US Begins Withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement

The Trump Administration has formally started the process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.

In a November 4, 2019, letter to the United Nations (UN), Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stated the United States’ intention to opt out of the global climate agreement. He expressed concern with the “unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses, and taxpayers by U.S. pledges made under the Agreement.” This starts a year-long process of withdrawal from the accord, with the U.S. officially leaving the agreement on November 4, 2020, one day after the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.

President Trump first announced his intent to withdraw from the pact in June 2017. However, under the rules of the climate agreement, November 4, 2019 was the earliest date that a country could formally notify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) of its intent to withdraw from the accord, exactly three years after it went into effect. Once a country leaves the Paris agreement, it can rejoin the pact 30 days after notifying the UNFCC of their intentions. All Democratic candidates for President have vowed to rejoin the accord if elected.

The global climate agreement currently has 195 signatories, out of which 187 members have ratified or acceded to it, including Russia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Syria. The U.S. is the only country to withdraw from the deal.

Meanwhile, members of a worldwide coalition of more than 11,000 scientists representing 153 countries have published a Viewpoint article in BioScience warning that the planet “clearly and unequivocally faces a climate emergency.” With a focus on future action to reduce climate-change-related harm, the Alliance of World Scientists describes graphical indicators or “vital signs” related to climate change and areas requiring immediate global action.

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Senate Passes First Spending Package as Stopgap Funding Nears Expiration

On October 31, 2019, the U.S. Senate voted 84-9 to pass a four-bill spending package that includes fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies; Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies; Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies; and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies.

The spending measure provides funding increases for most science and environmental agencies and programs relative to FY 2019 enacted levels, including a 3 percent increase for the National Science Foundation.

Although, the Senate and House have passed some appropriations bills, negotiations between the two chambers on spending numbers will not begin until an agreement is reached on the topline allocations for each of the 12 appropriations bills. A second spending package containing the FY 2020 Defense and Labor-Health and Human Services-Education spending bills failed to get enough votes to advance in the Senate, as a result of disagreements over funding allocations for the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The government is currently funded by a continuing resolution (CR) that is set to expire on November 21, 2019. This stopgap spending measure was passed last September to avert a government shutdown when the new fiscal year began on October 1. With the budget impasse and the impeachment inquiry underway, it is unlikely that FY 2020 appropriations will be completed before the November deadline. Lawmakers are considering passing another stopgap measure which might fund the government through the end of the year or possibly even well into 2020.

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Report Addresses Political Interference in Government Science

The National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy (Task Force), a nonpartisan group of former public servants and policy experts at the Brennan Center, recently released a report outlining ways to restrict political interference in government science and fix the process for appointing senior government officials.

According to the report, “In recent years, the norms and expectations that once ensured that our government was guided primarily by the public interest rather than by individual or partisan interest have significantly weakened. There are now far fewer constraints to deter abuse by executive branch actors.”

The report points to instances of “violations of previously respected safeguards” under President Trump, such as when the acting White House Chief of Staff reportedly ordered the Commerce Department to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issue a statement in support of President Trump’s false claim that Hurricane Dorian would impact Alabama and contradicting forecasters at the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service. Other examples highlighted in the report, include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to relocate its research agencies outside of Washington, DC, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) directive to exclude agency-funded scientists from service on its advisory panels.

The Task Force also warns of the breakdown of the process for appointing key government officials, with recent Administrations nominating unqualified candidates or those with conflicts of interest and lawmakers deciding to approve them or ignore them based on partisan interests. Under the current Administration, “less than half the senior roles at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are filled; at least a dozen agencies — including two cabinet departments — are run by non-Senate-confirmed acting officials two years into this administration.”

The report warns about the potential damage from these trends and offers proposals to remedy them. “Government research that is guided by politics, not the facts, can lead to ineffective and costly policy, among other harms, and a dysfunctional appointments process risks stymieing vital government functions.” Recommendations offered by the Task Force include, creating scientific integrity standards and protocols for agencies to follow; barring politically motivated manipulation or suppression of research; ensuring the proper functioning of scientific advisory panels; and increasing public access to government research. To address the broken nominations process, the report offers proposals to “encourage the appointment of qualified and ethical people to key government posts, make it harder for presidents to sideline the Senate during the process, streamline the confirmation process for executive branch nominees, and protect national security by fixing the vulnerable White House security clearance process.”

The report highlights some other factors that contribute to government dysfunction, including the “broken campaign finance system, the President’s expansive emergency powers, the weakening of Congress as a check on the Executive, and the politicization of the judiciary,” and stresses the importance of checks and balances in protecting a democracy.

Co-Chairs of the Task Force, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Christine Todd Whitman, President of the Whitman Strategy Group, former EPA Administrator, and former Governor of New Jersey, called on Congress to protect government scientists and their work from political interference in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post. “To ensure accountability and deter corruption, Congress should pass legislation that makes it unlawful for government officials to tamper with or censor federally funded scientific research or data for personal, financial, or partisan political gain. Congress should also prohibit officials from disseminating scientific information that they know is false or misleading, and legislators must bar retaliation against government researchers for doing their work.”

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Brexit's Impact on UK Science Funding and Researchers

The United Kingdom’s (UK) share of European Union (EU) research funding has dropped by 28 percent since the Brexit referendum vote was cast in 2015, according to a recent analysis by the Royal Society. There has been a 39 percent reduction in UK applications to Horizon 2020, EU’s flagship research funding program.

The assessment also found that the number of international scientists coming to the UK through key fellowships has fallen by 179 or 35 percent since the referendum. In the same period, the number of fellowships for scientists relocating to work in Switzerland and Italy increased by 53 each. Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Norway, and Sweden also saw increases.

“We have seen a dramatic drop in the number of leading researchers who want to come to the UK. People do not want to gamble with their careers, when they have no sense of whether the UK will be willing and able to maintain its global scientific leadership,” stated Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society. “UK science has also missed out on around €0.5 billion a year because of the uncertainty around Brexit. The potential paralysis of a no-deal Brexit and the current state of chaos are hurting UK science and that is hurting the national interest,” he added.

In March 2019, UK science minister Chris Skidmore commissioned an external report to get independent advice on how the UK government should strengthen the country’s research enterprise after its departure from the EU. The report, published on November 5, 2019 by Adrian Smith, Director of the Alan Turing Institute in London and Graeme Reid, Chair of Science and Research Policy at University College London, suggests that UK should boost funding for basic research and create a research fellowship program similar to the European Research Council (ERC) if it no longer remains part of Horizon 2020 or its successor, Horizon Europe, after Brexit. Overall, the UK should prioritize raising R&D investments to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product by 2027, a goal that the government committed to in 2017.

The UK government hopes to work out a deal with EU to become an associate member of Horizon Europe, which begins in 2021 and will likely provide close to €100 billion in funding. However, if such a deal is not reached, the report advises the government to replenish the lost EU research funding at its current level of £1.5 billion a year and account for additional transition funding to alleviate any disruptions and provide “short-term stability to protect capabilities” built up previously through EU R&D programs.

The authors’ vision for UK research included other recommendations, such as designing fellowships and postgraduate programs to attract talented researchers from around the world and creating new funding streams to “capture fast-moving and unexpected opportunities,” including emerging international collaborations.

Skidmore has indicated that the UK government will consider the independent report’s recommendations. Researchers, however, remain wary of Brexit’s impact on science funding and research collaborations as uncertainties still remain about the prospects of reaching a withdrawal agreement with the EU. The UK Parliament failed to approve the latest agreement negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month and voted to postpone Brexit to January 31, 2020.

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Call for Community Input: NSF RFI on Data-Focused Cyberinfrastructure

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has issued a Request for Information (RFI) on Data-Focused Cyberinfrastructure Needed to Support Future Data-Intensive Science and Engineering Research.

According to the notice, the challenges of growing volumes of scientific data - their availability, transmission, accessibility, management, and utilization - have become urgent and ubiquitous across NSF-supported science, engineering, and education disciplines. NSF is particularly interested in understanding how broader cross-disciplinary and domain-agnostic solutions can be devised and implemented, along with the structural, functional and performance characteristics such cross-disciplinary solutions must possess. To inform the formulation of a strategic NSF response to these imperatives, the RFI asks the research community to update NSF on their data-intensive scientific questions and challenges and associated needs specifically related to data-focused cyberinfrastructure.

AIBS encourages the life sciences community to respond to this request by following the guidelines outlined here: https://www.nsf.gov/publications/pubsumm.jsp?odskey=nsf20015

Submissions must be received on or before 5:00 PM Eastern time on December 16, 2019. NSF will share the responses publicly in spring/summer 2020. Questions concerning this RFI should be directed to nsfdatacirfi@nsf.gov.

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Short Takes

  • President Trump has announced his intention to nominate cancer specialist Dr. Stephen Hahn to be the next Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Hahn currently serves as the Chief Medical Officer at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, where he oversees clinical care. He previously worked at the National Cancer Institute and the University of Pennsylvania medical school, where he chaired the radiation oncology department for nine years. Until Dr. Hahn is confirmed by the Senate, Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, will oversee the FDA.

  • The Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO) at the National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced a new funding opportunity for the Biology Integration Institutes (BII) program, which promotes teams of researchers to investigate questions that incorporates many disciplines and can exceed biology. BIO is prioritizing support for fundamental biological research that takes an integrative approach to understanding life's key innovations and aims to strengthen the connections between biological subdisciplines and encourage a reintegration of biology through this new funding opportunity. Letters of Intent are due on December 20, 2019 and full proposals are due on February 6, 2020. More information at https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2020/nsf20508/nsf20508.htm

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's (NASEM) Committee on Assistance to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) on Taxonomic Studies of the Red Wolf is calling for research applications to clarify the taxonomic identity of wild canid populations in southwestern Louisiana and other geographic areas where the red wolf (Canis rufus) was historically known to inhabit. At the request of USFWS, NASEM convened this expert panel to solicit applications to conduct morphological, genetic, and genomic research on unidentified canids suspected to be red wolves. Research applications are being accepted through December 3, 2019. USFWS will notify applicants of its decision in January 2020. Queries can be directed to bls@nas.edu. More information at: https://nas.us8.list-manage.com/track/click?u=18fe6f8f25ec0bc7509e65e97&id=e6faed2643&e=a271cda812

  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is seeking public comment on a proposed NIH Policy for Data Management and Sharing and supplemental guidance. According to NIH, the purpose of this draft policy and guidance is "to promote effective and efficient data management and sharing to further NIH's commitment to making the results and accomplishments of the research it funds and conducts available to the public." Deadline to submit comments is January 10, 2020. For more information, go to: https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/nih-data-management-and-sharing-activities-related-to-public-access-and-open-science/

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Enhance Your Interdisciplinary and Team Science Skills

Reports abound from professional societies, the Academies, government agencies, and researchers calling attention to the fact that science is increasingly an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, inter-institutional, and international endeavor. In short, science has become a “team sport.”

There is a real and present need to better prepare scientists for success in this new collaborative environment. The American Institute of Biological Sciences is responding to this call with a new program for scientists, educators, and individuals who work with or participate in scientific teams.

Team science is increasingly common in 21st century biological, life, and environmental sciences. Collaboration is no longer limited to sharing ideas with the biologist in the lab next door. The questions confronting science often require teams that may include a mix of computer and information scientists, physical and social scientists, mathematicians, ethicists, policy and management experts, as well as community stakeholders and citizen scientists. Adding to this complexity, teams span programs within organizations, cross organization boundaries to form institutional consortia, and often include international partners.

This intensive, two-day, interactive, professional development course was designed by scientists and experts on collaboration and teamwork to provide participants with the knowledge and skills required to become productive and effective members of scientific teams. From its first offering the course has evolved to include a greater focus on team planning and teamwork, and less time allocated to university administration of interdisciplinary teams.

Nothing teaches collaboration like practicing collaboration. This is not a course that asks you to learn in isolation. It is a microcosm of scientific collaboration, with extensive hands-on learning as part of a scientific team, with scientific case studies and examples.

The Enabling Interdisciplinary and Team Science course is designed for anyone involved in collaborative scientific endeavors. Team leaders will find the course especially helpful. Because participants will work on “real-world” team science concerns, we encourage multiple members of a team to attend together. We can also customize the course and bring it to your university, department, lab, or research team. This course provides the right foundation from which your team can successfully accomplish your goals.

The program is periodically offered in Washington, DC, but we can also bring the course to your institution. We are able to offer a substantial discount per person from the DC workshop rate. Please contact Robert Gropp at rgropp@aibs.org or 202-340-4281 for more information. Learn more at https://www.aibs.org/events/teamscienceevent.html.

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