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Public Policy Report for 14 December 2015

Nations Agree to Historic Climate Deal

On 12 December, the world’s leaders announced the results of two weeks of negotiations in Paris: a deal had been reached to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The climate agreement requires nations to stick to the mitigation pledges they made ahead of the Paris talks as well as to strengthen their commitments over time. Further action will be required in order to limit climate change, as the pledges are not sufficient to prevent global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius. Countries will reconvene to assess progress in 2018 and again in 2020. This is the first time that all governments have committed to reporting sources of carbon emissions and their mitigation progress.

Developed nations pledged to raise $100 billion in climate aid for developing countries over the next five years. The funds will help poorer nations to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to invest in clean energy sources.

The new deal needs to be adopted by at least 55 nations representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions before the deal goes into effect. Although treaties are subject to ratification by the U.S. Senate, a senior official in the Obama Administration said that the deal was structured to not require approval by Congress.

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Congress Passes Another Stopgap Spending Bill

Congress has once again resorted to adoption of a short-term measure to keep the government funded while lawmakers continue to negotiate the details of a comprehensive spending package. The new continuing resolution—which is the second for the year—will keep federal agencies operating through 16 December.

Although a deal was reached six weeks ago that set the overall amount of spending for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the details of how that funding will be allocated among agencies has not yet been decided. The most contentious issues have been policy riders—additions to the legislation that are not always directly related to the underlying measure.

Some of the issues being debated include language to restrict the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S., a reversal of a rule that clarifies federal authority over streams and wetlands, and termination of the ban on exporting crude oil.

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Education Reform Bill Signed Into Law

Legislation that overhauls the No Child Left Behind Act became law on 10 December. The law makes sweeping changes to federal education policy. Notably, it prevents the federal government from forcing states to adopt Common Core education standards and allows states more flexibility in setting their education standards.

“Although well-intended, the No Child Left Behind Act…has long been broken,” stated Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We can no longer afford that law’s one-size-fits-all approach, uneven standards, and low expectations for our educational system.”

New initiatives included in the new law include the creation of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) master teacher corps. States will be able to create programs to reward, attract, and retain outstanding STEM teachers through opportunities to work with one another in scholarly communities and to receive and lead professional development.

The law will also create a new funding source for states to improve STEM education as part of a “well-rounded” education. Programs that increase STEM access to underrepresented groups and low-income students would be supported, as well as hands-on STEM learning and STEM-focused specialty schools.

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Lawmakers Continue Attacks on 'Wasteful' Research Grants

Two members of Congress released reports highlighting what they view as some of the most wasteful government projects. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Senator James Lankford (R-OK) each compiled their own lists, which were announced just days apart.

A variety of types of government projects were featured in the reports, but federally-funded research was prevalent. Twenty-two of 100 highlights in the Flake report were funded by science programs. Lankford’s report included 13 science grants out of 101 identified programs.

The Senators criticisms ranged from Department of Defense research on breast cancer to work on the use of artificial intelligence to recognize faces. Unlike past “wastebooks,” only a few examples of biological and ecological research were included, although Senator Flake called out grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the behavior of mantis shrimp and social interactions of guppies. Senator Lankford’s report included a study of gnatcatchers on military bases and an effort by the National Park Service to understand the effects of artificial lights on nocturnal insects.

NSF posted an official response to Lankford’s report, and is expected to respond to Flake’s report. “A simple truth remains regarding fundamental scientific breakthroughs: Before these discoveries were made, these ideas, too, might have been considered novel or outside-of-the-box. Sometimes, based solely on the title of the project, these ideas might have even seemed impractical or inappropriate at first glance. However, if one used project titles instead of merit review to make funding decisions, Google® might not exist today. What was the original name of this search engine when it was funded as an NSF Digital Library project? BackRub.”

NSF also defended the award of an education grant called out in the Lankford wastebook. The grant supported development of Killer Snails: Assassins of the Seas card game that teaches children about marine biodiversity. The game was developed by a small company that formed with support from NSF’s I-Corps program.

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NSF to Change Management of NEON

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is changing the management of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) in light of cost overruns highlighted by the Inspector General and Congress. According to an email from Interim CEO of NEON Inc. Gene Kelly, “We have been assured that NSF remains committed to building and operating NEON, using the best available science, while ensuring no further re-scoping is necessary.”

The network’s scope was reduced in August in order to address an $80 million budget overage and the project running a year behind schedule.

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House Panel Examines Effectiveness of National Invasive Species Council

A House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee discussed the effectiveness of the National Invasive Species Council (NISC) and the impacts of non-native species at a hearing held on 30 November 2015.

Both Democratic and Republican members of the subcommittee criticized the NISC. Chairwoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) said, “A review of the 2001 plan by the Government Accountability Office found problems with coordination delays and setting clear long-term goals. In the past several years, there has been relatively little oversight of the council’s work and success in managing the invasive species problem. Questions continue to be raised about whether the council and other federal agencies are effective in stopping the spread of invasive species.”

Dr. Jamie Reaser, Executive Director of NISC, was questioned about the council’s failure to provide timely updates to the National Invasive Species Management Plan. The council is required to issue updates every two years, but the document has been revised only twice, once in 2001 and then in 2008. Reaser, who has only been with the council for nine weeks, responded to the criticism by saying that the document was not updated in a timely manner due to “unanticipated staff turn overs and vacancies that could not be accounted for.” She expressed her commitment to lead the effort on revising the national management plan, which should be likely completed by spring 2016.

Several members of Congress questioned the effectiveness of the council and argued that it has not made any tangible progress in reducing the impacts of invasive species. Reaser defended the council by emphasizing that it is not directly involved with on-ground efforts and focused more on coordinating activities and providing management tools that states can use to improve their activities, making it difficult to measure their success. She also indicated that a tight budget has kept the council from reaching its full potential.

Scott Cameron, President of the Reduce Risks from Invasive Species Coalition, made several recommendations to improve the effectiveness of NISC. He suggested submission of a “short annual work plan” to Congress, which should include “deadlines and intended outcomes of council activities.” He also recommended providing a forum for communication between federal agencies, state governors, and forest managers in order to effectively coordinate mitigation activities on the ground that is otherwise caught in bureaucratic layers.

The NISC was established by an executive order in 1999 to ensure that federal efforts to “prevent and control invasive species are coordinated, effective and efficient.” The council includes heads of the thirteen federal agencies as members and is co-chaired by the secretaries of Commerce, Agriculture, and Interior.

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Graduate Student Leaders Sought to Shape Science Policy

Are you a science graduate student looking to make a difference in science policy and funding? Applications are being accepted for the 2016 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 spring 2016. 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.”

The 2016 award is open to U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents 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, 10 January 2016. The application can be downloaded at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/eppla.html.

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Short Takes

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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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