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Notebook Science




Pro-life in the lab

Pro-life advocates praise the Trump administration’s agency-level ban on fetal tissue research

In September, the Trump administration quietly banned scientists employed by the National Institutes of Health from acquiring new human fetal tissue for research. As effects of the ban began to reach research labs later in the year, outraged critics claimed the restraint would impede necessary medical research, such as studies to find a cure for HIV and the Zika virus. But pro-life advocates greeted the measure as a much-needed move to protect the unborn: Fetal tissue for research is usually obtained from aborted fetuses.

Congress approved the use of federal funds for fetal tissue research in 1993, during the Clinton presidency. In 2015, following the release of undercover videos that showed the sale of human fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood, the congressional Energy and Commerce Committee formed a panel to investigate human fetal tissue research.

The panel released a report in 2017 describing such research as unproductive and unnecessary for producing medical treatments. The panel’s investigators found that the overwhelming majority of current studies do not require fetal tissue, including studies of the Zika virus. The report advocated the use of other tissue types whenever possible, including adult tissue, stem cells obtained in an ethically uncontroversial manner, and fetal cells procured from the cadavers of stillborn or preborn babies who died naturally.

The NIH plans to invest $20 million toward the development of research alternatives to human fetal tissue, Science magazine reported. David Prentice, research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, believes this is a good first step and told me there are many ways scientists can accomplish current research goals without the use of fetal tissue.

Molecular and cell biologist Tara Sander Lee says ethical standards must always forbid the exploitation of one group of humans, such as unborn babies, for the benefit of another group. “Using the preborn as objects or means of experimentation, no matter what the outcome might prove or promise to be, constitutes an assault against their dignity as human beings created by God,” she told the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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Climate faux pas

Researchers messed up the math

A recent global warming study shows there’s still a place for skeptics in the world of science.

After a team of climate scientists announced its newly published research showing that the oceans were warming much faster than previously thought, mainstream news outlets ran with the story.

But there was a problem: The study’s math was wrong.

The researchers had asserted that between 1991 and 2016, Earth’s oceans absorbed 60 percent more heat per year than current estimates. They concluded countries would need to slash global fossil-fuel emissions by an additional 25 percent above current proposals.

Soon after Nature published the study on Oct. 31, Nicholas Lewis, an independent climate scientist, discovered an error in the authors’ calculations. When the math was corrected, the results did not show an increase in ocean heat, Lewis wrote on the blog Climate Etc.

Some mainstream climate scientists defended the error as an example of science working the way it should. “Science is a human endeavor and it’s therefore imperfect. What’s important is that results are scrutinized and replicated by others so that we can assess what is robust and what isn’t,” Gavin Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Sciences at NASA, told the AFP news service.

But the fact that the study passed peer review and was published in the first place suggests scientists may too quickly accept anything supporting the mainstream global warming narrative. The error wasn’t difficult to find, according to Lewis: “A quick review of the first page of the paper was sufficient to raise doubts as to the accuracy of its results.”

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Fish killed by red tide in Sanibel, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


Year-long tide

Algae bloom off Florida coast has many more-than-human causes 

This month marks a full year that the noxious red tide, a harmful algae bloom that can kill fish and cause respiratory irritation in humans, has plagued the Florida coast. These algae blooms are nothing new for Florida, but the long duration of this one has some environmentalists pinning the blame on global warming and other human activities.

But other experts caution that red tides in Florida go as far back as the time of the Spanish explorers, long before human activity caused much impact. And the current bloom is not that unusually long, according to David Shormann, a marine chemist. Between 2004 and 2006 Florida experienced a bloom that lasted 17 months, and a 21-month bloom occurred a few years before that, he wrote in an op-ed for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

A combination of interrelated processes causes algae blooms, Shormann explained. Tropical weather systems and trade winds carry iron-rich dust from the Sahara Desert that settles in the Gulf of Mexico in the late summer and early fall. The iron enables blue-green algae to flourish, and that algae converts nitrogen gas to nitrate. Karenia brevis, the red tide algae, needs nitrate, so Karenia blooms follow close on the heels of blue-green blooms. The toxins from Karenia kill certain kinds of fish whose decomposition releases more nutrients that allow the Karenia to continue blooming.

Also, Florida soil is naturally rich with phosphorous, another key nutrient for algae. When it rains, phosphorous from the soil makes its way to the coastal waters, feeding the blooms even further.

Fertilizers and sewage also contain nitrogen and phosphorous compounds, Shormann noted, and farmers should do everything they can to keep their soil and fertilizer out of the sea. But, he said, much of what causes red tides has nothing to do with human activity.

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