Alaska Plans Devastating Cuts to University System

In July, Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy slashed approximately 41 percent or $130 million from the University of Alaska system budget, a move that will have long-lasting and significant impacts on research and education throughout the state and potentially the United States.

Governor Dunleavy used his line item veto authority to gut the budget of the University of Alaska system, which will likely result in the termination of research and education programs. “A preliminary rough estimate is that we would need to reduce 1,300 faculty and staff across the university system,” said Jim Johnson, President of the University of Alaska system. The system includes multiple campuses throughout the state and include the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and University of Alaska at Anchorage.

Money saved from the University system’s budget cuts will ensure that taxes are not raised and that funds are available for the Alaska Permanent Fund - annual payments to state residents from oil revenue. Ironically, the state’s budget shortfall is in part a result of the collapse of the state’s oil economy. During the 2018 election, Dunleavy campaigned on paying out a higher Permanent Fund Dividend. Several Republican lawmakers were supportive of the governor’s move. The Alaska Legislature failed to override the Dunleavy’s veto.

“It is hard to imagine how this action will not drive young Alaskans from the state,” said Robert Gropp, Executive Director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. The legislature had already included tough cuts to the university budget, but those were manageable. “This is a move that will hinder the state’s future, including opportunities to grow and diversify its economy, for decades to come.”

The University of Alaska system is now scrambling to adjust to the new fiscal reality. Administrators will need to decide how and where to allocate the cuts. According to Science Insider, the University Board of Regents may even consider extreme measures such as laying off tenured faculty and eliminating or downsizing campuses and departments.

The University of Alaska is not the only public university system dealing with drastic budget reductions. According to a report by Inside Higher Ed, University of Puerto Rico’s appropriation has fallen by $333 million over three years. The University’s budget has been reduced by $86 million to $501 million in fiscal year (FY) 2020. The budget had been slashed by $44 million last year and by $203 million the year before that. Based on a budget proposal for the university certified by Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight and Management Board, the appropriation is expected to drop further in future years. By FY 2022, the budget will fall under $400 million, 56 percent below the university’s historical baseline figure of $879 million. “It’s becoming harder and harder to maintain the level of excellence that we need at the university,” said Angel Rodriguez, President of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors. Rodriguez estimated that over the past decade, the university has lost about 40 percent of its professors from attrition and enrollment has decreased by about 9,000 students.

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NIFA, ERS Facing Significant Attrition

A majority of the employees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) have indicated that they will not relocate to the research agencies’ new location in the Kansas City region.

In June 2019, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the two USDA research agencies will relocate from Washington, DC to the Kansas City region by September 30, 2019 to increase efficiencies and bring resources closer to stakeholders. More than 500 positions at the two agencies will be relocated, while 97 positions will remain in Washington, DC. Employees were instructed to decide whether they will move and let the department know by July 15, 2019.

According to a USDA spokeswoman, 145 employees at NIFA and ERS have indicated that they intend to move with the agencies to Kansas City by the end of September, while 250 either said they won’t or declined to provide a response. Specifically, 73 NIFA employees accepted the offer to relocate, while 151 declined and at 72 ERS employees accepted and 99 declined. USDA has said that employees are allowed to change their status until September 30.

A survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees revealed similar numbers. A majority (71 percent) of NIFA employees responding to the survey refuse to relocate. Union officials are urging USDA to delay relocation, as 29 percent of the workers have said that they would consider making the move if the department meets union demands such as more time for employees to make family and housing arrangements.

An additional obstacle that has arisen for employees is a one-month delay in USDA’s deadline for bids on office space in Kansas City. The new deadline creates added uncertainties for employees who now need to find housing without knowing where they would work.

There are wide-spread concerns about the unprecedented job attrition and loss of institutional knowledge as a result of the move. Some attrition has already happened, with 23 employees leaving NIFA since February. However, USDA said the potential staff resignations are not a surprise. “These anticipated ranges were taken into account in the Department’s long-term strategy, which includes both efforts to ensure separating employees have the resources they need as well as efforts to implement an aggressive hiring strategy to maintain the continuity of ERS and NIFA’s work,” said a USDA spokeswoman.

Several stakeholder groups, including AIBS, have written to Senate Appropriators urging them to prohibit the use of any federal funds for relocating the agencies. “Relocating NIFA and ERS will have a significant negative impact on the future role and strength of America’s vaunted agricultural research and extension enterprise,” the groups warn. Read the letter here:

House Agriculture Appropriations Committee Chairman Sanford Bishop (D-GA) wrote an opinion piece in The Hill on July 16 questioning USDA’s finding that the move will save money and expressing concerns that the agencies will lose talent and experience. The House recently passed a fiscal year (FY) 2020 Agriculture appropriations bill that includes language barring the USDA from relocating ERS and NIFA outside the National Capital Region.

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Organizations Express Opposition to New Fetal Tissue Research Policy

More than 90 science, medical, and academic organizations and institutions have written to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar expressing strong opposition to the Administration’s new policy on research using human fetal tissue announced on June 5, 2019.

Under the new policy, all intramural research, or research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), involving the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions, will be discontinued. Extramural research projects funded by NIH grants involving aborted fetal tissue will be required to go through an additional review process convened by an ethics advisory board.

The letter reads in part: “Decades of thoughtful deliberation on fetal tissue research has provided an ethical and regulatory framework for valuable medical research to progress, enabling the discovery of therapies that would not otherwise have been possible. The ethical considerations fall heavily in favor of permitting fetal tissue research, conducted in accordance with longstanding federal rules. The new restrictions on NIH intramural research using fetal tissue and the new redundant ethics reviews for extramural research will disrupt important biomedical research and delay the development of new treatments for patients.”

Read the letter here:

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NSF Announces Policy on Foreign Government Talent Recruitment Programs

On July 11, 2019, the National Science Foundation (NSF) issued a new personnel policy that outlines the obligations of NSF personnel and Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignees with respect to foreign government talent recruitment programs. The policy was announced in conjunction with a “Dear Colleague Letter” on research protections from NSF Director France Cordova.

According to NSF, open scientific exchange is facing a challenge from foreign government talent recruitment programs, which “disregard intellectual and other proprietary rights, and reflect foreign state-sponsored attempts to acquire U.S. funded scientific research through foreign government run or funded recruitment programs that target scientists, engineers, academics, researchers, and entrepreneurs of all nationalities working or educated in the United States.” Such programs “threaten to compromise the values of openness, transparency, collaboration, and integrity of science and engineering research.”

Under the policy, NSF personnel and IPAs detailed to NSF are not permitted to participate in any foreign government talent recruitment programs, because there is a risk that such participation could violate ethical conduct principles detailed in an Executive Order, which requires NSF personnel and IPAs to “place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain” and prohibits them from holding “financial interests that conflict with the conscientious performance of duty.” According to Director Cordova, such participation also “poses significant risks of inappropriate foreign influence on NSF policies, programs, and priorities, including the integrity of NSF’s merit review process—risks we simply cannot accept.”

Failure to comply with the policy could result in disciplinary action, which includes removal from Federal Service and referral to the Office of Inspector General.

The letter from Director Cordova detailed other NSF policies related to foreign influence and collaborations, such as a requirement issued in April 2018 that rotators working onsite at NSF must be U.S. citizens or have applied for U.S. citizenship and another requirement that researchers appropriately disclose all foreign and domestic sources of support. NSF is also proposing an electronic system for submission of biographical sketches, including disclosure of all appointments and support, which will become effective in January 2020. Additionally, the agency has commissioned an independent scientific advisory group JASON to conduct a study into issues related to open science and security. The study will recommend practices for NSF to protect its merit review system and achieve “balance between openness and security of science.”

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House Science Committee Seeks Information on Implementation of FACA Order

Chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), has sent letters to the Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Science Foundation (NSF), soliciting information about how the departments and agencies plan to implement President Trump’s July 14, 2019 Executive Order on Evaluating and Improving the Utility of Federal Advisory Committees (Order).

The Order 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) and terminate by September 30, 2019 “at least one-third” of their federal advisory panels established by agency heads.

Chairwoman Johnson questioned the Order’s presumption that one-third of the advisory committees established by agencies “have exhausted their usefulness.” She said, “While this Order is unlikely to reduce federal spending, it will certainly make the advisory process more opaque to the American public. As Chairwoman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, it is of utmost importance to me that science agencies continue to solicit expert advice in a manner accessible to the public. FACAs are a critical element to ensuring federal agencies operate in the best interest of the American people and an invaluable piece of the American science and technology enterprise.”

In the letters, Chairwoman Johnson has asked agencies to provide a list of FACA committees that are eligible for elimination under the Order and metrics used to determine whether a committee should be cut. She also asked if the agencies believe that one-third of their current agency-established advisory panels are obsolete, redundant, or excessively expensive, if they anticipate applying for waivers for any of the committees, if they anticipate merging any committees, if the September 30 deadline is reasonable, and what the costs associated with implementing the Order are.

The departments and agencies have been asked to submit their responses to the House Science Committee by August 1, 2019.

On July 5, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released guidance with instructions on implementing the Order. The guidance explains how to calculate the number of committees the agency must eliminate; by dividing the total number of FACA committees established by agency heads by three, then round down to the closest whole number, and finally subtracting any committees already eliminated since January 2017. OMB has also asked agencies to submit their recommendations for continuing or terminating committees established by the President before the August 1, 2019 deadline, along with a “detailed plan” for either continuing or terminating each committee required by statute, “including, as appropriate, recommended legislation for submission to the Congress.”

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Enter the 2019 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 2018 contest was featured on the cover of the May 2019 issue of BioScience.

Submissions must be received by 11:59:59 p.m. Eastern Time on September 30, 2019.

For more information or to enter the contest, visit

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Short Takes

  • The Department of the Interior announced on July 16 that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is planning to relocate its Washington, DC-based headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado. According to E&E news, out of the nearly 500 BLM employees based in Washington, DC, only 61 will likely remain in the capital, while the vast majority will be moved out West, to offices in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and other western states. The move has support from Colorado lawmakers, Senator Cory Gardner (R) and Representative Scott Tipton (R). House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), however, criticized the lack of public information and justification for the move. The plan to relocate BLM headquarters to the West is in line with earlier decisions by the Trump Administration to relocate two Department of Agriculture research agencies and part of the U.S. Geological Survey's headquarters outside the National Capital Region.

  • President Trump announced 314 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) on July 8, 2019. Eighty of those award winners were nominated by the National Science Foundation. Established in 1996, PECASE recognizes outstanding scientists and engineers at the beginning of their independent research careers who show exceptional potential for leadership in science and technology.

  • The White House has indefinitely delayed plans to conduct an "adversarial" review of climate science until after the 2020 elections. The effort led by William Happer at the White House National Security Council to review established government science on climate change has divided White House advisers and received sharp criticism from researchers across the country. The effort first came to light in March 2019, when a memo revealed plans to create a 12-member ad hoc committee called the "Presidential Committee on Climate Security" to re-examine the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment and a report by the Pentagon on the impact of climate change on military installations.

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