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AIBS Public Policy Report for July 19, 2004

  • Scientific societies issue statement on peer review
  • Congressional briefing held on status of science and engineering workforce
  • Math and science education legislation introduced in Senate
  • Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space Holds Hearing on Adult Stem Cell Research

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].


SCIENTIFIC SOCIETIES ISSUE STATEMENT ON PEER REVIEW

The application of the scientific peer review process to evaluate data and information used by federal agencies to make management and regulatory decisions has received considerable attention in recent years. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed frustration with the current regulatory process and issued calls for a more transparent process with a heavier reliance on peer review. The White House's Office of Management and Budget has recently undertaken a process to develop a uniform peer review process for all federal regulatory agencies. Similarly, members of Congress have introduced legislation that would require peer review be used for making decisions regarding endangered species and other environmental and public health matters. A real concern in the scientific community, however, is how these measures define and apply peer review. Critics of some of the proposals contend that they demonstrate an incomplete understanding of how peer review works and how it could best be incorporated into the public policy decision making process. In an attempt to provide policy makers and the public with a better understanding of the scientific peer review process, on 15 July 2004 thirteen scientific societies, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences, issued a statement of principles on peer review. The statement, drafted by the Ecological Society of America, is intended to provide policy makers with information that would help them evaluate proposals that include peer review provisions. The statement and list of endorsing societies may be viewed at
//www.aibs.org/position-statements/040715_scientific_peer_.html .

CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING HELD ON STATUS OF SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING WORKFORCE

Is there a potential shortage in trained workers that threatens America's leadership in science and engineering, or a surplus of scientists that depresses scientific career prospects and discourages students from pursuing science? The American Society of Mechanical Engineers hosted a congressional briefing on July 15 to consider these questions. Michael Crosby of the National Science Board presented six long-term trends that he deemed "disturbing," suggesting that although there is no short-term crisis, the U.S. could in the future face an inadequate domestic science and engineering workforce, jeopardizing its leadership in science and engineering. Over the last twenty years, the number of science and engineering jobs has increased faster (4.9%/year; 3.3%/year without math/IT) than the number of science and engineering Ph.D.'s granted (1.9%/year). Crosby suggested that this means the supply of workers has not kept apace with the demand. Furthermore, contends Crosby, over the last ten years there has been increasing dependence on foreign-born talent in science and engineering. For example, the percentage of science and engineering students who are foreign-born has increased, from bachelor's to doctorate programs. The science and engineering workforce is aging, and the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in science and engineering has stagnated. Moreover, while the share of underrepresented minorities in the college age populations is increasing, their share of the science and engineering workforce is not. This presents challenges to attempts to make the science and engineering workforce representative of America's diversity.

The main force behind the slow growth in workers trained in science and engineering, Crosby said, is that the opportunity costs of pursuing a career in science and engineering are much higher for domestic students than they are for foreign students. That is, domestic students give up other potentially lucrative careers (law, medicine, and business) to spend the prime of their youth in graduate school (whereas for foreign students, careers in law, medicine, and business in the U.S. are not as readily available). The solution, Crosby proposed, is to provide federal support for science students commensurate with their economic need. Crosby also recommended that the federal government collect better data on the status and dynamics of the science and engineering workforce, both domestic and global, so that we can better analyze trends in the workforce.

Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, disagreed sharply with Crosby's warning of a future shortage of science and engineering workers. He said history shows that forecasts of shortages have not turned out to be accurate. In the late 1980's, NSF leaders predicted looming shortages in science and engineering workers; by the early 1990's, there were actually large surpluses. In the late 1990's, high-tech leaders and lobbyists predicted shortages in IT jobs; yet after the high-tech bubble burst in 2001, unemployment among IT workers increased sharply. Teitelbaum suggested that the latest warnings from NSB are just another round of crying wolf. Indeed, Teitelbaum said, there is no quantitative evidence of current labor shortages in science and engineering (such as rising wages, shortening time to degree, career-switching into science and engineering), and if anything, the evidence points to labor surpluses. As for the future, he said, workforce forecasts are "notoriously weak" and it is presently impossible to accurately predict the state of the science and engineering forecast over the next few years. He suggested that claims of looming shortages are popular despite being unsupported by evidence because they are effective lobbying tools.

The labor market in engineering is unstable and subject to booms and bust, Teitelbaum said. The labor market in science is actually deteriorating. This situation exists across all the sciences but is at its most critical in medical sciences, ironically the most heavily funded of all the sciences. The recent doubling of NIH funding led to an explosion in the number of graduate students trained, without a corresponding increase in the number of academic research jobs available. This has led to a "piling up" at the end of the training pathway of alienated and frustrated postdocs.

Teitelbaum added after the briefing that an analytic model recently developed to describe workforce dynamics showed that the very worst possibility in terms of oversupply of workers is to suddenly and very rapidly increase the amount of funding available for training workers and then suddenly let it plateau. The crucial problem is that principal investigators used their newfound research money to pay for trainee graduate students rather than non-trainee research assistants or to pay for new positions for research scientists. Members of the audience commented that the institutional structure of universities gives investigators incentive to take on more graduate students, without providing the corresponding incentive to hire more assistant professors.

The increasing time to degree is also problematic, Teitelbaum said. Again the most extreme case, training for biomedical researchers now takes 9-12 years of post-baccalaureate training, so that scientists are in their early 30's by the time they get their first real job. He suggested that to more efficiently deal with fluctuations in the market for scientists, universities should create intensive 2-year master's programs for potential scientists who want to work in industry but not do research in academia. The Sloan Foundation supports a program working toward this objective.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences said "the attractiveness to young people of careers in life-science research is declining," and Shirley Tilghman, the dean of Princeton University, called the data for 2002 "appalling." Pointing to these dismal career prospects, Teitelbaum suggested that the way to stimulate students to study science should be to increase demand to make the careers more attractive, not to enhance the supply of science students.

Teitelbaum noted the opportunity costs that Crosby mentioned: by choosing a career in science, a domestic student forgoes more than $1 million in lifetime earnings available from medical, legal, or business careers. We should be glad, he said, that some are willing to bear these opportunity costs because of their "calling" to science and the "intellectual challenge of discovery."

MATH AND SCIENCE EDUCATION LEGISLATION INTRODUCED IN SENATE

Senators Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) have introduced S. 2299, the "Homeland Security Education Act." The legislation is intended to strengthen education in math, science and critical foreign languages. The legislation authorizes funding for investments in K-12 math and science programs, establishes foreign language partnerships between K-12 schools and institutions of higher education, and encourages more students to enter these fields of study during their undergraduate careers. More specifically, the legislation would establish a loan interest forgiveness program to increase the number of undergraduates to complete degrees in mathematics, science, engineering and foreign languages-especially less commonly taught languages. The program would allocate $100 million to forgive the interest on a student's loans if they earned a degree in one of these fields. The legislation would also provide $75 million for a competitive grant program similar to existing Math and Science Partnership grant programs. The grants would be awarded to partnerships between K-12 and private entities to help schools improve science and math curriculum, upgrade laboratory facilities and purchase scientific equipment. Additionally, the legislation authorizes $15 million to provide grants to institutions of higher education to encourage students to develop foreign language proficiency as well as science and technological knowledge. Eligible institutions would develop programs in which students take courses in science, math and technology taught in a foreign language. Funds would be available for immersion programs in which students take science and technology courses in non-English speaking countries.

SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE ON SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND SPACE HOLDS HEARING ON ADULT STEM CELL RESEARCH

The Senate subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space held a hearing on 14 July 2004 to assess recent progress made on adult stem cell research. Subcommittee chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KA), a leading opponent of embryonic stem cell research, sought to draw attention to adult stem cells as opposed to embryonic stem cells in order to publicize progress being made by "non-controversial techniques," and by unspoken implication, downplay the need for embryonic stem cell research. Subcommittee Democrats pointed out the limitations of adult stem cell research and used the hearing as a platform to criticize President Bush's limitations on embryonic stem cell research.

Clinical researchers and their patients presented testimony on successful therapies using adult stem cells. Dr. Michel Levesque of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles said that his therapy eliminated a patient's Parkinson's disease symptoms on the side of the body that was treated. In this therapy, Dr. Levesque extracted neural stem cells from the patient's brain, grew them in culture, and injected them into the area of the brain that had degenerated because of Parkinson's disease to replace the dead tissue. Similarly, Dr. Jean Peduzzi-Nelson of the University of Alabama at Birmingham testified that her studies in rats show that spinal cord injuries can be healed to an unprecedented extent by transplanting stem cells into the site of injury from the injured animal's own olfactory mucosa, a tissue lining the inside of the nose. Dr. Peduzzi-Nelson said her colleague, Dr. Carlos Lima in Lisbon, Portugal, has tested this therapy on several human patients, including three Americans. Two of these patients testified at the hearing. Both had been paralyzed as a result of spinal cord injuries for more than two years, but after the transplantation they are now able to walk with braces. Dr. Peduzzi-Nelson remarked that this improvement was better than she had ever observed.

However, these success stories may not be universally replicable. Dr. Robert Goldstein of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation testified that adult stem cell therapy does not work to treat Type I diabetes, in which the pancreatic cells that produce insulin are destroyed. These insulin-producing cells are normally replenished by division, not differentiation from stem cells, so in a Type I diabetic, there is no source of adult stem cells within the patient's body that could replace the insulin-producing cells. He said JDRF's strategy is to fund both adult and embryonic stem cell research in the hope that something will provide a cure.

Despite Sen. Brownback's attempt to focus on adult stem cell research, subcommittee Democrats turned the spotlight on the controversy over embryonic stem cell research. Much of the debate centered on the limitations of adult v. embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Ranking minority member Ron Wyden (D-OR) cited NIH official statements that, compared to embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are 1) not totipotent, 2) often present only in minute quantities, 3) perhaps not as capable of multiplying, and 4) more likely to have DNA or other damage. He argued that given these limitations, President Bush should remove the current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research because it may hold more promise for life-saving cures. Dr. Levesque acknowledged that adult stem cells are hard to isolate, but Dr. Peduzzi-Nelson testified that often only minute quantities of stem cells are required for effective therapy, and slow growth in adult stem cells is advantageous because it is more controlled than growth in embryonic stem cells. Drs. Peduzzi-Nelson and Levesque also pointed out that adult stem cells have the advantage that they will not cause immune rejection because they come from the patient's own body. Furthermore, they said, embryonic stem cells can form tumors when implanted.

However, pressed by Sen. Wyden, Dr. Levesque conceded that it is unknown whether embryonic stem cells will cause immune rejection, because there is not enough research on them due to President Bush's restrictions. Dr. Irving Weissman of Stanford University clarified that only undifferentiated embryonic stem cells tend to form tumors; differentiated embryonic stem cells do not. Dr. Weissman described one advantage of embryonic over adult stem cells: using somatic nuclear transfer (also known as cloning), researchers could create embryonic stem cell lines from individuals with genetic predispositions to develop disorders like juvenile diabetes and Lou Gehrig's disease. These cell lines would themselves develop the same disease in culture over time, providing a unique opportunity to study the molecular and genetic mechanisms of the disease. Dr. Peduzzi-Nelson used this point to suggest that the focus on embryonic stem cell research may be profit-driven. She argued that pharmaceutical companies want to remove President Bush's limits on embryonic stem cell research because embryonic stem cell lines (such as Dr. Weissman described) may be patented and become hugely profitable, while adult stem cell therapies such as hers and Dr. Lima's cannot be patented.

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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 and appreciation 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. Website: www.aibs.org.

 


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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