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Public Policy Report for 14 April 2008

Evolution, Science Education Still Under Attack

As recent state-level legislative attacks on the integrity of science clearly illustrate, advocates for creationism/intelligent design and similar religious viewpoints are now actively pursuing “academic freedom” initiatives across the southern United States. Despite a recent setback in Oklahoma, where a broad cross-section of academic, business, and religious leaders beat back an “academic freedom” initiative, several similar initiatives have surfaced in other state legislatures.

In Oklahoma, the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” (HB 2211) died in the State Senate Rules Committee on 2 April. This legislation, similar to a measure in Texas, would have allowed non-scientific concepts, such as creationism and intelligent design, to be taught as though they represent accepted scientific principles and would have required teachers to accept non-scientific explanations for natural phenomena in class assignments. Science education advocates in Oklahoma reported that the Rules Committee received a large number of letters and calls opposing the measure, including a letter from AIBS (www.aibs.org/position-statements/).

In Louisiana, the Senate Education Committee will consider the “Louisiana Academic Freedom Act” (SB 561) on 17 April. The measure, sponsored by state Senator Ben Nevers (D, 12th district), is considered by education experts to be “stealth” creationism legislation. Nevers has previously sought methods to introduce creationism into the science classroom. The intent of SB 561 is to create questions that do not scientifically exist around issues like evolution and climate change. Language in the bill emphasizes controversy and critical analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of these well-accepted scientific concepts.

The legislation’s language is rooted in the policy passed by the Ouachita Parish School Board in 2006 that protects teachers who want to “teach the controversy” about evolution. The policy was written by an associate of the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), an organization that continues to solicit other local school districts to adopt the policy. Regular Policy Report readers will also recall that the LFF was the intended recipient of a controversial $100,000 earmark “to develop a plan to promote better science education” by United States Senator David Vitter (R-LA). A coalition of concerned organizations, including AIBS, joined forces to oppose the earmark which Vitter eventually withdrew. http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20071029.html#004207

In Florida, the “Evolution Academic Freedom Act” (HB 1483, SB 2692) is moving swiftly through the state legislature despite criticism and protests from teachers, scientists, the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and staff for the Florida legislature. These legislative initiatives were introduced in response to the new state science standards approved by the Florida State Board of Education in February that include the term “evolution.” If passed, the legislation would “protect the right of teachers to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.” Science education advocates argue that the legislation would allow teachers with narrow religious agendas to “teach the controversy” when it comes to evolution, presenting ideas like creationism and “intelligent design” as if they were science. Like other “academic freedom” bills, the proposed Florida legislation would also protect students who provide non-scientific explanations for natural phenomena in class assignments.

Staff with the Florida legislature have raised concerns that the measures address a non-existent problem; in fact, a report to one Senate committee stated, “According to the Department of Education, there has never been a case in Florida where a public school teacher or public school student has claimed that they have been discriminated against based on their science teaching or science course work.”

The measures have been reviewed, amended, and approved by 2 Senate Committees (Education Pre-K-12 Committee; Judiciary Committee) and the House’s School and Learning Council. They now await second readings in both houses.

In response to these developments, the Florida Citizens for Science and a coalition of science organizations have organized a press conference and roundtable discussion today (14 April 2008) to highlight the threats HB 1483 and SB 2692 pose to the science curriculum in Florida’s public schools (http://www.flascience.org/wp/?p=535).

In Missouri, Representative Robert Wayne Cooper (R-District 155) introduced HB 2554, an act “relating to teacher academic freedom to teach scientific evidence regarding evolution.” The legislation is full of similar and suspicious rhetoric used in the other “academic freedom” bills – including an emphasis on the critical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of evolution. In 2004, state Representative Cooper sponsored HB 911 and HB 1722, unsuccessful legislation that called for equal time for “intelligent design” in Missouri’s schools.

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Congressional Support for NSF Funding

Nearly 200 Members of Congress participated in a bipartisan and bicameral effort to ensure that the National Science Foundation (NSF) does not become a budgetary casualty in the appropriations process for fiscal year (FY) 2009.

Representatives Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), Rush Holt (D-NJ), Bob Inglis (R-SC), and Brian Baird (D-WA) circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to each member of the House of Representatives asking for their signature on a letter requesting that the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Appropriations subcommittee make NSF a priority in the FY 2009 appropriations process. One-hundred-thirty-five representatives signed the Dear Colleague letter, a common tool used by members of Congress to demonstrate support for specific federal programs. The letter requested that the CJS Appropriations Subcommittee restore NSF to a budget-doubling pathway as outlined in the America COMPETES Act by providing NSF with $7.326 billion in the FY 2009 appropriation. The President’s FY 2009 request is $6.854 billion.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, 47 senators signed a “Dear Colleague” letter circulated by Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Kit Bond (R-MO). The Lieberman-Bond letter asked the Senate CJS Appropriations Subcommittee support NSF by providing at least the President’s FY 2009 request of $6.85 billion.

This week, House and Senate leaders will meet and continue negotiations towards a final budget resolution for FY 2009. This resolution would establish spending levels and rules under which the appropriations process will take place. Meanwhile, the twelve Appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate will continue to hold hearings on FY 2009 appropriations for programs under their jurisdiction. Lawmakers are also discussing FY 2008 supplemental funding legislation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and some domestic programs.

For more detailed information about the federal budget and appropriations process, please visit: http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/budget_source.html

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Biologists Visit Lawmakers, Advocate Greater Investment in Research

Nearly 40 scientists and graduate students were in Washington, DC, 8-9 April, to participate in a congressional visits event cosponsored by the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) and the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions (CoFARM). Formed in 2002, BESC is co-chaired by AIBS and the Ecological Society of America. CoFARM, founded in 1990, is a coalition united by a commitment to advance and sustain investment in our nation’s fundamental and applied agricultural research.

The two-day event began with a briefing by senior members of the science policy community. The briefing provided participants with an insider’s view of the federal budget for research and development. After the briefing, participants traveled to Capitol Hill to attend the BESC/CoFARM Capitol Hill Reception. The Reception has become an annual event that recognizes the key members of Congress who have been champions for biological and agricultural research. This year, BESC and CoFARM recognized Representatives Brian Baird (D-WA) and Brian Bilbray (R-CA).

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Climate Hearings Focus on Public Health

As part of National Public Health Week, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing on 10 April to explore the effects of climate change on public health. Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) opened the hearing by stating, “Leading scientists from across the globe have studied climate change and know that our health is at risk. Extreme weather events will become more common and more severe in the future.” Chairman Kennedy continued by affirming that discussions regarding public health should be central in climate change planning.

Also in conjunction with National Public Health Week, Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Bernard Sanders (I-VT) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced a resolution highlighting the connection between climate change and human health.

The Senate hearing followed one by the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, also intended to discuss effects of climate change on human health. Howard Frumkin, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., Director of the National Center for Environmental Health, testified, “To the science, there is strong evidence the carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas … and that there is strong evidence that climate change affects public health in many ways.” He gave a summary of the health impacts of global warming, including an increase of food-borne and waterborne infectious diseases and migration into new areas of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus, malaria or dengue fever as seasonal patterns change. “Over the next few decades in the United States, climate change is likely to have a significant impact on health,” said Dr. Frumkin.

The connection between climate change and public health will be discussed at the AIBS Annual Meeting entitled, “Climate, Environment, and Infectious Diseases” to be held 12 – 13 May in Arlington, VA, where Dr. Frumkin will be one of the plenary speakers, along with Dr. James Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other leading experts on the subject. For more information about the 2008 AIBS annual meeting, please visit http://www.aibs.org/annual-meeting/annualmeeting2008.html.

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New in BioScience: "Political Science"

In the April 2008 Washington Watch article in BioScience, Megan Kelhart reports on politicization of science and recent efforts to convene a presidential debate on science.

An excerpt from the article follows:

Whether in response to the “politicization” of science, or simply to ensure that public policy is informed by science, many scientists are mobilizing and becoming more active in the public policy arena. Whatever the reason, science is more prominent in the 2008 race for the presidency than it has been in other races. In December 2007, a grassroots group called Science Debate 2008 issued a public call for a presidential debate on science.

Supporters of Science Debate 2008 argue that science should be a central theme in the presidential election because the important scientific challenges facing the United States call for precise, unbiased scientific data to support policy decisions, and because the country needs to encourage scientific and technological innovation to stay competitive in the global marketplace. Others maintain that although presidential nominees should discuss climate change and energy policy, those issues are more political than scientific.

In an interview on 11 January with Ira Flatow…

To continue reading this article for free, please go to http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2008_04.html

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