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Public Policy Report for 29 October 2007

NSF Report Examines Decline in Research Funding Rates

On Thursday, 18 October 2007, Joanne Tornow, Office of the NSF Director and Chair of the Impact of Proposal and Award Management Mechanisms (IPAMM) working group, briefed the Biological Sciences Directorate Advisory Committee.

The IPAMM working group was established by NSF in March 2006 to address concerns that the dramatic decline in funding rate for research proposals (from 30 percent in Fiscal Year (FY) 2000 to 21 percent in FY 2006) would negatively impact the U.S. scientific enterprise. The working group was charged to “recommend policies and preferred practices to improve NSF’s program announcement and solicitation processes in ways that achieve appropriate balances between proposal funding rates, award sizes and award durations…”

To conduct the study, IPAMM collected data from internal NSF databases and surveys of all principal investigators (PIs) who submitted research proposals during the last three fiscal years.

General findings on funding rate trends included: - Research proposal submissions to NSF increased as a result of an increase in the applicant pool and an increase in the number of proposals submitted per applicant. The applicant pool expanded as a result of an increase in research capacity, a loss of funding from other sources, and the increased use by NSF of targeted solicitations in new areas. External institutional pressures, namely the need to build a grant record for tenure and promotion as well as fund research infrastructure, contributed to the increase in the number of proposals submitted per applicant. - The quality of proposals did not decrease, and yet the number of high-quality proposals that were funded declined. - No evidence that new PI’s, institution types, minorities, or women were disproportionately affected by low funding rates compared to the overall population of PI’s. - The NSF peer review system is overstressed; reviewers experienced increased workloads, spending less time on each review, and consequently the PI-survey indicated that review-quality had diminished. - Although NSF has maintained both the percentage of proposals that are processed within 6 months and the average time to decision since FY 2002, there is growing anxiety from the PI community with the time to decision.

With respect to trends within the BIO directorate: - While research proposal funding rates at the NSF-level appeared to flatten in FY 2005-2006, the funding rate for BIO has continued to trend downward and may not yet have reached its lowest point. - Research proposal submissions in BIO grew by 50 percent from FY 1997 to FY 2006.

The IPAMM working group assessed efforts within the various NSF organizations to manage increasing proposal submissions and declining funding rates, including the following practices: - Limiting proposal submissions (requiring preliminary proposal, limiting submissions from a given institution, limiting submissions from individual investigators) - Increasing pool of available funds to allow more awards (combine funds for 2 FYs into 1 competition, adjust balance of standard and continuing grants)

In conclusion, the IPAMM report did not recommend a single best practice for managing proposal submissions and funding rates; instead, it recommended a flexible, but balanced approach to meet changing needs, implemented on a case-by-case basis among the program, division, and/or directorate leadership.

The Final Report of the IPAMM working group can be viewed at: http://www.nsf.gov/od/ipamm/ipamm.jsp

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GAO Recommends Federal Data-Sharing Policy

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reviewed federal data-sharing policies for climate change researchers supported by the Department of Energy (DOE), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Justifying the report, GAO notes that through these four agencies the federal government spends nearly $2 billion on climate change research each year. Although some data generated from this research is stored in online archives, other data are in less accessible formats and stored with individual researchers.

As outlined in the report summary, the GAO considered: 1) the key issues that data-sharing policies should address; 2) the data-sharing requirements, policies, and practices for external climate change researchers funded by DOE, NSF, NOAA, and NASA; and, 3) the extent to which these agencies foster data-sharing.

As a result of the review, the GAO recommends that agencies explore opportunities in the grant-making process to better ensure the availability of data to other researchers and determine if additional archiving strategies are required.

The complete 61-page document is available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d071172.pdf

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Senator Vitter Withdraws Creationism Earmark

On 23 September 2007, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that embattled Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter 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.

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

The Louisiana Family Forum backed efforts by the Ouachita Parish School Board in 2006 to permit science teachers to teach the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution. This, ‘teach the controversy,’ tactic has become a core strategy and common tactic of the creationism/intelligent design advocates. 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.”

A coalition of concerned organizations, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Herpetologist’s League, Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the National Center for Science Education, joined forces to oppose the earmark. On 10 October, these and other organizations sent a letter to every member of the Senate, asking that the provision be removed. Additionally, numerous concerned citizens individually contacted their Senators to express their concern with the earmark.

On 18 October, Senator Vitter requested that the earmark be removed. On the floor of the Senate, the Louisiana Republican insisted that the money was not designed to promote creationism and blamed the controversy on groups promoting “hysterics.”

“The project, which would develop a plan to promote better science-based education in Ouachita Parish by Louisiana Family Forum, has raised concerns among some that its intention was to mandate and push creationism within the public schools,” Vitter said. “That is clearly not and never was the intent of the project, nor would it have been its effect. However, to avoid more hysterics, I would like to move the $100,000 recommended for this project by the subcommittee when the bill goes to conference committee to another Louisiana priority project funded in this bill.”

In response, NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott commented, “Senator Vitter’s defense of the earmark is obviously disingenuous, given the Louisiana Family Forum’s record of fighting tooth and nail against evolution education. But I’m glad to see that, with the removal of his earmark, public funds are not going to be misused to miseducate the children of Louisiana about the science of evolution.”

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Senate Approves CJS Spending

Well into the new fiscal year (FY), Congress continues to press for completion of the various FY 2008 appropriations measures that have yet to be signed into law. The Senate passed the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (H.R. 3093) on 16 October. Following a prolonged floor debate and consideration of numerous amendments, the final version of the spending measure would provide $54.4 billion in discretionary funding for CJS programs, including the National Science Foundation. The Senate CJS level is just above the $53.6 billion approved by the House and roughly $3 billion above the President’s request.

Of the $54.4 billion in the Senate CJS bill, the National Science Foundation would receive $6.6 billion for FY 2008, which is $124 million above the President’s request, $636 million above the FY 2007 enacted level, and $44 million more than the House version of the bill. Included in the $6.6 billion, $850 million would be directed for education and training programs, $100 million above the President’s budget request. Research and related activities would receive $5.16 billion, which is $490 million above FY 2007 enacted level, and $24 million above the request.

The Bush Administration has indicated its opposition to the funding legislation stating, “…In combination with the other FY 2008 appropriations bills, it [CJS] includes an irresponsible and excessive level of spending and includes other objectionable provisions.”

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Senate Adopts Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Plan

On 23 October 2007, the U.S. Senate approved its largest domestic spending bill of the year, FY 2008 Appropriations for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and related agencies. As passed, the bill would provide $606 billion in FY 2008 with discretionary spending totaling $149.9 billion – a $5.4 billion increase from FY 2007 and $1.9 billion less than the House version (H.R. 3043).
Included within this appropriations legislation is FY 2008 funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As set forth by the Senate, NIH would receive just under $29.9 billion in FY 2008. This level represents a roughly $1 billion increase, although $200 million of this increase would be transferred to the Global AIDS Fund. Included in the bill is a provision that directs the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to require all investigators funded by NIH to submit an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscript, to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central within 12 months of publication.

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Proposed Revisions to Stream Buffer Zone Rule Draws Criticism from Stream Scientists

This past August, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) proposed a drastic change to rules for mountaintop mining in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement “Excess Spoil Minimization/Stream Buffer Zones.” The law currently states that land within 100 feet of a stream cannot be disturbed by mining unless a company can prove it will not adversely affect the water quality and quantity of the stream. However, under the new rule, companies would be allowed to conduct activities within that zone, including depositing material directly in streams, provided they mitigate the damage afterwards.

Thirty-six eminent stream scientists and the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), the world’s largest professional society for aquatic sciences, disagree with the revised rule that OSMRE claims will “reduce the environmental impacts of surface coal mining.” In letters to the agency, the scientists and ASLO say that the Draft EIS is “fundamentally flawed” and “should be withdrawn and completely revised.”

The scientists express serious concerns that the conclusions of the EIS – namely, that allowing variances to the buffer zone rule would be “impact neutral” – are based on poor or non-existent data. The scientists argue that this claim in the EIS is particularly egregious considering “the overwhelming scientific evidence is that riparian buffer zones consisting of native vegetation communities are the best method for stream protection from disturbances upslope such as mining or logging.” Additionally, the scientists criticize OSMRE for consulting neither a stream ecologist nor an aquatic ecologist in preparing the Draft EIS, and offer their assistance to work with the agency in the future.

The OSMRE has received more than two thousand comments on the draft EIS. The agency extended the original 60-day comment period by 30 days for a close date of 23 November 2007. Further information regarding the rule, including the ability to submit comments, can be accessed at http://www.osmre.gov/.

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White House Edits Warming Testimony

In remarks before a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing exploring the human health impacts of global warming, Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) stated, “Leading scientists are telling us that we will have more extreme weather events…as the planet warms, and that is very likely to affect our health. Global warming…may contribute to an increase in waterborne diseases, including cholera.” The committee then received testimony from witnesses representing various public health agencies. Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was one of the witnesses.

On 24 October, the day after the hearing, the Associated Press reported that an anonymous CDC official had declared that Gerberding’s original testimony was “eviscerated” by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Her OMB-approved testimony neglected to address human health risks of global warming, such as heat-related injuries and injuries due to extreme weather events. Tom Skinner, CDC spokesman, downplayed the modifications, asserting that the director’s testimony and presence were “very productive.” However, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution posted the original testimony to their website. From this, it is clear that several pages of the testimony were omitted from the final version.

“The White House continues to say that science should guide us on global warming legislation. The Director of the Centers for Disease Control is one of the country’s leading voices on public health. The Administration should immediately release Dr. Gerberding’s full, uncut statement, because the public has a right to know all the facts about the serious threats posed by global warming,” said Senator Boxer.

House Committee on Science and Technology chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) followed Senator Boxer’s comments and called for the White House to release documents related to the edited testimony.

Quickly criticizing the chairmen for their approach was Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight ranking Republican, F. James Sensenbrenner (WI). In a statement, Sensenbrenner quoted Gerberding, “I was absolutely happy with my testimony in Congress. We finally had a chance to go and say what we thought was important.” According to Sensenbrenner’s press release, the Associated Press quoted Gerberding as saying. “I don’t let people put words in my mouth, and I stand for science,” she added.

This is the not the first time the White House has been accused of interfering with public health issues. The most recent concerns arose last July, when former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the Bush Administration had habitually blocked him from issuing reports on various sensitive public health topics. “Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried,” said Carmona.

For more information about the hearing on politicization of the Surgeon General, please visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20070724.html#003836

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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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