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Public Policy Report for 26 October 2009

AIBS, Scientific Organizations Reaffirm Consensus on Climate Change

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) and other leading scientific organizations have reaffirmed the scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and is primarily caused by human activities. In a statement sent to all U.S. Senators on 21 October 2009, the presidents of 18 scientific organizations stated that “rigorous scientific research” demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the “primary driver” of climate change. “These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science,” the scientists wrote.

Dr. May Berenbaum, President of AIBS, signed the letter on behalf of the society. “The evidence that human activities contribute to global climate change is compellingly consistent and clear; constructive human activities to stem or reverse these changes are now urgently needed,” she said.

The letter called attention to the impacts of climate change on human society, the economy, and the environment. The “broad impacts” of climate change include sea level rise, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the United States. “[T]o avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced,” the letter stated. “In addition, adaptation will be necessary to address those impacts that are already unavoidable.”

The scientific organizations that sent the letter represent the breadth of the scientific community. Collectively, these organizations serve more than 10 million scientists. Ten AIBS member organizations have already signed the statement.

To read the complete statement, please visit http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20091021scientistsissu.html.

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Vote Online Today: AIBS Board Election Closes October 26

At the end of 2009, the following positions become vacant on the 13-person AIBS Board of Directors: (1) President-Elect, (2) Treasurer, and (3) one Board seat from the AIBS membership-at-large (Board elections from the Council of AIBS Member Societies and Organizations are also underway at this time via separate ballot). The President-Elect serves a one-year term and automatically succeeds to a one-year term as President, then a one-year term as Immediate Past-President. The Treasurer and other Board members serve three-year terms. The Nominating Committee has prepared the following slate for your attention and consideration. All terms start on 1 January 2010. AIBS thanks the candidates for their dedication and willingness to run for these volunteer positions. Biographical sketches and election statements prepared by the candidates are presented below. Polls close 5:00 pm Eastern DST, on October 26, 2009.

Please visit http://www.birenheide.com/aibs/aibsvote/ for details.

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New Evolution Hall to Open at Smithsonian

On 14 October 2009, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) announced the upcoming opening of a new Hall of Human Origins. The Hall, which will be dedicated to the discovery and understanding of human origins, is scheduled to open on 17 March 2010, a date that marks the 100-year anniversary of the museum’s opening. Along with the new Hall, the Smithsonian will launch a web site that will include a complete reproduction of the physical exhibition plus additional virtual interactive features.

The Hall is based on research findings from a broad initiative within the museum, “Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human?” This initiative tells the story of human evolution over 6 million years, and is based on years of ongoing research programs sponsored by more than 50 U.S. and international scientific research and education organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Museum of Kenya, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. More than 70 distinguished scientists and educators are collaborating with the initiative’s research, education and outreach programs.

Exhibitions will include 75 cast reproductions of human and hominid skulls, a reconstructed face of Sahelanthropus (one of the oldest known hominids), an exhibit on the human family tree, a bone bed displaying different kinds of fossil evidence, and a time tunnel showing different environments over the millennia. It will also contain fossils of early apes and humans, including fossil skulls from France’s renowned La Ferrassie cave, and an original Neanderthal skeleton from the Shanidar Cave in Iraq. The scientific conclusions about the newly-discovered Ardi will be in a section that includes the latest news and discoveries.

To assist with public engagement about the exhibition and to support dialogue about science and religion, a social impacts committee has been assembled. The committee is comprised of a diverse group of members from the science and religious communities. One upcoming public engagement event will be the 29 October 2009 premiere of a PBS NOVA three-part series entitled “Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors,” hosted at the NMNH.

More information about Smithsonian’s human origins initiative is available at http://humanorigins.si.edu/.

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Science Elevated Within National Park Service

The National Park Service (NPS) has appointed Dr. Gary Machlis to be the first Science Advisor to the Director. As Science Advisor, Machlis will play a key role in advancing science within NPS and advising the Director on science policy and programs. He will also help assure that the best science is used to address the complex challenges facing NPS.

Machlis received his Ph.D. in human ecology at Yale University and is a Professor of Conservation at the University of Idaho. He has served as the NPS Visiting Chief Social Scientist and as the National Coordinator of the Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (CESU) Network. Machlis has written several books on conservation and his recent research has been published in journals such as Conservation Biology and BioScience (published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences).

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Policy Makers Should Consider the Environmental Impacts of Biofuels

When considering the lifecycle impacts of biofuels, assessment of greenhouse gas emissions is not enough, according to two recent reports. According to the reports from the United Nations Environment Program and the U.S. Government Accountability Office a complete lifecycle analysis of environmental impacts of biofuels is necessary, including implications for air and water quality, water consumption, and wildlife habitat.

Under current U.S. law the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is only required to consider the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels. According to a renewable fuel standard mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, biofuels must contribute 20 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetime than petroleum fuels. Cellulosic biofuels would have to achieve a 60 percent reduction in emissions.

The collective environmental impacts of biofuels could extend well beyond their contribution to climate change, as reported in the October 2009 issue of BioScience. Joseph Fargione and colleagues consider the consequences of increasing bioenergy production on grassland wildlife in their article, “Bioenergy and Wildlife: Threats and Opportunities for Grassland Conservation.” As noted in the article, domestic production of bioenergy is expected to increase 740 percent between 2006 and 2022. The manner in which those fuels are produced will have large impacts on wildlife. The choice of crop type, plant diversity, fertilizer and pesticide use, harvest frequency, and other factors will greatly influence the value of habitat provided to wildlife in agricultural landscapes. Additionally, the loss of native and reclaimed prairie habitat for crop production could have dramatic impacts on grassland birds and mammals. The authors report that the loss of lands protected under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program in North and South Dakota alone would result in the loss of two million grassland birds of five species.

The protection of wildlife habitat during biofuel production could come at cost to carbon emissions, the authors report. Agricultural practices that spare native prairie may increase lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of the fuel by decreasing crop yield. Furthermore, increasing production of domestic biofuels could cause changes in land use internationally as other nations clear forests to grow crops to compensate for decreased U.S. exports. The EPA was criticized by some industry groups for considering these indirect carbon emissions in their draft renewable fuel standard released in May 2009. Pressure by lawmakers recently resulted in the EPA conceding to reflect the uncertainty of these emissions in their final rulemaking.

Fargione et al. provide several recommendations for producing bioenergy in a more sustainable manner. They recommend using biomass sources that are currently waste products in agriculture, forestry, or industry or using invasive species as sources of biomass. Algae, which would not require new agricultural lands, could also be cultivated. Additionally, the use of native prairie plants, such as switchgrass, grown in their naturally diverse stands, would preserve valuable wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, the domestic production of cellulosic biofuel is projected to fall far short of congressionally mandated production volumes in coming years. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a biotechnology advocacy organization, estimates that 12 million gallons will be produced next year, much less than the 100 million gallons mandated.

To read the UNEP report, please visit http://www.unep.fr/scp/rpanel/pdf/AssessingBiofuelsFullReport.pdf. To read the GAO report, please visit http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09446.pdf. To read the BioScience article, please visit http://www.aibs.org/bioscience/bioscienceonline_2009.html.

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McNutt Confirmed as Director of USGS

On 21 October 2009, Dr. Marcia McNutt was confirmed as the new Director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). She will also serve as Science Advisor to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar. The confirmation brings McNutt back to the USGS, where she began her career as an earthquake scientist in 1978. Since then she has served as a professor and program director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as the CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. During the Clinton Administration, McNutt chaired the President’s Panel on Ocean Exploration. McNutt is the first woman to head the USGS in its 130 year history.

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Short Takes

  • President Obama signed into law a second appropriations bill for fiscal year 2010 on 21 October 2009. The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies appropriations act (HR 2997) will provide a $61 million boost to funding for competitively awarded, extramural agriculture research grants, a 30 percent increase over last year.
  • Britain’s Millennium Seed Bank Project held a ceremony on 15 October 2009 to celebrate the deposition of its 24,200th species, reaching its goal of banking 10 percent of the world’s seeds by 2010. More than 50 countries are on board with the project, which has over 1.5 billion seeds and aims to help protect plant biodiversity in a time of a rapidly changing climate.
  • For the first time in its history, a distinguished scientist and not a civil servant will become the head of the European Research Council (ERC). An independent review panel recommended putting a scientist in charge of the ERC, the European Union’s funding agency for basic research. No one has been selected to fill this post, which oversees the operations of the ERC as well as its 7.5 billion Euro budget.
  • A new report by the National Research Council on the future of the U.S. academic oceanographic research fleet recommends greater coordination among federal agencies in planning for the modernization and recapitalization of the fleet. The new fleet should also accommodate multidisciplinary, multi-investigator research and advances in ocean technology. For more information, please visit http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12775.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) has released new data on federal spending on research and development for fiscal years 2006-2008, information which is not readily available from other sources. To access the data, please visit http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf10303/?WT.mcid=USNSF179.

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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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Now in BioScience - "Stem Cells: Growth and Development... in Policy"

In the October 2009 issue of BioScience, Jenna Jadin reports on the new NIH guidelines on stem human embryonic cell research and the resulting changes in policy issues regarding stem cells. An excerpt from the article follows, but the complete article (along with prior Washington Watch columns) may be viewed for free at http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/.

Many scientists and patient advocates cheered earlier this summer when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released new guidelines for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. The guidelines came after President Obama’s March 2009 executive order lifting the restrictions on federal support for research using embryonic stem cells.

Obama’s directive revoked the Bush administration’s restrictions and funding ban on hESC research, which had limited scientists to using only 21 approved cell lines out of about 700 in existence. The directive also ordered the NIH to issue new guidelines for hESC research, which were released in July 2009. These new guidelines specify that NIH funding can be provided for research on hESCs derived from human embryos “that were created using in vitro fertilization for reproductive purposes [but] were no longer needed for this purpose,” and were donated by individuals who were fully informed about embryo treatment and gave their voluntary, written consent to use the embryos for research. The guidelines also stipulate that there can be no financial inducements for embryo donations, and that NIH-funded research must remain separate from privately funded research. Additionally, the NIH will establish a working group of scientists and ethicists to review existing cell lines, determine their eligibility for federal funding, and post those hESCs eligible for federal funds in an online registry.

To continue reading this article for free, visit http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2009_10.html.

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Become an Advocate for Science: Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center

Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center today!

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) has launched the AIBS Legislative Action Center. The online resource allows biologists and science educators to quickly and effectively influence policy and public opinion. The AIBS Legislative Action Center is located at www.aibs.org/public-policy/legislativeactioncenter.html.

This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution, American Society for Limnology and Oceanography, Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, and the Botanical Society of America.

Each day lawmakers must make tough decisions about science policy. For example, what investments to make in federal research programs, biodiversity conservation, how to mitigate climate change, or under what circumstances to permit stem cell research. Scientists now have the opportunity to help elected officials understand these issues.

This exciting new advocacy tool allows individuals to quickly and easily communicate with members of Congress, executive branch officials, and selected media outlets.

AIBS and our partner organizations invite scientists and science educators to become a policy advocate today. Simply go to http://capwiz.com/aibs/home/ to send a prepared letter or to sign up to receive periodic Action Alerts.

For additional information about the AIBS Legislative Action Center, please visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/legislativeactioncenter.html. To further help AIBS advance biology and science education, consider joining AIBS. To learn about other membership benefits and to join AIBS online, please visit www.aibs.org.

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