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Public Policy Report for 24 September 2012

Congress Passes Stop-Gap Spending Measure

Congress has approved a measure to keep the federal government funded through March 2013. The Continuing Resolution provides $1.047 trillion in total funding, a 0.6 percent boost over fiscal year (FY) 2012 spending levels. This slight increase will be spread evenly across discretionary spending accounts, including federal science agencies.

Approval of the Continuing Resolution means that the battle over FY 2013 appropriations will be deferred for six months. The new federal fiscal year begins on 1 October 2012. Despite the rapidly approaching end of the current fiscal year, lawmakers continue to disagree about how much to spend on discretionary programs. Thus, none of the twelve appropriations bills that collectively fund the federal government have been enacted.

Passage of the Continuing Resolution does not forestall the $1.2 trillion budget sequestration that is scheduled to begin on 2 January 2013. Thus, if Congress and the President fail to reach an agreement prior to 2 January, sequestration will begin and funds will be cut from the amounts appropriated under the Continuing Resolution.

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White House Sequestration Report Details Billions of Dollars in Potential Cuts to Science

Federal non-defense, discretionary science agencies and other programs are likely to be cut by 8.2 percent in January unless lawmakers take action to prevent budget sequestration. The automatic, across-the-board reductions would affect the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and Interior, among others, according to a report from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released on 14 September 2012. Research and development programs at the Department of Defense, including medical and environmental research, would be subject to a 9.4 percent cut.

The OMB budget sequestration report was produced in response to a congressional directive passed over the summer. According to the OMB report, NSF would be slashed by $586 million, an amount comparable to three-quarters of the budget for the Biological Sciences Directorate. NIH would likely fund 700 fewer grants as a result of a $2.5 billion cut. The budget for the United States Geological Survey would be trimmed by at least $88 million. It is anticipated that agricultural research and education at the Department of Agriculture would be cut by $150 million. Science and technology at the Environmental Protection Agency could be reduced by $65 million; this is about as much as the agency spends on ecosystem research.

Department of Defense programs, including various medical and environmental research and development programs, will be subject to a 9.4 percent reduction.

Dr. Susan Stafford, president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, expressed concern for the nation’s scientific and educational systems if indiscriminate, across the board budget cuts are implemented in January 2013.

“Sequestration is bad for our nation’s scientific research and development enterprise. These arbitrary cuts to federal research programs will slow innovation, hinder economic growth, and do nothing to help prepare the next generation for good paying jobs,” said Stafford. “The report from the Office of Management and Budget illustrates the negative impacts on our scientific research programs if budget sequestration occurs in January. The answer to our fiscal and budget challenges is not reckless budget cuts that will hurt environmental monitoring programs or slow medical research. New economic opportunities are born from research. As someone who has managed scientific research programs, I have to say that it is unwise to carelessly cut on-going research and science education programs. We must take a long-term, balanced, and responsible approach to rebuilding our fiscal house.”

The Obama Administration and some members of Congress have sounded the alarm about the negative impacts of sequestration on America’s delicate economic recovery. The OMB report states: “no amount of planning can mitigate the significant impact of the sequestration. The destructive across-the-board cuts required by the sequestration are not a substitute for a responsible deficit reduction plan. The President has already presented two proposals for balanced and comprehensive deficit reduction, but under our Constitution, he cannot do the job alone. Congress also needs to act. The Administration remains ready to work with Congress to enact a balanced plan that achieves at least the level of deficit reduction agreed to in the BCA [Budget Control Act], and cancels the sequestration.”

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Impending Budget Cuts to Science Detailed in AIBS Report

The American Institute of Biological Sciences has produced a report that explains the fiscal cliff, budget sequestration, and other forthcoming fiscal problems that have the potential to negatively impact federal investments in research and science education.

Under current law, $6.8 trillion in deficit reduction will occur over the next decade through increased taxes and spending cuts. The increasingly discussed ‘fiscal cliff’ refers to this abrupt and significant change to the federal budget that will occur in January 2013. If Congress and the President fail to reach an agreement to forestall the fiscal cliff, government spending will automatically be cut in January, and tax rates will rise for many Americans.

One aspect of the fiscal cliff that is of particular concern is $1.2 trillion in across-the-board defense and non-defense spending reductions set to occur over the next decade. This budget sequestration is set to start in 2013. Non-defense agencies, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of the Interior, and others, will lose about 8.2 percent of their funding next year. Defense programs, including various research and development programs, will be subject to a 9.4 percent reduction. These cuts will likely cause layoffs of federal employees, cuts to external grants and contracts, and reduced government services.

Download a free copy of the report to learn more: http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/resources/AIBSSequestrationReport.pdf.

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House Backs Effort to Protect Defense from Sequestration

On 13 September 2012, the House of Representatives passed a Republican-backed bill to address the $55 billion in defense cuts set to take effect in January under current law. HR 6365 would require President Obama to produce a plan to replace the defense cuts that are part of sequestration with other spending reductions. Specifically, revenues would not be allowed to increase. This would likely mean that spending on non-defense discretionary programs, such as research, national parks, transportation, and health, would be cut even further than the 8.2 percent reduction required by the Budget Control Act.

Democrats panned the legislation, instead calling for a balanced approach that cuts spending while also increasing revenues. The Senate is not expected to take up HR 6365.

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House Fails to Pass Bill to Boost Visas for Highly Skilled STEM Workers

Last week, the House of Representatives failed to garner enough votes to pass a measure that would have made it easier for foreign-born scientists and engineers educated at American universities to work in the United States. The bill, HR 6429, was rejected after bicameral negotiations between Republicans and Democrats broke down.

Competing bills have been introduced in Congress to increase the number of green cards for highly skilled immigrants graduating from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). Despite bipartisan consensus on the need to retain STEM graduates, and strong backing from business and higher education, a year of private talks aimed at compromise between House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Democrats in the Senate and the House broke down. Chairman Smith then decided to move forward without a consensus proposal.

Chairman Smith’s bill would eliminate 55,000 visas currently given out by the diversity visa program—by which permanent visas are awarded via a lottery system to applicants from countries without a large immigrant population in the U.S—instead reserving them for foreign graduates of U.S. universities who have obtained a Masters degree or PhD. The bill would apply only to graduates in computer and information sciences and support services, engineering, mathematics and statistics, and physical sciences. Other STEM graduates would be ineligible, including those with degrees in biology.

Not increasing the net number of visas was a critical provision to gain support of conservative Republicans, but generated resistance from Democrats. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus joined in urging opposition to the bill. “I would like to improve the STEM visa program without doing damage to other parts of our legal immigration systems,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL). “Republicans are only willing to increase legal immigration for immigrants they want by eliminating legal immigration for immigrants they don’t want.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced an alternative bill (HR 6412) that closely mirrored Smith’s except for the key provision that it would give 50,000 green cards to STEM graduates without abolishing the diversity visa program. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) proposed similar legislation that would retain the diversity visa program, as well as include additional immigration provisions important to Senate Democrats.

The House of Representatives rejected a motion to suspend the rules and pass Smith’s bill. Despite garnering 257 votes mostly from Republicans, the measure fell short of the required two-thirds required to pass the bill under the House rules used to bring the measure to the floor. Further proceedings on the motion and consideration of alternative bills have been postponed.

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USDA Announces Long-Term Agroecosystem Network

On 10 September 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) announced the establishment of a Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network. This program will seek to capture and model the complexity of long-term agricultural processes at a national scale, such as the potentially transformative impact of slow change and episodic or unpredictable events on agricultural systems. Modeled on the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) highly successful Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network, LTAR would develop innovative strategies ensuring U.S. food security and manage emerging issues in agricultural sustainability.

The initial LTAR network consists of 10 of the 22 watersheds and experimental range research sites already maintained by ARS nationwide, with more sites to be added later. The sites cover 10 states and a range of environments, and were selected based on criteria including an existing track record of long-term research, partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, and a commitment to sustained, standardized data-collection for the next 30 to 50 years. ARS will be seeking partnerships in network research, with universities and with federal and nongovernmental organizations. Work on LTAR is ongoing, and a concrete strategic research plan is expected to be ready by early next year. At this time, there is no new funding available for LTAR. Phil Roberson of Michigan State University told ScienceInsider, “Success will hinge on whether funding becomes available to underwrite a robust suite of long-term, cross sites questions…. I’m hopeful, especially if [the USDA] leverage the experience of NSF’s LTER network.”

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USGS Coalition Honors Representatives LaTourette, McCollum

On 12 September 2012, the USGS Coalition honored Representatives Steven LaTourette (R-OH) and Betty McCollum (D-MN) with the Coalition’s 2012 Leadership Award. The awards were presented during the USGS Coalition’s annual reception on Capitol Hill.

AIBS is a founding member of the USGS Coalition and AIBS director of public policy Robert Gropp is chair of the group. In addition to remarks by both Representatives, two senior Interior officials spoke. Lori Caramanian, deputy assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior, and Suzette Kimball, deputy director of the USGS, thanked the Representatives and the USGS Coalition for the years of effort they have given to elevating the profile of the USGS among policymakers.

“We are pleased to recognize Representatives LaTourette and McCollum for their sustained efforts to champion the scientific programs of the United States Geological Survey. Their leadership in Congress has helped increase awareness of the USGS,” said Gropp. “Representatives McCollum and LaTourette clearly understand that USGS research in biology, geology, water and geography provides the American people with vitally important information every day. USGS research and information contribute to economic growth, improve the public health and safety, and enhance our ability to wisely manage our natural resources.”

Congressman LaTourette is serving his ninth term in the U.S. House of Representatives and represents Northeast Ohio’s 14th Congressional District. He serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for the USGS and other Department of Interior programs. As a member of the subcommittee, LaTourette plays an important role in ensuring that the USGS has the resources it needs to provide the department and the nation with the scientific information required to make informed decisions. He emphasizes effective use of tax dollars in the management of these natural and cultural resources with a keen understanding that these resources also enhance economic development.

“I’m flattered by the award. I truly believe the only way we can protect our country’s greatest natural resources is to understand them better. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a huge fan of the USGS work and have been a proud supporter of it for these past 18 years in Congress,” stated Congressman LaTourette.

Representative McCollum is serving her sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Minnesota’s 4th District. In 2000, Congresswoman McCollum made history as the second Minnesota woman elected to serve in Congress since statehood in 1858. She serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for the USGS. Her strong support of USGS science to manage natural resources and improve clean energy technologies emphasizes her commitment to environmental stewardship and global economic competitiveness.

Representative McCollum attested, “It is an honor to be recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey Coalition for the work we do together to wisely manage America’s natural resources so that we can improve public health and grow our economy. Communities and businesses across our country rely on the scientific information USGS provides to make informed decisions. I will continue working with my Republican and Democratic colleagues in Congress to ensure USGS has the resources it needs to serve the American people.”

For more information about the USGS Coalition, please visit www.usgscoalition.org.

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4th Annual Congressional District Visits Event a Success

In August, scientists and educators participated in the 4th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event. This nationwide initiative encouraged scientists to meet with their members of Congress in their local area rather than in Washington, DC, and allowed elected officials to learn first-hand about the science and research facilities in their district.

Scientists participating in the event discussed the importance of life sciences research with the individuals responsible for casting the votes that shape the nation’s science policy.

Notable meetings include:

  • Representative John Barrow (GA) toured the biology facility under construction at Georgia Southern University.
  • Representative Barbara Lee (CA) met with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley Natural History Museums.
  • Representative Jackie Speier (CA) met with a faculty member from San Francisco State University.
  • North Carolina State Senator Eleanor Kinnaird attended a research poster session organized by graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Florida State Representative Ben Albritton toured the Bok Tower Gardens.

The 2012 event drew the participation of individual scientists and educators, as well as museums, botanic gardens, and other research centers. In total, participants from 14 different states took part in the event.

In addition to the American Institutes of Biological Sciences, sponsors of the 2012 event were the Long-Term Ecological Research Network, Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and Natural Science Collections Alliance.

An interactive, online training program prepared participants for meetings, including helping them create and refine their messages. The AIBS Public Policy Office also provided participating scientists with a handbook on successful engagement with policymakers.

Organizations that are interested in sponsoring or participating in the 2013 event should contact Robert Gropp at 202-628-1500.

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Science Committee Chairman Introduces Drought Data Bill

Representatives Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Dan Boren (D-OK) have introduced a bill (HR 6489) to improve federal efforts to prepare and respond to drought. The bill would reauthorize the National Integrated Drought Information System, which acts as a clearinghouse for drought-related data. The legislation would also further development of regional drought early warning systems, and identifies unmet needs for drought research, monitoring, and forecasting.

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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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