Science Programs Largely to Benefit from FY 2015 Funding Compromise

In the final days of the 113th session of Congress, lawmakers finally passed a spending plan for fiscal year (FY) 2015. More than two months overdue, the comprehensive spending bill—also known as the CRomnibus—will provide increased funding for many scientific research and education programs, including the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Geological Survey. Other science programs within the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy Office of Science were spared deep budget cuts.

The Senate cleared the $1.1 trillion compromise on Sunday, several days after a close vote in the House of Representatives. In both chambers, some of the most liberal and conservative lawmakers opposed the bill. Liberals protested the inclusion of policy changes related to financial reform. Conservatives sought to confront President Obama on immigration.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that the bill “is not a perfect bill, but … there are no perfect bills. There are some people that are upset about things in this bill. To be candid with you, I’m kind of upset about some of the things in the bill. But this bill is so much better than a short-term CR [Continuing Resolution].”

If Congress had not passed H.R. 83, it was widely anticipated that lawmakers would have enacted a short-term spending measure that would have kicked the can on appropriations until the new session of Congress. That scenario would have likely resulted in deeper spending cuts.

Although the legislation included less than a one percent increase in spending above the FY 2014 level, many science programs will have more funding this year.

  • National Science Foundation: $7.3 billion (+$172.3 million). The agency’s research portfolio will receive an additional $124.7 million and education programs will receive $19.5 million more. This will support 350 new competitive grants in 2015.
  • Agricultural Research Service: $1.8 billion (+$55.1 million)
  • Agriculture and Food Research Initiative: $325 million (+$8.5 million)
  • Department of Energy Office of Science: $5.1 billion (same as FY 2014). The Biological and Environmental Research program will lose $18.2 million, which is a considerably smaller cut than the House had proposed.
  • Environmental Protection Agency: $8.1 billion (-$60 million). The agency has been a perennial target for budget cuts. The compromise spending level is a significant improvement over the $717 million in cuts the House had sought. Science and Technology will lose $24.5 million.
  • Forest Service Forest and Rangeland Research: $296.0 million (+$3.2 million)
  • National Institutes of Health: $30.1 billion (+$149.7 million)
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: $5.4 billion (+$126.3 million)
  • Smithsonian Institution: $819.5 million (+$14.5 million)
  • U.S. Geological Survey: $1.0 billion (+$13.0 million). The bill includes $157.0 million for Ecosystems (+$4.2 million).

Another positive outcome for the scientific community is that the CRomnibus does not contain any policy riders that target social sciences. Some lawmakers have questioned and criticized the need for government support for research in the social sciences and had sought to block funding for some research grants.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

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Digital Innovation Competition Launched: $1 Million Prize for Entry that Digitizes a Draw of Insect Specimens

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) have launched the Beyond the Box Digitization Competition. The initiative will award $1 million to the individual or team who develops a novel way to accurately and efficiently capture digital images of insect specimens and their associated data from a standard museum drawer of insects.

“The Beyond the Box Digitization Competition is designed to inspire the ingenuity of the American public, and to engage scientists, engineers, and everyday inventors, in an effort to solve a problem that has been slowing the rate of scientific discovery,” said Dr. James L. Olds, Assistant Director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences at NSF.

Whether through the beauty of a butterfly, agricultural significance of a honeybee, or the public health implications of a mosquito, insects influence the quality of human life every day.

“Insects are an amazingly diverse group of organisms that represent an overwhelming amount of living biological diversity on Earth,” said AIBS President Dr. Joseph Travis. “Very few insect species are pests and most play important roles in our ecosystems. They pollinate many of our crops, recycle nutrients and energy, and are sources of food for the other animals in the food chain. Unfortunately, despite all we know about insects, we have yet to describe all of the species of insects and, in fact, we are still discovering new species at a surprisingly high rate.”

There are believed to be more than 1.5 million identified species of insects on Earth. This is hypothesized to be three times the number of all other animal species combined. Amazingly, it is estimated that there are 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) insects alive in the world. That’s more than one billion times the number of people.

“We share the planet with so many insects, wouldn’t it be wonderful if when we find a new one in our backyard we could take a picture of it and have that matched to an image in a museum somewhere. We could learn the name, understand what its role in the ecosystem is, or understand if it is an invasive species that might devastate our garden or nearby crop fields,” said Dr. Norman Johnson, Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection at The Ohio State University, and the Chairman of the Planning Committee that established the rules for the competition.

For more than 250 years, scientists have collected millions of insects from around the world. These specimens are now held in more than 1,000 natural science collections in universities and museums across the United States alone. Unfortunately, many of these specimens remain unknown to science, education, natural resource and public health managers, and the general public. Quite simply, they have been locked away in cabinets.

“With technological advances in robotics, imaging, data capture and management, among other areas, it is now possible to develop new tools to digitally capture images of insect specimens and their associated data,” said Johnson.

“This is important work that is going to solve some persistent challenges, advance science and engineering, and is also likely to generate new tools that may have secondary commercial applications,” said Olds.

Through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program, NSF has pledged $100 million over ten years to support biodiversity collections research.

Other fields of biology have made progress digitizing specimens and sharing the data with research, education, and other user communities. Plant scientists, for example, have been developing innovative ways to image herbarium sheets. Despite these developments, insects have remained a challenge.

Johnson states, “we need to find a way to move from two dimensional to three dimensional images.”

Insects are delicate and have small labels associated with them that have information about the specimen, such as its name and where it was collected. “These specimens and their associated data provide irreplaceable information about the history and nature of life on Earth, but it is not easy to capture this data in a cost-effective way that does not damage the specimen or label. We need a creative solution that will solve this problem,” said Johnson.

“AIBS is pleased to partner with NSF on this endeavor,” said Travis. “This is a unique opportunity to move science and technology forward with a leap instead of a small step.”

Official contest rules and guidance are available at beyondthebox.aibs.org. Inquires related to the contest must be submitted on the website, where the questions and answers will be posted.

The contest opened on December 5, 2014 and will close at 11:59 p.m. on September 4, 2015. A winner will be selected following a competitive judging process and on-site demonstration by the finalists.

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NSF Releases New Policy on Grant Transparency

After much congressional scrutiny about the release of information related to grants, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced a new approach to transparency. The agency will now include in award abstracts a non-technical description of the research and an explanation of the project’s significance as it relates to the nation’s interests.

“Good stewardship of public resources requires ongoing examination of our processes and continuous improvement,” said NSF Director France Córdova. “We will continue to convey the significance of our science and engineering research in supporting the national interest. To do this we must clearly communicate our funding rationale publicly.”

NSF program staff will be offered training for writing award abstracts and titles, in order to meet the new policy.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has used his position as chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to criticize transparency at NSF, called the new policy encouraging. “For more than a year, I have been calling for the NSF to provide public explanations for how NSF research grants are in the national interest and worthy of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars,” said Smith. “The NSF’s new policy is a step in the right direction. Congress and taxpayers will be eager to see how the new NSF national interest criterion is implemented.”

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EPA Revises Policy on Scientists' Interactions with Journalists

Members of the Science Advisory Board for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will now be able to speak to the press and general public about their participation on the board. The EPA reversed course on the issue last month after criticism that the agency was restraining the free speech of its scientific advisors.

Board members will be limited to speaking “in their capacity as a private citizen,” according to an EPA memo, when responding to an inquiry related to “their scientific area of expertise or related to their participation in a FAC [Federal Advisory Committee]….”

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Join Us for the 2015 BESC Congressional Visits Day

Scientists and graduate students who are interested in communicating the importance of federal investments in scientific research and education to lawmakers are invited to participate in the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) Congressional Visits Day in Washington, DC.

This event is an opportunity for scientists to meet with their members of Congress to discuss the importance of federal funding for biological research and education. Event participants advocate for federal investments in biological sciences research, with a primary focus on the National Science Foundation, as well as other federal agencies.

BESC is co-chaired by the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the Ecological Society of America.

This year’s event will be held in late spring 2015 in Washington, DC. The first day of the program is a training program that will prepare participants for meetings with congressional offices. The second day is spent on Capitol Hill meeting with members of Congress and their staff.

There is no cost to participate in this event, but space is limited. BESC and its member organizations are not able to pay/reimburse participants for their travel expenses.

Learn more about the event and express your interest in participating at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionalvisitsday.html. The deadline to sign up is 13 March 2015.

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Graduate Student Leaders Sought to Shape Science Policy

Applications are being accepted for the 2015 AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award. This award recognizes graduate students in the biological sciences who have demonstrated initiative and leadership in science policy. Recipients receive first-hand experience at the interface of science and public policy.

Winners receive:

  • A trip to Washington, DC, to participate in the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition Congressional Visits Day, an annual event that brings scientists to the nation’s capital to advocate for federal investment in the biological sciences, with a primary focus on the National Science Foundation. The event will be held in late spring 2015. Domestic travel and hotel expenses will be paid for the winners.
  • Policy and communications training, including information on the legislative process and trends in federal science funding.
  • Meetings with congressional policymakers to discuss the importance of federal investments in the biological sciences.
  • A one-year AIBS membership, including a subscription to the journal BioScience and a copy of “Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media.”
  • An award certificate and membership in the EPPLA alumni network.

The 2015 award is open to U.S. citizens enrolled in a graduate degree program in the biological sciences, science education, or a closely allied field. Applicants should have a demonstrated interest in and commitment to science policy and/or science education policy. Prior EPPLA winners and AIBS science policy interns/fellows are not eligible.

Applications are due by 11:59 PM Eastern Time on Sunday, 18 January 2015. The application can be downloaded at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/eppla.html.

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Winners Selected in Faces of Biology Photo Contest

Three winners have been selected in the Faces of Biology Photo Contest, sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). This is the fourth year AIBS has sponsored the photo contest, which drew robust participation from scientists, educators, and students.

The contest is an opportunity for members of the scientific community to showcase the varied forms that biological research can take. The photos will be used to help the public and policymakers better understand the value of biological research and education.

Jean Polfus, a Ph.D. candidate at the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba, won First Place. The winning photo depicts a volunteer collecting caribou scat on Tets’ehxe (Drum Lake) in the Northwest Territories, Canada. The scat samples are analyzed for genetic information about caribou populations in the region. The research project depends on hunters and trappers to collect scat samples.

Second Place was awarded to Daniel Le, the Botany Collection’s Digital Media Specialist at The Field Museum. His photo depicts Allie Stone working with tropical butterflies from the museum’s vast collections. Stone and Le collaborated on a project to digitally image natural history specimens.

Ben Adams won Third Place for his photo of a field crew trekking to their sampling site on Sawmill Creek, near Juneau, Alaska. Adams is the Interactions of Hatchery/Wild Chum Salmon Project Coordinator at the Sitka Sound Science Center. He works on a research project that investigates how wild and hatchery-reared chum salmon interact in streams in southeast Alaska.

The first place photo will be featured on the cover of an upcoming issue of the journal BioScience. Polfus will also receive $250 and a one-year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience. The second and third place photos will be featured in an article in BioScience, and the photographers will each receive a one-year membership in AIBS with a subscription to BioScience.

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Short Takes

  • A new report from the National Academy of Sciences documents the career trajectories of postdoctoral researchers. Not only are the percentage of Ph.D.’s who pursue a postdoc growing, but the duration of postdoctoral training is also increasing. Read “The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited” at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/18982/the-postdoctoral-experience-revisited.
  • The National Science Foundation has released a video interview with Dr. James L. Olds, the new Assistant Director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences. View the video at http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/discvideos.jsp?org=NSF&cntnid=133539&media_id=77580.
  • The National Park Service has named Raymond Sauvajot as the new leader of the National Resources Stewardship and Science Directorate, which conducts ecosystem monitoring and provides science advice to the agency. Sauvajot is an ecologist by training and has worked at the National Park Service for 21 years.
  • The federal government has launched a challenge to citizen scientists to generate ideas for data-driven apps that support the resilience of communities and natural systems. More than $35,000 in prizes will be awarded as part of the Climate Resilience Data Challenge. Learn more at http://www.topcoder.com/earthscience/crdc/.
  • New troves of data relating to water and ecosystems have been released on climate.data.gov. The datasets including information about streamflow, soil, landcover, and biodiversity.

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Become an Advocate for Science: Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center

Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center.

The Legislative Action Center is a one-stop shop for learning about and influencing science policy. Through the website, users can contact elected officials and sign-up to interact with lawmakers.

The website offers tools and resources to inform researchers about recent policy developments. The site also announces opportunities to serve on federal advisory boards and to comment on federal regulations.

This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution, Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, and the Botanical Society of America.

AIBS and our partner organizations invite scientists and science educators to become policy advocates today. Simply go to policy.aibs.org to get started.

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