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Series of superimposed pictures of a person releasing a large white balloon, with mountains in the background.

NOAA is using balloons like this one (shown being released in a photographic time lapse) to measure the size and number of aerosols in the stratosphere.Credit: Patrick Cullis, CIRES/NOAA GML

United States urged to invest in sun-dimming studies

The US government should launch a federal research programme to explore whether it’s feasible — or even wise — to artificially cool Earth by altering clouds or injecting particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The report is the most explicit call yet by an elite scientific body for a coordinated research government programme into solar geoengineering, aimed at exploring an emergency measure to blunt the climate crisis.

Released on 25 March, the report advises that the US government invest between US$100 million and $200 million over five years in solar-geoengineering research — including modelling and possibly field experiments, such as those to determine how aerosol particles injected into Earth’s stratosphere behave. Ideally in partnership with other nations, it says, the programme should advance basic environmental science, as well as address the ethics, governance and public perception of solar geoengineering. The report also recommends the creation of a comprehensive framework to oversee the research, including a code of conduct for scientists and a process for granting permits for any outdoor experiments.

Although scientific agencies in the United States and elsewhere have funded solar-geoengineering research in the past, governments have shied away from launching formal programmes in the controversial field. In addition to fears that tinkering with Earth’s atmosphere could backfire in unpredictable ways, many environmentalists worry that focusing on geoengineering could reduce pressure on politicians — and the powerful fossil-fuel industry — to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

So far, the US Congress’s most significant investments in federal geoengineering research have been at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has received some $13 million over the past two years to advance basic-science studies of the stratosphere. A team of agency scientists has been launching balloons (time-lapse image pictured) to measure the size and quantity of aerosols in that part of Earth’s atmosphere.

Rachel Levine.

Rachel Levine was confirmed as assistant health secretary by the US Senate on 24 March in a 52–48 vote.Credit: Daniel Shanken/Reuters/Alamy

Biden Health official is set to tackle inequity

Rachel Levine was sworn in as one of the top health officials in the United States on 26 March. Although she has made headlines for becoming the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the country, researchers familiar with her work as a public-health leader laud her drive to improve the health of marginalized people. She’s done this through conventional public-health measures, they say, but also by trying to remedy inequities arising from discrimination and from social and political factors.

Levine led Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response as the state’s health secretary, and takes her position as assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as the United States continues to battle against the pandemic. One issue she will have to grapple with is that the coronavirus is infecting and killing Black and Hispanic or Latino people and Native Americans at higher rates than white people.

“COVID-19 has shown us the tip of the iceberg of the lack of health equity,” Levine told Nature last September, while still head of Pennsylvania’s health department. “Socio-economic status, food security, affordable housing, access to childcare and health care, systemic racism and discrimination” all contribute to the inequity, she said.

Health officials and community groups that worked with Levine during her six years at the Pennsylvania Department of Health say she sought to correct disparities in how COVID-19 and other health issues affect various groups, by considering their root causes. “She understands the problems that people are dealing with because she listens,” says David Saunders, director of the department’s Office of Health Equity.

Levine is a physician and professor of paediatrics and psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and served as the state’s physician-general before becoming its secretary of health.

Whether she can now push for more equitable health nationally remains to be seen. In her new role, Levine will be the top health adviser to the HHS secretary, lawyer Xavier Becerra, who was confirmed by the US Senate in March.

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