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Public Policy Report for 18 July 2011

Action Alert: House Moves to Cut Funding for Biology, Ecosystems Research at USGS

Ecosystem and biological research programs at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) could be cut by $10.7 million, a disproportionately large budget cut, if the House of Representative’s Interior and Environment Appropriations bill is enacted in its current form. When the proposed spending cuts are considered with the reductions enacted in the fiscal year 2011 Continuing Resolution, the budget for USGS Ecosystems activities (which consists largely of the programs previously housed within the Biological Resources Discipline), would decline by 9.3 percent since FY 2010. This is a disproportionate reduction when compared with other USGS programs and with the agency as a whole.

The research and monitoring programs that comprise the Ecosystems account within USGS are vital to the nation. These scientific activities help decision makers within other Interior bureaus, states, local governments, and the private sector to understand the status of our living resources. Much of this information is only collected by the USGS. Without it, our efforts to combat invasive species, manage endangered and threatened species, address wildlife diseases, or restore degraded landscapes would be severely hampered.

The House of Representatives could consider the fiscal year 2012 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill in the next few weeks. Please take a few minutes to contact your Representative to share your concerns about these proposed cuts and to encourage them to oppose spending cuts to biological and ecosystems research at the USGS. Take action at http://capwiz.com/aibs/issues/alert/?alertid=51503521.

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Partisan Bickering Continues on Debt Ceiling Debate

Summer temperatures are not all that is hot in Washington, DC these days. Partisan posturing over lifting the nation’s debt ceiling is also generating considerable hot air. Republicans continue to oppose efforts to include any changes to the tax code that would generate new revenue. The Democrats counter that without some new revenue, a significant reduction to the federal deficit is unachievable. Lawmakers must act by 2 August 2011 to prevent the federal government from defaulting on its obligations.

The impasse and its potential to cause significant disruptions to the global economy as well as thwart a fledgling economic recovery in the United States has drawn warnings from nearly all sectors. Last week, China joined Wall Street and bond rating agencies in urging lawmakers to resolve the debt ceiling debate. Corporate leaders from the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable also increased pressure last week on lawmakers, calling on all of them to “do their jobs.”

In recent days, however, it has begun to appear that a political side-step initially proffered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may offer both parties, Congress, and the White House a way out of the current stalemate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been working with McConnell to craft a plan that can pass the Senate, and likely pass the House of Representatives at the 11th hour.

As it stands now, the McConnell-Reid plan would likely include $1.5 trillion worth of spending cuts that Democrats and Republicans agreed to months ago in negotiations led by Vice President Biden. The proposal is also expected to grant the President the authority to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion over the next two years, and create a 12 member bipartisan congressional panel to recommend additional cuts and revenue generating options by the end of the year. The White House has argued for a more far reaching plan, but would likely accept this option. Many congressional Republicans like the plan as it allows them to argue that they opposed new taxes and cut domestic spending. Moreover, Republicans feel they will gain political momentum by forcing the President to request additional debt ceiling increases going into the 2012 election. Given that some recent political opinion polls show that more Americans would blame congressional Republicans for a default, it is likely that the President feels confident that he can make a case that he tried for a significant debt deal but was thwarted by ideologues in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

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House Bill Would Cut NSF, NOAA Budgets

On 13 July 2011, the House Appropriations Committee approved a measure that would fund the National Science Foundation (NSF) at $6.85 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2012. This is the same amount the agency received in FY 2011, but roughly $900 million less than President Obama requested.

Despite the flat funding for NSF as a whole, Research and Related Activities would receive an additional $43 million. This increase would come at the expense of Education and Human Resources ($26 million decrease) and Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction ($17 million decrease). Funding for Agency Operations and Award Management would be unchanged from FY 2011. The smaller budget for construction could jeopardize NSF’s plans to fund construction of the National Ecological Observatory Network and the Ocean Observatories Initiative.

The proposed funding level may be a disappointment to some, but others in the scientific community feel grateful that NSF was not subjected to deeper cuts. Funding for the Departments of Commerce and Justice and for related agencies would decline by 3 percent below FY 2008, under the House proposal. “Despite a 6 percent lower allocation than in fiscal year 2011, this bill increases funding for research accounts at [National Institute of Standards and Technology] and NSF,” said subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA). “Investments in scientific research are critical to long-term economic growth and job creation.”

Other science programs did not fare as well. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would receive $4.5 billion, about $50 million less than FY 2011 and $1 billion less than President Obama requested. The reductions could cause delays in the acquisition of the Joint Polar Satellite System, which will provide next-generation weather and climate data. Despite reducing funding for many of NOAA’s research and monitoring programs, the Committee directed “NOAA to continue to increase extramural research funding in future requests to build broad community support and leverage external funding for mission-oriented research.” Additionally, the Committee denied the agency’s proposal to reorganization its climate research programs to create a Climate Service. The Committee report makes clear that no funds included in the bill can be used to create a Climate Service.

The budget for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would be cut by more than half. The reductions may be due to an ongoing dispute between OSTP and Congress over bilateral scientific engagement with China. Appropriators directed OSTP to prioritize its remaining funds towards efforts to coordinate and improve government programs designed to increase interest and proficiency in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

The House of Representatives could debate the legislation in the next few weeks. The Senate has yet to act on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Activities FY 2012 appropriations.

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House Appropriators Cut Funding for Environmental Research and Conservation Programs

The House Appropriations Committee has passed a bill to fund the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in fiscal year (FY) 2012. The bill would cut funding for several scientific and conservation agencies, and would reduce support for climate change programs by 22 percent. “This Committee remains skeptical of the Administration’s efforts to re-package existing programs and to fund new ones in the name of climate change,” stated the Committee’s report on the bill. “That the climate is changing is not in dispute. However, recent rapid increases in funding and the number of new and seemingly duplicative programs are potentially wasteful.”

Funding for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) would decline by $30 million relative to last year to $1.05 billion. The programs targeted for reductions include climate research (-$23.7 million, 37 percent reduction) and biological and ecosystems research and monitoring (-$10.7 million, 7 percent reduction). The proposed cuts to biological research include:

  • $4.8 million from wildlife and terrestrial endangered species research
  • $1.0 million from aquatic and endangered resources research
  • $0.2 million from research on invasive species
  • $1.4 million from monitoring of species and habitat status and trends
  • $4.7 million from the Cooperative Research Units (partnerships between universities, states, and USGS to conduct biological research in 38 states)

Terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystem studies would receive an additional $1.5 million relative to FY 2011.

USGS climate research would be reduced by $13.4 million, although support for Climate Science Centers would increase by $4.7 million. Carbon sequestration research would be eliminated. Climate science support for other Interior bureaus would also be zeroed out.

The USGS Water Resources program would receive a boost of $5 million over FY 2011. The natural hazards and energy, minerals, and environmental health programs would be funded at the same amount as last year.

The budget for the Fish and Wildlife Service would be cut by $315 million (21 percent) from last year, including an 80 percent reduction in funding for land acquisition. The bill would eliminate funding for listing new species or establishing critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act, and would zero out funding for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Republicans on the Appropriations Committee justified the spending reductions by stating that the legislation that authorizes these programs has expired, and that the proposed appropriations are meant to incentivize the House Natural Resources Committee to address the lapsed legislation.

The EPA would receive $7.1 billion, about $1.5 billion less than FY 2011. Although two-thirds of the cuts would come from funds to assist states with water infrastructure, about $500 million would be cut from EPA’s operations. EPA Science and Technology would be cut by 7 percent to $754.6 million. The EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) fellowship program would be eliminated.

The United States Forest Service’s Rangeland Research program would be reduced by nearly 10 percent to $277.3 million. Most of this reduction would come from the elimination of the Forest Service’s climate research and development activities. According to report language, “The Committee strongly supports the Forest Service research program and its products. Unfortunately declining budget allocations have forced the Committee to make difficult choices and instead focus limited funds on the on-the-ground management of national forests for future generations.”

The House of Representatives could debate the legislation in the next few weeks. The Senate has yet to act on Interior and Environment and Related Activities FY 2012 appropriations.

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Students Urge Lawmakers to Invest in Science

Nearly 2,800 students pursuing a Ph.D., Master’s, or bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) have signed a letter to federal lawmakers encouraging sustained investments in the nation’s scientific research, education, and training programs.

“Throughout the 20th century, sustained investments in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics helped build our nation’s economy and improved quality of life for people around the world,” states the letter. “If the United States is to remain a global leader, both economically and scientifically, we must sustain and reinvest in STEM research and development.”

“As future scientists and educators, federal funding is important to us all,” said Rachel Meyer, one of the co-authors of the letter. “While addressing the nation’s budget challenges is essential, now is not the time to sacrifice investments in science.” Meyer is a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York, and Student Representative on the Board of Directors for the Botanical Society of America.

The petition was sent to Representatives who serve on the Appropriations Committee prior to the 13 July markup of legislation to fund the National Science Foundation (NSF) in fiscal year 2012. NSF is a major supporter of basic research at America’s universities and colleges. In many fields, such as biology, computer science, mathematics, and the social sciences, NSF is the primary source of federal funding.

“Science is a proven driver of economic growth in the United States,” said American Institute of Biological Sciences President Dr. James P. Collins. “Federal support for research and science education is vital for job creation and economic recovery, and for continued advancements in human health, national security, agriculture, energy, and environmental stewardship. The views expressed in this letter are a real credit to the foresight of these thousands of students.”

Residents of all 50 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam signed the letter. The students are pursuing degrees across a wide range of scientific disciplines, including biology, geology, chemistry, physics, linguistics, astronomy, math, computer science, and engineering.

The letter is the result of a joint effort between student members of the Botanical Society of America and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

A copy of the letter is available online at www.aibs.org/public-policy/sciencestudentsletter.html.

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National Academies Identify Elements of Successful STEM Schools

A congressionally requested report by the National Research Council aims to identify successful K-12 schools and programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The report examines three aspects of successful STEM schools: STEM instruction and school-level practices, STEM outcomes, and STEM-focused schools.

The committee concluded that educational practices are the most useful way of identifying criteria for success. Two practices in particular drew praise: instruction that captures students’ interest and involves them in STEM activities, and school conditions that support effective STEM instruction. Key elements to support such practices are a coherent set of standards and curriculum for STEM subjects, teachers with high capacity to teach in their discipline, adequate instructional time, and equal access to high-quality STEM learning opportunities.

In terms of STEM outcomes, student test scores are a valuable and readily available source of information. “Test scores, however, do not tell the whole story of success,” states the report. “Although it is difficult to measure interest and motivation (“joy at the prospect of discovery”), creativity (“a culture of innovation”), or commitment to “ethical behavior and the shared interests of humanity,” it is essential to do so given the importance of preparing students to be leaders in STEM innovation—and not just good test takers.”

The committee’s ability to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of different types of STEM schools, such as STEM schools with strict admission criteria or STEM-focused career and technical education programs, was hampered by limited research in the field.

To read “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”, visit http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13158.

On a related note, in the current issue of the AIBS journal, BioScience, Diane Ebert-May and colleagues report on research findings that suggest that professional development programs intended to cultivate skills in ‘learner-centered teaching’ may not produce the change previously thought. For more information about this study or BioScience, please go to http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-editorials/editorial201107.html.

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AIBS Comments on Revised NSF Merit Review Criteria

On 14 July 2011, AIBS provided comments to the National Science Board (NSB) and National Science Foundation (NSF) about recently proposed changes to the NSF merit review criteria.

After soliciting input on the criteria that are used to evaluate grant proposals submitted to NSF, the NSB recommended retaining the existing criteria of intellectual merit and broader impacts. Although the intellectual merit criterion was largely unchanged, the broader impacts criterion was rewritten and new guiding principles for reviewers and applicants were added.

AIBS expressed strong support for NSB’s decision to retain and revise the existing merit review criteria. Moreover, AIBS praised the agency’s decision to narrow the scope of the broader impacts criterion to make clear that each applicant is not expected to address all aspects of broader impacts (e.g. education, training, broadening participation, economic competitiveness, and so forth). Instead, applicants are encouraged to focus on one or more national goals.

The comments also encouraged NSB to add several national goals to the list of areas that NSF projects should collectively address.

To read the AIBS comments, visit www.aibs.org/position-statements/20110714nsfmerit_review.html.

To learn more about the revised merit review criteria, visit www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2011/06_mrtf.jsp.

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National Science Board Seeks Nominations for New Members

The National Science Board (NSB) is seeking nominations for candidates to serve six-year terms starting in 2012. Candidates should have a record of distinguished service; credibility in the scientific, technological, engineering, industrial, public sector, and educational communities; and demonstrated leadership in their field.

The NSB is comprised of 25 members who serve as a policymaking body for the National Science Foundation and as an advisory body to the President and Congress on science and engineering issues. NSB members are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Members represent a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines and geographic areas.

The deadline to submit a nomination is 12 August 2011. More information is available at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/members/nominations.jsp.

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Short Takes

  • Plant scientists have often felt that the cute, cuddly, or charismatic mega-fauna get all the attention. Scientists affiliated with the Botanical Society of America, an AIBS Member Society, have now launched an effort to show the public that "plants are cool, too." Learn more about this interesting initiative at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woryvfGmmqE.

  • The National Science Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development have launched a joint international initiative to address global development challenges. Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research will support and build scientific and technical capacity in the developing world. Six pilot projects will explore research challenges related to ecosystems, climate change, seismology, hydrology, and biodiversity.

  • The National Science Foundation will conduct a strategic review of the United State's research and diplomatic activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The U.S. Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel will be lead by Norm Augustine, the former chair of the National Academy of Engineering.

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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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