"Secret Science" Bill Has a Secret Price Tag

Employees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are accusing agency leadership of trashing staff comments that were critical of legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives that would limit certain research studies from being considered as part of the environmental rulemaking process.

Agency staff prepared comments for the Congressional Budget Office about the burdens that “The Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017” would impose on the agency. The estimated annual compliance cost was $250 million, according to internal emails. Staff also wrote that H.R. 1430 would also jeopardize confidential information.

Those comments, however, were never shared with the Congressional Budget Office by EPA leadership. Instead, the agency said that there would be no financial burden to the EPA if the bill became law.

“This is a complete disregard,” said an agency official who helped write the comments. But “it’s consistent with everything else we’ve seen. Basically all the actions of our organization are being curtailed from every direction. This is just another piece of that, and it doesn’t take a big step to connect those dots.”

Federal budget laws direct agencies to provide information to the Congressional Budget Office to assist with scoring the cost of proposed legislation.

EPA transition team spokesman John Konkus told reporters that internal deliberations help to shape the agency’s budget assessment, but declined to speak directly about the staff comments on the bill.

One former EPA employee, Stan Meiburg, who served as acting deputy administrator during President Obama’s administration, said this ignoring of staff input was not the norm. “I don’t recall cases where comments are just discarded,” said Meiburg. “There’s typically a lot of dialogue, a lot of conversation and discarding would not be done unadvisedly or lightly.”

The sponsor of the bill, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), has said that EPA would spend about $1 million a year on compliance if the legislation is enacted.

The comments from EPA staff claim otherwise. “In addition to spending dollars and staff time on requesting and getting data from study authors, creating [information technology] infrastructure and a data management system to manage, store, and archive large volumes of data, and making the data available in a format that is useful and accessible to the public, EPA would also have to spend dollars and staff time combing through these extensive datasets to find and redact Personally Identifiable Information and Confidential Business Information.”

Ultimately, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the bill at $1 million to more than $100 million annually. The analysis notes that EPA could decrease compliance costs if the agency “choose to rely only on studies that already meet the act’s requirements,” when creating new regulations. Otherwise, the agency would need to go to considerable effort and expense to obtain all of the underlying data for specific studies and formatting the data for public access.

H.R. 1430 would prohibit EPA from using scientific or technical information in the rulemaking process unless that information is publicly available online.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) is seeking an investigation into allegations that EPA leadership silenced staff evaluation of the bill.

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Federal Hiring Freeze Lifted, but Agencies Directed to Downsize Workforce

The White House has lifted a temporary prohibition on the hiring of new federal employees that was imposed by President Trump a few days after his inauguration. It has been replaced with a directive to agencies to hire in keeping with the president’s 2018 spending plan, which targets massive cuts to science and environmental programs.

Agencies are also directed to submit plans for reorganization and reform to the White House Office of Management and Budget by September 2017. Such plans should outline long-term workforce reductions and factor in if a program is duplicative or non-essential, if the role is better left to states or private entities, and the costs and benefits of the program.

“Consideration should be given to activities that are no longer necessary in today’s society, or where there is another entity that may more appropriately fulfill part or all of the role, such as the private sector, another Federal program, or another level of government,” according to a memo by the budget office.

The Office of Management and Budget has also created a website to solicit ideas from the public about how to reorganize the federal government, including which agencies to eliminate.

Ultimately, Congress holds the authority to make many of these decisions about reorganization or elimination of federal agencies.

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Writing for Impact and Influence

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) has heard a common refrain from faculty, scientists, government and private sector executives, and everyone in between: Scientists are losing the ability to communicate effectively in writing. The concern is less about how well a scientific manuscript is drafted and more about how routine business and public engagement information are communicated.

AIBS is responding by offering a professional development program designed to help biologists, including graduate students, hone their written communication skills to increase the impact and influence of their message.

This course complements AIBS’s highly successful Communications Boot Camp for Scientists, which focuses on oral communication.

Writing for Impact and Influence provides practical instruction and hands-on exercises that will improve the participant’s general writing proficiency. The program will provide participants with the skills and tools needed to compose scientific press releases, blog posts, emails, and memoranda. Each product-focused session will have an assignment to be completed independently, with feedback from the instructor. The course is interactive, and participants are encouraged to ask questions and converse freely with the instructor and other participants.

Learn more at https://www.aibs.org/events/programs/writing-for-impact-and-influence.html.

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EPA Climate and Sustainability Program Targeted

In the wake of the release of President Donald J. Trump’s proposed budget, climate and sustainability programs are taking fire at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and some associated staffers are being reassigned to other projects. The first department being closed focuses on climate change adaptation. A small, four person office, it helped facilitate regional coordination between federal, state, and local authorities to share best practices for preparing for severe weather such as droughts or major storms that may be exacerbated by climate change.

The president’s budget plan sought to cut the EPA’s budget by 31 percent from 2017 levels. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said after the release of the budget plan, “I think the president was fairly straightforward: we’re not spending money on [climate change] anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.”

An EPA spokesman addressed earlier rumors of larger shifts of personnel in the Office of Policy as inaccurate, and stated that “the main point of this is reducing redundancy” and “delivering on President Trump’s promise to return EPA to its core functions and make it more efficient and effective for all Americans.”

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164 Representatives Speak Up for Science

House appropriators are being asked by their colleagues in the House of Representatives to support $8 billion for the National Science Foundation in fiscal year 2018. The letter was led by Representatives G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) and David McKinley (R-WV) and signed by 162 other Representatives.

Twenty-one more members signed the letter this year than in 2016.

“From curing diseases and addressing threats to national security, to supporting the development of new businesses and creating jobs, the National Science Foundation enables our workforce to compete globally and helps our nation find solutions for its biggest challenges,” said Representative Butterfield.

“The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of our most important tools for advancing medical cures, keeping our country safe, and fostering economic prosperity,” said Representative McKinley. “The United States faces many challenges at home and abroad. Our request will provide the NSF with the resources it needs to meet those challenges and keep America competitive in the global economy and as the world’s leader in cutting edge technology.”

More than 50 professional science organizations supported the letter, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Society of Naturalists, Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, Botanical Society of America, Ecological Society of America, Entomological Society of America, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Society for the Study of Evolution, Society of Systematic Biologists, and The Herpetologists’ League.

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Report Calls for Reform to U.S. Research Enterprise

A new report from the National Academies highlights the failures of American science, claiming that “if the conclusions drawn by some researchers…are anywhere close to correct, billions of dollars of public and private support for research might not be producing reliable knowledge.” Growing allegations about research misconduct, low rates of reproducibility in some fields, and increasing numbers of retractions of journal articles have prompted concerns.

“Evidence accumulated over the past several decades, and particularly the past several years, provides strong support for the proposition that failing to define and respond strongly to research misconduct and detrimental research practices constitutes a significant threat to the research enterprise,” states the report.

“This report does not conclude that the research enterprise is broken. However the research enterprise faces serious challenges in creating the appropriate conditions to foster and sustain the highest standards of integrity.”

Among the recommendations are for research institutions to play a more prominent role in fostering research integrity and for funding agencies to allocate sufficient funds to support long-term storage and access to data in order to enable replication of published findings. The report also recommended the reporting of negative findings.

The creation of a new independent, nongovernmental Research Advisory Board was recommended to improve ethical research conduct. The board would be funded by universities and scientific societies to provide a more systematic response to concerns about ethics.

Read the report at https://www.nap.edu/catalog/21896/fostering-integrity-in-research.

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Short Takes

  • The American Institute of Biological Sciences will be offering a free webinar on careers that scientists can pursue in the legal and policy space. The one-hour program will be held on Thursday, 11 May 2017 at 1:00 pm Eastern Time. During this program, panelists will share experiences and insights about their career paths in the pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry and at law and healthcare consulting firms. Panelists will provide practical tips helpful to those interested in potentially working in these exciting and rapidly growing arenas. Learn more and register at https://www.aibs.org/events/webinar/law-and-policy-related-career-paths-for-biologists.html.
  • The latest episode of the BioScience Talks podcast is on the redomestication of wolves. Dr. Thomas Newsome of Deakin University and the University of Sydney speaks about his research on the effects of human-provided foods on gray wolves and other large predators. Listen at http://bioscienceaibs.libsyn.com/episode-23-the-redomestication-of-wolves.
  • Nearly a quarter of U.S. Senators are co-sponsoring a bipartisan resolution in support of the National Sea Grant College Program. The effort is led by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Sea Grant is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and supports research, education, and extension on coastal development, seafood safety, and other issues.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is considering replacing the Clean Water Rule with two separate rulemakings, according to information shared at the Association of State Wetland Managers’ annual meeting. The rule—implemented by the Obama Administration—clarifies the reach of federal regulations over wetlands under federal law. The Trump Administration plans to rescind the rule before replacing it with a new rule that defines which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act.

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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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