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Public Policy Report for 20 August 2007

Administration Releases FY 2009 R&D Budget Priorities

On 16 August 2007, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the annual memorandum identifying research and development (R&D) priorities for the federal government. The memo, which is sent to the heads of executive branch agencies and departments, details what programs the Administration intends to prioritize during fiscal year (FY) 2009.

The memo, once again, highlights the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), provides guidance for priority setting among R&D programs, identifies interagency R&D programs that should receive attention within agency budget requests, and reiterates the “Investment Criteria” that agencies should use to improve investment decisions.

The ACI remains a focal point for the administration, as the President has “begun the doubling path for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology core activities with an aggregate of 17 percent increase in the first two years of the Initiative.” As such, each of the three aforementioned agencies are directed to propose spending plans with increases in line with the doubling schedule.

The memo provides guidance for priority setting among R&D programs, stating that due to “the combination of finite resources, the commitment to the American Competitiveness Initiative, and a multitude of new research opportunities” careful consideration of spending priorities and “wise choices” are mandatory and paramount. OSTP indicates that agencies may recommend new activities, but “requests should identify potential offsets by elimination or reductions in less effective or lower priority programs.” The Administration favors R&D investments that:

  1. Advance fundamental scientific discovery to improve future quality of life;
  2. Support high-leverage basic research to spur technological innovation, economic competitiveness and new job growth;
  3. Strengthen science, mathematics and engineering education based on the recommendations of the Academic Competitiveness Council and the National Math Panel to ensure a scientifically literate population and a supply of qualified technical personnel commensurate with national need;
  4. Enable potentially high-payoff activities that require a Federal presence to attain long-term national goals, especially national security, energy independence, and a next-generation air transportation system;
  5. Sustain specifically authorized agency missions (e.g., scientific discovery in NASA) and user facilities that support the authorized missions of other agencies;
  6. Enhance the health of our Nation’s people to reduce the burden of illness and increase productivity while respecting the inherent dignity and value of every human life;
  7. Improve our ability to understand and respond to climate change and other global environmental issues and natural disasters through better observation, data, analysis, models, and basic and social science research;
  8. Maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the science and technology (S&T) enterprise through expansion of competitive, merit-based peer-review processes;
  9. Phase out programs that are only marginally productive or are not important to an agency’s mission; and,
  10. Encourage interdisciplinary research efforts on complex scientific frontiers and strengthen international partnerships to accelerate the progress of science across borders.

Of note for the natural science collections community and researchers utilizing federal object-based scientific collections, the memorandum includes specific language indicating that federal scientific collections play a vital role in research, economic development, monitoring, and public health. OSTP and OMB thus encourage agencies to develop “a coordinated strategic plan to identify, maintain and use Federal collections of physical objects and to further collections research.” This is the third year the memo has incorporated language regarding collections.

The outline of Administration interests further identifies R&D priorities in homeland security and national defense, energy and climate change technology, advanced networking and information technology, nanotechnology, understanding complex biological systems, environment, air transportation systems, and science of science policy.

The memorandum directs agencies conducting research on complex biological systems to concentrate research at the cellular and sub-cellular and the organism, population, and community levels; and the interface of the life, physical and computational sciences. Agencies focused on environmental research are directed to prioritize the following:

  • Forecasting the response of coastal ecosystems to persistent forcing and extreme events;
  • Comparative analysis of marine ecosystem organization
  • Sensors for marine ecosystems; and,
  • Assessing Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation variability, which has implications for rapid climate change.

Of note, these research priorities were recently articulated as high-priority in the nation’s ocean research plan (see http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2007_03.html).

The Administration highlighted the importance of global earth observations and their supporting role in various areas of research. The memo stated, “Agencies need to place a greater emphasis on coordinating their Earth observation activities. To ensure coordinated, long-term collection of critical land imaging data, agencies should respond to the recommendations of the Future of Land Imaging report in their budget requests.”

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Former House Speaker Hopes to Leave Mark with Carbon Cap and Trade Legislation

Former Speaker of the House, Representative Dennis Hastert (R-IL) announced Friday (17 August) that he does not intend to seek reelection at the end of the 110th Congress. Rep. Hastert, now the ranking Republican member on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, is determined to leave an indelible mark on Congress by working with Democrats to draft legislation that would create a mandatory cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since the start of the 110th Congress, Hastert has been examining the climate change issue, attending hearings, and recently traveled to Asia to investigate alternative energy sources, talk about climate change, and to foster an improved China-US relation, particularly on energy and trade cooperation. He was quoted in March at a climate change hearing stating: “We should heed the advice of our top scientists. We need to keep asking: ‘Are we focused on the right science questions? Are we focused on the right policy issues?’” The Subcommittee has held numerous hearings related to climate change, carbon capture and sequestration, cap and trade programs, and alternative fuels.

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President Signs Competitiveness Bill Despite Reservations

Just one week after Congress passed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act (COMPETES) Act, President George W. Bush signed the comprehensive legislation into law.

America COMPETES aims to improve U.S. competitiveness through significant investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research and education. The law authorizes $43.3 billion over three fiscal years (2008-2010) for STEM research and education, and received a great deal of bipartisan support in Congress. Specific provisions of the law can be found in the 6 August 2007 Public Policy Report (http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20070806.html).

In a press conference immediately prior to the bill signing on 9 August 2007, the President expressed his appreciation for the bipartisan support of provisions in the legislation that followed from the Administration’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). These included increases in federal investments in research at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology laboratories, and the Department of Energy Office of Science as well as increased investment in a number of science and mathematics education programs.

However, the President also expressed concern that “the bill Congress sent to my desk leaves some of the key priorities [of ACI] unfulfilled, and authorizes unnecessary and duplicative programs.” Accordingly, the White House Fact Sheet for America COMPETES that was released after the signing stated that “the President will request funding in his 2009 budget for those authorizations that support the focused priorities of the ACI, but will not propose excessive or duplicative funding based on authorizations in the bill.”

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Science Education Advocates Urged to Avoid Complacency

In a 9 August 2007 Boston Globe editorial, health and science writer Sally Lehrman provided her fellow residents of Massachusetts a warning that should be heeded by all advocates for science education: “A well-thought out curriculum in science does not guarantee that evolution will be taught in all its glory — or even coherently.”

Lehrman expressed concerns that even in Massachusetts, a state noted for its excellent science standards, teachers licensed for biology are not required to take a course in evolution to be certified. She pointed out 2007 state statistics that indicate “11 percent of schools had assigned at least one-fifth of teachers outside of their expertise.” Moreover, in a 2006 AAAS survey, many teachers nationwide revealed that they do not feel confident in their knowledge about evolution.

Lehrman argued that concerns about teaching evolution should not be limited to places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kansas where high-profile creationism vs. evolution battles have taken place in local public school districts and court rooms.

Despite the landmark December 2005 Federal Court ruling in the Kitzmiller (Dover, PA) case that devastated the intelligent design-in-the-classroom movement, and numerous defeats experienced by anti-evolution candidates in state school board elections last November, intelligent design and creationism proponents have persevered. Advocates for science education should take notice that organizations such as the Seattle-based Discovery Institute have altered their tactics and rhetoric in order to continue promoting their pseudo-scientific ideas in the science classroom.

Most recently, the Discovery Institute has begun distributing a new textbook entitled, “Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against New-Darwinism.” Rather than blatantly endorsing creationism or intelligent design, the Discovery Institute encourages science educators to “teach the controversy,” emphasizing the process of critical inquiry when teaching evolution. According to promotional materials, the textbook examines fossil succession, anatomical homology, embryology, natural selection, and mutation, and then, for each of these areas, “explains the evidence and arguments that lead some scientists to question the adequacy of Darwinian explanation.”

Science education advocates everywhere should remain vigilant in order to thwart attempts by anti-science advocates to introduce “Explore Evolution” as a required or supplemental text in their state biology curricula.

To keep up with the latest news on evolution education, sign-up for the AIBS/National Center for Science Education List-serve: http://www.aibs.org/mailing-lists/theaibs-ncseevolutionlistserver.html

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Vertebrate Paleontologists Blast Creation Museum

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the leading North American scientific and educational organization concerned with vertebrate paleontology, recently released a statement of concern about the newly opened Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. The statement begins:

“Professional paleontologists from around the world are concerned about the misrepresentation of science at the newly opened Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. The Creation Museum has been marketed to the public as a ‘reasoned, logical defense’ for young-earth creationism by Ken Ham, President and CEO of Answers in Genesis, which runs the Creation Museum. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a world-wide scientific and educational organization concerned with vertebrate paleontology, contends that the museum presents visitors with a view of earth history that has been scientifically disprove for over a century.”

“The Creation Museum’s fossil exhibitions, though artistically impressive, include a vast number of scientific errors, large and small. These errors range from implying that the Earth’s sedimentary rocks were deposited by a single biblical Flood, to claiming that humans and dinosaurs lived alongside one another, to denouncing the reality of transitional fossils.”

The statement continues with specific criticisms that detail how the exhibits at the museum “discount the last 150 years of paleontological and geological discovery” and includes comments from a number of the society’s leading paleontologists.

The full statement can be found at: http://www.vertpaleo.org/news/permalinks/2007/07/17/PRESS%2DRELEASE%2D%2D%2DSVP%2Don%2Dthe%2DCreation%2DMuseum/

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OSTP Releases National Land Imaging Program Plan

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recently released a report recommending the need for a national land-imaging program. The report is the product of an interagency effort to ensure the U.S. has a financially and technically viable land-imaging program. Three major policy recommendations are outlined:

  1. The U.S. must commit to continue the collection of moderate-resolution land imagery.
  2. The U.S. should establish and maintain a core operational capability to collect moderate-resolution land imagery through the procurement and launch of a series of U.S.-owned satellites.
  3. The U.S. should establish the National Land Imaging Program, hosted and managed by the Department of the Interior, to meet U.S. civil land imaging needs.

The report indicated that even though Landsat has been in operation since 1972, it “has never been considered a truly operational capability. All Landsat satellites have been justified, built, and flown as experimental, scientific research systems with no assurance of the long-term continuity of the data.” Current gaps in Landsat data are expected to increase and systems deteriorate before the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), which will take the place of the aging Landsat, is scheduled for launch. In an effort to minimize data loss, the Bush Administration hopes to establish the National Land Imaging Program to ensure needs for civil land imaging and make available and affordable the data for all users. User needs would be evaluated continuously through communication with private, nonprofit, academic, commercial, and international users. Dr. John H. Marburger, OSTP Director and Science Advisor to the President, said of the plan, it “reflects President Bush’s commitment to play a leadership role in understanding the land surface we observe across the world.” Acknowledging changes in land use, coastal zones, and polar areas due to climate change, population growth, and development, Marburger stated, “the importance of this imagery to the Nation requires a more sustainable effort to ensure that land imaging data are available far into the future.”

The plan can be viewed at: http://www.ostp.gov/html/FLI-IWG%20report%20Print-ready%20low-res.pdf.

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EPA Requests Comments

The Environmental Protection Agency has filed federal register requests for comments on the following reports:

  1. Climate and Land Use Change Effects on Ecological Resources in Three Watersheds: A Synthesis Report
  2. Effects of Climate Change on Aquatic Invasive Species and Implications for Management and Research
  3. Preliminary Assessment of Climate Change Effects on Stream and River Biological Indicators

The 30-day public comment period began 10 August 2007, and is scheduled to end 10 September 2007. Further information regarding the reports and how to submit comments can be found through AIBS’ Federal Register Resource webpage, http://www.aibs.org/federal-register-resource/.

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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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COPUS Update

AIBS is pleased to be a sponsor of COPUS, the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science. The Coalition is a grassroots effort linking universities, scientific societies, science centers and museums, advocacy groups, media, educators, businesses, and industry in a peer network having as its goal a greater public understanding of the nature of science and its value to society.

To accomplish this goal, COPUS is focusing on the following three strategies:

  • COPUS Network: An ongoing communication and collaboration network for sharing information and best practices about the public understanding of science (www.copusproject.org)
  • Year of Science 2009: 12 months of activities and celebrations of science registered in the COPUS Web site’s publicly searchable database of events and programs (www.yearofscience2009.org)
  • Understanding Science Web site: A new content-rich Web site being developed at the University of California Museum of Paleontology (set to launch later in 2007) for science educators and the general public to clarify what science is, how it works, and misconceptions about science

On 5 August 2007, COPUS and the American Institute of Biological Sciences sponsored “Communicating Science to the Public: The Where, Why and How of Engaging Non-Scientists,” a special full-day workshop at this year’s joint meeting of the Ecological Society of America and the Society for Ecological Restoration in San Jose, CA. Robert Gropp, AIBS Director of Public Policy, gave a presentation entitled “Nurturing the Public Understanding of the Nature of Science.” He highlighted the important role that the nation-wide COPUS network plays in promoting local science organizations and programs that, in turn, so greatly contribute to improving the public understanding of science.

Learn how and why you too should join the growing coalition, now 79 members strong - http://www.copusproject.org/.

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