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Public Policy Report for 01/18/2002

  • Administration may be reconsidering transfer of Smithsonian research funds to NSF
  • Supreme Court won't hear case on teaching evolution in public schools
  • Ohio State Board of Education considering teaching of intelligent design
  • Office of Management and Budget refines data quality guidelines

The AIBS Public Policy Report is distributed broadly by email every two weeks to AIBS membership leaders and contacts, including the President, President-Elect, Secretary, Treasurer, Executive Director, AIBS Council Representative, Journal Editor, Newsletter Editor, Public Policy Committee Chair, Public Policy Representative, and Education Committee Chair of all AIBS member societies and organizations (see the Membership Directories for contact information).

All material from these reports may be reproduced or forwarded. Please mention AIBS as the source; office staff appreciate receiving copies of materials used. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, please contact the AIBS Director of Public Policy, Dr. Robert Gropp [publ...@aibs.org; 202-628-1500 x250].


BUSH ADMINISTRATION MAY BE RECONSIDERING TRANSFER OF SMITHSONIAN RESEARCH FUNDS TO NSF - In our previous policy report, we reported that AIBS had learned that the Office of Management and Budget had proposed to take the federal funding that provides base support for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and assign it to NSF. Subsequently, we learned that OMB also proposed to move Sea Grant funding and a significant portion of the USGS Water Resources Division's national research program funding to NSF. AIBS led an effort to persuade OMB to reverse these decisions and to engage in a more careful, deliberative process. Shortly before the end of the year, we learned that OMB was reconsidering this decision, and would probably not transfer the Smithsonian funding to NSF after all. Of course, until the President's budget request to Congress is released to the public on February 4, there is no way to confirm this information. However, public reaction, including letters from numerous scientific societies and a very strong editorial in the New York Times, seem to have persuaded OMB that with regard to the Smithsonian, it would be advisable to await the report of the independent Science Commission advising the Smithsonian on the reorganization of the SI scientific research programs. That commission has only started on what is likely to be a year-long effort. The AIBS letter also pointed out that the NSF may not be the best home for Sea Grant and the USGS national research program, which fund applied research. The fate of these programs remains unclear.

SUPREME COURT REFUSES TO HEAR CASE ON TEACHING EVOLUTION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS -The Supreme Court declined on January 7 in the case of LeVake v. Independent School District to be drawn into a debate over the teaching of evolution in America's public schools. The refusal is a victory for schools that require teachers to instruct on the subject even if the teacher disagrees with the scientific theory. It's a loss for a Christian biology teacher in Minnesota who was reassigned amid questions about his views on evolution. Justices declined without comment to review Rodney LeVake's case. LeVake briefly instructed his Minnesota high school students on the subject, but told a colleague that he had scientific doubts about Charles Darwin's view of species' gradual change. When confronted by school leaders in 1998, he proposed offering students "an honest look at the difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory without turning my class into a religious one." LeVake, who is a Christian, believes that God created the world in six days, known as creationism. His case presented the Supreme Court an opportunity to revisit the debate over public school instruction on the origin of man. In 1987, justices struck down a Louisiana law that prohibited the teaching of evolution without equal time for creationism. LeVake, who has a master's degree in biology education, contends that the school board violated his constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of religion by reassigning him to a teaching post.


OHIO STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION CONSIDERING TEACHING OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN - On January 13, the Ohio State Board of Education subcommittee on standards considered a proposal to have an alternative set of science standards developed that would include intelligent design concepts. Elected Board member Michael Cochran requested that the Ohio Department of Education staff produce this alternative draft. Ohio University physiology instructor Steve Edinger attended the meeting, and reported that there were some heated exchanges. One staff member said that if the Board forced the [standards] writing team to insert intelligent design, the entire writing staff would probably resign. Cochran opined that the writing team and the standards committee is "of a homogeneous view" on evolution and is upset that "a diversity of views and opinions" are not represented in the writing and standards committees. Owens-Fink tried to generate confusion about what the word "evolution" means, saying that the term has seven different meanings in the standards. She also argued that, "I do not want to see the whole standards movement derailed by disagreement over one issue." Edinger reported that it appeared there were four or five members who were ready to vote for requiring a draft of alternative standards so both can be considered. On January 16, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that State Board of Education members will "get a cram course on evolution and creationism before establishing science standards for Ohio's children." The Board's standards committee agreed to invite national experts on the topics to a March meeting to help determine whether the science standards should include alternative theories of how human beings came to exist. According to the Plain Dealer, the committee's decision to examine information on alternative theories to evolution could place the board in conflict with the advisory panel of experts charged with helping to frame the proposal. Members of the advisory panel, appointed last year by the state Education Department, have said they have a strong consensus that evolution should stand as the state's standard for explaining life on Earth. When Board member Owens-Fink was told by a member of the advisory panel, which was appointed by the Ohio Department of Education, that there was no common ground on this issue, she suggested that the membership of the advisory group should be changed. The standards committee will meet next on Feb. 4 to talk more about the proposed standards. Later next month, the committee will receive legal opinions relevant to the inclusion of the intelligent design theory in science content standards.


OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET REFINES FINAL DATA QUALITY GUIDELINES - On 27 September 2001, the Office of Management and Budget published final data quality guidelines, which are intended to improve the quality of information that federal agencies use and disseminate to the public. [See AIBS Policy Report of 5 October 2001 for detailed report; all reports are available on the AIBS website at http://www.aibs.org/publicpolicy/index.html]. These guidelines, issued by OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, apply to facts, statistics, and technical information used by government officials and the public. Although the guidelines went into effect on 1 October 2001, OMB requested additional comment on the question of "substantial reproducibility." Scientific organizations and institutions were greatly concerned about the proposed requirement of "reproducibility" as an element of the required level of data quality. OMB initially addressed this concern by making it clear that the requirement of "substantial reproducibility" was limited to study results. The final guidelines read, "the results must be capable of being substantially reproduced, if the original or supporting data are independently analyzed using the same models. Reproducibility does not mean that the original or supporting data have to be capable of being replicated through new experiments, samples or tests." OMB re-opened the comment period for this particular issue, and issued its revisions on 3 January 2002.

The scientific community was concerned that the reproducibility standard was problematic. The AIBS comments noted that:

First, it appears that the requirement of reproducibility is limited to the analysis, rather than the production of data. The language should be revised to make clear that this is the case. Second, reviewers rarely have access to the experimental or observational data, making a re-analysis impossible. The peer review process involves a scrutiny of experimental and statistical methods, not a repetition of those processes. Second, the burden imposed on federal agencies to analyze all data twice before releasing it would divert significant staff time and budget away from the conduct of other research."

However, other comments objected to the exclusion of original and supporting data from the reproducibility requirements, suggesting instead that OMB should apply the reproducibility standard to original data, and that OMB should provide flexibility to the agencies in determining what constitutes ``original and supporting'' data. OMB agreed with this premise and asked that agencies consider, in developing their own guidelines, which categories of original and supporting data should be subject to the reproducibility standard and which should not. OMB also asked agencies to consult directly with relevant scientific and technical communities on the feasibility of having the selected categories of original and supporting data subject to the reproducibility standard. OMB specified that, "Agencies may identify, in consultation with the relevant scientific and technical communities, those particular types of data that can practicably be subjected to a reproducibility requirement, given ethical, feasibility, or confidentiality constraints." Further, OMB directed that, "If agencies apply the reproducibility test to specific types of original or supporting data, the associated guidelines shall provide relevant definitions of reproducibility (e.g. standards for replication of laboratory data)." OMB urged caution in the treatment of original and supporting data because it may often be impractical or even impermissible or unethical to apply the reproducibility standard to such data.

With regard to reproducibility of analytic results, OMB explained that it is not necessary that an agency reproduce each analytic result before it is disseminated. According to the OMB definition, "capable of being substantially reproduced' means that independent analysis of the original or supporting data using identical methods would generate similar analytic results, subject to an acceptable degree of imprecision or error. " The purpose of the reproducibility standard is to cultivate a consistent agency commitment to transparency about how analytic results are generated: the specific data used, the various assumptions employed, the specific analytical methods applied, and the statistical procedures employed. If sufficient transparency is achieved on each of these matters, then an analytic result should meet the "capable of being substantially reproduced" standard.

Acknowledging that there is much variation in types of analytic results, OMB asserted that reproducibility is a practical standard to apply to most types of analytic results. Even in a situation where the original and supporting data are protected by confidentiality concerns, or the analytic computer models or other research methods may be kept confidential to protect intellectual property, it may still be feasible to have the analytic results subject to the reproducibility standard. For example, a qualified party, operating under the same confidentiality protections as the original analysts, may be asked to use the same data, computer model or statistical methods to replicate the analytic results reported in the original study.

OMB also clarified the use of peer review as a sufficient standard of quality. Some comments submitted to OMB contended that peer review was not accepted as a universal standard that incorporates an established, practiced, and sufficient level of objectively. Other comments stated that peer review should be only one of several factors that an agency should consider in assessing the objectivity (and quality in general) of original research. In addition, several comments noted that peer review does not establish whether analytic results are capable of being substantially reproduced. In light of the comments, the final guidelines qualify the presumption in favor of peer-reviewed information as follows: "However, this presumption is rebuttable based on a persuasive showing by the petitioner in a particular instance.''

In another significant refinement, OMB clarified that the guidelines do not apply to grantees unless the agency has directed the research to disseminate the results or if the agency has reviewed and approved the results prior to dissemination. The guidelines state that "agency SPONSORED distribution of information to the public'' refers to situations where an agency has directed a third-party to disseminate information, or where the agency has the authority to review and approve the information before release. Therefore, for example, if an agency through a procurement contract or a grant provides for a person to conduct research, and then the agency directs the person to disseminate the results (or the agency reviews and approves the results before they may be disseminated), then the agency has "sponsored" the dissemination of this information. By contrast, if the agency simply provides funding to support research, and it the researcher (not the agency) who decides whether to disseminate the results and--if the results are to be released--who determines the content and presentation of the dissemination, then the agency has not "sponsored'' the dissemination even though it has funded the research and even if the Federal agency retains ownership or other intellectual property rights because the Federal government paid for the research. To avoid confusion regarding whether the agency is sponsoring the dissemination, the researcher should include an appropriate disclaimer in the publication or speech to the effect that the ``views are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the view'' of the agency. However, in what could prove to be a problematic provision, the guidelines go on to say that, "On the other hand, subsequent agency dissemination of such information requires that the information adhere to the agency's information quality guidelines." And, significantly for federally-employed scientists, the guidelines do not apply to the dissemination of information when a Federally employed scientist or Federal grantee or contractor publishes and communicates his or her research findings in the same manner as his or her academic colleagues, even if the Federal agency retains ownership or other intellectual property rights because the Federal government paid for the research. OMB directed that, to avoid confusion regarding whether the agency agrees with the information (and is therefore disseminating it through the employee or grantee), the researcher should include an appropriate disclaimer in the publication or speech to the effect that the "views are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the view'' of the agency.

Agencies will have one year to develop conforming guidelines and implementing mechanisms. Agency guidelines will also be published for comment.

Finally, OMB stated that, "issuance of these final guidelines is the beginning of an evolutionary process that will include draft agency guidelines, public comment, final agency guidelines, development of experience with OMB and agency guidelines, and continued refinement of both OMB and agency guidelines. Just as OMB requested public comment before issuing these final guidelines, OMB will refine these guidelines as experience develops and further public comment is obtained."


 


The American Institute of Biological Sciences is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific association headquartered in Washington DC, with a staff of approximately 30. It was founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences and has been an independent organization since the mid-1950s, governed by a Board of Directors elected by its membership. The AIBS membership consists of approximately 6,000 biologists and 80 professional societies and other organizations; the combined individual membership of the latter exceeds 240,000 biologists. AIBS is an umbrella organization for the biological sciences dedicated to promoting an understanding of the natural living world, including the human species and its welfare, by engaging in coalition activities with its members in research, education, public policy, and public outreach; publishing the peer-reviewed journal, BioScience; providing scientific peer review and advisory services to government agencies and other clients; convening scientific meetings; and performing administrative and other support services for its member organizations.


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