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Public Policy Report for 10 September 2012

Presidential Candidates Answer Top Science Policy Questions

Science and technology are increasingly central to societal and economic development. Despite the importance of science in national policy, it is a topic that is rarely addressed by political candidates. In an effort to raise the visibility of science in the presidential campaigns, ScienceDebate.org posed 14 questions about science policy to President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Both candidates recognized the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for U.S. economic growth, but put forth different proposals to ensure America’s continued leadership in these areas. Obama proposed doubling funding to key research agencies, and set the goal of preparing 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade. Romney stated innovation in the private section was critical, and would flourish with more access to human capital, simpler tax codes, less regulation, and more protection of intellectual property. He indicated a role for government in supporting the private sector by making higher education more affordable, and K-12 more accountable to parental choice and government standards.

The candidates stated they would support federal science funding, although Romney emphasized the importance of research commercialization and the private sector. Obama pointed to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e. the stimulus) as an example of his administration’s commitment to science: “$100 billion to support groundbreaking innovation with investments in energy, basic research, education and training, advanced vehicle technology, health IT and health research, high speed rail, smart grid, and information technology. Of these funds, we made a $90 billion investment in clean energy that will produce as much as $150 billion in clean energy projects.” Romney dismissed the effectiveness of the Obama administration investments in clean energy. Both candidates argued that they would make the research and development tax credit permanent.

Both candidates acknowledged human-caused climate change and its global nature. Despite previously declaring his doubts about society’s role in rising global temperatures, Romney stated “I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences.” He went on to declare a “lack of scientific consensus” regarding the extent and consequences of climate change, and criticized action by the United States on climate change on the grounds that it limited the development of U.S. industry or pushed industry to move outside of U.S. borders, without producing tangible benefits. Romney advocated a “No Regrets” policy: taking steps that lead to lower emissions, but that benefit the U.S. “regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.”

Obama made no mention of cap-and-trade or other binding international agreements. Rather he focused on what his administration has done to address climate change, including “historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles,” “unprecedented investments in clean energy,” and the proposed “first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions.” He supported a continuing role for the U.S. in international agreements on emission limits, and emphasized development of clean energy, which includes coal and natural gas, as well as renewable resources such as solar and wind.

With respect to the use of science in public policy, both candidates expressed a desire to incorporate scientific information into policymaking with transparency and without ideological manipulation. Romney additionally stated he would pursue “reforms to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account when they promulgate new rules.”

Obama and Romney had divergent takes on the role of federal government in preparing students in STEM fields. Obama emphasized government initiatives, in line with his “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which aims to bring together businesses, foundations, non-profits, and professional societies to improve STEM teaching and learning. He mentioned his plan for a national STEM Master Teacher Corps that would eventually support 10,000 of the best STEM teachers in the nation. In contrast, Romney said more spending would not solve the problem of K-12 education, and instead emphasized the need to reduce the power of teacher unions, increase school and teacher accountability, implement rewards and recruitment for effective teachers, and broaden parental choice.

The candidates also differed in their views on how to address society’s need for accessible fresh water, which is increasingly at risk due to consumption, evaporation, and pollution. Obama expressed a commitment to addressing the water crisis. His administration has awarded grants for water conservation projects and funded 5,100 water and wastewater community infrastructure projects. Romney contended that costly and inflexible regulation impose “unnecessary economic constraints and trigger inevitable litigation. The result is to delay progress that could be achieved, and to leave communities and natural resources worse instead of better off.” He proposed to modernize regulations, and renew focus on research into U.S. drinking and sanitation infrastructure through a combination of “incentives, market-based programs, and cooperative conservation measures.”

The candidates additionally responded to questions on pandemics and bio-security, energy, food, the Internet, ocean health, space, natural resources, and vaccination and public health. The questions were identified by the public and refined to 14 by a group of scientific organizations, which included the American Institute of Biological Sciences. The complete list of questions and candidate responses can be found at http://www.sciencedebate.org/debate12.

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NSF Announces Reorganization

The National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to realign four programs that are currently housed in the Office of the Director. The Office of Polar Programs will be moved from the Director’s Office to the Directorate for Geosciences. The Office of International Science and Engineering would be merged with the Office of Integrative Activities to become the Office of International and Integrative Activities. The Office of Cyberinfrastructure will be transferred to the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. The changes are set to occur in October.

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Park Service Advisory Board Recommends New Role for Science

A new report by the National Park Service (NPS) Advisory Board Science Committee recommends new paradigms for the agency’s management of the nation’s natural and cultural resources, as well as a “major, systematic, and comprehensive review of its policies.”

One recommendation is to accept that ecosystems change. Past policies have tried to maintain the parks in the conditions that prevailed before the arrival of Europeans settlers. The committee urges natural resource managers and decision makers to “rely on science for guidance in understanding novel conditions, threats, and risks to parks now and in the future.”

The report also recommends that management needs to be across the natural and cultural landscape, not focused on individual parks as distinct units. Connectivity within the system is needed to build resilience.

The report came at the behest of NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, who charged the Science Committee with updating a 1963 report that has been influential in management of wildlife in national parks. The new report, which was released at the end of August, takes a broader view beyond wildlife by addressing management of all natural and cultural resources in the custody of NPS.

“The need for science—to understand how park ecosystems function, monitor impacts of change (even from afar), inform decisions makers and their decisions, and enrich the public appreciation of park values—has never been greater,” states the report. Therefore, the authors state, the NPS needs a “specific and explicit” policy for park stewardship and decision-making based on the “best available sound science, accurate fidelity to the law, and long-term public interest.” NPS will also need a policy to encourage adoption of new technologies and establish data sharing strategies.

The committee recommends several specific actions to expand the role of science at NPS. Those recommendations include hiring “a new and diverse cohort” of scientists that should be stationed in parks. Career advancement, including increased opportunities in professional societies and publication of research findings, should also be prioritized. The report recommends creating a standing Science Advisory Board to offer external perspectives on science in national parks. Increased monitoring of conditions in the parks is needed and could be accomplished partly through citizen science.

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College Biology Faculty Named Leadership Fellows

The Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE) program announced on 7 September 2012 that it has selected 40 Vision and Change Leadership Fellows. The fellows will identify and consider how to eliminate barriers to the systemic changes that are needed to improve undergraduate life sciences education.

The PULSE program is a joint initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The effort is supporting a yearlong program in which Vision and Change Leadership Fellows consider and then recommend models for improving undergraduate life sciences education.

“The fellows represent a diverse group of extremely capable faculty,” said Judith Verbeke of NSF. “They bring a variety of experiences that will inform the development of an implementation framework that will transform undergraduate education in the life sciences.”

These post-secondary life sciences faculty members were competitively selected by an expert panel for their experience in catalyzing reform in undergraduate biology education.

After evaluating more than 250 applications, the PULSE steering committee selected the fellows. These individuals come from 24 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and represent research universities, liberal arts colleges, comprehensive/regional universities, and two-year colleges.

“We are very excited about the work on which the fellows are about to embark,” said Clifton A. Poodry of NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “The PULSE program will help move life sciences education forward.”

“The strong response we received to the call for applications reflects broad consensus in the community that change 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 to answer challenging 21st century problems. “The time is now,” said Bauerle.

In 2006, 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 by NIH and HHMI, 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.

“To foster this widespread systemic change, NSF, HHMI, and NIH launched the PULSE program,” said Verbeke. Supporting the effort are Knowinnovation, Inc. and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

PULSE will stimulate systemic change in undergraduate life science education by focusing on strategies that drive institutional change. Because a change in institutional culture is needed, PULSE activities are focused on academic departments and not individual faculty members.

In May, PULSE announced a national competition to identify Vision and Change Leadership Fellows. The 40 fellows announced will produce an implementation framework describing strategies for change. This document will be available on the PULSE website where other life scientists may review it and provide comments from November 2012 until May 2013. The biology community is encouraged to review and enrich this framework via the PULSE online colleague community. Program organizers stress that they welcome the participation of the breadth of the post-secondary life sciences community.

A list of the Vision and Change Leadership Fellows is available at www.pulsecommunity.org/forum/topics/announcement-v-c-leadership-fellows. Learn more about PULSE or engage with the growing online PULSE community at www.pulsecommunity.org.

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Act Now: Urge Congress to Prevent Devastating Budget Cuts

It is not too late to urge Congress to avoid the forthcoming $1.2 billion budget sequestration. This automatic spending cut would have dramatic negative impacts on U.S. domestic programs, including science and education.

Without action by lawmakers, all discretionary research, education, and environmental programs will be cut by at least 8 percent in January 2013.

Please take a minute now to send a letter to your members of Congress asking them to devise a bipartisan solution to addressing the nation’s debt crisis and avoid draconian cuts that will hurt the economy and the nation’s future. Visit http://capwiz.com/aibs/issues/alert/?alertid=61759666 to send a prepared letter.

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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! (www.aibs.org/public-policy/legislativeactioncenter.html)

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. These exciting new advocacy tools 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 policy advocates 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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