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Public Policy Report for 6 July 2010

AIBS President-Elect Shares Thoughts on Future of Biology with House Subcommittee

On 29 June 2010, Dr. James P. Collins, AIBS President-Elect and Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University, testified before a House Research and Science Education Subcommittee hearing examining the future of the biological sciences. The hearing was spurred, in part, by the National Research Council’s recent publication, A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy, the report makes recommendations for how a “new biology” that can advance basic research and solve world problems in the areas of environment, energy, health, and agriculture.

In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) shared an amusing, but informative, personal experience: “Although biology was not my favorite subject in high school - although that may be because it was first semester freshman year and we had to dissect the fetal pig - the new, 21st century biology has me much more interested. I was trained as a mechanical engineer, and when I hear people talking about cells as a systems design problem, I understand the important role of engineers and physicists working in biology.”

The panel’s senior Republican, Representative Vernon Ehlers (MI) - a Ph.D. physicist - commented that he is still getting his head around the complex issues associated with 21st century biology. Ehlers hypothesized, however, that if he were to return to science he might well pursue the kind of questions and interdisciplinary research often described as 21st century biology. Representative Brian Baird (D-WA), who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, joked that he and Ehlers might form an interesting interdisciplinary team and that they should consider submitting a grant application.

The panel examined the promise of 21st century biology by exploring research happening at the intersection of the biological sciences, the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics, and its potential to address real-world problems. “We’ll also look at how these potential advances can be translated into technologies that benefit society, and what we need to do to train researchers who can thrive in an area that doesn’t fit into any one department…research at the intersection of biology and engineering, known as synthetic biology…could lead to the development of bacteria that could help clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, produce cellulosic biofuels, or even lead to an organism that can detect and destroy cancer cells,” Lipinski said.

“As a former university professor, I’ve seen firsthand the difficulty of overcoming cultural and institutional barriers between academic departments and schools…. But the potential successes that can be realized by having interdisciplinary teams working on biological problems mean that we need to ensure these collaborations continue to grow,” Lipinski said.

Collins told the subcommittee: “The biological sciences will flourish in the 21st century by sustaining strength in its core disciplines while simultaneously supporting research at the intersection of the natural, physical, and social sciences as well as engineering. Research at these disciplinary edges holds great promise for addressing problems in energy, the environment, agriculture, materials, and manufacturing. Interdisciplinary methods cut across disciplines to combine in powerful ways basic research with solving real world problems. Because today’s students are tomorrow’s problem solvers we must also integrate research and education.”

“At the Subcommittee’s request I’ll comment on the environmental sciences, which offer many promising research opportunities. Interdisciplinary research is advancing our basic understanding of challenges such as global change and global loss of biodiversity and suggesting ways in which we might mitigate these changes. NSF-supported sensing systems in the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) and in the proposed National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) are designed to gather enormous quantities of data continuously. These networks of sensors, computers, and people promise to transform how we test basic ecological theory and apply the results to environmental problem solving,” Collins said.

“Molecular methods are accelerating the description of new species, including the discovery of novel microbes that add to our basic understanding of the biosphere while serving as ‘bio-inspiring’ sources of novel energy technologies. At NSF the new Dimensions of Biodiversity initiative is supporting just this sort of grand challenge research in which new knowledge is developed. As this research matures, researchers will need new tools such as sensors that run on small, very long life power sources. New methods must include fast, highly accurate molecular techniques for identifying species and efficient computer algorithms for analyzing, visualizing, and storing large quantities of data. Students entering these fields must be skilled in quantitative and computational methods, understand how to draw on multiple disciplines to address problems, and learn to do science in nationally and globally connected communities,” Collins explained.

Following witness testimony, Baird noted that NSF is still seeking to fill Collins’ former NSF post of Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences. Baird asked whether NSF would seek to fill this position with someone who is familiar with and embraces the concepts of 21st century biology. Collins responded, “Yes.”

Other witnesses appearing before the panel were:

  • Dr. Keith Yamamoto, Chair, National Academy of Sciences, Board on Life Sciences, and Professor, Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco;
  • Dr. Reinhard Laubenbacher, Professor, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Department of Mathematics, Virginia Tech;
  • Dr. Joshua N. Leonard, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Northwestern University; and,
  • Dr. Karl Sanford, Vice President, Technology Development, Genencor.

Although the hearing considered the promise and challenges of synthetic biology, as one element of new biology, witnesses also discussed training for the scientists who will work in 21st century biology.

Ehlers mused about a friend who after receiving a Nobel Prize in Physics decided that the exciting and important problems of the future were in the biological sciences. Ehlers commented that his friend has had far less impact in the biological sciences than he anticipated. The point, Ehlers suggested, is that we must work to support the development of young scientists. It may be better to help some scientists develop capacity in a couple of fields instead of expecting researchers to first master one field before they seek to develop their skills in another area. Yamamoto suggested that the current training period is too long. There is a need for new scientists to be grounded in a discipline but able to work and communicate with colleagues from other fields. Researchers need to understand what tools and techniques other disciplines can offer to the resolution of complex problems.

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President Obama Orders Risk-Based Security Measures for Select Agents

In an Executive Order issued on 2 July 2010, President Barack Obama called for major changes to the government’s management and oversight of biological select agents and toxins (BSAT). The National Select Agents Registry Program, which regulates the use of dangerous pathogens and toxins in research, will now be required to identify and better secure biological agents and toxins with greater risk for misuse.

The presidential order directs the secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, the agencies that oversee the select agent program, to identify “Tier 1” biological agents based on “risk of deliberate misuse with most significant potential for mass casualties or devastating effects to the economy, critical infrastructure, or public confidence.” These Tier 1 agents will be subject to higher security protections than less risky agents. The agencies are also directed to consider reducing the number of agents and toxins on the Select Agent List, which currently includes 82 substances. A final rule implementing the changes should be issued by October 2012.

The select agent program has been the focus of recent attention for Congressional, the Executive Branch, and non-governmental organizations. Legislation is pending in both the Senate and the House of Representatives that would overhaul the program. A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences recommended the stratification of the current list of biological select agents and toxins, which includes anthrax and other deadly substances. A working group chaired by the Secretaries of the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services also found fault with current “one-size-fits all” security measures for restricted agents.

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House Begins to Consider FY 2011 Appropriations

Running far behind schedule, the House Appropriations Committee has begun work on the twelve spending bills that would fund the federal government in fiscal year (FY) 2011. Since 24 June, six proposals have advanced from subcommittees. Of interest to many in the scientific community, the measure that would appropriate funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and several other science agencies was approved by the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee on 29 June 2010.

If enacted, the CJS bill would provide $32.8 billion for science, technology, and innovation and $1.5 billion for science education. According to Subcommittee Chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV): “The Subcommittee recommendation continues to provide resources consistent with the doubling path identified for NSF and NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology] in the COMPETES Act. It also considers the science and research conducted at NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] as critical to the Nation’s science enterprise as that performed by the NSF and NIST, and investments are recommended accordingly.”

The proposal would allocate $7.424 billion to NSF in FY 2011, $498 million more than last year and the same amount requested by the President. Within this funding, $5.96 billion is designated for Research and Related Activities, a 6 percent increase over FY 2010. Education and Human Resources at NSF would increase by almost 10 percent to $958.4 million. Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction would increase by $47.9 million to $165.2 million. The bill would also provide a 17 percent increase to for NOAA. Details on how the funding would be allocated among NOAA’s programmatic activities have not yet been released, although the $5.5 billion budget for the agency would be dominated by spending for the acquisition of climate and weather satellites.

The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies spending bill was approved on 30 June 2010 by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. The bill would fund several research programs at the Department of Agriculture. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which supports agricultural research, extension, and education activities, would receive $1.36 billion in FY 2011, a 1 percent increase. NIFA replaced the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service in 2009. Within NIFA, competitive, extramural research supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative would increase by 19 percent to $312 million. Although this funding level would represent the program’s largest appropriation to date, it is significantly less than the $429 million proposed by President Obama in his budget request. The Agricultural Research Service would receive $1.2 billion, a three percent decrease from FY 2010.

Given Congress’ late start on FY 2011 appropriations and the relatively few number of days on the legislative calendar before the November elections, many in Washington speculate that few, if any, individual spending bills will be enacted this year. Rather, the bills could be bundled into a single “omnibus” appropriations bill. In the past, such a move has not resulted in favorable budgets for science agencies.

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Penn State Clears Climate Researcher of Allegations of Wrongdoing

Dr. Michael Mann, a well known climate scientist who has been accused by climate skeptics of manipulating climate data in order to propagate the ‘myth’ of climate change, has been cleared by his employer of charges of data manipulation. Mann was previously exonerated by Penn State University of charges of data suppression, destruction of e-mails, and misuse of confidential data. “[T]he Investigatory Committee determined that Dr. Michael E. Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community … .”

The allegations arose after the theft of thousands of emails from a climate research center at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. Climate skeptics charged that the stolen emails, which included correspondence between Mann and other climate scientists, provided evidence of manipulation of data to further the researchers’ case for anthropogenic climate change.

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Short Takes

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is accepting public comments until 30 July 2010 on its draft strategic plan for 2011-2015. The plan outlines five strategic goals: taking action on climate change and improving air quality; protecting America’s waters; cleaning up communities; ensuring the safety of chemicals and preventing pollution; and enforcing environmental laws. For more information, visit http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/2010-14649.htm.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is accepting public comments through 10 August 2010 on its “Next Generation Strategic Plan.” The plan outlines four long-term goals: climate adaptation and mitigation; a weather-ready nation; healthy oceans; and resilient coastal communities and economies. For more information, visit http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/2010-15768.htm.
  • The United States Global Change Research and Climate Change Technology Programs requests expert review of the “Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Reviews by experts will be accepted until 18 July 2010. For more information, visit http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/2010-14908.htm.

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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 publication from AIBS, “Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media,” will prepare scientists for successful and effective media interviews.

Whether you are new to media outreach or just in a need of a media refresher, “Communicating Science” offers advice, case studies, and training exercises to prepare scientists for print, radio, and television interviews. 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. “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.

“Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media” is available at http://webstore.aibs.org.

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Professional Development: AIBS Workshops on Communicating Science to the Media and Policymakers

Staffed by professionals with years of experience working with scientists, law-makers, and opinion shapers, the AIBS Public Policy Office provides public presentations and small-group training programs that help scientists and educators become effective advocates for science.

Learn more about this exciting AIBS program, including how your organization can schedule a program, by visiting http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/policy_training.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 AIBS Legislative Action Center is an online resource that allows biologists and science educators to quickly and effectively influence policy and public opinion. Each day lawmakers must make tough decisions about science policy. For example, what investments to make in federal research programs, how to conserve biodiversity, 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.

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.

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.

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