Meet with Your Lawmakers This Summer and Help Inform Science Policy

Registration is now open for the 2017 Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event. This national initiative, organized by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, is an opportunity for biologists across the country to meet with their federal or state elected officials to showcase the people, facilities, and equipment that are required to support and conduct scientific research.

Now in its ninth year, the event enables scientists, graduate students, representatives of research facilities, and people affiliated with scientific collections to meet with their federal or state elected officials without traveling to Washington, DC. Participants may either invite their elected officials to visit their research facility or can meet at the policymaker’s local office. AIBS will schedule the meetings with lawmakers and prepare participants through online training and one-on-one support.

“Participating in the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event was an invaluable experience to have as a graduate student,” said 2016 participate Erin Larson. “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. 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 event is made possible by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, with the support of event sponsors American Society of Plant Taxonomists, American Society of Primatologists, Botanical Society of America, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Helminthological Society of Washington, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Paleontological Society, Society for Freshwater Science, and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, and event supporter Society of Nematologists.

Participation is free, but registration will close on July 18, 2017. For more information and to register, visit www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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Major Disruptions in Federal Advisory Panels

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of the Interior are making major changes to committees that advise the agencies. EPA removed half of the members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, which advises the agency on technical and management issues in its research programs. In a separate move, Interior temporarily suspended more than 200 advisory panels.

The scientists who serve on the EPA committee had been told twice that their tenures would be renewed, including most recently a few weeks ago.

According to Dr. Robert Richardson, associate professor at Michigan State University, the cuts “just came out of nowhere.” Richardson was one of the appointees who was dismissed. “The role that science has played in the agency in the past—this step is a significant step in a different direction.”

An EPA spokesperson said “no one was fired. These folks were appointed for three-year terms, they’re not guaranteed a second three-year term.”

Richardson, however, said that “I’ve never heard of any circumstance where someone didn’t serve two consecutive terms.”

All of the terminated advisors had completed at least one three-year term. EPA said that replacements will be selected from a pool of applicants and that former board members could reapply for their positions. This latter point was reiterated days later by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt: “These individuals can apply, will apply, I’m sure, in some instances, and very well could be put back on the board.”

“We’re not going to rubber-stamp the last administration’s appointees,” said EPA spokesperson J.P. Freire. “Instead, they should participate in the same open competitive process as the rest of the applicant pool. This approach is what was always intended for the board, and we’re making a clean break with the last administration’s approach.”

“It’s not totally unusual to see boards turn over,” said Thomas Burke, a former deputy administrator for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “This one was really unexpected, and in concert with everything else that has been going on and the challenges to science, this is troubling.”

Two members of the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Subcommittee resigned in protest on Friday. “It is with certain regret and concern—and in protest—that we submit our resignations,” wrote Carlos Martin and Peter Meyer. The subcommittee’s co-chairs were among the 12 members whose terms were not renewed.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke put all outside committees on hiatus as he reviews their charters and missions. Impacted committees include the Bureau of Land Management’s 38 resource advisory councils, as well as the National Park System Advisory Board, National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, and North Slope Science Initiative Technical Advisory Panel.

An Interior spokesperson said the review of “the charter and charge of each Board/Advisory Committee” is designed to “maximize feedback from these boards and ensure their compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act.”

The review process has halted meetings of these groups through at least September 2017.

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NIH to Limit Grants to Successful Researchers

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will begin capping the amount of funding that individual investigators can receive. The new system is intended to free up more funding for early- and mid-career researchers.

Currently, 10 percent of NIH grant recipients receive 40 percent of the agency’s total research funding.

In the future, a single investigator can concurrently receive the equivalent of three R01 grants, or 21 points on the new grant support index. A grant applicant who has more than 21 points worth of funding already will need to explain to the agency how their existing funding can be adjusted so that they do not exceed the point limit.

About 6 percent of NIH-funded researchers would exceed the point limit. The agency anticipates that 1,600 new grants would be created as a result of the new system.

NIH will develop the new system in the coming months and plans to seek input from its advisory committees and the scientific community.

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More on the ARPA-E Funding Halt

A conflicting story continues to emerge about research funding that is allegedly being withheld by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in early May that the “pause” in funding for approved projects resulted from presidential executive orders and were not directed by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.

“We haven’t lost those projects,” said Senator Murkowski. The projects are “just on hold,” but not canceled.

Reportedly 10 projects that were previously approved but whose contracts were being negotiated are affected.

A few days after the Senator’s remarks, the Department of Energy sent an internal memo that said, “it will honor all commitments for funds previously obligated for grants and cooperative agreements.” A department spokesperson said that includes all funding agreements for the department, not just ARPA-E.

That announcement contradicted earlier reports that the department had delayed or halted funding awards for small businesses and renewable energy projects. Moreover, a memo obtained by journalists states that going forward, all future and pending funding opportunity announcements must be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Meanwhile, the ranking member on the House Science Committee has called for the Government Accountability Office to sue the Department of Energy for not processing the research grants. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) alleges that the funding hiatus is illegal. A 1974 law gives the government watchdog the ability to file a civil suit to force an agency to spend the money that Congress allocated it.

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Update on USDA Scientific Integrity

In the last issue of the AIBS Public Policy Report, we reported on a recent report released by the Inspector General regarding scientific integrity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Acting USDA Under Secretary and Chief Scientist Ann Bartuska shared the following update with AIBS.

I am happy to provide an update to the information in your May 1 newsletter item entitled "The State of Scientific Integrity at USDA."

USDA is committed to maintaining the integrity of its scientific research, and takes seriously any allegations of misconduct in this regard. That is why in November (after the Office of the Inspector General's [OIG] survey was conducted, but before results were released) we issued a revised version of the department's Scientific Integrity Policy. It was subsequently given the highest grade received by any federal department in a comparative review conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 

As part of that revised policy, we have implemented more robust and well-defined procedures for responding to scientific integrity concerns. And in January, new web-based training courses were released to help employees understand scientific integrity policies and procedures.

In a January 2017 blog post, UCS also stated that USDA's updated policy is "significantly improved in the protections it provides for USDA scientists" and "substantially strengthened."

The OIG survey found that an overwhelming number (83%) of USDA respondents believed their agency promoted a culture of scientific integrity. Still, the survey results point to additional opportunities we have to increase our training and communication about our policy to USDA scientists, who are spread across the country and often work in relative isolation.   We will take advantage of those opportunities, and we urge any employees who feel they have been subject to undue pressure to take advantage of our revised policies and make their concerns known. They can contact USDA Scientific Integrity Officers at either the departmental or agency level by using the contact list found online at: https://www.usda.gov/our-agency/staff-offices/office-chief-scientist-ocs/agency-and-departmental-scientific-integrity.

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Writing for Impact and Influence Course

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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Short Takes

  • More than seven months after the start of the fiscal year, Congress has finally completed its work on 2017 appropriations. The House of Representatives passed the spending bill with the bipartisan support of 309 Representatives; most of the 118 Representatives who opposed the legislation were Republicans. The Senate passed the bill in a vote of 79 to 18. See more coverage at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/2017_05_01.html.
  • As species rapidly adapt to altered landscapes and a warming climate, scientists and stakeholders need new techniques to monitor ecological responses and plan future conservation efforts. Writing in BioScience, Drs. Stephen McCormick of the U.S. Geological Survey and Michael Romero of Tufts University describe the emerging field of conservation endocrinology and its growing role in addressing the effects of environmental change. In the latest episode of BioScience Talks, Dr. McCormick describes the range of applications spawned by new research involving the endocrine system. Listen at http://bioscienceaibs.libsyn.com/conservation-endocrinology-in-a-changing-world.
  • Improve your chances of receiving competitively awarded funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) by participating in an upcoming webinar. Attendees will learn more about the NIFA grant award types, the submission process, and approaches shared by successful grantees. Learn more at https://nifa.usda.gov/competitive-funding-opportunity-workshops-cfow.
  • The National Academies Gulf Research Program is currently accepting applications for the 2018 Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship. Current and recent graduate students working on issues relevant to the Gulf of Mexico are eligible to apply. Learn more at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/policyfellows/PGA_048504.

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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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