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Public Policy Report for 4 June 2012

Appropriations Update: Despite Committee Progress, Few Bills Head to the Floor

After a strong start to the annual appropriations process, congressional progress on the appropriations process seems to be slowing. Both chambers are still working toward the final formulation of the 12 pieces of legislation that will collectively fund the federal government in fiscal year 2013, which begins on 1 October 2012.

Seven bills have been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and six have been passed by the House Appropriations Committee, but only two bills have been passed by either legislative body. The House of Representatives passed the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act in early May. That spending plan would provide $7.3 billion for the National Science Foundation and $5 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last week, the House advanced a measure that would fund military construction and veteran affairs. A final vote by the House on legislation to fund the Department of Energy is expected this week. H.R. 5325 would slightly reduce funding for the department’s Office of Science. Most of the reduction would be targeted at the Biological and Environmental Research program, which would be cut by 11 percent relative to the current funding level.

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Federal Agencies Propose New Research Plan for the Arctic

The thirteen federal agencies, departments, and offices that oversee research in the Arctic have developed a new five-year plan for scientific activities in the region. The plan for years 2013-2017 identifies seven priorities for U.S. Arctic research. Biological and environmental research forms the basis of several of the goals.

One interagency research initiative would seek to better understand terrestrial ecosystem processes and services as part of an effort to better understand climate change in the Arctic. The report identifies improved coordination and integration of terrestrial ecosystem research among agencies as one step towards obtaining this goal.

Another goal is to improve our knowledge of the physical and biological dynamics of the Arctic Ocean. Deploying the Distributed Biological Observatory could be one aspect of obtaining such data. The proposed observatory would monitor and record biophysical data in marine environments in the Arctic.

Other goals involve improving regional climate models, assessing impacts of climate change on Arctic communities, and studying the health issues of indigenous peoples.

Although not explicitly stated in the overarching goals, the research plan does address oil and gas development. The draft report includes plans for conducting environmental risk assessments of the potential impacts of oil and natural gas production. New offshore drilling is proposed in the previously untapped Chukchi Sea; plans are also moving forward for expanded drilling in the Beaufort Sea. Drilling opponents are concerned that the state of the science is too sparse to adequately assess the risks of drilling or to be able to adequately respond to an oil spill.

Comments on the draft plan will be accepted through 22 June 2012. More information is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-05-29/html/2012-12790.htm.

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NRC Report Identifies Opportunities for Improving Undergraduate Education

According to a new report from the National Research Council, solid evidence exists for what needs to be done to improve undergraduate science education, but these findings have not yet widely implemented.

Results from discipline-based education research in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering have yielded insights into ways to improve undergraduate instruction. One example is that traditional lectures are not as successful at imparting information as are student-centered learning strategies, such as interactive learning activities, students working in groups, and incorporation of authentic problems and questions into lessons.

Another barrier to learning is that students often misunderstand fundamental concepts, such as topics that involve very large or very small scales of time and space. Additionally, students have difficulty understanding graphs, models, and simulations.

The report calls for universities and scientific societies to work to support faculty efforts to use evidence-based teaching strategies, as well as train future faculty who value effective teaching.

Read the report at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13362.

Faculty members interested in participating in systemic changes to how the life sciences are taught in the post-secondary educational environment are also encouraged to apply to become a Vision and Change Leadership Fellow - a new joint initiative of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. For more information about this program, please visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/news/initiativelaunchedtochangeundergraduatebiologyeducation.html#032203.

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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 the American Institute of Biological Sciences, 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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White House Seeks Excellent Science Mentors

The Obama Administration is seeking nominations for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. The award recognizes outstanding mentors that “enhance the participation and retention of students and early-career investigators in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] disciplines, with a special emphasis on those who might not otherwise have considered or had access to opportunities in STEM fields, including women, minorities, and persons with disabilities,” according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Nominations for individuals or organizations will be accepted until 6 June 2012. More information is available at http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgmsumm.jsp?pimsid=5473.

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Biologists Honor Excellence in Research, Education, and Service

On 1 June 2012, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, or AIBS, honored the professional achievements of three globally recognized biologists with the AIBS Distinguished Scientist Award, Outstanding Service Award, and Education Award.

“The impact these individuals have made on biology has changed the trajectory of our science and our society, in creative, significant, and enduring ways,” said AIBS President Dr. Susan Stafford.

Dr. Barbara Schaal received the 2011-2012 AIBS Distinguished Scientist Award.

Schaal is widely recognized for her pioneering research. She was among the first to use molecular biology based approaches to understand evolutionary processes in plants, and she has worked to advance our understanding of plant molecular systematics and population genetics. Research in her laboratory has also addressed issues in conservation biology, including the loss of genetic variation in isolated plant populations, and the origins of the important tropical food crop, cassava.

After learning that she had been selected to receive the AIBS Distinguished Scientist Award, Schaal stated, “it is a great honor and particularly meaningful coming from AIBS, which has done such a superb job of representing the diversity of biological sciences.”

In 2005, Schaal became the first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States National Academy of Sciences, a post she still holds. Since April 2009, Schaal has served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST. She is also the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

In addition to her research and current national service, Schaal has previously served as the president of the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Botanical Society of America.

Schaal received her B.S. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and her Ph.D. from Yale University. Prior to joining Washington University in St. Louis, she was on the faculty at the University of Houston and The Ohio State University.

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy received the 2011-2012 AIBS Outstanding Service Award.

Lovejoy is an internationally recognized champion for the conservation of biological diversity - also commonly referred to as biodiversity, a term he is credited with establishing. Lovejoy’s career has been rooted in public service and could well be considered a model for scientists interested in translating biological research into environmental conservation.

Lovejoy conceived and designed the enormous ecological experiment in Brazil known at different times as the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems or the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments. The study offered a large-scale perspective on the ecology of the tropics that had not been previously considered. As a result of this work, the world was alerted to the problems of tropical deforestation, the special demands on tropical conservation, and the importance of Amazonia as a cradle of biodiversity.

At present, Lovejoy is University Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University and the Biodiversity Chair at The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. Previously, he has served as the President of The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment (2002-2008), Senior Advisor to the President of the United Nations Foundation (2001-2002), and as the Chief Biodiversity Advisor and Lead Specialist for Environment for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank. His distinguished career has included leadership positions with the Smithsonian Institution and the World Wildlife Fund. His volunteer service with professional scientific organizations, natural history museums, and environmental and education organizations is significant. He is a past-president of the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Lovejoy received a B.S. and Ph.D. in biology from Yale University.

Dr. Diane Ebert-May received the 2011-2012 AIBS Education Award.

Ebert-May has been described as one of the “go-to” people in the United States to call for expertise on teaching and learning in college biology courses. She was among the early advocates for innovation in undergraduate biology education, and has argued strongly for a scientific approach to determine how best to improve student-learning outcomes in undergraduate science courses. Ebert-May encourages her colleagues to “teach the way you conduct science so that teaching and research become naturally integrated.”

For years, Ebert-May has traveled across the nation to conduct workshops that have helped faculty members begin to think about how to introduce modern teaching methods into their courses. In addition to her science education work, she maintains an active field research program on tundra vegetation ecology.

After learning that she had received the award, Ebert-May said that she was “truly honored to receive this award because it recognizes the scholarship of biology education research that my students and I have advanced for decades.”

Ebert-May has authored or co-authored dozens of scholarly publications on science education or ecology. She has also been an active participant on national advisory committees and in professional scientific societies, including the Ecological Society of America and the American Society for Microbiology. Currently, she serves as Associate Editor for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and as a member of the Editorial Board for Life Science Education.

Currently, Ebert-May is a Professor of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. From 1998-2002 she was also the Director of the Lyman Briggs School at Michigan State University. Previously, she was an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, where she directed the Science and Mathematics Learning Center. She has also been affiliated with the University of Delaware and Husson College.

Ebert-May received her B.S. in botany and secondary education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and her Master’s and Ph.D. in environmental, population, and organismal biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The awards were presented during a program held in conjunction with an innovative AIBS conference that was held at The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Washington, DC Conference Center. The program brought about two dozen graduate students and post doctoral scholars in the biological sciences together with the award recipients, members of the AIBS Board of Directors, and others for a unique, cross-generational conversation about the profession of biology. The program enabled a diverse group of students, early career biologists, and mid- to late-career scientists to talk as equals, promoting an exchange of ideas and perspectives.

“This unique program helped us all learn about how we can collectively move our profession forward,” said Stafford. AIBS has been working to understand how professional societies can best meet and serve the needs of biologists and science educators in the years ahead. Stafford further stated: “There are a great many challenges facing society, biology, and scientific societies and organizations. This program was an opportunity to bring together those who have and will lead our science.”

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Biodiversity Scientists to Brief Congress about Digitization of Natural Science Collections

On Tuesday, 5 June 2012, the Natural Science Collections Alliance will sponsor a science briefing for congressional lawmakers in Washington, DC. The briefing, which will take place in room 2325 of the Rayburn House Office Building from 2:00-3:00 p.m., will provide policymakers with information about how digitization of specimens and associated data are increasing access to natural science collections for research, education, and other societal benefits.

All interested individuals are welcome to attend this public event.

Program speakers:

  • Dr. Mary Liz Jameson, Associate Professor, Wichita State University
    “The Value of Biological Collections to Science, Education, and the Economy”
  • Dr. Larry Page, President, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Curator of Fishes, Florida Museum of Natural History
    “Digitization: Exponentially Increasing Access to Collections Data”
  • Dr. Michael A. Mares, Director, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and Professor of Zoology, University of Oklahoma
    “Protecting and Using America’s Irreplaceable Resource Now and in the Future”

RSVP for the briefing at http://www.aibs.org/rsvp/digitization.html.

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AIBS, Scientific Societies Express Concern with Legislation that Would Limit Travel for Federal Scientists

A group of 50 scientific organizations wrote to Congressional leaders on 21 May 2012 to express concern regarding proposed travel restrictions for federal employees. AIBS was one of the signatories of the letter.

At issue are amendments that were passed in the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act, H.R. 2146) in the House of Representatives and the 21st Century Postal Service Act (S. 1789) in the Senate, which would place severe restrictions on government employees’ abilities to attend meetings and conferences.

The letter calls for Congress to “protect the integrity of the scientific enterprise” and “allow greater flexibility for government employees to attend scientific and technical conferences organized or supported by professional societies and non-governmental organizations.”

Read a copy of the letter at http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20120521travelrestrictions.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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