Thursday, June 1, 2023

Cytomegalovirus lies dormant in most US adults and is the leading infectious cause of birth defects, but few have heard of it

Cytomegalovirus belongs to the same virus family, Herpesviridae, as cold sores and chickenpox. Callista Images/Image Source via Getty Images
Laura Gibson, UMass Chan Medical School

“Why didn’t anyone tell me about this virus?” is a frequent response I hear from parents upon learning their newborn is infected with cytomegalovirus, or CMV. Although more than half of the U.S. population will be infected with CMV by the age of 40 and the disease is common worldwide, few people have ever heard of it.

CMV belongs to the same virus family as cold sores and chickenpox and, like those viruses, lives in the body for life. Most children and adults experience very mild or even no symptoms with their initial infection. A healthy immune system is typically able to keep CMV under control so people don’t become sick or even know the virus is living in their body.

So if most people are unlikely to get sick from CMV at any age, then why is the virus so important to understand? As an infectious disease and immunology specialist, I have focused on this question for most of my two-decade career. One major reason is that CMV – unlike the other viruses in its family – can pass from mother to fetus during pregnancy.

Congenital CMV, or cCMV, is the most common infection before birth and the leading infectious cause of birth defects. About one in every 200 infants – typically 20,000 to 30,000 infants in the U.S. – are born with cCMV per year, and nearly 20% of them have permanent neurodevelopmental disabilities such as hearing loss or cerebral palsy. Every year, more children are affected by cCMV than several familiar childhood conditions like Down syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome. Compared to later stages of pregnancy, CMV infection in the first trimester carries the highest risk of stillbirth or severe effects when the immune system and organs like the brain are developing.

Rates of cCMV differ significantly by race, ethnicity and other demographic factors, with Black and multiracial infants twice as likely to have cCMV compared to other groups. Black and Native American infants also have a higher risk of death from cCMV compared to white infants.

Herpesviruses share the ability to stay latent in the body for life.

Looking for CMV during pregnancy

Screening for rubella, HIV and syphilis is routine for early prenatal care in the U.S. Counseling to avoid kitty litter to prevent toxoplasmosis is also common. If CMV can infect a fetus and cause birth defects, then why aren’t pregnant people tested and treated for this virus too?

Prenatal CMV screening is not standard of care due to several limitations of the current testing approach. Some available tests can be difficult for health care providers to interpret. Testing provides information about whether the parent has CMV, but it does not sufficiently predict the risk of fetal transmission or severe symptoms.

Prenatal screening for a healthy person with a normal pregnancy does not usually offer useful information. That’s because anyone can have a baby with cCMV regardless of whether they tested positive or negative for it before or earlier in pregnancy. CMV testing may be useful for pregnant people who are experiencing acute illness, such as prolonged fever and fatigue, or who have an abnormal fetal ultrasound.

Even if more accurate tests were available, there are currently no medical interventions approved by the Food and Drug Administration to reduce the risk of fetal CMV infection. Biweekly antibodies against CMV seem to reduce fetal transmission when given around conception or during the first trimester, but CMV is rarely diagnosed that early in pregnancy.

Pregnant person touching belly
Most available drugs to treat CMV are unsafe to take during pregnancy. FG Trade/E+ via Getty Images

Researchers are currently evaluating the drug valacyclovir as a potential treatment to prevent fetal transmission. Valacyclovir is commonly used to prevent or treat genital herpes during pregnancy. Findings from a recent clinical trial in Israel suggest that valacyclovir may reduce the risk of CMV transmission to the fetus.

In general, valacyclovir does not work as well as other CMV drugs that people cannot take during pregnancy. As a result, a much higher dose is required to reduce the risk of fetal CMV infection, which may cause significant side effects for pregnant people.

Although the use of valacyclovir to prevent cCMV is not standard in the U.S., and research on its effectiveness remains limited, the drug is used for this purpose in some areas of the world.

Screening newborns for CMV

Like pregnant people, babies are screened for many potentially serious conditions. An accurate CMV test for newborns is available, and many studies support the benefit of early CMV diagnosis. So why isn’t there universal CMV screening for infants?

While some birth centers provide early CMV testing, most U.S. states do not mandate newborn CMV screening. My team and I surveyed 33 hospitals in Massachusetts from late 2020 to early 2021 and found that less than half are consistently screening infants for cCMV infection. Of those, only a few have a written testing protocol. Only two hospitals performed cCMV screening on all infants admitted to the newborn nursery.

Standardizing public health education and CMV screening guidelines could help reduce the incidence and burden of cCMV disease on children and their families. In July 2013, Utah became the first state to pass legislation mandating a CMV public education program and testing for infants who do not pass the newborn hearing screen. In February 2022, Minnesota became the first – and remains the only – state to require CMV screening of all newborns, although Massachusetts and Indiana have pending universal screening bills. So far, 17 states have enacted laws requiring cCMV education or targeted screening of newborns who meet certain criteria, and many others are considering similar options.

Person holding baby closely
Negative health effects from cCMV may not show for a newborn until later. Juanma Hache/Moment via Getty Images

On the other hand, designing, funding and implementing a new infant screening program is complex and time-consuming, and may potentially divert resources from other equally important health initiatives. Most newborns with cCMV appear physically normal at birth and develop normally over their lifetime, leading some to question the benefits of CMV screening for those children.

However, infants may have abnormalities that are not visible at birth, and there isn’t a reliable way to predict whether they will have progressive health problems. Without screening all newborns for CMV, those who appear normal at birth will not be fully evaluated, considered for treatment or monitored for effects that develop later, such as hearing loss.

Spreading CMV awareness, not infection

Decreasing the incidence of cCMV infection is unlikely without increasing awareness. Most people have not heard of CMV or are unwaware of what they can do to reduce their chances of getting CMV during pregnancy.

Many adults are repeatedly exposed to one of the major risk factors for CMV infection: a young child who regularly attends large-group child care. Infections like CMV spread easily among children in settings where group play, meals and diaper changes become daily opportunities for transmission. Children can appear quite healthy but carry CMV in their saliva and urine for weeks or even months after infection. When an unsuspecting pregnant caretaker comes into contact with those body fluids, they can become infected as well.

For people who are pregnant, simple behavior changes such as kissing a child on the head instead of the lips, not sharing food or utensils, and frequent handwashing can significantly reduce the risk of getting CMV.

Educating the public, policymakers and health care providers will improve the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of cCMV, so no parent suffers the thought “If I had only known…”

Laura Gibson, Associate Professor of Medicine and of Pediatrics, UMass Chan Medical School

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Understanding the Cost of Replacing Diesel Buses

Diesel school buses are not only expensive to operate, they pose risks to children’s health and the environment. There are two practical energy choices for clean student transportation: propane and electric. However, when evaluating the complete life-cycle emissions and cost of electric buses, the economic and environmental benefits of propane buses are clear, according to the experts at the Propane Education & Research Council. With or without available funding, propane buses cost a fraction of electric buses, allowing school districts to replace their aging diesel fleets faster and further reduce harmful emissions. Learn more at BetterOurBuses.com.

SOURCE:
Propane Education & Research Council

Automation risks creating a two-tier workforce of haves and have-nots

Workplaces could become “anti-human”: centred around technology rather than people. PaO_STUDIO / Shutterstock
Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, University of Birmingham

The recent news that BT would reduce its workforce by as many as 55,000 by 2030, including about 10,000 jobs replaced by artificial intelligence (AI), is part of a growing trend of job losses globally due to various forms of automation.

This is borne out by several industry reports, including one from McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) acknowledging that as many as 800 million jobs may be lost globally due to changes in technology by 2030.

In our book Work 3.0, the author and business adviser Avik Chanda and I contend that, due to automation as well as newer ways of working, workplaces can become “anti-human” and centred instead around AI and technology.

While the term “anti-human” can be interpreted in different ways, surveys on workplace happiness provide compelling evidence on just how unhappy workers are. For example, The Global Workplace 2022 published by Gallup states that on the whole, workers seem to be significantly worse off in their overall wellbeing than they were in 2020. In fact, only 20% of respondents reporting they were engaged at work.

There has been an unprecedented increase in technological disruption in recent years. At the same time, work by Gallup has revealed a global rise in unhappiness. Gallup’s latest Positive Experiences Index showed a decline in happiness, even from 2020 levels. “Enjoyment”, “smiling” and “feeling well-rested” seemed to have almost vanished. On the other hand, the survey’s negative experience index continues to record a rise, with “sadness”, “stress” and “worry” reaching record levels.

Historical biases

AI is being used in the workplace as an evaluative and decision-making tool — which would be a positive development if it eliminated human error. But, as eloquently analysed in Cathy O'Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction, most of these decision-making algorithms use data that contains biases against historically disadvantaged groups. If these biases are incorporated into algorithms that help determine who gets bank loans or that screen job applications, they can perpetuate an already unjust situation.

Concept art of smart farm
Automation is likely to have a bigger effect on some roles versus others. Suwin / Shutterstock

However, it remains the case that more jobs are being created than are being destroyed due to automation. The size of the net impact is widely debated, but theories suggest job roles that complement automation will do well, at least in terms of better wages. Nevertheless, surveys such as the one by Gallup suggest that stress and unhappiness in the workplace will affect almost all workers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those workers that perform tasks capable of being completely automated will stand to lose most. This last category of worker includes many blue collar roles, though a number of white collar middle management jobs will also disappear.

A recent study by the economists Daron Acemo─člu, Hans Koster and Ceren Ozgen, using data from the Netherlands, supports suggestions from theoretical work that automation affects different groups of workers in different ways. The team argues that “directly affected workers seem to lose from robot adoption, while indirectly affected workers gain (from it)”.

Be adaptable

When workplaces become anti-human, they become focused on automated processes and the use of technological solutions rather than around the well-being of employees. This suggests that those with skills suited for this new workplace will thrive, while the future may be bleak for others, whose salaries may stagnate or fall.

This warning echoes what Brynjolfsson and McAfee predicted in their book, The Second Machine Age:

There’s never been a better time to be a worker with specialist skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.

This separation of workers into two categories could spread around the globe very quickly. As a result, inequality could become more pronounced within countries than between countries. In Work 3.0, we noted that inequality between nations represented only 32% of total global inequality in 2020, while inequality within economies accounted for an astonishing 68%. Back in 1980, the situation was very different, with inequality between countries accounting for as much as 57% of the global total.

Falling wages

While this trend makes for grim reading, governments can have an important influence. In India, which has recorded large rises in inequality over past decades, polices such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MGNREGA) have helped reduce the gap. MNGREGA offers guaranteed employment as well as a food subsidy as part of an effort to boost livelihoods in rural areas.

The economists Surjit Bhalla, Karan Bhasin and Arvind Virmani analysed extreme poverty (defined as an income of US$1.9 per person per day, at purchasing power parity of the 2011 dollar) in India and found that it had fallen to quite low levels in 2019 and had remained so despite the pandemic. This was put down to the impact of the food subsidy.

While this has been contested, other studies have also found a decline in poverty – though they differ in the magnitude of that reduction. This suggests that countries can manage the worst effects on workers through active state intervention.

Farmer using a tractor in a field.
Policies by the Indian government helped secure livelihoods in rural areas. PRASANNAPIX / Shutterstock

But subsidies are a short-term fix to protect those workers most at risk of losing their jobs or seeing their wages fall. Longer-term solutions need to focus on reskilling workers to adapt to the changing nature of demand. Educational institutions, from schools to universities, need to play a lead role in this regard.

The skills needed in the workplace are changing at a blistering pace. We argue in Work 3.0, that the challenge today for educational institutions is to instil in the workers of the future a highly adaptable mindset.

This mindset would be assisted by an educational curriculum that is more multi-disciplinary and augments traditional STEM skills. This will be a major step for many educational institutions as it will force them to step outside disciplinary silos.

However, the effort would pay off by creating an adaptable and diverse workforce able to meet the changing demands of the 21st-century workplace.

Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, Professor of Economics, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

How can Congress regulate AI? Erect guardrails, ensure accountability and address monopolistic power

IBM executive Christina Montgomery, cognitive scientist Gary Marcus and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman prepared to testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Anjana Susarla, Michigan State University

Takeaways:

  • A new federal agency to regulate AI sounds helpful but could become unduly influenced by the tech industry. Instead, Congress can legislate accountability.

  • Instead of licensing companies to release advanced AI technologies, the government could license auditors and push for companies to set up institutional review boards.

  • The government hasn’t had great success in curbing technology monopolies, but disclosure requirements and data privacy laws could help check corporate power.


OpenAI CEO Sam Altman urged lawmakers to consider regulating AI during his Senate testimony on May 16, 2023. That recommendation raises the question of what comes next for Congress. The solutions Altman proposed – creating an AI regulatory agency and requiring licensing for companies – are interesting. But what the other experts on the same panel suggested is at least as important: requiring transparency on training data and establishing clear frameworks for AI-related risks.

Another point left unsaid was that, given the economics of building large-scale AI models, the industry may be witnessing the emergence of a new type of tech monopoly.

As a researcher who studies social media and artificial intelligence, I believe that Altman’s suggestions have highlighted important issues but don’t provide answers in and of themselves. Regulation would be helpful, but in what form? Licensing also makes sense, but for whom? And any effort to regulate the AI industry will need to account for the companies’ economic power and political sway.

An agency to regulate AI?

Lawmakers and policymakers across the world have already begun to address some of the issues raised in Altman’s testimony. The European Union’s AI Act is based on a risk model that assigns AI applications to three categories of risk: unacceptable, high risk, and low or minimal risk. This categorization recognizes that tools for social scoring by governments and automated tools for hiring pose different risks than those from the use of AI in spam filters, for example.

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology likewise has an AI risk management framework that was created with extensive input from multiple stakeholders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of American Scientists, as well as other business and professional associations, technology companies and think tanks.

Federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have already issued guidelines on some of the risks inherent in AI. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies have a role to play as well.

Rather than create a new agency that runs the risk of becoming compromised by the technology industry it’s meant to regulate, Congress can support private and public adoption of the NIST risk management framework and pass bills such as the Algorithmic Accountability Act. That would have the effect of imposing accountability, much as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other regulations transformed reporting requirements for companies. Congress can also adopt comprehensive laws around data privacy.

Regulating AI should involve collaboration among academia, industry, policy experts and international agencies. Experts have likened this approach to international organizations such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The internet has been managed by nongovernmental bodies involving nonprofits, civil society, industry and policymakers, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly. Those examples provide models for industry and policymakers today.

Cognitive scientist and AI developer Gary Marcus explains the need to regulate AI.

Licensing auditors, not companies

Though OpenAI’s Altman suggested that companies could be licensed to release artificial intelligence technologies to the public, he clarified that he was referring to artificial general intelligence, meaning potential future AI systems with humanlike intelligence that could pose a threat to humanity. That would be akin to companies being licensed to handle other potentially dangerous technologies, like nuclear power. But licensing could have a role to play well before such a futuristic scenario comes to pass.

Algorithmic auditing would require credentialing, standards of practice and extensive training. Requiring accountability is not just a matter of licensing individuals but also requires companywide standards and practices.

Experts on AI fairness contend that issues of bias and fairness in AI cannot be addressed by technical methods alone but require more comprehensive risk mitigation practices such as adopting institutional review boards for AI. Institutional review boards in the medical field help uphold individual rights, for example.

Academic bodies and professional societies have likewise adopted standards for responsible use of AI, whether it is authorship standards for AI-generated text or standards for patient-mediated data sharing in medicine.

Strengthening existing statutes on consumer safety, privacy and protection while introducing norms of algorithmic accountability would help demystify complex AI systems. It’s also important to recognize that greater data accountability and transparency may impose new restrictions on organizations.

Scholars of data privacy and AI ethics have called for “technological due process” and frameworks to recognize harms of predictive processes. The widespread use of AI-enabled decision-making in such fields as employment, insurance and health care calls for licensing and audit requirements to ensure procedural fairness and privacy safeguards.

Requiring such accountability provisions, though, demands a robust debate among AI developers, policymakers and those who are affected by broad deployment of AI. In the absence of strong algorithmic accountability practices, the danger is narrow audits that promote the appearance of compliance.

AI monopolies?

What was also missing in Altman’s testimony is the extent of investment required to train large-scale AI models, whether it is GPT-4, which is one of the foundations of ChatGPT, or text-to-image generator Stable Diffusion. Only a handful of companies, such as Google, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft, are responsible for developing the world’s largest language models.

Given the lack of transparency in the training data used by these companies, AI ethics experts Timnit Gebru, Emily Bender and others have warned that large-scale adoption of such technologies without corresponding oversight risks amplifying machine bias at a societal scale.

It is also important to acknowledge that the training data for tools such as ChatGPT includes the intellectual labor of a host of people such as Wikipedia contributors, bloggers and authors of digitized books. The economic benefits from these tools, however, accrue only to the technology corporations.

Proving technology firms’ monopoly power can be difficult, as the Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Microsoft demonstrated. I believe that the most feasible regulatory options for Congress to address potential algorithmic harms from AI may be to strengthen disclosure requirements for AI firms and users of AI alike, to urge comprehensive adoption of AI risk assessment frameworks, and to require processes that safeguard individual data rights and privacy.


Learn what you need to know about artificial intelligence by signing up for our newsletter series of four emails delivered over the course of a week. You can read all our stories on generative AI at TheConversation.com.

Anjana Susarla, Professor of Information Systems, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Preparing Your Children for Kindergarten

Being ready for kindergarten is about far more than writing names and reciting the ABCs. It is also about building a foundation for deeper conceptual thinking, curiosity, creativity and social and emotional skills that can help children during their early school days and also in life.

For parents, this transition can be nerve-wracking and raise questions about how to best prepare their children for the next step in their educational journeys.

Dr. Lauren Starnes, senior vice president and chief academic officer at The Goddard School, and Lee Scott, chairperson of The Goddard School’s Educational Advisory Board, recommend helping children prepare for kindergarten through:

Building Strong Routines and Foundations for Learning:

  • Language and literacy: Practice writing by making place cards for the dinner table. For younger children, it can be the first letter of each person’s name or fun scribbles on the card. Early scribbles are part of developing writing skills.
  • Mathematics: Count while you work. Ask your children to put away toys. As they work, you can count the toys together.
  • Science: Make yard cleanup fun. As you clean the yard, talk about the leaves and why they turn colors and fall to the ground. Pile them up and jump in.
  • Executive function: Incorporate your children in planning for the family. Help your children stay organized with a daily or weekly chart. Have your children make the chart with you. For younger children, you can use drawings or pictures instead of words.
  • Creative expression: Sing and dance while you work. Make up songs or repeat favorites as your children go through a few basic chores such as putting clothes away.
  • Social-emotional development: Build a sense of responsibility and caring for others with real or pretend pets. Take the dog for a walk, feed the cat or water the pet rock. Taking care of a pet can help children develop a sense of responsibility and empathy for others.
  • Healthy development and well-being: Daily routines help your children practice fine motor skills while doing a few chores, such as setting a table, helping you cook by mixing or stirring, putting their clothes on or brushing their teeth.

Incorporating Playful Experiences:

  • Puzzles: Solving puzzles supports the development of skills such as concentration, self-regulation, critical thinking and spatial recognition.
  • Board games: Playing games provides a number of benefits for children, including supporting memory and critical thinking, helping them learn to take turns and count, and developing early language skills.
  • Blocks: Block building supports creativity, cognitive flexibility, planning and organization. Take some time to build with blocks using different shapes and colors.
  • Clay: Children need to develop fine motor skills beyond using devices. Few things are better for developing fine motor skills than modeling clay. Learning to sculpt with clay also builds creativity, artistic expression and strategic thinking.
  • Recycled materials: Inspire creativity by finding things around the house to build with, such as cardboard, paper, paper towel rolls and plastic bottles.

For more actionable parenting insights, guidance and resources – including a webinar with Scott focused on kindergarten readiness – visit GoddardSchool.com.

SOURCE:
The Goddard School

COVID-19 clawbacks, spending caps and a cut – what House Republicans got in return for pushing the US to the brink of default

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has billed the deal as a victory for his party. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Raymond Scheppach, University of Virginia

House Republicans pushed the U.S. to the edge of a fiscal crisis because they wanted deep cuts in government spending.

So, based on the tentative deal announced on May 27, 2023, how did they do?

In broad strokes, the deal would suspend the debt limit until January 2025, freeze nondefense discretionary funding at current levels and make a few additional cuts and policy changes designed to appeal to enough Republicans and Democrats to get it through Congress. The deal also included incentives to motivate lawmakers to pass a budget on time in four months.

That provision and the 2025 expiration date should mean the U.S. should avoid a self-inflicted fiscal crisis – including an unprecedented default – until at least after the next presidential election.

No one got everything they wanted. President Joe Biden didn’t get the clean debt ceiling increase he had insisted on for months. Republicans didn’t get most of what they sought in a bill they passed in April – though they did get some of it.

As a professor of public policy and former deputy director at the Congressional Budget Office, I believe the deal, which still needs to pass both houses of Congress by June 5 to avoid a default, does hardly anything to address America’s long-term debt problem, which to me shows why a debt ceiling standoff is not the right way to solve it.

Let’s take a closer look at what I would consider the five main components of the deal to see what they’ll accomplish.

1. Expanded work requirements for SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has been a Republican target for a while.

Under current law, an individual must work or be in training for 80 hours per month if they receive SNAP food benefits in three or more out of 36 months, is able-bodied, does not live with dependent children and is under 50 years old. This entitlement program is 100% funded by the federal government but is administered by states, which have the ability to waive the requirements in some low unemployment areas.

The new deal would expand the definition to people up to age 54 and limit some of the state waiver authority. It would exclude veterans and homeless people from the tougher work requirements and expire in 2030.

The Congressional Budget Office had estimated that a similar provision in the House bill – based on extending the age requirement to 55 – would kick 275,000 people off the SNAP roles and save US$11 billion over a decade.

Since states would have to expand their work reporting systems, their increased costs would offset some of the federal savings.

The bill also contains some additional work requirements for welfare recipients for the temporary assistance for needy families program, but the changes are relatively minor.

2. Cap on nondefense discretionary spending

The main way the agreement would restrict federal spending is through the temporary cap on nondefense discretionary spending.

Spending on everything other than defense, entitlements like Social Security and veterans benefits, would stay flat in next year’s budget relative to the 2023 amount and increase 1% the following year, with no limits after that.

But, ultimately, the caps apply to just a small share of total government spending – less than 13%. So not only is it a very minor reduction in spending, it involves a small fraction of the federal budget.

In their House bill, Republicans had sought a larger cut in discretionary spending.

Entitlement programs would be unaffected by the deal, while defense spending would grow by 3.3% next year, as Biden requested in his budget.

One item that would see actual cuts would be the $80 billion that had previously been allocated to beef up IRS enforcement of tax cheats. The deal would trim that by about $20 billion, and the savings would be used to offset cuts to other areas of discretionary spending.

Republicans had wanted to slash this by $71 billion – which, ironically, would have actually resulted in a larger budget deficit because much of that money was going to be used to beef up enforcement to collect more revenue from people who didn’t pay all the taxes they owed.

A black man in a suit speaks at a podium in front of several other people
The deal’s passage will likely depend on whether House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries can round up enough Democrats to support it. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

3. Streamlining energy leasing and permitting

Both Republicans and Democrats have interest in expediting the environmental review process for new energy leases, but they have very different priorities.

Republicans are more interested in gas pipelines and fossil fuel projects, while Democrats are more interested in wind, solar and other alternative energy installations. The problem for both is that the approval of environmental and technical plans is very slow and often involves all three levels of government. Also, at the federal level decisions often involve federal agencies with overlapping jurisdictions.

The new deal would make some minor changes to the environmental review process to make it go faster – though it’s less than what Republicans initially wanted.

4. COVID-19 funding clawback

White House and House Republican negotiators agreed to claw back as much as $30 billion in unspent funds from six COVID-19 programs passed by Congress. The estimate is based on the broadly similar House bill.

Some of these funds were allocated to various agencies, while others have already been distributed to states and even to local governments. The actual amount recovered will likely be less than estimated because funds continue to be spent and will take a while to recover.

5. No government shutdown

Negotiators included a provision that would ensure there isn’t another fiscal crisis when Congress must pass 12 appropriations bills by October to keep the government funded into the next fiscal year. I think this is the most important component of the deal.

It automatically funds everything at 99% of the previous year’s level if Congress fails to pass the bills in time. Besides eliminating the possibility of a shutdown over the budget, as the U.S. has experienced in the past, the 1% decrease in funding provides a strong incentive for Republicans and Democrats to negotiate a compromise that keeps their priorities fully funded.

The bottom line

The deal would limit some spending in the short run but does very little to tackle America’s long-term debt problem, which I believe urgently needs to be addressed.

The U.S. national debt has exploded, most recently as a result of trillions of dollars in spending related to the COVID-19 pandemic. At a little under $32 trillion, it’s over 120% of gross domestic product, which is considered unsustainably high and is costing well over half a trillion dollars in annual interest payments. At some point, investors may begin to see U.S. government bonds as a risky investment and stop buying, which would lead to higher borrowing costs and could bring down the entire U.S. financial system.

But using the debt ceiling as a negotiating tactic is unlikely to achieve the kinds of tough choices needed to meaningfully slow the growing mountain of U.S. debt.

About 60% of total government spending goes to fund just a few items, such as Social Security, Medicare and national defense, that are very hard, politically, to cut. And political realities make it nearly impossible to increase taxes.

But a budgeting process known as reconciliation was created specifically for this purpose because it allows Congress to cut any mandatory spending and entitlement program and increase taxes in one bill. It also can’t be filibustered in the Senate – it just needs a majority.

To truly address the debt problem, what is needed, in my view, is a balanced bipartisan proposal that includes cuts to all programs, as well as some significant tax increases. Political brinkmanship won’t get America there.

For all the debt ceiling drama and the risks of profound economic damage and global tensions that resulted from it, Republicans achieved only a two-year cap on a small fraction of the total budget. Reconciliation – and lawmakers willing to govern and compromise – is a far superior way to attain a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan.

Raymond Scheppach, Professor of Public Policy, University of Virginia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Supreme Court’s ruling on humane treatment of pigs could catalyze a wave of new animal welfare laws

Sows in gestation crates at a breeding facility in Waverly, Va. Humane Society of the U.S./Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
David Favre, Michigan State University

Should California be able to require higher welfare standards for farm animals raised in other states if products from those animals are to be sold in California? On May 11, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld California’s position by a 5-4 vote in National Pork Producers Council v. Ross.

While the ruling was fractured and reflected complex legal questions, it is a major victory for those working to improve farm animal welfare. A number of states will undoubtedly take advantage of the power that the Supreme Court has recognized.

As a specialist in animal law, I expect that this will result in a patchwork of laws that are likely to make national meat producers very uncomfortable. Ultimately, it could push Congress to set federal standards.

More indoor space for sows

Pork producers sued California over a law that the state’s voters adopted in 2018 via ballot initiative with over 63% approval. It set new conditions for raising hogs, veal calves and egg-laying chickens whose meat or eggs are sold in California. The state produces virtually no pork, but represents about 15% of the U.S. pork market.

At most commercial hog farms, pregnant sows are kept in pens called gestation crates that measure about 2 feet by 7 feet – enough room for the animals to sit, stand and lie down, but not enough to turn around. California’s law requires that each sow must have at least 24 square feet of floor space – nearly double the amount that most now get. It does not require farmers to raise free-range pigs; just provide more square footage for hogs in buildings.

Pork producers in Iowa, which produces about one-third of all hogs raised in the U.S., react to the Supreme Court ruling upholding the California law.

The National Pork Producers Council argued that this requirement imposed heavy compliance costs on farmers across the U.S., since large hog farms may house thousands of sows, and that it restricted interstate commerce. The Constitution’s commerce clause delegates authority to regulate interstate commerce to the federal government. In a series of cases over the past 50 years, the Supreme Court has made clear that it will strike down any state law that seeks to control commerce in another state or give preference to in-state commerce.

States control farm animal welfare

Congress has remained mute on standards for handling farm animals, which are not covered under the 1966 Animal Welfare Act. Consequently, each state regulates this issue within its borders.

For example, in recent years, nine states have outlawed housing egg-laying chickens in “battery cages” that have been the industry standard for decades. These wire enclosures are so small that the birds cannot spread their wings.

Shelves lined with small wire cages, each holding multiple chickens.
Chickens in battery cages on an Iowa poultry farm. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

And nine states in addition to California have adopted laws requiring pork producers to phase out gestation crates. Massachusetts’ law, like California’s, would also apply to retail sales of pork raised elsewhere, but its enforcement has been on hold pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in the California case.

California’s market power

The California law says that if producers want to sell pork in California, they must raise pigs under conditions that comply with the state’s regulations. Farmers do not have to meet these standards unless they want to sell in California. The same requirement is applied to producers located in California and those based elsewhere, so the law does not directly discriminate between states in a way that would constitute a clear commerce clause violation.

Producers of eggs and veal that sell in California are on track to implement new space requirements for their animals under the law. But instead of working out how to comply, the pork industry sought to have the courts set the California law aside.

However, as the Supreme Court noted, major producers, including Hormel and Tyson, have said they will be able to comply with the California standard. Niman Ranch, a network of family farmers and ranchers who raise livestock humanely and sustainably, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting California.

A fractured verdict

In rejecting the pork industry’s position, justices in the majority disagreed as to why the California law should be upheld. Some held that pork producers had not proved that the law would substantially interfere with interstate commerce. Others argued that regardless of the degree of interference, it was inappropriate to ask courts to balance compliance costs for the industry against California voters’ moral concerns about animal welfare.

“While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority, “the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.” Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett largely supported Gorsuch’s opinion.

Similarly, dissenting justices differed as to why the California law posed a constitutional problem. Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Ketanji Brown Jackson asserted that the substantial interference requirement had been met, and they would have remanded the case back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Only Justice Brett Kavanaugh held that the California law should be held void because the positive animal welfare outcomes were not substantial enough to overcome the increased cost it imposed on pork producers.

Beyond pork

Farmers and animal welfare advocates understand that with this win, states with the most progressive animal welfare policies – primarily West Coast and Northeast states – will be able to effectively set national standards for the well-being of many agricultural animals, including chickens, dairy cows and cattle. Conceivably, California might also be able to require basic conditions for human labor, such as minimum wage standards, associated with products sold in California.

I expect that within five years, Congress will enact national legislation on farm animal welfare issues that will preempt differing state laws. It is impossible to predict now whether a new national law would improve animal welfare or adopt existing poor welfare practices – but California’s win represents a major victory for advocates who have sought for years to improve conditions for farm animals across the U.S.

This is an update of an article originally published October 4, 2022.

David Favre, Professor of Law, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Kids missing school: Why it’s happening – and how to stop it

Students who miss a lot of school are more likely to drop out. maroke/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Joshua Childs, The University of Texas at Austin

Chronic absenteeism – defined as a student’s missing approximately 18 days of the school year – is on the rise. Compared with the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, almost three-quarters of U.S. public schools are now showing significant increases.

SciLine interviewed Dr. Joshua Childs, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, who shared his thoughts on why students become chronically absent, the academic and social losses they incur by missing school, and the strategies available to boost student attendance, including the relationship between absenteeism and school athletics.

Dr. Joshua Childs discusses chronic absenteeism.

Below are some highlights from the discussion. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is chronic absenteeism?

Joshua Childs: Chronic absenteeism is missing 10% or more of the school year for any reason. That includes excused absences, like a doctor’s visit or a class field trip, and unexcused absences, such as skipping or being truant from school, and being expelled or suspended from school for behavioral reasons.

How common is chronic absenteeism?

Joshua Childs: On average, around 7.5 million to 8 million students are chronically absent each year. That’s a significant number of students who are missing school for a variety of reasons.

But since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, the latest national data from the U.S. Department of Education has shown that the number has increased to around 10 million students being identified as chronically absent from school.

How does missing lots of school affect kids?

Joshua Childs: Academically, we know that students who are chronically absent are more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate from high school.

Socially, for students who are chronically absent, they tend to feel less connected to the school and the overall school environment or community, less likely to build connections with the adults or educators within the school building, and also least likely to build connections with their peers.

Developmentally, we know that students who are chronically absent tend to fall behind academically from their peers, and tend to be behind when it comes to math and reading or language arts testing outcomes.

What barriers keep kids out of school?

Joshua Childs: When it comes to physical health, we know that asthma followed by obesity and dental issues are the leading cause for students to miss school. And so not having adequate access to health care to be able to address some of those physical ailments can lead to students’ missing school consistently.

Mental health issues and concerns, particularly or specifically since the pandemic, have increased for students and can lead to their missing school.

Next: the neighborhood context. Are there safe routes, safe transportation, adequate busing options for students to attend school? And attend school not only every day, but on time?

Then there’s the overall school environment. Is it welcoming and engaging for students? Is the school environment physically safe – not only in terms of interactions with peers and the adults, but are there issues with asbestos, or having adequate and reliable desks and textbooks and safe infrastructure within the school building? If not, that can lead to chronic absenteeism rates increasing.

And finally … the family. Do families feel connected and a part of the school environment? Is there constant communication about the importance of attending school and being engaged with the overall school community? Do families understand the value of what the school environment can do for their child, and how consistently showing up can lead to outcomes that are beneficial?

What’s the link between attendance and sports?

Joshua Childs: In many states, coaches have to be full-time employees of the district in which they’re coaching. And so many times coaches are teachers, whether it’s in science, history, math or reading. So they spend significant hours of the school day with students, and also before and after school and weekends over the summer due to the different types of sports that students could be involved in.

One of the most important aspects when it comes to improving student attendance is a connection that students make with adults, particularly those adults engaged with them on a daily basis. And so there’s a role for the coaches to play.

Watch the full interview to hear about how to reduce chronic absenteeism in schools.

SciLine is a free service based at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science that helps journalists include scientific evidence and experts in their news stories.

Joshua Childs, Assistant Professor of Education Policy, The University of Texas at Austin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

5 Natural Wound Care Solutions

Many people look for natural products with “clean” ingredients, especially in the food, beverage, skin care and beauty categories. In fact, the market for clean label ingredients is projected to reach $64.1 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research.

For many common ailments or minor injuries, there’s a natural treatment that can be used in place of hard-to-pronounce ingredients and preservatives.

“This same kind of clean ingredient demand is migrating to the first-aid space with many of these natural alternatives being used to treat anything from scrapes and bug bites to wound odor and pulled or sore muscles,” said Dr. Billy Goldberg, a “New York Times” best-selling authorand emergency room physician. “In fact, some companies are beginning to incorporate these kinds of natural and efficacious ingredients right into their products.”

Goldberg and the first-aid experts at CURAD, which have made adhesive bandages since 1951, offer these suggestions for natural ingredients you can use at home to treat common ailments:

Epsom Salt – Named for a bitter saline spring at Epsom in Surrey, England, Epsom salt is not actually salt but a naturally occurring mineral compound of magnesium sulfate. Long known as a natural remedy for several ailments, Epsom salt can be used to relax muscles and relieve pain in the shoulders, neck and back. It can also be applied to sunburns or dissolved in the bath to help relieve sore muscles or detox.

Aloe Vera – Few things soothe sunburn like aloe vera. With analgesic, anti-inflammatory and soothing properties that ease the healing process, aloe vera gel contains phytochemicals that help reduce pain and inflammation. Also helpful in the healing process of cuts and scrapes, the CURAD Naturals line of adhesive bandages are infused with aloe vera in the wound pad and surface of the bandage, which is enriched with the antioxidant vitamin E to help soothe and moisturize skin.

Hydrogen Peroxide – A mild antiseptic that can be used to prevent infection of minor cuts, scrapes and burns, hydrogen peroxide is often used for the initial cleaning of wounds. Simply apply a small amount on the affected area – alternating with water to avoid killing good bacteria – to help release oxygen, which causes foaming that aids in cleaning and the removal of dead skin.

Baking Soda – Bicarbonate of soda, commonly known as baking soda, can be used for more than baking. From removing stains to cleaning teeth and more, it can also be used to help treat a variety of wounds. In addition to being an odor absorber, it can be applied to insect stings and bites, such as those from bees or mosquitoes.

Whether making a paste using baking soda and water then applying to the bite or using an option like CURAD Naturals adhesive bandages featuring baking soda, the chemical compound can help soothe the skin. In addition to absorbing wound odor, the bandages provide skin-friendly comfort and stretch with a four-sided seal to keep dirt and germs out.

Manuka Honey – A honey native to New Zealand, manuka honey contains methylglyoxal as an active ingredient and has unique antibacterial properties that speed healing and help prevent and fight infections when applied as a topical wound treatment. It may also help soothe coughs and sore throats, prevent tooth decay and improve digestive issues.

Learn more about natural first-aid products at CURAD.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

 

SOURCE:
CURAD

How can I make studying a daily habit?

The best place to study is in a space with no distractions and plenty of light. Hans Neleman/Stone via Getty Images
Deborah Reed, University of Tennessee

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.


How can I make studying a daily habit? – Jesni P., age 15, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India


Studying – you know you need to do it, but you just can’t seem to make it a habit. Maybe you forget, become distracted or just don’t want to do it.

Understanding what a habit is, and how it forms, can help you figure out how to study on a daily basis.

Writing on a notepad with his laptop nearby, a teenage boy does his homework.
Developing good study habits takes anywhere from three weeks to a few months. MoMo Productions/DigitalVision via Getty Images

The habit loop

A habit is a behavior you do regularly or routinely. As a professor who studies how to help students become better readers and writers, I can tell you that research shows habits have a loop: cue, routine, reward.

Let’s say you have a habit of eating a snack after school. When school is about to end, you start to feel hungry. Dismissal is the cue to get your snack.

Eating the snack is the routine. The reward is that it tastes good and your hunger goes away, which reinforces the habit – and makes you want to repeat the loop again the next day.

Here are the things you need to make a studying loop:

  1. A set time to study every day.
  2. A cue to start studying.
  3. An environment that helps you stick to your studying routine.
  4. A reward for studying.

Setting a time

When you do things at the same time every day, it is easier to remember to do them.

To determine how much time you should set aside each day to study, multiply your grade level by 10 minutes.

That means if you’re in third grade, you would plan to spend about 30 minutes per day studying. This can include the time you spend practicing your reading. If you’re in eighth grade, you would spend 80 minutes per day – that is, one hour and 20 minutes – studying.

Research suggests that two hours is the maximum amount of daily studying time that is beneficial. Spending more time than that on a regular basis can cause stress, anxiety and possibly disturb healthy sleep habits.

So choose a single block of time during the afternoon or evening when you will have the right amount of time to study every day.

There may be days when your assignments do not fill the full block of time that you have set. On those days, you should spend time reviewing material that you’ve already studied; regularly going back over information helps you remember it and think about how to integrate it with the new things you’re learning.

You also can spend those extra minutes reading a book. Studies show a daily habit of reading for 20 minutes will improve your vocabulary, language skills and overall knowledge.

The cue

Studying at the same time every day is one cue, but you may need something more concrete when first forming your habit.

This can be a calendar reminder you set on your phone or laptop, or something as simple as a card with the word “study” printed on the front. You can leave the card where you hang up your coat or put down your bag when you get home from school – or on your television or computer screen.

On the back of the card, write the word “studying.” Then keep this side facing up and posted to the back of your computer, on your door, or above your desk while you work.

This will signal to others that they should not disturb you during this time. When you finish studying, return the card to its starting spot so that it’s ready to remind you to study the next day.

A teenage girl, relaxed, wearing jeans, and with feet up on her desk, reads a book.
Along with your assignments, it’s good to read for at least 20 minutes a day. Tatiana Buzmakova/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Your study environment

To help yourself study, you need a place set up for work and not for doing other things. Do not study on your bed – that’s for sleeping – or in front of the television, or anywhere it’s difficult to hold and use the materials you need. Best option: a table or desk with good lighting.

Your study place should limit distractions. That includes other people’s conversations and all media: TV, video games, social media, texts or music. Research repeatedly has shown the human brain cannot multitask well; people make more mistakes if they try to do two things at the same time, especially when one of those things requires concentration. Bouncing back and forth between two things also means it takes longer to complete the task.

Although you should put away electronic devices when studying, that may not be an option if you need them for homework. If that’s the case, set the “do not disturb” notification on your phone, silence incoming notifications and close all social media and gaming apps.

Gaming, social media and video apps are programmed to make you want to keep checking or playing them. That means you have to replace the bad habit of constantly using them with the good habit of studying for a designated block of time.

The reward

That said, after you finish studying, you can give yourself a little gaming or social media time as your reward.

With time, the studying itself will become its own reward. Improving your knowledge and skills will give you a sense of achievement and make you more confident and happier at school. But while forming your study habit, a really fun reward will help you stick with it.

This is especially true if the subject you’re studying is difficult for you. No one likes to do something they think they’re not very good at. However, it’s impossible to get better if you do not practice, and studying is just like practicing a sport, instrument or hobby.

How long it takes

The amount of time it takes to make studying a daily habit can be anywhere from 21 days to a few months, depending upon the person.

To help you stay with it, find a study buddy to form the habit along with you. Ask your family not to interrupt you during study time. And consider using apps to set goals and track your study time so you can watch your habit form and celebrate your progress. The good news: Daily studying gets easier the more you do it.


Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.

Deborah Reed, Professor of Education, University of Tennessee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.