NSF REAUTHORIZATION BILL WOULD PUT AGENCY ON TRACK TO DOUBLE BUDGET OVER FIVE YEARS; BILL HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR MORE FUNDS FOR MATH AND PHYSICAL SCIENCES - After hearing unanimous praise from a panel of academic researchers, the Science Committee's Research Subcommittee on 9 May 2002 passed by voice vote a bill that would place the National Science Foundation (NSF) on a track to double the agency's budget in five years. The panel adopted one amendment by voice vote, renaming H.R. 4664 the "Investing in America's Future Act." The bill reauthorizes NSF funding for three years, with authorized increases of 15% per year. If appropriated, and if continued for another two years, the 15% annual increases would result in a doubling of the NSF budget in five years. Subcommittee Chair Nick Smith (R-MI) said that the increase is intended to increase grant size and duration as well as increase the acceptance rate. The subcommittee is concerned that too many good proposals are being turned down. Smith and other committee members noted that the bill attempts to bring some order to the funding of Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) projects, by requiring the National Science Board to submit a prioritized list each year. However, the subcommittee recognized a need to get caught up with the existing MREFC list, which includes the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), so the bill authorizes a 50% increase for the MREFC in the second year.
However, the authorized increases are not balanced across disciplines. For instance, in the Research and Related Activities account, increases of as much as 100% are allocated to mathematics, 20% to nanotechnology, and 85% to major instrumentation. Although these are NSF priorities, other NSF priorities such as the Biocomplexity in the Environment Initiative did not receive a specific allocation. And language in the bill appears to encourage NSF to give special emphasis in its annual plan - the process by which funding is allocated among the directorates - to the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering. Smith said that the subcommittee worked to come up with a division among directorates that gives all a substantial increase but that they felt a need to look at the physical sciences because those disciplines have had smaller increases than the others in the past. The measure is now cleared for consideration by the Full Committee, which plans to take up the bill before Memorial Day.
HOUSE APPROVES BILL TO CREATE SCIENCE ADMINISTRATOR SLOT AT EPA - The House on 30 April 2002 cast a resounding, bipartisan vote for strengthening the science behind environmental decisions at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by passing H.R. 64 by voice vote. Also known as Strengthening Science at the EPA Act, H.R. 64 would create a Deputy Administrator for Science and Technology at EPA. The new Deputy would be responsible for coordinating the scientific effort among EPA's numerous offices and ensuring that sound science is the basis for regulatory decisions. The legislation also would set a fixed five-year term for the EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development (ORD). The five-year term for the ORD head would provide for more continuity across administrations, enabling the individual to better focus on the science conducted at the Agency. In addition, H.R. 64 adds a new title to the ORD head - Chief Scientist. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), sponsor of the legislation and Chairman of the Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee, said, "I am very pleased to see this bill passed. I believe it will be a big step forward in ensuring the scientific accountability of EPA decisions." "Congress often talks about the need for sound science at EPA," said Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). "I am happy to report that today the House put its money where its mouth is. This bill will go a long way to ensuring that decisions regarding environmental regulations are made based on the best science available." The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
It has been widely reported that EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman opposes the bill. In the 23 April 2002 hearing on EPA's science budget, Paul Gilman, EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development stated that Whitman had agreed to name a science advisor; Gilman said that an announcement should be made within the next thirty days, both as to the appointment and the tasks assigned to the advisor.
NSF RELEASES FINAL DATA QUALITY REGULATIONS - On 1 May 2002, NSF published its draft data quality guidelines, seeking public comment until 3 June 2002. The guidelines were prepared at the direction of the Office of Management and Budget, which, in turn, published its own guidelines last October pursuant to congressional mandate. The key issue with regard to the NSF guidelines, which are substantially similar to those published by OMB, is that the NSF guidelines EXCLUDE "research data, findings, reports, and other materials published or otherwise distributed by employees or agency contractors or grantees that are clearly identified as not representing NSF views. NSF grantees are wholly responsible for conducting their project activities and preparing the results for publication or other distribution." The full text of the proposed guidelines is at http://www.nsf.gov/home/pubinfo/nsfinfoqual.pdf.
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH RELEASES HANDBOOK ON METHODS AND WELFARE CONSIDERATIONS IN BEHAVIOR RESEARCH WITH ANIMALS - The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) has created a handbook, Methods and Welfare Considerations in Behavioral Research with Animals, to assist the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) in the evaluation of protocols that employ various means to manipulate the behavior and health of laboratory animals. The handbook may be useful to the researcher who is considering different methodologies for behavioral experiments. The report contains chapters on manipulation of access to food or fluids; experimental enclosures/physical restraint; pharmacological studies; aversive stimuli; social variables; ethological approaches; and teaching with animals. Full text editions are available for reading or downloading at www.nimh.nih.gov/research/animals.cfm.Limited numbers of printed copies are available upon request by calling 301/443-4513 or sending an e-mail to email@example.com.
HOUSE AND SENATE LOOK FOR WAYS TO FILL VOID LEFT WHEN OFFICE OF TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT ABOLISHED IN 1995 - There is a movement afoot in Congress - in both the House and Senate - to develop a new technical/scientific advisory body for Congress, similar to the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that was abolished in 1995. The reason given for its abolition was the Republican cost-cutting movement. Concerns expressed about OTA - including alleged bias, slowness, and the lack of direct input from experts - are considered by some to be post hoc rationalizations, while others say that these were genuine problems.
The current proposals take several forms - some addressing these very concerns. For instance, one Senate proposal suggests something called the National Science and Technology Assessment Service, and it would basically call for contracting out to individuals or organizations to provide information to Congress relating to the uses and application of technology to address current national science and technology policy issues. Introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) as an amendment to the energy bill (S.517)*, the legislation would authorize funding for an organization that would function primarily to commission reports from outside organizations. A small internal staff, in consultation with the National Research Council, would select experts to give advice. In the House, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), introduced legislation (H.R.2148) proposing to re-establish the original OTA. However, in a recent meeting sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.-United States of America, Holt said that he was amenable to discussions about ways to improve the OTA process.
Last year, the Senate succeeded in establishing a one-year, OTA-like pilot project by appropriating $500,000 to the General Accounting Office to $500K that will fund a small one-year pilot program to provide scientific and technical advice to the Senate. The GAO is scheduled to report back to Congress in July on the progress it has made in establishing this program.
* S. 517 was originally a $30 million authorization of a national laboratory partnership program. After extensive debate on its many amendments, S. 517 was made a substitute for the House energy bill (H.R. 4) that had been sent to the Senate for consideration. There are so many significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the energy bill that the conference to reconcile the bills may take months. Whether the National Science and Technology Assessment Service will survive the process remains to be seen.
FARM BILL CONFERENCE REPORT INCLUDES HELMS AMENDMENT TO EXCLUDE RATS, MICE, AND BIRDS FROM ANIMAL WELFARE ACT - House and Senate conferees reached agreement last Friday on the Farm Bill (H.R. 2646). The House passed the conference report Thursday by a vote of 280-141; the Senate approved the report on 8 May 2002. The conference agreement includes the Senate amendment by Jesse Helms (R-NC) that would codify the existing regulatory exclusion of rats, mice, and birds from oversight under the Animal Welfare Act.
As noted in the past, this change is unlikely to have significant effects on research involving these taxa because:
(1) Both the Public Health Service (PHS; which includes NIH) and NSF require adherence to the Public Health Service Act regulations, which apply to all vertebrates. Even if your funding is not from NIH or NSF, if your university receives funding from these sources, it is required to provide the Public Health Service with an "assurance document" that states that the university will comply with the PHS regulations.
(2) Despite an express, existing exclusion of rats, mice, and birds in the Animal Welfare Act regulations, most, if not all, universities have been regulating these taxa via both the site inspection process (for lab-based research) and the research protocol approval process. In part, this is because of the Public Health Service Act regulations, but it is also because the universities and the individuals who serve on the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees feel it is scientifically inappropriate to distinguish among vertebrates.
(3) The primary difference would be periodic site inspections by the USDA, so to the extent that these inspections will not occur, there is one less inspection and one less fee to pay.
(4) Many labs are already accredited by AAALAC [http://www.aaalac.org], which is not only very exacting, but which include rats, mice, and birds.
Had the USDA been forced to regulate rats, mice, and birds, there were indications that the regulations would adopt the standards of professional societies.
The one key benefit of this statutory exclusion is for field biologists. Assuming that field sites would be subject to inspection, the fees could have been very high. More significantly, it is unlikely that USDA would have been able to hire or train inspectors with the appropriate knowledge and expertise to evaluate research conducted under field conditions.
FOLLOW-UP REPORT ON NSF BIO ADVISORY COMMITTEE MEETING - As reported in our previous policy report (26 April 2002), the shape and direction of NSF's funding programs are guided and informed by advisory committees of experts that provide advice, recommendations, and oversight concerning major program emphases, directions, and goals for the research-related activities to the research directorate. The 19-member advisory committee on biological sciences or "BIOAC" met on April 25 and 26.
This planning meeting gave the BIO staff an opportunity to preview future program priorities and to get feedback from the BIOAC. Mary Clutter, Assistant Director for BIO, gave an overview of the long-range planning process, which is known as "Revisioning the biological sciences at NSF." The process began with an examination of the role of the biological sciences in NSF and the overall federal research portfolio. A key issue discussed was the existing stovepipe structure in the BIO directorate, within NSF, and throughout the federal scientific research enterprise, and how it might have to change to facilitate the biology of the 21st century. Clutter characterized the biology of the 21st century as multi-disciplinary, multidimensional, data-driven, education-oriented, and internationally engaged. The planning process also considered how to achieve a balanced portfolio, NSF's obligations to young investigators and underrepresented groups, and how to integrate research and education.
At present, BIO's funding portfolio accounts for (of competitively-funded research): 90% of long term ecological research, 95% of systematics and biology, 75% of evolutionary and environmental research, 50% of plant biology, and 50% of non-medical life sciences research. Coming changes will be staged in over time, beginning with the development in the next fiscal year of a "virtual division" that will allow investigators to submit proposals that do not fit neatly within the existing BIO divisions. This new division, which will have no staff of its own, will encourage research on the emerging frontiers of biology, and particularly, in new, integrative areas. It will foster the realignment and amalgamation of BIO funding, to reduce or eliminate the current stovepipe structure. Existing programs that are characterized as emerging frontiers are the Biocomplexity in the Environment Initiative, information technology, nanotechnology, learning for the 21st century workforce, mathematical science, and the Tree of Life. The only funding likely to be reallocated to the virtual division in FY2003 is $12.57 million for Integrated Research Challenges. Program officers will be expected to use their expertise and to rely on multidisciplinary panels to manage this virtual division.
In Phase 2, BIO will evaluate the virtual division. If it is working, new activities will be initiated. Eventually, the outcome of the process will be the third and final phase - the "new biology."
The BIOAC agreed that there should be a call for proposals appropriate to this new approach. According to NSF staff, they expect to have such a proposal out this summer. They intend, in writing the new call for proposals, to consult with other directorates, particularly Education and Human Resources and the Math and Physical Sciences directorates.
Joann Roskoski, BIO's Executive Officer, described BIO's internal planning process that develops specific programs or initiatives to realize the long-range planning goals. The process starts with an examination of proposals and publications to identify the leading edge of biology. Program officers are asked to articulate where the leading edge is in their particular fields of study. Senior BIO staff then discuss these reports, looking for common themes. Those themes then become the basis for new program directions. The themes that emerged from the process were:
- evolutionary biology
- multi-level integration
- data-gazing or data grazing
- educating the 21st century biologist
Cross-division teams of senior BIO staffers and program officers were then asked to assess how their division might address these themes.
For the evolutionary biology theme, four areas of interest were identified:
- evolution of function
- new, multidisciplinary approaches to speciation
- origins of life and transitions
- creation of an evolutionary synthesis center to enhance research in this field
For the area of multi-level integration, possible program activities identified were:
- large scale biosystems challenging analytical and synthetic capabilities
- general framework for explaining biosystems at all levels
- addressing underlying challenges, such as computational limitations, data collection and storage capacity, conceptual and modeling challenges, and training new investigators for this kind of research
Possible programs to address data-gazing / data-grazing included:
- expanding horizons from nanotechnology to large scale ecological research
- developing and deploying sensors of varying types and size
- creating grids of interconnecting computers and databases
- connecting the data-gazing to hypothesis-driven research and harnessing this capacity to answer questions that couldn't be answered before
For educating the 21st century biologist, suggested approaches were:
- expanding the Research Experiences for Teachers program
- bringing middle school and high school students into the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and
- enhance faculty development at undergraduate institutions and particularly at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities
- create undergraduate biological research scholarships for a full-year of research activity
- make the Integration of Undergraduate Education, Research, and Training program a year-round, multidisciplinary program
- create integrated research and education networks to coordinate and communicate across all the existing programs
- translate leading edge research into teaching tools
Following these presentations, BIOAC members provided feedback and guidance to the BIO staff. It was apparent that the BIOAC members were largely supportive of these ideas.
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