COMPETES Reauthorization Introduced in House

Legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would reauthorize funding for three federal programs that support basic research. “The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act” would set new two-year funding goals for the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy research programs, and National Institute of Standards and Technology labs, as well as make policy changes within these programs.

HR 1806 is sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The bill is co-sponsored by 10 Republicans who serve on the committee.

The NSF section of the bill departs in a number of significant ways from its predecessor, the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014.” Many of the changes address concerns raised by the scientific community during congressional consideration of the FIRST Act last year.

Notably, the proposed authorization level of $7.6 billion for NSF in fiscal years (FY) 2016 and 2017 is $253 million higher than the agency’s current funding level. This amount is more than what was proposed in the FIRST Act, but it is lower than President Obama requested in his fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget.

Although the higher overall authorization level responds to concerns raised about the FIRST Act, the new bill will likely cause heartburn for the research community. The bill contains funding levels for each of NSF’s directorates. For many years, Congress has not specified this level of detail in NSF’s budget and instead provided funding allocations more broadly for research, education, infrastructure, and administration. If enacted, the reauthorization bill would benefit certain research areas—biology, computer science, engineering, and math and physical sciences—at the expense of other scientific disciplines. These so-called ‘hard sciences,’ as Chairman Smith has often referred to them, would benefit from increases on the order of 12 to 16 percent over current funding levels. The social sciences and geosciences, conversely, would be cut by 45 percent and 8 percent respectively. These cuts mirror provisions of the FIRST Act that were heavily criticized by academics and Democrats.

The legislation no longer includes a limitation on funding research from principal investigators (PIs) who have received more than five years of NSF funding. The previous bill would have prevented such researchers from receiving new funding unless their proposed research was “original, creative, and transformative.” Also removed was language that limited PIs to five article citations in their research proposals.

A requirement that PIs certify that resulting publications are free of plagiarism, falsification, or fabrication was also removed from the new version of the bill. AIBS and other scientific organizations had opposed this provision in the FIRST Act for signaling a fundamental distrust of scientists.

HR 1806 still includes a requirement from its predecessor that new NSF research grants are “in the national interest.” This could be fulfilled through enhanced economic competitiveness, advancement of health and welfare of Americans, development of a globally competitive workforce, increased public scientific literacy, more partnerships between academia and industry, support for national defense, or promotion of scientific progress. The current House version of the reauthorization legislation contains a statement that the bill should not be “construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.”

New provisions on the management of large research facilities, including the use of management fees, were inserted. This has been an area of congressional inquiry and criticism in recent months. In response, NSF released a draft policy in January 2015 delineating restrictions on the use of management fees for alcohol, entertainment, and lobbying.

The legislation would reauthorize funding for the Department of Energy Office of Science at $5.3 billion, a 5 percent increase. Although most energy research programs would receive an increase, the Biological and Environmental Research program would be cut by 7 percent below its current funding level. Basic biological and genomic research would be prioritized over climate research. Moreover, the program would have to demonstrate that any new climate change research is not duplicative of other federally funded research. Existing climate science-related initiatives that overlap or duplicate other federal programs would have to be terminated unless the Department justifies their need to “achieving American energy security.”

The bill is scheduled to be debated by the Science Committee on 22 April.

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Senators Provide Bipartisan Support for Education Law Rewrite

The Senate panel responsible for education policy has unanimously approved a bill to rewrite the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” which has been known in recent years as No Child Left Behind.

The new legislation retains federal requirements for states to measure student achievement in certain subjects, including math and science. In addition, an amendment successfully offered by Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Patty Murray (D-WA) would provide states with funding to support partnerships between schools, businesses, universities, and non-profits to improve science education. States would have discretion in how to spend these funds, which could be used for activities ranging from teacher training and recruitment to supporting the participation of low-income students in science competitions.

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President Obama Links Climate Change to Public Health

At a 7 April event at Howard University, President Obama called attention to public health problems that may be exacerbated by climate change. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy also spoke, as did a number of medical experts.

Among the health problems discussed were asthma and other lung ailments that may be triggered by increased smog and ozone levels, and by soot from wildfires. A survey by the American Thoracic Society found that a majority of its members say they are already observing health effects in their patients from climate change, including increased severity of chronic disease from air pollution, allergic symptoms from exposure to plants or mold, and severe weather injuries.

Another impact of climate change on human health is diseases caused by pathogens and insects that are more widely spread as the climate warms. Ethan Jackson, a researcher with Microsoft, told The Washington Post that his employer is launching a pilot program to detect potential disease outbreaks by remotely monitoring the density of mosquitoes.

The President announced a number of initiatives to work on the health-related problems, including expanding access to data. A coalition of deans from 30 medical, nursing, and public health schools have committed to educating their students about climate change-related health conditions.

According to the Administration’s Climate Change Action Plan, “Children, the elderly, and the poor are most vulnerable to a range of climate-related health effects, including those related to heat stress, air pollution, extreme weather events, and diseases carried by food, water, and insects.”

The U.S. Global Change Research Program has drafted a report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment,” to present a quantitative assessment of public health effects. Public comment on the report is open until June 8.

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Senate Passes Nonbinding Resolution on Climate Change

On 15 April, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) successfully amended the Senate budget resolution with a provision that directs budget conferees to consider the causes and effects of climate change when negotiating the federal budget with the House of Representatives. The resolution was passed by voice vote.

Senator Bennet also secured passage of a similar resolution that would call on budget negotiators to take into account the national security impacts of climate change.

Passage of these measures does not actually change federal law regarding mitigation or adaptation to climate change.

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AIBS Launches 5th Annual Faces of Biology Photo Contest

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) has launched the 5th Annual Faces of Biology Photo Contest. The competition recognizes scientists who use imagery to communicate aspects of biological research to the public and policymakers.

“There is growing awareness within the research community of the importance of illustrating for the public the many forms that research takes. Our journal, BioScience, just published an article about the broader impacts component of National Science Foundation grants,” said Dr. Robert Gropp, Co-Interim Executive Director of AIBS. “This competition is one way that AIBS is encouraging scientists to explore creative ways to communicate science to policymakers and the public.”

The theme of the contest is “Faces of Biology.” Photographs entered into the competition must depict a person, such as a scientist, technician, or student, engaging in biological research. The research may occur outside, in a lab, at a natural history collection, at a field station, on a computer, in a classroom, or anywhere else research is done.

The First Place Winner will have his/her winning photo featured on the cover of BioScience, and will receive $250 and a one year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience. The Second and Third Place Winners will have his/her winning photo printed inside the journal, and will receive a one year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience.

The winning photo from the 2014 contest is featured on the cover of the May 2015 issue of BioScience.

Submissions must be received by 11:59:59 p.m. Eastern Time on 30 September 2015.

For more information or to enter the contest, visit http://www.aibs.org/public-programs/photocontest.html.

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Short Takes

  • The House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over energy funding has approved legislation to fund the Department of Energy Office of Science at $5.1 billion in fiscal year 2016. This is $29 million higher than the current funding level. The full committee is expected to mark up the spending bill this week.

  • New funding is available from the Gulf Research Program for synthesis of existing observation and monitoring data. Applications are sought for activities that will integrate or synthesize existing data from different sources that may inform restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico or enhance understanding of its ecosystems. Learn more at http://www.nas.edu/gulf/datagrants/index.htm.

  • On 5-6 May, the National Research Council's Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences will hold a two-day workshop to explore the nuanced nature of trust in science - what the elements of trust are, and how trust is built, maintained, or lost. Geared for life science researchers and the broader life science community, the workshop agenda features many scholars and journalists at the forefront of science communication, political science, and ethics. Workshop participants will discuss what is meant by trust in science and how it relates to public engagement in the life sciences. The workshop will be webcast, except for the breakout sessions. For more information, please visit http://nas-sites.org/publicinterfaces/roundtable/events/trust/.

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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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