Trump Directs Agencies to Cut Federal Advisory Committees, Action Could Limit Science Informed Decision-making

President Trump signed an Executive Order on June 14, 2019, directing federal agencies to terminate a large number of current federal advisory committees that advise agencies on everything ranging from research priorities to public health, environmental, security, and economic policy.

The Executive Order on Evaluating and Improving the Utility of Federal Advisory Committees instructs agencies and departments to “evaluate the need” for each of their current advisory committees, whether established by a congressional statute, by the President, or by the head of the agency under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Based on this evaluation, the Order requires agencies to terminate by September 30, 2019 “at least one-third” of their federal advisory panels established not by law but by agency heads, including panels for which the objectives have been accomplished, the assigned work has become obsolete, and the primary functions have been absorbed by another body. The Order also targets committees where “the cost of operation is excessive in relation to the benefits to the Federal Government.”

Agencies can, however, obtain a waiver from the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for committees deemed “necessary for the delivery of essential services” or “warranted by the public interest.” Agencies with fewer than three advisory panels are exempt from the target of eliminating one-third of these panels.

The Administration is also seeking recommendations from agencies on terminating advisory panels established by the President or required by law. Agencies have until August 1, 2019 to submit their recommendations for such panels on whether they should be continued or terminated along with a detailed legislative plan for terminating statutory committees that the OMB Director could include in the President’s FY 2021 budget request to Congress.

Merit review panels that provide scientific expertise for policy decisions related to product safety are exempt from the provisions of the Order, as well as advisory committees of independent regulatory agencies.

Additionally, the Order caps the government-wide combined total number of federal advisory committees, not including the panels of independent regulatory agencies, at 350. An agency will not be able to create a new advisory committee if the combined total number of committees exceeds this cap, unless the agency obtains a waiver from the OMB Director.

The new policy has been criticized as another attack on science by the Trump Administration. “For the past two years they have been shrinking and restricting the role of federal science advisory committees. Now they’re removing the possibility of even making decisions based on robust science advice,” said Gretchen Goldman, Research Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. In an opinion piece in Nature, Goldman warned that “cuts to science advisory panels for federal agencies will haunt the United States long after the current administration finishes.” She urged scientists to “use the power of constituency, urge Congress for oversight, and even go to court if necessary.”

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House Passes First FY 2020 Spending Package

On June 19, 2019, the United States House of Representative voted 226-203 to pass a spending package for fiscal year (FY) 2020. The “minibus” combines four appropriations bills, including Defense, Energy and Water, Labor-Health and Human Services-Education, and State-Foreign Operations.

The National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of medical research, would receive $41.1 billion in FY 2020, an increase of $2 billion over the FY 2019 enacted level. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science would receive $ 6.87 billion, an increase of $285 million or 4.3 percent above the FY 2019 level and $1.3 billion above the President’s request for FY 2020. The Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), slated for elimination under the President’s budget, would receive an increase of $59 million to $425 million. The State and Foreign Operations spending bill includes a provision to keep the U.S. committed to the Paris Climate Agreement by barring allocation of any funding towards withdrawal from the agreement.

The House will consider a second five-bill package including appropriations bills for Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), Agriculture-Food and Drug Administration, Interior-Environment, Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, Transportation-Housing and Development this week. The House CJS bill would provide funding increases for most federal science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (+$561 million), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (+$815 million), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (+$54.7 million). The Interior-Environment spending bill would provide increases to the U.S. Geological Survey (+$75 million), the Environmental Protection Agency (+$672 million), and other agencies.

The White House has issued an official veto threat against the second spending package in a statement of Administration policy. “The Administration is strongly opposed to the budgetary framework that underlies this and other appropriations bills being considered by the House of Representatives,” reads the statement.

Progress has not been made on negotiations between the White House and congressional leadership to raise federal budget caps, but Secretary Mnuchin announced that a tentative deal has been reached to raise the debt ceiling. The Senate is expected to begin considering appropriations legislation after a budget agreement is finalized.

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NIH Survey Sheds Light on Prevalence of Sexual Harassment

According to an interim report on a survey done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one in five employees at the agency said that they have experienced sexual harassment in the work place in the 12 month-period before the survey was administered.

More than 15,700 employees responded to the NIH Workplace and Harassment Survey, which found that 21.6 percent of respondents have experienced some form of sexual harassment, with 18 percent experiencing gender harassment, 10.3 percent experiencing unwanted sexual attention, and 0.3 percent experiencing sexual coercion. Women experienced higher rates of sexual harassment compared to men and transgender employees and other gender identities reported a 44.8 percent rate of harassment. The survey data will be further analyzed with the final report anticipated later this year.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) on sexual harassment in STEM research, released on the same day as the NIH report, found that major federal science agencies received very few reports of sexual harassment from grantee institutions between fiscal years 2015 and 2019. The Department of Health and Human Services received one complaint, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration received 3 complaints, the Department of Energy received 2 complaints, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture received none. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which announced a new policy in 2018 requiring awardee institutions to report any sexual harassment findings on NSF-funded principal investigators or co-principal investigators, received 14 complaints.

In contrast to the low reporting of sexual harassment at federal agencies, a 2018 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests that sexual harassment is far more widespread in scientific research, with up to 50 percent of women in STEM fields at universities experiencing sexual harassment. Earlier this month, members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) adopted a policy that would allow its leadership to expel members for proven allegations of sexual harassment.

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is set to vote on bipartisan legislation (H.R.36) aimed at combating sexual harassment in science by funding research into sexual harassment in the STEM workforce and developing uniform policy guidelines for federal science agencies to prevent and respond to reports of sexual harassment. At a recent hearing held by the panel, Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said that the overall rate of reporting sexual harassment was “shockingly low.” Democratic lawmakers in the Senate also introduced a companion measure (S.1067) in April 2019.

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NIFA, ERS To Be Relocated to Kansas City Region

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced on June 13, 2019, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will relocate its research agencies — the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) — from Washington, DC, to the Kansas City Region, six weeks after announcing its top three choices for the move. The specific location of the offices is yet to be identified.

“Following a rigorous site selection process, the Kansas City Region provides a win-win - maximizing our mission function by putting taxpayer savings into programmatic outputs and providing affordability, easy commutes, and extraordinary living for our employees,” said Secretary Perdue. He said that the relocation to the new site will allow ERS and NIFA to increase efficiencies and bring resources closer to stakeholders. “The Kansas City Region has proven itself to be hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland,” he added.

USDA has estimated that the move will result in savings of $300 million on employment costs and rent over 15 years. More than 500 positions at the two agencies are expected to be relocated by September 30, 2019, while 97 positions will remain in Washington, DC. Employees are required to decide whether they will move by July 15, 2019. Employee salaries are also expected to go down after they move.

Democratic lawmakers, employees, as well as a coalition of stakeholders have objected to the plan. Employees at the two agencies have unionized as a result of the move. During Secretary Perdue’s speech regarding the move, a group of unionized employees stood with their backs to him in demonstration.

Gale Buchanan, former Chief Scientist at USDA under President George W. Bush, and Catherine E. Woteki, former Chief Scientist at USDA under President Obama, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appears to be taking a multipronged approach toward dismantling the science that for years has undergirded policy decisions.” On the plan to relocate the research agencies, they stated that USDA “sidestepped the usual processes for relocation, such as conducting a search through the government’s General Services Administration.”

Jack Payne, University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture, stated, “This is not just a change of address…It cuts NIFA off from the collaboration with other federal funding agencies in D.C. that are its major partners.”

The House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal year 2020 spending bill containing language that prohibits the use of funds for the relocation. Democratic lawmakers in the Senate introduced a bill earlier this year to keep NIFA and ERS within the National Capital Region. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has indicated that Senate Democrats will also endeavor to block the move through an amendment in an appropriations bill. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) asked USDA’s Office of Inspector General in September 2018 to conduct a review of the relocation proposal to determine whether the secretary has the authority to relocate the agencies without congressional approval. The report is still pending.

The plan has support from Republican lawmakers representing Missouri and Kansas. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said, “We’re home to some of the hardest working farmers in the country, so this is a fantastic decision by the USDA.” Senate Agriculture Appropriations Chairman John Hoeven (R-ND) also applauded moving the agencies closer to farm areas.

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2019 National Fossil Day

The National Park Service (NPS) is planning for the 10th annual celebration of National Fossil Day, which will take place on October 16, 2019. National Fossil Day is a nationwide celebration that will include paleontology activities planned by partner organizations across the United States. AIBS has partnered with the National Park Service to promote the event.

NPS and National Fossil Day partners are sponsoring an art contest as a part of the celebration. The contest theme is “Extinct Giants and Survivors of the Last Ice Age.” For details about participating, go to: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/fossilday/art-contest-2019.htm

If your institution or organization is planning to host a National Fossil Day event or is interested in joining NPS as a partner, visit https://www.nps.gov/subjects/fossilday/index.htm.

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Register Soon: 2019 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, July 11, 2019, with subsequent course sessions held weekly on Thursdays. 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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Help Inform Science Policy, Meet Your Lawmakers This Summer

Registration is now open for the 2019 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 eleventh 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.

“When I found out about the AIBS Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits, I thought that this would be a perfect way to share not only my passion about my work but also my concerns and interests with a local government representative that might be able to influence policy and share advice about how to become even more involved,” said 2018 participant Khailee Marischuk. “I had not had any previous experience with this type of meeting, but AIBS did a fantastic job connecting me with my State Representative and preparing me for the lab tour and conversation. My meeting with Representative Terese Berceau was incredibly rewarding as she shared our enthusiasm for scientific research and our passion for promoting science policy for elected officials and the general public alike, along with giving our group insight in how best to make our voices and opinions known and heard. It was a thought-provoking discussion for me and hopefully everyone else involved.”

The event is made possible by AIBS, with the support of event sponsors American Society of Plant Taxonomists, Botanical Society of America, Helminthological Society of Washington, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Paleontological Society, Society for Freshwater Science, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, and Society for the Study of Evolution and event supporter Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Participation is free, but registration is required. Registration will close on July 10, 2019. For more information and to register, visit https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html

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Short Takes

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) is inviting Principal Investigators, Co-Principal Investigators, or Sponsored Project Offices (SPO), who recently submitted a proposal to NSF, to provide feedback on existing FastLane and Research.gov business functionalities. This survey is a part of the NSF's multi-year initiative to help PIs/co-PIs and SPOs more efficiently and effectively prepare and submit NSF proposals, manage NSF awards, and conduct business with NSF. The anonymous survey should take about 10 minutes to complete and will close on July 1, 2019. Complete the survey by visiting: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2019_PI_SPO

  • The Biological Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF) is inviting applications for the position of Deputy Division Director for Environmental Biology. The division supports research and training on evolutionary and ecological processes acting at the level of populations, species, communities, and ecosystems. The closing date for applications is July 17, 2019. Learn more at https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/536933400.

  • The World Biodiversity Forum is now accepting proposals for thematic sessions and interactive workshops, which cut across disciplines, cover a diversity of perspectives, and address current issues. The Forum aims to redefine and set the agenda for biodiversity as a focal point over the next 10 years and supports the "New Deal for Nature" to be established by the Convention on Biological Diversity by the end of 2020. The deadline for submissions is July 21, 2019. More information at: https://www.worldbiodiversityforum.org/en/participate

  • The International Barcode of Life (iBOL) consortium is launching a 7-year, $180 million, global effort called BIOSCAN to accelerate species discovery, study species interactions, and track species dynamics at 2500 sites around the world with support from 30 international partners. This initiative follows a 2010 iBOL effort that built a reference library with 7.3 million "barcodes" or distinguishing DNA sequences of known species. The new effort aims to expand the reference library by 15 million barcode records, with 90 percent of them coming from undescribed species. The new data will enable efforts for monitoring the effects of pollution, land-use changes, and global warming on biodiversity, said Paul Hebert at the University of Guelph in Canada, who is leading the effort, according to Science.

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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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