NIH Urges Institutions to Report Foreign Collaborations

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) sent a letter to more than 10,000 research institutions on August 20, 2018 expressing concern about “threats to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research” from foreign governments and asked institutions to help curb “unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality.” In the letter, NIH Director Francis Collins urged NIH grant applicants and awardees to “disclose all forms of other support and financial interests, including support coming from foreign governments or other foreign entities.”

NIH is also investigating at least six cases in which NIH-funded investigators failed to disclose improper support from foreign governments. The letter reminded grant reviewers that they should not share proposal information with foreign entities and also encouraged research institutions to reach out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to get more information on the matter.

At a Senate oversight hearing, Collins said “the robustness of the biomedical research enterprise is under constant threat” and “the magnitude of these risks is increasing.” He added that NIH has established a new Advisory Committee to help the agency make procedural modifications. The panel will appoint experts to develop robust methods to improve accurate reporting and mitigate security risks “while continuing NIH’s long tradition of collaborations with foreign scientists and institutions.”

According to Science, Collins indicated that the agency’s interest in the issue was prompted not by “some big explosive episode” involving a violation of reporting requirements, but “just a gathering sense that it’s time to take action.” The agency has been concerned about NIH-funded scientists who spend a significant proportion of the year in their home country at “shadow labs,” making it difficult to discern which country is supporting their work. The agency is worried that some researchers may have hidden foreign ties and intend to share intellectual property with other countries. But according to Collins, it “may all turn out to be fine—they forgot to tell us something.”

Concerns about foreign governments tapping valuable information from U.S. research institutions have been growing. The White House is considering imposing restrictions on researchers from China engaging in sensitive research at universities in the U.S., citing concerns that Chinese researchers may be acquiring American intellectual secrets and sharing them with the Chinese government. Congressional lawmakers also sought stronger oversight of foreign-funded projects on U.S. campuses through an amendment to a recent defense spending bill. The provision was eventually dropped from the bill and replaced by language ordering the Department of Defense to work with universities to examine the risks and benefits of such a measure.

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Interior Rolls Out Reorganization Plan

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has announced the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) plan to reorganize its bureaus into 12 “unified regions.” The proposed management re-design establishes new regional divisions based on the boundaries of states and watersheds, including a California-Great Basin Region, a Lower Colorado Basin Region, an Upper Colorado Basin Region, and Mississippi Basin Region, among others.

The proposal has been under development for several months and was shared in a memo with DOI employees and Senior Executive Service (SES) personnel on August 29, 2018, according to departmental sources. “Our new Unified Regions will allow important decisions to be made nearer to where our stakeholders and intergovernmental partners live and work, and will make joint problem-solving and improved coordination between our Bureaus and other Federal, State, and local agencies easier,” stated Secretary Zinke.

The 12 unified regions will replace the 49 individual Interior Bureau regional boundaries. Secretary Zinke said that the reorganization will “reduce bureaucratic redundancy, will improve communication between our experts in the field and leaders in Washington, D.C., and will allow us to share our knowledge and resources more effectively.”

Under the plan, the national headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will be moved to a city in the western United States, where the vast majority of public lands managed by the agency are located. The location for the new headquarters has not yet been determined. Individual BLM state offices will continue to function under the new unified regions. Secretary Zinke has indicated that there will be no office or personnel relocations or changes to reporting structure during the initial stages of the implementation of the new plan.

Each new region will be managed under a “Regional Leadership Team”, an idea outlined by Susan Combs, acting Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget for DOI, at a roundtable discussion organized by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT). Combs described Alaska as a model for operations under the reorganization plan. “We started with a pilot in Alaska, because it’s one state that has all the bureaus, it already has a legislative framework that requires federal and state agencies to work together,” said Combs. “So, they are working away on inter-bureau collaboration.”

The regional leadership teams will be comprised of SES members from each bureau in each unified region, with an SES member from outside being appointed in cases where there are no SES members for every bureau. In the first month, a regional facilitator will be selected from each team to guide the team across six areas, including collaborative conservation, recreation, permitting, acquisition, human resource management, and information technology management. The regional facilitators along with their leadership teams will identify key personnel for the six areas of focus, determine the “as is” and “future state” operations for their respective unified regions, and also develop an options paper to be used in the selection and rotation process for the Interior Regional Director.

The plan applies to all Interior agencies, except the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, and the Bureau of Indian Education. Whether these agencies are eventually aligned with the new regional boundaries will be determined after tribal consultation.

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President Nominates NIFA, NPS Directors

The White House has nominated Dr. J. Scott Angle to be Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Mr. David Vela to be the Director of the National Park Service (NPS) at the Department of Interior (DOI).

Dr. Angle, President and CEO of the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), has a background in heavy metals and their interaction with the environment. He worked for 24 years as a professor of soil science and administrator for the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station and Maryland Cooperative Extension at the University of Maryland. He also served as Dean and Director of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia for 10 years. He is a Fellow at the American Society of Agronomy and the Soil Science Society of America. Dr. Angle earned his Ph.D. in soil microbiology from the University of Missouri.

Mr. Vela has worked at NPS for 28 years and currently serves as the Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. He has held various park postings within NPS, including at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway. He has also served as Director of the NPS’ Southeast Region and Associate Director for Workforce, Relevancy, and Inclusion in the NPS headquarters in Washington, DC. Mr. Vela has a B.S. in recreation and parks from the Texas A&M University.

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Pentagon Raises Concerns About EPA's "Secret Science" Proposal

The United States Department of Defense has expressed concerns about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rule “Increasing Transparency in Regulatory Science” in written comments submitted to the agency. The proposed “secret science” rule would bar the use of scientific studies in drafting new regulations unless the underlying data “are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.”

“While we agree that public access to information is very important, we do not believe that failure of the agency to obtain a publication’s underlying data from an author external to the agency should negate its use,” wrote Patricia Underwood, a senior Pentagon official in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment. Underwood noted that its improbable that EPA would always be able to obtain such underlying data and this “should not impede the use of otherwise high-quality studies.”

The proposed rule has been opposed by the scientific community, lawmakers, as well as former EPA officials. EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) also criticized the proposal and urged the Administrator to “request, receive, and review” SAB’s advice before finalizing the rule. AIBS also urged the Administrator to rescind the “inadequately defined” proposed rule in written comments submitted to the agency.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who assumed the helm of the EPA after Pruitt resigned amid mounting ethics inquiries, said that he would take “a hard look” at the proposal but added that he believed “the more information we put out to the public as far as what we’re basing our regulations on, the better our regulations will be,” according to E&E News.

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Senate Approves Third Spending Package

The Senate passed its third spending package for fiscal year (FY) 2019 on August 23, 2018. The spending package would provide $856.9 billion for defense and domestic spending. In addition to Defense spending, the measure also provides for Labor-Health and Human Services-Education and related agencies. The package accounts for 75 percent of all discretionary spending.

If enacted into law, the Senate legislation would provide the National Institutes of Health with $39.1 billion, a $2 billion increase from the FY 2018 funding level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would receive $7.87 billion in FY 2019, with $508.3 million (-$106.2 million) directed to the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases and $157 million (-$48.8 million) provided to the National Center for Environmental Health. The bill includes $2.3 billion (+$425 million) for Alzheimer’s research, $550 million (+$37 million) to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria, $429.4 million (+$29 million) for the BRAIN Initiative to map the human brain, and $500 million for research on opioid addiction and treatment.

The Senate legislation would provide $242 million (+$2 million) to the Institute of Museum and Library Services to support programs that “encourage innovation, provide life-long learning opportunities, promote cultural and civic engagement, and improve access to a variety of services and information.”

Education funding in the Senate package includes $65 million for STEM education, an increase of $15 million above FY 2018. In addition, the bill includes a $125 million increase for Student Support and Academic Enrichment formula grants, flexible dollars that can be used by school districts for a wide-range of activities including STEM education.

The Senate has now approved nine out of the twelve appropriations bills that fund the Federal government. The House has yet to pass their version of the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill, but approved a $675 billion Defense appropriations bill in June.

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NSF Seeks Biological Infrastructure Director

The Biological Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF) is inviting applications for the position of Division Director in the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI). The division works to advance biological research by supporting the development and enhancement of biological resources, human capital, and centers.

The closing date for the application is September 19, 2018. For more information go to: https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/507310500

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Develop the Skills Required to Secure Employment

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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Deadline Approaching: 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

  • Senate lawmakers have introduced a pair of bipartisan bills to address the harmful environmental impacts of a class of toxic compounds, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, that have polluted water supplies across the country. Both the bills are sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and co-sponsored by Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Thom Tillis (R-NC). One of the bills, S. 3382, requiring the U.S. Geological Survey to perform a nationwide survey of PFAS contamination has also been co-sponsored by Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) and the second bill, S. 3381, directing federal agencies to work with states on cleaning up PFAS pollution has been co-sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).

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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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