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Public Policy Report for 25 June 2007

Interior and Environment Appropriations Update

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, the Environment, and Related Agencies met Tuesday, 19 June, to consider appropriations legislation that would fund “key protections for America’s environment and natural resources.” The Senate subcommittee’s proposal would allocate $27.15 billion in total discretionary funding for fiscal year (FY) 2008 to the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Smithsonian Institution, and the other programs under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

Significantly, the House and Senate subcommittees have proposed just over $1 billion (House, $1.033 billion and Senate, $1.01 billion) for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), an increase over the FY 2007 appropriation and a level closer to the $1.2 billion requested by the USGS Coalition and the American Institute of Biological Sciences earlier this year. Indeed, in congressional testimony, AIBS director of public policy Robert Gropp noted that “there is growing concern from within the government and outside that funding for the USGS must improve if it is to continue to serve its mission. Without an increased investment in USGS science, core missions and national priorities will suffer.”

For the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Senate subcommittee would provide $7.77 billion. The House is presently recommending $8.066 billion for the agency. Within the EPA allocation, the Senate subcommittee would allocate $773 million for Science and Technology Research programs. This level represents an increase of $18 million over the President’s budget request and $39 million above the FY 2007 enacted level.

The Senate spending measure would provide the Smithsonian Institution with $696.7 million, $6 million more than the FY 2007 enacted appropriation. The bulk of the increase would help fund the facilities program to assist in major repairs and needed revitalization work, which is estimated to cost around $2 billion.

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Homeland Security Science Appropriations

By a vote of 268-150, the House has passed legislation to make appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The legislation provides funding for the DHS Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Technology. Specifically, the bill recommends $646 million for Research, Development, Acquisition, and Operations, including advanced research projects, development, test and evaluation, acquisition, and operations. The House recommendation is $10 million below the President’s request and just over $100 million less than the FY 2007 enacted amount (after transfer to the Offices of Health Affairs and Emergency Communications). Further, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate has a 32 percent staff vacancy rate; 39 positions will not be filled until late FY 2007 and 38 positions will continue to remain vacant until FY 2008. The Committee stated, “Because these vacant positions were fully funded in 2007, the Committee believes that the fiscal year 2008 request is overstated and that half year funding for many of these positions in 2008 is appropriate.”

Also of note, the House Appropriations Committee fully funded the BioWatch Generation 3 program; however, $13 million requested to purchase 125 low rate initial production units was denied until the Science and Technology Directorate reviews and responds to a National Academies study that investigates the effectiveness of the BioWatch detection system. BioWatch is a DHS program that works in conjunction with several other federal agencies to monitor and detect the release of pathogens in the air and provide warning to the government and public health officials in the event of a bioterrorism act.

Within the Science and Technology Directorate at DHS, there are several laboratories conducting biological research including the Environmental Measurements Laboratory which deals with issues in environmental radiation and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center which assesses biological threats to the country, utilizes biological methods to identify criminals, and uses bioforensics to determine origin and method of attack. Other research laboratories under the jurisdiction of DHS include the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and the Transportation Security Laboratory.

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GAO Confirms Cloudy Media Policies at Fed Agencies

Following several congressional hearings earlier in the year examining political interference of government-sponsored climate research (http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20070206.html#002941) and a request from Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report 18 June 2007 on the policies guiding the dissemination of federal scientific research results at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Overall, GAO found that policies regarding the dissemination of scientific research results through publications and presentations were generally clear across all three agencies. This was not the case, however, with respect to media and press release policies. Specifically, GAO chastised the media policies for scientists at NOAA and NIST. These scientists must clear media interviews and press releases with both Commerce Department-level and agency-level public affairs offices. GAO specifically criticized the 20-year old media policies at Commerce as “unrealistic” and “outdated” with respect to the modern media schedule. NASA, however, received favorable marks from GAO on its media policies. Responding to controversies and allegations of censorship, NASA recently revised and clarified its media policy; in fact, it has been described as a model for other federal agencies.

Additionally, the GAO reported the results of a survey of research scientists at NASA, NOAA, and NIST to gauge agency effectiveness in communicating research dissemination policies and the extent to which scientists have been restricted in disseminating their results. Of the 1,177 researchers responding to the GAO survey, 90 percent expressed confidence that they understood agency policies for publication whereas only 65 percent were confident that they could comply with media interview and press release policies. Less than half of the researchers at NOAA and NASA believed they were free to discuss their personal views on the implications of their research to policy. Only 25 percent of scientists across all three agencies were aware of any process to appeal denials of requests to disseminate their research. Based on survey results, GAO estimated that 6 percent (or 200) of the approximately 5000 researchers across NASA, NOAA, and NIST have been denied approval to disseminate their research results in the past five years.

The GAO report recommended that all three agencies and the Department of Commerce take immediate action to clarify and better communicate their media policies to researchers, managers, and public affairs staff. Further, GAO recommended that the agencies clarify and bolster the appeals process for research dissemination requests that have been denied.

The GAO report can be found at: http://www.gao.gov/docsearch/abstract.php?rptno=GAO-07-653

An interesting post-script: The Department of Commerce released an updated Public Communications Policy on 29 March 2007; however, this release occurred after the GAO gathered information to include in its report, and the policy did not go into effect until 14 May 2007. The Union of Concerned Scientists has commented that this new policy at Commerce only goes to further confuse department scientists.

Department of Commerce Public Communications Policy: http://www.commerce.gov/opa/press/SecretaryGutierrez/2007Releases/March/29DAO219_1.pdf.

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Business and Higher ED Call for Solutions to the STEM ED Teacher Problem

On 11 June 2007, the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF) released a new report “An American Imperative: Transforming the Recruitment, Retention, and Renewal of Our Nation’s Mathematics and Science Teaching Workforce.” Like a number of other high profile reports released over the past few years, the BHEF report considers the crucial role STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education plays in the nation’s economic competitiveness. Unlike some reports, however, “An American Imperative” focuses entirely on the “teacher problem,” specifically the predicted shortfall of 280,000 new math and science teachers by 2015.

“In releasing ‘An American Imperative,’ a critical mass of some of America’s most prominent business executives have joined forces with leaders in higher education in two vitally important ways“, said BHEF President Brian K. Fitzgerald. “First, we have spotlighted the significant, systemic problems that impact mathematics and science education today. More importantly, our report presents an ambitious, aggressive, proactive, and comprehensive strategy for fixing the problems.”

The report makes over 100 recommendations in three broad areas to overcome the looming teacher shortage and promote higher quality STEM education: strengthening new teacher recruitment; improving the retention of new and experienced teachers and addressing the causes of teacher dissatisfaction; and promoting renewal activities for math and science teachers to support their effectiveness in the classroom.

Some of the specific recommendations in the report include signing bonuses and differential pay for math and science teachers, retooling state licensure renewal programs to include measures of teaching effectiveness, and creating a special administrator position in each school to provide support to new teachers. To coordinate and implement these recommendations, “An American Imperative” calls for the involvement of five major stakeholders: the federal government, state governments, school districts, higher education, and business and foundations.

According to BHEF, the report release was timed to coincide with the upcoming congressional consideration of the re-authorizations of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Higher Education Act, and the National Science Foundation.

For more information about the BHEF report: http://www.bhef.com/solutions/anamericanimperative.asp

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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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Weed Scientists: Sustain Efforts to Combat Invasive Species

On 21 June 2007, the Weed Science Society of America issued a statement reminding Americans of the importance of combating invasive species.

The WSSA statement reads in part:

“Invasive weeds are detrimental to our nation’s agriculture, water quality, wildlife and recreation,” says Jill Schroeder, Ph.D., Professor of Weed Science at New Mexico State University and President of the Weed Science Society of America. “Many people may not realize that weeds interfere with the production of our food, cultivation of feed for livestock and crops grown for textile production. Invasive weeds are considered biological pollution and it’s a real problem. In fact, the economic impact of weeds in the U.S. has been estimated at a staggering $34.7 billion annually, according to a Cornell University report.”

Each year, invasive plants claim another three million acres in the U.S. That’s an area about twice the size of Delaware. When they proliferate, they can choke out native plants, forever altering entire habitats as animals lose food, shelter and water to these persistent intruders. Currently, numbers of invasive plants are on the rise as increased land development disturbs previously untouched areas and global trade breaks natural barriers.

To read the complete release, visit www.wssa.net.

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EPA Requests Input on Endocrine Disruptors List

On 11 June 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the agency is in the final stages of planning for a screening of pesticides for their potential effect on the endocrine system. The agency is seeking comment on the draft list of 73 pesticides to be evaluated under the new screening regimen.

The draft list of pesticide candidates were selected for screening based on their high potential for exposure to people or the environment, and not on possible endocrine disruption effects. The ultimate purpose of the screening will be to determine if the pesticides can adversely influence the endocrine system. This is not a draft list of potential endocrine disruptors.

“As a leader in endocrine disruptor research, EPA’s science driven approach ensures that the data generated by this new testing is comprehensive and based on the best available science,” said Jim Gulliford, EPA’s assistant administrator for Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. “EPA remains committed to protecting public health through quality scientific research and collaboration.”

According to the EPA, “building validated screens to detect endocrine disruption has taken years of open scientific collaboration. This approach ensures that the data generated by this new testing regimen is comprehensive and scientifically sound. While the science in this area continues to expand rapidly, EPA’s goal remains to protect public health. Today’s draft list is the first set of chemicals considered for screening.”

EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, mandated under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), will determine whether certain chemicals have an effect on the endocrine system, using validated tests and other scientific information. Under FQPA, all pesticide chemicals will be screened, starting with this draft list.

EPA’s draft list focuses on those pesticide ingredients — active and inert — with relatively high potential for human exposure. The agency gave priority to pesticide active ingredients where there is the potential for human exposure through food and water, residential exposure to pesticide products, and high levels of occupational exposure following an application of agricultural pesticides. For pesticide inert ingredients, the priority was on those with high production volumes found in human or ecological tissues, water, and indoor air.

After considering comments on the draft list, EPA will issue a second Federal Register notice with the final list of chemicals.

More information about the draft list is available at http://www.epa.gov/endo/index.htm

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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.

To continue reading this article, please go to http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2007_06.html.

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