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Public Policy Report for 8 November 2010

2010 Elections: Congress Fills with New Politicians

The results from the 2 November 2010 mid-term elections mean big changes for Congress next year. In addition to the Republicans regaining control of the House of Representatives, the 112th Congress will have more than 100 new members. The vast majority of the incoming lawmakers lack extensive political experience. The Washington Post has described the new House as “an everyman’s roost.” The incoming freshmen class of Senators, however, are for the most part veteran politicians who have previously served as elected officials.

These changes may be significant for the nation’s science policy. Several senior members of the House of Representatives who have been strong advocates for investments in science either retired from Congress or were defeated in the mid-term elections. The absence of these champions for science may be particularly significant given the cohort of recently elected Tea Partiers and Republicans who campaigned with promises of budget cuts. The campaign platform that many House Republicans ran on promised to “cut government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels.”

Action on climate change may also be impacted, as most of the new members oppose action to address climate change. In a speech given the day after the election, President Obama signaled his intention to abandon cap-and-trade, at least for now. “Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way,” said the President. “I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.” Some policymakers are hoping to take smaller steps to mitigate climate change, such as increasing energy production from renewable sources and nuclear power — options that have bipartisan support.

Efforts to reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as “No Child Left Behind,” could also be impacted. Some policy experts predict that there will be greater pressure to reduce the federal government’s role in education. Despite this, bipartisan support for education reform is likely. Republican lawmakers have already expressed support for central elements of the Obama administration’s education plan, including promoting charter schools, linking teacher pay to student test scores, and providing greater flexibility to successful school districts.

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Federal Government Reverses Position on Gene Patents

The federal government has taken a new position on the patentability of human genes: genes are products of nature that should not be eligible for a patent. This new position was announced in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Department of Justice on 29 October 2010. The legal arguments laid out in the brief do support the ability to patent “man-made transformation or manipulation of the raw materials of the genome.” However, for a DNA-based product to qualify for a patent, the patent-seeker must do “something more than identifying and isolating what has always existed in nature, no matter how difficult or useful that discovery may be.”

The government’s brief was filed as part of a lawsuit that questions whether or not two human genes that are linked to breast and ovarian cancer should be allowed to be patented. Myriad Genetics currently holds the patents for these genes. The plaintiffs in the case claim that patients should not have to pay more than $3,000 for a test to detect mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes since the test relies upon naturally occurring products (i.e. DNA sequences). A lower court judge ruled in March that the patents were invalid. Myriad Genetics has appealed the decision.

It is unclear if the United States Patent Office will change its policy regarding patents on genetic products. The agency has issued thousands of patents for genes of humans and other species.

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Nations Set New Biodiversity Conservation Goals, Agree to Benefits Sharing

The Convention on Biological Diversity has new targets for preserving and protecting global biodiversity. The agreement reached by the 193 parties to the convention aims to halve the rate of loss of natural habitats, protect 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of marine ecosystems, and restore 15 percent of degraded environments globally. The new strategic plan aims to meet these goals by 2020. Nations have two years to create an implementation strategy. Parties also agreed to substantially increase financial support to achieve these goals, including a pledge from Japan for $2 billion in financing.

The new conservation goals are not without their critics. As reported by BBC News, the targets “are regarded as too small by many conservation scientists, who point out that about 13% of the land is already protected - while the existing target for oceans is already 10%.” Others are concerned that the new agreement doesn’t do enough to ensure that countries meet the goals; many of the goals from the last conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity were not met.

A historic agreement was also reached regarding the sharing of benefits derived from genetic resources. Developing nations have long accused developed nations of profiting from their genetic resources through the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and other products derived from naturally occurring compounds. The new agreement would allow nations to set terms for benefits sharing in order to allow international access to genetic resources. The benefits sharing agreement is expected to enter into force by 2012.

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AIBS Webinar to Help Students, Young Professionals Explore Careers in Science Policy

Are you a student or early-career professional interested in a non-academic science career? Have you ever thought that a career in science policy or public affairs might be right for you? If so, an upcoming webinar hosted by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) could help you consider your options.

A growing number of individuals are interested in employment that allows them to apply their scientific skills and training to the resolution of societal problems. Whether an individual’s interests are in education, health, environment, or the nation’s investment in scientific research, a public policy career is one way that scientists can convert their education into action.

This program is intended to help individuals better understand the pros and cons of a career in science policy, and the knowledge, skills and experiences that are required to be successful in science policy and public affairs.

This program will:

  • Provide information about employment options in science policy and public affairs;

  • Provide tips to help interested students and early career professionals develop the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the policy/public affairs sector; and,

  • Help individuals evaluate whether this career path is right for them.

See http://www.aibs.org/events/webinar/non-academic-careers-science-policy.html for information and registration.

Registration is required.

Event Date: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 2:00 - 3:30 PM, Eastern Standard Time

Cost:

  • $22.50, Webinar only
  • $39.45, Webinar, 1 copy of the AIBS publication Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media (price includes shipping and handling)
  • $51.45, Webinar and 1 copy of the book Guide to Nontraditional Careers in Science (price includes shipping and handling)
  • $57.99, Webinar, 1 copy of the AIBS publication Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media and 1 copy of the book Guide to Nontraditional Careers (price includes shipping and handling)

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GAO Report Calls for Improved Planning at EPA Libraries

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should complete its strategic plan for the agency’s library network, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In its report, GAO found that although EPA has been working to restore its library services, the agency failed to complete an overarching strategy for the library network. The agency’s draft strategic plan currently lacks goals, criteria for making funding decisions, or a timeline for inventorying and digitizing holdings. “Given the current economic environment, without a completed strategic plan, including a detailed strategy for acquiring, deploying, and managing funding, EPA may find itself hard-pressed to ensure that the network can meet its users’ needs,” GAO wrote in the report.

EPA closed its headquarters library and several of its regional libraries in 2006 in response to budget cuts. EPA reopened the five closed libraries in September 2008 (see http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20081110.html#015360). Since then, EPA has hired a national library program manager and developed standards for the libraries’ use of space, on-site collections, staffing, and services. EPA, however, has not yet resumed full hours of operation at some library branches.

EPA has also been working to improve public accessibility to its holdings, including resuming digitization of original documents. However, since the agency has not completed an inventory of its libraries, the amount of time and cost to complete the project is unknown.

GAO recommends that EPA complete its library network strategic plan, inventory its holdings, and improve survey methods for surveying library user needs. “[W]ithout a completed strategic plan that contains implementation goals and timelines, neither EPA nor users of its libraries can have a clear view of what EPA plans to do, when EPA plans to do it, and whether EPA’s actions will ultimately meet users’ needs.” EPA responded to GAO’s recommendations, agreeing to address each of these issues, including completing a strategic plan and cataloging of holdings in fiscal year 2011.

To download the GAO report, visit http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10947.pdf.

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Short Takes

  • The Encyclopedia of Life has a new executive director, Dr. Erick Mata. Mata is currently the Director of Biodiversity Informatics and Education at the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica. The Encyclopedia of Life is a collaborative project that aims to gather and share knowledge about all species on the planet. AIBS serves on the Institutional Council. For more information, visit http://www.eol.org.

  • Arizona State University has launched a website that offers personal resilience training for women in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. CareerWISE (http://careerwise.asu.edu/), which is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), aims to stem the loss of women from science graduate programs by providing multimedia coaching and resources.

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New in BioScience: Major Changes in Congress May Mean Major Changes for Science Policy

In the November 2010 issue of the journal BioScience, Julie Palakovich Carr reports on the potential impacts of retirements of key Congressional policymakers on science policy. An excerpt from the article, “Major Changes in Congress May Mean Major Changes for Science Policy,” follows:

This month, voters across the nation will head to the polls for the midterm elections. Regardless of the final results, the departure of several long-standing science and education advocates will most likely change the way science is viewed in the 112th Congress.

“The retirements of champions of science, such as Representatives Brian Baird, Bart Gordon, Vern Ehlers, and Dave Obey and the defeats of Senator Arlen Specter and Rep. Alan Mollohan [in primary elections earlier this year] mean the loss of considerable support for science in the Congress,” warned Howard J. Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, in an e-mail interview.

To read the entire article for free, please visit http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2010_11.html.

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In the AIBS Webstore

“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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AIBS Now Participating in the Combined Federal Campaign

Federal employees may now contribute to the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) through the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC, see http://www.opm.gov/cfc/). The mission of the CFC is to “promote and support philanthropy through a program that is employee focused, cost-efficient, and effective in providing all federal employees the opportunity to improve the quality of life for all.”

According to the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the CFC is the world’s largest and most successful annual workplace charity campaign, with more than 300 CFC campaigns throughout the country and internationally. Pledges made by federal civilian, postal and military donors during the campaign season (September 1st to December 15th) support eligible non-profit organizations.

The AIBS CFC # is 69973. To make a contribution to AIBS, please visit http://www.aibs.org/donate/.

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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! (www.aibs.org/public-policy/legislative_action_center.html)

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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