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Public Policy Report for 03/31/2003


As reported in the March 3rd AIBS Public Policy Report (online at, Congress has provided the U.S. Department of Education with just over $100 million dollars in FY03 funds for the Department's Math and Science Partnership (MSP) Program. MSP is a public-private partnership to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education through innovative community-based programs. Because MSP received an excess of $100 million, the Department of Education is required to use a formula funding mechanism to distribute funds to eligible states, territories and other jurisdictions. Education recently released budget tables that show the amount of money going to each state from a range of federal education programs, including MSP. You may view the allotments online at


The Education Testing Service (ETS) is currently administering a survey on the content of the GRE Subject Test in the Biological Sciences and the Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology Subject Test. The purpose of the survey is to obtain information that will assist the GRE program and the Committees of Examiners in evaluating the content of the tests. A Committee of Examiners is composed of college and university faculty in different regions of the United States. Having information about what is currently being taught in the undergraduate curriculum enables the Committee to develop examinations that accurately assess and reflect that curriculum. Questions included in the survey include: the utility of subscores in the three main content areas, whether your department's undergraduate curriculum includes topics as a "core", "elective" or is not taught, and whether the current percentage of questions in nine topical areas (including cellular structure and function, evolution, plant structure and function, and ecology) is adequate, should be increased or decreased. Biologists teaching at the undergraduate level are encouraged to participate in the survey. Copies of the survey can be obtained by emailing Dan Lipinski, Leader and Science Assessment Specialist at


Most scientists are aware of the role of NASA in providing remote sensing information useful to environmental biologists. However, NASA's role in the biological sciences goes beyond providing information from satellites. NASA also supports ground and flight based biological research aimed at understanding how fundamental laws of nature shape the evolution of life.

Through its Space Science enterprise, NASA funds biological research to understand the building blocks of life, the conditions necessary for life to persist and the signatures life leaves behind. While exact figures on the amount of funding in the Space Science enterprise for biological research are difficult to compile, a White House Office of Management and Budget official tells AIBS that the emphasis on biological science has been steadily growing over the past several years.

The majority of funding for biological research comes through the agency's Biological and Physical Research programs, specifically the Fundamental Space Biology program. For FY04, the President has requested $148.8 million for Fundamental Space Biology. This total includes $81.7 million for International Space Station operations, $8.3 million for the development of the Habitat Holding Rack (for use on the ISS), and $58.8 million for research. The request will focus on research in Cell and Molecular Biology, Developmental Biology and Organismal and Comparative Biology. This total represents a $20 million increase over the President's request for FY2003 for the development of the habitat holding rack, cell culture unit, ground based research, and animal and plant habitats for research on the Space Station Centrifuge.


Terri Lomax, a professor of botany at Oregon State University, has been appointed director of the Fundamental Space Biology Division at NASA. The division, which she will direct for the next 2-4 years, is a $150 million annual research program that studies the effects of space on the physiology, development and function of living organisms. Lomax most recently served as director of OSU's Program for the Analysis of Biotechnology Issues and has conducts research on the role of gravity in plant growth.

"I'm overwhelmed to be selected for a position such as this," Lomax said. "It's especially exciting right now, because with the upcoming completion of the space station, NASA is committed to a renewed emphasis on space science, and this division is responsible for much of the agency's biological research. It will be a great opportunity to help plan good research projects, develop new technologies and be involved in federal policy development."

The fundamental space biology program Lomax will head examines gravity's role in the evolution and development of terrestrial organisms and ecological systems, as well as how plants and animals, especially humans, react and adjust to the effects of different gravity levels. It may address questions about cellular processes in space, the physical effects of space flights on organisms, or the role of gravity in life on Earth.


For years, post-doctoral fellows have expressed a growing frustration with their working conditions and institutional treatment (e.g., low salaries and poor/no benefits, the inability to pursue independent funding and research, and getting tracked into multi-year positions dedicated to generating data for an advisor). Data illustrating this dissatisfaction may now be available. NSF data collected in 2001 as part of a biennial survey show a 10% decline in the number of U.S. post-docs in the life sciences. While NSF can not explain the decline, from 14,300 to 12,890, it may be that more doctoral scientists are selecting alternate careers. Instead of following the standard path of a 3 to 5 year post-doc prior to pursuing an academic position, more doctoral-level scientists may be choosing better paying positions in the private sector or in other areas of the workforce (e.g., education, public policy, law, communications, or investing/financial services).
Regardless of where new doctoral scientists are choosing to work, one thing remains-a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. In a recent survey conducted by The Scientist, negative comments about post-doctoral experiences outnumbered positive comments by 4:1. However, post-docs are taking steps to improve their situation. With the assistance of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a grant from the Alfred P. Soan Foundation, post-doctoral researchers have formed the National Post-doctoral Association (NPA). The NPA will work to develop a consensus among post-docs regarding the key issues to be addressed at both local (e.g., individual Post-doctoral Associations) and national levels (e.g., with professional societies and funding agencies). Specific NPA goals include: 1) Assist in the creation and maintenance of Post-doctoral Associations at institutions; 2) Provide information for post-docs on policies and compensation at institutions; 3) Host a website to serve career needs of post-docs and provide a forum; 4) Facilitate the National Post-doctoral Survey performed by Sigma Xi; 5) Participate in national meetings and conferences focused on post-doc issues; and 6) Collaborate with funding agencies and professional societies to improve post-doc experiences.

NPA held its first meeting in Berkeley, California on 14-15 March 2003. The meeting agenda and coverage of the meeting reported in The Scientist suggest that much of the impetus and current leadership of NPA has come from post-docs working in NIH funded university-based programs. Further, while the first meeting was reported by The Scientist as optimistic and enthusiastic, the goal of organizing a national group and reaching consensus on common priorities proved to be a daunting task. Obviously, building consensus and identifying priorities among NPA members is only the first step in what is a significant task - changing institutional practices and influencing federal policymakers. Research institutions and many research scientists are unlikely to readily sacrifice the research productivity and prestige gained from the current system. Additionally, some on Capitol Hill have expressed concern with policies that would reduce the number of post-docs in exchange for competitive salaries and benefits - a concern that may resolve itself if the number of doctoral researchers pursuing post-doctoral experience continues to decline.

For more information about NPA, visit
For The Scientist's coverage of the first NPA meeting, visit

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