EPA's Science Advisory Board Rebukes Proposed Transparency, WOTUS Rules

In a draft report dated October 16, 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) criticized the agency’s proposed rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” also referred to as the “secret science” rule. The regulation, first proposed by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in April 2018, would bar the use of scientific studies in crafting regulations unless the underlying data “are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.”

E&E News reported that the SAB released draft commentaries on four key regulatory initiatives by the agency last week. In addition to rebuking the transparency rule, the board also offered criticisms of the Trump administration’s proposed Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, the planned rollback of clean car standards, and the agency’s December 2018 proposal to determine that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and other toxic pollutants released from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Smaller working groups within the 44-member board prepared the draft commentaries, which will now be considered by the full board.

The board concluded that the transparency rule “may not add transparency, and even may make some kinds of research more difficult.” The draft report raised concerns about several “key considerations” that the proposed rule failed to adequately address, including the lack of clarity on the definition of terms such as “raw data” and “dose response data and models”; the requirements for protection of privacy and confidentiality; the challenge of replicating historical data sets; and the costs associated with processing and documenting data for public release and maintaining data sets. The board also pointed out that the provision allowing for “case-by-case exceptions” to the transparency requirement may “exacerbate concerns about inappropriate exclusion of scientifically important studies.”

The SAB offered some recommendations to improve the proposed transparency rule. They suggested incorporating requirements for privacy protection as established under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as well as data protection practices developed by researchers involved in studies with human subjects. The board also advised that EPA work with other agencies in making individual-level data available through Federal Statistical Research Data Centers that are already widely used by the U.S. Census Bureau. They recommended establishing a similar system for data owned by universities or private societies that are protected by strong confidentiality requirements, adding that “if the Proposed Rule is implemented without addressing this issue, such datasets risk being excluded entirely from the regulatory process.

Congress has been monitoring the proposed transparency rule closely. In the recently passed fiscal year 2020 appropriations package, lawmakers included language asking EPA to “engage in formal consultation on the proposed rule with the [Science Advisory Board].” In the report accompanying the legislation, lawmakers have urged EPA to “take no final action on the rule until the Agency has concluded such consultations.”

On the proposed WOTUS rulemaking, the panel found that parts of the proposal were “in conflict with established science” and would shrink “protection of our nation’s waters.” The regulation, which was proposed by the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December 2018, would revise the definition of the “Waters of the United States” to limit the number of wetlands and waterways receiving federal protections under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The SAB offered a blistering review of the proposed WOTUS rule. “The proposed definition of WOTUS is not fully consistent with established EPA-recognized science, may not fully meet the key objectives of the Clean Water Act — ‘to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters’ — and is subject to a lack of clarity for implementation,” the panel concluded. “The departure of the proposed rule from EPA-recognized science threatens to weaken protection of the nation’s waters by disregarding the established connectivity of groundwaters and by failing to protect ephemeral streams and wetlands which connect to navigable waters below the surface. These changes are proposed without a fully supportable scientific basis, while potentially introducing substantial new risks to human and environmental health.”

In September 2019, EPA announced the repeal of the 2015 WOTUS rule bringing protection standards from 1986 back into effect. The final version of the clean water rule is currently under review by the White House and is expected to be released in the coming months.

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NSF Announces Plan to Develop and Support NEON User Community

In a December 26, 2019 Dear Colleague Letter, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) outlined how it would promote the continued development of individuals and investigator teams conducting research using the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The letter encourages “engagement and integration of biological and environmental science communities, and to grow convergent research across the foundation.”

“Because many environmental controls, responses, and feedbacks operate over regional to continental scales, they cannot be investigated mechanistically by disconnected studies of individual ecosystems over short periods of observation,” reads the letter. “NEON is a major facility designed for studying the biosphere synoptically at regional to continental scales, with openly accessible methods and freely available, high precision data products.”

In order to ensure that the impacts of NEON data and assignable assets are fully tapped, NSF plans to provide user community support for activities such as workshops or conferences, NEON Research Coordination Networks (RCN) awards, the Macrosystems Biology and NEON-Enabled Science (MSB-NES) Program, and proposals submitted through existing solicitations that support NEON enabled research.

BIO also plans to support activities that “enable NEON-based research through fostering team science, user group coordination, and new NEON-fueled scientific collaborations,” including the Biology Integration Institutes program, which supports collaborative teams of researchers investigating questions that span multiple disciplines within and beyond biology.

Learn more at: https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2020/nsf20033/nsf20033.jsp?WT.mcid=USNSF25&WT.mc_ev=click

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OSTP Extends Deadline to Submit Input on American Research Environment

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has extended the deadline to submit comments on its request for information on the American Research Environment. In a notice published in the Federal Register on November 26, 2019, OSTP requested input on behalf of the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC’s) Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE) on “actions that Federal agencies can take, working in partnership with private industry, academic institutions, and non-profit/philanthropic organizations, to maximize the quality and effectiveness of the American research environment.”

Comments can now be submitted on or before 11:59 PM Eastern Time on January 28, 2020.

Details of the Request for Information and instructions for submitting comments are available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2019-12-17/html/2019-27165.htm.

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4th Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference Announced

Indiana University (IU), iDigBio, and the Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSCA) will hold the 4th annual Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference on June 1-3, 2020 at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.

The theme for the conference is “Harnessing the Data Revolution and Amplifying Collections with Biodiversity Information Science.” Registration will open January 13, 2020 and will cost $50 for students and $100 for professionals. Sign up to receive a reminder when registration opens on January 13, 2020 at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/4th-annual-digital-data-in-biodiversity-research-conference-tickets-86931098255.

For more information about the conference, please bookmark and regularly visit the conference announcement page: https://www.idigbio.org/content/digital-data-2020-harnessing-data-revolution-and-amplifying-collections-biodiversity.

To ensure that you receive regular announcements on the conference email list, please send your email address to Gil Nelson (gnelson@floridamuseum.ufl.edu) or Jill Goodwin (jvgoodwin@fsu.edu) at iDigBio.

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Graduate Students: Apply for the 2020 Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award

Are you a science graduate student looking to make a difference in science policy and funding? The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is now accepting applications for the 2020 AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award. This award recognizes graduate students in the biological sciences who are demonstrating an interest and aptitude for working at the intersection of science and policy.

Recipients of the AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award receive:

  • A trip to Washington, DC, to participate in the AIBS Congressional Visits Day, an annual event where scientists meet with lawmakers to advocate for federal investment in the biological sciences, with a primary focus on the National Science Foundation. The event will be held in the spring of 2020 (likely in March or April). Domestic travel and hotel expenses are paid for the winners.
  • Policy and communications training, including information on the legislative process and trends in federal science funding, and how to engage with policymakers and the news media.
  • Meetings with lawmakers to discuss the importance of federal investment in the biological sciences.
  • A one-year AIBS membership, including a subscription to the journal BioScience and a copy of “Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media.”

The 2020 award is open to U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents enrolled in a graduate degree program in the biological sciences, science education, or a closely allied field. Applicants should have a demonstrated interest in and commitment to science policy and/or science education policy. Prior recipients, including Honorable Mentions, are not eligible for the award.

Applications are due by 05:00 PM Eastern Time on January 15, 2020. The application guidelines can be downloaded at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/eppla.html.

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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 next program will be held on April 27-28, 2020 in Washington, DC. Learn more at https://www.aibs.org/events/teamscienceevent.html.

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In Their Own Words: A New Podcast from AIBS

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) has launched a new podcast series as part of its on-going BioScience Talks program. The new series, In Their Own Words, is a monthly interview with an individual who has helped to shape the biological sciences in the late 20th or early 21st century. The interviews provide an oral history of biology.

The first program, an interview with Dr. Rita Colwell, was released in December 2019. Dr. Colwell, is a former president of AIBS and former director of the National Science Foundation. The newest episode, just released, is a conversation with Dr. Kent Holsinger of the University of Connecticut. Forthcoming interviews include talks with Drs. Diana Wall and Susan Stafford.

A corresponding print interview is published each month in BioScience. To listen to a recent In Their Own Words podcast, visit http://bioscience-talks.aibs.org.

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Short Takes

  • President Trump has nominated Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Dr. Neil Jacobs previously served as the chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corp. and is a proponent of weather data privatization. The President's previous nominee for the position, Mr. Barry Myers, the former CEO of AccuWeather, Inc., withdrew his nomination in November 2019.

  • The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) National and Regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers (CASC) will receive $38.4 million in funding in fiscal year (FY) 2020, an increase of $13 million relative to FY 2019, under the compromise spending packages enacted in December 2019. Established in 2008, the CASC program includes 8 regional centers across the country managed by a national center at USGS. The CASCs are responsible for developing the science and tools to address the effects of climate change on land, water, wildlife, fish, ecosystems, and communities. The program was slated for a 46 percent spending cut in the President's proposal but ended up with a 51 percent increase in budget. According to the explanatory report released alongside the spending package, part of this increased funding is intended to support the development of a Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center.

  • The National Science Board (NSB), the governing body of the National Science Foundation, is inviting applications for the position of Executive Officer and Director of the NSB office. Responsibilities include directing the day-to-day operations, supervising the office staff, and serving as liaison and representative of the Board to the rest of NSF, Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science Technology Policy, and other entities inside and outside of government. The closing date for the application is January 12, 2020. For more information go to: https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/554924400

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