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Public Policy Report for 2 February 2009

Report Outlines Status of Federal Science Collections

The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) has issued a report stressing the benefits of maintaining object-based collections for scientific research purposes. The long-awaited report is based on the results of a survey on the status of federal scientific collections. The report was compiled by the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections (IWGSC) and includes recommendations on the future management of the nation’s scientific collections.

The survey was conducted online between June 2006 and September 2007 and garnered 153 responses from fourteen government agencies reflecting a total of 291 federal scientific collections. Collections were classified into one of ten categories with cellular (22%), geological (21%), paleontology (14%), vertebrate (12%), botanical (11%), and invertebrate (10%) being the most common. The primary use of federal scientific collections is basic research, a use category selected by 84% of respondents. The majority of collections were reported as growing in size (78%). Although most respondents (78%) reported the condition of their collections as “good” or “very good”, more than half also stated that a condition survey of their collection has never been performed and a complete condition assessment has been done by only 12% of collections. A lack of collection assessment can be at least partially explained by funding and staff trends. A large number (41%) of respondents stated that funds for collection care and management are not specifically allocated by their agencies and only 27% reported budget line-items dedicated to collection maintenance and management. In addition, dwindling numbers of collection support staff were cited by 40% of respondents.

The IWGSC found that while federal collections are generally accessible for use in scientific research, serious shortfalls remain with the development of collection databases, availability of collection contents on the internet, and the formal establishment of collection policies. The majority of respondents (78%) reported that more than half of their collections are accessible for scientific research and other uses. While 68% of collections have more than half their specimen data cataloged, only 27% have their entire collection cataloged and a mere 16% have all their specimen information in a computerized database. A scant 14% have more than half of their collection specimen data available on the internet, making it more difficult for scientists to be aware of federal specimens that relate to their research. Lastly, 28% of respondents stated that they have no formal policies that govern the management of their collection. Over 50% reported that they do not have approved policies dealing with documentation, acquisition, access and use, preservation, disposal, handling, and security of their collections.

The IWGSC recommends that costs of managing and maintaining collections be included in the budgets of agencies that possess them. They suggest that catalogs, indexes, and online databases of federal collections be further developed with the added goal of compatibility of databases between agencies. The working group also suggests that those managing collections improve the inter-agency exchange of information and documents relating to policies, procedure, and best practices so that existing protocols may serve as blueprints for others with underdeveloped policies. Lastly, the IWGSC suggests that periodic review of the status and condition of federal scientific collections be conducted and that the IWGSC should remain in function past its current March 2009 deadline to carry out these recommendations.

The complete report on federal scientific collections is available online at: http://www.ostp.gov/galleries/NSTC%20Reports/Revision1-2209_CL.pdf

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New NRC Report Identifies Opportunities for Biology

The National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC) has released a prepublication copy of “The Role of Life Sciences in Transforming America’s Future: Summary of a Workshop.” This report, funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation was prepared by the NRC’s Committee on a New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution.

This 32-page report may be viewed and downloaded for free at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12592.html.

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Stimulus Package Passes House

The House of Representatives approved their version of the $819 billion stimulus package on 28 January 2009. The vote, 244-188, was mostly along party lines, with all Republicans, and 11 Democrats voting against the bill.

At this point, the House package includes an estimated $544 billion in federal spending as well as $275 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses, much of which would go towards transportation and other infrastructure. An estimated $13 billion would also be dedicated towards science, much of which would go towards facilities improvements and other “shovel-ready stimulus projects.

A mammoth $888 billion stimulus bill shifts to the Senate, which is expected to bring it to the floor next week. Obama has said that he would like to get 80 votes on the bill, though he will presumably settle for fewer. Democrats believe they can rely on 58 votes, from the 56 Senate democrats and two independents, however, this is short of the number required to block a filibuster. Republican senators, like their counterparts in the House of Representatives, argue that the bill includes too much spending, and too few tax cuts. Nevertheless, senators on both sides of the aisle agree that some sort of economic stimulus package will be passed in the near future.

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Texas Board of Education Rejects Creationist Phrasing in State Science Standards

On 21 January 2009 the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) began a two-day hearing on proposed changes in wording to the state science standards. The revised standards being considered did not include controversial “strengths and weaknesses” language. An amendment before the Board that would have restored this language failed (7-7 vote). The removal of this language is a victory for science education advocates in Texas.

Testifying at the Board meeting were several scientists, including Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Dr. David Hillis, professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas-Austin, Dr. Arturo DeLozanne, professor of cell biology at UT-Austin, Dr. Ronald Worthington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University, and Dr. Gerald Skoog, professor in the College of Education at Texas Tech. Evolution opponents included a representative of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based organization that promotes intelligent design/creationism.

The battle is not over, however. The SBOE considered a flurry of amendments on the second day of the meeting. These amendments are intended to weaken the teaching of evolution; for example, one successful revision required that students “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.” The phrase “sudden appearance” is well-established as a creationist catchphrase. On the third day of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to adopt the standards as approved the previous day. The vote however is only preliminary, with a final vote on the standards expected at the Board’s 26-27 March meeting.

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Science Committee to Investigate Bush Appointees

The transition of political appointees to permanent civil servant positions, a process known as “burrowing”, is a typical practice in the waning days of any presidential administration. However, many congressional Democrats are concerned with the number of Bush administration appointees that have received career positions, particularly in science agencies, where they can potentially politicize the decisions made by those agencies. Gary Bass, executive director at OMB Watch, explains why the practice of burrowing is problematic, “Civil service is supposed to be neutral, and it’s supposed to do its work regardless of what administration is in power.”

According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, since 1 March 2008 at least 20 Bush political appointees have secured career civil servant posts. These include Kathie Olsen, Todd Harding, Jeffrey T. Salmon, and Erik Akers; all Bush appointees who have received career positions at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Office of Science, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), respectively. There is concern that some political appointees who have secured positions in scientific agencies are under-qualified for the job duties and were selected at the expense of more suited applicants. For example, Todd Harding is a 30-year-old political appointee with a bachelor’s degree in government who has stated he will be working on “space-based science using satellites for geostationary and meteorological data” at NOAA.

In a 16 January 2009 memorandum to the National Science Foundation, NSF director Arden Bement announced that Dr. Kathie Olsen, an August 2005 Bush appointee to the NSF position of Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer, was reassigned to the position of Senior Advisor in the Office of Information and Resource Management. In this capacity, the memo states that Olsen will be involved in activities such as “strengthening merit review and interdisciplinary research processes, workforce planning, Program Officer training and development, and succession planning.” Dr. Cora Marrett will replace Dr. Olsen as Acting Deputy Director.

To address burrowing concerns, the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight has announced that it will conduct an investigation to determine if Bush political appointees who have transitioned to career civil servant positions are politicizing scientific decisions. Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) is the chair of the subcommittee that will lead the investigation.

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Gore Testifies Before Senate on Climate Change

On 28 January 2009, former Vice President Al Gore testified before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on what needs to be achieved in Congress prior to a United Nations meeting on climate change in December 2009. Gore’s testimony included an updated version of his famous slideshow on the evidence for and perilous impacts of global climate change. Gore also offered suggestions for Congress on what needs to be accomplished prior to the Copenhagen meetings if the United States wants respect from other countries during the treaty negotiations: pass President Obama’s stimulus package and institute a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions later this year. When questioned how Americans could afford to reduce global warming gases during an economic crisis, Gore responded “It may be a classic turn of phrase, but I think the better question is, ‘How can we afford not to do this?’” He also stated that, “The solutions to the climate crisis are the very same solutions that will address our economic and national security crises as well.”

The Committee’s ranking Republican, Richard Lugar (IN), asked Gore why the Senate should approve whatever agreement comes out of the Copenhagen negotiations when over a decade ago they voted unanimously against the Kyoto Protocol. Gore replied that the political climate is different now then it was at the time of the Kyoto vote. Developing counties such as Brazil, China, and Indonesia “that were once reluctant to join in the first phases of a global response to the climate crisis have themselves now become leaders in demanding action and taking bold steps on their own initiatives,” he said. The former Vice President added that the scientific consensus has solidified to an extent that wasn’t present in the early 1990’s. Gore stated, “The scientists are practically screaming from the rooftops.”

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Interior Could Receive $50 Million to Mitigate Environmental Problems with US-Mexico Border Fence

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) have signed an agreement that will allocate up to $50 million to projects selected by DOI to mitigate environmental damage done by the construction of the border fence along the border between the United States and Mexico. Funding for the mitigation projects would come from the 2009 Border Security, Fencing, Infrastructure and Technology appropriation to the DHS’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. The Department of Interior, if provided with sufficient funding from CBP, would be responsible for implementing the selected mitigation projects.

“Our biologists and land managers have examined the expected impacts from these projects and proposed a range of mitigation measures,” said the Deputy Secretary of Interior Lynn Scarlett, “This Memorandum of Agreement will allow them to implement these actions.” The DOI is required to submit a list of prioritized projects to CBP by the 1 June 2009 to receive funding.

Matt Clark, southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife commented on the agreement, “It demonstrates goodwill on the part of both agencies… We see this as a down payment; $50 million will not come close to fixing the damage caused by the wall. Some of these impacts may not be able to be offset.”

Construction of a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico was mandated by the Secure Fence Act passed by Congress in 2006. In April 2008, then Secretary of DHS, Michael Chertoff, used the power vested in him under the REAL ID Act of 2005 to waive a suite of state and federal environmental regulations and expedite fence construction. Numerous lawsuits filed by environmental advocates followed, but none have been effective in halting fence construction.

The list of environmental harm inflicted by fence construction continues to grow. In the San Diego sector of the fence, creation of a towering earthen berm is expected to increase the flow of sediment into the Tijuana River estuary. Over the last several decades, the estuary has been the site of a massive restoration effort funded by the state of California. If fence construction continues as proposed in the Rio Grande Valley wildlife corridor south of Brownsville Texas, the Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve will be bisected by the border wall, destroying part of the preserve and making access and management of land between the fence and the river nearly impossible. Nearby, the Audubon Society’s Sabal Palm Center is faced with closure as the preserve will be completely south of the fence, but north of the border. Along the length of the border, many organisms with populations in both the U.S. and Mexico will no longer be able to inter-breed which prevents gene flow and makes species more vulnerable to the effects of small population size. Critics of the fence, including Jim Peugh, conservation chair of the San Diego Audubon Society, note that it would have been smarter and more cost-effective to address environmental concerns while the fence was being designed.

The new DHS Secretary, Janet Napolitano, repeatedly criticized the fence project while governor of Arizona. Napolitano has stated, “Show me a 15-foot-high fence, and I’ll show you a 16-foot-high ladder.” Whether Secretary Napolitano will push for a change in the current border policy remains to be seen.

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New in Bioscience -- "On Moral Grounds: Bioethics Training for Scientists"

In the Washington Watch article in the February issue of BioScience, Natalie Dawson explores the status of ethics training for biological scientists. An excerpt from the article follows:

The philosophical exploration of ethical concerns in the life sciences—“bioethics”—has focused largely on research protocols involving research subjects in medical studies. Now, however, the application of biotechnology to environmental problems is triggering ethical questions.

Today’s scientists confront this question: “Can an understanding of climatic processes associated with global warming help us understand the sociological implications of how humans relate to the natural world?” They must also deal with other such questions that are outside the traditional framework of human/medical bioethics but pertinent to the growing interdisciplinary applications of the natural sciences to the solution of environmental problems. Holmes Rolston, at Colorado State University, says buzzwords in bioethics now include “sustainability, biodiversity, global warming, and intrinsic values in nature.” What are the implications of these and other topics for training scientists in contemporary ethics for research outside human health and medical programs?

To continue reading this and previous Washington Watch articles online for free, please go to http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/

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Graduate Student Opportunity: 2009 Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS, www.aibs.org) is pleased to announce that applications are being accepted for the 2009 AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award (EPPLA). The EPPLA program enables graduate students in the biological sciences to receive first-hand experience in the science policy arena.

Recipients receive:

  • A trip to Washington, DC, during spring 2009 to participate in a Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) Congressional Visits Day (target dates are 21-22 April 2009). The BESC CVD is an annual event that brings scientists to Washington, DC, to advocate for federal funding for the biological sciences.

  • The EPPLA will attend briefings by key officials from the White House and Congress and a Capitol Hill reception honoring a member of Congress.

  • The EPPLA will meet with their Representative and Senators.

  • A certificate and 1-year AIBS membership, including subscription to BioScience and a copy of Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media.

For application details and requirements, go to: http://www.aibs.org/announcements/081031aibsacceptingapplications2009.html

Applications must be received by 5:00 PM eastern, 6 February 2009.

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Now In the AIBS Webstore: "Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media"

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.

“Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media” is available now in the AIBS Webstore.

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