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Public Policy Report for 1 March 2010

Universities Need Funds for Research Infrastructure

A growing backlog of renovation projects at U.S. universities could be hampering American innovation and international competiveness, according to witnesses at a recent House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education hearing.

On 23 February 2010, Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) addressed the need for federal support for renovation and maintenance of academic research facilities. “Successful R&D [research and development] takes more than intellectual freedom and grant funding. You also need state-of-the-art lab space, networks, instruments, and computing facilities. Public institutions especially are suffering as the recession has eroded state support. I am worried that unless we actively modernize our R&D facilities, we could not only be spending federal research dollars inefficiently, but we could lose our position as scientific leaders,” said Lipinski.

Witnesses representing research universities from across the nation reported on declining funds to maintain, repair, and renovate science facilities on their campuses. At three universities, Penn State, University of Arizona, and Medical University of South Carolina, the shortfall is $1.3 billion. Nationally, the backlog is estimated to be $3.5 billion, according to the National Science Foundation’s 2005 “Survey of Science and Engineering Research Facilities.” State budget cuts, a lack of philanthropic contributions, and flat or declining federal investments have all contributed to the backlog.

As Dr. Leslie Tolbert, Vice President for Research, Graduate Studies and Economic Development at the University of Arizona, testified, older buildings and outdated equipment stifles research. “Our older buildings do not meet current safety codes, limiting their utility for research involving hazardous biological or chemical agents. With their small, compartmentalized spaces, they certainly are not conducive to current modes of collaborative research. We struggle to find the resources to update those buildings, as well as to build new research buildings that can provide the new lab space that we need.”

Other witnesses also reflected this sentiment, stating that their institutions attract more competitive and better qualified faculty and students in the scientific disciplines that are housed in new research facilities on their campus. Some universities are also losing experienced foreign-born faculty, who prefer to return to their native country after teaching in the United States for decades because of booming R&D investments abroad.

The hearing was held in preparation for the House Science and Technology Committee’s reauthorization of the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act.

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National Science Board Urges Action to Maintain International Science Lead

Action must be taken to maintain the nation’s global leadership in science and engineering, according to a new report by the National Science Board (NSB) - the advisory body for the National Science Foundation (NSF). “Globalization of Science and Engineering Research,” the companion to the January 2010 “Science and Engineering Indicators” report, outlines several recommendations from NSB in light of growing international competition in science. First, NSF should assess grant selection criteria to ensure that the agency is encouraging and supporting transformative research. NSB also recommended that the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should lead a government-wide effort to evaluate all federal programs that support science and engineering research for their ability to support “world-leading” research. Lastly, NSB recommended that OSTP form a President’s Council on Innovation and Competitiveness to consider international science policy.

To read the report, please visit http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/.

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Majority of Texans Don't Believe in Evolution

Nearly one third of Texans believe that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time and half disagree with the theory of evolution, according to a new poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune.

As reported by the Texas Tribune, “38 percent said human beings developed over millions of years with God guiding the process and another 12 percent said that development happened without God having any part of the process. Another 38 percent agreed with the statement ‘God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago.’”

“Most of the Texans in the survey — 51 percent — disagree with the statement, ‘human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.’ Thirty-five percent agreed with that statement, and 15 percent said they don’t know,” the Tribune reported.

People’s beliefs on evolution also varied based on their political beliefs. Self-identified Democrats were more likely to agree with evolution, with 21 percent believing that humans developed over millions of years without God’s guidance. Of Republicans polled, only 7 percent supported the concept of evolution.

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NIH to Redefine 'Stem Cell'

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have proposed a change to how they define ‘stem cell’ in their guidelines for human stem cell research. The new, broader definition would allow several additional types of human stem cells (hESCs) to qualify for federal research funding. According to NIH, the definition included in their July 2009 guidelines “… had the unintended consequence of excluding certain hESCs which may otherwise be appropriate for Federal funding. For example, the current definition excludes hESCs from an embryo which fails to develop to the blastocyst stage.” Public comments on the new definition are being accepted until 25 March 2010. For more information, please visit http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/2010-3527.htm.

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Short Takes

  • Sam Hamilton, director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), died suddenly on 20 February 2010. Hamilton, a biologist and a 30-year FWS employee, had initiated several new policies during the five and a half months he led the agency, including climate adaptation planning and landscape-scale conservation measures.
  • The Census of Marine Life has discovered over 5,000 new species during its 10 year survey of the world’s oceans and coastal waters. The global initiative, conducted by researchers from over 80 counties, is expected to release its full results in October 2010.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) is seeking public comments regarding their grant proposal guidelines. Comments on ways to enhance the quality and utility of information collected or ways to reduce the burden on grant applicants are being accepted until 27 April 2010. For more information, please visit http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/2010-4000.htm.
  • From 5 to 6 March 2010 in Washington D.C., the National Academies will hold a meeting on the Economic and Environmental Impacts of Increasing Biofuels Production. More information can be found at http://www8.nationalacademies.org/cp/meetingview.aspx?MeetingId=4193.

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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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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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