Senate Begins Work on FY 2020 Appropriations

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved their first spending bills for fiscal year (FY) 2020 - the Defense and Energy and Water Development appropriations bills - on September 12, 2019. Before leaving for the August recess, lawmakers had secured a bipartisan budget agreement to suspend budget sequestration and raise overall federal spending caps by $320 billion over FY 2020 and 2021.

The Senate’s Energy-Water bill for FY 2020 would fund the Department of Energy (DOE) at $39 billion, $3.3 billion above FY 2019 and $7.5 billion above the President’s budget request. The Department’s Office of Science would receive $7.2 billion, $630 million above FY 2019 enacted levels and $345 million above the House level. Biological and Environmental research within DOE Science would get $770 million under the Senate bill, $40 million above the House bill and $65 million above FY 2019. Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has been pushing for a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” and said that “setting a new record funding level for the Office of Science — the fifth straight record year” was one of his top priorities.

It is unlikely that all 12 appropriations bills will be passed by both chambers before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) said that the House had mostly “finished its work” by passing 10 of the 12 spending bills, and would be negotiating final versions with the Senate. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) has said that Congress could pass two or three spending bills before the new fiscal year begins, including the Defense, the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and the Energy and Water spending bills. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced that the House will take up a stopgap spending measure that will run through November 21, 2019 to fund agencies that do not have new funding in place in the new fiscal year.

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EPA to Phase Out Animal Testing

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on September 10, 2019 that it will be prioritizing efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate animal testing. EPA relies on such tests to assess the safety of chemicals, including pesticides and potential environmental pollutants.

“Today’s memo directs the agency to aggressively reduce animal testing, including reducing mammal study requests and funding 30 percent by 2025 and completely eliminating them by 2035,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Wheeler stated in the directive that animal testing is “expensive and time-consuming”. He added, “The agency must develop more accurate, quicker and more cost-effective test methods if it is to meet its 21st century commitments.” Chemical companies have long protested that animal tests are expensive and time-consuming, but Wheeler has denied that the move was influenced by chemical companies.

EPA also announced an award of $4.25 million for research to develop alternative test methods and strategies that minimize or replace vertebrate animal testing. The award went to 5 universities through the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program: Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Oregon State University, and University of California Riverside.

According to Science Insider, the agency’s decision has received strong reactions from groups that support or oppose experimentation on animals. Justin Goodman, Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy at the White Coat Waste Project, an animal activist group in Washington, D.C., said the directive was “a decisive win for taxpayers, animals, and the environment…Animal tests are unreliable and misleading.” While Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said that EPA’s decision “was very disappointing and very frustrating.” She asserted that ending animal testing would “allow potentially dangerous chemicals to get out there into the environment and into consumer products.” Sass also expressed concerns about the new policy potentially giving too much control to the chemical industry over developing its own nonanimal testing alternatives.

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House Science Panel to Investigate Hurricane Dorian Forecast Controversy

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has launched an inquiry into the Commerce Department’s involvement in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) actions to support President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian would impact Alabama. This is the third probe to be initiated on the matter.

Democratic leaders of the House Science panel have asked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for detailed information as well as a briefing with NOAA employees about the agency’s actions around the President’s false claims. “It appears that in an attempt to support President Donald Trump’s incorrect tweet asserting that Alabama would be ‘hit (much) harder than anticipated’ by Hurricane Dorian, Commerce officials may have taken a number of steps to pressure NOAA into supporting the President’s actions,” stated Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Representative Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Chairwoman of the House Science Subcommittee on Investigation and Oversight, in a letter to Secretary Ross.

The letter followed a report by The New Your Times, which suggested that the President pressured White House aides to have NOAA publicly correct forecasters at the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service (NWS), who contradicted him by insisting that Alabama was not actually at risk from Hurricane Dorian. NOAA then issued an unsigned statement saying the Birmingham NWS office was wrong to refute the President’s warning. Chairwoman Johnson said that such a move “threatens the integrity and public trust of weather forecasts at the peak of hurricane season.” It was also reported that Ross had threatened to fire Acting NOAA Director Neil Jacobs and other staff if they did not back the President’s claim.

Johnson also wrote to President Trump, stating that he likely violated federal law when he altered an NWS forecast map to include Alabama and said that it was “misleading and potentially harmful for the American people to be given outdated weather information regarding an imminent threat.” The panel has complete legislative and oversight jurisdiction over NWS.

Two other investigations have been opened into the controversy by the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General and NOAA’s Acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean. “My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political,” said McLean.

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Organizations Urge Federal Agencies to Balance Security Considerations with Impacts on Scientific Collaborations

In a September 4, 2019 letter, sixty science, engineering, and international education organizations, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences, have urged the heads of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense (DOD) to consider a wide range of stakeholder perspectives as the agencies work together to address issues of foreign influence on U.S. research.

The letter reads, “While we must be vigilant to safeguard research, we must also ensure that the U.S. remains a desirable and welcoming destination for researchers from around the world. Finding the appropriate balance between our nation’s security and an open, collaborative scientific environment requires focus and due diligence.”

The agencies have been tasked with working together through the new National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Joint Committee on Research Environments to develop policies and procedures that address issues related to the participation of international researchers in the U.S. scientific enterprise. The letter warns about a rising concern among U.S. and international scientists that “new policies and procedures under consideration to minimize security risks will have the unintended effect of harming the scientific enterprise.”

Read the letter: https://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20190904foreigninfluence.html

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NSB Calls for Growing the Skilled Technical Workforce

The National science Board (NSB) — the governing body for the National Science Foundation (NSF) — has released a new report titled, “The Skilled Technical Workforce: Crafting America’s Science and Engineering Enterprise.” The report highlights contributions of the skilled technical workforce (STW) and calls for action to grow this segment of the U.S. science and engineering (S&E) workforce.

The NSB report draws attention to the workforce of 17 million people who use S&E skills in their job but do not have a bachelor’s degree. “These individuals bring critical thinking, design, digital, math, and coding skills to work as auto mechanics, health care technicians, electricians, welders, computer systems analysts and administrators, and operators of ‘smart’ infrastructure,” reads the report. “They also contribute to the nation’s S&E enterprise, accounting for more than 50 percent of all workers in many of America’s advanced industries.”

“K-12 schools, 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges and universities, and other education and workforce development programs are all integral, synergistic parts of a whole that we need to foster a STEM-capable workforce,” said NSB Chair Diane Souvaine at a report rollout on Capitol Hill.

The report offers four recommendations for policymakers and S&E leaders: “Change the Message,” which involves countering negative perceptions and raising awareness of skilled technical workforce jobs; “Focus on the Data,” which involves collecting and sharing data on the education, skills, and workforce characteristics of the STW; “Leverage Federal Investments,” which involves leveraging the federal programs and investments that support STW-related programs; and “Build Partnerships,” which involves education institutions, industry, and government working as partners to grow the STEM-capable U.S. workforce.

The report was prepared by NSB’s Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce. NSB held five listening sessions around the country to gather feedback from over 200 individuals from 65 locations, including faculty and students at community colleges and technical schools, regional and local industry leaders, and local policymakers. According to Victor McCrary, who chairs the task force, the STW has been long underappreciated, but it “has and will continue to be essential to America’s economic prosperity, our scientific and technological competitiveness, and our national security.” He indicated that according to some projections, “by 2022, we will need 3.4 million more skilled technical workers in this country.”

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OSTP Seeks Public Input on U.S. Bioeconomy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is requesting public input on the U.S. Bioeconomy, defined 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.

According to the notice, public input will inform “notable gaps, vulnerabilities, and areas to promote and protect in the U.S. Bioeconomy that may benefit from Federal government attention.”

Comments will be accepted until October 22, 2019. More information about the Request for Information is available here: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2019-09-10/html/2019-19470.htm

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Trump Administration Repeals 2015 WOTUS Rule

On September 12, 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the repeal of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. That rule defined the wetlands and waterways that are protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed a new rule throwing out the prior definition of the regulation and bringing protection standards from 1986 back into effect. The 2015 rule had been blocked in 27 states and was in effect in 22 others. The repeal places all 50 states back under 1986 regulations. “Thanks to the leadership of the EPA we can move forward with a water rule that protects clean water, is within the bounds of the law and doesn’t pose a threat to manufacturing in America,” said Wheeler. According to Wheeler, the repeal was the first step with a revised replacement rule expected by the end of the year.

Revisions to the definition of WOTUS were first proposed by the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December 2018. After publishing the proposed rule in the Federal Register in February 2019, the agencies invited public comments for a 60-day period. The new definition limits the number of wetlands and waterways that would receive federal protections under the CWA. Under the new proposal, six types of water resources will qualify for federal protections, including traditionally navigable waters, tributaries, impoundments, wetlands adjacent to traditionally navigable waters, some ditches, and some lakes and ponds. The new definition covers streams and creeks that flow year-round or intermittently into larger downstream waters, but excludes ephemeral streams that flow only after heavy rainfall or snowmelt, and wetlands without surface water connections to larger waterways or wetlands. “In the proposal we are clearly defining the difference between federally regulated waterways and those of state authority,” said Wheeler.

According to E&E News, environmental groups and state attorneys general have indicated that they will likely challenge the repeal in courts.

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AIBS Webinar to Explore Effects of Trump Administration Changes to Endangered Species Act

More than 450 scientists from around the world recently released findings showing that up to one million species may become threatened with extinction. At a time when scientists are calling for strengthened biodiversity protections, the United States is undoing provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

On August 27, 2019, the Trump Administration published three final regulatory rollbacks that drastically weaken the Endangered Species Act. The Act has successfully protected the bald eagle, American alligator, Pacific salmon, humpback whale, brown pelican, as well as many other species and their habitats-from mountain tops to coastal beaches. These new regulations change the rules governing the recovery of listed species, strip any new “threatened” species of the automatic protections they once received, and make it considerably harder for species to gain protections in the first place.

Scientists are some of the most important voices in the country about the natural world, and they must be well versed in the impacts of these rollbacks. Your input is necessary to ensure that, as a country, we are good stewards of the environment and leave behind a legacy for our children and grandchildren of protecting endangered species and the special places they call home.

Please join our webinar on Tuesday, September 17, 2019 at 2:00 PM EDT to learn from Endangered Species Act experts about how these new rules impact species conservation in the United States.

Registration is free, but required. For more information about the program and speakers and to register for the webinar, please visit: https://www.aibs.org/events/webinar/species-conservation.html

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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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Faces of Biology Photo Contest Accepting Submissions

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 National Science Board (NSB) is accepting nominations for its 2020 honorary public service awards. The Vannevar Bush Award recognizes lifetime achievement for pursuits to improve the welfare of mankind and the nation through public-service activities in science, technology and public policy. The Public Service Award honors individuals and groups for substantial contributions to increasing public understanding of science and engineering. Nominations are due by Friday, September 27, 2019. Learn more about the awards and submit a nomination at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/awards/.

  • Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, has introduced a bill that would authorize a five percent annual funding increase over the next five years for research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "The America Grows Act would ensure USDA has robust federal funding to make breakthroughs and foster innovation that keeps America competitive in the global marketplace," said Durbin. "If we want to compete with China when it comes to cutting-edge agricultural research, we must increase federal research funding in a bold and effective way." The legislation is supported by more than 80 organizations. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a separate legislation, that would increase funding for agriculture research and would incentivize agricultural producers to implement climate stewardship practices, promote increased reforestation, and establish the Coastal and Estuary Resilience Grant Program.

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