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Public Policy Report for 11 March 2013

Sequestration Cuts Take Effect

On 1 March 2013, federal budget cuts that — according to the White House and members of Congress — were not meant to happen, began. Sequestration — $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts to nearly all federal agencies — was meant as a threat to force congressional action to reduce the federal budget deficit. For a year and half, lawmakers have bemoaned how terrible the impacts of sequestration would be. Yet, as the deadline approached for action, little effort was made to further delay or avert the spending reductions, which some have compared to using a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel to cut spending.

Non-defense programs, including agencies that support science, will be cut by about 9 percent over the next seven months. Defense funding will be cut by 13 percent in the remainder of fiscal year 2013. An additional $700 billion in sequestration cuts will occur over the next decade unless current law is changed.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has estimated the impacts of sequestration to federal programs.

  • The National Science Foundation will cut $290 million from its research budget, resulting in roughly 1,000 fewer research grants this year. Education programs will lose $47 million.
  • Within the Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Research Service, will lose $55 million and extramural research will be cut by $36 million this year.
  • Funding for research at the United States Geological Survey will decline by $54 million.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will lose $165 million from its operations, research, and facilities account.
  • The budget for the Department of Energy Office of Science will be cut by $245 million.
  • Science and technology at the Environmental Protection Agency will decrease by $40 million.
  • The budget for the National Institutes of Health will decline by $1.6 billion.
  • Research and development programs at the Department of Defense will be cut by $1.6 billion.

On 28 February, the Senate voted on two competing proposals to avert sequestration this fiscal year. Both plans failed to garner the necessary number of votes. The proposal backed by Senate Democrats sought to avert sequestration for the remainder of the year through higher taxes on the wealthy, new tax revenue from oil extraction from tar sands, and spending reductions in agriculture subsidies and defense. Senate Republicans backed a plan that would have allowed President Obama more flexibility in how to apply the cuts instead of the current requirement to make cuts across-the-board.

Lawmakers have now shifted their focus to dealing with funding the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2013, which ends on 30 September 2013. The current funding law expires on 27 March, after which a government shutdown would occur if no new agreement were enacted.

The House of Representatives passed a bill last week to fund nearly all federal agencies at sequester-reduced levels for the rest of the fiscal year. Although non-defense programs would not be granted leeway in regards to the automatic cuts, the Department of Defense would be given some flexibility in how the cuts are allocated. HR 933 passed 267 to 151, with 53 Democrats in support and 14 Republicans against.

The Senate is expected to consider a measure this week that would fund most of the government at current reduced levels until October. Some non-defense departments and agencies may be given more flexibility in how they allocate the cuts, however details of the legislation was not yet available at time of publication.

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President Obama Announces Nominations for Energy, EPA

Stressing the importance of clean energy and climate change, President Barack Obama nominated MIT physicist Ernest Moniz to head the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy to become EPA Administrator. Obama believes that Moniz and McCarthy will build on “the work that we’ve done to control our own energy future, while reducing pollution that contributes to climate change.”

Moniz, a former Energy undersecretary during the Clinton administration and adviser to Obama on various energy policy issues, “already knows his way around the Department of Energy,” according to the President. “Most importantly, Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy, while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate.”

Although Moniz’s nomination has received bipartisan support, the nominee has drawn criticism from some environmental groups for his “all of the above” energy policy and support for nuclear energy and natural gas.

McCarthy, who currently heads the EPA Office of Air and Radiation, has a reputation for communicating well with industries and stakeholders, but her nomination may face resistance from Senators concerned with the EPA’s climate policy. McCarthy has previously overseen regulations on fuel economy standards, sulfur in gasoline, and greenhouse gas emissions for power plants.

Both nominations still need to be confirmed by the Senate.

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Scientists Call for Greater Access to Biodiversity Resources, Data

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) has released a report from a workshop of experts that was convened last fall to outline the steps needed to build a Network Integrated Biocollections Alliance (NIBA) in the next ten years. NIBA is a national scientific, engineering, and data management initiative first called for in 2010. When built, NIBA will provide online access to digitized data for biological specimens held in natural history museums, university science departments, and government laboratories, among other repositories.

The experts’ workshop was convened by AIBS with support from the National Science Foundation.

NIBA is a coordinated, large-scale and sustained effort to digitize the nation’s biological collections in order to make their data and images available through the Internet. The Implementation Plan for a Network Integrated Biocollections Alliance (www.aibs.org/public-policy/biocollections.html) “provides a detailed roadmap to achieve a vital national goal, which will be extremely important in coping with consequences of climate change, invasive species, pollution and other major environmental problems,” said Dr. James Hanken, director of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and an author of the report.

In 2010, the scientific community developed a Strategic Plan for NIBA. The Strategic Plan has been well received, but the scientific community also recognized a need to augment the Strategic Plan by identifying the key steps, milestones, and stakeholders required to fully achieve its goals. Thus, AIBS convened a workshop to develop an Implementation Plan for NIBA. Both documents have emerged from the biocollections community and have been widely informed through workshops of experts. The broader scientific community and the public have also provided input that informed the final Implementation Plan.

“Scientists are eager to see the NIBA implemented,” said Dr. Lucinda McDade, Interim Executive Director of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and an author of the report. Hanken concurs and notes that NIBA is required to help move research forward and to ensure that policymakers and the public have access to the information they need to make informed decisions.

“This report strongly emphasizes research applications while also highlighting important educational components and focusing on workforce training that will be necessary to achieve and sustain NIBA,” said McDade.

The National Science Foundation already is showing earnest commitment to achieving many of the goals identified in the report through several current funding initiatives, notes Hanken. “Full implementation of NIBA will require additional investments by other federal and state agencies that hold major biocollections.”

The report identifies many specific activities that can and should be led by individual scientific societies, biocollections institutions, federal and state agencies, colleges and universities, and other consumers of digitized data.

The Implementation Plan includes detailed recommendations to:

  1. Establish an organizational and governance structure that will provide the national leadership and decision-making mechanism required to implement NIBA and to fully realize its Strategic Plan.
  2. Advance engineering of the US biocollections cyberinfrastructure.
  3. Enhance the training of existing collections staff and to create the next generation of biodiversity information managers.
  4. Increase support for and participation in NIBA by the research community and a broad spectrum of stakeholders.
  5. Establish an enduring and sustainable knowledge base.
  6. Infuse specimen-based learning and exploration into formal and informal education.

“We urge all stakeholders to join the NIBA effort,” said McDade.

The Strategic Plan for NIBA is at http://digbiocol.wordpress.com/brochure/.

The Implementation Plan for NIBA is at www.aibs.org/public-policy/biocollections.html.

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House Panel Considers Immigration Reform for Skilled Workers

Immigration reform continues to be a topic of interest in Congress. Last week, the House Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee held a hearing on “Enhancing American Competitiveness through Skilled Immigration.” The focus of the hearing was foreign born workers with skills in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) voiced his support for immigration reform for skilled workers. “In this new Congress, we can rechart our nation’s course anew. We should look at all aspects of high-skilled immigration policy. We can look for ways to improve our temporary visa programs for skilled workers - such as H-1B and L visas. We can look for ways to improve our temporary visa program for entrepreneurs - the E-2 program. We can look for ways to offer green cards to aspiring entrepreneurs that don’t demand that they themselves be rich but that instead rely on the judgment of the venture capitalists who have funded them. We can look for ways to reduce the backlogs for second and third preference employment-based green cards. And we can seek to help the United States retain more of the foreign students who graduate from our universities.”

Echoing President Barack Obama’s call to “staple green cards to advanced STEM diplomas,” Bruce Morrison testified on behalf of IEEE-USA in favor of reforming the current immigration system to increase the number green cards available to foreign-born STEM graduates from U.S. institutions.

Citing the deficit of skilled American workers in the STEM industries and the strength of foreign-born workers in these fields, Benjamin Johnson, director of the American Immigration Council, provided insights on the positive economic impact and enhanced American competitiveness that increasing skilled immigration can bring. “A 2012 report found that each foreign-born graduate from a U.S. university with an advanced degree who remains in the U.S. to work in a STEM occupation creates an average of 2.62 jobs for American workers,” said Johnson, referring to a study by the Information Technology Industry Council, the Partnership for a New American Economy, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The proposed reform would eliminate backlogs that leave some foreign-born STEM graduates waiting more than a decade for green cards, prompting Johnson to label America’s failure to reform its immigration system as “national suicide.”

Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council testified that “it’s time we upgraded our skilled immigration system to serve our national interest, and anticipate and meet the demands of the U.S. economy - now and in the future.”

In 2012, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would have made it easier for STEM graduates to stay in the United States after graduate school. The bill would have taken 55,000 visas currently awarded lottery-style by the diversity immigrant program and redirected them to foreign graduates who have earned advanced science degrees at U.S. universities, thereby eliminating the diversity program. Preference would have been given to those holding a doctoral degree in STEM fields, and remaining visas would have gone to Master’s degree-holders. The bill died at the close of the second session of the 112th Congress.

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NIH to Hold Webinar on Data Quality in Animal Studies

A public webinar will be held on 20 March about assessment of data quality in animal studies. The event is organized by the Office of Health Assessment and Translation, the Division of the National Toxicology Program, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The meeting will begin with invited presentations related to the assessment of study quality followed by a general discussion period. A preliminary agenda is available at http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/38752.

The deadline to register to participate is 18 March. More information is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-03-08/html/2013-05406.htm.

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EPA Seeks Experts to Review Watershed Study

Nominations are being accepted for a panel of scientific experts to review a draft science synthesis report on the connectivity of streams and wetlands to downstream waters. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board is convening the panel.

Scientists with expertise in stream or wetland ecology or biologists with expertise in population dynamics and dispersal are encouraged to apply.

Nominations are due by 29 March 2013. More information is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-03-08/html/2013-05500.htm.

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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 Entomological Society of America, 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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