Brexit Vote Leads to Major Concerns About the Fate of UK Research, Particularly Funding for Evolution

The vote on 23 June by the British public to exit the European Union (EU) may have major impacts on the research community in the United Kingdom (UK).

“With just under 1 percent of the world’s population, the UK is home to 3.3 percent of the world’s scientific researchers and produces almost 7 percent of the world’s scientific output and 15 percent of the most highly cited papers,” stated Cambridge economist Victoria Bateman.

This impressive intellectual pedigree may be jeopardized by the coming split with the EU. Despite a formal exit from the EU taking up to two years to finalize, the UK research community is already facing backlash from the Brexit vote. Universities UK, an umbrella organization of university leaders, has estimated that 60 percent of the UK’s research partners are from other EU countries. Vice-chancellors at several UK universities have reported reluctance from European partners to continue working on joint projects and departures of staff members for work elsewhere within the EU. Some have reported UK academics being asked to withdraw applications for future funding by EU partners. There are also worries that degree-seeking students may look elsewhere if costs increase for international students at UK universities.

Concerns have been raised about the UK’s continued participation in the EU Horizon 2020 research program. At nearly $88 billion dollars over seven years, the program is the largest EU research program to date. Many researchers are hoping the UK can negotiate continued participation, similar to non-EU countries such as Israel, Iceland, Norway, Tunisia, and Switzerland. Such associations allow scientists to compete for EU funds in return for a lump sum paid to the EU. Only 7 percent of the EU’s research budget, however, has gone to non-members in the past decade.

Participation in other major scientific endeavors, such as CERN, the European Space Agency, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, is not tied into EU membership and may be less disrupted by the Brexit.

Future research funding within the UK is also in question. An earlier Royal Society analysis indicated that in the research effort preceding Horizon 2020, the UK contributed over $7 billion in seven years to EU research, but that the UK received over $11.4 billion in research funds in return.

A report by Digital Science, a UK technology company for academic research, suggests that “rather than allowing the UK to gain an even better position on the global stage by having an excess of funds to deploy, EU funds have been used to prop up and cover systemic issues with how we chose to fund research in the UK both at a governmental and corporate level.”

Overall, the UK spends 1.63 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research, which is less than 19 other countries, including Germany and France.

For some scientific disciplines, EU funding may be of even greater importance; the EU funds 67 percent of evolutionary biology research in the UK.

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Commerce Committee Approves Innovation Legislation

A bill to boost investments in basic research sailed through the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on 29 June. S. 3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, passed by voice vote with only one dissenting vote.

The panel adopted 14 amendments during the markup. A substitute amendment offered by the bill’s sponsors, Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI), provided future funding goals for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Funding for the NSF could grow by 4 percent in fiscal year 2018, if appropriators adopted the suggested funding level. NSF funding in 2017 is proposed at the same level already approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee: $7.5 billion, a 0.4 percent increase over the 2016 enacted level.

Senator Peters said he was “pleased” with the proposed funding levels, which represent “a modest investment” in basic science.

Several amendments that were adopted address broadening participation of underrepresented groups in science. An amendment by Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) encourages NSF to create a new grant program to support partnerships to advance informal science education.

Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) successfully amended the legislation to require the NSF Inspector General to audit how the agency monitors grant subrecipients and to make recommendations on how to “increase the transparency and oversight of the selection process.”

The legislation and the amendments approved in committee have bipartisan support. “My hope is that this bill helps reset how Congress approaches science policy,” said Senator Gardner.

The sole opposing vote to the bill came from Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE). She stated that she is concerned about the bill’s “substantial increases” for authorizations for NSF and NIST. Although she supports the research done at universities in Nebraska, Senator Fischer said, “good things don’t mitigate the need to offset our spending, as we have done in the past.”

Past America COMPETES bills have not offset authorization levels. Neither has this been the practice for most other authorization bills in Congress. Authorizations simply establish baselines and caps for future funding; they do not provide funding. Future spending must go through the normal appropriations process each fiscal year, including approval by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, passage by both chambers, and approval by the President.

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Clinton Releases Technology Platform

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is proposing what her campaign describes as “an ambitious national commitment to technology, innovation and entrepreneurship” in her newly released Tech & Innovation Agenda. The five-part plan addresses job creation, high-speed broadband access for all Americans, high-tech exports, promoting innovation while protecting privacy, and improving innovation in government.

“As President, Hillary will look to grow the research budgets of entities like the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and DARPA, so that we can tackle big challenges—like ensuring America continues to lead the world in High Performance Computing, green energy, and machine learning.” She also would like to expand federal programs that promote technology transfer from the lab into the commercial marketplace, such as the NSF I-Corps program.

Many of the proposed policies are consistent with the direction of the Obama administration. For instance, Clinton proposes to provide federal support to states and school districts to focus more on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and to support maker fairs and robotics competitions. The candidate also proposes to dedicate $10 billion in federal funding for higher education for “promising new programs—such as nanodegrees, accelerated learning programs for computer coding, career and technical training, certificates for ‘specializations,’ and online learning.”

Clinton’s agenda also includes a proposal that has gained bipartisan support in Congress: to “staple” a green card to the STEM masters and PhDs earned by foreign-born scientists who graduate from a U.S. university.

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New Chair for NSF's Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education

On 15 June, the National Science Foundation announced the selection of the next chair of the Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education. Dr. Anthony Janetos will replace Dr. David Skole, who is stepping down after 10 years of service. The transition will take place on 1 October 2016.

Dr. Janetos holds a Ph.D. in biology from Princeton University and is currently the Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, and has served as director at the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland. He has also held leadership positions at the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the World Resources Institute, and the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment. Dr. Janetos has participated on advisory committees for the National Academy of Sciences and the Department of Energy, and has been a member of the Environmental Research and Education Advisory Committee since 2011.

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New in BioScience: The Challenge of Making Data Publicly Accessible

In the July 2016 issue of BioScience, Jyotsna Pandey highlights the challenges faced by the federal government and other entities in moving towards public access to scientific data. An excerpt of the article follows:

The push for open science has been gathering momentum since a 2013 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memorandum directed agencies to make the results of federally funded research, including scientific data, publicly accessible. Federal agencies have since released individual plans to guide the process of making data available to the public.

The public-access plan for the National Science Foundation (NSF), like those for several other agencies, includes directives for detailed data-management plans to be required in grant proposals. Many researchers are still uncertain, however, as to how they can fulfill data publishing requirements. Continue reading this article for free at http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/66/7/535.full.

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Deadline Approaching for the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits Event

This national initiative, initiated and organized by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, is an opportunity for scientists across the country to showcase for their elected officials the people, facilities, and equipment required to advance scientific research and education.

Now in its eighth year, the event enables scientists, graduate students, and representatives of research facilities to meet with their federal and state elected officials without traveling to Washington, DC. Participants may invite their elected officials to visit their research facility or meet at the policymaker’s local office.

AIBS will schedule the meetings with lawmakers and will help participants prepare through online training and one-on-one support.

The event is made possible by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, with the support of event sponsors Botanical Society of America, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Paleontological Society, Society for Freshwater Science, and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.

Participation is free, but registration is required. You must register by 17 July 2016. For more information and to register, visit www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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Upcoming Webinar on Biological Informatics Workforce Needs

The biological sciences are increasingly driven by the ability to collect, identify, integrate, analyze, and interpret complex data. Researchers and educators, current and future, must have the knowledge and skills required to use these data and data management and analysis tools appropriately. In December 2015, the American Institute of Biological Sciences convened a workshop in conjunction with its annual meeting of Member Societies and Organizations to explore the education and training issues that must be addressed to ensure we have the skilled biological informatics workforce required to advance biology for the benefit of science and society. The workshop generated a report with 12 recommendations for professional societies, journal editors, universities, faculty and students, government agencies, and funding organizations. This webinar will summarize this meeting and explore in greater detail the recommendations identified by workshop participants.

Join AIBS on 20 July 2016 at 1 pm EST for this free event. Register at https://www.aibs.org/events/webinar/addressing-bio-informatics-workforce.html.

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Search for New Undergraduate Education Director at NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is seeking nominations—including self-nominations—for a new Division Director of the Division of Undergraduate Education. The director oversees a portfolio of research, development, and education programs related to undergraduate education and works with other leaders at NSF and the community to advance STEM education. NSF seeks applications from candidates with extensive experience in research and education related to undergraduate STEM education as well as demonstrated administrative experience. Learn more at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2016/nsf16111/nsf16111.jsp?org=NSF.

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Short Takes

  • Senate appropriators reached a bipartisan agreement to contribute $500 million to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund. This fund will help poor nations mitigate and adapt to climate change. The proposed funding is included in the appropriations bill moving through the Senate that would fund the State Department. Meanwhile, the House is considering legislation that would bar U.S. funds to the Green Climate Fund.
  • Public comments are sought on the proposed content and scope of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. A call for nominations for authors will be announced at a later date. Learn more at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/07/05/2016-15807/public-comment-on-an-annotated-outline-for-the-fourth-national-climate-assessment.
  • A new episode of the BioScience Talks podcast considers gene drive technology. Despite significant promise to revolutionize approaches to major public health, conservation, and agricultural problems, caution is warranted, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences Committee on Gene Drive Research. Hear from committee co-chair Dr. James P. Collins and committee member Dr. Joseph Travis on the specifics of the report and the future of gene drives. Listen at https://bioscienceaibs.libsyn.com/.

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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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