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Public Policy Report for 17 February 2009

Stimulus, Science, and Museums

The fiscal stimulus package, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has been at the forefront of the news for several weeks, and finally on 13 February 2009, the legislation was passed by Congress and sent to the President. President Obama is scheduled to sign the $787.2 billion package into law today, 17 February, at a ceremony at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Following House passage of legislation, the Senate began work on its version of legislation. Among the large number of amendments proposed in the Senate was one by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (Senate Amendment No. 309), the so-called Coburn amendment. This proposal would have prohibited funds in the stimulus package from being provided to museums, zoos, aquariums, and golf courses, and for several specific activities. If included in the final law, the Coburn amendment would have prohibited museums, including natural science collections, from even competing for funds.

Concerned by the precedent the Coburn amendment would set, science and museum groups quickly mobilized to oppose the amendment. For example, the Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSC Alliance) wrote to Senators urging them to oppose the Coburn amendment, requested that museum advocates call Congress, and requested that the House-Senate conferees and leadership work to remove the limiting language of the Coburn amendment form the final legislation. AIBS issued an Action Alert requesting that members contact Congress to request that members oppose the Coburn amendment and support a plan to ensure that funding for various science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, not be stripped from the final legislation.

During a remarkably quick conference between the House and the Senate, compromise legislation was adopted. The final $787 billion compromise legislation was significantly smaller than the $819 billion House bill and the $838 billion Senate bill. The compromise legislation was approved by each chamber on 13 February 2009. The House of Representatives passed it by a largely party-line vote of 246-183, with all Republicans and 7 Democrats voting against the bill. The Senate passed the measure with 60 votes, which included three Republican Senators — Olympia Snowe (ME), Susan Collins (ME), and Arlen Specter (PA).

Although the Coburn amendment was adopted by the Senate, congressional leaders listened to scientists and museum advocates and the final version of the stimulus legislation no longer prohibits museums from receiving or competing for funds provided via the stimulus. Overall, the final bill includes funding for scientific research and development. Early analysis suggests that $176 million will go to the Agricultural Research Service, $830 million to NOAA, $2.5 billion to NSF, and $140 million for the US Geological Survey. The National Institutes of Health will receive $10.4 billion.

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Holdren, Lubchenco Confirmation Hearings Held

A confirmation hearing for Dr. John Holdren and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, nominees for top science positions in the Obama Administration, was held by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on 12 February 2009. The hearing nature of the hearing suggests that both nominees should easily be confirmed by the Senate. Indeed, members for both sides of the aisle praised Holdren and Lubchenco.

Dr. John Holdren, a physicist at Harvard University, is nominated to be Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. If confirmed, Holdren would serve as the President’s top science advisor. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, is nominated to be Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for studying and managing our Nation’s oceans, coasts, Great Lakes, and atmosphere.

A central theme during the hearing was the need to have science incform complex policy decisions on climate change, fisheries management, and space missions. Scientific integrity and funding for research were issues discussed by several Senators. Holdren and Lubchenco both testified about the value of fundamental research. Other issues that were highlighted at the hearing include:

  • Expanding the role of the National Climate Service;
  • Revival of the National Space Council;
  • Restraining pursuit of aquaculture in federal waters until research is conducted to ensure the sustainability of such facilities and safety to wild fisheries;
  • Researching treatment options for controlling the spread of invasive species from ballast water discharged from ships;
  • Increasing government resources in the Arctic to respond to oil spills; and,
  • Conducting more basic research on weather prediction and mitigation.

Chairman Rockefeller conveyed the importance of confirming Holdren and Lubchenco quickly. “Speed is important here,” Rockefeller said. The Senate will likely confirm the nominees next week, after the President’s Day recess.

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Obama Plans Increased Oversight of 2010 Census

The President’s recent decision to increase oversight of the Census Bureau may help to stem billions of dollars in cost overruns from the troubled agency, freeing funding for other agencies in the Department of Commerce. Under the President’s new plan, the director of the Census Bureau would not only report to the Secretary of Commerce, but would also work directly with senior White House aides.

Cost overruns on the order of $7 to $8 billion in the 2010 Census have jeopardized the budgets of other agencies in the Department of Commerce, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In April, former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez proposed reprogramming up to $232 million within the Department of Commerce budget to compensate for budget shortfalls in the Census Bureau. NOAA would have lost $27 million from their 2008 budget under this proposal, which Congress did not approve.

Despite the injection of $210 million in funding in the Supplemental Appropriations Act in June and an additional $1 billion expected in the economic stimulus package, the 2010 Census may still be several billion short. This creates a situation where NOAA’s budget may be in jeopardy once again. More oversight of the 2010 Census by the Administration could help to stem cost overruns within the program and could relieve pressure from the budgets’ of other agencies within the Department of Commerce.

The President’s decision has been criticized by some Republicans. Representatives Issa (R-CA) and McHenry (R-NC) of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform called the plan “a shamefully transparent attempt by [the Obama] administration to politicize the Census Bureau and manipulate the 2010 Census.”

According to the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, the 2010 Census has been plagued by myriad of problems, including huge cost overruns, faulty technology, inadequate planning, and a lack of oversight of government contractors. The 2010 Census is on track to cost $13.7 to $14.5 billion, more than double the cost of the 2000 Census.

The U.S. Constitution mandates that a count of the U.S. population is conducted at least every 10 years in order to redistribute the number of representatives for each state in the House of Representatives.

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House Members Introduce Energy Legislation

The House of Representatives Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was established in 2007 by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in response to the threat of global warming. The work of this committee is of interest to the science community because their hearings and policy recommendations include subjects such as climate change, green economies, endangered species, and biodiversity. On 10 February 2009 three new members were named to the committee for the 111th Congress. These new members include Representative John Salazar (D-CO), Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), and representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). Currently Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) are chairman and ranking minority member of the committee, respectively.

In a bi-partisan effort to create jobs, save consumers money, and support the energy sector, Chairman Markey joined with Todd Platts (R-PA) to introduce the American Renewable Energy Act in the House. This legislation would set a renewable electricity standard, in order to ensure that America is generating a quarter of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2025. Markey also introduced the Save American Energy Act, which introduces an energy efficiency standard that reduces electricity demand by fifteen percent by 2020. Backers of the proposals argue that the two measures would create more than a half million jobs and save consumers more than $180 billion, and would help the United States reach President Obama’s stated goal of reducing electricity use by 15 percent by 2020.

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Senate Environment Committee Reorganizes

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has restructured its subcommittees to reflect priorities in the 111th Congress. The committee now includes seven subcommittees. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) will chair the Oversight Subcommittee, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is in charge of the Subcommittee on Children’s Health, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) will lead the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) will oversee the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) will head the Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, and Environmental Health, Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) will chair the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will head the Green Jobs and the New Economy Subcommittee.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairwoman of the full committee said that “a central focus of this Committee will be economic recovery and job creation.” Boxer also stated that the committee “will also continue our work on global warming legislation.” In addition, she stated that global warming and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) issues will be handled at the full committee level.

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking Republican on the committee, expressed his desire to see the committee address, including reauthorization of the highway bill, the Economic Development Administration (EDA), and the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). With respect to climate change legislation, Inhofe said “while I remain opposed to the regulation of CO2, I am committed to ensuring that any cap-and-trade proposal will protect workers and families from higher energy prices, will have realistic targets that reflect levels of reachable technology, and will be global in nature.”

Boxer and Inhofe also welcomed new members to the committee, including Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

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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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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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