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Public Policy Report for 18 June 2012

House Approves Cuts to Biological Research at Department of Energy

The House of Representatives approved a bill on 6 June 2012 that, if enacted, would reduce funding for the Department of Energy’s Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program by $69 million (11 percent) in fiscal year 2013. The program is part of the department’s Office of Science, whose budget would be cut by $72 million to $4.8 billion.

The House bill would also gut funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, better known as ARPA-E. The House-passed funding level is a 27 percent reduction from the current level.

The bill, H.R. 5325, passed with the support of 255 Representatives (207 Republicans and 29 Democrats), and was opposed by 165 Representatives (48 Republicans and 136 Democrats).

A bill pending in the Senate would provide a modest increase of $35 million to the Office of Science. BER would receive $16 million in new funding if S. 2465 were enacted. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the legislation in April, but the measure has not been considered by the full chamber.

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NIH Advisory Group Recommends Changes for Biomedical Research Workforce

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should make changes to workforce policies in order to promote the long-term sustainability of the biomedical research workforce, according to a new report by a government advisory group. NIH must address the increasing completion time for graduate degrees, low postdoctoral pay, and declining proportion of young researchers who obtain tenure-track positions.

The report by a working group of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director considered the future of the nation’s biomedical research workforce. The goal of the study was to ensure “future US competitiveness and innovation in biomedical research by creating pathways through undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training” that attract and retain the best scientists and prepare researchers to participate in a “broad-based and evolving economy.”

One troubling trend is the decline in the proportion of Ph.D. scientists who obtain tenure-track faculty positions. Since 1993, that proportion has declined from 34 percent to 26 percent. Given that most students will not obtain research faculty positions after completing their education, graduate schools need to do more to prepare students for a greater range of anticipated careers, according to the report’s authors. NIH could facilitate the development and implementation of such programs by supplementing training grants to institutions.

The report also expresses concern about the length of training in the biomedical sciences. The time it takes to complete a Ph.D. plus postdoctoral research in biomedicine is longer than in other scientific disciplines, such as chemistry and physics. The working group recommends that NIH should only support an individual student for up to six years, with an institutional average of five years.

The NIH is a major supporter of young researchers in the United States. According to the report, the vast majority of graduate students in the U.S. are supported by NIH training grants, fellowships, and/or research project grants. Although the number of students supported by the first two categories has not changed much over time, there has been substantial growth in the number of students supported by research grants.

The report does not call for a decrease in the number of students trained and supported by NIH. It does recommend, however, that the total number of graduate student and postdoctoral positions supported by NIH remain the same, and that the agency should try to support more young researchers directly through training grants and fellowships rather than through research grants. This would ensure that the students and postdocs receive proper training.

NIH should also increase pay for postdoctoral researchers to $42,000; it is currently $39,264. The stipend should increase each year thereafter by 4 percent, and later by 6 and 7 percent. The salary scale would also apply to postdocs supported by research grants. The goal is to incentivize institutions to move postdoctoral researchers to more permanent positions. Additionally, all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers should receive benefits comparable to other employees, including paid time off, health insurance, and maternity leave.

The report also addresses issues for biomedical researchers who are further along in their career. For one, NIH should consider gradually reducing the percentage of funds from NIH that can be used to support faculty salaries.

Read the report at http://acd.od.nih.gov/bwf.htm.

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NAS Report Finds Research Universities Key Asset for a Prosperous Nation

A new report by the National Academies of Science offers key principles and recommendations aimed at strengthening and preserving one of America’s most important assets, its research universities. American research universities are faced with new challenges as federal and state funding decline, and industry support weakens. The research and graduate programs of America’s research universities and their sustained contributions to the nation’s health, prosperity, and security make them extremely crucial to U.S. advancement and success.

“The talent, innovative ideas, and new technologies produced by U.S. research universities have led to some of our finest national achievements, from the modern agricultural revolution to the accessibility of the World Wide Web,” said Charles O. Holliday Jr., chair of the committee that wrote the report, chairman of the board of Bank of America, and former chair and CEO of DuPont. “Especially in these tough economic times, the nation cannot afford to defer investment in our best asset for building prosperity and success in the future.”

The report recommends ten critical steps that the United States should take in the coming years to ensure that the nation’s research universities continue to thrive. These steps include the federal government’s adoption of stable and effective policies, practices, and funding for university research and graduate education; strengthening the business role in research partnership; increasing university cost-effectiveness and productivity; improving the capacity of graduate programs; and ensuring that the U.S. continues to benefit strongly from the participation of international students and scholars in research enterprise.

The report stresses the essential role of partnerships among research universities, the federal government, states, and industry. The recommendations in the report will require each of these parties to participate in assuring the future of top-quality research and development in the United States.

Read the report, “Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security,” at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13396.

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Obama Administration Outlines R&D Funding Priorities for FY 2014

Federal activities that support the bioeconomy and biological innovation should be prioritized in fiscal year 2014, according to a memo from the White House to federal agencies. Such activities include “enhancing translational sciences” and training programs to prepare students for the bioeconomy workforce. The Obama Administration outlined its blueprint for a bio-based economy in April 2012.

Among the other funding priorities laid out in the memo are several administration favorites, including advanced manufacturing, clean energy, climate change, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. In terms of climate change, the top priority for research is scientific activities that advance understanding of vulnerability of human and natural systems to climate extremes.

Agencies whose primary mission is not research and development (R&D) should give priority to activities that strengthen the scientific basis for decision-making. In particular, R&D that advances the following policy goals should be prioritized: ecosystem and landscape scale management, implementation of the National Ocean Policy, stewardship of natural resources, and sustainable agricultural systems.

Other funding priorities include information technology R&D, nanotechnology, and commercialization of innovation.

A joint memo from the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science and Technology Policy is released each year as part of the federal budgeting process. The memo provides guidance to federal agencies on what to prioritize in R&D budgets in the upcoming fiscal year. Agencies are currently preparing their budget proposals for fiscal year 2014.

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AIBS Writes to House Appropriators about NSF Funding

On 13 June 2012, AIBS wrote to the leadership of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations to thank the members for their support of funding for scientific research at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The House passed a bill (H.R. 5326) in May that would fund NSF at $7.3 billion in fiscal year 2013, which starts on 1 October 2012. This would be a $299 million increase over the current funding level.

The bill also includes a provision that would prohibit NSF from funding political science research. This language was offered as an amendment by Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and was agreed to by a margin of only ten votes. The letter urges the Representatives to work to remove this policy provision during the conference process with the Senate.

Read the letter at http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20120613nsffunding.html.

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Scientific Societies, Universities Urge Senators to Support Research Funding

AIBS joined more than 120 other scientific organizations and universities in calling for the Senate to adequately support research at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in fiscal year 2013.

“As you prepare to debate the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013, the undersigned organizations urge you to reject attempts to reduce funding for NSF,” states the letter. “We also stand in strong opposition to legislative attempts to micromanage NSF and undermine the merit review process by singling out specific programs for elimination as recently occurred in the House.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a bill (S. 2323) that would provide NSF with a $240 million increase. The House-passed version of the bill would provide $59 million more than the Senate bill, but also includes a provision that would prohibit NSF from funding political science research.

The letter was organized by the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), of which AIBS is a member. Read a copy of the letter at http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20120613cnsfsenate_letter.html.

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AIBS Assists Member Organization with Science Policy Briefing

On 5 June 2012, scientists briefed Congress, federal agency personnel, and nongovernmental organization representatives about the importance of the nation’s natural science collections. The briefing explored how scientists and natural science collections managers are using new technology to digitize the nation’s natural science collections in an effort to increase access to these irreplaceable resources for research, education, and to inform our understanding and response to complex environmental problems.

The briefing was sponsored by the Natural Science Collections Alliance. AIBS helped to organize the event.

For more information and to download copies of the presentations, visit http://nscalliance.org/?p=490.

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Calling All Biologists: Showcase Science to Policymakers

Would you like to help inform the nation’s science policy without trekking to Washington, DC? Do you want to meet with your members of Congress to discuss the importance of federal investments in science?

Register now to participate in the 4th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event. This national initiative is an opportunity for biologists across the country to meet with their members of Congress to showcase the people, facilities, and equipment that are required to support and conduct scientific research.

The 4th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event will be held throughout the month of August 2012, when Representatives and Senators spend time in their Congressional districts and home states. This event is an opportunity for scientists, graduate students, representatives of research facilities, and people affiliated with scientific collections to meet with their members of Congress to demonstrate how science is conducted and why a sustained investment in research and education programs must be a national priority. Participating scientists may invite their elected officials to visit their research facility or can meet with them at a local congressional office.

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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Short Takes

  • The Canadian government recently announced that it would permanently close the Experimental Lake Area (ELA) of Ontario. The research facility has been the site of several important ecosystem experiments over the decades, including a foundational study that demonstrated the role of phosphorus in promoting algal growth. A group of scientific societies representing aquatic scientists have written to the Canadian government asking for a repeal of the decision. "The global aquatic and ecological communities are genuinely concerned about the impact closure of ELA will have on the strong and creative science that has been, and continues to be, conducted by Canadian freshwater researchers," states the letter. The letter was signed by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, Ecological Society of America, International Society of Limnology, Society of Canadian Limnologists, and Society for Freshwater Sciences.

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee passed legislation last week that would provide $30.7 billion (+$100 million) for the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2013. The bill would also create a new organization in the Department of Education to promote advances in science and engineering learning technologies.

  • The National Science Foundation is calling for transformative approaches to data management systems that will function across scientific and engineering disciplines. In a dear colleague letter from agency senior leadership, a call is made for solutions to integrate data across disciplines and existing projects. Read the letter at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2012/nsf12090/nsf12090.jsp?WT.mc_id=USNSF_25&WT.mc_ev=click.

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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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