Scientific Societies Express Support for Congressional Resolutions Denouncing Anti-Asian Discrimination

A group of fifty professional scientific organizations, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences, expressed support for Congressional resolutions denouncing anti-Asian discrimination related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The groups noted: “Our societies have been concerned by news reports that individuals of Asian ancestry are increasingly subject to stigma, physical attack, or suspicion due to the potential origins of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. These actions are wrong and unacceptable for their racial overtones, their impact on societies and individuals, and run counter to the core values of the scientific community and the members we represent. As scientists, we know viruses respect no borders, and originate and evolve worldwide.”

The letter encourages global leaders and the public “to recognize and tap global diversity as one of our greatest assets to solve the global pandemic, including the vital role of U.S. researchers of Asian ancestry and those worldwide.” The societies also emphasized that “Sustained and growing research investment is essential for solving today’s public health crisis and will be vital to preventing and managing future ones.”

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Congress Passes Fourth Coronavirus Stimulus

A fourth coronavirus stimulus package, the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, was passed by Congress on April 23, 2020, and signed by the President on April 24. The $484 billion relief package replenishes a small-business loan program and provides aid to hospitals and health-care providers and funds for coronavirus testing.

The measure provides $310 billion in new funding to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program, which was created under the CARES Act and ran out of funding last week. The measure also includes $60 billion for small business emergency loans and grants; $75 billion to reimburse hospitals and health care providers for health care related expenses; and $25 billion to support efforts to increase COVID-19 testing.

The package does not include relief for state and local governments dealing with the outbreak, a measure championed by Democratic lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated that any future stimulus would likely not be approved until lawmakers return to Washington in May. “My view is we have gone so far on the national debt here that the next time we address this issue, the Senate should be back in session, fully up and running, with everybody involved in the discussion,” he said.

President Trump has indicated that he would like to see fiscal relief for state and local governments, funding for infrastructure investments, and a payroll tax cut in the next relief package. House Democrats have signaled interest in including green infrastructure measures in the next bill.

Higher education institutions received some financial relief under the CARES Act but no further assistance in the latest stimulus. Many academic institutions struggling to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic have announced or are considering furloughs and pay cuts. University of Arizona announced on April 17 that its faculty and staff will be subject to temporary furloughs and pay cuts through June 30, 2021, due to an “extreme financial crisis resulting from the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” University of Kentucky announced on April 23 that 1,700 of its employees will be furloughed to help deal with revenue shortfalls. The Johns Hopkins University, which developed the coronavirus tracking website used extensively in reporting about the outbreak, also expects to layoff and furlough employees.

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Trump Administration Finalizes WOTUS Rule

On April 21, 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers issued the final “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” defining the scope of waters federally regulated under the Clean Water Act.

The rule revises the definition of “waters of the United States” or “WOTUS” to limit the number of wetlands and waterways that would receive federal protections. The final rule removes protections for ephemeral streams that flow only after heavy rainfall or snowmelt but retains protections for streams and creeks that flow year-round or intermittently into larger downstream waters in a “typical year.” The rule also takes away protections for wetlands without surface water connections to intermittent or perennial streams. The rule maintains protections for territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; some lakes, ponds, and impoundments; and wetlands adjacent to traditionally navigable waters.

The Administration first unveiled the final rule back in January 2020, but its implementation was on hold until publication in the Federal Register. The new regulation will go into effect on June 22, 2020.

EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) have criticized the revised rule for not incorporating the “best available science.” In commentary released in February 2020, the panel concluded that the “current scientific understanding of the connectivity of surface and ground water” is not reflected in the proposed rule. “Specifically, the proposed definition of WOTUS excludes ground water, ephemeral streams, and wetlands which connect to navigable waters below the surface. The proposed Rule does not present new science to support this definition, thus the SAB finds that the proposed Rule lacks a scientific justification, while potentially introducing new risks to human and environmental health,” they added.

Some environmental groups and states have indicated that they will pursue litigation against the revised regulation, which they consider to be much narrower in scope. The rule would take away protections from 51 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of streams nationwide.

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EPA Cannot Bar Grant Recipients from Science Panels, Court Rules

A federal judge at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot bar recipients of agency grant funding from serving on its science advisory committees.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued the directive prohibiting researchers receiving EPA research funding from serving on any of the agency’s nearly two-dozen advisory committees in October 2017. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued the agency over the directive last year.

In an opinion written earlier this year, Senior Judge Denise Cote of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York said that EPA needed to provide a “reasoned explanation” for the 2017 order as the agency had “failed to articulate any reason for changing its longstanding practice of permitting EPA grant recipients to serve on EPA advisory committees.”

The April 15 ruling from Judge Cote “vacated” the directive’s provision specifying that EPA grant recipients could not serve on its advisory committees. “It simply means that the EPA may not categorically exclude EPA grant recipients from serving on advisory committees, given this Court’s conclusion that the EPA’s reasoning and record rendered its decision to do so arbitrary and capricious,” wrote Judge Cote in her decision. “The EPA must simply return to the standards that it historically applied until those standards were altered by the Directive.”

“This is an important victory for science and health,” said NRDC’s attorney Vivian Wang. “It underscores the crucial role of science in protecting our environment and public health — at a time we need science at the forefront to guide us through a dangerous pandemic.”

The 2017 directive is currently being challenged in several courts.

On April 21, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously decided that the directive was reviewable and sent the case back to a lower bench. This lawsuit was filed by EPA grant recipients who formerly served on EPA advisory boards and nonprofit groups. “Even the Directive itself agrees that ‘it is in the public interest to select the most qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced candidates,’” wrote Judge David Tatel in his opinion. “Yet the Directive nowhere confronts the possibility that excluding grant recipients — that is, individuals who EPA has independently deemed qualified enough to receive competitive funding — from advisory committees might exclude those very candidates.” An attorney representing the group challenging the directive called the decision “a resounding win for science.”

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HHS Vaccine Expert Sidelined by Trump Administration

According to a report by the New York Times, Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has alleged that he was abruptly dismissed from his role overseeing an agency centrally involved in the process of developing and ultimately making available a coronavirus vaccine for questioning investments in anti-malarial drugs.

Bright served as the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response prior to his dismissal. He said he was “involuntarily transferred to a more limited and less impactful position at the National Institutes of Health” after he called for rigorous vetting of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug endorsed by President Trump.

“I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” stated Bright. “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way.”

Bright also said that he will formally request HHS’s Inspector General “to investigate the manner in which this Administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections as well as efforts that lack scientific merit.”

Some HHS officials have disputed Bright’s claims. “As it relates to chloroquine, it was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for donations of chloroquine that Bayer and Sandoz recently made to the Strategic National Stockpile for use on COVID-19 patients,” said HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley. According to a report by Politico, five current and former HHS officials claimed that Bright had previously clashed with senior officials within the department about his decisions and his dismissal was more than a year in the making.

Dr. Bright served as Director of BARDA since 2016. Previously, he oversaw BARDA’s anti-viral program, led the influenza and emerging infectious disease branch, and also worked on the Zika virus response. “This is the removal of somebody with a very clear scientific mind and good judgment,” said Marie-Paule Kieny, a former official at the World Health Organization, who worked with Dr. Bright on developing influenza vaccines, according to the New York Times. “Rick is very reflective. He is not somebody who gets excited or screams. He looks at the evidence, he looks at the science and then he confers.”

Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), has formally requested the HHS Inspector General investigate Dr. Bright’s dismissal. Chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA), has said that she plans to hold hearings to examine the matter. “I think the American people deserve to know what happened here, because all of our collective fate rested on [the development of a vaccine],” said Representative Eshoo. She said that she would call on Secretary of Health and Human services Alex M. Azar II and an assistant secretary, Dr. Robert P. Kadlec, who supervised Dr. Bright, to serve as witnesses.

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Report Available: Leveraging Science and Academic Engagement During Incidents

On June 25-26, 2019, a workshop sponsored by the Coastal Response Research Center (CRRC) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) held in Tiburon, California, explored the integration of academic resources and expertise into a conventional oil spill response. A summary report from the workshop titled, “Leveraging Science and Academic Engagement During Incidents,” is now available.

The goal of the workshop was “to provide focused discussion regarding lessons learned from academic engagement during oil spill response, with participants from industry, government and academia.”

Experts from federal, state, and local government, industry, and academia involved in spill response, preparedness, and research participated in the program, which focused on the development of best practices for enhancing OR&R’s interaction with the academic community during a response, enabled by relationships and strategies developed during the preparedness phase. The workshop also looked at the roles, responsibilities, and strengths and limitations of the oil spill response and assessment scientific community and the academic community.

The report, which details the workshop proceedings as well as potential workshop outcomes and possible short-term actions, can be found at https://scholars.unh.edu/crrc/25/.

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National Academies' Presidents Criticize Halt in US Funding for WHO

Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, John L. Anderson, President of the National Academy of Engineering, and Victor J. Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine, have issued a statement urging continued funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) during the coronavirus pandemic.

The presidents note: “Continued funding to the WHO is critical to ensure global access to primary care and essential medicines; train the health workforce; improve monitoring and prepare for future public health emergencies; prevent noncommunicable diseases; and promote mental health, among countless other important services. Any threat to WHO’s funding could cut off a lifeline for low- and middle-income countries and place hundreds of millions of people at risk.”

The statement referenced a 2017 report by the Academies, entitled, “Global Health and the Future Role of the United States,” which concluded “the U.S. government should maintain its leadership position in global health as a matter of urgent national interest and as a global public benefit that enhances America’s international standing.”

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Last Chance to Respond: BCoN Survey on Pandemic Impact on Biodiversity Collections

Projections indicate that the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home orders will have a deep and lasting impact on many aspects of our lives and work.

In order to document the effect of the crisis on biodiversity collections and those who use and care for them, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN), the Natural Science Collections Alliance, and the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) have created this survey: https://aibs.wufoo.com/forms/biodiversity-collections-network-survey/

Anyone associated with a U.S. biodiversity collection is requested to fill out this 23-question survey. We are interested in as many individual responses as possible, recognizing that we will receive multiple responses per collection or institution. No identifying information about the identity of the responder or the institution they represent will be recorded.

This survey will be open until April 30, 2020. A summary of the results will be posted on the BCoN website (https://bcon.aibs.org/) and other venues shortly thereafter. A second survey on this subject may be mounted at a future date to document the recovery of the collections community from this crisis. All results will be freely available for use by anyone interested. We are particularly interested in comparing results with other collections communities, e.g., with living stock collections, or with biodiversity collections outside the United States.

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Increase Your Career Opportunities: 2020 Writing for Impact and Influence Online Course

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is once again offering its popular professional development program to help scientists and students hone their written communication skills to increase the power of their message.

Writing for Impact and Influence combines practical instruction and hands-on exercises to improve participants’ general writing proficiency and their ability to reach large audiences. The program will provide participants with the skills and tools needed to compose scientific press releases, blog posts, emails, and memoranda.

Learn to write for stakeholders, decision-makers, and the general public, with a focus on perfecting the reader experience.

The course consists of six 90-minute online modules conducted live and will begin on Thursday, 9 July 2020, with subsequent course sessions held weekly on Thursdays. Individuals who actively participate in and complete the full course will receive a certificate recognizing that they have completed a nine-hour professional development course on business writing for scientists.

Register now: http://io.aibs.org/writing

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Short Takes

  • The National Academies is seeking experts for a study that will develop a vision for the National Science Foundation for using an interdisciplinary, systems approach to studying the Earth. The study will identify facilities, infrastructure, coordinating mechanisms, computing, and workforce development needed to support that goal. Nominations for committee members who have cross-disciplinary expertise related to the study are invited. Expertise is needed in the fields of behavioral, social, and economic sciences; atmospheric science; climate science; biology and ecology; oceanography; hydrology; geology and geophysics; cryosphere; computer and data science; education and workforce development; engineering; and complex systems, biogeochemistry, and critical zones. Nominations can be submitted until May 13, 2020 at https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5558837/Advancing-a-Systems-Approach-to-Studying-the-Earth-A-Strategy-for-the-National-Science-Foundation?utm_source=Division+on+Earth+and+Life+Studies&utm_campaign=964ce59a9b

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is seeking experts to serve on the committee to guide the Ocean Studies Board to provide an update of the 2003 report: Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects. The Oil in the Sea IV study aims to identify, categorize, and quantify sources of hydrocarbons with an emphasis on North American waters and assess the state of the science on the fate and effects of fossil fuel hydrocarbons in the marine environment. Individuals with expertise on the following topics are needed: oil and gas production and transportation; wastewater management; marine geology and geochemistry; physical and chemical oceanography; atmospheric chemistry; hydrocarbon toxicology; coastal and marine ecology; quantitative environmental assessment; and ecological risk assessment. The deadline to submit nominations is May 15, 2020. More information at: https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5545791/Committee-for-the-Study-on-Oil-in-the-Sea-IV-Input-Fates-and-Effects?utm_source=Division+on+Earth+and+Life+Studies&utm_campaign=fb306ae558

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