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Public Policy Report for 17 June 2013

Supreme Court Says No to Patents on Human Genes

On 13 June 2013 the United States Supreme Court ruled that human genes cannot be patented. The unanimous decision stated that isolating specific genes was not worthy of a patent.

The case considered by the high court dealt with patents held by Myriad Genetics, Inc. for two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that have been linked to breast and ovarian cancer. The company uses the genes to test patients for their risk of developing cancer.

“Myriad did not create anything,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas on behalf of the court. “To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”

“Had Myriad created an innovative method of manipulating genes while searching for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, it could possibly have sought a method patent,” Thomas wrote. “But the processes used by Myriad to isolate DNA were well understood by geneticists at the time.”

Despite striking down the patents on human genes, the Supreme Court did uphold Myriad Genetics’ right to patent cDNA, which is created from RNA that is reverse transcribed via an enzyme. As one science blogger points out, this is simply a change of media. “This is like saying you couldn’t patent a recipe on paper, but if you transfer it word for word onto sheepskin, it becomes patentable,” wrote Dr. Mark Hoffnagle on his blog about denialism.

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, praised the court’s decision: “The right to control exclusively the use of a patient’s genes could have made it more difficult to access new tests and treatments that rely on novel technologies that can quickly determine the sequence of any of the estimated 20,000 genes in the human genome. Such approaches form the cornerstone of the rapidly emerging field of personalized medicine, in which diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive strategies can be tailored to each person’s unique genetic makeup.”

There are roughly 4,000 gene-related patents in the United States.

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Proposed Protections for Captive Chimps Could Hamper Biomedical Research

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced plans to increase protections for captive chimpanzees. The species would be listed as ‘endangered’ in both the wild and captivity, a move that would require federal oversight of any activates that would harm or kill chimpanzees, including some research.

The new listing would require a federal permit before an invasive technique, like drawing blood or performing surgery, could be conducted on a chimp. Only research that “enhance[s] the propagation or survival” of the species would be approved.

The proposed rule is open for public comment for 60 days.

When chimpanzees were first listed as a protected species in 1990, only wild chimps were designated as endangered. Captive animals were listed as threatened, which allowed them to be used for medical research and other uses, such as entertainment, without a federal permit.

“This is the only time we treated a captive population different from a wild population,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe. “The justification for our proposal is built on an analysis that the ESA [Endangered Species Act] does not allow us to do that. This would be the last split listing that we would ever do.”

The federal government estimates that there are about 2,000 captive chimpanzees in the United States, half of which are used for biomedical research.

“I think the de facto meaning will be that those that use chimpanzees for invasive medical research will throw up their hands and say the door is closing and they should be getting out of the business,” said Dr. John Pippin, a cardiologist and director of academic affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which supports the upgraded protections for chimps.

In recent years, the federal government has begun to move away from supporting medical research on chimpanzees. In January 2013, the National Institutes of Health Council of Councils approved a report that recommended permanently retiring most chimps from research and moving the animals to sanctuaries.

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Senate Passes Agriculture Reform Bill

Efforts to reform U.S. agricultural policy advanced with Senate passage of S. 954, the “Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013.” The ‘Farm Bill’, as it is commonly known, passed the Senate on 10 June with a bipartisan vote of 66-27.

The legislation authorizes $955 billion over five years for farm subsidy, conservation, rural energy, and nutrition assistance programs. This spending level is about $18 billion less over the next decade than current policy, if sequestration is taken into account. Many of the policies outlined in S. 954 are similar to the legislation passed by the Senate last year; that bill ultimately stalled in the House and was not enacted into law.

S. 954 would set funding levels for a multitude of agricultural research programs. Fifty million dollars would be devoted to a new integrated research initiative on farm animals. Competitive grants for international science and education programs would receive $5 million a year. The National Genetics Resources Program would receive $1 million a year for five years. Agriculture biosecurity grants would be funded at $5 million a year.

A new Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research would be established to award research grants, identify agricultural research needs, facilitate technology transfer, and train the next generation of scientists. The non-profit foundation would solicit private funding to support agricultural research, and would be endowed with $200 million from the federal government.

Other research initiatives are proposed for removal from the current farm bill, including deer tick ecology, wetlands use research, genetically modified agriculture products research, and land use management research.

During the Senate’s consideration of the bill, more than 250 amendments were filed, but Senators voted on only 15 amendments. Among the amendments not considered was a provision offered by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that would have ordered a study of the impacts of extreme weather and climate change on agriculture in the United States. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) offered an amendment that would have reaffirmed the scientific basis of and human contributions to climate change. The amendment also outlined that efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change are “economically prudent” and “in the best security and fiscal interests” of the nation.

The House of Representatives is considering its own version of the farm bill. The chamber will consider the legislation this week.

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Register for the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits

The American Institute of Biological Sciences is proud to announce that it is partnering with the Entomological Society of America to present the 5th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event.

This national initiative is an opportunity for biologists across the country to meet with their federal or state elected officials to showcase the people, facilities, and equipment that are required to support and conduct scientific research.

The 5th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event will be held throughout the month of August 2013. This event is an opportunity for scientists, graduate students, representatives of research facilities, and people affiliated with scientific collections to meet with their elected officials without traveling to Washington, DC. Participants may either invite their elected officials to visit their research facility or can meet at the policymaker’s local office.

Participants will be prepared for their meeting with a lawmaker through an interactive training webinar. Individuals participating in this event will receive information about improving their communication skills, tips for conducting a successful meeting with an elected official, and information about federal funding for biological research.

The event is made possible by the American Institute of Biological Sciences and Entomological Society of America, with the support of event sponsors American Society of Naturalists, Botanical Society of America, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, and Society for the Study of Evolution.

Participation is free, but registration will close on 15 July 2013. For more information and to register, visit www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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USDA To Create Regional Climate Research Hubs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced plans to establish seven new regional climate hubs. The hubs will conduct research that aims to mitigate climate change’s effects on crop production, livestock, and forestland.

“The hubs will enable us to carry out regionally appropriate climate change risk and vulnerability assessments, and get data out to the field more quickly,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Practically, the hubs will deal out advice to farmers and forest owners on ways to reduce risks and manage change.”

Some of the hubs will be established at existing USDA facilities. Land grant and public universities will join as partners. The hubs will be located in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Northern Plains, Southern Plains, Pacific Northwest, and Southwest.

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NSF Political Science Research to Continue Despite Congressional Ban

The National Science Foundation (NSF) will continue to fund political science research despite orders from Congress to scale back investments in this arena. In a recently announced decision, NSF stated that it will continue to review proposals submitted to the Political Science Program. Review panels will be asked to provide input on whether proposals meet one or both congressionally directed criteria of “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

In March, Congress approved a law that includes a provision that bars NSF from awarding any grants to political science research unless the agency’s director can certify the grants as in the nation’s economic or security interests. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), a vocal critic of NSF, authored the amendment. The provision will only be in effect until the end of the current fiscal year.

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USAID Releases First Policy on Biodiversity Conservation

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has released a draft policy that “seeks to advance biodiversity conservation as an essential component of human development.”

The policy outlines three outcomes: 1) conserve biodiversity in priority places, 2) improved development outcomes from integrating biodiversity conservation and development, and 3) enhance global biodiversity conservation practice through USAID leadership.

Read the draft report online at http://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1865/USAID-Biodiversity-Policy-Draft-6-7-13.pdf. Submit comments by 24 June 2013 at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1oYr_HCwbdCWornT07sm36lgBdYGnhBMoxzCgtuxr560/viewform.

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Call for Session Proposals: 2014 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference

The 2014 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference is soliciting proposals from the community for sessions to address the conference themes and integrative topics. For guidelines and submission instructions, please visit http://gulfofmexicoconference.org/program/scientific-sessions/. The deadline for submissions is 30 June 2013.

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Short Takes

  • The Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council is seeking nominations for potential committee members for a new study. "A Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences: Guidance for NSF on National Ocean Research Priorities" was requested by the National Science Foundation. Nominations are due by 17 June 2013 and can be submitted at http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/1260708/Nominations-for-OSB-Decadal-Survey.

  • The National Science Foundation is accepting proposals for the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program. This initiative seeks to enhance and expand digital data documenting existing vouchered biological and paleontological collections. The deadline for full proposals is 18 October 2013. More information is available at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2013/nsf13569/nsf13569.htm.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to deploy a new grants reporting system, REEport, to replace the existing Current Research Information System. The new system would implement a uniform format for reporting performance progress on federally funded research projects. Learn more at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-06-07/html/2013-13571.htm.

  • Researchers from the U.S. Forest Service have developed a new tool for forest resource managers to identify regions facing multiple threats, including wildfires, insects and disease, and land-use change. The study is published in the May 2013 issue of the Journal of Forestry.

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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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