Recent developments in Texas could seriously jeopardize the quality of public education in the state. If past scuffles in Texas over curriculum and textbooks are any indication, the latest attempt to introduce politically-driven material into the curriculum will jeopardize the quality of science (including evolution and environmental studies), health education, and social studies.
On 16 June 2007, Governor Rick Perry (R) signed House Bill 188, a law that changes the process by which textbooks are reviewed and adopted by public school districts or open-enrollment charter schools. The law requires the Texas State Board of Education to adopt new rules for the mid-cycle review and adoption of textbooks. Currently, the next K-12 science education textbook review proceedings are slated to begin in 2009. Additionally, the law provides for the review and adoption of supplementary instructional materials. Science education advocates are concerned that the new law will permit non-scientific books such as the Discovery Institute’s “Explore Evolution,” a book that repeats creationist arguments under the guise of “critical analysis,” to be incorporated into the biology curriculum as supplementary material.
The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) met 18-20 July 2007. The meeting was presided over by a new chairman, Dr. Don McLeroy, appointed a day prior by Governor Perry. The appointment of Dr. McLeroy, a Republican dentist from Bryan, Texas, concerns supporters of data-based science education. A board member since 1998, McLeroy voted against the state’s current high school biology textbook because it did not include a discussion of the weaknesses of evolution. Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a citizen group advocating the separation of church and state, told the Dallas Morning News on 18 July that she would give the governor an F for appointing “a clear ideologue who has repeatedly put his own personal and political agendas ahead of sound science, good health, and solid textbooks for students.”
The SBOE meeting agenda was to include a discussion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards for science (ironically, this discussion was also to consider new TEKS for the elective Bible courses recently specified by the state legislature in HB 1287). The science TEKS were scheduled for formal review in fall 2007; however, it now appears that review of the science standards will be postponed due to delays in the completion of the English and reading TEKS.
On 11 June 2007, Governor Perry signed House Bill 3678, the Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination Act, into law. This law explicitly permits public school students to express religious viewpoints and beliefs in classroom assignments and public events where student speakers are permitted. The law also permits students to organize, advertise, and conduct non-curricular religious activities to the same extent that students are permitted to organize and conduct other non-curricular activities in school facilities.
Proponents for real science education are concerned that HB 3678 makes no exception for science classes, suggesting that the law allows religious and creationist explanations for natural phenomena to be accepted in class work, homework, and exams without penalty. The law applies to the 2007-2008 school year, taking effect 1 September 2007.
Another alarming example of Bush Administration interference with science emerged on 10 July when former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Carmona, who served as Surgeon General from 2002 to 2006, described in detail accounts of Bush appointees routinely editing his speeches, barring him from public comment on sensitive issues like embryonic stem cells and the emergency contraceptive pill, and preventing the timely publication of a report on the dangers of second-hand smoke.
Carmona told the Committee, “The job of the Surgeon General is to be the doctor of the nation – not the doctor of a political party.”
Two other former Surgeon Generals, Dr. David Satcher (Clinton appointee serving 1998-2002) and Dr. C. Everett Koop (Reagan appointee serving 1981-1989) also described cases of political interference during their tenures.
Following the testimony, Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) commented, “What we learned at this hearing is that the Office of the Surgeon General is in crisis. Political interference is compromising the independence of the Office. On key public health issues the Surgeon General has been muzzled. This problem will not solve itself.”
Waxman intends to introduce the Surgeon General Independence Act to prevent further politicization of the position and safeguard the freedom of the nation’s top doctor to speak openly and honestly about public health issues.
Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee likely had considered the testimony of the former Surgeon Generals when they grilled Dr. James Holsinger on 12 July 2007. Holsinger, Bush’s nominee to succeed Carmona, is considered a controversial candidate because of a 1991 paper about homosexuality. Holsinger faced questions about this research, embryonic stem cells, abstinence-only education, and emergency contraception.
On Thursday, 18 July 2007, the Senate amended and passed H.R. 2272, the 21st Century Competitiveness Act, an omnibus bill to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve American competitiveness. The Senate struck the House language and substituted the text of S. 761, its own version of the competitiveness bill, originally passed 25 April 2007. The measure passed by voice vote.
Both bills contain provisions intended to improve K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education through teacher training and mentoring, to support and strengthen basic research, and to reauthorize the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. However, the Senate and House versions differ significantly in scope and levels of funding authorized for various programs and agencies. For specific differences among the bills, please go to: http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20070319.html
Following passage of the amended H.R. 2272, the Senate formally asked for a conference with the House and appointed the following conferees: Bingaman (D-NM), Inouye (D-HI), Kennedy (D-MA), Lieberman (I-CT), Mikulski (D-MD), Kerry (D-MA), Nelson (D-FL), Domenici (R-NM), Stevens (R-AK), Enzi (R-WY), Alexander (R-TN), Ensign (R-NV), and Coleman (R-MN). No date has been officially set for the meeting of House and Senate conferees.
On 27 July 2007, President George W. Bush will present Dr. Rita Colwell, President-Elect of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, with the 2006 National Medal of Science. The award is the nation’s highest honor for scientists.
Dr. Colwell is currently a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and Senior Advisor for Canon US Life Sciences, Inc.
The National Medal of Science recognizes the outstanding contribution Dr. Colwell has made to the fields of molecular biology and microbiology of the aquatic environment. Dr. Colwell has been at the forefront of research on the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, the water-borne pathogen responsible for deadly outbreaks of cholera in the developing world. Her research efforts have led to actions that significantly improved drinking water quality and reduced the number of deaths in affected regions of the word, including Bangladesh and India.
Within the United States, Dr. Colwell and her laboratory are examining the distribution and ecological interactions among bacteria, viruses, and plankton in the Chesapeake Bay. She is currently developing an international network to address emerging infectious diseases and water issues, including safe drinking water for both the developed and developing world.
“What a well-deserved and prestigious honor for a real leader in the biological sciences research community,” said Dr. Kent Holsinger, AIBS Past-President and Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. “Dr. Colwell’s work has both improved our fundamental understanding of basic biological systems and provided innovative solutions to serious public health challenges.”
From 1998-2004, Dr. Colwell served as the 11th Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). During her tenure at NSF, she led efforts to improve K-12 science and mathematics education, graduate science and engineering education and increase the participation of women and minorities in science and engineering.
Dr. Colwell has held many advisory positions in government, non-profit science policy organizations, and private foundations, as well as in the international scientific research community. A nationally-respected scientist and educator, Colwell has authored or co-authored 16 books and more than 700 scientific publications. Dr. Colwell produced the award-winning film, Invisible Seas, and has served on editorial boards of numerous scientific journals. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received the Order of the Rising Sun award from the Emperor of Japan.
In 2008, Dr. Colwell will serve as President of AIBS. Additionally, she is the Program Chair of the 2008 AIBS Annual Meeting, “Climate, Environment, and Infectious Disease” to be held in Washington, DC on 12-13 May 2008.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has released a ten-year science strategy, “USGS Science in the Decade 2007-2017.” As noted in the executive summary, “This report is the first comprehensive science strategy since the early 1990s to examine major USGS science goals and priorities.” Six tactical guidelines were given in the plan, including the following:
1) Understanding Ecosystems and Predicting Ecosystem Change: Ensuring the Nation’s Economic and Environmental Future;
2) Climate Variability and Change: Clarifying the Record and Assessing Consequences;
3) Energy and Minerals for America’s Future: Providing a Scientific Foundation for Resource Security, Environmental Health, Economic Vitality, and Land Management;
4) A National Hazards, Risk, and Resilience Assessment Program: Ensuring the Long-Term Health and Wealth of the Nation;
5) The Role of Environment and Wildlife in Human Health: A System that Identifies Environmental Risk to Public Health in America; and,
6) A Water Census of the United States: Quantifying, Forecasting, and Securing Freshwater for America’s Future.
The USGS plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the public against natural hazards and providing the science needed to manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources and defend public health from contamination, pollution, and emerging diseases. With the potential for increased natural hazards due to climate change, it is fundamental that the USGS be adaptive in their approaches to providing scientific data for policy makers, resource managers, and the public at large. The USGS Science in the Decade 2007–2017 is available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2007/1309/.
With the departure of Mark Limbaugh, the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne has announced that Kameran L. Onley will assume the assistant secretary’s duties. Ms. Onley has served as Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Interior since January 2006. In this capacity, Onley’s duties have included serving as the primary environmental policy advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary.
Onley has also held positions at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research at Tarleton State University. Originally from Seattle, Washington, Onley has a BA in economics with a minor in biology from Seattle University and an MS in agricultural economics from Clemson University.
Mark Limbaugh left his post as assistant secretary for the private sector. Limbaugh will serve as a principal at The Ferguson Group, a Washington, DC based lobbying firm. Limbaugh’s departure is mere weeks after Secretary Kempthorne announced his “10-point plan” to improve ethics in the workplace at the Department and tasked Limbaugh with heading up the plan.
In the July/August issue of BioScience, freelance writer Noreen Parks reports on the ramifications of continued budget cuts for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
An excerpt from the article follows:
There’s no other wildlife conservation network like it in the world-547 reserves covering nearly 100 million acres (40.5 million hectares) of wetlands, forests, grasslands, islands, and deserts that support thousands of plant and animal species, including 260 listed as endangered or threatened. Once a crown jewel of our national heritage, now the National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) system itself is under threat because of severe budget shortfalls, dwindling personnel numbers, and a staggering backlog in maintenance and operations. For years, refuge managers have tightened their belts and made do with less, and now some observers fear that a hundred years’ worth of conservation efforts are crumbling.
Michael Woodbridge, of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee on 20 July 2006 that, on average, the refuges get less than $4 per acre ($10 per hectare) to manage and restore essential wildlife habitat, conduct research and monitoring, maintain facilities and equipment, and oversee recreational and educational activities for their 40 million-plus annual visitors. Funding for the refuge system within the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) budget has in recent years approached only about $400 million, a figure well below the amount refuge advocates believe adequate. At the same time, USFWS estimates show that operations costs such as salaries, fuel, and supplies are inflating by roughly $15 million a year, says USFWS spokesman David Eisenhauer. “Unfortunately, it appears these tight budgets are not going away soon,” he adds.
One dire consequence of the budget shortfalls has been the steady erosion in staff. By 2009, 565 positions-including 475 permanent field staff-will be eliminated, according to Eisenhauer. The number of unstaffed refuges will increase from 188 in 2004 to 221 in 2009, when they will make up 40 percent of all refuges. In the Pacific region alone, the reductions will eliminate almost a quarter of the positions held by biologists at the refuges, and only six full-time law enforcement staff will remain to cover the region’s 64 refuges.
To read the complete report for free, please visit http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2007_07.html.