After an especially heavy week, we’ve got a roundup of good news and several other positive items scattered throughout the darker news below, including a possible Ebola treatment and a method for a 40% increase in crop yields. Actions and resources will follow the news.
1. Some much-needed good news:
a. Ruth Bader Ginsberg
b. SNAP is funded through February
If you’ve been worrying that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will be shut down by the government shutdown, don’t worry yet. SNAP has enough money to provide food stamps through the end of February. However, be careful if you receive food stamps—to issue February stamps, the government is using a workaround that requires early issuance, so recipients will need to plan carefully so that stamps distributed by Jan. 20 (that would normally be distributed Feb 1-10) don’t run out. [Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star]
c. Medicare For All would save the US money
In an analysis that has received almost no attention in the news despite several conversations sparked by comments from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) [e.g. WaPo], The Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts Amherst published “Economic Analysis of Medicare for All” which found that, “Medicare for All could reduce total health care spending in the U.S. by nearly 10 percent, to $2.93 trillion, while creating stable access to good care for all U.S. residents.” [Sojourners]
d. Guaranteed healthcare access in NYC
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced guaranteed comprehensive healthcare access for uninsured New Yorkers to be rolled out this year. [The Hill]
e. Re-enfranchisement of ex-felons in Florida.
As of Jan. 8, about 1.2 million ex-felon US citizens living in Florida can register to vote, if they “have completed their terms of sentence, except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.” [Miami Herald] Now only Kentucky and Iowa disenfranchise ex-felons [Vox].
f. Another voting rights victory
The ACLU and NAACP have prevailed in their 2014 lawsuit over weighted voting for the Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education, since the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) has declined the case. [ACLU on Twitter; St. Louis Public Radio]
g. SCOTUS has also declined hearing an appeal by ExxonMobil
So, ExxonMobil will have to turn over documents which may prove they actively worked to discredit legitimate climate-change science. [Vox]
h. Facebook is a public forum
The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals have decided that Facebook is enough like a public forum that elected officials who block citizens from commenting on their pages are violating the First Amendment. [Ars Technica]
i. MS-13 mostly gone from eastern MA
The Trump-appointed US Attorney for Boston says eastern Massachusetts has “all but eradicated” MS-13. [Boston Globe] ProPublica notes that the gang has stayed at about 10,000 members (or 0.7% of the 1.4 million total gang members in the U.S.) for the past decade.
j. GoFundMe to buy ladders to go over the wall
You’ve likely heard about the GoFundMe to fund Trump’s Wall, which GoFundMe is refunding back to donors after it failed to raise the money. Now there’s a GoFundMe in response [ABC]: “Ladders to Get Over Trump’s Wall“:
…all funds raised will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) , a Texas-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency that promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees…. This GoFundMe isn’t really about ladders at all. It’s about lifting people up.
2. Good news for the environment, bad news for coal miners
CNN reports that “more coal-fired power plants have been deactivated in Trump’s first two years in office then [sic] in Obama’s entire first term.” Roughly 50,000 coal miners and another 25,000 are employed in the industry in the U.S., whose industry is unlikely to rebound.
3. Gerrymandering roundup.
ABC has a roundup of current gerrymandering cases, affecting voters in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. 2020 Census data will be used for redistricting; see last week’s story (#6) about the Census.
4. Pentagon’s Chief of Staff has resigned
Retired Rear Admiral Kevin Sweeney has resigned. He was chief of staff to James Mattis, who resigned as Defense Secretary last month. [Axios, DoD] Sweeney follows Brett McGurk (whose departure we mentioned in the 30 Dec roundup) and Dana White (the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson who left under a cloud amid accusations she mistreated employees) and of course Mattis himself. Eric Chewning (deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy) is taking over as chief of staff.
5. US approving immigration requests from men with child brides
Thousands of men who want to come into the country with their child or adolescent wives were approved: 5,556 requests from adults (almost all men) with child or adolescent spouses, and 2,926 from minors asking to bring in adult spouses, from 2007 to 2017. Approvals included 149 cases where the adult was over 40 years old, and 28 over 50; some applicants were as young as 8 years old. Another 4,749 minor spouses or fiancees were granted permanent resident status in the same ten-year period. The data was collected by the Homeland Security Committee at the request of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who raised concerns about whether these girls were being abused or had been forced into marriage. Officials have since created a system to flag birthdates in applications, but there’s no data yet to show if it’s working. [NBC/AP]
6. Death reveals need for a broader range of translators at the US border
On December 8, 2018, 7-year-old Jakeline Caal died in US Customs and Border Control custody. Her death has drawn attention to an issue facing many migrants at the southern border. Caal and her father both spoke the Mayan language Q’eqchi. Her father, who speaks what linguist Geoff Nunberg calls “market Spanish,” signed an English-language form read to him in Spanish by a CBP translator. Many of the Central American migrants arriving at the border speak indigenous languages of Mayan origins and have little or no Spanish fluency and may not understand the documents they sign. [NPR; Portland Press Herald]
6. New documents reveal how and why the Border Patrol can do what they do
Lawyers, this one’s for you: Border Patrol training documents obtained by the Intercept illuminate how the Border Patrol systematically extends its authority. A powerpoint explains occasions when those stopped have no expectation of privacy and identifies various in-practice strategies. When boarding a bus, for example, passengers have the right not to answer questions, but agents have no obligation to advise them of that right. It details the way that the border is defined as a 100-mile swath, within which border patrol officials have wide discretion.
The documents were acquired by the ACLU after four years of litigation (and the ACLU Border Litigation Project would like to hear from you about your experiences with the Border Patrol). If you have access to Lexis, the case number is: 8:15-cv-00229-JLS-RNB. If you subscribe to Case Text, you can see it here. The Intercept says that the ACLU shared the training documents exclusively with them.
7. Trump administration downgraded EU delegation’s diplomatic status
With no announcement or notification, the State Department downgraded the European Union’s delegation from member state to international organization. No comment from the State Department due to the shutdown, but the EU says [Deutsche Welle]
The demotion apparently only came to the attention of EU officials when the ambassador to Washington, David O’Sullivan, was not invited to certain events last year.[Independent]
George W. Bush’s former undersecretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, called the move, “a gratuitous and entirely unreasonable swipe at the EU by the Trump administration.”
8. The US is refusing to cooperate with the UN regarding human rights violations inside the country
The State Department has stopped responding to human rights inquiries coming from United Nations rapporteurs (independent experts who investigate issues of inequality, freedom of expression and human rights around the world). As the Guardian explains it, State stopped responding when Philip Alston, the UN’s expert on extreme poverty, critiqued the United States for intensifying inequality. The outgoing UN ambassador Nikki Haley was very much offended by Alston’s report, calling it “patently ridiculous” that the UN would concern itself with the US rather than developing nations.
The UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner has a tool that lets you search the issues the UN raised for yourself. UN rapporteurs raised questions about sanctions against Iran; arbitrary detention of immigrants at private detention centers (including pregnant women); separation of families at the border; exposure of Puerto Ricans to toxic chemicals generated by American companies; targeting of Black Americans called “Black Identity Extremists” by the FBI—and more.
As the Guardian points out, the US’s decision to ignore the UN sends a dangerous message to countries around the world—that they need only ignore the UN when it tries to involve itself.
9. Friction between US and South Korea
The U.S. has demanded a 50% increase in South Korea’s annual payment to defray costs for about 28,500 U.S. troops based in the country, which Seoul is resisting. [Stars and Stripes] Higher-level talks are expected to continue. [Korea Herald]
10. Ebola in Congo & some hope on the horizon
Amidst unrest over the election of Felix Tshisekedi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, accusations of an election coup, and the potential creation of a unity government, the second most deadly Ebola outbreak in history has risen to 630 cases as of January 10th.
The World Health Organization is now coordinating a randomized control multi-drug trial for Ebola treatments, and, separately, antibody cocktails MBP134 and MBP134 AF were found effective in various animals including non-human primates.
11. RCMP forcibly breach Indigenous checkpoint in British Columbia
Members of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) are being accused of using excessive force by protestors objecting to the placement of a pipeline through Indigenous territory in British Columbia—sovereign territory never ceded to Canada, never conquered, never relinquished through treaty. [CBC]
Protestors had established a blockade that was forcibly breached by RCMP members carrying assault weapons; some were injured. The chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en territory had agreed to honor an injunction requiring access to Coastal GasLink for preconstruction work, saying that they were still adamantly opposed to the pipeline but that they were concerned about safety, but protestors nonetheless set up a checkpoint at Gidim’ten. [CBC] Some Indigenous people don’t recognize the chief and council structure, saying it was imposed by colonial law. [CBC]
Coastal GasLink is proposing to build a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory carrying liquified natural gas and—according to one commentator, Kai Nagata—is trying to do so before the Wet’suwet’en claims of sovereignty over their extensive historical territory are heard in court. [Vancouver Star]
12. Round-up of some other international news
- China: “In China, they’re closing churches, jailing pastors – and even rewriting scripture“; “‘If you enter a camp, you never come out’: inside China’s war on Islam“; “How the State Is Co-Opting Religion in China“
- 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has been granted asylum in Canada after her #SaveRahaf Twitter campaign went viral. She alleged abuse from male family members; Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow women to travel without a male guardian’s approval. [BBC; Guardian]
- “Continuity or change? 9 elections around the globe to watch in 2019” [CBC]
- France: “Far-right French politician Le Pen launches EU campaign with appeal to yellow vest protesters” [CBC]; Four died and dozens injured in suspected gas explosion in Paris. [BBC]
- Greece’s northern neighbor may change its name to North Macedonia, sparking a potential no-confidence vote. [BBC]
- Venezuela: “Juan Guaidó: Venezuela’s opposition leader briefly detained” [BBC]; “The Top Conflicts to Watch in 2019: Venezuela” [Council on Foreign Relations]
- Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya: “Meet Muzamil, and See Scenes from Dadaab“; “Despair endangers Dadaab refugees as smugglers seize their moment“
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE ENVIRONMENT
13. Inhalable RNA may be on the way
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a way to deliver mRNA therapies via inhalation, which paves the way for groundbreaking new treatments for lung diseases. mRNA is the “messenger” form of RNA which tells cells which proteins to make and in what quantities. Protein therapies are a promising type of treatment for many lung diseases, cystic fibrosis in particular, but mRNA is delicate and breaks down easily requiring a means of direct delivery and a protective “carrier.”
MIT succeeded in making tiny nanospheres of a bio-degradable polymer entangled with the mRNA and aerosolized it so that it can be inhaled and applied directly to lung cells where it’s needed. In experiments with mice, they successfully delivered mRNA containing directions to produce a bioluminescent protein which was shown to spread evenly throughout the lungs. As the lungs cleared, the mRNA that was delivered the bioluminescent proteins gradually diminished—which allows for the possibility of scalable doses. [MIT]
14. Federal government shutdown hitting science hard
The impact of the budget impasse and resulting shutdown of the federal government is being felt throughout the science community as long-standing planned research is scrapped at the last moment, data piles up without being examined and projects are in limbo waiting for promised funding. New lab staff can’t be vetted because E-verify is down.
Among the immediate effects, the National Science Foundation has suspended approving and reviewing grant proposals or judging and awarding post doctorate fellowships. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has taken down weather and climate databases widely used for industrial and agricultural purposes. NASA is preparing for delays in planned launches and has been unable to fix the Hubble telescope, which broke this week, the EPA has been hamstrung with only 733 employees considered ‘essential’ out of 14,000 and a number of scientific conferences are expecting a plunge in attendance with government-employed scientists being unable to attend. It’s worth mentioning that these delays, abandoned experiments, canceled travel plans and empty conference seats cost the US taxpayer since much of this has already been paid for. [BBC, Nature (1, 2), Union of Concerned Scientists]
15. Scientists fix plant “glitch” for 40% increase in crop yield.
The planet is due to hit 10 billion people by mid-century. The problem of how to feed everybody will only get tougher as climate change hurts agriculture. A new breakthrough from the USDA and University of Illinois may help. Most plants have what could be considered a glitch in their DNA which makes photosynthesis less efficient. (Photosynthesis is the process by which plants turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars—ultimately it’s how everybody gets fed.)
The protein that allows this magic trick in plants, Rubisco, sometimes has trouble telling CO2 from O2. About 20% of the time, the protein grabs up oxygen instead of CO2 and instead of producing nourishing sugars makes plant-toxic compounds, which then have to be disposed of via photorespiration. Photorespiration takes a lot of plant energy, with an inefficient chemical cycle requiring compounds to be processed by three different parts of the plant.
The breakthrough involves genetically engineering a more efficient means for plants to discard toxic compounds, resulting in more efficient photorespiration. Experiments so far on tobacco plants (the botanists’ version of the ubiquitous white lab mouse), resulted in a 40% increased yield in crops under real-world farming conditions, and a huge increase in biomass including 50% larger stems. They’re due to be duplicated in soybeans, tomatoes, rice and potatoes. Funding comes from a variety of sources including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, so results must be provided royalty-free to subsistence farmers. [phys.org; Science]
- Grist has a calculator to help you consider which individual actions to mitigate climate change are worth doing. Big collective changes are called for, but you can make changes on your own as well.
- Martha reports that in the shutdown, federal sites including regulations.gov are not being updated and public meetings to discuss regulations are on hold—though open comment opportunities are still working. Stay tuned for options to comment on Medicaid block grants (yet to be posted). Meanwhile, there’s lots to comment on, including changes to FOIA, arctic drilling, disposal of depleted uranium—and more.
- Sarah-Hope has 27 new ways to comment on things as they are and shouldn’t be. See her blog for ways to respond to incorrect information about immigrants, the warming of the oceans, the failures of HUD, and much more. Type in—don’t click on—the url: whatifknits.com.
- Daily Doublespeak offers a rhetorical analysis of political speech and various links that do so as well.
- Columbia University tracks the federal actions targeting scientific work in climate and other environmental fields.
- NYMHM advocates laughing even/especially when things are at their worst. Foreign policy writer Conn Hallinan offers his annual “Are You Serious” awards, for events and statements that are so incredibly awful that we have to laugh or we will weep. He includes such items as the “Little Bo Peep Award” for the Pentagon for losing track of $21 trillion dollars and the U.S. Air Force for losing a box of grenades.