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Public Policy Report for 11 June 2007

FY 2008 Science Funding Update

The fiscal year (FY) 2008 appropriations process continues to move forward as the House of Representatives considers legislation to provide the various federal departments with funding. As reported in the last Public Policy Report, the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies has approved its legislation. Reports indicate that the House's Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations will "mark-up" its spending plan on 11 June 2007. It is also anticipated that the full committee may consider this measure in short order, with a target of sending the legislation to the full House before the end of June. The Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee funds the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Departments of Commerce and Justice. To fund the discretionary programs under its jurisdiction, the subcommittee has been allocated $53.6 billion.

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It is Summertime: Meet with Your Member of Congress

Traditionally, members of Congress spend time during the summer back in their home state and congressional district. This provides an excellent opportunity for constituents to meet with their elected federal officials. Many members of Congress will either host community fora or will participate in community events celebrating festivals and holidays, such as the 4th of July. These are excellent, informal opportunities for scientists to introduce themselves to their member of Congress. It also reminds members of Congress that scientists are engaged members of their constituency. The less formal and slightly slower pace of the summer also provides an opportunity to invite elected representatives to tour your museum/scientific collection, research station, or laboratory.

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Bush Goes Global: Plenty of Talk, Any Action?

Prior to leaving for the G-8 summit in which climate change was to take center stage, President Bush announced his intention to pursue a new international climate change framework, stating, “In recent years, science has developed our understanding of climate change and opened new possibilities for confronting it.” Jim Connaughton, Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, laid out the details of the three-component initiative during a White House press conference.

The initiative would encourage the 15 countries responsible for the majority of the world’s greenhouse gases to become engaged in combating anthropogenic-caused warming. The proposal details a move that would have those countries develop national strategies to control and reduce emissions, increase energy security, and improve air quality. Further, it would engage leaders of the private sector to develop and share best practices in transportation, fuel, and infrastructure. The proposal suggests that through efficiency and technology sharing, the developed world can better assist the developing world.

Although the White House has stepped forward on the issue in what looks like a 180-degree shift from previous positions on climate change, President Bush is not changing his stance on mandatory reductions in emissions and has rejected Germany’s approach of cutting emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Furthermore, participation in the framework would be voluntary, non-binding, and is considered a “long-term aspirational goal.”

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Is There Still Room for Science At NASA

Despite President Bush’s recent announcement of a proposed new international climate change framework and talk at the 2007 G-8 summit regarding global warming, major national news media recently reported that critical next-generation climate sensors had been excised from the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), with potentially dire implications for United States climate science research.

NPOESS was established by President Clinton in 1994 as a multi-agency effort by the Department of Defense, NOAA, and NASA. NPOESS was designed to replace two aging military and civil environmental satellite systems, DMSP and POES, which have provided advanced, weather forecasting and climate monitoring capabilities. Originally, the project was estimated to cost $6.5 billion over the proposed 24-year life of the program, 1996-2018. NPOESS was to be comprised of six polar-orbiting satellites outfitted with 13 instruments. The first satellite was to be launched in 2008.

In recent years, NPOESS has been plagued with technical difficulties, schedule delays, and significant cost over-runs. In 2005, a review by the Department of Defense was triggered when program costs were reported to be 25 percent higher than originally proposed. The subsequent re-certification of NPOESS in June 2006 resulted in significant changes to the scope, cost, and schedule of the satellite system. Higher priority was placed on the weather-monitoring instruments over climate sensors. Despite now costing an estimated $12.5 billion, NPOESS was reduced to 4 satellites with nine total instruments—four of which would provide fewer capabilities than originally planned.

What do these changes mean for U.S. climate research? On 4 June 2007 the public interest group Climate Science Watch released a previously confidential report written by NASA and NOAA scientists to the White House that revealed scientists’ concerns over the major impacts that the re-scoped NPOESS program would have on climate research. According to the report, “Unfortunately, the recent loss of climate sensors due to the NPOESS Nunn-McCurdy Certification places the overall climate program in serious jeopardy.”

Among the predicted consequences: loss of continuity in long-term climate data records, a decreased ability to predict long-term climate change and associated events such as sea level rise, increased data uncertainty, and a reduced understanding of natural vs. anthropogenic climate drivers.

The report offers recommendations for recovering some of the lost climate sensor capabilities, including a suggestion to increase collaboration with European Space Agency programs.

On 7 June 2007, the House Science and Technology Committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on the status of NPOESS in which they addressed a number of points from the leaked report. Members questioned the Administration’s science adviser John Marburger, NPOESS program officer Brigadier General Sue Mashiko, and the Government Accountability Office’s David Powner. The hearing was held in conjunction with the GAO’s release of its latest report on NPOESS.

During the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Nick Sampson (D-TX) expressed concern that “without decisive action and leadership, we will lose continuity in the multi-decadal data sets that are central to our understanding of global warming. In fact, some breaches in data collection may be unavoidable at this point.”

The GAO report on NPOESS can be viewed at: www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-07-498

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More Problems for NASA

In a National Public Radio interview following President Bush’s recent announcement of his Administration’s plan for an international climate change framework, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin stated that he was aware of climate change but questioned the need to address it and whether earth’s current climate is actually optimal for humans. Griffin also said, “I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. I am not sure if it is a problem we must wrestle with.” After significant backlash, Griffin went on to apologize to scientists and engineers in a closed-door meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory stating, “All I can really do is apologize to all you guys … I feel badly that I caused this amount of controversy over something like this.”

Problems for NASA continued with a 7 June 2007 joint hearing between the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Aeronautics and Related Sciences. The hearing questioned NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb after members of Congress suggested he was abusing his power and therefore could no longer be trusted to carry out the duty of his position. House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) stated, “An IG has to conduct him or herself in a fashion such that the Congress trusts them, the IG’s staff believes in them, the whistleblowing community relies on them and agency managers fear them enough to respect them. IG Cobb has failed on every count.” Several members of the House Subcommittee have suggested that Mr. Cobb should no longer remain in his position as Inspector General.

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Employment Opportunity: AIBS Public Affairs Representative

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) anticipates hiring (contingent upon the expected receipt of federal grant funds) an individual with experience working at the interface of science, communications, and public policy to serve as a Public Affairs Representative (PAR). The PAR will be a full-time AIBS employee, reporting to the AIBS Director of Public Policy.

For more information about this position, including application procedures, go to http://www.aibs.org/classifieds/aibspositionsavailable.html#3657

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New Director for NSF's Division of Environmental Biology

On 31 May 2007, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) announced that Dr. Robert Sterner of the University of Minnesota has been named director of the Division of Environmental Biology. Sterner is currently a professor of biology in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior.

“We are extremely pleased to welcome Bob Sterner,” said Dr. James Collins, NSF assistant director for biological sciences. “His accomplishments and long-standing interest in environmental biology and evolutionary and ecological processes will serve NSF, the Biological Sciences Directorate, and the Division of Environmental Biology well.”

An ecologist and limnologist, Sterner’s research involves studies of ecological stoichiometry: understanding the biological and chemical links among elements in ecosystems. Sterner has served on the board of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography and is an associate editor of the journal Ecology. Previous academic and professional positions include appointments as a faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington, and postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. He received his doctorate in ecology from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Illinois.

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Education Issues Condition of Education 2007 Report

On 31 May 2007, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the Condition of Education 2007 report. This congressionally mandated annual report presents the developments and trends in 48 indicators that span all aspects of education from early childhood through postsecondary and adult education. The indicators provide information about education in five broad categories: participation in education (including enrollment figures in public vs. private schools), learner outcomes (including national and international achievement scores), student effort and educational progress (including student preparedness for school and dropout rates), contexts of elementary and secondary education (including participation in after school activities and rate of crimes at schools), and contexts of postsecondary education (including course taking, fields of study, and the price of attending college). Additionally, the 2007 report features a special analysis on high school course taking.

Some highlights of interest in this year’s report:

  • High school graduates in 2004, compared to 1982, earned an average of 3.6 vs. 2.7 credits in mathematics and 3.2 vs. 2.2 credits in science.

  • In 2004, more high school graduates had completed advanced courses in mathematics and science than in 1982 – particularly in calculus, chemistry I, and physics I.

  • Since 1998, female high school graduates have been more likely than male graduates to complete some advanced science coursework, though no measurable differences by sex were detected in the proportions of graduates who took the highest levels of science or mathematics coursework.

  • The number of children ages 5-17 who spoke a language other than English at home more than doubled between 1979 and 2005.

  • Over the past three and a half decades, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions has generally increased and is projected to continue to do so through 2016, with women projected to make up 60 percent of the enrollment in 2016.

  • 23 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above Proficient (indicating solid academic performance) on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics assessment whereas 39 percent performed below Basic (indicating performance below partial mastery of fundamental skills).

  • On the 2005 NAEP science assessment, 18 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above Proficient whereas 46 percent performed at or below Basic; these 2005 achievement levels were significantly below achievement levels in 1996.

  • Results from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which assessed student performances in 25 countries at grade 4 and 46 countries at grade 8, showed that U.S. 4th- and 8th-graders performed above the international average in knowing mathematical facts, procedures, and concepts; in applying mathematical knowledge and understanding; and in mathematical reasoning.

The full text of the report is available online at http://www.nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/.

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A Museum for Creationists

The doors of the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, located in northern Kentucky, just minutes from Cincinnati, Ohio, opened to the public on 28 May 2007. Over 4000 people visited the museum on its first day, with reports of many waiting up to two and a half hours to see the exhibits.

The $27 million, 60,000 square-foot museum features scientific-appearing dioramas and exhibits that present the story of Biblical creation as literal truth. The exhibits, which employ high-tech animatronics, videos, murals, and live animals that are so often used in natural history museums, depict dinosaurs coexisting with humans, the Garden of Eden, and a replica of Noah’s Ark. One exhibit, “Dinosaur Dig Site,” compares the work of an evolutionary paleontologist to a creationist paleontologist and directs visitors to the conclusion that science can and should involve the supernatural.

On its opening day, protesters gathered for a “Rally for Reason” at the gates of the museum - called “the creationist Disneyland” by Dr. Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). A number of scientists and critics, many of whom were among the 800 from Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana who signed the NCSE statement of concern about the scientific inaccuracy of the museum, toured the exhibits.

One such visitor, critic and professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, Lawrence Krauss, commented to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “It’s really impressive – and it really gives the impression that they’re talking about science at some point.”

When asked to rate the Creation Museum on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best, Krauss said, “I’d give it a 4 for technology, 5 for propaganda. As for content, I’d give it a negative 5.”

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New in BioScience: "Congress Considers NSF Authorization"

In the Washington Watch article in the June 2007 issue of BioScience, Holly Menninger reports on recent congressional deliberations and initiatives to reauthorize the National Science Foundation. This and prior Washington Watch articles may be viewed for free at http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/.

The following is an excerpt from “Congress considers NSF authorization.”

Washington, DC, is abuzz with talk about innovation. Leaders in government, business, education, and science are calling for action to enhance the US science and technology enterprise for the 21st century. Both the White House and Congress—the former through the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), the latter through numerous legislative proposals—have proffered plans to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education; increase investments in research and development; and authorize federal research programs. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) has said, “To meet the challenges of today and to create the jobs and economic security of tomorrow, the time to act is now.”

Given that 68 percent of basic biological sciences research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), biologists are taking note that reauthorization of NSF is included in innovation measures moving through Congress. Nearly five years ago, Congress passed legislation that President Bush signed into law authorizing appropriations for NSF through fiscal year (FY) 2007. The National Science Foundation Authorization Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-368) provided a bold framework for doubling funding from the $4.8 billion that NSF was appropriated in FY 2002 to $9.8 billion in FY 2007. As most biologists who have applied for NSF research funds are keenly aware, the agency’s budget—although faring better than those of many federal agencies—has not enjoyed that promised growth. Nevertheless, many in Congress continue to advocate for increased funding for NSF, and are using the need for reauthorization as a vehicle to press for new investments in NSF.

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