NSF requests comments on strategic plan for biology

The National Science Foundation has announced that it is beginning a process to develop the next NSF Strategic Plan. NSF is seeking input from the scientific community to help the Foundation develop the first draft of the new plan.

According to an NSF document, the Foundation uses its current plan (www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=nsf04201) "to guide NSF and stakeholders in a way that is responsive to the science and engineering community that we serve." NSF's intent is for the next plan covering the period of 2006-2011 to continue to serve this purpose by communicating NSF's strategic goals, objectives, priorities and strategies over this time period. Furthermore, federal performance and budget procedures require that the new plan comply with the priorities and strategies being drafted in the "National Science Board 2020 Vision for the National Science Foundation."

Comments from the science community should be submitted by 20 January 2006 through the website at www.nsf.gov/about/performance/input.cfm. NSF is particularly interested in feedback on the following questions:

  1. Does NSF's current Strategic Plan effectively communicate NSF's roles and responsibilities as part of the science and engineering (S&E) community? If not, what is lacking and how can the next plan be improved?
  2. What broad characteristics of the near- and long-term environment for S&E research and education should NSF consider and address in its next Strategic Plan?

House adjourns while Senate faces tough debate over ANWR

In a late night vote-a-thon, the House completed work Monday morning on the Defense Department appropriations and budget reconciliation bills, the two pieces of legislation they had to clear before adjournment. At 5:00 a.m. on 19 December the House successfully passed H.R. 2863, the $453 billion Department of Defense spending package. In addition to funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bill clears the way for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas drilling and includes language calling for a 1 percent across-the-board cut to discretionary spending, excluding Veteran's Affairs. After an additional hour of debate, the House passed S. 1932, the budget reconciliation bill, which cuts nearly $40 billion from the federal government in the next five years.

Fiscal conservatives and drilling proponents hailed the passage of the two bills; Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) called the combination a renewal of their "commitment to the principles of fiscal discipline and limited government." But many Democrats resented that they were forced to vote on ANWR in the must-pass Defense appropriations bill. "There is something especially outrageous about the willingness of majority party leadership to allow the Department of Defense bill, in a time of war, to be held hostage to totally unrelated special interest items," said Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

The Senate must now pass the spending bills before they can be signed into law. Media reports suggest this could be a tough battle, with Democrats threatening to filibuster the Defense appropriations bill starting Monday.

Last week Senators and Representatives reached a new deal on the Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS)-Education appropriations conference report, which was originally rejected in the House on 17 November. The House passed the deal last week after both chambers agreed to add $120 million for rural healthcare.

Under the new conference report, the Math and Science Partnerships (MSP) program in the Department of Education receives $184 million, $6 million less than the House-approved number, but $5.4 million and $5.5 million more than the Senate version and the FY 2005 level, respectively. Conferees from the House and Senate encouraged the MSP grantees "to incorporate advanced placementSumstaff development training into their math and science partnership projects to help teachers meet the highly qualified criteria under the No Child Left Behind Act."

For more information on NIH funding under the Labor-HHS-Education conference report, please refer to the 5 December 2005 AIBS Public Policy Report available at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/public-policy-reports-2005_12_06.html.

Legislators introduce bills to foster U.S. innovation and competitiveness

In recent weeks, federal lawmakers have introduced a handful of bills to accompany the numerous innovation and competitiveness reports that have been circulating on Capitol Hill. Senators John Ensign (R-NV) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) have sponsored the National Innovation Act (NIA). The bill, based on recommendations from the Council on Competitiveness, "aims to make the necessary improvements in research, education of science and technology talent, and innovation infrastructure to allow the United States to maintain the global leadership it achieved in the last century." Among a number of objectives, the NIA would double the funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) by FY 2011 and expand scholarship, training, and grant opportunities for those studying science, math, and engineering. In the coming weeks, Ensign and Lieberman will look for additional co-sponsors for the bipartisan bill in order to push for action when Congress returns in January.

In the House, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) has introduced two legislative proposals based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." H.R. 4434 responds to the NAS report's number 1 priority—improving K-12 science and math education by attracting 10,000 qualified teachers—by authorizing scholarships for educating math and science teachers. Gordon's other measure, H.R. 4435, answers another NAS report recommendation by funding high-risk, high-reward research at the Department of Energy, modeled on the DARPA program in the Department of Defense.

National Summit on Competitiveness convenes in Washington, DC

Washington, D.C., played host on 6 December to corporate executives and academic leaders who joined Congressmen and Administration officials at the National Summit on Competitiveness. The idea for a Summit was proposed earlier this year by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice and Commerce. The Summit was designed to "bring together the nation's best and brightest to help develop a blueprint for the future of American science and innovation." The event attracted over 55 participants, including Representatives Wolf, Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), and Donald Manzullo (R-IL); National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement; and Undersecretaries from the Departments of Energy, Labor, and Education.

Participants outlined several recommendations for boosting U.S. competitiveness: increasing investment in basic research, strengthening K-12 math and science education, and reforming visa policies so the United States can attract more talent from abroad. Among the specific recommendations included in a white paper published in conjunction with the Summit were calls to "increase the federal investment in long-term basic research by 10 percent a year over the next seven years with focused attention to the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematicsSum[and] by 2015, double the number of bachelor's degrees awarded annually to U.S. students in science, math, and engineering degrees."

Evolution on trial: Updates from Cobb County and California

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta heard arguments Thursday, 15 December, on the legality of disclaimers included in Cobb County, GA, biology textbooks. The case stems from a 2001 decision by the Cobb County school district to include in biology textbooks stickers that state: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." Five parents sued the school district in 2004 demanding the removal of the stickers. In January, U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that the stickers were unconstitutional because they endorsed religion. The school district appealed the decision claiming, "The mere fact that a part of the language of the sticker may coincide with the religious views of some citizens does not render it unconstitutional."

In other biology curriculum news, on 12 December the federal appeals court in Los Angeles was scheduled to hear a motion to dismiss a complaint filed against the University of California. U.S. District Court Judge S. James Otero instead opted to rule on the matter based on briefs prepared by both sides. The suit centers on the claim that the University of California system unconstitutionally rejected coursework from schools whose biology coursework used textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books. The University of California defended its decision saying the textbooks were "inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community."

National Science Board tests idea of a STEM education commission

With the release of the National Academies Report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" and the National Summit on Competitiveness, science education has been a hot-button issue in Washington, D.C. In the midst of this the National Science Foundation's (NSF) National Science Board (NSB) held a hearing on Capitol Hill to address the future of K-16 science, technology, engineering, and math education in the U.S. The NSB has considered creating an official commission to study the issue and the 7 December hearing was the first of three public meetings to discuss the matter.

In addition to members of the NSB, Representatives Frank Wolf (R-VA), Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), John Culberson (R-TX) and Bart Gordon (D-TN) participated in the hearing. Overwhelmingly the Representatives recognized this as a pressing issue but encouraged the NSB to avoid developing a commission that simply restates information that is already widely available. Rep. Boehlert explained, "the commission will be a waste of time and an unaffordable missed opportunity if it does not provide a very clear, concise, and cogent statement of the NSF role in education at all levels, and if it does not provide clear and very specific guidance about what activities NSF should be undertaking to fulfill that role." Boehlert and Culberson also expressed disappointment in funding for NSF calling the budget "unacceptable" and "hardly reflect[ing] the ever growing sense of crisis."

Report grades state science education standards

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has issued a report evaluating the quality of state science standards across the United States. Authored by Paul R. Gross and colleagues, the report, "The State of State SCIENCE Standards," is available online at www.edexcellence.net/institute. The Fordham Institute is not affiliated with Fordham University.

In short, the authors report that nineteen states have implemented "standards clear and rigorous enough to earn them an 'honors' grade of 'A' or 'B'. Over half of U.S. children attend school in these states." However, the authors awarded a failing grade to 15 states. These states either have no real standards for their science program or standards that are so "vague and weak as to be meaningless." The balance of the states received a grade of C or D. Iowa was not evaluated because it does not publish science standards.

Overall, the authors commend A-graded states (California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Virginia), noting that these states have "produced exceptional academic standards documents that, if followed in the classroom, would result in excellent science programs." However, the report criticized most state standards for what the authors describe as "serious problems," which include:

  1. Excessive Length and Poor Navigability

  2. Thin Disciplinary Content

  3. Do-It Yourself Learning

  4. Good Ideas Gone Bad

  5. Shunning Evolution

Regarding the treatment of evolution, the report recognizes the threats to science education posed by the proponents of intelligent design/creationism. However, the authors also note, "defenders of the teaching of evolution are holding their ground. In fact, comparing this year's scores of how states are handling evolution with the scores assigned in 2000Sumwe find that the teaching of evolution hasn't changed much. Twenty states earned a 'sound grade this year for their treatment of evolution, down slightly from 24 in 2000. The number of states earning 'passing grades held steady at 7, while those earning 'marginal' grades rose from 6 to 10. Failing grades (or worse, as in Kansas) held steady at 13." However, it is important to remember that the report merely looks at the standards and does not consider how well the material is actually being taught in the classroom, or the extent to which students are learning material when it is appropriately taught.

2005 AIBS Public Policy Office Annual Report now online

The 2005 annual report of the AIBS Public Policy Office is now available online at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/annual_reports.html. For further information about the Public Policy Office, please contact director of public policy Robert Gropp at 202-628-1500 x 250.

Graduate student opportunity: Apply for the 2006 AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leader Award

As part of its focus on engaging scientists in the public policy process, the American Institute of Biological Sciences is pleased to announce the AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leader Award, an opportunity for graduate students in the biological sciences to receive first-hand experience in the policy arena. AIBS will pay travel costs and expenses for 1-2 recipients of the award to participate in a Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition Congressional Visits Day (CVD) in Washington, D.C. on March 22-23, 2006. This is event brings scientists and educators to Washington, D.C. to raise visibility and support for the biological sciences. During the event, participants will attend briefings by key officials from the White House and Congress and receptions honoring members of Congress for their work on behalf of biology; they will also participate in meetings with members of Congress and their staff.

AIBS is accepting applications for the 2006 Emerging Public Policy Leader Award from graduate students (master's or doctoral) in the biological sciences with a demonstrated interest in and commitment to biological science and/or science education policy. Submit applications electronically to NO LATER than 5 p.m. EST on Friday, 3 February 2006.

Applications should include the following materials:

  • Cover letter. Applicants should describe their interest in science policy issues and how participation in this CVD event would further their career goals. Applicants should also confirm their availability to attend the March 22-23 event.
  • Statement on the importance of biological research (max. 500 words). The objective of CVD is to demonstrate the long-term importance of the biological sciences to the nation to congressional decision makers. How would you convince your congressional delegation of the importance of biological research? Prepare a statement that emphasizes the benefits of biological research, drawing on your own experience and/or research area, and referencing local issues that may be of interest to your congressional delegation as appropriate.
  • Resume (1 page). Your resume should emphasize leadership and communication experience - this may include graduate, undergraduate, or non-academic activities. Please include the following items: education (including relevant law or policy courses), work experience, honors and awards, and memberships. Please do not list conference presentations, abstracts or scientific manuscripts.
  • Letter of reference. Ask an individual who can attest to your leadership and interpersonal and communication skills to send a letter on your behalf to by the stated deadline. This individual should also be familiar with your interest in or experience with science or education policy issues.

To learn about prior EPPLA recipients, please visit the Policy Training Initiatives section of the AIBS website at www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressional_fellows.html.

New in BioScience: "Will Stem Cell Research Evolve?"

The December 2005 Washington Watch column in BioScience considers the status of stem cell research policy in the United States. Following is an excerpt from the article:

When will embryonic stem cell researchers be able to fully tap into federal funding, the financial backbone of the US science community? This is what scientists continue to ask, as well as citizens who remain enthused about cells that show promise in the push to treat and cure debilitating diseases.

It has been seven years since stem cells burst onto the scene, but government restrictions on funding embryonic stem cell research continue to plague scientists like John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, one of two researchers credited with discovering the cells.

"It's clear that the limitations in federal policy do not permit funding into the most progressive and promising areas at this point, so we turn to the private side," he says. "But there's a limit to how much you can draw from this.... The issue is 'How do we go forward?'"

The complete article may be viewed at: www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washington_watch_2005_12.html.


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