EPA Nominee Faces Tough Questions in Confirmation Hearing

During a daylong hearing, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faced tough questions from the members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about his views on climate change, the role of the agency in environmental protection, as well as EPA rulemaking on mercury pollution and biofuels.

Scott Pruitt currently serves as the Attorney General for the state of Oklahoma. In that role, he sued the EPA more than a dozen times over regulations on mercury, smog, carbon emissions, water quality, and other issues. Pruitt declined to say during the hearing if he would recuse himself from those cases if confirmed. He said he would defer to the advice of EPA’s ethics lawyers.

“If you don’t agree to recuse yourself, then you become plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury on the cases you are bringing right now as Attorney General of Oklahoma against the EPA,” said Senator Edward Markey (D-MA).

In regards to climate change, Pruitt slightly softened his stance. During his confirmation hearing he testified that “the science shows us” climate change is happening, but the extent that humans are causing that change is debatable. Pruitt has previously said that “the degree and extent of global warming” is up for debate.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pressed Pruitt on the matter: “Do you believe that climate change is caused by the carbon emissions by human activity?” “Human activity contributes to that in some manner,” Pruitt said.

When Sanders asked for Pruitt’s opinion on the causes of climate change, Pruitt responded “my opinion is immaterial.”

A little later, Pruitt told Sanders that “I believe that the administrator has a very important role to perform in regulating CO2.”

Pruitt also said that “I do not believe climate change is a hoax,” a view that runs contrary to President Trump’s previous statements. “Science tells us the climate is changing, and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure the precision, degree and extent of the impact—and what to do about that—are subject to continued debate and dialogue.”

In response to questions posed by Senator Markey, Pruitt said that he has no plans to reverse the endangerment finding on carbon issued by the EPA that underpins other Obama-era regulations. “The endangerment finding is there and it needs to be enforced and respected,” stated Pruitt. “There is nothing I know that would cause a review at this point.”

Another issue that was briefly addressed was the public availability of data underlying EPA regulations. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) asked Pruitt if he would support releasing the scientific data behind rulemakings. Pruitt said he would. Legislation was considered in the last session of Congress that would have prevented the EPA from proposing or finalizing a rule unless all data and technical information were publicly available. Critics of the legislation say that some information is subject to medical confidentially requirements and that the legislation simply tries to thwart environmental regulations.

When asked about the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Pruitt said that there is a need for better geographic balance for board members and that there is a need to address conflicts of interest of some members.

The partisan divide was clear during the hearing.

Committee chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) called Pruitt “a distinguished public servant” who “understands the need to protect the environment while allowing our nation’s economy to grow.”

Ranking member Tom Carper (D-DE) said in his opening statement that he is “committed to a full and fair confirmation process with respect to the nominations of this president-elect… Having said that, though, I’ve shared with Mr. Pruitt, and I’ll share with my colleagues, that too much of what I’ve seen of his record on the environment and his views about the role of the EPA are troubling and, in some cases, deeply troubling.”

Pruitt’s nomination is subject to a favorable vote by a majority of the members of the Environment and Public Works Committee before a vote by the full Senate. So far no Republicans on the committee have indicated that they will oppose the nomination, which means that the nomination is likely to progress.

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Senate Considers Interior Nominee

The Senate confirmation hearing for Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) to be the next Secretary of the Interior on 17 January contained few surprises, with major themes of public land use; cooperation and communication between local, state and federal government; Native American affairs; water rights and security; and resource development. The Republican Senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee focused their questions of Zinke on perceived federal overreach in public land management and loosening restrictions on energy and resource development. The Democrat Senators were mostly concerned with Zinke’s stance on conservation efforts, clean energy development, the National Park Service’s problem with sexual harassment, and addressing climate change. Members of both parties asked the congressman about water rights, the significant maintenance backlog at national parks, and indigenous affairs.

Representative Zinke, a former Navy Seal and current at-large congressman for Montana, laid out his three priorities as “to restore trust and working with rather than against local communities and states,” “prioritize the estimated $12.5 billion backlog of maintenance and repair of our national parks,” and “ensure that the professionals in the frontline… have the right tools, the right resources and the flexibility to make the right decisions to give a voice to the people they represent.”

He emphasized his admiration for president Theodore Roosevelt and his support for federal protection of land. He said he believed in a multiple use model of federal land management, “using best practices, sustainable policies and objective science.”

Under questioning from Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) he expressed his support for an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy resource development. Later, he suggested he would support ending the moratorium on federal coal leasing, stating that “we should be leading the world on clean energy technology and I’m pretty confident that coal can be a part of that.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pushed Zinke hard on climate change and President Trump’s suggestions that climate change is a “hoax.” Zinke stated that he does not believe it’s a hoax, but expressed doubts over the degree of human influence and how to address it, saying that he believes “there’s a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle.” However, Zinke also mentioned the work of United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists and said he would seek to become more familiar with the subject, and stated that he will rely on “objective science.”

Zinke made a commitment to making the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent. He also expressed support for the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). “We should uphold public access, clean air, clear water.” Zinke also stated that he is “absolutely against the transfer or sale of public land.”

Zinke said he will support some established national monuments, but also mentioned the possibility of having the president nullify a monument. States should have more control over the designation of new monuments, according to Zinke. Later the nominee stated that he believes it is “absolutely critical to have state and local support on a monument that they participate in” and that he would talk to President Trump about revisiting President Obama’s recent designation of a national monument in San Juan County in Utah.

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and others grilled Zinke on his stance on sexual harassment. Duckworth—who lost both legs during her military service in Iraq—said that Zinke tweeted praise for then candidate Trump after Trump made offensive public comments about military sexual assaults. In addition, in the past Zinke has expressed the opinion that women who serve in combat are a distraction and weaken the military. Senator Duckworth was particularly concerned about how, in light of his past responses, Zinke would address the serious issue of widespread sexual harassment in the National Park Service. Zinke responded that he believes “everyone should have the same respect” in the agency and that he would “from the top and the bottom, have zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and he “will be fearless in this.”

During questioning by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Zinke agreed to commit to the right for clean water and to work on controlling invasive species. He also supported funding for critical scientific information produced by federal agencies. He stated that “management decisions should be based on objective science” and that proper management requires knowing the numbers.

Zinke was also questioned about sage-grouse management—a politically charged issue in Congress. He vocalized his support for more collaboration at the local level and that there needs to be a target number for the bird’s population for proper management, stating, “the goal needs to be scientifically, objectively based to protect the species.”

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Governor Perry Commits to Science during Confirmation Hearing

On 19 January, Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) faced questioning by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a hearing regarding his confirmation to head the Department of Energy (DOE). Perry seemed to have appeased the majority of the committee with his commitment to work with them, their states, and to cross party lines to find ways to continue the DOE’s work.

Perry’s opening statement alluded to his infamous mistake in 2012, when as a presidential candidate he failed to recall the three departments he would like to remove if he became President, one of which was DOE. He stated that those previous comments “do not reflect my current thinking…after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”

Senator Al Franken (D-MN) asked Perry about climate change. “How much climate change do you think the science shows is due to human activity?” Perry deflected to say that “far from me to be sitting before you today and claiming to be a climate scientist.” Franken retorted with “I don’t think you’re ever going to be a climate scientist, but you’re going to be the head of the Department of Energy.”

Perry acknowledged that climate change is occurring: “some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by man-made activity. The question is how we address it in a thoughtful way, that doesn’t compromise economic growth. It affects the affordability of energy, or American jobs.”

Climate change “shouldn’t be about belief,” stated Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). In his view, “it should be about data. It should be about evidence. It should be about peer reviewed scientific results.” He asked for Perry’s commitment to “using science as your guide when making policy at DOE.” The governor responded that his record as governor of Texas indicates his use of scientific data, citing the example of a category 5 hurricane that was supposed to head up the Houston ship channel. Although the storm did not hit as expected, he stated that his use of scientific data was what drove him to make a decision to evacuate the Houston area.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) inquired about the questionnaire that President Trump’s transition team sent to DOE officials to get the names of agency employees who worked on climate change issues. Perry responded: “I don’t approve of it. I don’t need that information. I don’t want that information.” He says that he is “going to protect all of the science related to climate” or to other aspects of what the DOE will be doing.

Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) pointed out that the Trump transition team is calling for significant cuts to the DOE. Perry’s quipped response to Senator Hirono about whether or not he supports those cuts got a laugh from the audience: “maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that.” “We’re counting on you to educate the incoming president,” stated Senator Hirono, amidst more laughter.

In regards to the department’s scientific workforce, Perry noted that the national labs have a “repository of some of the extraordinary brilliance in the world. They truly are a crown jewel of this country from an intellectual and particularly a scientific standpoint.” If confirmed as Secretary of Energy, he is “committed to the continuation of using these brilliant scientists, the private sector, our universities, in collaboration to finding the solutions to the challenges, whether it’s on renewables or whether it’s ways to use resources that we have in a more efficient, safe, effective manner.”

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AIBS on Science Friday

AIBS Public Policy Manager Julie Palakovich Carr was recently a guest on Science Friday. Palakovich Carr spoke about President Obama’s science legacy on the 13 January 2017 episode of the radio program. Listen to the segment at http://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/eight-years-of-science-under-obama-boom-or-bust/.

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AIBS' Policy Accomplishments Documented in 2016 Annual Report

The AIBS Public Policy Office has released its annual report for 2016. Read about our achievements in science policy.

Highlights include:

  • Created a new two-day communications training program for scientists to develop their skills to successfully communicate their research with decision-makers and reporters.
  • Collaborated with 55 leading science organizations to ask the U.S. presidential candidates a set of twenty questions regarding major issues in science, engineering, health, and the environment.
  • Organized a letter from 63 scientific organizations to President-elect Trump about the role science should play in his administration.
  • Influenced legislation that sets policy directions for basic research and science education programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF).
  • Orchestrated a successful campaign that resulted in the National Science Foundation reversing a decision to suspend a program.

Read the 2016 annual report at https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/resources/PPO2016Annual_Report.pdf.

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New Democrats on Research Funding Panels

The Appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over funding for several science agencies will have new ranking members in the 115th Congress. The top Democrat on the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science will be Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Her House counterpart will be Representative Jose Serrano (D-NY).

The subcommittee oversees funding for the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Shaheen is serving her second term in the Senate and has been on the Appropriations Committee since 2012. She was previously ranking member for the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

“It will be an honor to advocate for fiscal responsibility and champion New Hampshire priorities on this important subcommittee,” said Shaheen in a statement. “As vice chair, I look forward to reviewing these programs line by line to see where we can save taxpayer dollars. Among my other top priorities will be to support programs that help local law enforcement, monitor and combat climate change, invest in life-saving research, protect New Hampshire’s fishing industry, and promote New Hampshire’s small businesses.”

Serrano is a long time member of the House Appropriations Committee, serving since 1993. He previously served as the ranking member of the financial services panel.

The Republican chair of the House subcommittee will remain Representative John Culberson (R-TX).

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AIBS to Help Scientists Develop Interdisciplinary Skills

Reports abound from professional societies, the Academies, government agencies, and researchers calling attention to the fact that science is increasingly an inter-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary, inter-institutional, and international endeavor. In short, science has become a “team sport.”

There is a real and present need to better prepare scientists for success in this new collaborative environment. The American Institute of Biological Sciences is responding to this call with a new program for scientists, educators, and research managers.

Team science is increasingly common in 21st century biological, life, and environmental sciences. Collaboration is no longer limited to sharing ideas with the biologist in the lab next door. The questions confronting science often require teams that may include a mix of computer and information scientists, physical and social scientists, mathematicians, ethicists, and even policy and management experts, as well as community stakeholders and citizen scientists. Adding to this complexity, teams span programs within organizations, cross organization boundaries to form institutional consortia, and often include international partners.

This intensive, two-day, interactive, professional development course was developed by scientists and experts on collaboration and teamwork to provide participants with the knowledge and skills required to become productive and effective members of scientific teams.

Nothing teaches collaboration like practicing collaboration. This is not a course that asks you to learn in isolation. It is a microcosm of scientific collaboration, with extensive hands-on learning as part of a scientific team.

Who should attend?

  • Research program managers
  • Departmental leaders
  • Scientists engaged in collaborative projects
  • Graduate students and post-docs looking to augment basic research skills
  • Scientists working at the interface of different fields
  • Groups interested in developing successful research proposals
  • Academic, government, and industry scientists

This course is designed for anyone involved in collaborative scientific endeavors. Team leaders will find the course especially helpful. Because participants will work on “real-world” team science concerns, we encourage multiple members of a team to attend together.

Participants will develop and hone the skills needed to:

  • Engage in collaborative scientific ventures;
  • Eliminate barriers to effective team science;
  • Execute the factors that make collaborations successful;
  • Build the right scientific team;
  • Perform with a variety of personalities and work approaches;
  • Create a team roadmap;
  • Enact the five keys to leadership;
  • Develop effective communication strategies and techniques
  • Facilitate scientific collaborations; and,
  • Apply practical solutions for team science concerns.

Learn more and register at https://www.aibs.org/events/teamscienceevent.html.

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Short Takes

  • Dr. Francis Collins will reportedly remain as director of the National Institutes of Health. The Trump transition team announced the news via email on 19 January.
  • President Trump selected former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue III to serve as the next Secretary of Agriculture. Perdue served as governor from 2003 to 2011. He spent much of his career in agri-business.
  • Grantees of the National Science Foundation (NSF) will now be required to provide the public access to publications and certain data resulting from NSF-funded research. The plan was adopted in 2015 but goes into effect 25 January 2017. Any awards resulting from proposals submitted on or after this date will have to comply with the public access requirements. Learn more at https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/public_access/index.jsp.
  • A new online resource is available for decision-makers who are planning for the impacts of climate change. The website is a collaboration of Interior’s Southwest Climate Science Center and the University of Arizona. Learn more at http://www.adaptationscenarios.org/.
  • A new episode of BioScience Talks podcast is now available. This episode focuses on pathogen spread among eucalypts, which are a model system for the global spread of disease. Listen for free at http://bioscienceaibs.libsyn.com/eucalypts-spotlight-biosecurity-failures.
  • A recording of AIBS’ recent webinar on international research funding opportunities is now available online. Watch for free at https://www.aibs.org/events/webinar/inter-research-funding-opportunities.html.
  • The Burroughs Wellcome Fund is offering collaborative research travel grants for up to $15,000 for domestic or international travel. The grant can be used to visit labs at other institutions to learn new research techniques or to begin or continue research collaboration. Learn more at http://www.bwfund.org/grant-programs/biomedical-sciences/collaborative-research-travel-grants.

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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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