AIBS Recommends to Strengthen Research Environment

The American Institute of Biological Sciences provided recommendations for strengthening the American Research Environment to the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE). The recommendations were in response to a Request for Information from JCORE.

In a notice published in the Federal Register on November 26, 2019, JCORE requested information 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.”

AIBS’s comments focused on opportunities to enhance research rigor and integrity in scientific research. AIBS called for greater support for peer review as a means of promoting scientific rigor and integrity, and expressed concerns about a potential new Executive Order mandating immediate open access to scientific articles.

An excerpt reads: “Peer- or merit- review of research is critical to evaluating research protocols, quality, and reproducibility. The peer-review process is sustained by vibrant professional societies. With additional training, which is possible via professional societies, peer reviewers can play a more integral role in evaluating the ethical dimensions of research. Given the increasingly global nature of science, there is a need for new training related to bias. Federal agencies can help to strengthen the peer-review process by supporting new research on best practices in peer-review and by providing grants and contracts to professional communities to enable them to implement best practices and to provide peer-review training to their communities.”

AIBS also shared findings from its 2016 Council meeting on the peer review system and the recent report from the Biodiversity Collections Network on the Extended Specimen Network. In addition, AIBS requested that the federal government “negotiate and support the implementation of international agreements that support the global exchange of scientific data, such as genetic sequence data, physical specimens, and digital data.”

Read the full comments here: https://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20200128aibsresponsejcorerfi.html

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Research Security: Scientists Arrested as Government Increases Efforts to Protect US Security Interests

Concerns about and oversight of foreign influence on research and espionage have been rising since 2018. In an August 2018 letter to more than 10,000 research institutions, NIH urged grant applicants and awardees to properly disclose all forms of support and financial interests and launched investigations into NIH-funded investigators who failed to properly disclose foreign financial support. Following this, an April 2019 editorial in BioScience alerted readers that investigations into foreign ties of researchers will likely spread to other agencies and need to be taken seriously. Lawmakers have also made enquiries about the processes and policies in place at agencies to detect and deter foreign threats to research. Legislation intended to address such threats has been introduced in Congress.

In January, the chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Dr. Charles M. Lieber, was arrested and criminally charged with making false statements to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) about his financial relationship with the Chinese government. He is accused of concealing from Harvard, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and DoD the financial contributions he received from Chinese funders.

Dr. Lieber allegedly lied about his participation in a Chinese government-sponsored program, called the Thousand Talents Plan, that seeks to draw foreign-educated scientists to China. Foreign government talent recruitment programs, such as the Thousand Talents Plan, have been flagged by U.S. officials as a security risk. The National Science Foundation issued a strict policy last year barring NSF personnel and Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignees from participating in such programs.

According to an affidavit written by FBI Special Agent Robert Plumb, Dr. Lieber had established a research lab at China’s Wuhan University of Technology (WUT), without disclosing that to Harvard. He had even entered into an agreement to become a “strategic scientist” at WUT and was receiving financial compensation.

Dr. Lieber’s research lab at Harvard focuses on nanoscience. During the period in question, he was the principal investigator on at least six DoD research grants, totaling more than $8 million, and more than $10 million in grants from NIH. “These grants require the disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities,” according to the U.S. attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.

In addition to Lieber, two more scientists were criminally charged on January 28. Zaosong Zheng, a Harvard-affiliated cancer researcher was caught leaving the country with cancer research material stolen from a laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. Yanqing Ye was a researcher at Boston University’s (BU) Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering before returning to China last year. Ye has been accused of hiding her association with the People’s Liberation Army and carrying out orders from Chinese military officers during her time at BU.

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Trump Administration Issues Final WOTUS Rule

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have unveiled the final “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which defines the wetlands and waterways that are protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The final rule is similar to the draft proposed by the Trump administration in December 2018 but includes some clarifications. The new regulation limits the number of wetlands and waterways that would receive federal protections under the CWA.

Protections for streams and creeks that flow year-round or intermittently into larger downstream waters in a “typical year” will remain intact. The rule also maintains protections for territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; some lakes, ponds, and impoundments; and wetlands adjacent to traditionally navigable waters.

The new regulation removes protections for ephemeral streams that flow only after heavy rainfall or snowmelt. Ephemeral streams account for more than 18 percent of waterways nationwide, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Hydrology Dataset. According to critics of the rule, although such streams often remain dry, during rain fall or snowmelt pollution can be carried downstream into larger waterways. The rule also takes away protections for wetlands without surface water connections to intermittent or perennial streams, which account for 51 percent of the wetlands nationwide.

“EPA and the Army are providing much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses to support the economy and accelerate critical infrastructure projects,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “After decades of landowners relying on expensive attorneys to determine what water on their land may or may not fall under federal regulations, our new Navigable Waters Protection Rule strikes the proper balance between Washington and the states in managing land and water resources while protecting our nation’s navigable waters, and it does so within the authority Congress provided.”

Last September, the EPA repealed the 2015 rule, throwing out the prior definition of the regulation and bringing protection standards from 1986 back into effect. The new rule, which replaces the 1986 regulations, will likely be met with lawsuits from environmental groups and states. EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) was still in the process of reviewing and weighing in on the proposed rule. According to a draft commentary written by a panel within the SAB, parts of the proposed rule were “in conflict with established science.”

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WHO Warns About Lack of R&D on Antimicrobial Resistance

Two recent reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) have found that the pipeline for new antibiotic agents is weak and that government intervention is required to address the global threat of drug-resistant microbes.

“Declining private investment and lack of innovation in the development of new antibiotics are undermining efforts to combat drug-resistant infections,” stated WHO. According to a 2019 United Nations report, 700,000 deaths occur annually as a result of antimicrobial resistant infections, and this number is estimated to rise to 10 million by 2050 if the problem is not addressed.

According to the new reports, of the 60 products (50 antibiotics and 10 biologics) currently in development globally, only a few target the most critical drug-resistant microbes, while the vast majority “bring little benefit over existing treatments.” There are, however, 252 pre-clinical candidates targeting 12 “priority pathogens” that are currently in early stages of testing. But these will require several years before they reach patients.

The reports found that research and development (R&D) for antibiotics is primarily performed by small- or medium-sized companies, while large pharmaceutical companies continue to exit the arena as a result of bankruptcies. Investments in antimicrobial treatments by major pharmaceutical companies are diminishing because of the low profitability of antibiotics, which are taken only for a short period of time compared to drugs that treat chronic conditions.

“Never has the threat of antimicrobial resistance been more immediate and the need for solutions more urgent,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. “Numerous initiatives are underway to reduce resistance, but we also need countries and the pharmaceutical industry to step up and contribute with sustainable funding and innovative new medicines.”

Another report by a private sector coalition called the AMR Industry Alliance suggests that a “concerning shortfall” in late stage R&D investment to tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR) means that future global health needs are unlikely to be met. “The overall investment figure is likely insufficient to deliver the tools needed to address AMR,” the report warns. “Levels may further decrease in the coming years if governments do not take urgent action to improve antibiotic reimbursement systems and implement new incentives for development.” The Alliance urges collaboration between the public and private sectors to address the global challenge.

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Lawmakers Introduce Legislation to "Secure American Leadership" in Science

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) has introduced legislation that would create a long-term strategy for investment in basic research and infrastructure to safeguard American scientific leadership and address climate change. The bill is cosponsored by 11 other Republican lawmakers in the House.

The Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act (H.R. 5685) aims to tackle two challenges: competition for global scientific leadership that the US is facing from China, which has expanded public R&D funding by more than 50 percent between 2011 and 2016, and climate change. “If China surpasses us in critical technologies like quantum information science, artificial intelligence, and advanced manufacturing it will have significant implications for our national security, for our economic competitiveness, and for our way of life,” said Lucas. “The United States must go on the offensive to maintain our scientific and technological leadership.”

The bill would double federal investments in basic research over the next ten years at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The bill would also authorize investments in research infrastructure and support “an increase in key programs to grow the American pipeline of STEM-capable workers.”

Lucas said that climate change needs to be addressed “in a way that doesn’t raise energy prices and hurt American families and businesses.” He added, “We need to invest in research that produces next-generation technologies, ensuring America is the leader in producing cleaner and more affordable energy for the world.”

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Day One Project: Prioritize Mass Digitization of Biodiversity Collections

A new report from the Day One Project is calling for the next Administration to make mass digitization of biodiversity collections an immediate priority.

The report concludes: “U.S. biodiversity collections are made up of nearly half a billion specimens that are irreplaceable and mostly unknown. A large-scale digitization program will illuminate these data, making them visible, accessible, and searchable. Digitization will also protect these data in perpetuity so that future researchers and citizens can answer questions not yet asked. To catalyze this mass digitization effort, the next administration should host a White House Summit on Biodiversity Digitization that (1) capitalizes on U.S. science leadership and (2) results in a coordinated digitization plan that will help secure a precious scientific resource the biodiversity holdings of our nation—for generations.”

The Day One Project is one of a number of efforts underway in the lead-up to November to articulate and advance priorities for the next Administration, whether that is a second Trump term or someone else.

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Participate in the 2020 AIBS Congressional Visits Day

Join the American Institute of Biological Sciences on April 20-22, 2020 for our annual Congressional Visits Day in Washington, DC.

Meet with your members of Congress to help them understand the important role the federal government plays in supporting the biological sciences. Advocate for federal investments in biological sciences research supported by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies.

Participants will complete a communications and advocacy training program provided by AIBS that prepares them to be effective advocates for their science. AIBS also provides participants with background information and materials, as well as arranges meetings with lawmakers.

Training program: In conjunction with the 2020 AIBS Congressional Visits Day, AIBS is offering its highly acclaimed Communications Boot Camp for Scientists. This professional development course will be on April 20-21. All participants who complete the course receive priority access to the Congressional Visits Day program and a certificate of completion indicating that they have successfully completed 16 hours of communications training. This professional development program provides practical instruction and interactive exercises designed to help scientists (e.g. researchers, graduate students, administrators, educators) translate scientific information for non-technical audiences and to effectively engage with decision-makers and the news media. For more information about the training program, including pricing, click here.

Scientists, graduate students, educators, or other science community members who are interested in advocating for scientific research and education are encouraged to participate in this important event.

Express your interest in participating in the event by registering. Registration will close on March 16, 2020. Space is limited and it may not be possible to accommodate the participation of all interested individuals.

Register at: https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionalvisitsday.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.

Early career (graduate student or post-doctoral fellow) biodiversity scientists should consider applying for the travel grants being offered by the Biodiversity Collections Network: https://bcon.aibs.org/2020/01/17/bcon-early-career-travel-awards-for-team-and-interdisciplinary-science-training/

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Short Takes

  • The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO) is soliciting applications for two permanent and two temporary Program Directors in the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems. For the Animal Behavior Program in the Behavioral Systems Cluster, NSF is seeking temporary and permanent Program Directors with a broad background in integrative organismal biology focused on behavior across levels of organization and contexts. For the Integrative Ecological Physiology (IEP) Program of the Physiological and Structural Systems Cluster, NSF is seeking temporary and permanent Program Directors whose background and expertise bridges genetics, functional genomics and physiological ecology. The deadline to submit applications for all those positions is February 13, 2020.

  • Two more representatives from academia have been added to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST): Hussein Tawbi, Associate Professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Theresa Mayer, Vice President for development and research at Purdue University. PCAST is tasked with providing "policy recommendations on strengthening American leadership in science and technology, building the Workforce of the Future, and supporting foundational research and development across the country." President Trump established the panel last October, more than two-and-a-half years into his administration. The first seven members on the panel included six industry officials and one representative from academia. Two more members from academia were added back in November: Shannon Blunt, Professor of electrical engineering at the University of Kansas, and Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska, Professor of engineering at the Ohio State University.

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