Hearing Examines Rotators at NSF

The House Science Committee is now questioning the use of temporary personnel at the National Science Foundation (NSF). The “rotator” program allows NSF to bring in external researchers from universities and industry on a temporary basis to provide expertise. Twelve percent of the agency’s workforce is rotators.

During a recent hearing, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) pointed out that the average cost of a rotator is $36,000 more than a permanent federal employee. “The costs associated with these rotators become difficult to justify when the Committee discovers that, as described in an Inspector General report from this month, one of these rotators inappropriately approved grants for her home institution,” said Smith.

The incident that Chairman Smith referenced involved one rotator who did not recuse herself from the review of proposals that contained letters of support from her home institution. Moreover, in one of the proposals, the rotator had written the letter of support. NSF management uncovered the situation and referred it to the NSF Inspector General for investigation.

The Oversight Subcommittee chairman, Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), called the $6.7 million additional annual cost of rotators “unacceptable.” “Without proper oversight, the NSF is wasting taxpayer dollars on individuals who make more money than they should for jobs they may not be qualified for in roles that are susceptible to conflicts of interest. This Committee has warned the NSF about irresponsible spending over the past few years, and this is just another unfortunate example.”

According to Allison Lerner, the Inspector General for NSF, most rotators are brought in through a program that retains their employment status with their home institution. Consequently, these personnel are not subject to federal pay and benefits limitations for the up to four years that they serve at NSF.

The Inspector General identified ways to reduce the costs associated with rotators, including use of telework from home institutions, increasing cost sharing by home institutions, and limiting salary to the maximum federal pay rate for the position.

Research and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) said, “Reports issued by the NSF Inspector General over the last few years … make it clear that there are some management and oversight issues with the rotator program that are worthy of our concern and attention. However, as we pursue our oversight responsibilities, we should not lose sight of the tremendous value that the rotator program brings to NSF and to the scientific community.”

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Interior Funding Bills Advance in Both Chambers

Legislation to fund the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving through the House and Senate.

The House of Representatives began debating HR 2822 last week, before adjourning for the Fourth of July recess. The bill would cut funding for EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and research within the U.S. Forest Service. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Smithsonian Institution would both be flat funded if the legislation were enacted. The National Park Service would receive $52.5 million in additional funds.

Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN), the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee, drew attention to the “inadequate” spending allocation provided, which she said “sets this bill up for failure.” “The majority’s refusal to adopt a sufficient overall budget allocation for discretionary appropriations has led to a bill that severely underfunds investments and protections that are priorities for the American people.”

Several of the amendments debated by the lower chamber would have impacted federal science programs. One amendment, offered by Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), would have increased USGS funding by $11.6 million in order to study water aquifers in California. The amendment was withdrawn after Interior and Environment Subcommittee Chair Ken Calvert (R-CA) said that he would work with his colleague to address the issue.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) offered an amendment to increase Smithsonian’s outreach program by $1.5 million. The amendment was also withdrawn.

An amendment offered by Representative Jim Langevin (D-RI) was accepted. The amendment would reduce funding for the EPA Science and Technology account by $1.6 million and increase funding by $1 million for EPA research and restoration of southern New England estuaries.

The House is expected to consider several contentious amendments in July, when debate on HR 2822 continues. One issue that is likely to arise is the listing of sage-grouse as an endangered species. Representative Calvert said in his opening remarks during floor debate: “We have no interest in interfering with science or letting any species go extinct, but we are concerned about Federal regulatory actions lacking in basic fairness and common sense. The provisions in this bill address problems created by an ESA driven not by science, but by court orders that drain limited Agency resources and force the Department to cut corners to meet arbitrary deadlines. Nowhere is this more evident than with the sage-grouse.”

The White House has issued a veto threat against HR 2822.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has drafted its own version of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. This is the first time since 2009 that this spending measure has been “marked-up” in the Senate.

The Senate bill would increase funding for USGS by $17 million above the FY 2015 level. The National Park Service would receive a $112.7 million increase, more than double the increase proposed by the House. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be essentially flat funded. The EPA’s budget would be cut by $538.8 million.

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AIBS Launches New Programmatic Series

The American Institute of Biological Sciences is pleased to announce a new programmatic series that offers AIBS members the information, training, and resources required to advance biology, develop new professional skills, and inform decision making at all levels.

The new Leadership in Biology initiative launched in June with the release of the first BioScience Talks podcast. In addition to the new monthly BioScience Talks program, AIBS is offering a series of online and in-person programs to our members in the coming year that will address emerging opportunities and challenges in data sharing, discuss new research on peer review, analyze current science policy debates, provide communication and advocacy training to scientists, consider ways to strengthen the capacity of professional societies, and explore emerging career pathways for scientists.

We look forward to talking with you at one of our upcoming programs. For more information, please see http://www.aibs.org/events/2015.pdf and watch www.aibs.org for program announcements.

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NIH Funding Could Increase Next Year

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have both approved legislation to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in fiscal year 2016, which starts on 1 October 2015. The Senate bill would provide a $2 billion increase. The House measure would provide a $1.1 billion boost. Both amounts are higher than the Obama Administration had requested. The appropriations measures are awaiting consideration by the full chambers.

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Upcoming Briefing on Biological Field Stations

Learn how our nation’s field stations partner with agencies, non-governmental organizations, and communities to advance research, science education, and public engagement regarding our natural resources. The event will build upon the findings of the National Research Council’s 2014 report “Enhancing the Value and Sustainability of Field Stations and Marine Laboratories in the 21st Century.”

The briefing will be held on Tuesday, 14 July in Washington, DC at 11:30 am and repeated at 2:30 pm. The event is presented by the Organization of Biological Field Stations and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

For more information and to RSVP, visit http://www.aibs.org/rsvp/obfs.html.

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Smithsonian to Strengthen Research Policies

An external review of the Smithsonian Institution’s policies governing ethics and conflict of interest will result in changes being made. New guidelines will attempt to limit the influence of corporations and other outside funding sources on research findings.

Dr. Rita Colwell, a former director of the National Science Foundation, led the review. A second, internal review was also conducted.

The process was initiated following allegations that Smithsonian researcher Wei-Hock Soon did not disclose the sources of his funding for climate change research.

The committees recommended that Smithsonian review all funded proposals for conflicts of interest and that the Institution should include all researchers in the annual financial disclosure program.

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Call for Nominations on Human Gene Editing

The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine are launching a joint initiative to guide decision-making about controversial new research involving human gene editing. The initiative will include an international summit and a study of the scientific underpinnings and clinical, ethical, legal, and social implications of human gene editing.

Nominations are sought for scientists with expertise in molecular and developmental biology and gene editing technologies; potential clinical and medical applications of gene editing in humans; patient advocates; and ethicists, lawyers, and others with expertise relevant to the ethical, legal and social issues surrounding this topic.

Nominations must be submitted by 1 July 2015 at http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/2205044/Call-for-Nominations-Human-Gene-Editing-Initiative.

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Deadline Approaching: Participate in the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits

Join a national initiative to educate lawmakers about the value of research and the scientific facilities in their district. The Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits is an opportunity for biologists across the country to meet with their federal or state elected officials to showcase the people, facilities, and equipment that are required to support and conduct scientific research.

The 7th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event enables scientists, graduate students, representatives of research facilities, and people affiliated with scientific collections to meet with their elected officials without traveling to Washington, DC. Participants may either invite their elected official to visit their research facility or can meet at the policymaker’s local office.

Participants will be prepared for their meeting with a lawmaker through an interactive training webinar. Individuals participating in this event will receive training on how to improve their communication skills and tips for conducting a successful meeting with an elected official.

The event is made possible by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, with the support of event sponsors Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, and Society for Comparative and Integrative Biology.

Participation is free, but registration will close on 12 July 2015. For more information and to register, visit www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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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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