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


  • 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

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

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


Photos courtesy of Getty Images



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

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 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. 

Debt ceiling negotiators reach a deal: 5 essential reads about the tentative accord, brinkmanship and the danger of default

Biden speaks to reporters about the tentative accord. AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Bryan Keogh, The Conversation and Matt Williams, The Conversation

President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on May 27, 2023, agreed in principle to a tentative deal that would raise the debt ceiling while capping some federal spending at current levels.

The accord, if approved by both houses of Congress, would avert an unprecedented default that threatens to derail the economy and put hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work. Negotiators agreed to lift the ceiling for two years – past the 2024 presidential election – while putting a temporary cap on most nondefense spending at 2023 levels. It would also reduce planned funding for the IRS, impose new work requirements on some people who receive benefits from the federal program known as SNAP and claw back billions of unspent funds from pandemic relief programs.

The Conversation has been covering the debt ceiling drama since January, when Republicans took over the House, raising fears that brinkmanship would lead to an economic catastrophe. Here are five articles from our archive to help you make sense of a couple key aspects of the tentative deal and provide context on the debt ceiling fight.

1. What is the debt ceiling

First some basics. The debt ceiling was established by the U.S. Congress in 1917. It limits the total national debt by setting out a maximum amount that the government can borrow.

Steven Pressman, an economist at The New School, explained the original aim was “to let then-President Woodrow Wilson spend the money he deemed necessary to fight World War I without waiting for often-absent lawmakers to act. Congress, however, did not want to write the president a blank check, so it limited borrowing to US$11.5 billion and required legislation for any increase.”

Since then, the debt ceiling has been increased dozens of times. It currently stands at $31.4 trillion – a figure reached in January. The Treasury has taken “extraordinary measures” to enable the government to keep borrowing without breaching the ceiling. Such measures, however, can only be temporary – meaning at one point Congress will have to act to lift the ceiling or default on its debt obligations, which is expected to happen by June 5, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, if the deal isn’t approved in time.

2. The trouble with work requirements

One of the biggest sticking points toward the end of negotiations was work requirements for recipients of government aid. The tentative deal would raise the age for existing work requirements from 49 to 54 years on able-bodied adults who have no children. This is less than what Republicans had earlier sought. There are exceptions for veterans and the homeless.

But if the goal is to help people find jobs and make more money, work requirements don’t actually do the job, wrote Kelsey Pukelis, a doctoral student in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School who has studied the issue. Rather, they make it much harder for people who need food aid to get it.

“Our findings do suggest that work requirements restrain federal spending by reducing the number of people getting SNAP benefits,” she explained. “But our work also indicates that in today’s context, these savings would be at the expense of already vulnerable people facing additional economic hardship at a time when a new recession could be around the corner.”

3. IRS funding takes a hit

The deal also takes aim at a big boost in spending Congress gave the Internal Revenue Service beginning in 2022 to crack down on tax cheats and upgrade its software. Democrats agreed to a Republican demand to cut the extra IRS funding from $80 billion to $70 billion.

Back in August 2022, Nirupama Rao, an economist at the University of Michigan, explained why Democrats included all that funding in their Inflation Reduction Act and how it would help the IRS collect more tax revenue, since the agency does not fully collect all the taxes that are owed.

“The main target of this spending is the so-called tax gap, which is currently estimated at about $600 billion a year,” she wrote. “While an $80 billion investment that returns $204 billion already sounds pretty impressive, it may be possible that it’s a conservative estimate.”

4. The hard road to compromise

It took a long time for Republicans and Democrats to get the current agreement.

Yellen warned in January that the government was about to hit the debt limit and would be unable to pay all its bills by May or June. McCarthy and House Republicans, who hold a razor-thin majority, appeared unwilling to raise the debt ceiling unless they could extract deep spending cuts. Meanwhile, Biden refused to negotiate, insisting on a clean debt ceiling bill. Both of those positions were dropped during negotiations.

Why did it take so long for them to reach a compromise?

Blame political trends that have been accelerating for decades, explained Laurel Harbridge-Yong, a specialist in partisan conflict and the lack of bipartisan agreement in American politics at Northwestern University. Many Republicans come from very safe districts, which means their primary against other conservatives is more important than the general election. This makes it more important to stand firm and fight until the bitter end.

“So you now have many Republicans who are more willing to fight quite hard against the Democrats because they don’t want to give a win to Biden,” she wrote. “Democrats are also resistant to compromising, both because they don’t want to gut programs that they put in place and also because they don’t want to make this look like a win for Republicans, who were able to play chicken and get what they wanted.”

5. Latest in a long line of fiscal crises

This was hardly the first fiscal crisis the U.S. government has faced. In fact, there have been many – including 22 government shutdowns since just 1976.

Raymond Scheppach, a professor of public policy at University of Virginia, offered a brief history of recent crises and the damage they’ve caused – and why a default would be far more consequential than past crises.

“While these were very disruptive and damaged the economy and employment, they pale in comparison to the potential effects of failing to lift the debt ceiling, which could be catastrophic,” he wrote. “It could bring down the entire international financial system. This in turn could devastate the world gross domestic product and create mass unemployment.”

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives. Portions of this article originally appeared in a previous article published on May 2, 2023.

Bryan Keogh, Deputy Managing Editor and Senior Editor of Economy and Business, The Conversation and Matt Williams, Senior Breaking News and International Editor, The Conversation

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

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The pandemic put the technology, long in development, to the test. Here’s a look at the status of its application to cancer and when it might reach patients.

How could this novel technology have come together so rapidly?

In fact, the approach had long been in the works, although it was not initially intended to prevent viral disease. Rather, it was focused on treating cancer, explains Özlem Türeci, cofounder and chief medical officer of BioNTech, the company that developed the Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer.

The anti-cancer rationale goes like this: Since each tumor contains a multitude of genetic mutations that do not occur elsewhere in the body, this should in theory allow our immune system to recognize and destroy those cells. Alas, tumors are known to suppress the immune system. In response, scientists have developed various drugs and treatments to stimulate the immune system in cancer patients.

But another problem is that many tumor mutations slip through the net. So some researchers have proposed a more focused approach to alert immune cells to cancer mutations they do not spontaneously target — something more like a vaccine, which usually works by exposing people to an inactivated pathogen or some of its signature molecules. This primes the immune system for immediate action should the active pathogen show up. In a similar vein, the scientists reasoned it might be possible to present the patient’s immune system with specific bits of cancer tissue, to train it to attack the tumor more vigorously.

The benefit of using mRNA for this job is not just that it can be manufactured relatively quickly, but that it is also very flexible. The genetic signature of a tumor is different in every person and, as time progresses, it continues to change. This means that vaccines would ideally be tailor-made, and repeatedly so — an expensive and time-consuming proposition if one is manufacturing bits of key tumor protein in the lab, which was a very common way of producing vaccines before mRNA arrived. Proteins are built from a score of different amino acids, have complicated three-dimensional structures and tend to clump together when something goes wrong.

So, what if we could just make specific pieces of mRNA instead, inject them into the body, and let the cells build the corresponding proteins themselves? Wouldn’t that be much easier?

In the approach BioNTech developed, explains Türeci, mRNA can be injected into the body and targeted towards the lymph nodes, where it is translated into protein by immune cells known as dendritic cells. These cells then display the protein on their surfaces, where they train the T cells that patrol our tissues to find and eliminate any intruders that display the same signature.

The Covid-19 pandemic put the strategy to the test: Within a year, two highly effective mRNA vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus were developed, tested and rolled out — one from Pfizer-BioNTech, one from Moderna, each slightly different. Both vaccines contained the code for making a stabilized version of the spike protein that the virus uses to get into cells. The spike protein code was inserted into mRNA with a backbone that had been optimized by decades of research. This mRNA was then packaged in specific lipids to ensure it would reach its lymph-node destination.

Türeci, who coauthored an article about mRNA vaccines against cancer for the Annual Review of Medicine in 2019, recently talked with Knowable Magazine about the development of mRNA vaccines for cancer and how close they are to reaching patients, for whom new therapies are sorely needed.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you start developing cancer vaccines, and why did you think mRNA would work best?

This did not happen overnight. It was a decades-long journey that started in the 1990s. We had a vision that was considered science fiction at the time: We wanted to develop cancer vaccines to shrink tumors. Every patient’s cancer is unique, because it is the result of random mutations, so we wanted to develop individualized vaccines that would activate the patient’s immune system against their own tumor.

We tested various approaches and identified mRNA as the one with the highest potential for the purpose of developing truly individualized cancer vaccines. Synthetic mRNA is produced by a simple process, and it looks very much like natural mRNA. It delivers the blueprint of the protein — the vaccine antigen — for the body’s cells to produce.

Yet we also realized that significant improvements would be needed. Over the past decades, we have addressed these shortcomings.

Our discoveries led to the mRNA technology platform that we use today for our product candidates against cancer, infectious diseases and other severe diseases. In addition to our own research in the 1990s, a small group of other scientists also worked on mRNA. Our advances as well as theirs provided the tailwind for the broader scientific community.

What have been the most crucial breakthroughs that allowed you to get to this point?

The fundamental problem of mRNA was its low potency. Even large doses of mRNA produce little protein and, consequently, had little effect. That is why, in the late 1990s, few in the industry believed in mRNA as a new class of drugs; mRNA vaccines tested at that time elicited poor immune responses.

Our team spent years researching each element of the mRNA backbone and discovered various modifications that increased the stability of the mRNA and its translation into protein. This way, we created mRNA backbones with a more than thousandfold increased efficacy to trigger immune responses.

The next piece of the puzzle was to find out how to get the mRNA vaccine to the right cells in the body, and which cells these might be. In 2004, we made an interesting observation: The direct injection of an mRNA vaccine with our improved backbone into a lymph node elicited a much stronger immune response than injection of mRNA into the skin or muscle, which were the commonly explored routes.

Why would it be so much more effective to inject the mRNA directly into the lymph nodes?

We realized that directing mRNA vaccines into dendritic cells in the lymph nodes had to become a critical part of the solution. In the years that followed, we explored various methods to deliver mRNA to these specific locations in the body, and discovered that mRNA vaccines encapsulated in a particular lipid nanoparticle — a technology we have developed and that we call RNA lipoplexes — were specifically taken up by resident dendritic cells in lymphoid tissues.

These cells are the high-performance trainers of the immune system and can mediate particularly strong immune responses. We found that they have a specific mechanism to engulf foreign bodies and use them to train the immune system. Vaccine-induced T-cell responses were extremely strong and eradicated large tumors in mice. So, with these discoveries and optimizations of our technology, we went back to the bedside, to the patient.

How exactly did you make the step from humans to mice?

We started human studies and pioneered, in 2015, the first systemic delivery of mRNA nanoparticle vaccines to humans. In a portion of our patients with treatment-resistant melanoma, we could observe shrinkage of tumors with the vaccine, alone or in combination with immune-stimulating medication. We published these findings in the journal Nature in 2017. They provided the blueprint for the development of highly effective mRNA vaccines.

These advances allowed us to come closer to our original vision of cancer vaccines tailored to the patient’s tumor. The approach involves genomic analysis of a patient’s tumor by next-generation sequencing to find the cancer-specific mutations by comparison to the patient’s normal tissue. This set of cancer mutations is unique for every patient. We then select a number of mutations that provide the highest likelihood for the immune system to recognize the cancer and design a vaccine tailored to the patient’s individual cancer mutation profile.

How many people have been treated with your mRNA cancer vaccines so far?

With our individualized vaccine candidates, we have treated more than 450 patients. These are designed to target mutations that are unique to the patient’s specific cancer. We also have a number of personalized off-the-shelf mRNA cancer vaccine candidates. These candidates consist of a fixed combination of mRNA-encoded non-mutated tumor antigens that are known to frequently be produced within specific cancer types. We are currently investigating these candidates in clinical studies — for example, in patients with advanced melanoma, prostate cancer or head and neck cancer — and have treated more than 250 patients so far.

This has all been in the context of clinical trials. The way treatments are developed within the regulatory framework is to go cancer by cancer, and independently for every line of treatment, for every cancer.

Our oncology pipeline currently counts 20 programs in 24 ongoing clinical trials, of which five candidates are in advanced clinical trials. For BNT111, an mRNA vaccine candidate for the treatment of advanced melanoma, we have received FDA fast track designation in the US. These designations are intended to facilitate and expedite the development of new drugs and vaccines for the treatment or prevention of serious diseases that have the potential to address unmet medical needs.

One of the challenges with personalized medicine, creating a specific treatment for one particular patient, is how to organize its official approval, since every patient gets a different product. Do you think we will need some legislative change there as well, or not necessarily?

Very early on, we started discussions with regulatory authorities. What is important, we believe, is that the process of manufacturing, and the mRNA backbone, stay the same. Within this frame, we just exchange the code for the cancer mutations.

The aim of such a framework would be that irrespective of the sequence of the mutations used to individualize a vaccine, if everything else stays the same, a complete approval process for an individualized version of the vaccine may not be required again, provided that the general product has been approved by the authorities for a certain tumor type. This is our aim, and I believe we are on the way to land there. This is new territory also for regulators, and we all need to learn.

Why has cancer been so difficult to cure, and is there a fundamental reason why you think mRNA vaccines could provide a way forward where other approaches haven’t?

The reason why cancer is so difficult is that it is a really complex disease. It is different in every person, and it shapeshifts over time. Because mRNA vaccines are versatile and can be manufactured on demand, we can personalize them. We can define the individual cancer fingerprint — its mutation profile — and design a specific vaccine to address these mutations.

And if the patient relapses because the cancer has changed, we can adapt the treatment accordingly, similar to how we are able to adapt our mRNA Covid-19 vaccines to new viral variants of concern.

The body does often produce immune cells that target a tumor. Why doesn’t it make the right ones — or enough of them — to suppress it? Why does it need help from a vaccine?

First of all, tumors have all sorts of tricks to suppress our immune cells, across the body but also within the tumor itself. In addition, many of the altered structures of the tumor are still recognized as part of the body, so they are tolerated by the immune system. Therefore, the ideal targets for the immune system are those in the tumor’s mutanome: the mutations that accumulate over time in cancer cells.

But only a tiny portion of those is recognized by spontaneously occurring, circulating T cells. With our mutation-based vaccine candidates, we aim to use the potential of the mutanome to help T cells get started.

Still, we find that we often need something to overcome the strong immune suppression from the tumor. These might be immune modulators such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, or chemotherapy, which results in the death of cancer cells, that can push the effect of a vaccine towards stronger activity.

One of the reasons you were able to act so fast when you realized that we had a pandemic on our hands was that in developing cancer vaccines, there is always time pressure, since an untreated tumor is growing every day. How far have you come in compressing development time, the time you need to get the vaccine into the patient, and how much further do you think you can go?

The process — starting with genome analysis of a patient’s tumor and ending with on-demand manufacturing of this customized mRNA vaccine ready to administer — has been a race against that specific patient’s growing tumor. Since 2014, we’ve made custom vaccines for hundreds of cancer patients in our clinical trials and shipped them worldwide. Back then, the process took us three to five months for each patient. Now we are at three to six weeks, and I would expect that we’ll become stable around three weeks at some point.

Do you think mRNA cancer vaccines will eventually be able to help everyone? Or are there some tumors that will always be out of reach?

In principle, we expect that cancer vaccines can be used universally, as there is currently no reason why there should be a tumor type that would not be approachable by this concept.

Having said that, I want to make clear that it would be a very romanticized view to think that we’ll have a cancer vaccine that will solve all problems. Again, cancer is a very complex disease.

However, cancer vaccines may be a potent option in the future that could complement the therapy toolkit and help to better treat patients with cancer.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews.