White House memo sets forth science priorities for FY 2007 budget

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Management and Budget annually release a joint memorandum setting forth administration-wide research and development priorities for the coming fiscal year. The memorandum is sent to the heads of all executive departments and agencies to help them inform their planning for the coming year. The fiscal year 2007 memo was released on 8 July.

"As we have reiterated previously in these annual memos," OSTP director Marburger and OMB director Bolten wrote, "agencies must vigorously evaluate existing programs and, wherever possible, consider them for modification, redirection, reduction or termination, in keeping with national needs and priorities."

As outlined in the memorandum, the administration favors federal R&D investments that:

  • advance fundamental scientific discovery to improve future quality of life;
  • address societal and environmental impacts of science and technology, including ethical, national security and homeland security issues;
  • sustain specifically authorized agency missions and support the missions of other agencies through stewardship of user facilities;
  • enable potentially high-payooff activities that require a federal presence to attain long-term national goals, including national security and energy independence;
  • support technological innovations to spur economic competitiveness and new job growth;
  • enhance the health of our nation's people;
  • strengthen science, mathematics and engineering education and accomplishments to enable superior performance in math and science;
  • ensure a scientifically literate population and a supply of qualified technical personnel commensurate with national need;
  • enhance our ability to understand and respond to global environmental issues;
  • maximize efficiency and effectiveness of the R&D enterprise through means such as competitive, peer-reviewed award and review processes and phase-out of programs that are only marginally productive or are not important to an agency's mission; and
  • strengthen international partnerships that foster advancement of scientific frontiers and accelerate the progress of science across boarders.

Of interest to many in the biological sciences community, the memorandum includes specific language calling on agencies to "maximize the coordination and planning of their R&D programs through the NSTC. Two areas requiring special agency attention and focus through the NSTC are Federal scientific collections and R&D assessment." More specifically, the memo encourages agencies to "assess the priorities for and stewardship of Federal scientific collections, which play an important role in public health and safety, homeland security, trade and economic development, medical research, and environmental monitoring. Agencies should develop a coordinated strategic plan to identify, maintain and use Federal collections and to further collections research."

An additional priority identified in the memorandum is an improved understanding of complex biological systems. The memo recognizes that new biotechnological tools are providing researchers with unprecedented access to data on DNA sequences, and RNA and protein expression. These advances make it possible for "research into the functional implications of gene expression." Agencies are encouraged to target investments toward development of a "deeper understanding of complex biological systems through collaborations among physical, computational, behavioral, social and biological researchers and engineers."

Under the umbrella of energy and environment, the memorandum recognizes that the "U.S. Strategic Plan for an Integrated Earth Observation System (IEOS) provides guidance for agencies contributing to these efforts." Agencies are encouraged to "focus on near-term opportunities to pilot integrated observing systems, such as those that contribute to natural hazards assessment and disaster warnings."

Additionally, the memo calls on agencies to implement "the 2003 Strategic plan for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program" with a focus on the topics outlined in the 2003 "U.S. Climate Change Technology Program: Research and Current Activities." Agencies are also encouraged to implement the activities outlined in the 2004 U.S. Ocean Action Plan. The Ocean Action Plan was developed in response to the U.S. Commission of Ocean Policy.

NASA reauthorization legislation advances in House and Senate

Legislation to reauthorize the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was recently introduced in the House (HR 3070) and Senate (S 1281). Reauthorization is a means for Congress to periodically review an agency's mission and priorities.

Both measures support the president's vision for space exploration, which sets out goals for human exploration of the moon and Mars. S 1281 calls on the agency to "ensure that the various areas within NASA's science portfolio are developed and maintained in a balanced and healthy manner"; the House version contains similar language. The two versions currently provide different funding levels, retirement dates for the space shuttle, and recommendations for use of the International Space Station. HR 3070 would also transfer some earth science programs from NASA to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The call for balance in the bills is likely a response to congressional concerns that important NASA science projects will be sacrificed to meet the budget demands of human space flight. At a 28 June House Science Committee hearing, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said he intended to "protect NASA's science program" but also acknowledged that some programs would likely need to be scaled back, including some of the space station's life science research. "I'm not happy with it," he said. "I don't know what else to do."

The measures now await a vote in each chamber. Some in Washington, DC have speculated that the House could consider HR 3070 as early as this week.

For an additional perspective on NASA's research portfolio, consider BioScience editor in chief Timothy Beardsley's editorial in the July issue of BioScience: "Lost in Space: Episode II." Beardsley writes:

"President Bush's vision for the US space program turns out to be no vision at all for many biologists. To revive flagging enthusiasm for sending humans beyond Earth, the president proposed last year that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should work toward sending astronauts back to the moon by 2020, with a view to later launching crews to Mars.

There are reasons to doubt the political viability of the long-term goal. In 1989, the president's father proposed a similar space exploration initiative that vanished within a few years. The same fate may yet befall the 2004 version, but there is a more immediate concern: the plan envisages a new role for the International Space Station, the future of which has been in doubt since the Columbia tragedy in 2003. The new vision requires that the orbital outpost be dedicated to research aimed at enabling astronauts to survive the harsh radiation environment of interplanetary space for a journey lasting several months.

That goal is challenging enough, but NASA budget planning documents indicate that in order to pay for the vision, some $160 million worth of station-based biological and physical flight research, as well as related ground research, will have to be phased out. The Advanced Animal Habitat, the last surviving biological research facility from the original station design, would be cancelled, and the retirement of the shuttle by 2010-required by the presidential vision-would put the kibosh on the Centrifuge Accommodation Module being developed by the Japanese Space Agency. The centrifuge, which had been scheduled for launch in 2009, was to have allowed the long-term study of the effects of varying gravity levels on generations of experimental organisms.

Observers who remember that biological research in microgravity was one of the principal reasons advanced for building the space station may be forgiven a little cynicism. If such research was so important then, why is it now not worth doing? Though it never seemed likely to be cost-effective in crude economic terms, fundamental research on the station might have led to significant discoveries.

NASA's new administrator is now apparently reassessing many of the agency's plans. But some biologists might wonder whether a revised vision is in order. An interesting and plausible one has been put forward by the B612 Foundation: to alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015. Such an ability would come in useful if an unruly fragment of solar system detritus looked likely to pass too close to our planet. Biologists who know the fossil record can advise visionaries on the probable consequences of an impact. Although a significant collision in this century seems unlikely, asteroids more than 100 meters across-big enough to devastate an area the size of New York City or Tokyo-pass close to Earth uncomfortably often. In the meantime, those who are interested in the effects of microgravity can advise on the potential impacts of fundamental discoveries in organismal development on crops, medicine, ecosystem functioning, and other pertinent aspects of life on our own planet. Mars will (probably) still be in its orbit a few decades hence."

This editorial may be viewed online at www.aibs.org/bioscience-editorials/editorial_2005_07.html.

Tulsa Zoo won't put up creationist display after all

On 7 July the Tulsa, Oklahoma Park and Recreation Board reversed its decision to add a creationist exhibit at the Tulsa Zoo. In June, the board voted 3-1 to accept a plan to add a zoo display portraying the biblical account of creation. Residents showed up in droves to both support and oppose the measure, creating a "standing-room-only crowd," according to USA Today.

Critics such as zoo employees argued that religion should not be a part of a taxpayer-funded scientific institution. But proponents, including Mayor Bill LaFortune (R), pointed to other zoo displays with religious elements, such as a Hindu elephant statue that is part of an exhibit on elephant images in different cultures. One month after the board's initial vote, perhaps reeling from national coverage of the decision, the board voted 3-1 to scrap plans for the creationist exhibit. The lone dissenter was LaFortune, who advised the formation of a committee to examine other religious symbols at the zoo. The board took no action on the mayor's suggestion.

Now in BioScience: "The Summers Affair: Has It Prompted an Effective Plan for Harvard?"

The July 2005 Washington Watch article considers the recent gender equity debate at Harvard University. An excerpt of the article follows:

In May, with his job on the line, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers pledged $50 million over the next decade for initiatives to help recruit, support, and promote women and members of underrepresented ethnic groups on the university's faculty. "We have to do better," Summers admitted; last year only 4 of 32 professors offered tenure on Harvard's faculty of arts and sciences were women. He observed that "universities like Harvard were designed a long time ago, in many respects, by men and for men. To fully succeed on these issues we're going to have to address issues of culture."

Several women leaders in the biological sciences say they are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Harvard's new diversity initiative and its possible repercussions at other US research universities. Even though women have nearly achieved parity with men in earning doctorates in the life sciences, at many prestigious universities they still lag far behind male colleagues in becoming full professors, department chairs, deans, and senior administrators.

"There is a subterranean prejudice now," says Rita Colwell, chair of Canon US Life Sciences. "No one is going to say, like they said to me when I was asking to go to graduate school, that they don't waste fellowships on women. They don't say that now. But there's still discrimination."

Continue reading at: http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washington_watch_2005_07.html.

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