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Science, politics, and public health

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PHOTO: UNC HEALTH

There is an idea on the part of scientists that politics is dirty, and a companion idea on the part of politicians that science, by its continual qualifications and revisions, is, if not irrelevant, then at least out of touch with the constraints of a democracy: What seems optimal from the perspective of science may be impossible to implement in the political arena.

The events of the past several months regarding the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic make it apparent that for public health to continue to improve the lives of everyone, we must find ways to overcome this mutual distrust.

When I was director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 1990 to mid-1993—an appointee of the George H. W. Bush administration—the nation and the world were facing a major and growing public health crisis: increasing disease and death from HIV/AIDS. The AIDS epidemic had been raging for a decade, and the scientific and biomedical communities were staunchly advancing our understanding of the disease and its prevention and treatment, at the individual and the population level. There were still many unknowns about HIV/AIDS, and the uncertainties about how to tackle it effectively, both medically and socially, made policy-making fraught with challenges.

Among those challenges was the fact that the disease particularly hit marginalized groups in the population. There were major controversies about the safety of the blood supply, about condom distribution and needle exchange programs, and about how to deal with HIV-infected health care workers.

The biomedical community felt that science and scientists should be making the decisions regarding public health—in other words, “getting politics out of public health.” Policy-makers said that these decisions should not be left to unelected public health experts.

Many of those same sentiments are being voiced today, during the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s worse now is that many in Washington, DC, and around the country seem to scorn even the idea of scientific experts. The fact is that each group needs the other—science without politics is impotent, and politics without science is subject to whim and caprice.

In previous decades, the CDC’s role in national and global public health was vital. There were very substantial infectious disease threats—emerging and reemerging—plus growing noninfectious disease challenges, including cancer, heart disease, obesity, tobacco use, environmental and occupational issues, and the mounting problems of injury and violence. Each of these had complicated overlays of science and politics, and included complex economic and cultural impacts.

And yet, it is as true today as it was then that the CDC and the other U.S. public health agencies are not infallible. That is especially true regarding new diseases, those without an existing body of knowledge. Early pronouncements often need to be revisited, and frequently revised, as new discoveries are made.

This year, the CDC has been off the mark more than once and has had to reverse its recommendations. But the solution to this reality is not to belittle and tear down this hugely important agency, but rather to continue the quest for more and better scientific knowledge, and to be willing to implement those insights. But there have been repeated reports of political folks pushing the CDC to alter their scientific judgments to fit a political agenda.

Politicians should use the product of the scientific process to make careful policy and to design programs that benefit the public’s health. And scientists should avoid being drawn into the political fray and being used to try to influence elections. Calling for this mutual respect and joint involvement in the public health process may seem naïve—especially in the wake of the recent scientific problems at the CDC, and also at a time of hyperpolitical division and unprecedented election-year chaos.

As a first step, we must recognize the legitimate roles that science and politics must have in our public health processes. And then with real transparency and accountability, we should vigorously debate how best to meet the challenges before us.

Every American—whether scientist or layperson, whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent—has a stake in getting this science–politics balance right. It is far too important for game playing.

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Too bright to breed

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Night light from coastal cities overpowers natural signals for coral spawning from neighboring reefs.

PHOTO: NOKURO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Most coral species reproduce through broadcast spawning. For such a strategy to be successful, coordination has had to evolve such that gametes across clones are released simultaneously. Over millennia, lunar cycles have facilitated this coordination, but the recent development of bright artificial light has led to an overpowering of these natural signals. Ayalon et al. tested for the direct impact of different kinds of artificial light on different species of corals. The authors found that multiple lighting types, including cold and warm light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, led to loss of synchrony and spawning failure. Further, coastal maps of artificial lighting globally suggest that it threatens to interfere with coral reproduction worldwide and that the deployment of LED lights, the blue light of which penetrates deeper into the water column, is likely to make the situation even worse.

Curr. Biol. 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.039 (2020).

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SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers

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SpaceX has debuted an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband internet service, for both iOS and Android devices. The Starlink app allows users to manage their connection – but to take part you’ll have to be part of the official beta program, and the initial public rollout of that is only just about to begin, according to emails SpaceX sent to potential beta testers this week.

The Starlink app provides guidance on how to install the Starlink receiver dish, as well as connection status (including signal quality), a device overview for seeing what’s connected to your network, and a speed test tool. It’s similar to other mobile apps for managing home wifi connections and routers. Meanwhile, the emails to potential testers that CNBC obtained detail what users can expect in terms of pricing, speeds and latency.

The initial Starlink public beta test is called the “Better than Nothing Beta Program,” SpaceX confirms in their app description, and will be rolled out across the U.S. and Canada before the end of the year – which matches up with earlier stated timelines. As per the name, SpaceX is hoping to set expectations for early customers, with speeds users can expect ranging from between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, and latency of 20ms to 40ms according to the customer emails, with some periods including no connectivity at all. Even with expectations set low, if those values prove accurate, it should be a big improvement for users in some hard-to-reach areas where service is currently costly, unreliable and operating at roughly dial-up equivalent speeds.

Image Credits: SpaceX

In terms of pricing, SpaceX says in the emails that the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per moth, plus a one-time cost of $499 initially to pay for the hardware, which includes the mounting kit and receiver dish, as well as a router with wifi networking capabilities.

The goal eventually is offer reliably, low-latency broadband that provides consistent connection by handing off connectivity between a large constellation of small satellites circling the globe in low Earth orbit. Already, SpaceX has nearly 1,000 of those launched, but it hopes to launch many thousands more before it reaches global coverage and offers general availability of its services.

SpaceX has already announced some initial commercial partnerships and pilot programs for Starlink, too, including a team-up with Microsoft to connect that company’s mobile Azure data centers, and a project with an East Texas school board to connect the local community.

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Erratum for the Report “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances” by R. Van Klink, D. E. Bowler, K. B. Gongalsky, A. B. Swengel, A. Gentile, J. M. Chase

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S. Rennie, J. Adamson, R. Anderson, C. Andrews, J. Bater, N. Bayfield, K. Beaton, D. Beaumont, S. Benham, V. Bowmaker, C. Britt, R. Brooker, D. Brooks, J. Brunt, G. Common, R. Cooper, S. Corbett, N. Critchley, P. Dennis, J. Dick, B. Dodd, N. Dodd, N. Donovan, J. Easter, M. Flexen, A. Gardiner, D. Hamilton, P. Hargreaves, M. Hatton-Ellis, M. Howe, J. Kahl, M. Lane, S. Langan, D. Lloyd, B. McCarney, Y. McElarney, C. McKenna, S. McMillan, F. Milne, L. Milne, M. Morecroft, M. Murphy, A. Nelson, H. Nicholson, D. Pallett, D. Parry, I. Pearce, G. Pozsgai, A. Riley, R. Rose, S. Schafer, T. Scott, L. Sherrin, C. Shortall, R. Smith, P. Smith, R. Tait, C. Taylor, M. Taylor, M. Thurlow, A. Turner, K. Tyson, H. Watson, M. Whittaker, I. Woiwod, C. Wood, UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) Moth Data: 1992-2015, NERC Environmental Information Data Centre (2018); .

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