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Public Policy Report for 31 December 2012

Deadline Looms for Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

Lawmakers are running out of time to seal a deal to prevent tax hikes and spending cuts. With only hours left before the start of 2013, the policies that comprise the fiscal cliff will start to go into effect as soon as tomorrow unless legislation is enacted immediately.

Congressional leaders and the President worked through the weekend to try to negotiate a compromise. Although President Obama and Speaker Boehner had been the central players in the negotiations in recent weeks, Vice President Biden and Senator Minority Leader McConnell began their own talks over the weekend. Their negotiations continued through Monday morning, although no deal had yet been reached at the time of publication.

Some concessions have been made, however. It has been reported by several news sources that Democrats have relented on raising taxes on household income over $250,000 a year. Instead, taxes would only be raised on income above $450,000 a year—a number that could go even higher if Republicans have their way. Republicans have reportedly given up on a proposal to slow the growth of Social Security cost-of-living increases—a major stumbling block for liberals.

It is unclear if or how lawmakers will address budget sequestration. Under existing law, $109 billion in across-the-board spending cuts are required each year for the next decade. This would mean that non-defense discretionary programs, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of the Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, face mandatory 8.2 percent budget cuts next year, with further cuts over the next decade. Defense, including medical and environmental research supported by the Department of Defense, and security programs would be cut by 9.4 percent in 2013, with additional cuts in the subsequent years.

Although addressing the Bush-era tax cuts would likely calm already jittery financial markets and ease taxpayer concerns, the sequestration could harm the nation’s economic growth. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, sequestration would reduce the nation’s economic growth by half a percentage point in 2013 and result in the loss of a million jobs.

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Senator Mikulski to Chair Appropriations Committee

Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) died on 17 December 2012. Senator Inouye had served as Chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Despite having served in the Senate for nearly fifty years, Inouye only became chair of the panel—which oversees allocation of annual federal spending—in 2009. He previously served as chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. During his tenure, Senator Inouye supported increased funding for federal programs, including veterans and infrastructure projects, as well as research and development.

After Inouye’s death, there was widespread speculation that there would be a scramble among the lawmakers in line to succeed him as chairman. Much to the surprise of some beltway insiders, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was named the new chair. Two more senior lawmakers passed up the opportunity. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) both decided to retain their current positions as chair of other Senate committees.

Senator Mikulski had previously chaired the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, which allocates funds to the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and the Departments of Commerce and Justice. She will be the first woman to lead the full committee.

Senator Mikulski aims to complete annual spending bills in a timely manner, something that Congress has struggled to do in recent years, and to work in a bipartisan manner. “[I]f we take the time to listen to each other, to respect each other and listen to the needs of the people, we can really work to get more bang out of the buck and get more value for the dollar,” said Senator Mikulski in a speech on the Senate floor. “We can have a stronger economy and a safer country. We can be frugal without being heartless. And at the same time, we can assure the taxpayers that we’ve heard them. They want us to really do a better job with our spending but at the same time they want to see it done in an open and transparent process.”

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Report Warns that Climate Change Is Already Disrupting Ecosystems

Shifting geographic ranges, altered timing of flowering and migration-these are just a few of the impacts of climate change that scientists have already documented. A new technical report outlines these and other impacts, as well as strategies for mitigating the risks to species and ecosystems.

“These geographic range and timing changes are causing cascading effects that extend through ecosystems, bringing together species that haven’t previously interacted and creating mismatches between animals and their food sources,” said Dr. Nancy Grimm, a lead author of the report.

“Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services” was prepared by a team of more than 60 scientists, including lead authors from the United States Geological Survey, National Wildlife Federation, and Arizona State University in Tempe. The report will be used in development of the 2013 Third National Climate Assessment.

“The report clearly indicates that as climate change continues to impact ecological systems, a net loss of global species’ diversity, as well as major shifts in the provision of ecosystem services, are quite likely,” said Dr. Michelle Staudinger, a lead author of the report.

Among the key findings:

  • Changes in winter weather have large and often unexpected effects on ecosystems.
  • Ecosystem services provided by coastal habitats are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise and more severe storms.
  • Development of adaptation strategies is vital for conservation of biodiversity.
  • Better monitoring and coordination among federal and state agencies is needed.

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NIH to Retire Chimps Used in Biomedical Research

Over one hundred chimpanzees that were formerly used in biomedical research studies will be retired and sent to the Chimp Haven federal sanctuary. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the plan in mid-December. The 110 chimps are currently housed at the New Iberia Research Center.

“These animals have made important contributions to research to improve human health, but new technologies have reduced the need for their continued use in research,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins.

The announcement marks another step taken by NIH to implement the recommendations made by an Institute of Medicine panel to restrict use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research. NIH announced a year ago that it was suspending funding for new research on chimpanzees. After the move of the New Iberia Research Center animals, NIH will still own about 300 chimps that are housed in research facilities.

The transfers of the animals, which will take place over the next 12 to 15 months, will double the size of the federally owned chimp population at Chimp Haven. Although some of the chimps can be accommodated within the sanctuary’s current capacity, there is not enough space for all of the animals. Chimp Haven has requested $2.3 million to build additional enclosures for the remaining animals. NIH, however, has stated that it does not have the funds to contribute to the construction. An additional complication is that the agency is nearing a legislative spending cap on the cumulative amount it can spend on the Federal Sanctuary System.

The Humane Society of the United States and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health have launched a fundraising effort to raise the needed money.

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New Orleans School Board Bans Teaching of Creationism

On 18 December 2012, the Orleans Parish School Board voted to ban the teaching of intelligent design in science classes and the purchasing of textbooks that promote creationism. The policy will only apply in the six schools run by the city’s local school board; other schools in New Orleans are run independently or by the state.

The policy does not appear to be prompted by any particular threat to the teaching of evolution. The vote was taken at the behest of Thomas Robichaux, the outgoing president of the board.

This is the second action taken in New Orleans in opposition to creationism. In 2011, the city council approved a resolution that endorsed the repeal of the state’s Louisiana Science Education Act, which most science education experts consider to be a misguided effort to allow the teaching of creationism in public schools.

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NPS Accepting Comments on Benefits Sharing Policy

The National Park Service (NPS) has released a draft Director’s Order that outlines policies and procedures that would allow the agency to share in the benefits of research conducted in a national park. The order would implement practices to allow NPS to receive “monetary or other benefits from a discovery or invention with a commercial application resulting from research originating under an NPS Scientific Research and Collecting Permit” or other permits.

The decision is an outgrowth of several commercial applications of scientific discoveries made in national parks, the most notable being the invention of polymerase chain reaction from the study of a microorganism discovered in Yellowstone National Park.

Public comments are being accepted through 22 January 2013. More information is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-12-21/html/2012-30830.htm.

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Graduate Student Leaders Sought to Shape Science Policy

Applications are now being accepted for the 2013 AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award. This award recognizes graduate students in the biological sciences who have demonstrated initiative and leadership in science policy. Recipients receive first-hand experience at the interface of science and public policy.

Winners receive:

  • A trip to Washington, DC, to participate in the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition Congressional Visits Day, an annual event that brings scientists to the nation’s capital to advocate for federal investment in the biological sciences, with a primary focus on the National Science Foundation. The event will last for two days and will be held on 10-11 April 2013. Domestic travel and hotel expenses will be paid for the winners.
  • Policy and communications training, and information on trends in federal science funding and the legislative process.
  • Meetings with Congressional policymakers to discuss the importance of federal investments in the biological sciences.
  • A 1-year AIBS membership, including a subscription to the journal BioScience and a copy of “Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media.”
  • An award certificate and membership in the EPPLA alumni network.

The 2013 award is open to U.S. citizens enrolled in a graduate degree program in the biological sciences, science education, or a closely allied field. Applicants should have a demonstrated interest in and commitment to science policy and/or science education policy. Prior EPPLA winners and AIBS science policy interns/fellows are not eligible.

Applications are due by 5:00 PM Eastern Time on Monday, 28 January 2013. The award application can be downloaded at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/eppla.html.

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Short Takes

  • Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson has announced that she will step down after leading the agency for four years. Although Jackson's tenure was often fraught with tense relations with congressional lawmakers--especially over climate change--the agency created the first greenhouse gas regulations under her leadership.

  • The nation needs one million addition graduates with an undergraduate degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), according to a new goal set by the Obama Administration. The additional graduates will be produced over the next decade. The need for additional STEM-skilled workers was first proposed earlier this year by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

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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, Association for the Sciences of 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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