On 23 April 2008 the House of Representatives passed HR 5819, legislation to re-authorize the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. These federal programs support the development and commercialization of innovative technologies by small high-tech companies, and are administered through the Small Business Administration. Funding for SBIR and STTR is derived from mandatory set-asides in the research budgets of the 11 federal agencies that spend more than $100 million on extramural research, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health.
HR 5819 initially proposed to increase SBIR’s set-aside from 2.5 to 3.0 percent and STTR’s set-aside from 0.3 to 0.6 percent, a 20 and 100 percent increase, respectively. The proposed levels (3.0 and 0.6) would have collectively removed $650 million from federal agency extramural research funds. For NSF, an additional $28.9 million would have been shifted from research accounts to the SBIR and STTR programs.
AIBS and other academic and scientific organizations, including the Association of American Universities, the American Association of Medical Colleges, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, expressed serious concern about the impact the proposed increases would have on the ability of agencies to fund research. In a letter to Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), AIBS wrote, “Given that the NSF budget is not growing (in constant dollars), the SBIR/STTR set-asides could result in decreased funding to core programs at NSF, including the Biological Sciences Directorate.”
Higher education and scientific organizations were not alone in their concern. In remarks on the House floor, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) expressed his concern for the negative impacts the legislation would have on the NIH research portfolio.
Representative Ehlers introduced an amendment to remove the proposed increases and while maintaining the current percentages. In remarks during debate on his amendment, Representative Ehlers explained, “My concern and my purpose behind my amendment is to make sure that we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul. If we increase the SBIR and STTR program percentages while other agency’s funding remains flat, we begin to severely erode our fundamental research base. I would much rather see us fight over extra funding for our basic research programs, our fundamental research programs, of which a percentage would then transfer into SBIR and STTR.”
The House adopted Ehlers’ amendment by voice vote, and passed HR 5819 with a bipartisan majority of 368-43.
On 24 April 2008 the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) unanimously rejected an application from the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research (ICR) to grant graduate degrees in science education. ICR, like Answers in Genesis, espouses Young-Earth Creationism, a literal view of the Bible that contends the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. ICR sought approval from the THECB to begin offering degrees immediately while waiting for accreditation from the state-recognized Southern Association of Schools and Colleges.
This decision was a reversal from December 2007 when the Certification Advisory Council of the THECB preliminarily recommended that ICR be allowed to offer on-line Master’s degrees in science education. This recommendation was soundly criticized by science and education experts, including a letter from 2007 AIBS president Douglas J. Futuyma (see http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20071228aibsletterto5.html).
In response to the concerns raised by the scientific and education communities, THECB Commissioner Raymund Paredes appointed a second committee of scientists and science educators to re-evaluate the ICR. Paredes requested ICR to supply more specific information on its online learning program, science curriculum, and faculty research. The entire THECB was initially scheduled to vote on the ICR request on 23 January 2008, but ICR asked for an extension to address Paredes’ concerns; the vote was postponed until 24 April 2008.
The day before the THECB vote, the Academic Excellence and Research Committee heard public comments from 10 people, including Steve Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science; the majority of the speakers, like Schafersman, urged the committee to reject ICR’s request. THECB Commissioner Paredes agreed and recommended a denial of the ICR proposal. According to an article from the 23 April 2008 Dallas Morning News, Paredes said, “Evolution is such a fundamental principle of contemporary science it is hard to imagine how you could cover the various fields of science without giving it [evolution] the proper attention it deserves as a foundation of science.” He continued, “Religious belief is not science. Science and religious belief are surely reconcilable, but they are not the same thing.”
Henry Morris III, chief executive officer of the ICR, indicated that his organization will appeal the decision within 45 days and may pursue legal action in the Texas courts.
The AIBS Public Policy Office recently provided testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations in support of increased fiscal year (FY) 2009 funding for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
AIBS encouraged Congress to provide at least $646.5 million for the EPA Office of Research and Development, $181 million for human health and ecosystem research, and support for other biological research programs, many of which have experienced declining budgets since FY 2004.
Visit http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/ to view this testimony as well as other policy statements and correspondence.
The Louisiana State Senate Education Committee passed an altered version of the “Louisiana Academic Freedom Act” (SB 561) on 17 April 2008. The original measure, sponsored by state Senator Ben Nevers (D-District 12), was considered by education experts to be “stealth” creationism legislation. Science education advocates noted that SB 561 was intended to create questions that do not exist around evolution and climate change. The legislation’s language, as introduced, was rooted in the policy passed by the Ouachita Parish School Board in 2006 that protects teachers who want to “teach the controversy” about evolution.
Many witnesses appeared before the Education Committee, including bill opponent and LSU scientist William Hansel. As reported in the 18 April Baton Rouge Advocate, Hansel told the committee, “Time spent studying creationism will be at the expense of time spent on teaching language skills and basic science.” He said passage of the legislation “will be seized upon as one more piece of evidence that Louisiana is a backward state by those who have popularized this image of our state.”
Prior to unanimously passing the measure, the Committee renumbered (SB 733), renamed (“Louisiana Science Education Act”), and “sanitized” the bill by removing “strengths and weaknesses” language and the list of specific scientific topics. The bill awaits action in the full Senate while critics remain concerned given the bill’s creationist antecedents.
In the House of Representatives, HB 1168, also named the “Louisiana Academic Freedom Act,” was introduced on 21 April 2008. Considered a counterpart to the original SB 561, HB 1168 was sponsored by Frank A. Hoffman (R-District 15), former superintendent of the Ouachita Parish School System.
The American Fisheries Society (AFS) adopted a resolution on 4 September 2007 concerning the teaching of alternatives to evolution in public school science classes. The resolution “affirms that the theory of evolution is the only current scientific explanation for the diversity of life on earth for inclusion in the science curricula of public schools.”
To read the entire AFS statement, please visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/teaching_evolution.html
The National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences recently released a report indicating that the overall unemployment rate of scientists and engineers in the United States declined from 3.2 percent in 2003 to 2.5 percent in 2006. Unemployment rates for the entire U.S. workforce were 6.0 percent in 2003 and 4.7 percent in 2006. The report also stated that the total number of scientists and engineers in the US increased by nearly 1 million between 2003 and 2006. During this period, the unemployment rate for the broad category of biological scientists decreased by 0.3 percent, from 2.4 percent to 2.1 percent. Diverging from the overall trend, however, were environmental life scientists for whom the unemployment rate increased by 1 percent. Within the broad category of biology, agricultural scientists saw a marked improvement in employment with a 2006 unemployment rate of 1 percent; roughly 4.4 percent better than the 2003 number.
The outcome for social scientists was also less bright during the 2003 to 2006 period. During this time, there was a 2.6 percent increase (not statistically significant) for economists and a 4 percent increase among political scientists.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conducted an online survey of roughly 1,600 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff scientists. More than half (889) of those scientists reported political interference and pressure from supervisors to distort their findings. The UCS survey was sent to 5,500 EPA scientists across the country.
UCS has previously conducted similar surveys of scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as climate scientists at seven agencies.
“Nearly 900 EPA scientists reported political interference in their scientific work. Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health, and our democracy itself,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program.
Thirty-one percent of 1,586 scientists who responded stated they personally experienced recurrent or occasional “statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists’ findings.” The UCS press release states, “Nearly 100 scientists identified the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the primary culprit.” The report referred to comments made by respondents regarding OMB’s interference.
The Soil Science Society of America is seeking input on research priorities for the coming decade. SSSA is collecting responses to an online survey that will help guide priority setting. Interested scientists are encouraged to participate in the survey by going to http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/survey-intro.zgi?p=WEB227QJZN76FX.
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
Evolution, climate change, stem cell research — Scientists are frequently called upon to provide expert information on hot button issues that pervade the daily news headlines, yet most find themselves woefully unprepared for the bright lights of the television studio or leading questions from a newspaper journalist. A new publication from AIBS, “Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media,” by Holly Menninger and Robert Gropp in the Public Policy Office, will prepare scientists for successful and effective media interviews.
Recognizing that many scientists are reluctant to engage in media outreach, “Communicating Science” outlines compelling reasons for scientists to interact with the media and describes key differences between journalism and science that may not be apparent to practicing scientists. Step-by-step, Menninger and Gropp walk scientists through the entire interview process - from appropriate questions to ask when a reporter calls to practical advice for looking and sounding one’s best on-air or on-camera.
The information and advice in “Communicating Science” is presented in eight easy-to-read chapters that provide vital information for scientists new to media outreach, as well as a quick refresher for seasoned experts - an ideal text for a graduate course on science communication or a professional development course for students and faculty. The primer’s authors speak from their own experiences as PhD scientists in the biological sciences with years of experience in media outreach.
The concise, user-friendly volume has several unique features that set it apart from other media guides for scientists. “Communicating Science” includes first-person interviews with nearly a dozen scientists who have successfully navigated print, radio, and television interviews. The scientists-including the “Island Snake Lady,” Kristin Stanford, recently featured on the Discovery Channel show, “Dirty Jobs” - share advice and experiences on a number of topics, including safely speaking on behalf of an organization, avoiding trouble when discussing socially or politically controversial topics, and reflections on first interviews.
“Communicating Science” also provides worksheets to assist readers with interview preparation: building a message framework with talking points and transition phrases, developing analogies, and using illustrative props or images. It includes pages for readers to organize contact information of journalists with whom they have worked directly and those who have reported on stories related to their own research to keep as potential contacts for future story pitches.