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Public Policy Report for 09/27/2002

  • BREAKING NEWS! Georgia county votes to allow teaching creationism in classroom despite caution from NAS, AIBS and Georgia scientists
  • Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approves National Science Foundation Doubling Act
  • National Research Council report recommends changes in undergraduate biology training; focus is on biomedical research careers
  • House Science Committee examines Heinz report on state of the ecosystems
  • USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issues definition of biological agents and toxins, and requirements and procedures for notification of possession

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].


GEORGIA COUNTY VOTES TO ALLOW TEACHING CREATIONISM IN CLASSROOM DESPITE CAUTION FROM THE NAS, AIBS AND GEORGIA SCIENTISTS

The night of September 26, the Cobb County Board of Education, Georgia's second-largest school board, unanimously voted to allow teachers to introduce students to different views about the origin of life, among them creationism. The measure says the district believes ``discussion of disputed views of academic subjects is a necessary element of providing a balanced education, including the study of the origin of species.'' The Board called the move a "necessary element of providing a balanced education."

Ironically, the action was spurred by a lawsuit against the school system filed because some middle and high school science textbooks include a disclaimer telling students that evolution is a theory and not a fact. The plaintiff in the case argued that the disclaimer was a step toward introducing religion in schools, which is unconstitutional.

Responding to the decision of the Cobb County school board to consider including the teaching of intelligent design and other, non-scientific explanations for the origin and development of species, National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts penned a letter to Academy and Institute of Medicine members who are Georgia residents to take an active part in reversing the school board's decision. The letter notes that an earlier decision to paste "evolution disclaimers" in Georgia public school textbooks has already been approved. A letter from AIBS President Gene Likens, opposing the proposed Cobb County policy, was sent to the Cobb County school board earlier this month. Biology professors at every major university in Georgia and the National Science Teachers Association told the school board it would be a mistake to approve the resolution.

Despite last night's vote, the controversy will likely continue over the next months, if not years, and will have to be resolved in court. Opponents said the decision opened a backdoor to letting religion into classrooms. They said Thursday's vote would not end the debate. ``It would be as if Cobb County were putting up a giant `sue me' sign,'' said Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

SENATE COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, SCIENCE, AND TRANSPORTATION APPROVES NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION DOUBLING ACT - Following the lead of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Welfare, and Pensions, with which it shares jurisdiction for the National Science Foundation, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on 19 September approved the national Science Foundation Doubling Act. The bill (S.2817), which reauthorizes funding for the NSF for the next five years, provides for a doubling of NSF's budget. The bill will now be considered by the entire Senate. The House of Representatives passed a similar bill June 5. Assuming that the annual appropriations for NSF were to meet the authorized levels, the NSF budget would increase from $4.8 billion in FY 2002 to $9.8 billion in FY 2007.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) proposed and then withdrew a controversial amendment that would have authorized only the first two years of the NSF doubling path rather than the full five years. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) spoke in opposition to the amendment, noting that basic research requires a long time horizon. Senator McCain withdrew his amendment without a vote.

The Bush administration does not favor a doubling of the agency's funding. As enunciated by Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger, the administration would prefer to increase funding for that research for areas of research that support national priorities. A letter from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which is headed by Marburger, suggested that increased funding go to the physical sciences and four major engineering fields. When PCAST met (by conference call) on 29 August to discuss this draft letter, members suggested that the language in the letter that recommended doubling funding in these fields be deleted so as to avoid any implication that PCAST was endorsing the NSF Doubling Act.


NATIONAL ACADEMIES REPORT SAYS BIOLOGISTS NEED MORE MATH AND PHYSICAL SCIENCES - A September 10 report from the National Research Council entitled Bio2010: Undergraduate Education to Prepare Biomedical Research Scientists says that to better prepare students for careers in biology, especially biomedical research, colleges and universities should re-evaluate their curricula and teaching approaches for biology majors. The report - which was co-sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute - has an admitted emphasis on undergraduate biology as a training ground for biomedical researchers, rather than on biology research careers generally. The report says, "Mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering should all be incorporated into biology courses and lab experiments to the point that "interdisciplinary thinking and work become second nature [for biology students]." Independent research should be encouraged and seminars highlighting cutting-edge developments should be offered to buoy the interest of undergrads in biological discovery." The NRC recognized that undergraduate biology students are required to take courses in these other disciplines, but asserted that it is necessary to integrate these subjects into biology classes so students do not develop a shortsighted view of the connections between scientific disciplines that are at the heart of today's biological research. Acknowledging that biology faculty may not be well-versed in these disciplines, the NRC suggest that "school administrators, funding agencies, and professional societies should work together to develop new teaching materials and to encourage collaboration among professors from different disciplines. Also, faculty development opportunities must be provided to improve the interdisciplinary knowledge and teaching capabilities of biology professors. In particular, the report recommends the establishment of an annual summer institute to offer faculty a venue for sharing ideas and to facilitate the development of innovative courses." The full report can be read online at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10497.html?onpi_newsdoc09102002.

HOUSE SCIENCE COMMITTEE EXPLORES THE HEINZ CENTER'S "THE STATE OF THE NATION'S ECOSYSTEMS" REPORT - 24 Sept. The House Science Committee held a hearing on the key findings and recommendations of a new report from the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment titled, "The State of The Nation's Ecosystems: Measuring the Lands, Waters, and Living Resources of the United States." The report arose out of a mid-1990's federal interagency review of environmental monitoring and research programs. The review, coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), identified the need to communicate consistent, accessible information about the condition and use of ecosystems to support decision-making and to inform the public. While recognizing the substantial existing federal investment in environmental monitoring, reporting and research, the review also acknowledged that the independent nature of existing programs meant that the results were not communicated in an integrated fashion, nor were they accessible to those in policy making roles or to the public. Following the interagency review, OSTP asked the Heinz Center to create a nonpartisan, scientifically grounded report on the state of the nation's ecosystems.

In preparing the report, the Heinz Center sought input from environmental organizations, business, academic practitioners and government representatives. In total, 150 individuals from nearly 100 institutions were involved in the preparation of the report. The report itself was funded by nine federal agencies, six corporate funders and seven foundations.

The report strives to provide indicators on the use and condition of America's coasts and oceans, farmlands, forests, fresh waters, grasslands and shrublands, urban and suburban areas, and the nation as a whole. The Center identified ten general characteristics for each ecosystem: extent; fragmentation and landscape pattern; nutrients, carbon and oxygen; chemical contaminants; physical conditions; plants and animals; biological communities; ecological productivity; food, fiber and water; and other services, including recreation. Unfortunately, many of the data needed to assess the ecosystem conditions are not available. Of the 103 indicator statistics identified by the report, there are complete data for only 32% of the indicators and partial data for another 24%. It is not possible to report nationally on close to 45% of the indicators because either the data is unavailable (30%) or the indicator itself needs further scientific development (14%).

When asked to identify the areas with the most serious data gaps, William Clark, who chaired the committee overseeing the development of the report, told the committee that urban/suburban areas and grassland/shrublands had the fewest indicators reported. Clark pointed out that forest ecosystems, by contrast, have a higher percentage of indicators with good data. As far as which indicator categories were the leanest, Clark noted that the categories with the poorest data availability are those dealing with biological communities, landscape patterns and the services provided by ecosystems.

At the committee hearing, chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) summed up the policy implications of the report: "Finally, if perhaps unintentionally, the Heinz Report should put to rest the notion that one sometimes hears around here, that better data is the 'Holy Grail' of environmental policy - a panacea that will bring tough environmental debates to resolution. Having good economic data has not put an end to debates on fiscal policy, and environmental data is even less likely to settle debates...So we need to figure out which data is most helpful, which data we can afford to gather, which data is likely to transform the nature of our debates, and go after it."

The Heinz Center hopes to establish the report as a long-running series, with new editions due every five years to incorporate continuous improvements in understanding of ecological functioning. The web version (www.heinzctr.org/ecosystems) will be updated annually to incorporate newly available data. Hardcopy of the report is available from the Heinz Center.

USDA ANIMAL AND PLANT HEALTH INSPECTION SERVICE ISSUES DEFINITION OF BIOLOGICAL AGENTS AND TOXINS AND REQUIRMENTS AND PROCEDURES FOR NOTIFICATION OF POSSESSION - On 26 September 2002, The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued an interim rule to implement the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. This interim rule amends an APHIS rule published on August 12 that established regulations that listed biological agents and toxins determined to have the potential to pose a severe threat to animal or plant health. The rule published on September 26 applies to possession, record-keeping, and reporting requirements and amends 7 CFR part 331 and 9 CFR part 121 as follows:

In Sec. 331.1, the definitions for biological agent and toxin are revised to read as follows:

Biological agent. Any microorganism (including, but not limited to, bacteria, viruses, fungi, rickettsiae, or protozoa), or infectious substance, or any naturally occurring, bioengineered, or synthesized component of any such microorganism or infectious substance, capable of causing:
(1) Death, disease, or other biological malfunction in a human, an animal, a plant, or another living organism;
(2) Deterioration of food, water, equipment, supplies, or material of any kind; or
(3) Deleterious alteration of the environment.

Toxin. The toxic material or product of plants, animals, microorganisms (including, but not limited to, bacteria, viruses, fungi, rickettsiae, or protozoa), or infectious substances, or a recombinant or synthesized molecule, whatever their origin and method
of production, and includes:
(1) Any poisonous substance or biological product that may be engineered as a result of biotechnology produced by a living organism; or
(2) Any poisonous isomer or biological product, homolog, or derivative of such a substance.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: For information concerning the regulations in 7 CFR part 331, contact Dr. Arnold T. Tschanz, Senior Staff Officer, Regulatory Coordination, Plant Health Programs, PPQ, APHIS, 4700 River Road Unit 141, Riverdale, MD 20737-1236, (301) 734-8790.
For information concerning the regulations in 9 CFR part 121, contact Dr. Denise Spencer, Senior Staff Veterinarian, Technical Trade Services, National Center for Import and Export, VS, APHIS, 4700 River Road Unit 40, Riverdale, MD 20737-1231, (301) 734-3277.


-Link your website to AIBS at http://www.aibs.org/link/index.html

 


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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