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Public Policy Report for 08/30/2002

  • President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology calls for more funding for physical sciences and engineering
  • Council on Environmental Quality seeks comments on National Environmental Policy Act task force
  • David Evans leaves NOAA to become Smithsonian Under-secretary for Science
  • National Research Council report on genetically-modified animals raises concerns about environmental risks
  • Cobb County (Georgia) hit with ID virus

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].


PRESIDENT'S COUNCIL OF ADVISORS ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY CALLS FOR MORE FUNDING FOR PHYSICAL SCIENCES AND ENGINEERING - A letter drafted by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) states that "all evidence points to a need to improve funding levels for physical sciences and certain areas of engineering. Testimony from public and private sector representatives indicated that of greatest concern to the scientific community is the balance between the physical and life sciences." The letter resulted from a PCAST subcommittee tasked to assess the federal investment in science and technology and its national benefits. The subcommittee, with the assistance of RAND and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, analyzed the federal investment in science and technology and its national benefits, the letter also recommends that a major program of fellowships should be established to attract and support the advanced graduate studies of U.S. citizens in fields of science and engineering that support critical national needs.

The subcommittee's report states that the life sciences receive 48% of federal R&D funding compared to the physical sciences' 11% and engineering's 15%. It goes on to state that "Even if Physical Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Math and Computer Sciences are combined, their total share is only 18%." Therefore, the subcommittee recommended that the R&D budget be adjusted upward for the physical sciences and engineering, bringing them collectively to parity with the life sciences over the next 5 budget cycles.

In June, when AIBS learned that the PCAST subcommittee had commissioned the RAND report (which is to be released by the end of September), AIBS contacted Wayne Clough, Ph.D., who chairs the subcommittee, as well as the RAND and AAAS staff who were assisting the subcommittee. We urged that the subcommittee, when assessing the "life sciences," recognize the difference between biomedical science and natural biology. We pointed out that, "The biology of the natural world tends to be overlooked because most measures of federal R&D lump this kind of biology with the "life sciences." Of course, the life sciences funding has soared in recent years, with the doubling of the NIH budget. Unfortunately, the kind of biological research funded by the NSF BIO division, or undertaken at the USGS, various USDA programs (including CSREES, NRI, and the Forest Service) has not enjoyed a fraction of those increases."

Although we were assured that the subcommittee, RAND, and AAAS all recognized this distinction, the draft letter and draft report suggest otherwise. AIBS is undertaking a number of activities to be sure that the administration and Congress recognize this distinction in making decisions about funding for the sciences and technology.


COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY SEEKS COMMENTS ON NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT TASK FORCE - the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has formed a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) task force (Task Force) and has invited comment on the proposed nature and scope of the NEPA Task Force activities. The Task Force seeks ways to improve and modernize NEPA analyses and documentation and foster improved coordination among all levels of government and the public, and solicits examples of effected NEPA implementation practices to develop a publication of case studies including examples of best practices.

The public comment period ends September 23, 2002. CEQ requests that interested parties provide information about examples of effective NEPA implementation practices and examples of best practices as soon as possible.

Addresses: Electronic or facsimile comments are preferred because federal offices experience intermittent mail delays from security screening. Electronic written comments can be sent to the NEPA Task Force through the Web site at http://ceq.eh.doe.gov/ntf/ which provides a form for responding to questions posed in the July 9, 2002, notice as well as a direct electronic mail link to ceq--nepa@fs.fed.us. Written comments may be faxed to the NEPA Task Force at (801) 517-1021. Written comments may also be submitted to the NEPA Task Force, P.O. Box 221150, Salt Lake City, UT 84122. For further information, contact: Rhey Solomon by phone at (202) 456-
5432.


DAVID EVANS LEAVES NOAA TO BECOME SMITHSONIAN UNDER-SECRETARY FOR SCIENCE - David L. Evans, an oceanographer who has been NOAA's assistant administrator for research, will be joining the Smithsonian Institution as the new under secretary for science. His portfolio will include the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Evans takes the place vacated by J. Dennis O'Connor and steps into a morass of disputes about the importance and organization of scientific research at the Smithsonian. In the past year, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small proposed closing the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia. The proposal, which was seen as arbitrary and rash by many Smithsonian scientists and their colleagues, caused a small storm of protest that forced Secretary Small to back down. He subsequently appointed a Science Commission to advise the Institution as it refines and focuses its scientific research activities. That Commission has issued an interim report but a final report may not be completed later this year. Evans told the Washington Post that part of his goal would be to make the Smithsonian's science, and science in general, more accessible. "Over the last few years in particular I have noticed that the country is not as scientifically literate as I feel is appropriate, given what science has done for the country. The Smithsonian makes the connection with the science, why science is done and how that relates to the public," he said. Evans received a degree in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania and taught public school before earning his doctorate at the University of Rhode Island. After teaching at Rhode Island for 12 years, he joined the Office of Naval Research. He has been at NOAA since 1993.


NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES REPORT REVIEWS RISKS POSED BY GENETIC MANIPULATION OF ANIMALS - In a report requested by the Food and Drug Administration, which is preparing rules on the safety of certain animal biotechnology products, the National Research Council said that the possibility of certain genetically engineered fish and other animals escaping and potentially introducing engineered genes into wild populations tops the list of concerns associated with advances in animal biotechnology. And, said the report, federal efforts to manage those risks are disorganized and probably inadequate. The panel said federal agencies such as FDA and the Department of Agriculture are stretching a patchwork of laws, written for other purposes, to try to stay on top of biotechnology, and the panel expressed concern that these efforts, while well-intentioned, remain fragmentary and inadequate. On the other hand, no evidence yet exists that products from cloned livestock are unsafe for human consumption.

The committee was asked only to identify science-based concerns; it was not asked to identify potential benefits from animal biotechnology or to make policy recommendations.

The committee said the greatest concern is the ability of certain genetically engineered organisms to escape and reproduce in the natural environment. Genetically engineered insects, shellfish, fish, and other animals that can easily escape, that are highly mobile, and that become feral easily are of particular concern, especially if they are more successful at reproduction than their natural counterparts. For example, it is possible that if transgenic salmon with genes engineered to accelerate growth were released into the natural environment, they could compete more successfully for food and mates than wild salmon.

In transgenic animals developed for human consumption, there is a low probability that a few new proteins expressed when genes are inserted from another species may trigger allergic or hypersensitive reactions in a small, but unknown, percentage of people. The potential for allergenicity is difficult to gauge, however, since it can only be detected once a person is exposed and experiences a reaction. While a reaction will be recognizable, as it is with well-known allergens like peanuts and shellfish, the uncertainty surrounding new proteins and potential impact on consumers who may be allergic is serious enough to elicit a moderate level of concern, according to the committee.

Animals genetically engineered to produce non-food products, such as cows that produce drugs in their milk, are not intended to enter the food supply. But the committee said there are grounds for concern that adequate controls be in place to ensure restrictions on the use of carcasses from such animals. In at least one instance, meat from the carcasses of such animals was used to make a food product.

The applications of biotechnology may someday reduce the number of animals needed for food and fiber production, but they also can have adverse effects on the welfare of animals, the committee noted. In addition, some of the biotechnology techniques in use today are extremely inefficient at producing fetuses that survive. Of the transgenic animals that do survive, many do not express the inserted gene properly, often resulting in anatomical, physiological, or behavioral abnormalities. There is also a concern that proteins designed to produce a pharmaceutical product in the animal's milk may find their way to other parts of the animal's body, possibly causing adverse effects.

Although the committee was not asked to make any policy recommendations, it suggested that the current regulatory framework may not be adequate given that the responsibilities of federal agencies for regulating animal biotechnology are unclear in some respects.

Read the full text of Animal Biotechnology: Science-Based Concerns for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


COBB COUNTY (GEORGIA) HIT WITH THE ID VIRUS -A lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Cobb County Board of Education, challenging the county's infamous textbook disclaimer labels wasn't enough to make the Board of Education think twice about taking up a request to allow its teachers to teach "alternatives to evolution" in the county's science classrooms. In March, several dozen parents asked the board to bring alternatives such as "intelligent design" into the classroom. The board has issued a press release stating, "the Board wants to ensure that the science curriculum of the District exposes students to a variety of testable theories and scenarios regarding the origin of species in compliance with the Constitutions of the United States and Georgia." A vote is expected at the Board's September 26 meeting. Meanwhile, the Board has been sued over the disclaimer labels that it pastes into its biology, astronomy, environmental science, botany, and zoology textbooks, reading "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." Biologists at the largest universities in Georgia petitioned the school board this summer, unsuccessfully, to stop the disclaimers.



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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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