House Science Committee Advances COMPETES Reauthorization

On 22 April, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee passed a bill along party lines that would reauthorize funding for three federal programs that support basic research. Passage came after lengthy debate of 25 amendments.

Many of the amendments would have removed the most contentious provisions of “The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act.” HR 1806 is sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee. Democrats unsuccessfully offered amendments to remove funding limits for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) research directorates and to increase authorization levels for NSF education programs and operations.

Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) commented that the bill should be called the “America Concedes Act” instead of the “America COMPETES Act” because the legislation would cede the United States’ global leadership in science and technology. Another committee member, Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) offered the alternate title “America Retreats Act.”

Chairman Smith responded that the legislation supports investments in areas of basic research that advance economic competitiveness. Smith justified the funding levels as necessary to stay within the budget caps mandated by federal law. Democratic members of the committee countered that the Budget Control Act does not specify cuts to particular federal programs. Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) said the problem with sequestration is that it is a “sledgehammer, not a surgical knife.”

HR 1806 proposes an authorization level of $7.6 billion for NSF in fiscal years (FY) 2016 and 2017, which is $253 million higher than the agency’s current funding level, but this level is lower than President Obama’s budget request for FY 2016. The bill also specifies funding levels for each of NSF’s directorates. For many years, Congress has not provided this level of detail to NSF’s budget. If enacted, the reauthorization bill would benefit certain research areas—biology, computer science, engineering, and math and physical sciences, but the social sciences and geosciences would have their budgets trimmed.

“The COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010 sought to ensure America’s continued scientific preeminence and to grow our innovation economy,” stated Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). “In contrast, H.R. 1806 is preoccupied with questioning the motives of the National Science Foundation and the integrity of the scientists it funds.”

Representative Johnson offered an alternate reauthorization bill, which was co-sponsored by all of the committee’s Democratic members. That bill was rejected along party lines.

In addition to the provisions debated during the committee markup, the legislation would make a number of changes to NSF policies. Research funded by NSF would have to be “in the national interest” and public announcement of each award would have to include a written justification. NSF would have to establish new procedures to ensure that research grants do not duplicate science funded by other federal agencies and that the principal investigators who receive multiple awards have sufficient resources to conduct the work. NSF would also have to justify the additional expenses of hiring rotating personnel. Additionally, new restrictions on the use of management fees for large facilities would be implemented.

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AIBS Expresses Concerns with COMPETES Bill

In a letter to members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, AIBS expressed concerns with “The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act.”

The letter states: “we were pleased to see a proposed increase in the authorization level for the National Science Foundation (NSF) for fiscal year (FY) 2016. The community remains concerned, however, that HR 1806 specifies funding allocations for NSF’s research directorates. NSF has a stellar track record of supporting innovative, interdisciplinary research that yields transformative results. These scientific advancements have been achieved in part because NSF has had the flexibility to support promising research at the interface of different disciplines.”

The letter also raises the issue of reduced future funding for biological and environmental research at the Department of Energy. The legislation would cut funding authorizations by 7 percent below the current funding level.

Read the letter at http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20150421competesreauth.html.

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NASA Reauthorization Would Cut Earth Science Funding

Legislation passed by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee would cut funding for earth and climate science at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The reauthorization bill would reduce future funding by $500 million relative to the 2016 budget request.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the bill “threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.”

Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said “The House bill would also gut the NASA ‘mission to planet Earth’—the satellite observations and related research that provide key measurements and insights relevant to forecasting and tracking hurricanes, fighting wildfires, observing the state of the world’s farms and forests, mapping the extent of droughts, measuring the stocks of groundwater, and monitoring the likelihood of landslides.”

“The bill balances exploration and science, and restores true balance to the science division,” stated the bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Steven Palazzo (R-MS). “Unlike the president’s budget request, it provides for increased funding for NASA while ensuring those increases are paid for.”

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House Panel Investigates Political Interference in Environmental Research

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing last week on alleged abuse of government-funded science. The oversight hearing was titled “Zero Accountability: The Consequences of Politically Driven Science.”

A memo released by committee staff in advance of the hearing stated, “science is not science at all when outcomes are manipulated to reach ends predesigned by government employees carrying the federal mantle.” The examples of purportedly politically driven science all related to management of protected species and ecosystems.

One of the examples of supposed abuse was in management of the endangered whooping crane on its wintering grounds in Texas. A lawsuit over water allocations and their impact on the birds was partly based on population counts conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Witness Kathleen Hartnett White said that the case was based on wildlife counts that “lack rigorous methodology.” White previously served as the chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“The science used by the government to justify regulatory decision, however, has become increasingly weak, cherry-picked, opaque, and at odds with genuine scientific method,” White stated in her testimony.

The witness invited by the committee’s Democrats challenged the notion that “politically-driven science is bad science.” Dr. Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, drew upon past examples of government science, including the Manhattan project, the Apollo space program, and the theory of plate tectonics. She stated these instances of groundbreaking science were the product of political interests.

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GAO Report Cites Ways to Improve Government Efficiency

In its 2015 annual report to Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified dozens of areas where the federal government could be run more efficiently. “We suggest 20 actions to address 12 new areas in which we found evidence of fragmentation, overlap, or duplication in government missions such as agriculture, defense, health, homeland security, information technology, international affairs, and science and the environment,” the report noted.

Two areas may be of particular interest to environmental scientists.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration sometimes both inspect the same labs that test the safety of pesticides. A 1984 agreement between the two agencies to collaborate on such inspections had lapsed. One Maryland lab was inspected 8 times between 2005 and 2012, with the same toxicology studies being requested by each agency. GAO recommended that the two agencies develop a more formal process to collaborate and share information on inspections. “Officials from both agencies said that collaborating and communicating on inspections would be helpful,” the report said, however, “Absent a formal written agreement, it is not clear that the agencies would regularly collaborate on future planned inspections and share results from completed inspections.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) may have some redundancies in a subset of its portfolio that includes 41 ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems. These systems collect data on 75 environmental parameters, including sea surface temperature, salinity, and wave direction. GAO said that many of these systems were taking the same measurements. For example, 21 observing systems measured sea surface temperature and 11 measured surface salinity. “According to NOAA officials, there are a variety of reasons why multiple observing systems would measure the same parameters, such as to collect the data from different locations, at different times, or with different degrees of accuracy, or to maintain continuity of data collection in the event that one system failed,” the report found. NOAA officials told GAO that they didn’t see the duplication as much of a problem. Nevertheless, GAO recommended that NOAA analyze the extent of the duplication. NOAA agreed to do so.

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UK Election May Influence Direction, Funding of Research

On 7 May, an unusually large number of political parties will compete in Britain’s general elections. Several minor parties have a chance of wielding some power, either through a coalition government or by supporting a minority government, according to recent news reports.

At a candidates’ debate in March, organized by the Society of Biology, the parties all proclaimed their commitment to invest in scientific research, although only the Liberal Democrats put a number on that commitment. They pledged to retain the £4.6 billion (U.S. $6.8 billion) now dedicated to research.

Three of the smaller parties that have a crack at winning seats presented a mixed bag on some key issues. The Green Party, for example, opposes all animal research and the marketing of genetically modified organisms, positions that some scientists object to. The Green Party puts a high priority on tackling climate change, although some scientists question if its anti-nuclear power stance would inhibit efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

The Scottish National Party also opposes new nuclear power stations and has pledged to continue Scotland’s strong environmental record. The party has invested heavily in wind power and introduced legislation to reduce climate emissions.

For its part, the UK Independence Party would abolish the Department of Energy and Climate Change, “scrap green subsidies,” and repeal the Climate Change Act of 2008, according to its Website.

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Short Takes

  • Legislation to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to use scientific data in informing new rules has passed a Senate committee. The "Secret Science Reform Act" would require the agency to base its regulations solely on publicly available data. The House of Representatives passed a similar measure in March.

  • AIBS joined 125 other scientific organizations to send a statement to Congress regarding government travel restrictions. Regulations and legislative initiatives have limited the ability of federal researchers to attend scientific conferences in recent years. Read the letter at http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20150421_travel_letter.html.

  • AIBS provided testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee on 30 April regarding 2016 funding for biological and environmental research at the U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Forest Service. Read the testimony at http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20150430_interior_testimony.html.

  • The synthesis report from a workshop on "Changing Practices in Data Publications" is now available. The workshop explored the implications of changes in data management practices expected to result from recent and forthcoming federal policy changes. The event was hosted by AIBS with support from the National Science Foundation in December 2014. Access the report at http://www.aibs.org/events/publications_workshop.html.

  • The National Science Foundation is seeking applicants for program directors to serve on a rotating basis in the Division of Biological Infrastructure, Environmental Biology, Integrative Organismal Systems, and Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. Learn more at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2015/bio15001/bio15001.jsp?WT.mc_id=USNSF_147.

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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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