EPA Extends Comment Period for Proposed "Secret Science" Rule

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has extended the deadline to submit public comments on the proposed rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” from May 30, 2018 to August 16, 2018. The proposed rule, which was published in the Federal Register on April 30, would restrict the use of scientific studies for which the underlying data are not publicly available when crafting regulations.

In addition to extending the deadline by 11 weeks, the agency will also convene a public hearing on the proposed rule on July 17, in Washington, DC. According to a notice published in the Federal Register on May 25, 2018, the move is in response to “public requests” for comment period extension and a public hearing.

The American Institute of Biological Sciences was among the many organizations that had promptly requested an extension on the public comment period early in the process. Read AIBS’ letter of request here.

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EPA and White House Sought to Obstruct Chemical Pollution Study

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House attempted to block the publication of a federal health study related to water-contamination in several states across the country. According to a report by Politico, EPA aides intervened after a White House official warned that the study would cause a “potential public relations nightmare.”

The study in question was an assessment of a group of toxic chemicals that have contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants, and other sites in several states, including New York, Michigan, and West Virginia. The assessment finds that the chemicals jeopardize public health at lower levels than the levels previously deemed safe by the EPA. The chemicals under focus in the study, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are used in Teflon and firefighting foam and have been associated with thyroid defects, liver damage, weakened immune systems, pregnancy and developmental problems, and some cancers, even at low levels of exposure. The Department of Health and Human Service’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was preparing to publish the study when the EPA and White House intervened.

The intervention was revealed in emails obtained by the Union for Concerned Scientists. In an email dated January 30, 2018, a White House aide wrote, “The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge.” He added, “The impact to EPA and [the Department of Defense (DoD)] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, defended the agency’s actions and said that the agency was helping “ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and Congressional constituents and partners.”

The ATSDR study, known as a toxicological profile, is based on a review of previous scientific studies and describes the harmful health impacts of the chemicals in question. The findings of this study could deeply impact costs and requirements associated with cleanup of drinking water and Superfund sites. The draft assessment has yet to be published.

Several lawmakers are urging EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and President Trump to publish the study. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) called the delay in publishing the study “deeply troubling” and urged Pruitt and the President “to immediately release this important study.”

According to Judith Enck, a former EPA official who worked on the same pollutants during the Obama administration, the Administration’s response to the contamination crisis was “brazenly political.” “Scientists always debate each other, but under the law, ATSDR is the agency that’s supposed to make health recommendations,” she said.

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Memo Shows White House Considered Ignoring Climate Research

An internal memorandum from last year that was recently obtained by the Washington Post, reveals that the White House considered the possibility of ignoring federal climate research. The memo highlights the Administration’s struggle with supporting widely agreed upon climate science.

According to the document drafted September 18, 2017, officials of the Trump Administration weighed whether to “ignore” climate change related studies conducted by federal researchers or to develop “a coherent, fact-based message about climate science.” The memo was prepared by Michael Catanzaro, who was Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy at the time.

Catanzaro asked in the memo whether the Administration should “consider having a firm position on and a coherent, fact-based message about climate science — specifically, whether, and to what extent, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting the climate system, and what level of concern that warrants.”

The memo presents three options to deal with federal climate data - highlighting uncertainties in the data by conducting a “red team/blue team debate,” formally reviewing the scientific studies under the Administrative Procedure Act, or simply ignoring and not attempting to “characterize or question, the science being conducted by Federal agencies and outside entities.” The document did not include any recommendation for advocacy for the research findings.

The White House has not adopted an official policy regarding climate change being caused by human activity but has largely ignored federal climate research findings and removed references to anthropogenic climate change from government websites and reports.

Government scientists continue to warn about the disastrous consequences of climate change, including sea-level rise and wildfires. The National Park Services recently released a report predicting damage to park sites across the country as a result of climate-change related sea-level rise. The U.S. Geological Survey also released a study last month that shows that low-lying coral atoll islands around the world could become “uninhabitable” within a few decades as a result of drinking water supplies and infrastructure being damaged by wave-driven flooding and rising sea-levels.

Meanwhile, in Congress lawmakers continue to question human-activity as a cause of sea-level change. At a congressional hearing held by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on May 16, lawmakers questioned Philip Duffy, President of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and former senior adviser to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, on the factors that contribute to sea-level rise. Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL) asserted that erosion of the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover as well as large rivers depositing silt into the ocean contribute to sea-level rise - an idea not supported by science.

“Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up,” said Brooks. Duffy responded, “I’m pretty sure that on human time scales, those are minuscule effects.”

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FY 2019 Appropriations Update

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies approved a $35.25 billion spending bill, $7 billion above the President’s request. The bill would provide the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) $7.95 billion in FY 2019, $100 million below FY 2018. The bill ignores the $2 billion cut for the agency proposed by the President. The plan does include support for the “workforce reshaping” initiative proposed by the Administration. Funds to offer buyouts and voluntary separation agreements to employees are included in the bill. The initiative, also proposed by the President for FY 2018, was not funded by Congress in the recently approved omnibus spending package. The FY 2019 spending bill would slash regulatory programs at EPA by $228 million.

The Department of the Interior would receive flat funding at $13.1 billion in FY 2019. The U.S. Geological Survey would be funded at $1.2 billion in FY 2019, $19 million above FY 2018, with funding targeted to critical infrastructure investments in natural hazards programs, streamgages, the groundwater monitoring network, and mapping activities. The bill would fund the U.S. Forest Service at $6.1 billion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at $1.6 billion (-$11 million), the National Park Service at $3.25 billion (+$53 million), the Bureau of Land Management at $1.4 billion (+$55 million), and the Smithsonian Institution at $1 billion (+$12 million). House appropriators will mark-up the bill after returning from the congressional Memorial Day recess.

The House Appropriations Committee earlier advanced the Commerce, Justice and Science bill that would provide the National Science Foundation with $408 million in increased funding and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a deep $751 million cut, with a 38 percent cut to climate change programs. The Appropriations Committee has also approved Agriculture and Energy and Water spending bills, that would provide new funding for agricultural research (+$72 million) and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science (+$341 million).

In the Senate, appropriators have approved a $43.77 billion Energy and Water bill funding the DOE Office of Science at $6.65 billion (+6.2 percent) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at $375 million (+$22 million). The Senate and House bills have rejected the President’s request to eliminate ARPA-E.

Senate Appropriators have also advanced a $145 billion (-$710 million) for agriculture, with $23.2 billion (+$225 million) in discretionary spending. The bill would provide $2.73 billion (-10 percent) to agricultural research, including $1.301 billion (-$42 million) for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), $1.425 billion (+$17 million) for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and $405 million (+$5 million) for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark-up the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies and Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies spending bills during the week of June 11-15, 2018.

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President Nominates ARPA-E Official to Lead DOE Office of Science

President Trump has nominated Dr. Chris Fall, currently serving as the Acting Head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at the Department of Energy (DOE), to be the director of the DOE Office of Science. The office is the largest supporter of physical sciences research in the U.S., including biological and environmental research, and also supports research facilities used by academic and commercial researchers.

Fall comes to the Office of Science after holding posts with ARPA-E and the Office of Naval Research. He also worked for three years at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama, where he served as Assistant Director for Defense Programs and then as Acting Head for the National Security and International Affairs Division. He earned his doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and also holds master’s degrees in business and mechanical engineering.

President Trump has yet to nominate a director for ARPA-E.

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Top 10 Newly Discovered Species Announced

The International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) has released a list of the ten most interesting species discovered in the past year. The list, which has been compiled by IISE every year since 2008, is intended to highlight the extensive biodiversity that exists on the planet.

This 2018 list features a diverse set of organisms, including the Marsupial lion, the fossil for which was unearthed in Australia; volcanic bacteria, living on the sea bed off the coast of the Canary Islands; and the Atlantic forest tree, a legume native to the Atlantic forest of Brazil that grows up to 130 feet, among others.

Find the complete list here: http://www.esf.edu/top10/

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Meet with Your Lawmakers this Summer and Help Inform Science Policy

Registration is now open for the 2018 Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event.

This national initiative, organized by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is an opportunity for scientists from 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 and education.

Now in its tenth 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 works with participants to 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 AIBS, with the support of event sponsors Botanical Society of America, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Helminthological Society of Washington, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Paleontological Society, Society for the Study of Evolution, and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.

Participation is free, but registration is required. Registration will close on July 19, 2018. For more information and to register, visit https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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Expand Your Broader Impact Skills: AIBS Communications Boot Camp for Scientists

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is offering a professional development program designed to enhance the communication skills of scientists, particularly those interested in communicating with decision-makers and the news media. The program is an excellent way to develop new communication skills and identify effective methods for broadening the impact of research and education programs.

The AIBS Communications Training Boot Camp for Scientists expands on AIBS’ highly successful media and science policy training workshops. The Boot Camp meets the needs of everyone from graduate students to senior researchers and program administrators to newly elected professional society leaders.

The Boot Camp is an intensive, two-day, hands-on training program that will be held in Washington, DC on October 15-16, 2018.

Participants will learn:

  • How to translate scientific findings for non-technical audiences
  • How to tell a resonant story that informs decision-makers
  • How to prepare for and participate in a news interview
  • How to prepare for and engage in a meeting with a decision-maker
  • How to protect your scientific reputation
  • How to identify and define the audience you need to reach
  • What decision-makers want to hear from a scientist
  • What reporters are looking for in an interview
  • How to leverage social media
  • How the nation’s science policy is developed and implemented

Participants will also have the opportunity for formal and informal discussions with science policy and communications experts working in Washington, DC.

AIBS Individual Members and individuals nominated to participate by an AIBS Member Society/Organization receive a $55 discount on registration.

Learn more about the program and register now at https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/communicationsbootcamp.html.

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Last Chance to Register: 2018 AIBS Writing for Impact and Influence Course

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is offering a professional development program to help scientists and students hone their written communication skills to increase the power of their message.

Writing for Impact and Influence combines practical instruction and hands-on exercises to improve participants’ general writing proficiency and their ability to reach large audiences. The program will provide participants with the skills and tools needed to compose scientific press releases, blog posts, emails, and memoranda.

Learn to write for stakeholders, decision-makers, and the general public, with a focus on perfecting the reader experience.

The course consists of six 90-minute online modules conducted live and will begin on Thursday, June 7, 2018, with subsequent course sessions held weekly on Thursdays (except July 5). Individuals who actively participate in and complete the full course will receive a certificate recognizing that they have completed a nine-hour professional development course on business writing for scientists.

Register now: http://io.aibs.org/writing

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Short Takes

  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has approved a bill sponsored by Representative Randy Weber (R-TX) titled “Department of Energy Science and Innovation Act of 2018” (H.R. 5905) that would authorize Department of Energy’s Office of Science for fiscal years (FY) 2018 and 2019, including biological and environmental research programs. The legislation would fund the office at $6.6 billion (+5.4 percent) in FY 2019, support upgrades and construction of user facilities, and allow climate change modeling in the Biological and Environmental Research program.

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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 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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