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Public Policy Report for 4 November 2013

Small Expectations for Budget Conference

A new round of congressional budget talks began on 30 October, but both political parties are downplaying hopes for a broad budget deal. Many lawmakers and political insiders expect a small-scale plan from the budget committee formed by the deal to reopen the federal government after a 16-day shutdown. The group of 29 members of Congress has until 13 December to negotiate a deal.

Several members of the conference committee have expressed a desire to find a replacement for the automatic spending cuts known as budget sequestration. In federal fiscal year 2014, the sequester will reduce federal spending by about $20 billion from current levels.

“A deal that redid the sequester for a short period of time is something we could talk about,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), who serves as ranking member of the House Budget Committee. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) has also suggested that he would like to replace budget sequestration.

One issue for the negotiators, as in past budget talks, will be how to decrease the deficit. Republicans have insisted on balancing the budget by cutting spending, not through raising new revenues. Meanwhile, Democrats largely oppose changes to costly entitlement programs, such as Social Security.

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Tough Task Ahead for Farm Bill Negotiators

Lawmakers began meeting last week to hash out differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. The conference committee is charged with reaching an agreement on legislation to reauthorize agricultural programs for the next five years. Although the House and Senate legislation contain many similar provisions regarding agricultural research programs, there are major differences in funding for nutrition programs. The bills also differ on the total cost of the legislation. Both proposals would save the government billions of dollars over the next decade, but the House bill proposes steeper reductions.

Forty-one members of Congress are serving on the conference committee, which is led by the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House Agriculture Committees: Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), Representative Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma), Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), and Representative Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota).

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack highlighted the importance of the farm bill in his weekly address: “The Farm Bill’s importance extends beyond the farm safety net. It’s a research bill that continues our long history of agricultural innovation. The Senate-passed Farm Bill would authorize a new, non-profit research foundation, allowing the USDA to more effectively leverage millions of dollars in private investment toward agricultural research.”

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House Science Committee Prepares to Reauthorize Innovation Legislation

After months of behind the scenes work, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is publically moving forward with its effort to reauthorize a broad science innovation and education law, the America COMPETES Act. The draft legislation, however, has not yet been made public and was not shared with Democrats on the Committee.

The Energy Subcommittee held a hearing in late October to consider the provisions that would affect the Department of Energy Office of Science. The Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America Act, or EINSTEIN America Act as the bill is now called, would increase funding for basic energy science by 1.7 percent above current levels within two years.

Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA), the top Democrat on the Energy Subcommittee, said at the hearing that the bill may look like an increase for the Office of Science, but funding would be cut once inflation is accounted for.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) expressed concerns that the legislation would shift funds away from climate research within the Office of Science. The bill would direct the Department of Energy to prioritize work on biological systems and genomics sciences instead. All three witnesses who testified at the hearing also opposed the language in the majority’s bill to deemphasize climate research.

“The ‘EINSTEIN America Act’ prioritizes science activities within the department,” said Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). “This ensures that American taxpayer dollars are better utilized and enables labs to do more with less.”

Chairman Smith also said that the bill is a “discussion draft” and a starting point for future discussions. Representative Johnson stated: “there is common ground” between Smith’s draft bill and the competing bill she is sponsoring.

The America COMPETES Act was enacted six years ago and authorized increased funding for the Department of Energy Office of Science, as well as the National Science Foundation and the laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. New funding levels were set in 2010, but that legislation passed the House without the broad bipartisan support of the original law.

The House Science Committee is soon expected to consider policies related to the National Science Foundation. The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold its first hearing this week.

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Transparency Legislation Could Reveal Sensitive Scientific Information

The House of Representatives appears poised to fast track legislation that would require federal agencies to use a merit-based selection process to award grants. Although most federal scientific programs currently award research funds on a competitive basis, other federal agencies do not.

The bill’s sponsor, Representative James Lankford (R-OK), told Science Insider that the bill is not aimed at science agencies and “would not change” how those agencies operate.

The provisions that concern the scientific community are the requirements for federal agencies to post information online about grants that are funded, including a copy of the proposal, award decision documentation and rankings, justification for deviating from rankings, disclosure of peer reviewers, and disclosure of other grant reviewers.

HR 3316 was introduced on 23 October 2013 and was approved by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform a week later.

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USDA Seeks Input on Research, Education Action Plan

A revised version of the Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission Area Action Plan has been released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Public input is welcome. The REE Action Plan lays out the mission area’s highest priority goals and the actions necessary to undertake for achievement of those goals. To obtain a copy of the plan or to submit comments, email REEcomments@osec.usda.gov by 29 November 2013.

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NSF Announces Solicitation for Environmental Biology Research

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has posted a new solicitation for core proposals to the Division of Environmental Biology. The solicitation, 14-503, is available at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2014/nsf14503/nsf14503.htm.

NSF also issued a reminder to proposers that a revised version of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG), NSF 13-1, was issued on October 4, 2012 and is currently in effect. Researchers should be aware that significant changes were made to the PAPPG to implement revised merit review criteria based on the National Science Board (NSB) report, “National Science Foundation’s Merit Review Criteria: Review and Revisions.” While the two merit review criteria remain unchanged (Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts), guidance has been provided to clarify and improve the function of the criteria. Changes will affect the project summary and project description sections of proposals, as well as annual and final reports.

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Request for Information: Undergraduate Biology Education Reform

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is conducting a survey of individuals who are leading large-scale educational change efforts at the undergraduate level. If you play a leadership role in undergraduate biology education reform, you are invited and encouraged to participate in the online Faculty Leadership Development Survey: http://surveys.aibs.org/index.php?sid=51136&lang=en

The survey will be open until 5 November 2013 and is part of a larger study to explore programmatic elements that are important for the development of departmental leadership capacity among STEM faculty (http://www.aibs.org/education/aibsfacultyleadershipdevelopmentstudy.html). This study will allow AIBS to evaluate questions related to faculty leadership for change, the academic leadership skills faculty need and want, and existing general higher education leadership programs. The results will be shared with the broader STEM undergraduate community and allow AIBS to determine how it can provide additional support to those leading change through new initiatives or programs.

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Short Takes

  • The United Nations has formed a new Scientific Advisory Board that will provide advice to "advance sustainable development and eradicate poverty." The 26 board members are experts in the physical, environmental, and social sciences; engineering; technology; health; and economics.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency has released its draft Climate Change Adaptation Implementation Plans for public review and comment. The documents include plans for the agency's research programs. Learn more at http://epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/fed-programs/EPA-impl-plans.html.

  • President Obama has nominated Rhea Suh to be assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, a position that oversees policy at the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. Suh is currently assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget in the Department of the Interior.

  • The National Academy of Sciences is surveying scientists about how they create, preserve, manage, and share their data. Faculty, researchers, lecturers, postdocs, and graduate students are encouraged to take the survey at http://tinyurl.com/DataONEScientistsSurvey.

  • The American Society of Mammologists has launched a new Graduate Student Science Policy Leadership Award. Any graduate student who is a member of the society is eligible to apply. Learn more at http://www.mammalsociety.org/committees/graduate-student-science-policy-leadership-award#tab6.

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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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