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Public Policy Report for 6 August 2007

Congress Completes Competitiveness Legislation

Amidst a flurry of legislative action during the week prior to the August recess, the House and Senate agreed to the conference report for HR 2272, the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act (COMPETES). As has been reported in recent issues of the Public Policy Report, the America COMPETES Act is comprehensive legislation intended to improve U.S. competitiveness through significant investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research and education. The conference agreement authorizes $43.3 billion over three fiscal years (2008-2010) for STEM research and education.

On 1 August 2007 Senate and House conferees officially met and agreed to the conference report in which they reconciled some major differences in scope and funding in the House and Senate versions of the legislation. The compromise was then approved by both chambers on 2 August 2007; the House passed the measure by a vote of 367 to 57, and the Senate agreed to the conference report by unanimous consent. It now goes to the White House for consideration by President Bush, who previously has expressed concerns about the creation of too many new programs and excessive levels of funding in the innovation bills moving through Congress.

Highlights of H.R. 2272 include:

-Three-year authorization of funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratories that set the budgets of NSF and DOE on a path to double in 7 years and the NIST budget on course to double in 10 years.

-Direction from Congress that both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should be important participants in American innovation and competitiveness activities.

-The creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) in the DOE to support high-risk, high-reward energy research and technology development.

-Expansion of early career research grant programs for young investigators at NSF and the DOE.

-Increased support for K-12 STEM education and teacher training programs at NSF and DOE, including increased investment in the Noyce Teacher Scholarship program and the Math and Science Partnerships at NSF as well as investments in DOE programs to establish STEM specialty schools in each state and establish or expand teacher summer institutes at the national laboratories. The conference agreement also authorizes grant programs at the Department of Education to enhance teacher education in STEM fields and critical foreign languages.

“Now is the time for us to strengthen our support for the creativity, the innovation and the talented workforce that makes the U.S. unique and gives us our competitive edge,” said House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), the lead House negotiator on the bill. “Securing a brighter future for our children is simply not a partisan issue. I’m proud that my colleagues and I have been able to work together to move this bill forward – this truly was a team effort.”

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House Passes FY 2008 Science Appropriations

On 30 July 2007, the House approved fiscal year (FY) 2008 funding legislation for the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) and related agencies (H.R. 3093). The legislation funds various federal science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and within the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The legislation, now awaiting Senate action, would provide $6.509 billion for NSF; $80 million over the FY 2008 request and just over $590 million more than the FY 2007 enacted level. Of the $6.509 billion, Research and Related Activities (R&RA) would receive roughly $5.14 billion and the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account would be provided $244.7 million.

The House’s CJS appropriations legislation would provide $17.62 billion for NASA, $162 million more than the current Senate plan. Roughly $4 billion would be provided in discretionary appropriations for NOAA; $140.9 million over the request and $56.9 million over FY 2007 enacted appropriations. Of the $4 billion, $2.85 billion of direct appropriations would be provided to Operations, Research, and Facilities, $448.9 million for the National Oceanic Service, $811.5 million for the National Weather Service, and $702.4 million for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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State Department Names New Science Adviser

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has named Dr. Nina V. Federoff to be her new Science and Technology Adviser. Federoff, a plant molecular biologist, is the Willaman Professor of Life Sciences and Evan Pugh Professor in the Department of Biology and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Pennsylvania State University.

Established in 2000, the Secretary’s Science and Technology Adviser serves as the State Department’s chief scientist and principal liaison to the national and international scientific communities. Federoff is the third person to hold the post.

Among the chief responsibilities of the S&T Adviser are: enhancing the scientific literacy at the Department of State; increasing the number of scientists working for the Department of State, both domestically and overseas; building bridges to the scientific community; and, providing timely information on emerging S&T issues with implications for foreign policy. Federoff’s research has centered on the molecular biology of plant genes and transposons, as well as plant adaptations to stressful environments.

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House Amends Financial Services Appropriations: Limits Administration Regulatory Policy

The House recently passed the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act for FY 2008 (H.R. 2829) by a vote of 240-179, with 13 members of Congress not voting. An amendment offered by Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) was among the 37 amendments to the legislation. The Miller amendment, agreed to by voice vote, would prohibit funds to be used to implement Executive Order 13422. The Executive Order, signed by President Bush, has been a contentious issue among many government watchdog groups. It “requires federal officials to show that companies, people or institutions failed to address a problem before agencies can write regulations to tackle it. It also gives political appointees greater authority over how the regulations are written.” It is unknown at this point whether the Senate will take up this issue when they consider the spending bill.

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House Subcommittees Continue Probe of SREL Closure

Two subcommittees of the House Science and Technology Committee continue to investigate the Department of Energy’s (DOE) decision to eliminate funding for the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) in Aiken, SC. Witnesses at a recent joint hearing of the Investigations and Oversight subcommittee and the Energy and Environment subcommittee included various senior Department of Energy officials.

Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) opened the hearing stating: “the Savannah River Ecology Lab served the Department of Energy, the communities affected by the site and the Nation for more than 50 years. It was, by any financial measure, a very inexpensive lab to operate. It would be hard to find a better return on investment anywhere in the Federal science complex.” Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX) said, “there is simply no reason for DOE to discontinue funding for SREL. There are funds available. There is work to be done. SREL has the personnel and the experience to do the work.”

Contrary to testimony offered by scientists during a prior hearing about the closure of SREL, Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell said that it was “a mistake to suggest that SREL is unique…” from other universities with research laboratories, although he was not aware if any of the surrounding universities had actually competed against SREL for grants. He also stated that, “I do not want to suggest that we have been perfect. I do not want to suggest that we couldn’t have done things better. But I do firmly believe that we have acted in good faith.”

Controversy erupted during the hearing over whether or not Dr. Bertsch, former director of SREL, had been notified of the funding cut in May 2005. Dr. Bertsch has maintained that he was not advised of the complete zeroing out of SREL’s budget. He stated that he was given no details of how much funding would actually be provided beyond fiscal year (FY) 2006.

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New in BioScience: "National Wildlife Refuges: Death by a Thousand Cuts?"

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.

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