Congress Divided as Democrats Take House, Republicans Tighten Control of Senate

The 2018 midterm elections have generated significant changes in Washington, DC, with Democrats seizing control of the House of Representatives, and the retirements or election loses of some members who have played significant roles in science policy. At the same time, Republicans have retained control of the Senate.

As of November 12, Democrats hold 227 seats in the House while Republicans have 198, with the results of 10 races being too close to call. In the Senate, the GOP has a 51-seat majority and Democrats hold 46 seats, which includes two Independents who caucus with the Democrats. The Senate seats for Arizona and Florida have yet to be declared.

Although it is anticipated that Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will be elected as Speaker of the House, leadership of the House, and Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House has yet to be determined. Democratic lawmakers, who have gained control of the House for the first time in 8 years, have expressed an intent to provide oversight of the Trump Administration.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) will likely be the next Chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Johnson, who is currently the Ranking Member on the panel, released a statement on the day of the election highlighting three of her priorities for the committee if she is elected to the leadership role. One goal would be ensuring “that the United States remains the global leader in innovation, which will require attention to a wide range of activities,” including supporting “a robust federally funded R&D enterprise,” and “defending the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks.” Her second priority would be addressing the “challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real,” and her third priority would be restoring “the credibility of the science committee as a place where science is respected and recognized as a crucial input to good policymaking.”

Several Republican members of the House Science Committee have lost or are expected to lose their re-election.

  • Representative Barbara Comstock (R-VA), who chaired the Research Subcommittee has lost her reelection.
  • Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has served on the Science Committee for three decades, has lost his seat.
  • Representatives Randy Hultgren (R-IL) and Steve Knight (R-CA) have also lost their reelections.

Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK) has announced his intent to pursue the position of Ranking Member on the House Science Committee. Lucas is a mainstream conservative who is likely to follow in the footsteps of retiring Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) on climate issues. In the past, Lucas has supported Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which the Administration wanted to terminate. Representative Randy Weber (R-TX), who ranks lower in seniority to Lucas, has also announced his interest in serving as the top Republican on the panel. Weber, a member of the Freedom Caucus, supports “sane energy policies” to stimulate economic growth, while maintaining “fiscal conservatism.”

Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) is the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and is expected to take the Chair of the panel. Exiting Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), had announced his retirement earlier this year. Frelinghuysen’s seat went to former navy pilot and Democratic candidate Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ).

Representative John Culberson (R-TX), who has been serving as the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS), lost his bid for reelection. The CJS subcommittee decides funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During his chairmanship, Culberson had advocated for increased funding for NASA. Representative José Serrano (D-NY) had been serving as the Ranking Member of the CJS subcommittee, and may be the next Chairman. Congress has yet to approve the CJS appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2019, with the above-mentioned science agencies functioning under FY 2018 funding levels under a continuing resolution that is set to expire on December 7, 2018.

The House Natural Resources Committee will likely be chaired by Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who is now the Ranking Member. Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), who currently chairs the panel, has won his reelection bid and will retain leadership of the panel until next year during the current lame-duck session.

Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) is expected to be the next leader of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Pallone has been the top Democrat on the committee since 2014. Exiting Chairman Representative Greg Walden (R-OR) will continue to lead the panel during the lame-duck session.

Also, of note, is the defeat of Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who led the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus. More than half of the 45 Republican members of the caucus have lost or are at risk of losing their reelection creating doubts about the future of the group.

In January, more than 80 freshman lawmakers will be sworn in when the new Congress convenes. According to Science Insider, seven of these newly elected lawmakers have backgrounds in science, engineering, and medicine, including Joe Cunningham (D-SC), a former ocean engineer; Elaine Luria (D-VA), a former nuclear engineer; Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), an engineer and former science teacher; Jeff van Drew (D-NJ), a dentist; Lauren Underwood (D-IL), a former registered nurse, health policy expert, and former adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama; Sean Casten (D-IL), a biochemical engineer; and Kim Schrier (D-WA), a pediatrician.

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Biologists to HHS: No Scientific Basis to Define Gender as Binary Trait

The Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), and the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB) have sent a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar expressing concerns about the Department’s attempt to claim that there is a biological basis to defining gender as a strictly binary trait determined by genitalia at birth. SSE, ASN, and SSB are member societies of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).

The letter is in response to a recent Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) memo obtained by the New York Times. The memo proposes that the federal government legally define both gender and sex as “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.” HHS argues that government agencies need to adopt a uniform definition of gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”

The letter from the biological societies reads in part, “Variation in biological sex and in gendered expression has been well documented in many species, including humans, through hundreds of scientific articles. Such variation is observed at both the genetic level and at the individual level (including hormone levels, secondary sexual characteristics, as well as genital morphology). Moreover, models predict that variation should exist within the categories that HHS proposes as “male” and “female”, indicating that sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum.”

Read the letter here: http://www.evolutionsociety.org/news/display/2018/10/30/letter-re-scientific-understanding-of-sex-and-gender/

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NIH to Allow Unrestricted Access to Genomic Summary Results

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that it will allow unrestricted access to genomic summary results from most NIH-funded studies for health or research purposes. However, access to summary results from research studies that have privacy concerns will continue to be restricted. This update to the data management procedures related to the NIH Genomic Data Sharing (GDS) Policy is based upon input from stakeholders as well as feedback from the public as requested by the Agency in September 2017.

Read more about the update here: https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/genomic-data-sharing/

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Researchers to Sequence 66,000 Known Species in U.K.

Researchers have launched a project to sequence the genomes of all known species of eukaryotic organisms in the United Kingdom (U.K.). The U.K. effort to sequence all 66,000 species of its animals, plants, fungi, and protozoa has been named the Darwin Tree of Life project. This project will be part of the larger international effort, the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), which aims to sequence, catalog, and characterize the genomes of all of Earth’s known 1.5 million species of eukaryotes over a period of ten years.

EBP includes a working group of 25 scientists, who have developed a strategy to coordinate genome sequencing efforts around the world, including those focused on taxonomic groups, such as vertebrates or plants, and those focused on geographical boundaries, such as the U.K. effort.

“We feel it is the next moonshot for biology,” says EBP Chair Harris Lewin, a genomicist at the University of California, Davis. The project is intended to serve many purposes, including providing new insights into evolution, assisting in biodiversity conservation, and informing improvements to agriculture and medicine.

The U.K project was announced on November 1, 2018 during the official launch of the $4.7 billion EBP project. It was also announced that a Memorandum of Understanding to work towards the common goals of the EBP has been signed by 17 participating institutions, including the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, China; the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, U.K.; University of California, Davis; Max-Planck Society; and the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, U.K. Additionally, 15 other regional and national projects, including the 10,000 Plant Genomes Project and the Darwin Tree of Life Project, are affiliated with the EBP.

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Deadline Approaching: Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists

Registration is closing soon 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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Enhance your Interdisciplinary and Team Science Skills

Reports abound from professional societies, the Academies, government agencies, and researchers calling attention to the fact that science is increasingly an inter-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, inter-institutional, and international endeavor. In short, science has become a “team sport.”

There is a real and present need to better prepare scientists for success in this new collaborative environment. The American Institute of Biological Sciences is responding to this call with a new program for scientists, educators, and individuals who work with or participate in scientific teams.

Team science is increasingly common in 21st century biological, life, and environmental sciences. Collaboration is no longer limited to sharing ideas with the biologist in the lab next door. The questions confronting science often require teams that may include a mix of computer and information scientists, physical and social scientists, mathematicians, ethicists, policy and management experts, as well as community stakeholders and citizen scientists. Adding to this complexity, teams span programs within organizations, cross organization boundaries to form institutional consortia, and often include international partners.

This intensive, two-day, interactive, professional development course was designed by scientists and experts on collaboration and teamwork to provide participants with the knowledge and skills required to become productive and effective members of scientific teams. From its first offering the course has evolved to include a greater focus on team planning and teamwork, and less time allocated to university administration of interdisciplinary teams.

Nothing teaches collaboration like practicing collaboration. This is not a course that asks you to learn in isolation. It is a microcosm of scientific collaboration, with extensive hands-on learning as part of a scientific team, with scientific case studies and examples.

This course is designed for anyone involved in collaborative scientific endeavors. Team leaders will find the course especially helpful. Because participants will work on “real-world” team science concerns, we encourage multiple members of a team to attend together. We can also customize the course and bring it to your university, department, lab, or research team. This course provides the right foundation from which your team can successfully accomplish your goals.

The program will be held on January 14-15, 2019 in Washington DC. Learn more at https://www.aibs.org/events/teamscienceevent.html

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Short Takes

  • A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), entitled Learning through Citizen Science, has called for diversity in citizen science. "Citizen science project designers must grapple with issues of equity, diversity, power, and inclusion...They face these issues even if they do not set out to address diversity in their project and even when they are not consciously aware that these factors are at play in their project." The report recommends addressing inequities in education, opportunities, and resources to meet the learning demands of participants. Learn more at http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=25183&_ga=2.243568773.1650999362.1541095371-42127930.1541095371
  • Democratic lawmakers in the House are planning to revive a special committee focused on climate change, which was created by Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in 2007 but disbanded by Republican lawmakers in 2011. The previous panel, named the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, was not authorized to pass legislation, but conducted several hearings on relevant topics and examined impacts of climate change and advancements in renewable energy.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced that it is reviewing "possible future directions" for the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) program to study abroad, citing a decline in the number of GROW recipients from 158 in 2016 to 88 in 2018. The program enables graduate students receiving the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to work with experts in another country by allowing them to apply for an additional $5000 allowance to cover travel and living expenses. Science Insider reported that NSF's online system, called FastLane, has stopped accepting GROW proposals. Amanda Greenwell, an NSF official, has indicated that the agency expects to make an announcement in a few weeks.

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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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