Unlike Halloween, Sharing Science with Lawmakers Doesn't Need to be Frightening

Science took center stage in recent interactions between researchers and policymakers. Across the nation, dozens of biological scientists and educators met with their lawmakers as part of the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event, an initiative organized by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).

This nationwide event facilitates meetings between scientists and their elected officials in their local area rather than in Washington, DC or a state capital, and allows lawmakers to learn first-hand about the science and research facilities in their district.

“In spite of heated political debates at many levels of government, science needs to remain a bipartisan issue,” said Dr. Robert Gropp, Interim Co-Executive Director of AIBS. “It’s more important than ever for scientists to engage with policymakers to help them better appreciate the many ways that research contributes to society. Often, lawmakers don’t have routine contact with scientists, if you aren’t talking to a group it is hard to know what they do and what they need.”

Scientists participating in the event discussed the importance of life sciences research with the individuals responsible for casting the votes that shape the nation’s science policy. Participants ranged from graduate students to senior researchers.

“Participating in the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event was an invaluable experience to have as a graduate student. The training provided by AIBS made me feel confident and ready to go have a conversation with Representative Reed’s District Director about federal funding, especially how it’s benefitted me during my Ph.D.,” said Erin Larson, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University and a member of the Society for Freshwater Science. “I was struck during our meeting by how meaningful it is to ‘show up’ and participate in the political process, especially as it relates to federal funding for the biological sciences. We scientists take the importance of federal funding to do our research to be a given, but it’s important for us to be able to communicate that effectively, especially with policymakers, to ensure that federal funding is maintained in the future.”

“The Natural History Museum of Utah hosted Congressman Chris Stewart’s District Director and other members of his Utah staff in August. This was a wonderful opportunity to get to know the Congressman’s great staff, to spend time together in the Museum’s collections areas, as well as in the exhibits and other public areas of the Museum—and to talk about how to connect with the Congressman and his staff in the future,” said Ann Hanniball, Associate Director for Community Relations at the Natural History Museum of Utah, which is a member of the Natural Science Collections Alliance, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, and AIBS.

“It was really nice to be provided the opportunity to meet our local Assembly Member and to have him tour our facilities,” said Wallace Meyer, director of the Robert J. Bernard Field Station at Claremont Colleges in California. The field station is a member of the Organization of Biological Field Stations. “Not only was I able to communicate all the amazing things that happen at our field station, we were able to discuss how important such facilities are for all the people in our district. In the end, I feel as though our field station made a friend and one who is both knowledgeable and engaged in local environmental issues.”

The 8th annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits were made possible by AIBS, with support from event sponsors Botanical Society of America, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Paleontological Society, Society for Freshwater Science, and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.

Participants in the event were prepared for their meetings during an interactive training webinar. The program provided information about how best to communicate science to non-technical audiences and tips for conducting a successful meeting with an elected official.

Highlights of the event include:

  • U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) will tour the University of Texas at El Paso Biodiversity Collections;
  • Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY) will visit Stony Brook University in November to discuss neuroscience research with graduate students;
  • Illinois researchers met with Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) about science education;
  • California Assemblymember Chris Holden (D) toured the Robert J. Bernard Field Station of Claremont Colleges and the Robert Redford Conservancy of Pitzer College;
  • Virginia Senator Mark Obenshain (R) visited James Madison University’s Bioscience Building;
  • A graduate student from the University of Georgia met with state Representative Chuck Williams (R-GA) about science education;
  • Black Rock Forest Consortium hosted a tour for staff of Representative Sean Maloney (D-NY);
  • Staff for Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) met with faculty at the School of Pharmacy at Regis University;
  • Senator Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) district director spoke with a faculty member from the University of Cincinnati about training future scientists;
  • Staff for Representative Chris Steward (R-UT) toured the Natural History Museum of Utah;
  • Senator John Barrasso’s (R-WY) staff will tour the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University of Wyoming; and
  • Researchers also met with staff for Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Representatives Barbara Comstock (R-VA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Tom Reed (R-NY), and Reid Ribble (R-WI).

More information about the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event is available at www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html. Resources are also available for scientists who are interested in meeting with policymakers at www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits_resources.html.

Organizations interested in sponsoring the 2017 event should contact the AIBS Public Policy Office.

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Election Day Approaching: Remember to Vote

Participate in U.S. democracy by voting on Tuesday, November 8th.

In addition to the presidential race, all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of Senators are up for re-election. There are also many state and local races on the ballot.

Contact your state board of elections to find your polling location.

View the presidential candidates’ response to twenty science policy questions at http://sciencedebate.org/20answers.

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Report Documents Modest Improvements in Science Education

The nation’s schools are making incremental improvements in science education, according to a new analysis by the National Assessment of Education Progress. Fourth and eighth grade scores in science improved over the past six years, but grade 12 scores did not change.

The trends have also improved for girls and black and Hispanic students—groups whose test scores have historically lagged behind boys and white students. There is no longer a gender gap in the fourth grade and the gender gap narrowed in middle school, but persists in high school scores. All racial groups saw improvements in fourth grade scores, with black and Hispanic students improving the most, thereby narrowing the difference in scores.

Although the trends are largely positive, only 38 percent of elementary school students are proficient or advanced in science. That figure declines to 22 percent for high school seniors. Forty percent of seniors scored below the basic level. These results have not changed since 2009, in spite of a larger share of high school students reporting taking a biology, chemistry, or physics class. Students that did take such courses scored better than their peers.

Results varied significantly by state. Proficiency at grade 4 ranged from 23 percent to 51 percent across the states. Proficiency was highest in New Hampshire, Virginia, and for the Department of Defense Education Activity, which educates children of military families. Scores were lowest in Mississippi, Nevada, and California.

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NSF Issues Major Changes to Rotator Program

Under pressure to reduce costs from both Congress and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Inspector General, NSF has announced significant changes to its rotator program. The program brings academic researchers to work for the agency for a limited term of two to four years. The program is credited with keeping NSF up-to-date with the latest research and identifying important funding opportunities. Last year rotators made up 28 percent of NSF’s scientific workforce, and 12 percent of its overall workforce.

On average, a rotator has earned $36,500 more than a federal employee in the same position, received subsidized travel back and forth from their home institution, and reimbursement for lost consulting fees from federal conflict-of-interest polices. NSF has requested, but not required, that the home institution pay 15 percent of the rotator’s salary and benefits. Congress and the Inspector General have criticized NSF’s leniency on the cost-sharing provision, with agency analyses showing most universities plead poverty and avoid all costs, and the total average contribution has been only 5 percent.

The new rules will limit subsidized travel to 12 trips per year, eliminate reimbursement for lost consulting, and require the rotator’s home institution to cover 10 percent of the costs. NSF estimates that these changes will bring in $1.5 million in cost sharing.

There are concerns, however, that these changes will hinder the program’s future success. Sandra Schneider, vice-chair of the Federal Demonstration Partnership, psychology professor, and two-time rotator, said that cost sharing “is the kiss of death” for many institutions, especially public universities, and that there is “a lot of concern about the potential impact of changing something that has been working well for so long.” She also believes that the travel limits may also drive away researchers who may not apply if a monthly visit is not enough for them or for their institution.

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Senate Investigation Finds Federal Agencies Ignoring Inspectors General Recommendations

A joint investigation led by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) found that Inspector General (IG) offices across multiple federal agencies have made 15,222 recommendations that have not implemented. Collectively, these recommendations could save an estimated $87 billion. In addition, eight IG offices reported difficulties in obtaining information from federal agencies, ranging from delays to outright refusals.

Grassley and Johnson are respectively the heads of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Department of the Interior had 494 unimplemented recommendations, the Department of Energy had 200, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had 158, and the National Science Foundation had 320. Collectively, these recommendations could save $790 million.

Senator Grassley issued a statement calling for Congress to cut agency budgets until IG recommendations were responded to. “My colleagues on the Appropriations committees should cut the funding allocated to these agencies by the amount of the waste, given that the agencies could function effectively at a lower funding level by simply implementing the inspector general recommendations.”

The full report can be found here. An appendix table detailing number of unimplemented recommendations and potential cost savings is also available.

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Call for Technical Inputs for the National Climate Assessment

The Fourth National Climate Assessment is seeking submissions of scientific and/or technical research studies on climate change that have been peer reviewed and published or accepted for publication in scientific journals or government reports. Submissions of regional information and information such as case studies, economic valuation, and crosscutting sectorial research are especially encouraged.

All literature much be received by 15 January 2017. For best consideration, submit by 1 November 2016.

Technical input that is currently being developed will be considered, so long as a draft is submitted now with a note that it will be updated prior to 15 January.

Academic papers must be accepted for publication in a journal by 15 September 2017.

Learn more at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/08/31/2016-20982/united-states-global-change-research-program-usgcrp.

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President Obama Welcomes Kid Science Advisors

In an effort to broaden his administration’s outreach on science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM), President Barack Obama hosted a group of kids at the White House on 19 October. These students were a few of the more than 2,500 children who had submitted ideas for how to better engage students in STEM fields.

The idea for a kid science advisor originated with nine-year old Jacob Leggette, who attended the 2016 White House Science Fair. “I told [the President] he should have a kid science advisor, because we kids should have input into what we learn about in science class. And he thought that was a pretty good idea,” said Leggette.

Dr. John Holdren, the president’s science advisor, reached out to kids across the country to share their thoughts on STEM education. All of the students and teachers who submitted ideas were invited to participate in a conference call with Dr. Holdren and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.

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Film Highlights Research on Gulf of Mexico, Oil Spill

Free copies of the documentary “Dispatches from the Gulf” are available for educators. The film, which is narrated by Matt Damon, investigates the environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico six years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The hour-long video follows teams of scientists working to understand and restore Gulf ecosystems.

In addition, a series of 50 short videos have been released online to complement the film. These clips include highlights from the film and interviews with scientists and students. An educators guide is also available.

“Dispatches from the Gulf” was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

Learn more at http://dispatchesfromthegulf.com/.

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Nominations Sought for Green Chemistry Award

The Environmental Protection Agency is accepting nominations for the 2017 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. The award recognizes companies and institutions that have developed a new process or product to help protect public health and the environment.

Green chemistry reduces the generation and use of chemicals that are hazardous to people or the environment.

Nominations are due by 31 December 2016. Learn more at https://www.epa.gov/greenchemistry.

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Job Opening: NSF Division Director

The National Science Foundation has an opening for a new division director for Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. The position could be filled by either a senior executive appointment or by a rotator from an academic institution. The closing date for applications has been extended until 14 November. Learn more at https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/450408500.

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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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