EPA Bars Agency-Funded Scientists from Advisory Boards

A new directive from Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prohibits researchers who are receiving EPA research funding from serving on any of the agency’s nearly two-dozen advisory committees.

Pruitt cited a figure of $77 million in agency grants that went to advisory board members over three years. “There is a question that arises over independence,” Pruitt said. “They have to choose: either the grant or service. But not both.”

The American Institute of Biological Sciences sent a letter that pushed back on the new prohibition. “EPA’s scientific advisory committees should be comprised of recognized scientific experts. To arbitrarily eliminate from service on the panels individuals who have research funding from the EPA does not help to ensure that the agency is receiving the best available advice… Moreover, it is folly to assume that every scientist who has received EPA funding will be biased, but scientists working for commercial interests regulated by the EPA or a state or local government are not biased and therefore more competent to serve. All individuals serving on a panel must be held to a high standard of integrity and expected to comply with appropriate and uniform conflict of interest policies.”

The directive took effect on 31 October 2017. All current advisory board members will have to decide whether to continue serving and return grant funding or to step down from their position if they receive EPA funds.

Already, two members have relinquished their grants. Seven others did not end their funding and are not longer eligible to serve. Another researcher is challenging Administrator Pruitt to fire her.

“I just wanted to let you know that I am not officially resigning or stepping down from the board,” wrote Science Advisory Board (SAB) member Robyn Wilson to the EPA. “It seems as if the intention of the Administrator is to force us to choose between our grants and the board given the new policy. I simply will not do that as it is a false choice… Mr. Pruitt is welcome to officially fire me from the Board, as I am clearly not on the new list of SAB members. But given I had one year left in my term, and I was hired by the previous Administrator, it seems as if the appropriate way for him to enact this policy is to provide an official letter informing me that I am being let go before my term ends.”

Pruitt has already appointed people with close ties to industry to chair the Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Board of Scientific Counselors.

Ten Democratic Senators have requested the Government Accountability Office review the policy, which would “strengthen the voice of industry-funded scientists,” according to a letter sent by the group.

Terry Yosie, a former director of the SAB who served during the Reagan administration, said that the directive represents “a major purge of independent scientists and a decision to sideline the SAB from major EPA decision-making in the future.”

Read the AIBS letter at https://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20171107epascience_advisors.html.

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House Science Committee Chairman To Retire

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) has announced that he will retire at the end of the current session of Congress in early 2019. Smith has served as chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee since 2012, but is term-limited under Republican caucus rules from retaining the chairmanship for another term.

“I love my job; there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. But chairmanship ending, second grandchild arriving,” Smith told reporters.

Smith has used his position as chairman to investigate National Science Foundation grants that he saw as frivolous and to push the Department of Energy towards funding more basic research rather than applied research.

Smith’s retirement will set off an internal competition among Republicans who wish to succeed him as chair. Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK) is the current vice chair and is next in line in terms of seniority. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) ran for the position in 2012 but was defeated by Smith.

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Tax Reform Could Impact Higher Education

Congress is considering major tax overhauls that would, among other things, impose an excise tax on the investment earnings of endowments at wealthy colleges and universities. Nearly seventy private institutions of higher education would be subject to the new tax, which only affects schools whose endowments exceed $250,000 per student. Public universities would be exempt.

Only 30 of the top 300 research institutions in the U.S. fall within the list. Among them are Harvard University, Stanford University, MIT, Yale University, and Columbia University.

The House and Senate have drafted their own versions of the tax reform bill. Both bills contain the provision regarding college endowments. The House of Representatives is expected to start debate on H.R. 1 this week. The Senate will begin committee mark up during that same timeframe.

The House bill also includes a provision that would eliminate individual deductions for college tuition, interest, and other education expenses. This would increase taxes for many graduate students because tuition waivers would be taxed as income. The Senate bill does not appear to make any changes to current tax law in these areas.

As congressional leaders have signaled a desire to move these tax plans though the legislative process on an expedited schedule, individuals who wish to share their opinions about the plans with their elected Representative and Senators should do so via phone and email immediately.

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Apply for the 2018 Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award

Are you a graduate student looking to make a difference in science policy and funding? Applications are now being accepted for the 2018 AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award. This award recognizes graduate students in the biological sciences who have demonstrated initiative and leadership in science policy. Recipients receive first-hand experience at the interface of science and public policy.

Winners receive:

  • A trip to Washington, DC, to participate in the AIBS Congressional Visits Day, an annual event that brings scientists to the nation's capital to advocate for federal investment in the biological sciences, with a primary focus on the National Science Foundation. The event will be held on April 16-18, 2018. Domestic travel and hotel expenses will be paid for the winners.
  • Policy and communications training, including information on how to communicate science to policymakers, the legislative process, and trends in federal science funding.
  • Meetings with congressional policymakers to discuss the importance of federal investment in the biological sciences.
  • A one-year AIBS membership, including a subscription to the journal BioScience and a copy of "Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media."

The 2018 award is open to U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents enrolled in a graduate degree program in the biological sciences, science education, or a closely allied field. Applicants should have a demonstrated interest in and commitment to science policy and/or science education policy.

Applications are due by 11:59 PM Eastern Time on January 17, 2018. The application guidelines can be downloaded at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/eppla.html.

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NASA Nominee Advances in Senate

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the nomination of Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The nomination passed in a vote of 14 to 13.

The vote came days after a contentious confirmation hearing where Democratic Senators grilled Bridenstine on his views on climate change. Although three other nominees were also being considered, nearly all of the hearing was about the President’s pick to head NASA.

Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) used most of his opening remarks to criticize Bridenstine. “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive. More importantly, the administrator must be a leader who has the ability to unite scientists, engineers, commercial space interests, policymakers and the public on a shared vision for future space exploration. Frankly, Congressman Bridenstine, I cannot see how you meet these criteria.”

Nelson highlighted a 2014 speech when Representative Bridenstine said that Republicans and Democrats shouldn’t be working together. “We need people who will stand up and say ‘no, we’re not going to do this anymore,” said Bridenstine.

Bridenstine said his highest ambition is to pursue a “consensus agenda” with Congress about NASA’s future.

When asked by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) about climate change, Bridenstine said that he wasn’t sure to what extent humans have contributed to carbon emissions, but we have contributed. This was a departure from his previous remarks on the subject. “We are just beginning to scratch the surface,” of the science, he said.

Schatz responded: “I get that you don’t have a scientific background, and I don’t begrudge you, although it is true that previous administrators had extraordinary scientific backgrounds. But I don’t begrudge you that because I don’t have a scientific background. But do you know what I do do? I defer to scientists. I rely on the scientific consensus.”

During the questioning, the nominee did commit to protecting NASA employees from political interference in their work, including on climate change. He also said that he will follow the guidance in the National Academies decadal survey on Earth and space science.

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BCoN Requests Community Input

The natural history collections community is invited to provide input on a draft report about community progress toward the goals and objectives outlined in the Strategic and Implementation Plans for NIBA. The report is the outcome of a two-day stakeholder workshop held in Washington, DC in January 2017 by the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN).

Since the community’s Strategic Plan for a Network Integrated Biocollections Alliance (NIBA) was first published, significant progress has been made toward the goals it articulated. However, as with any effort of significance, it is wise to periodically assess progress.

Although the participants in the workshop and the BCoN Advisory Committee endeavored to capture an accurate assessment of progress toward NIBA, some significant developments may have been missed. The community is invited to review this document and share their thoughts and suggestions.

Comments on the draft document should be submitted by 24 November 2017. All comments or questions should be submitted electronically to PublicPolicy@aibs.org.

Read the draft workshop report.

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Nominations Sought for Federal STEM Education Committee

A new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Advisory Panel is being formed. The committee will advise the National Science and Technology Council Committee on STEM Education and assist with updating the federal government’s five-year strategic plan on STEM education.

The formation of the body was directed in legislation passed by Congress in 2016.

Nominations are sought of individuals from academic institutions, non-profits, and industry, including in-school, out-of-school, and informal education practitioners. Recommendations should consist of the name of the submitting individual, the organization or the affiliation providing the member nomination, the name of the recommended individual, the recommended individual’s curriculum vita, an expression of the individual’s interest in serving, and the following recommended individual’s contact information: employment address, telephone number, FAX number, and email address. Self-recommendations are accepted. If you would like to make a membership recommendation, please send your recommendation to Nafeesa Owens at stemedadvisory@nsf.gov.

Learn more at https://nsf.gov/ehr/STEMEdAdvisory.jsp.

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Short Takes

  • The 2017 meeting of the AIBS Council of Member Societies and Organizations, Engaging Policymakers: Opportunities for Biological Sciences Organizations, will be held in Washington, DC, on 4 December 2017. AIBS Council Representatives may now register for the meeting.

  • Sam Clovis has withdrawn his nomination to serve as the Department of Agriculture's chief scientist. Clovis is a former Trump campaign official who was recently questioned by the Mueller investigation about what he knew about campaign team members' contacts with Russia. One former campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, has pled guilty to lying to the FBI. Emails indicate that Papadopoulos reported his contacts to Clovis in 2016. The nomination had previously drawn sharp criticism from the scientific community and from some Senators.

  • Two million dollars in research funding is available for scientists whose research was affected by Hurricane Harvey or Irma. Each researcher can apply for up to $50,000 to help with the repair, replacement, or recovery of their equipment, data, or other research materials. The funding is available from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Applications are due by 3 January 2018. Learn more at http://www.nas.edu/gulf/grants/disaster-recovery-2018/index.htm.

  • Two senior lawmakers have introduced legislation to improve the federal government's collection and use of data in decision-making. Each agency would have to create a plan and establish a data catalogue. The bills are sponsored by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

  • The latest episode of the BioScience Talks podcast is now online. Dr. Daniel Gibson-Reinemer discusses his work using a robust, multi-decadal data set to demonstrate a tight linkage between water quality and the rebound of fish in the Illinois Waterway. Listen at http://bioscienceaibs.libsyn.com/a-waterway-bounces-back-following-the-passage-of-the-clean-water-act.

  • The deadline for the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship is approaching on 30 November 2017. The fellowship places individuals with STEM backgrounds into teaching positions in high-need secondary schools in Georgia and New Jersey. Learn more at https://www.developingcareer.com/woodrow-wilson-teaching-fellowships/.

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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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