Science Not Silence Q&A Follow Up

From our 2019 panel discussion ‘Science Not Silence’ our panelists were asked so many great and varied questions. Unfortunately, our panelists didn’t have time to answer them all; however, we spent the last few months doing the research and we are excited to share our answers. The answers are written and researched by our very own Jackie Rocheleau. You can reach Jackie and check out her excellent science journalism at

Come back each week as this page will be updated regularly over the next few months!

Sincerely CapSci

Can the government encourage development of energy storage solutions? What are some highlights in the progress on energy storage?

Demand for electricity varies throughout the day, creating the need for energy storage. Energy storage allows the electrical grid to supply power when we need it most, and conserve it when demand is low.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has a program devoted to advancing energy storage solutions. The DOE works with industry and state energy organizations as part of the Energy Storage Program. Current areas of research include advancing sodium and flow batteries, superconducting magnets as storage solutions and underground pumped storage.  The DOE also has a database of energy storage project and policy developments.

What is energy storage? 

Batteries are some of the most familiar energy storage solutions. Batteries can be small enough to fit in a watch, or large enough to support electric grids. Storing water in a reservoir behind hydroelectric dams is another example of energy storage; when an area needs electricity, dam operators can discharge water from behind the dam, turning turbines, into a lower-level reservoir. When electricity is in low demand, water is pumped back to the higher reservoir and behind the dam. This is called pumped-storage hydropower.

 Why do we need it?

As renewable energy becomes more prevalent, energy storage becomes more crucial to ensuring stable sources of electricity. Pumped-storage hydropower, for example, can store energy from wind and solar farms. While wind and solar farms output plentiful electricity on windy or sunny days, we need to reserve the excess energy for still or cloudy days, when electricity generation falls.

Currently, pumped-storage hydropower represents 96 percent of U.S. energy storage capacity. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the U.S. has 23 gigawatts of storage capacity, which is roughly the capacity of 38 coal plants. Most of the hydropower storage facilities date back to the 1960s and 1970s, and were built to accommodate the energy generation of nuclear power plants, which output a constant stream of power.

What are the different types of energy storage? Other storage technologies include thermal storage plants, compressed air energy storage, hydrogen, and flywheels. Thermal storage plants capture the sun’s heat and then store that energy in fluids. Compressed air energy storage harnesses the potential energy in compressed air, and then releases the air from storage, combusting it with natural gas to turn a turbine and generate electricity. Hydrogen, in the form of fuel cells or engines, can also store energy; excess electricity can power generation of hydrogen fuel cells. Flywheels are rapidly spinning rotors that can store energy in the form of motion.

How do we stop/prevent light pollution?

Light pollution is excessive, inappropriate or unwanted use of artificial light. It affects animals, plants and people, disrupting the natural light patterns that cue a variety of biological processes, from migrations to hormone release.   

Not all light pollution is the same, and according to the International Dark Sky Association the main types include skyglow, glare, light trespass and clutter. Skyglow is that bright haze you see when approaching a city at night. If you’ve ever driven toward Albany on I-90 west at night, you probably know what sky glow looks like.  Glare is excessive brightness, like that street light somehow placed at just the right angle to blind you while you’re sitting in your living room. Light trespass is when light falls where it’s not intended or needed, like when that same street light also casts more indirect, but still unnecessary, light into your bedroom. Clutter is confusing and excessive groupings of lights, like all the bright, massive signs in Times Square.

Life on Earth evolved with a pretty customary pattern of sunrises and sunsets. And that pattern influenced how life evolved. For example, sea turtles hatch from eggs on the beach at night, and they evolved the ability to find their way to the ocean by moving toward the brighter horizon over the water. Humans, other animals, and even plants have evolved cycles called circadian rhythms that use daytime sunlight and nighttime darkness to cue hormone release and tell the body when to wake and when to sleep. Light pollution messes with these evolved processes. Artificial lights that illuminate the night sky can lure sea turtles to coastal roads instead of the ocean. Nighttime lighting can also affect when the body releases sleep-cuing chemicals.

But there are a lot of ways to reduce light pollution, and individuals, nonprofits, manufacturers and governments have taken action. Many states now have laws addressing outdoor lighting in efforts to minimize light pollution. New lighting designs can reduce pollution too. On the individual level, people should use lower wattage bulbs, only use outdoor lighting when and where it’s necessary, and make sure that such lights are shielded to help prevent light skyglow and light trespass. Closing window blinds and curtains can also prevent necessary light from spilling into the street or yard.

Probably the biggest name in the light pollution field is the International Dark Sky Association. Since 1988, the International Dark Sky Association has been working to diminish light pollution. The organization educates public officials about solutions, has a conservation program that designates places as dark sky reserves, works with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to protect sea turtles, and consults with government and private entities on how to address light pollution.Locally, the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute explores how light affects the world, and does some work on light pollution. The institute, established in 1988 by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, holds monthly webinars on lighting related research, offers seminars on light and health, and conducts research on how different types of light impact human and plant health.

On Brazil opening up vast tracts of rain forest for logging — what can we do? Indigenous peoples in Brazil are trying to stop logging on their native lands through the courts, are there ways that American citizens could support that?

  In 2019, deforestation levels in the Amazon rose to an 11-year high in Brazil. According to Mongabay, preliminary reports from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute estimate that from August 2018 through July 2019, an area larger than Yellowstone National Park was cleared. Most of the area was cleared to create pasture land for cattle.

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has dismantled many of the measures in place to protect the Amazon. Bolsonaro, who was sworn into office in January of 2019, has largely gotten rid of environmental law enforcement, leaving vast natural areas unprotected. Although raids on illegal loggers can still occur, the government now requires that the environmental agency announce planned raids beforehand.

2019 also marks the lowest amount of fines for illegal deforestation imposed by the agency; it issued just 850 fines between January 1 and May 15, compared 1,290 during the same period in 2018. The government has also cut back on illegal timber harvest seizures. By April, they confiscated an amount of timber equivalent to 10 trees, whereas the year before, under a different administration, over 600 times that amount was seized. Considering the fact that deforestation levels are at an 11-year high, the lower number of fines likely does not reflect less illegal practices. 

In Bolsonaro’s campaign, he argued that Brazil’s protected areas, including those in the Amazon, should lose their protected status and be developed instead, especially for agriculture and mining. Bolsonaro also has plans to extend highways through the Amazon and build a hydroelectric dam on one of the tributaries of the Amazon River, projects that would infringe on indigenous land as well as disrupt the local environment. 

He began dismantling protections for indigenous peoples and their land  his first day in office. Bolsonaro signed an executive order to prevent an indigenous affairs government agency from declaring more land indigenous territory; instead he reallocated that authority to the agriculture ministry. 

In efforts to protect their rights, indigenous people have held protests. At the end of November, a group of Brazilian lawyers has partnered with Brazil’s Human Rights Advocacy Collective and the Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns Commission for Human Rights to urge the International Criminal Court to indict Bolsonaro for enacting policy that encourages attacks on indigenous people and land.

What are good Climate Change teaching resources and what are the best practices for teaching?

The federal government is not the only place for climate change education materials, although NASA does offer accurate, recently-updated climate change information geared toward elementary and middle school students. A lot of professional societies, nonprofits and other organizations have taken the lead in developing lesson plans and guides for teachers.

The National Center for Science Education offers five lesson plans for high school students, covering scientific consensus, climate models, past vs. present climate change, local climate impacts and climate solutions. National Geographic also offers climate change educational resources, including videos, articles, interactives, and activities for students of various age groups. Climate change education also features on the National Education Association site, which details essential principles and provides links to teacher resources. 

Has Energy Information Agency air quality data been deleted?

It doesn’t look like they’re deleting data. Rather, they’re not providing clear interpretations or making data easy for the lay public to access and interpret. For example, the 2019 Nation’s Air report offers a very optimistic view of the state of air. The EPA boasts that air quality has improved markedly since 1990, with air concentrations of nine major pollutants dropping from at least 20%. Those improvements are part of a larger trend that began when the EPA was created in 1970 to limit emissions and monitor air quality.

The report does not draw attention to the fact that in 2017 and 2018, the number of days among 35 U.S. cities reaching “unhealthy levels for sensitive groups” or above on the Air Quality Index increased. It also doesn’t explain how this slight increase could start a trend if emissions are further deregulated. As the Associated Press reported, 

“There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America both last year and the year before than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when America had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980… There were noticeably more polluted air days each year in the president’s first two years in office than any of the four years before, according to new Environmental Protection Agency data analyzed by The Associated Press.”This increase in and of itself is not concerning. Like former deputy EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe says in this AP article, this increase represents “a flattening off of progress” rather than a major shift backward. The concern is that regulatory changes from the Trump administration could turn this into a major, backward shift.

How do we balance free speech against undermining scientific integrity?

There has been much debate on whether giving platforms to people who hold unscientific beliefs is necessary for free speech or whether it just helps spread misinformation. This issue has been at the forefront of science journalism in recent decades. For journalists, the solution is to omit the voices spreading bad science.

In the media, journalists now recognize mistakes made when reporting on science in the past, and giving equal attention to people who disagree with a widely accepted theory. This phenomenon is called “false balance” and arguably led to a lot of misinformation on climate change in decades past. By including the opinions of the few dissenters who deny that human-caused climate change is happening, many journalists helped sow the impression that the scientific community did not agree on the causes of climate change.

But now, responsible journalists recognize the perils of false balance. Especially when it comes to science, journalists strive not to include voices that spread misinformation. It may be the right of those people to ignore scientific evidence, but news organizations do not have a responsibility to give them a platform. On the contrary, journalists have a responsibility to report on the truth as accurately as possible.

Elsewhere, in situations where stakeholders don’t have a professional, ethical obligation to truth and accuracy, the discussion is more complicated. For example, Gwyneth Paltrow is infamous for promoting pseudoscientific claims and promoting products for her wellness brand, none of which have been scientifically shown to improve health, and might even be dangerous. But in February of 2019, Netflix announced that Paltrow’s brand, Goop, would be getting a show.

 Among the scientific community, this has evoked a lot of backlash. Health researcher Tim Caulfield told Vox: “While I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and open debate, media companies are still making choices about what kind of content to support,” Caulfield said. “I’m not naive — I know these companies are about making money. But we shouldn’t forget the misinformation can have a real impact.”

When it comes to social media, things are even thornier. Facebook especially has received backlash for allowing all kinds of misinformation to proliferate through their platform. They have even partnered with conservative groups that espouse climate change denial to fact check information on the platform. Although, in March Facebook did announce that they would crack down on vaccine misinformation—however, they did not take down anti-vaccine posts or pages, merely reduced their rankings and no longer allowed anyone to promote anti-vaccine material. While Facebook claims that they’re taking steps to combat fake news and misinformation, their general stance has been to favor free speech over penalizing those who spread harmful and non-scientific information.  

While infringing on the rights of free speech is a slippery slope, most agree that when it comes to science, for the health, safety and success of society, it’s important to give voice to truth and not to give platforms to those who ignore it. 

Questions about vaccine safety and proof:

Vaccines are a safe way to protect ourselves against highly contagious and/or harmful illnesses, like polio or influenza. But this perception of vaccines began to change in the late 90s, when one group of scientists published a study that claimed to find a link between the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and onset of behavioral symptoms seen in autism spectrum disorder.

o   Where did the vaccine-autism connection come from?

One study claimed to find evidence that the MMR vaccine caused autism, but the study was retracted. Its conclusions were based on falsified data. But right after this infamous study was published, other scientists began exploring the MMR vaccine-autism connection, and didn’t find one. It’s true that autism diagnosis typically happens in early childhood, around the time children receive the MMR vaccine, but this is because many of the hallmarks of autism, like trouble communicating, don’t become diagnosable until this time.

o   What’s the evidence that vaccines aren’t related to autism?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list summarizing CDC studies assessing the link between autism and vaccines, particularly a specific ingredient in vaccines, thimerosal, that concerned people for a time. These studies have not found an association between autism and thimerosal.

One recently published study in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at records for 657,461 Danish children to see if there was an association between autism and the MMR vaccine. When comparing MMR-vaccinated versus unvaccinated children, the researchers did not see any indication that the vaccine increased a child’s risk of developing autism. Even when they looked at subgroups of kids who had siblings with autism or other risk factors, the MMR vaccine was not associated with an increased risk of developing autism.

This finding echoes the evidence compiled in a 2014 review paper published in the journal Vaccine. In this paper, the authors analyzed ten studies, together assessing the data of over a million children, to look at the evidence for a possible link between vaccines and autism. None of the data showed an association between vaccination and autism, the MMR vaccine and autism, or thimerosal and autism. The authors also did not see evidence that MMR or thimerosol exposure increased a child’s risk for developing autism after vaccinations.

o   How do vaccines work, anyway?

When the human body faces a new germ, like a bacterium or virus, for the first time, the immune system recruits white blood cells to recognize and attack them. White blood cells specific to that germ will live in the body for years or even decades, conferring long-term protection. Vaccines take advantage of this process by introducing inactive germs to the immune system. Because vaccines are made from inactive germs, they won’t cause illness, but they do cause an immune response (some people may experience aches or a low-grade fever as a result of this immune response — that means the vaccine is working!). Once the body is exposed to the particular germ in the vaccine, over the next few weeks it will produce white blood cells which will protect against that specific germ for a long time to come. 

Some diseases, like chicken pox and measles, are caused by a very specific germ. A single vaccination will last a long time. Other germs are more variable. For example, the flu virus changes constantly. If you got a flu shot last year, you are protected against last year’s flu, but not necessarily this year’s flu. This is why you need to get a new flu shot every year — each year, the CDC monitors what flu virus strains are circulating, and creates a shot that will cover the 3-4 most common strains for that year.

Are the number of students pursuing STEM declining?

As far as school is concerned, it seems that STEM is popular among students.The National Science Foundation’s 2018 Indicator’s Report, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate science and engineering courses has been on the rise. The data show an increase in enrollment in science and engineering programs between 2012 and 2017. One study suggests that STEM-focused high schools are doing their job, increasing the likelihood that a student would be in a STEM bachelor’s degree program two years after graduating high school.

Whether or not these students stick with STEM might be a different story. According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education analyzing data from about 16,700 respondents, STEM attrition was high for those who entered STEM fields in 2003 and 2009: 48 percent of those with a bachelor’s and 69 percent of those with an associate’s degree left the STEM field by 2009. But attrition rates in other fields were about the same or higher (it should be noted that the U.S. Department of Education counted health sciences and social/behavioral sciences as non-STEM fields).

More recent analyses reflect those patterns. The Department of Education found, in a survey of 17,160, that in 2012, of 2007-2008 STEM bachelor’s degree graduates there was a 42.4% attrition rate. According to an analysis of a 2014-2016 survey from Pew Research Center, of employed college graduates over age 25, almost half of those who majored in a STEM field were working in non-STEM fields.A large part of the STEM attrition discussion is retaining minority and female scientists. According to a report from the American Institutes for Research, female STEM Ph.D. holders are more likely to leave their field than males, and Black STEM Ph.D. holders are more likely to leave their field than other racial groups. This is likely due to a number of factors, like discrimination experienced by women and minorities and fewer opportunities for advancement. A survey from the Pew Research Center found that of U.S. adults surveyed, half of women in STEM professions reported experiencing gender discrimination. The same survey found that 62% of black people, 44% of Asian people, and 42% of Hispanic people in STEM jobs have experienced discrimination due to their race/ethnicity.

Why hasn’t Roundup been banned?

 A subject of several civil suits now, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has been accused of causing cancer. Glyphosate targets a protein in a plant pathway vital for life, which is why it’s an important ingredient in the Roundup herbicide. 

 Monsanto began selling Roundup in 1974 as a weed killer, and in 1996, they followed up with genetically modified seeds that could better tolerate glyphosate. This led to the company’s quick growth and widespread use of Roundup, and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) took notice. 

In 2015, the IARC announced their conclusions of an assessment of glyphosate risks, determining that the chemical is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In cellular studies, the IARC saw “strong evidence” that glyphosate damages DNA, which is one aspect of cancer (although every day we naturally accumulate some DNA damage and mutations). In studies conducted using mice, scientists reported that mice who ate glyphosate developed more tumors. Taken together, the cellular and mice studies point to the idea that glyphosate can cause cancer in animals. Then the IARC combed the data and found “limited evidence” that people with glyphosate exposure had higher rates of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer.

As a probable, or Group 2A carcinogen, the evidence that glyphosate causes cancer is “compelling, but not conclusive.” But there are a lot of known carcinogens people encounter, and even consume every day. Wood dust, tobacco smoke, small particles in air pollution, and processed meat are all Group 1 carcinogens, meaning we know they’re carcinogenic to humans. Keep in mind that these classifications don’t tell us how likely we are to get cancer, but tell us how strong the evidence is that something can cause cancer. 

Since the IARC released their assessment, other scientists have looked into the link between glyphosate and cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency, European Chemical Agency, and the European Food Safety Authority have concluded that glyphosate probably isn’t causing cancer. You can see what studies and data the EPA analyzed here and here.

Overall, the data don’t tell a straightforward story about glyphosate. Part of the issue is that, theoretically, glyphosate only acts on a plant pathway. It’s not clear how it acts on animals, including humans. 

It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on with humans because scientists can’t control or account for everything going on in a given person’s environment or genetic code. For those people who have developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma and have high exposure to glyphosate, hundredsof factors—maybe more— could work together to cause the cancer. For example, other carcinogens might be causing cancer for some people, family history might be the main culprit for others, or something else might be involved. Also, most people consume glyphosate at levels below the regulatory-permitted daily intake, and there is little data on the effects of this kind of exposure.

The IARC states that their classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” doesn’t tell us about how it causes cancer or the probability of developing cancer. Instead, it states that, based on the evidence the IARC evaluated, there is evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer, but one person’s likelihood of developing cancer depends on a host of other factors: type of exposure, how long exposure lasted, and the strength of glyphosate’s effects. 

Some experts say that it’s also possible that glyphosate may partially increase one’s risk of cancer, but other factors, like family history or other carcinogen exposures, are the main causes. Other experts are asking if glyphosate is the culprit, or if we should really be looking at the effects of the entire chemical cocktail of Roundup.

This is why scientists need to replicate studies, performing the same experiments under the same conditions to make sure the results are repeatable. We can’t make sweeping conclusions based on the results of one study, or even two. But, if many studies report the same findings, we can be more confident in their conclusions.  Right now, the research is not consistent or conclusive enough to make definitive claims.