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Public Policy Report for 11 April 2011

Government Shutdown Averted, FY 2011 Budget Finally Nears Completion

Policymakers negotiated and postured until the last possible minute last week before striking a deal on 8 April 2011 to fund the federal government through the balance of the current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September 2011. After weeks of contentious negotiations, congressional leadership agreed to a plan that will cut $37.7 billion in spending over the next five and a half months relative to the fiscal year (FY) 2010 budget. The cuts are roughly equally divided between mandatory and discretionary programs. About $12 billion of the cuts have already been enacted in recent months. In order to keep the federal government open until the package can be signed into law, Congress passed a Continuing Resolution late Friday night to fund the government through 14 April.

Although full details of the compromise are not yet available, some information about certain budget cuts has become public. The Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services would be cut by $13 billion, and foreign affairs programs would lose about $8 billion. Discretionary programs, including science agencies, would collectively lose $1.1 billion through across-the-board cuts. The Department of Defense is expected to receive an increase, but not as large as Republicans had sought.

Democrats were able to prevent $1.2 billion in reductions to federal employee bonuses and pay beyond the salary freeze previously endorsed by the White House. Some programs were spared cuts, including the National Institutes of Health, Head Start, and Pell grants for college students. The proposed increase for the National Science Foundation, however, will be scaled back.

Several of the controversial policy riders that House Republicans had pushed were stripped from the final package in exchange for larger spending reductions. The deal does not include any limits on the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or mountaintop mining. Additionally, Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and the implementation of the 2010 health care reform law were unsuccessful. Instead, the compromise includes a guarantee by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) that these provisions will be voted upon by the Senate later this week.

It is anticipated that more details about the FY 2011 spending plan will be released on 11 April. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the package on Wednesday, with Senate action on Thursday.

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Scientists Visit Capitol Hill in Support of Investments in Biological Research

Biological scientists traveled to Washington, DC on 30-31 March 2011 to express to members of Congress the importance of sustained federal investments in the biological sciences. The scientists and graduate students were in the nation’s capital as part of the annual Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) Congressional Visits Day. Among the participants were scientists affiliated with American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) member organizations, including the Organization of Biological Field Stations and the Ecological Society of America. Also participating was Wesley Brooks, the 2011 AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award recipient.

The two-day event began with a briefing by senior staff from the National Science Foundation and Congress. Policy staff from AIBS and the Ecological Society of America provided participants with budget analysis and advocacy training.

On 31 March, participants fanned out across Capitol Hill for meetings with members of Congress and their staff. This year, the group emphasized the importance of federal investments in research that will help the nation to create new jobs and respond to society’s needs, such as food security, maintaining healthy ecosystems, and human health. Participants highlighted the importance of the National Science Foundation in fostering economic growth. The agency’s Biological Sciences Directorate funds about 68 percent of basic non-medical biological research.

To download a BESC fact sheet on the importance of federal investments in biological research, visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/resources/BESC2011Leave_Behind.pdf.

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Legislation to Limit EPA Regulation of Emissions Approved by House, Rejected by Senate

On 7 April 2011, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. HR 910 passed generally along party lines, with all of the chamber’s Republicans and 19 Democrats supporting the measure. The legislation, if enacted, would nullify the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision that greenhouse gases endanger public health. The Supreme Court decision is the basis for the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases.

Despite strong support in the House, the measure has little to no chance of passage in the Senate. The upper chamber rejected four amendments last week that would have permanently or temporarily removed EPA’s authority to regulate emissions. All of the amendments fell far short of the 60 vote threshold needed for approval. An amendment sponsored by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) garnered the most support with 50 votes. This amendment would have permanently removed EPA’s ability to regulate industrial emissions from stationary sources, such as power plants.

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Anti-Evolution Legislation Passed by Tennessee House

The Tennessee House of Representatives approved legislation on 7 April 2011 that would protect the ‘academic freedom’ of public school teachers. Critics say that the measure, House Bill 368, would allow teachers to introduce creationism and other non-scientific concepts into the curricula.

If enacted, the HB 368 would require state and local education authorities to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies” and permit teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” The only examples provided of “controversial” theories are “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

An identical measure is pending in the state’s Senate and is scheduled to be considered later this month.

For more information about evolution education in Tennessee and other states, please visit the National Center for Science Education at www.ncse.com.

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AIBS Asks Congress to Invest in USGS and EPA

On 1 April, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) provided testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. The testimony called for the federal government to provide the United States Geological Survey (USGS) with at least $1.2 billion and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Research and Development with at least $597 million in fiscal year (FY) 2012. These funding levels would restore funding to core science programs at the agencies, and prevent the elimination of key staff positions.

“Funding for the USGS is a wise investment that produces real returns for the country,” AIBS stated. However, the “FY 2012 budget request for the USGS is inadequate to sustain the agency’s critical work. The proposed budget would cut funding from programs that support the agency’s core missions, resulting in the termination of 230 full-time staff positions. These reductions would be especially destructive because, in constant dollars, the USGS has been flat funded for more than a decade. Given the agency’s critical role in informing the environmental and economic health of the nation, more support is justified. We urge Congress to fully fund the USGS by restoring Administration-proposed reductions to core science programs.”

AIBS further highlighted the contributions of USGS’ Ecosystems Activity to addressing wildlife disease and invasive species, and informing management of endangered species and natural resources. The testimony specifically urged Congress to restore cuts to funding for biological monitoring and research, the National Biological Information Infrastructure, and the Cooperative Research Units.

For the EPA, AIBS drew attention to the critically importance of the Ecosystem Services Research Program. The proposed FY 2012 budget for the program would eliminate roughly 16 staff positions. AIBS urged Congress to fully fund the program in FY 2012.

To read the testimony, visit http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20110401testimonyusgs_epa.html.

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Deadline Approaching: Graduate Student Policy Internship

The American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) and American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) are pleased to announce the availability of an internship in the Washington, DC AIBS Public Policy Office. The internship is open to ASM members who are currently enrolled in a graduate program or who have completed a program within a semester of application and who are engaged in research that will contribute to the understanding and conservation of mammals. The internship is for three months during fall 2011, and carries a generous monthly stipend. Selection criteria include demonstrated interest in the public policy process, strong communications skills, and excellent academic record. The deadline to apply is 1 May 2011. For details and requirements, download the program flyer at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/resources/ASM-AIBS-Internship-2011.pdf.

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New in BioScience: "Synthetic Biology Promises Risk and Reward"

The emerging field of synthetic biology may help to solve societal problems—or it may create new ones. The potential risks and rewards of synthetic biology are evaluated in the Washington Watch column in the April 2011 issue of BioScience. An excerpt from the article, “Synthetic Biology Promises Risk and Reward,” follows:

In May 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the creation of the world’s first synthetic organism—a bacterial host cell whose self-replicating genome was human-made. This momentous achievement raises questions regarding the potential risks and benefits of synthesizing genomes, and eventually, organisms.

According to proponents, synthetic biology offers great promise. Some scientists suggest that the emerging field could lead to advancements in individualized medicine, more efficient vaccine and drug production, new renewable energy sources, higher-yielding and more sustainable crops, and organisms that can remediate harmful chemicals in the environment. Synthetic biology is also widely acknowledged to have the potential to adversely affect human health, the environment, and national security.

To read the entire article for free, please visit http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2011_04.html.

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Short Takes

  • The U.S. Department of the Interior is accepting nominations for experts to serve on the Invasive Species Advisory Committee. The committee provides advice on the prevention and control of invasive species, and on minimizing the economic, ecological, and human health impacts of invasive species. Nominations are due by 3 June 2011. For more information, visit http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2011/2011-7916.htm.

  • The National Center for Science Education has recognized Answers in Genesis, the developers of a proposed creationist theme park, with the 2010 UpChucky award. The annual award is presented to "the most noisome creationist of the year," according to the group. This year's recipient is being recognized for its proposal to build the Ark Encounter theme park with the assistance of $37.5 million in development incentives from the state of Kentucky.

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2011 AIBS Congressional Directory: Now Available in AIBS Webstore

The American Institute of Biological Sciences is pleased to announce that copies of the AIBS guide to the 112th Congress are now available in the AIBS Webstore for only $19.95 per copy. There is a limited supply of this handy resource, so please order your copy today. To learn more about this or other publications available through AIBS, please visit http://webstore.aibs.org/category/35373945661/1/Books.htm.

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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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