbara) and colleagues will delve into the complexity of ecological systems and how the level of complexity might influence disease dynamics.  Kuris and colleagues hope to bring the role of infectious diseases into the core of ecological thinking, comparable to the roles of predation, competition, disturbance and resource quality. Joseph Tien (Professor of Mathematics, Ohio State University) will examine the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti. ...

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ESA gives environmental offset donation to bat and wildflower organizations

When 3,500 individuals from across the country and around the globe convene for a scientific conference such as the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) recent meeting in Austin, Texas, it takes a toll on the environment.  There is the carbon footprint from the various modes of travel to get to the meeting.  But there is also the broader environmental cost of the habitat loss and the wildlife displacement that occurred to build a convention center and nearby hotels, the structures which make such a meeting possible. As one way to offset this environmental cost, ESA contributes $5 for each registrant at its annual meeting to an environmental offset contribution which it donates to a local project or organization in the city in which it meets.  This year, the Society gave $9,230 each to Bat Conservation International (BCI) and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, both located in Austin. BCI supports bat conservation worldwide, offering grants and scholarships, monitoring bat populations and caves, protecting bats colonies in abandoned mines, and supporting educational outreach.  Austin is a logical home for the organization since the city boasts North America’s largest urban bat colony, which lives under Congress Avenue Bridge.  BCI plans to put ESA’s donation towards protecting bats from White-nose syndrome, wind power and other threats. The mission of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is to “increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.”  Among its activities are hosting ecological research, collecting and storing seeds of native plants, and hosting an online database of over 7,200 native plant species through its Native Plant Information Network. The Center plans to put the Society’s donation towards its environmental and ecological restoration projects. Photos: Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome, Nancy Heaslip, NY Dept. of Envr. Conservation; Wildflowers in Austin from Flickr by Spyderella  ...

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ESA Policy News: September 9

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. AIR POLLUTION: OBAMA ADMINISTRATION POSTPONES OZONE STANDARDS On Sept. 2, the White House requested the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) postpone plans to strengthen the George W. Bush administration’s 2008 ozone standard. In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein cites a need to “minimize regulatory costs and burdens” during an “economically challenging time.” Sunstein references Executive Order 13563, which states that the administration’s regulatory policy “must promote predictability and reduce uncertainty.” The letter notes that the Clean Air Act sets a five year cycle to review national ambient air quality standards, effectively allowing EPA to hold off on revisiting the standards until 2013. The EPA in January 2010 had proposed to set the national health-based standard for ozone between 60 and 70 parts per billion (ppb) when averaged over an eight-hour period. The Bush administration had tightened the ozone limits from 84 ppb to 75 ppb in 2008, despite scientific advisers’ recommendations to issue a standard between 60 and 70 ppb. The move earned President Obama rare praise from Republican leaders in Congress. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) released a statement that referred to the ozone standard as “the most expensive environmental regulation ever imposed” and described the president’s move as “a step in the right direction.” EPA Administrator Jackson released a statement affirming that the standard would be revisited at some point and cited the Obama administration’s efforts to address air pollution “as some of the most important standards and safeguards for clean air in U.S. history,” citing reductions in sulfur and nitrogen dioxide, mercury pollutions from power plants and carbon pollution standards for cars and trucks. To view the White House letter, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ozone_national_ambient_air_quality_standards_letter.pdf To review Executive Order 13563, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2011/m11-10.pdf To view the EPA statement, see: http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/1e5ab1124055f3b28525781f0042ed40/e41fbc47e7ff4f13852578ff00552bf8!OpenDocument APPROPRIATIONS: SENATE COMMITTEE APPROVES FY 2012 SPENDING BILLS During the week of Sept. 7, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its energy and water development and agricultural appropriations bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The bills must be voted on by the full Senate and agreed to by the House before they can be signed by the president. Energy and Water The FY 2012 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act includes $31.625 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water programs within the Department of Interior, $57 million below the FY 2011 level, but still $1 billion more than the House-bill (H.R. 2354), passed in July. It’s also...

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Psychologist, green building manager, religious leader urge ecologists to move beyond their own scientific community

The Ecological Society of America’s 96th Annual Meeting is taking place in Austin, Texas and kicked off on Sunday, August 7 with an Opening Plenary Panel featuring Richard Morgan, Austin Energy’s Green Building and Sustainability Manager, social psychologist, Susan Clayton of the College of Wooster, and the Executive Director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Matthew Anderson-Stembridge.  Joining the trio, was ecologist Laura Huenneke, ESA Vice President for Public Affairs, who moderated the discussion.  The group explored the management, psychological, and religious and moral aspects of ensuring that Earth’s life support systems remain resilient in the face of human demands. In her opening remarks, Huennke said that the ecological community understands it has much to learn from other communities and that advancing the goal of stewardship of the planet will require multiple efforts by many different communities.  She said that ecologists should “listen very deeply” and work collaboratively with others. Richard Morgan explained that because Austin Energy is a city-owned electric utility, it must be responsive to its citizens, who want to see the utility take environmentally responsible actions.  Increasing energy efficiency and reducing waste are a key part of Earth stewardship, said Morgan.  The old fashioned way in which building permits are still issued, he said, are holding back the degree of progress that would be possible if these were updated.  The same prescriptive codes used in the 1980s are still in effect; if the real impact of a building in a community were taken fully into account, said Morgan, it would dramatically reduce energy consumption using already-existing technology. Matthew Anderson-Stembridge expressed his gratitude to ESA in inviting him to the Plenary and said that the open letter members of the scientific community send to religious leaders in 1990, set a course for many communities of faith to embrace care for the environment as part of their charge.  He said the term ‘steward’ is particularly meaningful to communities of faith and helps define our relationship to each other and to the environment.  Anderson-Stembridge encouraged ecologists to use the “universal human venue” of storytelling and then provide the facts. Susan Clayton recommended that ecological scientists be mindful of language choices in speaking about environmental issues.  She reminded the audience that because many people react negatively to well-known but politically affiliated people such as Al Gore, one should avoid associating such people with an issue because doing so can prevent an audience hostile to someone such as Gore from hearing your message.  It’s important to learn something about your audience and find a way to connect with their values, said Clayton; find language that resonates with where they...

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ESA Policy News: August 4

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. NATIONAL DEBT: OBAMA SIGNS MEASURE RAISING DEBT CEILING THROUGH 2012 The week of August 2, Congress passed and the president signed a bill to increase the national debt by as much as $2.4 trillion. After weeks in which a deal between leaders of both parties appeared elusive, the deal was finally announced the weekend preceding the vote, mere days before the Department of Treasury predicted a default if the debt ceiling was not raised. The plan implemented by Congressional leaders has the skeletal frame of a plan first proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in that it reduces the debt limit in phases, giving the president sole authority to increase the debt. While revenues were left off the table, the administration was able to win on its contention that the debt increase should run through the end of 2012, punting the issue through the next election. In the interim, however, the measure sets the stage for $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts to federal agencies over a 10 year period beginning in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. It is expected that this will lead to federal agency appropriations even further below what was enacted in FY 2011. The plan provides for debt ceiling increases in two stages: The president may request a $900 billion increase now, of which $400 billion in borrowing authority is immediately available to the U.S. Treasury. This $900 billion is subject to a resolution of disapproval in both the House and Senate. The disapproval measure would be subject to a presidential veto.  Once the debt comes within $100 billion of the debt ceiling, the president may ask for at least an additional $1.2 trillion, which could rise to $1.5 trillion if a Balanced Budget Amendment is sent to the states or the joint committee process described below enacts more than $1.5 trillion in savings.  This increase is also subject to a resolution of disapproval and can also be vetoed by the president, consequently granting him authority to raise the national debt through the end of 2012. The second part of the plan involves up to an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, to be decided by a joint committee made up of 12 members (six from each chamber). Appointed by the House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader and House Minority Leader, the committee members will be tasked with developing legislation to achieve at least $1.5 trillion in future deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. The committee members must be appointed by August 16. As part of the deal, both...

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ESA Policy News: July 22

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. NATIONAL DEBT-CEILING DEBATE: CONSENSUS IN SIGHT, SPECIFIC PLAN REMAINS ELUSIVE House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and President Obama are unanimous in agreeing the federal deficit has to be raised before the projected August 2 deadline to avoid U.S. default on its debt. When, how and under what conditions this will occur remains murky. Most recently, the House Republicans passed H.R. 2560, the Cut, Cap and Balance Act. The measure would cut spending in Fiscal Year 2012 by $111 billion, cap future spending at 19.9 percent of gross domestic product and allow for the debt ceiling to be increased if a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution is approved by Congress and sent to the states.  On July 22, the measure failed to advance in the Senate with a majority of Senators agreeing to table the bill by a vote of 51-46. On July 19, a reunited “Gang of Six,” which originally consisted of a bipartisan group of six  Senators, unveiled a plan to lower the national debt by $3.7 trillion over ten years through a combination of spending reductions as well as entitlement and revenue reforms. The plan is based on the framework of the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, co-chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Senate Democratic leaders have signaled the proposal is unlikely to be implemented by Aug. 2 for a number of reasons: 1) the Congressional Budget Office likely cannot score the bill (to determine its estimated fiscal price tag) by the deadline and 2) any legislation increasing revenue, under the U.S. Constitution, must begin in the House of Representatives. The plan has already been met with opposition by interest groups across the political spectrum wary of its tax increases and entitlement cut proposals. Another 614-page plan, put forward by Sen. Coburn (R-OK), would trim the deficit by $9 trillion over the next ten years. The plan includes reforms to revenue, entitlements and large cuts ($974.1 billion over 10 years) to discretionary spending. This would include $346.4 billion in cuts to the Department of Agriculture, $409 billion from the Department of Education, $33.67 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency, $26.44 billion from the Department of Interior, $101.8 billion from the Department of Energy and $14.2 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Much like another recent Coburn report accusing NSF of wasteful spending, the new report proposes to eliminate the agency’s Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate. The fact that the plan also includes $1 trillion in tax increases and $1 trillion in...

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Extreme weather, campaigning honeybees and tracking whale sharks

This post contributed by Molly Taylor, ESA Science Writing Intern. Extreme weather: The rare multi-vortex that hit Joplin, Missouri on May 22 has claimed more than 100 lives and destroyed countless homes and buildings. Unfortunately, this is not the only natural disaster to devastate the U.S. this year. According to a recent Washington Post article, this storm season is turning out to be one of the most violent on record. The extreme weather, Brian Vastag and Ed O’Keefe reported in the article, is due at least in part to La Nina: “The jet stream’s river of cool air high in the atmosphere pulls warmer, more humid air from the ground upward, forming thunderstorm ‘supercells.’ Such a pattern drove the outbreak of more than 300 tornadoes that swept from Mississippi to Tennessee in late April, killing at least 365…” But according to the Post, researchers have also been exploring the potential role of climate change in recent weather patterns. Read more at “Storm season on deadly path; Obama to visit Joplin.” Campaigning honeybees: In the spring, beehives can reach capacity, basically overflowing with honey and bee larva. This overcrowding can cause the hive to literally burst in two, leaving half of the population in need of a new home. The old queen leads one half of the homeless pack to establish a new colony at a separate location, while a new queen takes charge of the existing hive. But where do the homeless bees go? Despite the royal title, the queen is not ruling a monarchy—worker bees actually vote for their favorite location. “The older, more experienced bees…fly off looking for options,” wrote NPR’s Robert Krulwich, and upon their return, they “announce their ‘finds’ by dancing.” That is the point when the “waggle dancing” begins (and yes, that is the official term), whereby the scouting bees use dancing to signal their sister bees. This encourages the sister bees to have a peek at the potential new home, and if they like what they see, they start doing the same dance. “This is how bees ‘vote,’” wrote Krulwich. “They dance themselves into a consensus.” Read more at “Nature’s Secret: Why Honey Bees Are Better Politicians Than Humans.” Tracking whale sharks: “With the help of algorithms designed to guide the Hubble telescope’s starscape surveys, conservation-minded coders have designed software that helps biologists identify whale sharks by their spots,” wrote Brandon Keim in a recent Wired Science article. “The program enlists the help of citizens with cameras, and lets researchers track Earth’s biggest fish across time and oceans.” In the past, researchers have found whale sharks to be too elusive to track as...

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Weighing potential costs of hydraulic fracturing

The recent expansion of hydraulic fracturing across the nation has set off a debate among oil and gas industry officials and conservationists and environmental scientists. During a recent House Space, Science and Technology Committee hearing, Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) outlined the points of contention: “You have one group that’s got long experience with hydraulic fracturing [contending] it’s very safe” and “you have another group that’s new to it and is having to analyze the potential of risks associated with it.” Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking” involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. Advances in fracturing technology have led to a dramatic surge in gas extraction nationwide. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the United States has 2,119 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, about 60 percent of which is “unconventional gas” stored in low permeability formations such as shale, coalbeds, and tight sands. In 2010, production of this “shale gas” doubled to 137.8 billion cubic meters, up from 63 billion cubic meters in 2009. A Pennsylvania State University study stated that deployment in 2008 of hydraulic fracturing technology in the Marcellus Shale region generated more than $240 million in state and local taxes for Pennsylvania, 29,000 jobs and $2.3 billion in total economic development. The oil and gas industry falls into the camp of those who contend that decades of practice show that hydraulic fracturing is important economically and poses no discernable threat to public health or the environment. In the other camp are conservationists and some researchers who say that fracking could pose a risk to drinking water supplies. During the recent congressional hearing, the committee’s majority Republican members repeatedly asserted that the Environmental Protection Agency’s $12 million study on the safety of hydraulic fracturing is wasting taxpayer dollars. “The study intends to identify the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water without ever taking into consideration the probability that such an effect may occur,” said Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX). A key part of understanding different views of the potential risks of “fracking” is how it is defined. Many in the oil and gas industry use the term to describe not the drilling process but, more specifically, the completion phase where chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas. Companies assert it is a safe practice since so far there has been no indication of hydraulic fracturing fluid rising above the mile or so of rock layers to reach drinking water aquifers. Others outside the industry typically view fracturing and drilling as interconnected. Consequently,...

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