Congress, White House Reach Budget Cap, Debt Ceiling Agreement

A bipartisan budget agreement between congressional leaders and the White House has been reached. The agreement will raise the overall federal spending caps by $320 billion over fiscal years (FY) 2020 and 2021. The agreement suspends budget sequestration which would have slashed discretionary spending, which includes funding for science, by $125 billion in FY 2020.

Under the agreement, defense spending will increase from $716 billion in FY 2019 to $738 billion in FY 2020 and $741 billion in FY 2021. Non-defense discretionary spending, which is the category of federal funding that supports scientific research, will increase from $605 billion in FY 2019 to $632 billion in FY 2020 and $635 billion in FY 2021. Additionally, the nation’s debt ceiling will be suspended until July 2021, allowing the government to keep borrowing for two more years and delaying further talks on the subject until after the 2020 elections.

Both chambers voted to pass the agreement before leaving for the congressional recess and the President signed the package into law on August 2. All 12 appropriations bills must still be passed by the House and Senate and signed by the President before the fiscal year ends on September 30 to avert a government shutdown. There are currently two FY 2020 spending bills remaining before the House — the Homeland Security and Legislative Branch appropriations bills, while the Senate has yet to act on any FY 2020 appropriations bills. If all the appropriations bills are not completed before the current fiscal year ends, Congress may consider a stopgap spending measure in the form of a continuing resolution.

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UK Researchers Fear No-Deal Brexit Under New Prime Minister

Scientists in the United Kingdom (UK) are concerned about the new Prime Minister’s prior support for Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU) without an agreement in place — a situation deemed inconducive for collaborative science.

Mr. Boris Johnson became the elected leader of the governing Conservative Party and the new Prime Minister of the UK on July 24, 2019. He has previously served as foreign secretary and as mayor of London. Johnson campaigned for the UK to leave the EU in 2016 and said during his leadership campaign that he was prepared to accept a no-deal Brexit without any future trade and immigration agreements in place.

Scientists have long warned that a no-deal Brexit would be devastating for research, as it would disrupt scientific collaborations, hiring, and travel and result in UK researchers likely losing access to three major funding streams under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research funding program. No agreement with the EU might also mean uncertainty in the import and export of scientific supplies and equipment.

Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo Johnson, has been appointed as the new minister for universities and science. He previously served as the science minister from 2016-2018 and had campaigned to stay in the EU. Scientists are generally supportive of Jo Johnson, who led a reform of the UK research system in 2017 that merged several funding bodies into a new centralized agency called UK Research and Innovation. “Jo Johnson has always been a very powerful supporter of UK universities, and, crucially, he is also a pro-European politician,” said Alastair Buchan, head of Brexit strategy at the University of Oxford, UK, according to Nature News. His appointment comes as a relief to the science community. “Having Jo there is a reassurance… He’s a competent and intelligent minister,” said Martin Smith, policy manager at the Wellcome Trust.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May had previously worked out a withdrawal agreement with the EU, which would have allowed Britain to negotiate its future relationship with the EU during a transition period. May resigned after the UK Parliament failed to approve the agreement earlier this year. Boris Johnson hopes to negotiate a new Brexit agreement but has said that the UK will leave the EU by the October 31, 2019 deadline if no agreement is reached. The EU indicated in June that the departure agreement was no longer open for renegotiation, but that they would consider discussions about their future relationship with the UK.

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NIH Releases Details About New Fetal Tissue Research Policy

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a notice on July 26 revealing details about how the administration will implement the new restrictions on the use of human fetal tissue in research. The policy will not go into effect immediately and will apply to grant proposals and cooperative agreements that have due dates on or after September 25, 2019. Currently active grants or grant applications already submitted for review to NIH won’t be impacted.

According to the notice, starting September 25, scientists applying for grants for research involving human fetal tissue from elective abortions will need to provide detailed information on why they need to use such tissue and how it will be obtained.

Applicants will be required to justify the need for use of fetal tissue for the proposed research and explain “why the research goals cannot be accomplished using an alternative.” NIH will also require applicants to provide details regarding procurement and costs and information about how the tissue will be used. Applicants will also have to explain how they will dispose of the tissue when the research is complete. Additionally, grant applicants will need to describe the process they will use to obtain consent from a woman having an abortion for using the fetal tissue. Previously, university officials were only required to certify that the tissue would be obtained in accordance with federal ethics regulations.

All of this additional requested information will need to be provided within “existing applicable page limits” of the research strategy section in the proposal. The space limitation “is going to detract from the scientific plan,” said Lawrence Goldstein, a stem cell neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, according to a report by Science Insider.

Researchers have raised concerns about the new requirements. “It makes grant applications a lot more onerous, substantially and procedurally, while allowing [the Administration] to say: ‘We’re not completely banning it,’” stated Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford University. In July, more than 90 science, medical, and academic organizations and institutions, including AIBS, wrote to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar expressing strong opposition to the Administration’s fetal tissue research policy.

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Scientists Warn that Alaska Governor's Plan for UA System Threatens Research

This summer Alaska Governor Dunleavy (R) used line item veto authority to slash funding for the University of Alaska (UA) system. The Governor’s budget cut approximately 41 percent of state funding from the system, or about $130 million. The American Institute of Biological Sciences was among the organizations to offer a warning about the long-term effects of this budget on Alaska’s ability to diversify its economy and retain its best and brightest students.

Subsequently, controversy has surfaced as the University of Alaska Board of Regents and external groups have noted that it is their constitutional authority to decide how budget cuts are implemented, and not the governor’s. Under some proposals that surfaced, the governor targeted a number of research programs on the University of Alaska at Fairbanks campus, including the Museum of the North.

Last week, prior to a meeting of the Board of Regents, the Natural Science Collections Alliance and Ornithological Council were among national organizations that wrote to state officials urging that the governor’s proposal to eliminate all state funding for the museum be rejected.

At this time, the regents are still considering proposals for budget cuts and restructuring the University of Alaska system.

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AIBS Announces Next 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 7-8, 2019.

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 2019 Faces of Biology Photo Contest

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 http://www.aibs.org/public-programs/photocontest.html.

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Short Takes

  • The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill "Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019" on July 23, 2019. The bipartisan legislation (H.R.36) aims to combat 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. The measure will now need Senate approval.

  • Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA) and Francis Rooney (R-FL) have introduced a bill aimed at improving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's coastal resilience program in order to prepare for climate change. The bill (H.R. 4093) would modify how the National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund is administered in order to provide coastal communities the resources needed for adapting their infrastructure and economies for the impacts of climate change. "Sea-level rise, storm surge and flooding currently threaten millions of homes across the 24 coastal states in the U.S. and have created billions of dollars in property losses," said Senator Rooney. "We must recognize the dangers associated with rising seas, and stress the need to proactively prepare for future effects, such as increased risks of flooding from stronger hurricanes."

  • The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology welcomed a new member in July, Representative Francis Rooney (R) of Florida. "The Committee has jurisdiction over much of the non-defense Federal research programs that provide innovative solutions to our environmental challenges, which is important to Southwest Florida. We have a tourism-based economy which relies on clean water and a pristine environment," said Rooney. Rooney is a proponent of government-action on climate change and has announced that he would be introducing legislation to put a $30-per-ton tax on carbon.

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