Senate Committee Takes Up COMPETES

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing on “Leveraging the United States Science and Technology Enterprise” on 11 May 2016. The committee is developing legislation to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, which governs federal investments in basic research and science education.

“While we could hope for more resources, tough budget realities underscore the importance of developing policy solutions that maximize our federal investments so we can stay competitive, get the biggest bang for our buck, and leverage even more private sector resources to expand the reach of our R&D,” said Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD).

Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) acknowledged the important role that scientific innovation plays in the U.S. economy, with as much as half of all economic growth over the past 50 years due to research discoveries. “But today the picture is troubling. The United States is quickly losing ground in the global market place. We are spending less on science, research, and education while our competitors are spending more.”

Peters and Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) co-led the effort to collect input from the scientific and business community about the needs of the U.S. innovation ecosystem. That effort is anticipated to result in legislation to further America’s scientific and economic competitiveness.

“The funding issues are critically important,” said Senator Gardner. “We have to recognize the U.S.’ leadership role in funding. We are doing it better than any other nation in the world, but we can always do a better job. And that is what this effort is about—how we can make sure we can continue competing as a leader, not a follower.”

When questioned by Senator Peters, witness Dr. Jeannette Wing, corporate vice president for research at Microsoft, described the central role of the federal government in supporting basic research. “The company’s mission is to typically to make money for their shareholders and it’s not about doing basic research and certainly it’s not about funding academia. So the federal government has a unique role in this research ecosystem, which is really to fund the basic research, that then leads to new technologies, that can then can become new innovations that either turn into start-ups or that go into industry.”

Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) raised the issue of political interference in science. He asked witnesses whether research should be “micromanaged” by policymakers. The answer was a resounding “no” for several members of the witness panel, who stated their support for scientific experts to set the direction of investments in research.

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Vote Expected on Zika Funding

The Senate is expected to take up a funding package to address the emerging threats posed by the Zika virus. The proposal will be considered during deliberations on HR 2577, a funding measure for transportation, housing, military construction, and veterans’ affairs.

Senators have filed several amendments, ranging from fully funding President Obama’s request for $1.9 billion in emergency spending to providing $1.1 billion that would be offset by reductions to a preventative health fund. The debate over whether or how to offset Zika spending has been brewing for months.

The House could debate a stand-alone Zika funding request in the near future.

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New Initiative Launched to Better Understand Microbiomes

The White House has launched a new initiative to expand our knowledge of microbes. The National Microbiome Initiative will be supported with $121 million from the federal government and another $400 million in commitments from universities, non-profits, and businesses.

The initiative will support interdisciplinary research, develop new platform technologies, and expand the microbiome workforce.

The federal government currently supports about $300 million a year for microbiome research. The $121 million pledged would be in addition to existing federal programs, although roughly 60 percent of this funding is subject to appropriations in fiscal year 2017. Proposed efforts range from the National Science Foundation allocating $16 million next year for research grants on the interactions between microbes and microbiomes to a $12.5 million multi-year effort to expand microbiome research across Earth’s ecosystems and in space.

Some initial initiatives include:

  • The University of Minnesota and the State of Minnesota have committed $5 million to develop better methods for dissecting microbiomes and applying this knowledge in agriculture and medicine.
  • The University of Oklahoma, in conjunction with the National Cancer Institute and Leidos, will provide open access to data collected by citizen scientists from soil samples for drug-discovery research.
  • Arizona State University will invest $9 million to launch a Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics. The new center will hire five new faculty

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NSF Unveils Big Plans For Future Research

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has outlined a new vision for the future of fundamental research, under the guidance of director Dr. France Córdova. Central to this agenda are nine big ideas that demonstrate how greater support of fundamental research could address large societal issues and push the boundaries of technology and knowledge. The roadmap has the approval of the National Science Board, but would require the support of future administrations, Congress, or the private sector to be properly funded.

The plan lays out three “process ideas” that will help drive research and provide the necessary support, and six “research ideas,” each being drawn from a major scientific discipline. The process ideas include a focus on multi-discipline, convergent research, and greater support for mid-scale projects that currently fall in between usual funding pathways. In addition, a new NSF 2050: Integrative Foundational Fund would identify and develop long-term, foundational research opportunities that are not tied to yearly budget cycles.

The six research ideas each come from a different scientific discipline and highlight some of the groundbreaking research NSF would like to conduct. They cover important technological advancements, include developing a national scientific “cyberinfrastructure ecosystem,” and a greater focus on studying and developing the intersection of human behavior and social organizations with technology. The ideas also include major leaps forward for fundamental research, such as developing our understanding of phenotypic emergence, quantum mechanics and its practical applications, the effects of climate change on the Arctic, and learning more about our universe through novel multi-method analyses in astrophysics.

More details about each of the nine big ideas can be found here.

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Nominations Sought for Collections Research Uses Working Group

The Biodiversity Collections Network is seeking nominations/applications for members of a new working group on next generation research uses of digitized collections. The group will consider the opportunities, needs, and limitations to next generation research uses of digitized specimens and their associated data. Learn more and apply to participate at https://bcon.aibs.org/working-groups/bcon-next-generation-research-working-group/.

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National Science Board Reports Public Benefits of Higher Education

The National Science Board (NSB) released a policy brief on 2 May that highlights the public and private benefits of higher education institutions in the United States. The brief emphasizes the need for public investment in research and education. It highlights many contributions of American colleges and universities and draws attention to several threats they face including declining federal investments in academic research.

The report draws on data from the Science and Engineering Indicators 2016, highlighting the higher education sector’s importance for the nation’s research enterprise, workforce development, and global competitiveness.

Kelvin Droegemeier, NSB Vice Chair and Vice President for Research at the University of Oklahoma, stated, “Gainful employment and better lifelong earnings are extraordinarily important and getting a college degree is a key way of doing that. But that’s only one part of what our higher education system does. By educating individuals, it helps prepare the workforce the United States needs today and in the future. By conducting the bulk of the fundamental research in this country, our colleges and universities play a foundational role in the innovation ecosystem by producing research that fuels new industries and our economy. Our colleges and universities do so much more than offer credentials to people.”

NSB also released a “sense of the Board” statement on the value of higher education in fostering a civically engaged society. According to the NSB, “Our higher education institutions strive to create a consciously communal environment where students and faculty have opportunities to acquire and use skills critical to a democratic society.” The statement states that colleges and universities are “more important than ever to the future health, safety, security, and economic competitiveness of our nation.” Additionally, higher education has benefits beyond economic impacts, as it “plays a broader, intangible, and crucial role in supporting the past, current, and future success of our democratic society.”

There has been an 11 percent decline in federal support for research and development at higher education institutions since 2011, the longest multiyear decline since 1972. The NSB also called attention to a recent decline in state funding for public universities along with a rapid growth in tuition, which are making the most accessible higher education more expensive.

The complete policy brief is available at http://nationalscienceboard.com/.

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Applications Sought to Host Regional Climate Science Centers

The U.S. Geological Survey is requesting applications to host one of four Climate Science Centers. Three regions are re-competitions of existing grants: Alaska, Northwest, and Southeast. A new center is planned for the Great Lakes; this area is currently part of the Northeast Climate Science Center.

The announcement is available at http://www.grants.gov/web/grants/search-grants.html?keywords=g16as00049. The deadline to apply is 19 July 2016. Two conference calls are scheduled to accommodate inquires from applicants, which will be held on 17 May at 2 pm EDT and 18 May at 1 pm EDT. Email Kristen Donahue at kdonahue@usgs.gov for more information.

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America's New National Mammal

On 9 May 2016, the American bison officially became the national mammal of the United States. This was the result of a multiyear effort led by a coalition of wildlife conservation groups, ranchers, and Native American tribes that ultimately garnered the support of Congress. The legislation was led by Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Representatives William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Kristi Noem (R-SD), and Jose Serrano (D-NY).

Bison join bald eagles as an official animal of the nation. In addition, the U.S. has an official flower (the rose) and tree (the oak).

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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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