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Public Policy Report for 5 July 2011

NOAA Draws Criticism for Advising Extension Agents to Avoid Advocacy

Just weeks after the public release of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) draft scientific integrity policy, the NOAA National Sea Grant program is being criticized for its decade old guidebook for extension agents. Critics claim that the booklet gags scientists from speaking about their personal views or from engaging in public debate.

The guidebook, which was published in 2000, provides information and advice for extension professionals who work with researchers, fishermen, coastal planners, educators, the public, and others to impart information about marine resources. At issue is a section that advises Sea Grant extension agents to approach their work in a neutral manner: “…as neutral providers of science-based information to decision makers, we do not suggest what those decisions should be. We help them understand their choices and the implications of those choices. We do not take positions on issues of public debate.”

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an advocacy group, has urged NOAA to change the publication to be more consistent with the agency’s draft policy on scientific integrity. The draft policy encourages NOAA scientists to speak to the media about their research. “It makes no sense that NOAA agency scientists would be free to speak out but academic scientists who receive NOAA Sea Grants are not,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director.

NOAA views the situation differently. “Sea Grant’s role is not as an advocate, but instead, as a neutral vehicle for educating the public, resource managers and other stakeholders so they can make their own informed decisions,” said Jana Goldman, a spokeswoman for NOAA. “Extension agents are expected to provide information on all sides of controversial issues, but without advocating a particular position or approach. There is an important role for advocacy on all sides on issues of public debate, but these roles are not appropriate for a Sea Grant extension agent.”

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Patent Reform Legislation Advances in Congress

Legislation to overhaul the United States patent system is one step closer to becoming law. On 23 June, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would change the ability of an inventor to patent a discovery. HR 1249 would give priority to the first inventor to file for a patent. Currently, patent law favors the first person who invents or discovers a new technology, device, process, or material. Some worry that this change would favor large corporations that have the resources to undergo the lengthy and expensive process of filing for a patent, and that individuals or small businesses may be at a disadvantage. Supporters of reform claim that this is an important step towards harmonizing the U.S. patent system with the process used by the rest of the world.

The legislation passed by the House would also impact the funding structure for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If enacted, the bill would direct excess user fees into a fund that Congress would direct back to the patent office. This provision is aimed at increasing the budget for the agency in order to address the backlog of more than 700,000 pending patents applications.

The Senate passed patent reform legislation (S. 23) in March. Although the two bills are similar, any differences will need to be worked out, and the compromise bill will need to pass both chambers in identical form before the bill could be signed into law by President Obama.

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House Science Panel Examines Plan for National Climate Service

On 22 June, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing to examine the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) proposal to create a Climate Service. The plan, which was first announced in 2010, would require the reorganization of several parts of the agency.

Some members of Congress have raised objections to the agency’s planned reorganization, which NOAA hopes to initiate in fiscal year (FY) 2012. Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) raised concerns during the hearing about the impact of moving half of the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research under the jurisdiction of the new climate division. “My objection to this proposal has been the concern that the focus to create a climate service will severely harm vital research at NOAA by transferring resources away from fundamental science to mission-oriented research and service-driven products,” said Chairman Hall.

Other Republican members of the committee questioned whether or not NOAA had violated a provision included in the FY 2011 Continuing Resolution that barred the agency from using funds appropriated by the bill to establish a climate service. NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco stated that the actions taken by NOAA to hire six regional climate service directors were completed long before the appropriations bill was enacted.

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Action Alert: Ask Congress to Promote, not Politicize, Science

The United States House of Representatives may soon consider the fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bill that will fund the National Science Foundation. Some in Congress have recently sought to attack programs within NSF, including mocking specific grants based on titles and inadequate information.

The National Science Foundation is the only federal agency that invests in all fields of fundamental research. It is important that the scientific community stand together to oppose efforts to weaken NSF, the scientific merit review process, or scientific disciplines that may be viewed as politically unpopular.

Please take a few minutes to send a letter to your Representative to urge that s/he promote, not politicize, NSF. Take action on the AIBS Legislative Action Center at http://capwiz.com/aibs/issues/alert/?alertid=51009501.

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Deadline Approaching: Act Now to Showcase Science to Policymakers This August

Would you like to help inform the nation’s science policy without trekking to Washington, DC? Do you want to meet with your members of Congress to discuss the importance of federal investments in science?

Register now to participate in the 3rd Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event. This national initiative is an opportunity for biologists across the country to meet with their members of Congress to showcase the people, facilities, and equipment that are required to support and conduct scientific research.

The 3rd Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event will be held throughout the month of August 2011, when Representatives and Senators spend time in their Congressional districts and home states. This event is an opportunity for scientists, graduate students, representatives of research facilities, and people affiliated with scientific collections to meet with their members of Congress to demonstrate how science is conducted and why a sustained investment in research and education programs must be a national priority. Participating scientists may invite their elected officials to visit their facility or can meet with them at a congressional district office.

Participants will be prepared for their congressional meetings through an interactive training webinar. Individuals participating in this event will receive information about federal appropriations for biological research, tips for scheduling and conducting a successful meeting with an elected official, and resources to craft and communicate an effective message.

This event is organized by the American Institute of Biological Sciences with the generous support of Event Sponsors Botanical Society of America, Museum of Comparative Zoology—Harvard University, Natural Science Collections Alliance, and Organization of Biological Field Stations, and Event Supporters National Ecological Observatory Network, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.

Participation is free, but registration is required by 15 July 2011. For more information and to register, visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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Short Takes

  • AIBS Past President Dr. Joseph Travis has been awarded the prestigious E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award. Presented by the American Society of Naturalists, the award "is given to an active investigator in mid-career who has made significant contributions to the knowledge of a particular ecosystem or group of organisms." Dr. Travis' recent research has studied how environmental factors affect evolution of fish in Trinidad, and how this process produces change in the environment.

  • The Senate finally confirmed Dan Ashe to serve as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Several Republican Senators held up Ashe's confirmation for more than six months over concerns with the Department of the Interior's policies on wilderness areas, offshore oil and gas leasing, and endangered species. Ashe is a 15-year veteran of the FWS who served as the agency's science advisor from 2003 to 2009. He also helped to develop the agency's recent climate adaptation strategy.

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed a new tool to help natural resource managers evaluate which species of land animals are most vulnerable to the risks posed by climate change. The System for Assessing Vulnerability of Species presents 22 questions regarding projected changes to habitat, major life cycle events, interactions with other species, and species' potential to cope with those changes. To access the tool, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/grassland-shrubland-desert/products/species-vulnerability/savs-climate-change-tool/.

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2011 AIBS Congressional Directory: 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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