White House Announces Research Priorities for FY 2021

In an August 30, 2019 memo from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB), federal agencies have been directed to prioritize national security, industrial leadership, energy and environmental leadership, health and bioeconomic innovation, and space exploration and commercialization in their fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request for research and development (R&D).

The Administration’s memo on R&D budget priorities for FY 2021 provides guidance for a national strategy “to advance bold, transformational leaps in [science and technology], build a diverse workforce of the future, solve previously intractable grand challenges, and ensure America remains the global S&T leader for generations to come.”

In regards to public health, the memo directs agencies to prioritize research on the opioid crisis, infectious diseases, anti-microbial resistance, gene therapy, neuroscience, and HIV/ AIDS, among others. The Administration also stresses prioritizing the bioeconomy, defined in the memo as “the infrastructure, innovation, products, technology, and data derived from biologically-related processes and science that drive economic growth, promote health, and increase public benefit.” To enable bioeconomic opportunities, agencies have been directed to focus on areas such as biotechnology, scientific collections, biosecurity, omics, and data analytics, and prioritize “evidence-based standards and research to rapidly establish microorganism, plant, and animal safety and efficacy for products developed using gene editing.”

The Administration’s energy and environmental priorities include early-stage research on nuclear, renewable, and fossil energy; efforts to map, explore, and characterize the natural resources of the exclusive economic zone; research to understand and respond to changes in the ocean system; and efforts to quantify “predictability” of Earth systems across time and space. “Knowing the extent to which components of the Earth system are practicably predictable - from individual thunderstorms to long-term global change- is vitally important for physical understanding of the Earth system, assessing the value of prediction results, guiding Federal investments, developing effective policy, and improving predictive skill,” the memo explains.

The memo also details five cross-cutting actions that spread across the R&D budgetary priorities and require departments and agencies to collaborate with each other and with the other stakeholders. These include building a diverse and highly skilled STEM workforce; creating and supporting research environments that reflect the “American values of free inquiry, competition, openness, and fairness”; supporting transformative high risk-high reward research; leveraging the “power of data” by improving data accessibility and security and building a data-skilled workforce; and expanding partnerships between agencies, academic institutions, businesses, nonprofit institutions, and other S&T sectors to build the nation’s innovation capacity.

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Scientists Say Amazon Wildfires Caused by Rise in Deforestation

Blazing wildfires in the Amazon rainforest have garnered international attention and concern, which prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to call on international leaders to hold discussions about the fires during the August 24-26, 2019, G7 summit in France. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the country has experienced more than 76,000 wildfires this year, most of them in the Amazon. This represents an 80 percent increase from the same period last year.

Brazilian Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles blamed “Dry weather, wind, and heat” for the fires, but leading scientists contend the fires are a result of a recent spike in deforestation. Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo, said that the fires are surging in a pattern typical of forest clearing, along the boundaries of agricultural lands, according to Science Insider. “There is no doubt that this rise in fire activity is associated with a sharp rise in deforestation,” said Artaxo. After trees are chopped down, developers typically set fires to remove residual vegetation in order to convert a patch of land into pastures or agricultural land.

The Amazon last experienced a severe drought in 2010 caused by El Niño and a warming of the North Atlantic. This year the dry season has been relatively mild and does not explain the dramatic increase in fires. “If we had another drought year now, the situation would be much worse,” said Paulo Moutinho, an ecologist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a nongovernmental organization. Instead, the 10 municipalities with the largest areas of deforestation reported this year are also showing the highest fire activity, according to IPAM.

Scientists in Brazil and around the world think that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-development rhetoric and lax forest policies have contributed to the recent increase in deforestation. “None of this is an accident,” said Artaxo. “What we are seeing is the result of a series of actions and inactions by the Brazilian government.” Carlos Peres, a Brazilian ecologist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., said that Brazil now has “clearly the worst anti-environment political climate in my lifetime.”

Deforestation had decreased significantly between 2004 and 2012, but in recent years the agricultural lobby had been pursuing the Brazilian congress for increased development in the forest. During his election campaign, Bolsonaro received the agricultural lobby’s endorsement after promising to restore the economy by allowing more development in the Amazon. After taking office, Bolsonaro signed an executive order giving the Agricultural Ministry power to designate indigenous lands as protected territories. Indigenous groups warned that the order would lead to “an increase in deforestation and violence against indigenous people.” Furthermore, Bolosonaro appointed a pro-development environment minister, Ricardo Salles, who had been convicted of modifying environmental maps to benefit the mining industry during his stint as Sao Paulo’s Environmental Secretary in 2016.

Additionally, Bolsonaro has significantly slashed the budget of Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency by $23 million, according to a report by CNN. He also fired the INPE Director Ricardo Galvão after the institute released satellite data showing a significant rise in deforestation. Last year, BioScience published a Viewpoint article by Brazilian scientists in which they voiced concerns about the negative impacts of budget cuts for scientific research and deforestation on biodiversity.

Bolsonaro initially blamed the fires on nongovernmental organizations, suggesting that they had deliberately set the fires to smear his administration. After receiving significant pressure from the public, he convened an emergency cabinet meeting and deployed troops to help combat the fires. The situation prompted Norway and Germany to suspended their contributions to the Amazon Fund, which supports conservation and sustainable development efforts in the Amazon. After bringing the crisis to the attention of international leaders at the G7 summit, Macron accused Bolsonaro of lying about his commitment to address climate change and conserve biodiversity. This quickly escalated into a feud between the French and Brazilian Presidents, causing Bolsonaro to initially reject more than $22 million in aid pledged by the G7 leaders. Brazil’s government later laid out potential terms for the aid’s acceptance and then went on to accept $12 million in aid from Britain.

On August 29, it was reported that the Brazilian government banned most legal fires for forest clearing for 60 days in an attempt to combat the surging fires.

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Lawmakers Ask Interior to Stop BLM Relocation

The top Democratic lawmakers on the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees that funds the Department of the Interior sent a letter to the department on August 23, 2019, opposing the relocation of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) headquarters from Washington, DC to Grand Junction, Colorado. According to a report by E&E News, the appropriators demanded that the department “immediately suspend its efforts to relocate.”

Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN), Chairwoman of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), Ranking Member of the Senate Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, stated, “The lack of meaningful external collaboration and the lack of supporting detail we have received to justify this proposal leaves us to conclude that the Department made a political decision to move the Bureau’s leadership out of Washington and simply reverse-engineered its analysis to fit that objective.”

The letter was sent after Interior officials announced that they will be moving ahead with their plan to relocate BLM’s headquarters because lawmakers did not file any objections during a 30-day congressional review period, which concluded on August 15. But lawmakers dismissed the Administration’s characterization as “false.” According to a spokeswoman for Chairwoman McCollum, the appropriators had requested further information on the plan in a “bipartisan and bicameral manner.” She added, “It’s absurd for the administration to assume congressional approval when the committee has not yet received sufficient answers to outstanding questions about the plan’s feasibility, costs, legality, and personnel issues.” However, an Interior spokesman said that the department had “answered every single question asked by the Committee” and “no additional follow up questions were received. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Congress has been on its annual summer recess during most of the 30-day review period.

In response to the lawmakers’ letter, Assistant Interior Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash said that their opposition will have consequences. Balash wrote to Senator Udall, “Given your apparent strong feelings about the Department’s actions and intentions, we pledge to review and reconsider the relocation of additional Departmental resources to your State.” Balash said to Representative McCollum that the Department “will reach out to those in the delegation for additional insight and information” and declared that “we are also open to working with other delegations that object to additional Departmental resources being allocated to their States.” He said that the tone and timing of the lawmaker’s concerns were “unfortunate.”

The Interior Department announced that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is planning to relocate its Washington, DC-based headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado on July 16, 2019. Out of the nearly 500 BLM employees based in Washington, DC, only 61 are slated to remain in the capital, while the vast majority will be moved out West. A group of retired BLM employees have written to lawmakers arguing the move would “functionally dismantle” the agency and have urged the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to hold a hearing on the move. The House Natural Resources Committee has already scheduled a hearing on September 10.

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German Research Institutions Reach Open-Access Deal with Springer Nature

Project DEAL, a consortium of more than 700 German research institutions and libraries, has announced an open-access deal with publisher Springer Nature. The agreement excludes Nature and its sister journals, according to a report by Science Insider.

The agreement is a result of more than 3 years of negotiation between the consortium and major publishers to reach “publish and read” agreements that give member institutions full access to a publisher’s online content and makes articles published by their researchers freely accessible worldwide. Charges will be based on a publishing fee per paper and not on subscriptions to the journals, shifting the burden of paying the cost of publishing from readers to the researchers.

Under the agreement, authors at Project DEAL member institutions can publish open-access articles in about 1900 Springer Nature journals, which are “hybrid” journals that publish both open-access and paywalled papers, for €2,750 per paper. The deal also provides a 20 percent discount on fees to publish in BioMed Central and SpringerOpen, which are open-access journals. Consortium members will have full online access to about 2500 of Springer Nature’s hybrid and open-access journals. The agreement, however, does not cover Nature, Nature Medicine, other Nature brand subscription journals, and magazines like Scientific American, which do not have the option to publish open-access with a fee. Member institutions will still need to buy subscriptions to these journals, and papers from German institutions published in them will remain behind a paywall.

According to Springer Nature CEO Daniel Ropers, the new deal is “the largest ever transformative agreement” for open-access. A similar agreement was reached earlier this year between Project DEAL and Wiley, but the Springer deal covers more than 13,000 articles per year published by researchers at German institutions, while the Wiley agreement covers 9,500 articles per year.

A final contract running from 2020 through 2022, with an option for a 1-year extension, is expected to be signed by Project DEAL and Springer Nature in the coming months. Project DEAL was formed in 2014 by Germany’s major research organizations with the goal of negotiating nationwide open-access agreements with major publishers. Earlier negotiations with publishing giant Elsevier have failed and are currently on hold, but the agreements with Wiley and Springer Nature are expected to restart the talks.

In related news, earlier this year European research agencies announced that Plan S, an effort to make research funded by them openly accessible on publication, will be delayed until 2021 to allow researchers and publishers more time to adapt to the new publishing model. The move was in response to concerns about costs and quality of open-access publications raised by prestige journals.

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Science Advisers Concerned About Lack of Details in EPA's "Secret Science" Proposal

Members of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) are worried about the lack of key details about how the proposed rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” would be implemented, according to a report by E&E News.

The proposed “secret science” rule would bar the use of scientific studies in formulating regulations unless the underlying data “are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.” EPA officials wrote in response to questions from SAB that they are still working out a precise definition of “validation.” It is also unclear what the scope of the term “data” is, how the agency plans to deal with data sets created in the past, and what the criteria are for allowing the EPA administrator to grant exemptions to the rule’s requirements.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt first proposed the rule intended to restrict the use of science in crafting regulations on April 24, 2018. The public comment period for the proposed rule was initially set at 30 days but was later extended by two-and-a-half months after pressure from science groups, including AIBS. In June 2018, the SAB also expressed an interest in analyzing and commenting on the proposal and urged the Administrator to “request, receive, and review” its advice before revising or finalizing the proposed rule. SAB Chairman Michael Honeycutt noted in a letter to Pruitt that although the draft rule cites several important publications that support transparency in science, “the precise design of the proposed rule appears to have been developed without a public process for soliciting input specifically from the scientific community.”

During a conference call on August 27, several members of the advisory panel expressed frustration about the dearth of information regarding the proposal. “We don’t really have any detail to react to, and so it’s a real mystery as to what we might be agreeing to or not agreeing to,” said Janice Chambers, Professor at Mississippi State University.

The panel meeting was officially convened to address the current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s request for a “consultation” on the challenges around protecting trade secrets and personally identifiable information of study subjects while also meeting the proposal’s transparency requirement. EPA is considering a “tiered” approach for access to personally identifiable information, similar to that used by the National Institutes of Health — the more sensitive the data, the tighter the access. According to Maria Doa, an EPA Senior Science Adviser, access to highly sensitive data would be restricted to certain qualified individuals only. EPA is also working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a pilot study focused on managing data sets in a “restricted use environment” and has requested an external assessment of how public access to data can be optimized while safeguarding personal information. Some SAB members have expressed approval of the tiered approach. However, Steven Hamburg, Chief Scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, questioned why EPA had not analyzed the proposed rule’s implications in advance, especially since other federal agencies are already working on those issues.

A “consultation” from EPA, according to SAB procedures, requires board members to submit individual responses to the issues raised by the agency that will then be compiled into a report. It does not require the board to come to a consensus. The SAB Chairman has set a September 13, 2019 deadline for members to submit their responses.

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Enhance 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 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 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. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published the revised Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations in the Federal Register on August 27, 2019. The revisions will make it easier for regulators to delist species from the endangered species list and remove automatic protections for threatened species. The rules only apply to future listing decisions and go into effect on September 26, 2019. More information available at: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/improving_ESA/regulation-revisions.html

  • The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorate for Biological Sciences, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and KnowInnovation are organizing a series of NSF-funded virtual and in-person forums focused on identifying the opportunities and challenges for reintegrating research across the biology subdisciplines. Details about the effort can be found at https://reintegratingbiology.org/. Virtual Town Hall discussions will take place September 17, 2019 from 11:00 AM-12:30 PM EDT and September 18, 2019 from 1:00-2:30 PM EDT to help identify themes for more focused, in-person discussions that will take place later in the fall - fertile soil for germination of new, foundational cross-disciplinary ideas that will unify and advance the biological sciences. Sign up here for the online discussions: https://reintegratingbiology.org/town-halls/

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has slashed the separation incentive payment for the employees of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) who decide not to relocate to new location in the Kansas City area from the maximum allowed $25,000 to $10,000. According to E&E News, a USDA spokesperson said that this will help to ensure that every worker who applies for the benefit receives it, instead of on a first-come, first-serve basis. "It's hard to imagine USDA management finding more ways to demoralize the workers at these two agencies, yet they continue to top themselves at every turn," said J. David Cox Sr., National President of the American Federation of Government Employees, which is representing NIFA and ERS workers. Meanwhile, the final location of the offices, whether it will be in Missouri or Kansas, is yet to be determined by the General Services Administration. 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. A recent report by USDA's Office of Inspector General suggested that the decision may have violated the law.

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