Stuff that matters

causation, not correlation

Trump tries to stifle science, and scientists rally to march on Washington.

Scientists have long worried what a Trump administration will mean for American research. And after just five days in office, the president has done plenty to fuel those fears: freezing EPA grants, issuing gag orders forbidding government employees from tweeting or talking to the press, and threatening to take down agency climate change webpages, as Reuters reported on Wednesday. Oh, and this.

If you support science, what can you do? March about it, say scientists.

In a statement posted Saturday, organizers of the Science March wrote: “This is a non-partisan issue that reaches far beyond people in the STEM fields and should concern anyone who values empirical research and science.”

Details are still few, but support has grown rapidly since the idea arose in a weekend Reddit discussion, the Washington Post reports. The Twitter account @ScienceMarchDC has gained over 50,000 followers in just a few days, and sister marches are being organized in Boston and Seattle.

If the record-breaking Women’s March that drew millions into the streets is any indication, Americans are prepared to turn out for progressive causes at higher numbers than ever before. Activists are already organizing a People’s Climate March to mark Trump’s 99th day in office.

As they say: Keep your eyes open and your Google Cal updated.

empty promises

Trump has no clue what it takes to ensure clean air and water.

In his address to Congress on Tuesday night, the president made some nice-sounding promises: rebuild railways and other infrastructure, “make our communities safer for everyone,” and “promote clean air and clear water.”

But other pledges he’s making and actions he’s taking contradict those goals. In his speech, he talked about deregulating the coal industry, which would lead to more air pollution, and clearing the way for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, which would threaten water supplies.

Earlier on Tuesday, Trump directed the EPA to do away with a major set of protections for clean water. Soon, he’s expected to order a rollback of the Clean Power Plan, which would make it easier for utilities to keep pumping carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. And his infrastructure plan would give tax breaks to corporations but not fund many needed rail projects.

His disregard for the environment and public health is nothing new. But Trump did surprise us in one respect: He read off a teleprompter flawlessly, a feat he had never managed previously.

A drinking problem

Trump is coming for your clean water.

On Tuesday, the president signed an executive order directing the EPA to start the long process of rolling back an Obama-era rule intended to protect water sources from pollution. “It is such a horrible, horrible rule,” he said.

The Clean Water Rule, aka the Waters of the U.S. rule, allows the EPA to regulate streams and wetlands because they feed into larger rivers and lakes that serve as drinking water sources. The rule, which was finalized in 2015, has faced fierce opposition from farmers, oil companies, and homebuilders. It has been embroiled in court fights challenging its validity, including one led by Scott Pruitt, who was then Oklahoma attorney general and is now head of the EPA.

Trump’s order is just the start of what will be a years-long process. As New York University environmental law professor Richard L. Revesz told the New York Times, “It’s like the president calling Scott Pruitt and telling him to start the legal proceedings. It does the same thing as a phone call or a tweet.”

This marks the first time Trump has formally pushed a regulatory change at the EPA, but it won’t be the last. He is expected to soon call for rolling back Obama’s Clean Power Plan, among other rules.

reality based

It’s safe for scientists to raise some heck when it comes to climate change.

Researchers strive to be unbiased observers. For them, keeping opinions private comes as second nature. But a recent study suggests that taking a strong stance on global warming won’t hurt their cred with the public.

Facebook posts, specifically, appear to be safe territory, according to the study published in the journal Environmental Communication. Some 1,200 public participants said they wouldn’t lose any esteem for a scientist who posted about climate change on Facebook. That includes updates on new climate science, and most opinions about policy. Just be wary of pushing for nuclear power plants — you’ll lose credibility points for that one, the study found.

That’s heartening news. Especially when credible science points in a very scary direction, and the political party in charge has made its stance clear.

Scientists are the best-informed citizens on our end-all-be-all problem. And they’re taking action, raising hell over anti-science and anti-environment policies and planning a march on Washington this Earth Day. The way things are going, Earth could certainly use the help.

better than organic?

Robots are raising your kale now.

A New Jersey startup called Bowery grows leafy greens stacked in columns five high under the watchful eyes of an AI system.

The operation, which officially launched last week, uses 95 percent less water than traditional methods and is 100 times more productive on the same footprint of land, according to the company.

Bowery calls itself “post-organic,” a label to describe its integration of tech and farming practices and its pesticide-free produce. That distinguishes it from large-scale organic farms, which do use pesticides — they’re just organic ones.


Its AI system automates ideal growing conditions for crops by adjusting the lighting, minerals, and water, using sensors to monitor them. It can alter conditions to tweak the taste — emphasizing a wasabi-like flavor in arugula, for instance.

More than 80 crops are grown at the farm, including baby kale, butterhead lettuce, and mixed greens. The produce is delivered to New York stores within the day after harvest, and the greens go for $3.49 a box — on par with the competition.

Slash and burn

Trump plans to slash EPA’s budget and boost the military’s.

The administration on Monday proposed an increase in defense spending of $54 billion a year, or roughly 10 percent. The money would be taken from other agencies, with the EPA and its climate change programs in for particularly dramatic cuts.

This is just one early step in the budgeting process. More details should come when the president addresses Congress on Tuesday, and when the White House releases more detailed plans in March and May. But it’s actually Congress’ job to pass a federal budget.

The EPA’s budget is already just a tiny fraction of military spending. President Obama’s budget request last year called for $8.3 billion for the EPA, while he proposed spending $582.7 billion for the Department of Defense plus more for nuclear weapons, giving defense more than half of discretionary funding:

National Priorities Project

But even major cuts to EPA won’t be enough to satisfy some conservatives.

When EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spoke this weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Tea Party pundit Gina Loudon asked him, “How does it feel to be here today with pretty much everyone hoping that the very agency you are running is going to go away, literally?” He sidestepped another question from her regarding the specifics of his agency’s budget.

Sic transit gloria

Transit ridership is slipping in some big cities.

And that’s surprising because many buses and trains seem more crowded than ever. In fact, a manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system speculated that overcrowding might be causing the decline. It’s kind of like Yogi Berra said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-11-12-32-am

When a subway car is jam-packed, in other words, some people decide to jump out. In general, supply just isn’t keeping up with demand. In the Bay Area, for instance, BART cars are so old that engineers can’t find replacement parts for repairs, and rider satisfaction is at a 20-year low. There just aren’t as many cars as there used to be.

In New York, ridership numbers reached historic highs before slipping last year. Perhaps more people are taking Uber and Lyft. Or maybe the system is just showing its age.

Los Angeles can’t blame an aging system. That city has been laying new tracks in a $9 billion expansion of the light rail system, yet the number of riders has been falling month after month. This could correspond to the rise in vehicle miles travelled, which fell during the last recession and stayed down for years.

But let’s be real: Big cities don’t work when they rely on automobiles for transportation. Adding subway cars, on the other hand, is a proven method to unclog the circulatory systems of growing cities.