Senate Rejects White House Rescissions Proposal

The Senate has rejected the White House’s proposal to rescind $15 billion in unobligated funds from previous years due to concerns over the proposed cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Lawmakers voted against the legislation by a vote of 48-50, with all Democratic and three Republican lawmakers opposing the legislation.

Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Susan Collins (R-ME) voted against the bill, despite White House lobbying for their support. Burr declined to support the package after Senate leaders did not guarantee a vote on an amendment to reverse a $16 million rescission cut for LWCF. Burr urged Congress to permanently reauthorize the LWCF program, which is set to expire in September.

Collins said she opposed the package because she did not “like tipping the power of the purse to the executive branch.”

The White House had tried to revive the proposal earlier this month by withdrawing some proposed cuts. After the proposal was rejected, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said that the administration would continue its efforts “to get government spending under control.”

The House had approved the rescissions proposal earlier in June. According to federal budget rules, the Senate had to consider the plan by June 22.

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AIBS Joins International Statement on Digital Sequence Information

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) recently joined with more than 50 other organizations from around the world to express a shared concern with emerging proposals on the regulation of use of digital sequence information. The full statement is available on the AIBS website at: https://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20180625jointstakehold.html

The signatory organizations share a concern about the potentially harmful effect of inappropriate or overly burdensome regulation of genetic resources. The statement cautions that: “Such obligations would place additional hurdles on biological research - with potentially negative consequences for the advancement of science and the huge societal value this generates, as well as for achieving the three objectives of the [Convention on Biological Diversity].”

The joint statement reads, in part, “The unencumbered access to and use of DSI now in the public domain benefits countries at all levels of development - it supports conservation, fosters research into technological solutions to tackle societal challenges, and benefits the population as a whole…The rate of scientific advancement and technological development is heavily dependent on unencumbered access to and use of publicly available DSI. Barriers to the sharing and use of DSI would discourage innovation and scientific research. Extensive tracking and tracing mechanisms would be needed - if they were even possible - ultimately making downstream uses more complex and costly, and products and technologies less accessible.”

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New Executive Order Changes U.S. Ocean Policy

President Trump signed an Executive Order on June 20, 2018 to establish a new ocean policy focused on economic and security concerns and ending President Obama’s 2010 ocean policy that emphasized conservation and stewardship.

President Obama signed his Executive Order soon after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, which affected ecosystems, wildlife, and fisheries along the Gulf Coast. The order stressed “how vulnerable our marine environments are,” and called for a national policy to “ensure the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems.” President Obama’s order highlighted ten policies that prioritized conservation, including “protect, maintain, and restore the health and biological diversity,” enhance “conservation and sustainable uses,” and “understand, respond, and adapt to a changing global environment.”

In comparison, President Trump’s directive avoids any reference to climate change, biodiversity, and conservation, and instead emphasizes that oceans are “foundational to the economy, security, global competitiveness, and well-being of the United States.”

The seven priorities listed in the new policy focus on “economic, security, and environmental benefits for present and future generations of Americans,” and stress the need to “promote the lawful use of the ocean by agencies, including United States Armed Forces,” “facilitate the economic growth of coastal communities and promote ocean industries,” “advance ocean science and technology,” “enhance America’s energy security,” and “ensure that Federal regulations and management decisions do not prevent productive and sustainable use of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters.”

The Trump Executive Order also establishes an interagency Ocean Policy Committee aimed at streamlining federal coordination on ocean-related matters. The Committee is to be co-chaired by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Committee will focus on “growing the ocean economy, prioritizing scientific research, coordinating resources and data sharing, and engaging with stakeholders.” According to a White House press release, the Committee replaces the “overly bureaucratic National Ocean Council and 9 Regional Planning Bodies” created by President Obama.

Jane Lubchenco, marine ecologist and former Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that the new policy “represents a significant step backward, a throwback to the 1960s when the primary focus was on aggressively expanding the use of the ocean with the assumption that it is so immense, so bountiful that it must be inexhaustible.” Lubchenco noted that the former policy emphasized stewardship, while the new “short-sighted and cavalier” policy “blatantly rejects this all-important focus on stewardship.”

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Science and Interior Spending Bills Advance in Senate

The Senate Appropriations Committee has cleared a fiscal year (FY) 2019 spending package that would fund the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The bill would provide increased funding for NSF and NASA but slightly less than the House has proposed.

Highlights of the Senate's spending bill for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies include:

  • $8.069 billion for NSF in FY 2019, four percent more than the funding levels for FY 2018 and $600 more that the President's request. This is $106 million below the level approved by the House Appropriations Committee. Research and Related Activities (RRA), which includes the account for the Biological Sciences Directorate, would receive $6.3 billion, an increase of $222 million above FY 2018. The House bill would raise the RRA budget by $317 million. NSF's Education and Human Resources account would remain flat under the House bill, but would receive $900 million (+$13 million) under the Senate proposal.
  • $5.48 billion in funding for NOAA, a level $426 million below the FY 2018 enacted level. The bill provides funds for NOAA's grant programs, such as the Sea Grant, marine aquaculture, and coastal zone management and resilience. Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, which includes climate change research, would receive $508 million. This funding is a rejection of the 40 percent cut the President proposed. The House bill would provide $5.2 billion for NOAA.
  • NASA would receive $21.3 billion, which represents a $587 million bump from FY 2018 and $1.43 billion more than the President requested. The Senate plan would provide $6.4 billion (+$ 179 million) to NASA Science, compared to $6.7 billion under the House bill. The Senate Committee is also proposing $10 million for the Carbon Monitoring System, a program that the Trump administration moved to eliminate.
  • NIST would receive $1.04 billion, $161 million below FY 2018 and $53 million above the House plan.

Senate Appropriators also approved the appropriations package for Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on June 14. The bill would provide the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with flat funding at $8.05 billion, or $100 million more than the amount allocated by House Appropriators. The Senate bill rejects the Administration's request for funds to pay for employee buyouts to continue the agency's workforce reshaping efforts, funds that were included in the House plan. The bill also includes language that bars the use of agency funds to breach federal ethics requirements. This provision was included in response to a growing list of on-going ethics probes into the actions of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The Interior Department would receive $13.1 billion overall, with flat funding of $1.15 billion for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The bill would provide $1.3 billion (+$11 million) for the Bureau of Land Management, $3.2 billion (+13.4 million) for the National Park Service, $1.6 billion (-$19.7 million) for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, $6.29 billion for the U.S. Forest Service, and $1.043 billion (flat) for the Smithsonian Institution.

On the House side, lawmakers approved the first three spending bills for FY 2019, packaged as a "minibus" and including Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veteran Affairs spending bills. The Energy and Water spending bill would provide $6.6 billion to the Department of Energy Office of Science, $341 million above FY 2018.

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New Restrictions on Conference Attendance for USGS Scientists

The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Office of Administration has rolled out new guidelines for USGS scientists attending two major geological sciences conferences. The guidelines, obtained by the Washington Post, were posted on the agency’s internal website.

According to the guidelines, scientists at the agency will be required to provide a detailed “attendee justification” and submit their presentation titles for review by the Department of the Interior (DOI) when applying for travel approval to attend the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, DC, and the Geological Society of America meeting in Indianapolis this year.

The scientists must describe how their research aligns with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s ten priorities for the Department, including “create a conservation stewardship legacy second only to Teddy Roosevelt,” “sustainably develop our energy and natural resources,” “increase revenues to support the Department and national interests,” “strike a regulatory balance,” “modernize our infrastructure,” and “reorganize the Department for the next 100 years.”

Faith Vander Voort, a spokesperson for DOI, explained that as a result of budget restrictions the Department “can only afford to send people who have a meaningful role at the conference…If taxpayer dollars are being spent to send someone to a conference, we’d like some degree of confidence that their attendance will advance the department’s priorities.”

Voort said the applications would be reviewed by Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tim Petty, a political appointee recently confirmed by the Senate. Former USGS Director Marcia McNutt, said that political appointees were never involved in the prioritization of research topics being presented at conferences. Other former DOI officials called the new protocol “inappropriate” and “a form of censorship.”

Recently, USGS employees have been required to apply for travel approval online. If the overall cost for agency travel to a conference exceeded $100,000, the agency would then need to submit a request for approval to DOI, ranked based on priority with preference given to employees receiving awards, chairing sessions, or who are officers of sponsoring societies. Last year, DOI put caps on the number of USGS officials attending the annual AGU meeting and the total expenditures for the travel at 199 and $399,000, respectively. Attendees received approval only weeks before the conference, resulting in only 178 USGS employees attending the scientific meeting, a more than 50 percent reduction in participation from previous years.

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Report Warns About Misuse of Synthetic Biology

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Mathematics (NASEM) have released a new report on how the misuse of synthetic biology could potentially expand the creation of new weapons. Although synthetic biology is being used to treat diseases, improve agricultural productivity, and remediate pollution by engineering and creating organisms, the report titled “Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology” warns about the malicious applications of synthetic biology that could become achievable in the near future.

“In and of itself, synthetic biology is not harmful. The level of concern depends on the specific applications or capabilities that it may enable,” said Michael Imperiale, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan and chair of the committee that conducted the study. “The U.S. government should pay close attention to this rapidly progressing field, just as it did to advances in chemistry and physics during the Cold War era.”

The Department of Defense (DOD) commissioned this report to better prepare for the potential misuse of synthetic biology and develop a framework for evaluating security concerns related to advances in the field. The report concludes that “synthetic biology expands the possibilities for creating new weapons — including making existing bacteria and viruses more harmful — while decreasing the time required to engineer such organisms.”

The report discusses potential vulnerabilities enabled by synthetic biology based on the availability and ease of use of the technologies, the challenges of making an effective weapon, the expertise and resources required to carry out an attack, and measures that might be taken to help alleviate an attack. In the report’s ranking of synthetic biology capabilities, listed from highest level of concern to lowest, “recreating known pathogenic viruses,” “making biochemicals via in situ synthesis,” and “making existing bacteria more dangerous” were deduced as the most concerning. Modifications to the human genome using human gene drives were determined to be of lowest concern.

The report recommends that the DOD should continue to “explore strategies that can be applied to a wide range of threats and also to account for broader capabilities enabled by the field now and in the future.” Owed to the unpredictability and difficulty in monitoring of synthetic biology-enabled weapons, the report also calls on DOD to evaluate how the public health infrastructure needs to be fortified to recognize and address any potential attacks.

Read the report here: http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=24890

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Meet with Your Lawmakers to Inform Science Policy this Summer

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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Short Takes

  • The Society for the Study of Evolution, American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biologists have sent a statement to the Environmental Protection Agency expressing "significant concerns regarding the proposed EPA rule" on the use of scientific data in decision-making. The three organizations, who collectively represent more than 4,600 scientists, warned that the proposed limitations and restrictions on the kind of data that can be used to guide decision-making would "bias the data used by EPA...".
  • President Trump has nominated Mary Neumayr to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which coordinates environmental policy and regulations across agencies. She is currently the Chief of Staff and highest ranking official at the council and has previously served as Deputy Chief Counsel of Energy and Environment, Senior Energy Counsel, and Counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She has also worked at the Department of Justice and Department of Energy in advisory roles.
  • The Department of State has announced its five "science envoys" for 2018-19. Started in 2010, the program names prominent scientists and engineers as science envoys for a year to "leverage their expertise and networks to forge connections and identify opportunities for sustained international cooperation." The five science envoys appointed this year are Michael Osterholm, Director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy; Robert Langer, chemical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Rebecca Richards-Kortum, bioengineer at Rice University; James Schauer, environmental engineer at the University of Wisconsin; and retired NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

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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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