NSB Provides Roadmap for U.S. Science and Engineering for the Next Decade

On May 5, 2020, the National Science Board (NSB or Board), the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF), released a new report urging action to retain U.S. leadership in fundamental research, and to increase science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills and opportunities for Americans.

The Vision 2030 report “identifies threats to the U.S. science and engineering (S&E) enterprise on which the health, security, and economic prosperity of Americans depend.” Dr. Roger Beachy, Chair of the NSB Vision 2030 Task Force, said: “This report provides a vision of where the U.S. S&E enterprise must be in 2030 and lays out the actions that the Board, NSF, and others can take to achieve that vision so that America remains a global leader.” He added, “We hope Vision 2030 inspires others to join with NSF to take the actions our country needs.”

“Realizing this vision will require all entities in America’s S&E ecosystem to act,” according to the report. NSB has committed to a number of actions, in partnership with NSF and other leaders in the science community, to retain and enhance U.S. global S&E leadership. These include: 1) performing an “organizational review of NSF and offering recommendations on changes to directorate structure, funding models, and programmatic offerings”; 2) “convening university, industry, and state partners to identify best practices and regulatory, structural, or administrative barriers to partnerships and translation of NSF-funded research”; (3) engaging in discussions with lawmakers and the White House on a new federal program for public post-secondary education institutions that would develop a STEM-capable workforce in every state; and 4) developing and expanding NSF’s strategies and partnerships “to grow international collaborations, attract global talent, and create international education and training opportunities.”

“Our nation is no longer the uncontested leader in S&E,” said Dr. Diane Souvaine, NSB Chair. “We cannot be complacent. We must adapt. As we look to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, we can be sure that scientific discoveries and inventions will continue to open new, unexpected frontiers that benefit us all.”

The report builds on NSB’s findings from the 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators, released earlier this year. That report concluded that the U.S. share of global R&D investments has declined in recent years. In order to develop the vision, NSB also consulted with the S&E community through twelve listening sessions held around the country with individuals from about 70 organizations, including colleges, universities, philanthropies, businesses, and scientific and academic associations, as well as from NSF.

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New Resource for Spotting COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

The COVID-19 pandemic provides fertile ground for the emergence and spread of new conspiracy theories, often with significant negative implications for public health and well-being. A new resource has been developed by experts in communications and the spread of misinformation to help people spot and respond to conspiracy theories.

How to Spot COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories,” was developed by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Ullrich Ecker, and Sander van der Linden.

According to the authors: “When people suffer a loss of control or feel threatened, they become more vulnerable to believing conspiracies. For example, the Black Death in the 14th century inspired anti-Semitic hysteria and when cholera broke out in Russia in 1892, blame fell on doctors and crowds hunted down anybody in a white coat.”

In order to avoid being misled by conspiracy theories, people can learn to identify them using certain “telltale thought patterns.” The document highlights seven traits of conspiratorial thinking: contradictory, overriding suspicion, nefarious intent, something must be wrong, persecuted victim, immune to evidence, and re-interpreting randomness.

In addition to the resource above, the World Health Organization has a myth buster resource that chronicles and dispels many current widespread myths about the spread and treatment of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19.

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NIH Terminates Bat Coronavirus Research Grant

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has terminated a grant supporting research in China on how coronaviruses spread from bats to humans, according to a report in Politico.

The decision followed unverified reports from U.S. lawmakers and conservative media suggesting that the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic originated in a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, which employs a Chinese virologist who had been receiving funding from the NIH grant in question. Seven days before the grant was terminated, President Trump, when asked about the project, said, “We will end that grant very quickly.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have found no evidence supporting the claim that the virus originated in the lab. According to an April 30 press release from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” The intelligence community added that they “will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

NIH informed the study’s sponsor, EcoHealth Alliance, on April 24, 2020 that all future funding was cut. “At this time, NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities,” wrote Michael Lauer, Deputy Director for extramural research at NIH, in a letter to EcoHealth Alliance officials.

“For the past 20 years our organization has been investigating the sources of emerging diseases such as COVID-19,” responded EcoHealth Alliance. “We work in the United States and in over 25 countries with institutions that have been pre-approved by federal funding agencies to do scientific research critical to preventing pandemics. We are planning to talk with NIH to understand the rationale behind their decision.” The group has received more than $3.7 million in the past five years to study the risks of coronavirus spread through bats and the potential for spillover into humans.

NIH’s decision has received swift criticism from the research community, according to Science Insider. Gerald Keusch, former Director of NIH’s Fogarty International Center and currently with the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory at Boston University, described the move as “counterproductive,” given the study’s importance to understanding the current crisis. “This is a horrible precedent,” said Keusch. “There’s a culture of attacking really critical science for cheap political gain,” said Dennis Carroll, retired Director of the emerging threats division at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Some experts question the legality of the agency’s unilateral decision to cancel a funded grant and think the move may have violated regulations governing NIH. The agency has latitude to cancel grant awards in cases of scientific misconduct by the investigators or conflict of interest, according to Heather Pierce, Senior Director and Regulatory Counsel at the Association of American Medical Colleges. In this case, however, the investigators have not been charged with any wrongdoing.

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Lawmakers Call for Next Coronavirus Relief Package to Support Scientific Workforce

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have called for the next coronavirus stimulus package to include $26 billion in funding to address the challenges faced by the U.S. scientific workforce during the pandemic. The proposed funding would cover supplements for research grants and contracts, provide emergency relief to sustain research support personnel and operating costs for research facilities, and fund additional graduate student and postdoc fellowships, traineeships, and research assistantships for up to two years. The Dear Colleague Letters calling for this support has been endorsed by several scientific organizations, including AIBS.

In the House of Representatives, the letter led by Representatives Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Fred Upton (R-MI) garnered bipartisan support from 180 other Representatives. The letter reads, in part: “While Federal rules have allowed researchers to continue to receive their salaries from federal grant funding, their work has been stopped due to shuttered laboratories and facilities and many researchers are currently unable to make progress on their grants. Additionally, researchers will need supplemental funding to support an additional four months’ salary, as many campuses will remain shuttered until the fall, at the earliest. Many core research facilities - typically funded by user fees - sit idle. Still, others have incurred significant costs for shutting down their labs, donating the personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline health care workers, and cancelling planned experiments…Congress must act to preserve our current scientific workforce and ensure that the U.S. is prepared to continue our global scientific leadership once this crisis ends.”

The Senate letter, led by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), has been signed by 31 Senators. “Research universities, academic medical centers, and national labs are major employers in all 50 states, and protecting the research workforce is critical to state economies,” stated the Senators. “Congress must act to preserve our current scientific workforce and ensure that the U.S. is prepared to continue our global scientific leadership once this crisis ends.”

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Study: Federal Scientists Warned About Undermining Science Before COVID-19

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has published a study in PLOS ONE that shows that a few years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists and experts within the federal government were concerned that the Trump administration was undermining scientific capacity and making it challenging for federal scientists to perform their work and share it with the public.

The paper, Perceived losses of scientific integrity under the Trump administration: A survey of federal scientists, analyzed a 2018 survey of more than 63,000 federal scientists across 16 agencies done by UCS and Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics & Methodology.

“We found a pattern of neglect and political interference across the administration,” said Dr. Gretchen Goldman, Research Director at the Center for Science and Democracy (CSD) at UCS and a co-author of the study. “Half of the survey’s respondents said that it was harder for their agencies to make science-based decisions because of political appointees’ involvement. Scientists within the government were raising the alarm well before COVID-19 appeared on the horizon.”

In their survey responses, scientists pointed out a number of challenges they faced, including workforce reductions, restrictions on public communication of information, political interference in scientific work, and adverse work environments.

Read the paper at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0231929

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Now in BioScience: Policy for Bioeconomic Growth

A new Washington Watch column, Policy for Bioeconomic Growth, by AIBS Public Policy Manager Jyotsna Pandey is now available in BioScience. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that biology and the economy are tightly linked. The article discusses the policy implications of growing and safeguarding the bioeconomy. Below is an excerpt.

“Policymakers around the world increasingly look to biology to strengthen economies and promote national security and well-being. But what is the bioeconomy, and how can policy promote its growth?

According to a 2020 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, in 2016, the US bioeconomy was estimated to account for 5.1 percent of US gross domestic product (GDP), or $959.2 billion, with the potential to grow to 7.4 percent.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) had identified bioeconomic innovation as a research and development priority. The Obama administration released the National Bioeconomy Blueprint in 2012. In 2019, the OSTP reraised the profile of the bioeconomy and asked the scientific community to suggest actions to strengthen it.”

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State Department Teleconference on Digital Sequence Information of Genetic Resources

The U.S. Department of State has announced a public teleconference on the “Use of Digital Sequence Information of Genetic Resources,” on May 14, 2020 from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM Eastern time. This meeting replaces the March 12 in-person meeting.

International discussions around the use of digital sequence information (DSI) are currently being conducted in multiple international forums - the Nagoya Protocol, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Health Organization, the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction negotiations - that have implications for both public and private scientific research. During the public meeting, officials from the State Department will provide a brief overview of the ongoing discussions regarding DSI on genetic resources in the context of the CBD and the Nagoya Protocol and will listen to your comments, concerns, and questions about this issue. The goal is an informal discussion that will help the U.S. Government prepare for U.S. participation in international meetings.

You may register to attend the teleconference by submitting your full name and organization to Patrick Reilly at ReillyPK2@state.gov and copying RSVP-ECW@state.gov at least three days prior to the meeting. If you are unable to join, you can submit comments electronically at www.regulations.gov, using the docket number [DOS-2020-2017]. For more information, visit: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-04-24/html/2020-08784.htm

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Increase Your Career Opportunities: 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

  • President Trump has announced his intent to nominate three new members to the National Science Board (NSB), the policymaking body of the National Science Foundation. He will nominate Catholic University Provost and particle physicist Dr. Aaron Dominguez, Director of IBM Research Dr. Dario Gil, and Dr. Sudarsanam Babu of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to serve six year terms on the board. Dr. Roger Beachy, Professor Emeritus in Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, will be reappointed to serve another six-year term.

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is soliciting nominations for members of its Science Advisory Board (SAB). The committee of approximately fifteen members advises the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans, Atmosphere, and NOAA Administrator on long- and short-range strategies for research, education, and application of science to resource management and environmental assessment and prediction. Nominations should be submitted electronically to noaa.sab.newmembers@noaa.gov by June 22, 2020. More information at: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-05-06/html/2020-09641.htm

  • The U.S. Department of State, in coordination with the Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology, is requesting expert review of the draft World Ocean Assessment. The World Ocean Assessment is the product of the United Nations' regular process for global reporting on, and assessment of, the state of the marine environment, including socioeconomic aspects. Starting April 27, 2020, experts may register to review the draft assessment at https://review.globalchange.gov, a web-based review and comment system. Reviewers will have until midnight May 21, 2020 to submit their comments. For more information, visit: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-04-28/html/2020-08917.htm

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