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Public Policy Report for 29 July 2013

Senate and House Panels Support Funding Increase for NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is poised to receive a sizeable increase in fiscal year 2014 if congressional appropriators have their way. In July, House and Senate panels each advanced funding bills for the agency that would provide new funding. The 1.6 percent increase proposed in the House would mean an additional $111 million for NSF over the current, post-sequestration level. The Senate panel is backing a $542 million increase (7.9 percent increase). NSF is currently funded at $6.9 billion.

Both pieces of legislation prioritize NSF’s Research and Related Activities account, which includes the Biological Sciences Directorate. NSF’s research portfolio would be boosted by 8.6 percent by the Senate and 2.4 percent by the House. The chambers differ in their proposals for education and facilities. The Education and Human Resources account would increase by 5.6 percent if the Senate plan is adopted, but would be cut by one percent under the House mark. Similarly, the House proposes a 7 percent cut for funding of facilities and major equipment; the Senate recommends a 7 percent increase.

Both Appropriations Committees denounced plans outlined by the Obama Administration to restructure science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs. More than 100 programs at 11 agencies were targeted for elimination or reorganization. The President proposed moving some programs to the Department of Education, National Science Foundation, or Smithsonian Institution. Under the proposal NSF would become the lead agency for undergraduate and graduate STEM education.

Both congressional panels expressed concern about the lack of vetting by the education community and Congress. The Senate Appropriations Committee stated in the report that accompanied their funding legislation: “The administration has yet to provide a viable plan ensuring that the new lead STEM institutions—the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and the Smithsonian Institution—can support the unique fellowship, training, and outreach programs now managed by other agencies. Conversely, what is proposed as a consolidation of existing STEM programs from NOAA, NASA, and NIST into the new lead STEM agencies is really the elimination of many proven and successful programs with no evaluation on why they were deemed duplicative or ineffective.”

The House panel wrote in their committee report: “The ideas presented in the budget request lack any substantive implementation plan and have little support within the STEM education community. In addition, the request conflicts with several findings and activities of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on STEM Education, most notably on the question of whether agency mission-specific fellowship and scholarship programs are a viable target of interagency coordination efforts.”

The Senate and House bills bar federal agencies from using any of the funds appropriated in fiscal year 2014 to reorganize STEM education programs.

The Senate legislation also addresses the issue of public access to federally funded research results. The bill would direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to report to the Committee on Appropriations on the administration’s coordinated plan to support increased public access to federally funded research.

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House Proposes Major Funding Cuts for Interior

The Department of the Interior and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could be subject to major budget cuts next year if legislation being considered by the House Appropriations Committee is enacted. At a markup last week, Democrats and Republicans on the Interior and Environment Subcommittee appeared largely unified in the position that the proposed $24.3 billion in funding for environmental, cultural, and resource management programs was inadequate. These programs were funded at $32 billion just three years ago. The proposed funding is about $4 billion lower than the 2013 enacted level.

“It’s not pretty. We’re not going to try and put lipstick on this,” stated a somber Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID).

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Representative Jim Moran (D-VA), walked out of the mark up after expressing ire at the proposed funding level. The bill “should be an embarrassment to the subcommittee, the full committee and the Congress as a whole,” said Moran.

The Environmental Protection Agency would be subject to a whooping 34 percent cut. Funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service would decline by 27 percent. The Smithsonian Institution would see a 19 percent cut. The bill would cut funding at the National Park Service and United States Geological Survey by nine percent.

Several members, including Chairman Simpson, expressed the view that the drastic reductions are a consequence of the government’s inability to reign in mandatory spending. Programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and others represent about 60 percent of the federal government’s annual budget. Growth of these programs has squeezed funding for non-discretionary programs, which includes the military, transportation, research, education, and environmental conservation.

“We are going to continue to see these kinds of dramatic reductions as long as we keep trying to reduce the debt by cutting discretionary spending alone, rather than also tackling mandatory spending, which is the real driver of our debt,” said Simpson. “We’ve got to have a big solution.” The deal would have to be brokered by party leaders, he continued, and include both revenue and entitlement spending cuts.

A major driver of the 19 percent reduction for the Interior and Environment and Related Agencies allocation is the lower funding caps adopted by the House of Representatives for 2014. At $967 billion, the House cap is about $91 billion lower than the budget set by the Senate. The House spending limit is consistent with the level dictated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, whereas Senate Democrats assume that budget sequestration will be eliminated.

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Funding Bills Differ on NOAA Appropriations

The House and Senate Appropriation Committees have proposed very different funding levels for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The Senate bill would fund NOAA at $5.6 billion, a $270 million increase about the fiscal year 2013 enacted level. This is $150 million above President Obama’s budget request for the agency.

The House Appropriations panel backed a total funding level of $4.9 billion. This is $89 million below the enacted level. The proposed House funding level is about a half a billion dollars short of what President Obama requested for NOAA.

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NSF Awards Third Round of Grants to Advance Digitization of Biodiversity Collections

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded eight grants as part of the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) program. The program aims to increase accessibility of biological collections and associated data. The latest round of funding will support three major grants and five smaller projects.

“The ADBC program continues to grow in the breadth of its collections, including fossils, and in the depth of additional information about each specimen,” says John Wingfield, NSF Assistant Director for Biological Sciences.

According to a press release from NSF, digital photos of specimens will be linked with related information, such as pathogens found on the specimens, stratigraphic information for fossils, and environmental variables at the collecting localities.

Three new Thematic Collections Networks (TCNs) will be funded. There are seven existing TCNs. The new TCNs are:

  • Fossil Insect Collaborative: A Deep-Time Approach to Studying Diversification and Response to Environmental Change
  • Developing a Centralized Digital Archive of Vouchered Animal Communication Signals
  • The Macroalgal Herbarium Consortium: Accessing 150 Years of Specimen Data to Understand Changes in the Marine/Aquatic Environment

Additionally, five new Partners to Existing Networks (PEN) grants were announced. These smaller grants will enhance existing TCNs by adding their collections to fill gaps identified in the original network proposals. Two new partner awards will focus on increasing the coverage of the Paleoniches TCN, which is focused on specimens from ages and localities not included in other TCNs. The other new PENs will expand the Southwest Arthropod Network, add central Midwest specimens to the InvertNet TCN, and add two historically important collections to the lichen and bryophyte TCN.

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Path Forward for Farm Bill is Nebulous

In the month since the House and Senate passed their competing versions of the farm bill, the path forward is no clearer. Seven Democratic Senators have been appointed to a conference committee to negotiate differences in the two chambers’ bills. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), however, will not name conferees until he and Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) forge “a consensus on the nutrition bill.” A reauthorization of the food stamp program was stripped from the House bill in order to gain passage; the House had previously rejected a bill that included both agriculture and nutrition policies.

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Enter the Faces of Biology: Broader Impacts Photo Contest

Biological research is transforming our society and the world. Help the public and policymakers to better understand these broader impacts in biological research by entering the Faces of Biology: Broader Impacts Photo Contest. The contest is sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).

The theme of the contest is broader impacts of biology. Photographs entered into the contest should demonstrate how biological research is transforming our society and the world. Examples of broader impacts include, but are not limited to, informing natural resources management, improving human health, addressing climate change, enhancing food or energy security, advancing foundational knowledge, and improving science education.

The First Place Winner will have his/her winning photo featured on the cover of BioScience, and will receive $250 and a one year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience. The Second and Third Place Winners will have his/her winning photo printed inside BioScience, and will receive a one year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience.

The contest ends on 30 September 2013 at 11:59:59 pm Eastern Time.

For more information and to enter the contest, visit http://www.aibs.org/public-programs/photocontest.html.

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Short Takes

  • Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA) and Dan Benishek (R-MI) have formed the Congressional Invasive Species Caucus. The caucus will serve as an informal, bipartisan group dedicated to raising awareness about invasive species issues, supporting local communities who bear the brunt of this problem, and promoting efforts to prevent and control the spread of invasive species.

  • The National Research Council is reviewing the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). As part of its information gathering process, the committee is conducting an online survey about the AFRI grants program. Feedback can be provided here by 15 August 2013.

  • The deadline for nominations has been extended to fill eight vacancies on the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board. The revised deadline is 30 August 2013. More information is available at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/07/23/2013-17649/request-for-nominations-of-members-for-the-national-agricultural-research-extension-education-and#page-44092.

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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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