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Public Policy Report for 11 October 2011

Scientists Express Concern with Senate Plans for Science

The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations has approved legislation that would cut funding for research and science education programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the coming fiscal year. NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense….” Since then, NSF has become an innovation agency contributing to the nation’s basic research infrastructure and education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These contributions are the foundations for economic growth, job creation, and an informed public that are so important for the country’s future.

NSF provides approximately 68 percent of the federal funding for non-medical, basic research at academic institutions in the life sciences, including environmental biology. NSF is the only federal agency that funds fundamental research and science education across all scientific disciplines.

The agency received approximately $6.8 billion for fiscal year 2011, a $65 million reduction from the 2010 spending level. As proposed by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, research programs central to fulfilling NSF’s mission would be cut an additional $120.9 million in fiscal year 2012. The Senate panel would also cut $32 million from science education and human resources programs. Collectively, just over $160 million in support for research and education programs would be cut.

“These budget cuts threaten the integrity of core research programs and educational opportunities for students from kindergarten through postdoctoral training,” warns AIBS president Dr. James P. Collins. “This plan is counter to the bipartisan pledges we have heard in recent years for investments in scientific research and education and is shortsighted relative to the nation’s welfare,” Collins notes.

Collins has previously served as Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences at NSF.

The House of Representatives has offered a more supportive spending plan that would come close to providing NSF with flat funding for the coming year.

“We all recognize the nation is facing challenging economic times, but the journey back to prosperity is going to be much longer and more daunting without a balanced and sustained investment in scientific research and education,” warns Collins.

Scientists and students have begun to express their frustration with widely swinging federal research budgets. More than 2,900 students from across the country have already signed a petition urging lawmakers to sustain investments in scientific research and education.

Collins encourages scientists to visit, call, or send a letter to their Senators to remind them of the importance of investing in science. “It is important that lawmakers understand that investing in scientific research and education is a commitment to the future just as was the case in the post-Sputnik era of the 1960s. As we look forward to a century that will increasingly demand the knowledge and skills of an educated public the future welfare of the country will depend on investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that we make today,” states Collins.

Scientists concerned about the changing tenor of support for scientific research and education can use the AIBS Legislative Action Center at http://capwiz.com/aibs/home/ to send a message to elected officials. Individuals may also wish to contact the President to encourage him to work aggressively to support investments in scientific research and education. A letter to the President Obama is available at http://capwiz.com/aibs/issues/alert/?alertid=53743516.

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NSF Announces Workplace Flexibility Initiative

National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Subra Suresh recently announced the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative, which lays the groundwork for a ten-year plan to expand work-related flexibility to women and men in research careers. Partnering with the White House Council on Women and Girls, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and First Lady Michelle Obama, this announcement signifies the first NSF-wide initiative to assist postdoctoral fellows and early-career faculty members with caring for dependents while pursuing their careers.

“Too many young women scientists and engineers get sidetracked or drop their promising careers because they find it too difficult to balance the needs of those careers and the needs of their families,” said Suresh. “This new initiative aims to change that, so that the country can benefit from the full range and diversity of its talent.”

This all comes as part of a continuing effort to increase the number of women and girls employed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Women currently earn 41 percent of Ph.D.’s in STEM fields, but comprise only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty in those fields. Council of Women and Girls Director Tina Tchen explains, “Jump-starting girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math subjects, and boosting the percentage of women employed in science and engineering is not just the right thing to do but is also the smart thing to do for America’s future and the economy.” Mrs. Obama added, “We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

NSF hopes the Career-Life Balance Initiative will become a successful model, and they are encouraging other universities and research institutions to adopt similar strategies. The new NSF guidelines include:

  • Allow up to a year postponement of grants for childbirth or adoption.
  • Allow grant suspension for parental leave.
  • Provide supplements to fund research technicians while principal investigators are on family leave.
  • Publicize the availability of family friendly opportunities.
  • Promote virtual reviews, rather than having panel reviewers travel to a central location.

For more information pertaining to the Career-Life Balance Initiative please refer to http://www.nsf.gov/career-life-balance/brochure.pdf?WT.mcid=USNSF80.

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USGS to Terminate NBII Program

Users of the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) will soon have to look elsewhere for data on the nation’s biological resources. The USGS announced last month that NBII will be shutdown on 15 January 2012. This means that nbii.gov and any associated applications or tools on USGS or partner websites will no longer be available.

The program’s termination was originally proposed in President Obama’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2012. Congress, however, accelerated budget reductions for the program. As a result, the USGS was forced to begin to terminate NBII in FY 2011.

NBII is a network of nodes that focus on thematic and regional issues, such as invasive species, bird conservation, and wildlife disease. The program’s website includes numerous tools for scientists and natural resource managers, on topics ranging from fish habitat to protected lands.

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Presidential Task Forces Releases Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Plan

The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Task Force established by President Obama has released its draft plan for long-term ecosystem restoration. The program aims to address the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as well as decades of wetland loss, eutrophication, and harm caused by other stresses.

The policy outlines four major goals: restore and conserve habitat; restore water quality; replenish and protect living coastal and marine resources; and enhance community resilience. Scientific research is considered as the basis for these actions. “Given the inherent complexities of undertaking ecosystem restoration on this scale, a key focus of implementation will be to ensure that ecosystem restoration efforts have a robust scientific foundation and use an effective adaptive management framework including necessary monitoring, modeling, research, and decision-support tools,” stated the Task Force.

Several scientific needs are outlined in the report, including investment in research and exploration to better understand Gulf ecosystems. Other goals include developing a comprehensive “watershed to Gulf” monitoring program and establishing a Gulf of Mexico modeling network. The expansion of ecosystem services benefits analysis tools to include socioeconomic benefits is also identified as a need.

Congress is considering legislation that could help to implement the plan. A Senate panel passed legislation in September that would direct up to 80 percent of fines paid in relation to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill into environmental and economic restoration programs in the region. The bill (S. 1400) would direct 5 percent of those funds to a new science and technology program. A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives last week.

Public comments on the draft report are being accepted through 26 October. For more information and to read the report, visit http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-10-05/html/2011-25769.htm.

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Excellence in Evolution Education Recognized

Mark Terry has been selected to receive the 2011 Evolution Education Award. The Award is sponsored annually by the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study and is presented by the National Association of Biology Teachers during the organization’s annual conference. The Award was established to recognize innovative classroom teaching and community education efforts. Terry is Science Chair as well as cofounder of the Northwest School in Seattle, Washington.

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Short Takes

  • After much partisan bickering, Congress finally enacted a spending plan that keeps the federal government open through mid-November. The Continuing Resolution reduces spending for the next several weeks by 1.5 percent relative to last year. The temporary reduction ensures that discretionary spending does not exceed the cap of $1.043 trillion set in the debt limit law.

  • Public comments are now being accepted on the National Global Change Research Plan, a 10-year strategic plan for the federal program that coordinates U.S. climate change research. Four goals frame the plan: advance science, inform decisions on adaptation and mitigation, build sustained assessment capacity, and advance communications and public education. Comments are being accepted through 29 November 2011. For more information, visit http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-09-30/html/2011-25211.htm.

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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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