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Public Policy Report for 1 October 2007

Federal Funding Update

Today marks the official start of the federal fiscal year (FY) 2008. As has become common practice, however, the new fiscal year will begin with a sputter. Once again this year, Congress has failed to complete work on the majority of appropriations legislation required to fund federal programs and services during FY 2008. Importantly, however, Congress has adopted a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will fund the federal government through 16 November at FY 2007 funding levels.

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Ecosystem Researchers Discuss Bioenergy on Capitol Hill

Concerns about energy security and climate change have motivated the public and private sectors to make or pledge significant investments in bioenergy research. Indeed, most of the recent national discussion of renewable or sustainable energy, has focused on a desire to develop biofuels. Increasingly, various stakeholder groups, including scientists, have encouraged a consideration of research, both current and needed, on the sustainability and environmental consequences of biofuel production.

On 27 September 2007, six ecosystem researchers went to Capitol Hill to provide members of Congress, congressional staff, and other Washington, DC, public policy experts with a timely science briefing, “Ecosystem Science: Informing a Sound Bioenergy Policy.” The briefing, sponsored by the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers (AERC), was held in conjunction with the annual AERC science symposium in Washington, DC.

During the briefing, the researchers discussed the impacts of bioenergy crop cultivation on basic ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, soil conservation, and water quality, as well as the environmental and economic challenges associated with energy crops.

Briefing participants were: -Dr. Robin Graham, “Considering the ecosystem sustainability of bioenergy feedstocks: A primer on the issues”

-Dr. Carl C. Trettin, “Forest Service, Center for Forested Watershed Research - Effects of woody biofuel production on water resources”

-Dr. Jane M.F. Johnson, “Balancing biomass for bioenergy and conserving the soil resource”

-Ms. JoAnn Hanowski, “Planning for the expansion of biomass production in the Midwest: Remaining wildlife neutral”

-Dr. Stephen Polasky, “University of Minnesota - Bioeconomics of biofuels: Environmental and economic consequences of shifting towards renewable biomass for energy”

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NRC Reports on the Role of Theory in Biology

In response to a request from the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council has conducted a study of the role of theory in 21st century biology. According to an NRC announcement on Friday, September 28, “Theory is an integral part of all biological research. Biologists’ theoretical and conceptual frameworks inform every step of their research, affecting what experiments they do, what techniques and technologies they develop and use, and how they interpret their data. At the request of the National Science Foundation, this National Research Council report examines whether a greater emphasis on theory would be useful in advancing biology. The report concludes that theory is already an inextricable thread running throughout the practice of biology; but that explicitly giving theory equal status with other components of biological research could help catalyze transformative research that will lead to creative, dynamic, and innovative advances in our understanding of life.”

The NRC report, “The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research,” may be purchased from the National Academies at: http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12026.

POSSIBLE CONGRESSIONAL EARMARK FOR ANTI-EVOLUTION EDUCATION

According to a 23 September 2007 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, embattled Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter has requested $100,000 in a fiscal year 2008 appropriations bill for the Louisiana Family Forum, a Christian group that opposes the teaching of evolution in the public school classroom. Vitter is the other Republican senator to recently confront “sex scandal” issues.

The earmark, buried in the appropriations legislation for the departments of Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education (S.B. 1710), would be used “to develop a plan to promote better science education.”

The Louisiana Family Forum most notably backed efforts by the Ouachita Parish School Board in 2006 to permit science teachers to teach the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution, a common tactic of the intelligent design movement known as “teach the controversy.” The non-profit group’s mission is to “persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking.”

According to a written statement from Vitter, “This program helps supplement and support educators and school systems that would like to offer all of the explanations in the study of controversial science topics such as global warming and the life sciences.”

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Is It Time For a Creationism Museum in Wisconsin?

Encouraged by the success and attention garnered by the Answers in Genesis creation museum, Waupaca, Wisconsin, resident Bill Mielke hopes to open his own creation museum in the Wisconsin Dells, a popular vacation destination an hour from Madison, WI.

According to the local newspaper, the Wisconsin Dells Events, Mielke has begun to collect private financial donations and has amassed numerous ‘artifacts’ and models to stock biology, archaeology, and geology exhibits for the future intelligent design museum.

According to Mielke, “Everybody is getting one side of this. We’re going to show another side to what people believe about dinosaurs. And showing through science that science has not disproved deity.”

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Expelled Producers Dishonest with Pro-Evolution Scientists

An article in the 27 September 2007 New York Times drew national attention to news reported in the 4 September 2007 Public Policy Report (http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20070904.html) of noted biologists being interviewed under false pretenses for the forthcoming movie, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

The documentary, starring actor, economist, and writer Ben Stein, is considered by many evolution proponents to be another piece of intelligent design (ID) and creationism propaganda. According to its press release, the movie features interviews with scientists who “are being ridiculed, denied tenure and even fired in some cases for the fact that they believe there is evidence of ‘design’ in nature, challenging the idea that life is a result of random change.”

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, director of the National Center for Science Education Eugenie Scott, and science blogger PZ Meyers were also interviewed for the movie. However, all described interview scenarios in which they were not informed of the movie’s ID-slant by the film’s producers. According to Dawkins in an email to the New York Times, “At no time was I given the slightest clue that these people were a creationist front.”

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Global Extinction Crisis Escalating

Life on earth is disappearing at an alarming rate and will continue to do so unless urgent action is taken, according to The World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) 2007 Red List of Threatened Species, released 12 September 2007.

Of the 41,415 species on the Red List, 16,306 are threatened with extinction, up from 16,118 in 2006. The total number of extinct species has reached 785 and a further 65 are found only in captivity or in cultivation. One in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians, and 70 percent of the world’s assessed plants on the 2007 IUCN Red List are in jeopardy. Of the countries assessed, Australia, Brazil, China, and Mexico hold particularly large numbers of threatened species.

The report was released just days after the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Oceans met to discuss funding of the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act of 2007 (H.R. 1464) and the Great Cats Conservation Act of 2007 (H.R. 1771). The bills, introduced by Rep Udall (D-NM) and Brown (R-SC), would authorize appropriation of $5,000,000 for each fiscal year 2008 through 2012 into a separate account under the Multinational Species Conservation Fund.

H.R. 1464 is scheduled for markup 4 October and would also direct the Interior Department to fund international conservation projects for cats and canids listed under the IUCN Red List, the Endangered Species Act, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Dr. Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Federation testified before the committee in September and noted that “the United States, primarily through programs administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, has played a critical role in the protection and conservation of these highly endangered species, and the legislation being considered here today furthers the U.S. leadership on these issues.”

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NIGMS Requests Comments on Draft Strategic Plan

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is engaged in a strategic planning activity that will guide its decision-making over the next five years. So far, NIGMS has solicited broad input from the scientific community—both individuals and organizations—and developed a draft plan, available at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/About/StrategicPlan/. Interested individuals may review and comment on the draft strategic plan by 16 October 2007.

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Endangered Species Get a Tax Break

The Senate Finance Committee recently approved by a voice vote the “Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2007” (S. 700). The legislation would amend the Internal Revenue Code to establish tax credits for landowners who voluntarily put easements on their property, and create tax incentives to landowners who aid in the recovery of species classified as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The measure reported from the Senate Finance Committee is part of a larger package of conservation measures, “Habitat and Land Conservation Act of 2007,” being considered by Congress. S. 700, initially introduced in February 2007 by Senators Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), has received strong bipartisan support.

The legislation would:

-Permanently extend tax incentives for farmers, ranchers, and other eligible taxpayers who establish conservation easements,

-Establish credits for taxpayers who take voluntary measures to help protect and restore the habitats of threatened or endangered species,

-Establish a tax deduction for the cost of specific actions recommended in habitat recovery plans approved under the Endangered Species Act taken by taxpayers,

-Allow taxpayers to exclude from taxable income any payments received from the federal government under certain cost-sharing conservation programs,

-Extend a provision to allow taxpayers to fully deduct the costs of environmental cleanups in the year the costs are incurred.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman, Max Baucus (D-MT) praised the bill stating, “America’s farmers, ranchers, and landowners have a big role to play in the preservation of America’s diverse wildlife and of crucial hunting and fishing lands. This legislation rewards their conservation activities, and guarantees that future generations will enjoy America’s great natural bounty just as much as we do today.”

The legislation has also been favorably received by non-governmental organizations ranging from environmental organizations to farm groups. “We applaud Senator Crapo and the bill’s cosponsors for supporting a solution that is a win-win for wildlife and landowners,” said John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation. American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) president Bob Stallman echoed a similar sentiment, “Encouraging landowners to proactively improve habitat because they want to, instead of passively acknowledging habitat through land use restrictions, will greatly enhance the recovery of listed species.”

The ESA has been awaiting reauthorization since 1992, however, efforts often stalled on touchy subjects such as the definition of “species recovery” and the law’s regulatory requirements. Previous attempts to overhaul the ESA have focused on eliminating “critical habitat” and requiring field-tested, peer-reviewed, and published information to list species.

In 2006, the nonprofit Keystone Center convened a working group to discuss revamping the ESA at the request of six U.S. senators. The group included environmentalists, landowners, academics, attorneys, timber companies and homebuilders. The panel wrote that “in short order” the act could do a better job of protecting wildlife habitat. The question of “how that ought to be accomplished,” the letter continued, is a much stickier subject. The panelists agreed on the government’s need to create more incentives for landowners and industry to preserve habitat.

With private lands housing 80 percent of listed species, Stallman said AFBF is absolutely convinced that cooperation with private landowners is essential if the ESA is to achieve its goal of recovering species; “the tax credits and deductions provided in the bill offer that encouragement.”

A similar bill (H.R. 1422), sponsored by Representatives Don Young (R-AK) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), is currently under consideration in the House Ways and Means Committee.

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USGS Coalition Holds Capitol Hill Reception

On 17 September 2007, the USGS Coalition held its 4th Annual Capitol Hill reception. The event is an opportunity for supporters of the USGS, from government and the scientific community, to recognize the important research conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The science agency for the Department of the Interior, USGS personnel work in nearly 400 offices located across the nation in every state. Increasingly, the USGS is working at the forefront of interdisciplinary research. To this end, the agency maintains partnerships with more than 2,000 federal, state, local, and private agencies.

Once again this year, well over 150 individuals from Congress, executive branch departments, and non-governmental organizations attended the reception. Among members of Congress attending the event were Colorado’s Representative John T. Salazar (D, 3rd) and Texas’ Representative Ciro D. Rodriguez (D, 23rd), both of whom spoke briefly to reception participants.

Now an anticipated fall event, the USGS Coalition Capitol Hill Reception was initiated four years ago as part of the USGS Coalition’s efforts to raise congressional awareness of the important research conducted by USGS scientists.

The USGS Coalition is an alliance of 70 organizations united by a commitment to the continued vitality of the unique combination of biological, geological, hydrological and mapping programs of the USGS. The USGS provides independent, high-quality data, information, research support and assessments needed by federal, state, local and tribal policymakers, resource and emergency managers, engineers and planners, researchers and educators and the public. The Coalition supports increased federal investment in USGS programs that underpin responsible natural resource stewardship, improve resilience to natural and human-induced hazards, and contribute to the long-term health, security and prosperity of the nation.

AIBS was a founding member of the USGS Coalition, which now includes more than a dozen AIBS member societies and organizations. The Coalition is co-chaired by AIBS and the Geological Society of America. Coalition activities and initiatives are the result of the efforts of the staff of the various organizations that participate in the Coalition. Policy staff members from the Crop, Soil and Agronomy Societies planned the 2007 Congressional Reception. For more information about the USGS Coalition or to learn how your scientific society or organization can join the Coalition, please contact Robert Gropp at 202-628-1500 x 250 or Craig Schiffries at cschiffries@geosociety.org.

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Education Releases Latest Assessment of Math and Reading Performance

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has released its latest assessment, “The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2007 and The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics 2007,” of student performance in reading and mathematics. The reports present national and state-level performance of fourth- and eighth-graders.

Some findings excerpted from the reports include the following:

2007 Mathematics—

“—Fourth- and eighth-graders scored higher than in all previous assessment years. —White, Black, and Hispanic students at both grades demonstrated a better understanding of mathematics compared to all previous assessment years. —The White-Black score gap narrowed at grade four when compared to 1990 and at grade 8 when compared to 2005. —Fifteen states (14 states and DC) improved at both grades, with fourth-graders in an additional eight states, and eighth-graders in 11 states scoring higher.”

2007 Reading—

“—Fourth-graders scored higher than in all previous assessment years. —Eighth-graders scored higher than in 2005 and 1992. —At both grades, White, Black, and Hispanic students all scored higher than in 1992. However, only the White-Black gap at fourth-grade was smaller compared to 2005 and 1992. —Four states had higher scores at both grades, with 14 additional states (13 states and DODEA) improving in just fourth grade and two states scoring higher in just eighth grade. Two states had lower scores at grade 8 than in 2005.”

For complete results and to download the report, visit http://nationsreportcard.gov

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AIBS Board Elections Underway

Voting in the 2007 AIBS Board of Directors election is now underway. At the end of 2007, the following positions become vacant on the 13-person AIBS Board of Directors for individual members of AIBS to vote on: (1) President-Elect; (2) Secretary; and (3) two Board members elected by the AIBS membership-at-large (Board elections from the AIBS Council of Member Societies and Organizations are about to get underway via separate ballot). The online ballot, including candidate statements, is available online at http://www.aibs.org/vote. Polls close on 26 October 2007.

Candidates For President-Elect:

May Berenbaum (University of Illinois - Urbana/Champaign) Deborah E. Goldberg (University of Michigan)

Candidates For Secretary:

John R. Jungck (Beloit College) Gordon E. Uno (University of Oklahoma)

Candidates for Board Member Elected by the Membership-at-Large:

Carol Brewer (University of Montana) Louis J. Gross (University of Tennessee) Paula Mabee (University of South Dakota)

Candidates for Board Member elected by the Council of AIBS Member Societies and Organizations:

Charles Berry (South Dakota State University - American Fisheries Society) Ellen J. Censky (University of Oklahoma - Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History) Laurence J. Dorr (Smithsonian Institution - American Society of Plant Taxonomists) David Goetze (Utah State University - Association for Politics and the Life Sciences)

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New in Bioscience: "Government Looks into Health"

NEW IN BIOSCIENCE: “GOVERNMENT LOOKS INTO HEALTH OF FEDERAL COLLECTIONS”

In the October 2007 Washington Watch article in BioScience, Holly Menninger reports on recent federal actions to review the status and health of federally-owned scientific collections.

An excerpt from this article follows:

Researchers at university-based natural science collections have long known that their institutions face daunting budgetary and infrastructure challenges. It is becoming equally apparent that federal collections face comparable challenges.

Recent circumstances at the Smithsonian Institution (SI), the flagship for federal research collections, illustrate some of those challenges. For example, the US Government Accountability Office has reported that a number of buildings within the SI museum complex have deteriorated to the point that some buildings have been closed to the public. And just a few miles from Washington, DC, the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) houses much of one of the largest entomology collections in the world in the basement of a building constructed in the 1930s. Although BARC is charged with protecting the nation’s agricultural enterprise from invasive species, among other endeavors, the facilities for BARC collections lack appropriate ventilation and humidity- and temperature-control systems.

To continue reading this article online, please go to http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2007_10.html.

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