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Public Policy Report for 21 May 2012

House Passes Bill to Fund NSF, but Nixes Political Science Research and Climate Education

The House of Representatives passed the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2013 (H.R. 5326) on 10 May 2012. The bill would provide funding for several science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in addition to the Departments of Commerce and Justice in fiscal year (FY) 2013. The bill passed with bipartisan support in a 247-163 vote.

NSF would receive $7.3 billion, $299 more than the current spending level. The new funding is largely directed to research, as well as education initiatives. Funding for agency operations and grant administration would remain flat. Funding is also included for the continued construction of the National Ecological Observatory Network.

Several amendments were offered on the House floor that could have negative impacts for NSF if they are included in the final version of the bill. Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) sponsored an amendment that would prohibit NSF from funding political science research. It was agreed to by a margin of only ten votes. Another amendment offered by Rep. Flake that was rejected would have cut funding for NSF by $1.2 billion. Although all Democrats and about half of Republicans opposed the amendment, several Republican members of the House Science, Technology, and Space Committee supported the proposal. A third amendment successfully offered by Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN) prohibits funding for NSF’s climate change education program.

H.R. 5326 provides $5 billion for NOAA, a slight increase over the FY 2012 level. NOAA’s weather satellites would receive the bulk of the new funding, whereas research, agency operations, and facilities would receive slightly less funding than the current year.

Two amendments related to NOAA’s climate work were adopted during House consideration of the bill. One proposal sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, cut $542,000 from the budget for NOAA’s online climate portal: climate.gov. An amendment offered by Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) reduced funding for NOAA’s climate services by $18 million.

The White House has issued a memo stating: “If the President were presented with H.R. 5326, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.” The Obama Administration’s major concern with the bill is that it includes less funding than was stipulated in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which paved the way for the raising of the debt limit last summer in exchange for budget cuts in future years.

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed their version of the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bill in April. The Senate is expected to start floor debate of the bill in June.

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Calling All Biologists: Showcase Science to Policymakers

This August, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) will coordinate the 4th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event. This national initiative encourages members of the science community to meet with their elected officials. Unlike other efforts to educate members of Congress about the importance of scientific research and education programs, this event occurs across the country - not in Washington, DC.

As part of Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits, scientists and representatives of research facilities will meet with their members of Congress to describe how science is conducted and why a sustained investment in research and education programs must be a national priority. Participating scientists will meet with their elected officials at a district office or may invite them to visit a research laboratory, field site, or natural history collection.

AIBS Public Policy Office staff will provide background materials and a webinar training program to prepare individuals for their meetings. Participants will receive information about federal funding for biological and environmental research, tools for improving their communication skills, and tips for conducting a successful meeting with an elected official. Participating scientists will receive guidance and some assistance with scheduling meetings.

The event is made possible by Event Sponsors Long-Term Ecological Research Network, Museum of Comparative Zoology-Harvard University, and Natural Science Collections Alliance.

Participation is free, but registration will close on 15 July 2012. For more information and to register, visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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New International Group Formed to Address Science Funding Issues

Fifty nations have joined together to form the Global Research Council (GRC), a new international body that aims to find common ground on issues faced by government agencies that fund research. The organization is a “voluntary…virtual organization” that will enable discussion of “shared goals, aspirations, and principles, and provide a vehicle to unify science across the globe,” according to Dr. Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation and a member of the organization.

The group has already tackled the issue of merit review of grant proposals. Six key principles are outlined in a short paper produced by the GRC. According to the document, the report is meant to foster international cooperation among science funding agencies by outlining agreed upon core principles for review of research proposals. Second, the document can serve as a resource for nations that are just developing new research funding mechanisms.

The GRC plans to address two other issues of joint concern in this year: defining research integrity and promoting open access to scientific information.

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National Initiative Launched to Change the Way Biology Departments Approach Undergraduate Education

A new national initiative promises to improve college biology education by engaging faculty members in an effort to change how post-secondary life sciences departments approach education. PULSE, which stands for Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education, is a collaborative effort funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Program organizers also announced today that they are accepting applications from faculty members interested in becoming Vision and Change Leadership Fellows - individuals who will lead a national effort to stimulate systemic change in how post-secondary educational institutions approach biology education. The intent of the program is to develop a strategy to implement the findings from a 2011 report.

College students and faculty members have long argued that the approach to undergraduate education in the life sciences should be modernized to reflect what we now understand about how students learn. Twenty-first century science demands that students develop scientific and technical skills, and also the capacity to work beyond traditional academic boundaries. Undergraduate students, regardless of their major, deserve and need a life sciences education that helps then understand biology and how scientific research is conducted. Informed decision-making, whether managing one’s health, deciding what food to eat, or understanding how individual actions influence the environment, requires an appreciation of the nature of science.

In 2006, the NSF initiated a multi-year conversation with the scientific community, with assistance from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That dialogue, which was co-funded with the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, generated the 2011 report, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action.

The scientific community actively informed the recommendations in the Vision and Change report. Among these were a recognition that a 21st century education requires changes to how biology is taught, how academic departments support faculty, and how curricular decisions are made.

“There is now broad consensus about the change that is needed,” said HHMI’s Cynthia Bauerle. The way biology is taught needs to change in order to “spark student interest in science and prepare them for the challenging scientific problems we face in the 21st century.”

Prior efforts to reform post-secondary life sciences education have focused on helping individual faculty members improve their teaching methods. These initiatives have created points of excellence at institutions across the country, but have failed to produce the systemic change that is needed to fundamentally improve college-level biology education.

To foster this widespread change, the NSF, NIH, and HHMI have partnered to launch the PULSE program. Supporting the effort are Knowinnovation and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

The PULSE initiative will facilitate the systemic change that was identified as a national priority in the Vision and Change report.

Clifton A. Poodry of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the division of NIH providing funding to PULSE, notes that NIH has a long-standing commitment to training the next generation. “We look forward to furthering this goal through our partnership with NSF and HHMI to implement recommendations of the Vision and Change report for improving undergraduate biology education,” said Poodry.

This year PULSE will select 40 Vision and Change Leadership Fellows. The selection process will identify individuals experienced in catalyzing undergraduate biology education reform at institutional, departmental, or divisional levels in the nation’s colleges and universities. The Fellows will represent research universities, regional or comprehensive universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. The Fellows will be engaged in a yearlong effort to develop an implementation strategy for the Vision and Change report.

“What we are trying to achieve is systemic change, transformation of undergraduate biology education in this country,” stated Judith Verbeke of the NSF. This is why the PULSE effort is encouraging current or former biology department heads to apply. “The focus is intentional,” said Verbeke, “because it’s at the level of the department that so many decisions are made. We are looking to the department as the most appropriate unit to make real change.”

Ideal applicants will be aware of the history and discourse of reforming undergraduate life sciences education; have undergraduate teaching experience as well as experience mentoring, motivating and evaluating other faculty; and will have experience as current or former chairs or department heads. Applicants should be active in cultivating the mix of scholarship in teaching and life sciences research appropriate to their type of institution. Successful candidates will have a record of working collaboratively and creatively with individuals from different backgrounds.

It is through diversity of perspective that we achieve change, Bauerle said, “We seek not only those who are already members of the choir, but also committed life scientists and educators who question how best to proceed.”

Applications for the Vision and Change Leadership Fellows program will be accepted through July 9, 2012. Information about the PULSE program, including application guidelines, is available at www.pulsecommunity.org. The Vision and Change report is online at http://visionandchange.org/finalreport.

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Policy Provision Could Prohibit Feds from Attending Scientific Meetings

Federal employees could be barred from attending non-governmental meetings and conferences if a policy endorsed by Congress is enacted. Moreover, the legislative provision would limit federal agencies to participating in one privately sponsored conference per year.

These provisions are part of the congressional response to the reports of an extravagant conference organized by the General Services Administration in Las Vegas, Nevada. These reforms, however, could have the consequence of preventing federal researchers from interacting with the broader scientific community at annual meetings hosted by professional societies.

A group of about 50 scientific organizations, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences, have written to Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to urge them to address this issue. The letter urges greater flexibility for government employees to attend scientific and technical conferences organized or supported by professional societies and non-governmental organizations.

The legislative proposal is part of the House-passed DATA Act and the postal reform bill passed by the Senate. Neither of these bills has been taken up yet by the other chamber.

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Public Comments Sought on Draft Science Education Standards

A collaborative, state-led process to standardize science education across the nation has resulted in the development of draft K-12 science standards. The standards are based upon the National Research Council’s “Framework for K-12 Science Education.”

The standards are written as student performance expectations, which are grouped by topic. Each standard includes both disciplinary core ideas as well as crosscutting, interdisciplinary concepts. Examples of biological standards include natural selection and adaptation, connections between organisms and their environments, and structure and function of living organisms.

Public comments will be accepted through 1 June 2012. Read the draft standards and submit comments at http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards.

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Short Takes

  • The National Institute of Food and Agriculture has a new director to oversee the program's research, extension, and education missions. Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy was previously the dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University. He holds a Ph.D., M.S. and B.S. in entomology, and is a fellow of the Entomological Society of America.

  • On 5 June 2012 from 2:00-3:00 p.m., the Natural Science Collections Alliance will hold a science briefing for policymakers in Washington, DC on digitizing science collections. The briefing will explore how scientists and natural science collections managers are working to digitize the nation's natural science collections to press forward the frontiers of research, spur new technology, and provide information to answer pressing societal problems. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more and RSVP at http://aibs.org/rsvp/digitization.html.

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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, 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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