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Public Policy Report for 15 October 2007

Feds Consider Security at US Bio Labs

The Associated Press (AP) recently reported (2 October 2007) that American laboratories handling the world’s deadliest germs have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, including the transmission of bird flu to a lab technician from an infected ferret’s bite and a missing shipment of the plague that was to be delivered to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The AP reports that the number of accidents is only increasing as the number of biosafety level (BSL) 3 and 4 laboratories that work with the deadly organisms and toxins continues to increase.

BSL-3 labs can house agents and toxins that have the potential for aerosol transmission and may cause serious and potentially lethal infection, although in some cases vaccines or effective treatments are available. Agents handled in BSL-3 labs include anthrax, West Nile Virus, and avian flu. BSL-4 labs handle agents and toxins that pose a high individual risk of life-threatening disease, which may also be aerosol transmitted and for which there is no vaccine or therapy. These include Ebola, hemorrhagic fevers, and smallpox.

In response to concerns about the increased incidence of accidents involving infectious agents and the potential threat of bioterrorism, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on 4 October 2007, “Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States.”

Officials from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the expansion of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs is taking place across the country in many sectors, including federal, state, academic, and private. However, the GAO investigators revealed that no single federal agency is explicitly tasked with tracking or coordinating biosafety labs and determining their associated risk, despite the fact that 12 federal agencies have some connection with BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs in the United States. Further, oversight of the high-containment labs is fragmented and relies on self-policing. Officials indicated that although they know of 15 BSL-4 labs (with one in the planning stage), the total number of BSL-3 labs is unknown; only those labs that are registered with the CDC-USDA Select Agents program or are federally funded are known.

During the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI) pointedly asked the witnesses, which included senior officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, “Has the proliferation of these labs reached a point at which there are so many labs doing this research that you actually increase the chances of a catastrophic release of a deadly disease?”

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NSB Rolls out Stem Education Action Plan

On 3 October 2007, the National Science Board released a report, “A National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System.” The plan recommends actions to improve the coherence of the U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education system — between school districts and states and among grade levels — and to ensure a supply of well-prepared and highly effective STEM teachers. AIBS submitted formal comments on the draft version of the plan in late August 2007 (http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20070904.html).

The Action Plan calls for the formation of an independent, non-Federal National Council for STEM Education comprised of a diverse group of stakeholders including state and local governments, STEM educators, higher education, business and industry, foundations, informal STEM education, and STEM disciplinary societies. The Council would be tasked with coordinating and facilitating national STEM education initiatives and informing policymakers and the public on the state of STEM education across the U.S.

The NSB also recommended the development of national STEM content guidelines that would outline essential knowledge and skills needed by students at each grade level. This controversial recommendation – as traditionally states and local school districts aggressively defend their ability to make curriculum decisions - provided much of the focus for a House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing on 10 October 2007. According to Judy Jeffrey from the Council of Chief State School Officers, “The national STEM education council seeks to increase collaboration and coordination among stakeholders; however, the council runs the risk of creating another level of bureaucracy rather than moving the conversation on STEM education forward.” Chrisanne Gayl from the National School Boards Association expressed similar concerns, “The top-down approach of creating a national council to set academic content guidelines and teacher certification requirements is troublesome for school board members who value local flexibility and must deal with the day-to-day operational challenges of implementing these policies.”

Despite some reservations about specific recommendations in the Action Plan, the panel of witnesses and members of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee generally supported the overall goals in the NSB report. Remarked subcommittee chairman, Brian Baird (D-WA), “Congress, the Administration, and business and industry all agree that bolstering STEM education is key to fostering innovation and discovery, ensuring the nation’s economic development and the ability to compete in the global marketplace. This effort is going to take collaboration and creativity as we support math and science education and our math and science teachers.”

For additional news coverage of the report and House subcommittee hearing, go to http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=64619.

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New Law Forgives Some Student Loan Debt for Non-Profit Workers

Despite the growing partisanship in Washington, DC, Congress and the President have worked together to make changes in various federal grant and loan programs to increase higher education opportunities for more individuals. Signed into law (PL 110-84) on 27 September, HR 2669 (The Higher Education Access Act of 2007) includes a provision establishing a direct loan forgiveness program under which “borrowers who, after October 1, 2007, have made 120 payments under income-based or standard repayment plans while employed in certain public service jobs may have 1/10th of their outstanding loan forgiven for each year during which they earned $65,000 or less.”

As defined in the law, eligible “public service” employment is:

“(i) a full-time job in emergency management, government, military service, public safety, law enforcement, public health, public education (including early childhood education), social work in a public child or family service agency, public interest law services (including prosecution or public defense or legal advocacy in low-income communities at a nonprofit organization), public child care, public service for individuals with disabilities, public service for the elderly, public library sciences, school-based library sciences and other school-based services, or at an organization that is described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and exempt from taxation under section 501(a) of such Code; or

(ii) teaching as a full-time faculty member at a Tribal College or University as defined in section 316(b) and other faculty teaching in high-needs areas, as determined by the Secretary.”

Of note, the law also reauthorizes and makes some adjustments to the various other federal student loan programs, including student eligibility, loan terms and conditions, among other matters. California’s Representative George Miller was the lead sponsor of the HR 2669.

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, inclusion of the non-profit workforce provision resulted from the efforts of the Nonprofit Sector Workforce Coalition, which worked to make sure the provision made it into the final version of the legislation.

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New in BioScience: "Government Looks into Health of Federal Science 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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Science Policy Survey for Youth Voters

Each election cycle, various pundits speculate about the extent to which the “youth vote” will impact or shape an election. Although this discussion often receives considerable attention and various efforts have been launched in the past couple of decades to increase the percentage of young voters casting ballots, seemingly few elections are impacted significantly by the young adult vote. Following elections, various groups contend this is a result of the candidates failing to address the issues of concern to the young voter.

This year, Student Pugwash USA, a student organization promoting social responsibility in science and technology, is using the social networking site Facebook to survey young adult voters (ages 18-25) about science policy issues that matter to them for the 2008 elections. The survey asks general questions regarding the relevance of science and technology policy issues on voting choices; specific questions on peace and security, energy and environment, and health to gauge young people’s opinions and levels of understanding; and inquire about demographic data and prior voting history to get a better snapshot of the respondent pool.

Young adults age 18-25 can take part in the survey by going to http://www.spusa.org/2008_elections/index.html.

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