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Public Policy Report for 2 August 2011

Breaking News: Deficit Deal Nears Completion

It increasingly appears that federal lawmakers are prepared to take a short respite from the partisan posturing and bickering that has driven the debate about the debt ceiling and the federal deficit. On Sunday evening, the President and congressional leaders announced that they had struck a deal that would allow the United States Treasury to borrow the money required to avoid an August 2nd federal default and trigger what some economists have speculated would be a global economic crisis. The House of Representatives approved the deal on Monday by a 269-161 vote. Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) plans to have the measure before the Senate today.

Details of the plan are still emerging and the ramifications for federal investments in scientific research are not known yet. Despite the jubilance of Democratic and Republican leaders, some policy analysts as well as the progressive and conservative wings of both political parties are increasingly skeptical about the merits of the agreement.

In brief, the final plan reportedly will provide for an immediate increase to the federal debt ceiling. According to White House documents, the plan would also:

  • Immediately impose a 10-year discretionary spending cap generating nearly $1 trillion in deficit reduction, balanced between defense and non-defense spending.
  • Provide the President with the authority to increase the debt limit by at least $2.1 trillion, eliminating the need for further increases until 2013.
  • Establish a bipartisan committee process tasked with identifying an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, including from entitlements and tax reform. The committee is required to report legislation by 23 November 2011, which receives fast-track protections. Congress is required to vote on Committee recommendations by 23 December 2011.
  • Create an enforcement mechanism established to force all parties - Republican and Democrat - to agree to balanced deficit reduction. If the committee fails, the enforcement mechanism will trigger spending reductions beginning in 2013 - split 50/50 between domestic and defense spending. Medicaid, Social Security and programs for the poor would be exempted from these cuts.

More analysis of the plan will be provided in the next Public Policy Report.

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New AIBS Membership Benefit: Press Relations

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is pleased to announce a new membership benefit: Press Relations.

The AIBS Public Policy Office is a national leader in communicating science to target audiences. In addition to offering training workshops that help scientists and educators develop the skills to communicate with elected officials and the news media, the Public Policy Office is now able to assist AIBS Member Societies and Organizations with news media relations. Participating AIBS Member Societies and Organizations can receive assistance in developing news releases and press conferences, targeting appropriate media outlets, issuing a news release on state, regional, national or international wire services, and a summary report of the coverage your release receives.

AIBS Member Societies and Organizations may access this new benefit on a fee-for-service basis. Substantial discounts are available to members that are “Participant” level or higher contributors to the AIBS Public Policy Office.

Please contact AIBS Director of Public Policy Dr. Robert Gropp at rgropp@aibs.org or 202-628-1500 x 250, to learn more about how AIBS can assist your organization with developing a media relations program, issuing a news release, or planning a press conference.

For information about other benefits available to AIBS Member Societies and Organizations, including contribution levels, please visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/funding_contributors.html.

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Judge Upholds Federal Funding for Stem Cell Research

On 27 July, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought against the federal government that threatened to halt federally funded research involving human embryonic stems cells. United States District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth ended a lawsuit that was brought against the government by two medical researchers who claimed they were disadvantaged by the Obama Administration’s stem cell policy because they study induced pluripotent stem cells (stem cells derived from adult cells).

Judge Lamberth previously ruled in August 2010 that the federal government had to stop funding research that involves human embryonic stem cells. That decision resulted in the National Institutes of Health halting all intramural stem cell research for two weeks last fall, until a higher court overturned the decision.

Many in the scientific community welcomed the news of the dismissal of the case. The victory is not final, however, as the plaintiffs could attempt to appeal the ruling all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

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Presidential Science Advisors Recommend Accounting of Ecosystem Services

A new report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) urges the federal government to periodically assess the condition and value of the nation’s ecosystem services. A Quadrennial Ecosystems Services Trends Assessment could build upon existing monitoring efforts, and could be conducted in conjunction with the quadrennial National Climate Assessment.

“It is common wisdom in business that economic growth depends on regular inventories of capital and assets, along with assessments of risks. Given that so much of our Nation’s economy is underpinned by our ecosystems, it is only sensible to periodically take an accounting of our environmental capital and assess the risks to it,” said Rosina Bierbaum, Dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, and co-chair of the working group that led the study. “Such assessments will greatly inform public policy concerning these assets.”

The report recommends that the government improve online accessibility of biological diversity data that federal agencies already collect. One way to achieve this would be for the government to enforce existing requirements that federal agencies publish data related to biodiversity preservation and ecosystem services within one year of collection. The data.gov website could be an appropriate venue for hosting the data. A coordinating entity should also be established to “interact with international biodiver¬sity and ecosystem information systems in the development of globally accepted biodiversity and ecosystem information standards, and should seek out and encourage partnerships with the private and academic sectors to develop innovative tools for data integration, analysis, visualization, and decision making,” states the report.

PCAST also called for the development of more sophisticated methodologies, such as remote sensing, to value ecosystem services for better prioritization of the $10 billion spent annually by federal agencies on ecological restoration and biodiversity-preservation activities.

To download a copy of the report, visit http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcastsustainingenvironmentalcapitalreport.pdf.

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Appeals Court Finds Genes Patentable

A federal appeals court ruled on 29 July 2011 that genes are patentable. The 2-1 decision overturns a lower court ruling that genes cannot be patented because they are “products of nature.”

Although the latest decision broadly supports the ability of biotech companies to patent DNA sequences, the court rejected claims by Myriad Genetics, a defendant in the case, on patents they hold for processes to identify individuals that carry a higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer. The plaintiffs in the case claimed 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). The appeals court rejected Myriad Genetics’ patent claims as being too abstract, as they do not describe a specific method of comparing patient genes against normal DNA sequences.

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House Considers Funding Cuts for Environmental Research and Conservation

Last week, the House of Representatives considered a bill (HR 2584) that would cut research funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and United States Forest Service in fiscal year (FY) 2012. The bill would reduce support for climate change programs at the Department of the Interior and EPA by 22 percent.

The legislation, as passed by the House Appropriations Committee, contains a number of policy provisions that would hamper EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and the United States Fish and Wildlife Services’ (USFWS) ability to list new species as endangered or threatened.

Over 200 amendments are expected to the bill, but only a small number of these have already been debated on the House floor. One surprise was the adoption of an amendment offered by Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA), who is the top ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. The amendment removed language from the bill that would have prevented USFWS from carrying out key functions of the Endangered Species Act, such as listing new species and designating critical habitat for protected species. The amendment was passed with the support of 37 Republicans and all but two House Democrats.

The House did not finish debate on the bill before adjourning for its August recess.

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NIH Proposes Changes to Human Research Subject Protections

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is seeking comments on a proposed rule that would revise its regulations on research involving humans. On 22 July 2011, HHS announced the changes it is considering to the 20-year old rule. The Department argues that the revisions would strengthen protections for people who participate in research studies.

Among the changes being considered are:

  1. Revising the existing risk-based framework to more accurately calibrate the level of review to the level of risk.
  2. Using a single Institutional Review Board review for all domestic sites of multi-site studies.
  3. Updating the forms and processes used for informed consent.
  4. Establishing mandatory data security and information protection standards for all studies involving identifiable or potentially identifiable data.
  5. Implementing a systematic approach to the collection and analysis of data on unanticipated problems and adverse events across all trials to harmonize the complicated array of definitions and reporting requirements, and to make the collection of data more efficient.
  6. Extending federal regulatory protections to apply to all research conducted at U.S. institutions receiving funding from the Common Rule agencies.
  7. Providing uniform guidance on federal regulations.

Comments on the proposed rule are being accepted until 26 September 2011. For more information, visit http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-07-26/html/2011-18792.htm.

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Biologists To Meet with Members of Congress

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is pleased to announce the launch of the 3rd Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event. This nationwide initiative intends to spur individual biologists and research centers to meet with their members of Congress during the August congressional district work period. The event helps participants to demonstrate the importance of their research to the individuals responsible for casting the votes that shape the nation’s science policy.

“Scientists engage in policy because many issues facing human populations, including global climate change, food production, and preservation of biodiversity, are inherently based in science,” said Dr. Steve Weller, President of the Botanical Society of America, a 2011 Sponsor of the event. “We need to ensure that these policies incorporate carefully-reasoned approaches based the best scientific information.”

The 3rd Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event occurs throughout the month of August. Participating scientists and research facilities will meet with their members of Congress to show them first-hand the people, equipment, and processes involved with modern scientific research.

“It is exciting to see the growing interest in this effort from members of the scientific community,” said AIBS Director of Public Policy Dr. Robert Gropp. “This year a number of leading scientific societies and organizations have joined us to sponsor this important event.”

Gropp further said, “As we have witnessed over the past several months, federal lawmakers have been engaged in a fever-pitched battle to set the future economic course for our nation. Scientific research can and must play a central role in these discussions. It is through scientific innovation that we create quality jobs, new markets, and a stronger economy. It is helpful to lawmakers to see how investments in research impact the communities they represent.”

In addition to AIBS, Sponsors of the 2011 event are the Botanical Society of America, Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, Natural Science Collections Alliance, and Organization of Biological Field Stations. The Supporters of the 2011 initiative are the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), Inc., Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.

As in past years, the event draws participation from individual scientists and educators, field stations, museums, state academies of science, and other research centers from across the nation.

“Researchers across the board recognize that there is a disconnect between the good science being published in scientific journals and the hearsay going around Capitol Hill,” said Clarisse Hart, manager of outreach and development for education and research programs at Harvard Forest, an event participant. “They also recognize that receiving federal grant money imbues them with a responsibility to communicate their findings to the public in a meaningful way.”

Participants of the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits were prepared for congressional meetings by an online training session presented by AIBS that helps scientists understand how to translate their research in meaningful ways for non-technical audiences. The AIBS Public Policy Office also provided participating scientists with a handbook on successful engagement with policymakers.

More information about the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event is available at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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Texas Education Board Does Not Approve Creationist Teaching Materials

When the Texas State Board of Education met in late July to consider supplemental teaching materials for science, many expected the board to approve materials that would open the door to the teaching of creationism. Instead, the school board did not act upon the pro-intelligent design materials submitted by International Databases.

The materials in question were evaluated last month by a state advisory panel, which did not recommend them for approval. Many had expected the State Board of Education to ignore the recommendation and vote to approve the creationist materials.

Ultimately, none of the supplemental materials approved by the school board during their two-day meeting were pro-creationist. This outcome was a welcomed surprise for science education advocates. In March 2009, the board adopted science standards that scientists and educators worried would open a door for intelligent design.

“These supplements reflect the overwhelming scientific consensus that evolution is the core of modern biology, and is a central and vital concept in any biology class,” commented Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “That these supplements were adopted unanimously reflects a long overdue change in the board. I commend the board for its refusal to politicize science education.”

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Short Takes

  • The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) has received a green light to initiate construction, after a decade of planning. The National Science Foundation recently announced that it will fund NEON at $18 million in fiscal year 2011. This will allow NEON to start construction at the first of its sites in Colorado and New England. NEON ultimately plans to build 62 sites across the U.S. that will gather and synthesize continental-scale data on the impacts of climate change, land use change, and invasive species on natural resources and biodiversity.

  • House appropriators would like to stop U.S. involvement in international climate mitigation and adaptation activities. A bill approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs would bar the State Department from using fiscal year 2012 funds to engage with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the U.N. Framework on Climate Change.

  • Scientists and public health officials report that the Department of Defense plays a critical role in global health research and development. Research!America sponsored a recent briefing on this topic in Washington, DC. Learn more at http://www.researchamerica.org/app/webroot/blog/?p=3373.

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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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