USDA to Relocate ERS and NIFA, Realign ERS

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced its intent to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to a location(s) outside of Washington D.C. by the end of 2019. The new location(s) has not been determined.

The move is a part of a broader reorganization effort at the USDA and will impact as many as 700 employees, primarily scientists and economic researchers, about 400 at NIFA and 300 at ERS. Plans indicate that employees who decide to move from their current locations in the Washington, DC area will receive relocation assistance and the same base pay. Additionally, USDA is also seeking approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget to offer voluntary early retirements and voluntary separation incentives.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue argues that the plan is a way to save taxpayer dollars and bring ERS and NIFA employees closer to the rural stakeholders that they serve. He said, “We’ve seen significant turnover in these positions; it has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, D.C., area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes.”

Secretary Perdue also announced that ERS, currently under the Research, Education, and Economics mission area, will be moved to the Office of the Chief Economist, under the supervision of an undersecretary, who reports directly to the Agriculture Secretary. “These two agencies were aligned once before, and bringing them back together will enhance the effectiveness of economic analysis at USDA,” according to USDA.

The realignment of ERS has been criticized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, as an effort to limit the autonomy of a research agency by placing it under the supervision of a political appointee. In a letter to Secretary Perdue, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) Board on Agriculture Assembly stressed that NIFA, being USDA’s “premier extramural agricultural science agency,” collaborates with universities, individual researchers, as well as other Federal agencies and raised concerns that the relocation might diminish NIFA’s ability to effectively collaborate with their broad base of stakeholders.

According to the Washington Post, Scott Swinton, Professor of Agricultural and Environmental Economics at Michigan State University and former President of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, argued that the reorganization may be an excuse for gutting federal agricultural research. Swinton predicts that several top economists and scientists will resign, rather than move out of the D.C. area. Sonny Ramaswamy, former NIFA Administrator, echoed that many longtime staffers will not make the move.

Earlier this year, the Trump Administration had proposed to cut the budget of the ERS by 50 percent. However, the House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills would provide the agency with flat funding in fiscal year 2019.

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WOTUS Revived by Federal Judge, Now Effective in 26 States

A Federal judge in the U.S. District Court in South Carolina has issued a nationwide injunction on the Trump Administration’s two-year delay of the Clean Water Rule. The decision revives the rule in 26 states where district court judges have not stayed the regulation. Also known as Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS), the rule defines which wetlands and waterways receive Federal protection under the Clean Water Act.

In February 2018, the Trump Administration suspended the Clean Water Rule, while the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers developed a new version of the regulation. The injunction invalidated this order on the grounds that the Administration failed to seek public comment on the content of the rule or the implications of delaying it by two years. The Southern Environmental Law Center sued the Administration on behalf of several environmental groups earlier this year claiming that the rulemaking had been rushed and violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

“Certainly, different administrations may implement different regulatory priorities, but the [APA] ‘requires that the pivot from one administration’s priorities to those of the next be accomplished with at least some fidelity to law and legal process,’” ruled U.S. District Judge David Norton for the District of South Carolina. “The agencies failed to promulgate the Suspension Rule with that required fidelity here. The court cannot countenance such a state of affairs.”

The WOTUS rule is now back in effect in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. However, the WOTUS rule will not be enforced in the other 24 states due to injunctions form district courts in North Dakota and Georgia.

Last year, AIBS joined six other scientific organizations to oppose the Administration’s proposal to rescind the WOTUS rule. Later in the year, AIBS also submitted joint comments on the proposed rule, Definition of “Waters of the United States,” opposing the repeal of the Clean Water Rule and rejecting changes to the definition of WOTUS.

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President Signs Defense Reauthorization Bill with Climate, Species Provisions

President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year (FY) 2019 into law on August 1, 2018. The legislation, which passed Congress with bipartisan support, authorizes $716 billion for national defense through FY (YEAR). The new law also includes several environmental provisions.

Under a climate and resilience provision, the NDAA requires military construction projects to disclose if it is within a 100-year floodplain and develop mitigation plans to prepare for impacts from climate change such as sea-level rise. “This bill reflects the fact that Congress has accepted the consensus that climate change affects national security,” said John Conger, Director of the non-partisan Center for Climate and Security.

The bill also includes provisions on chemical clean up. It authorizes $60 million for remediation of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and up to $15 million for dioxin contamination in Vietnam. It also recommends continued funding for the study of PFOS and PFOA, a group of toxic chemicals that are used in Teflon and firefighting foam.

A provision that extends the maximum duration of the Navy’s incidental take permits for marine mammals from five years to seven years was also included. An incidental take permit is issued when a project might result in harm to an endangered or threatened species. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, marine mammals will not be harmed as a result of this provision since the Navy will still be required to go through the same process of obtaining permits.

“Were I still in office, I would be very much in favor of the NDAA language because it preserves the spirit and intent of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but it makes the process much more effective and much more efficient,” said former Vice Administrator Dennis McGinn, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment.

Some controversial provisions regarding species did not make it to the final NDAA, including a provision preventing the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act and another delisting the American burying beetle.

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Survey: Federal Scientists Report Political Interference, Censorship

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a new report chronicling the findings from its recent survey of scientists across 16 Federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of the Interior, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Federal scientists have reported political meddling in their work, requests to omit “climate change” from research, self-censorship, and workforce reductions due to staff departures, retirements, and hiring freezes.

This is the ninth year that UCS has conducted this anonymous survey. According to UCS, the response rate this year was significantly lower than it has been in the past. The highest response rates were at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS, 19 percent) and the National Park Service (NPS, 18 percent), while the response rate was 8 percent at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and 3 percent at EPA.

About half the respondents across sixteen agencies reported that “consideration of political interests” impeded science-based decisions. “In many of the critical science agencies — especially the agencies that handle environmental regulation — scientists reported that they are having trouble doing their jobs because of political interference, staff reductions and a lack of qualified leadership,” said Jacob Carter, a research scientist with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS.

Employees at the Department of the Interior, specifically scientists from NPS, USGS, and FWS, indicated political interference as a “top barrier.” More than 40 percent of respondents at both FWS and NPS reported that individuals from regulated industries with a financial stake in policy decisions influenced internal discussions. Interior spokesperson Faith Vander Voort said “scientific integrity remains intact…Any assumption otherwise is categorically false.”

According to the UCS report, “severity of reported problems varied widely across agencies.” Scientists at some agencies, such as NOAA, reported significantly less political pressure than other agencies.

Censorship was reported as an issue particularly with respect to climate change. Scientists at NPS were most likely to report censorship related to climate science. “We’ve been told to avoid using words like climate change in internal project proposals and cooperative agreements,” an NPS official said. Forty-seven percent of survey respondents at NPS and 35 percent at EPA reported that they had been asked to omit “climate change” from their work. Several scientists also reported self-censorship to avoid becoming a political target. More than 30 percent at USGS and EPA reported that they avoided using “climate change” without receiving orders to do so. Overall, 18 percent of respondents had been asked to omit “climate change” from their work, while 20 percent reported engaging in self-censorship.

Scientists at the EPA, NPS, FWS, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported lower morale relative to scientists at other agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A majority of FDA scientists who participated in the survey, however, reported morale as “excellent or good.”

Over 60 percent of respondents indicated that their agencies adhere to their scientific integrity policies and that they had been adequately trained on those policies and their whistleblower rights. Although, only 42 percent indicated that they would be willing to report a scientific integrity violation and trust that they would be treated fairly.

The diminishing role of science in policy decisions has propelled scientific groups, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), to explore how to better promote science-based decision-making. The report, Engaging Decision-makers: Opportunities for Biological Science Organizations, from the 2017 meeting of the AIBS Council of Member Societies and Organizations explores some of these issues and offers recommendations for community action. Read the report here: https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biy082/5056846

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NIH Requests Comments on Proposal to Amend Guidelines on Genetic Research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is seeking public comment on a proposal to amend the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant or Synthetic Nucleic Acid Molecules. The proposal is intended to “streamline the oversight of human gene transfer clinical research protocols or gene therapy research and reduce duplicative reporting requirements already captured within the existing regulatory framework.” The agency proposes removing the NIH protocol submission, review, and reporting requirements under the current guidelines and modifying the responsibilities of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC).

Comments on the proposal will be accepted until October 16, 2018. Comments may be submitted electronically here: https://osp.od.nih.gov/comment-form-nih-guidelines/

Questions about the proposal may be directed to the NIH Office of Science Policy at SciencePolicy@od.nih.gov.

Click here for more information on the proposal: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2018-08-17/html/2018-17760.htm

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Prepare Your Resume, Hone Your Interview Skills

Registration is now open for the Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists, a new professional development program by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate programs in the United States do an excellent job of preparing students for careers in academia. As students and a growing number of reports note, however, many STEM graduate students are interested in employment in a variety of sectors by the time they complete their degree. Students continue to report that they feel ill-prepared and ill-equipped to pursue employment in these settings.

In response to this frustration heard from many graduate students, AIBS has developed a program to help scientists hone and practice the skills needed to secure employment. AIBS’s Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists is an intensive, two-day program that is a blend of lecture and hands-on exercises. Designed by scientists and a career coach, this program provides graduate students to senior scientists with the information, tools, and resources required to successfully identify and secure employment in a diversity of career pathways, including science policy, communications, program management, government, non-governmental organizations, international development, and others.

Course participants will:

  • Identify career interests and opportunities;
  • Learn to communicate their knowledge and skills to employers;
  • Develop strategies for finding employment;
  • Develop application materials;
  • Prepare for and practice different interview styles and scenarios;
  • Talk to scientists working in diverse employment settings and individuals responsible for making hiring decisions.

Current graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and scientists interested in transitioning to a new employment sector should consider signing up.

The program will be held in Washington, DC on December 17-18, 2018. For more information and to register, visit https://www.aibs.org/events/employmentbootcamp.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’s 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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Enter the 2018 Faces of Biology Photo Contest

Enter the Faces of Biology Photo Contest for your chance to win $250 and to have your photo appear on the cover of the journal BioScience.

The competition, sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), recognizes scientists who use imagery to communicate aspects of biological research to the public and policymakers.

The theme of the contest is “Faces of Biology.” Photographs entered into the competition must depict a person, such as a scientist, researcher, technician, collections curator, or student, engaging in biological research. The research may occur outside, in a lab, with a natural history collection, at a field station, on a computer, in a classroom, or anywhere else research is done.

The First Place Winner will have his/her winning photo featured on the cover of BioScience and will receive $250 along with a one-year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience. The Second and Third Place Winners will have his/her winning photo printed inside the journal and will receive a one-year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience.

The winning photo from the 2017 contest was featured on the cover of the April 2018 issue of BioScience.

Submissions must be received by 11:59:59 p.m. Eastern Time on 1 October 2018.

For more information or to enter the contest, visit http://www.aibs.org/public-programs/photocontest.html.

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Short Takes

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is accepting nominations of individuals from the academic, industrial, and non-profit sectors to an interdisciplinary committee of 16 experts who will define and assess the current state of the U.S. bioeconomy and consider strategies for safeguarding and sustaining the economic activity driven by research and innovation in the life sciences. The panel requires experts in various life sciences disciplines, such as biomedicine, agriculture, biotechnology, synthetic biology, and biomanufacturing, as well as individuals with expertise in cybersecurity, data security, privacy, and national security. Nominations can be submitted here by August 20.

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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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