Survey Data Highlight COVID-19 Impacts on Science Collections

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN), Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSC Alliance), and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) surveyed individuals affiliated with US biodiversity science collections to better understand the effects of COVID-19 related disruptions and closures on biodiversity collections, and the people who use and care for these scientific resources. The survey was conducted in April 2020.

Individuals working in biodiversity collections were invited to complete a 23-question survey. No identifying information about the individual or institution was requested.

More than 390 individuals completed the survey.

Results include:

  • 96% of natural history collections were unavailable for use in April.
  • Most of the scientific collections reported some regular monitoring of resources, but less than 30% were being monitored for pests - a significant threat to collections.
  • More than 90% of respondents were working from home, mostly on some aspect of data transcription based on specimen images captured prior to the shutdown.
  • When asked about chief concerns arising from a 1-3 month closure:
    • Just under 64% were worried about their ability to provide vital research resources;
    • Just under 49% were worried about a loss of funding for collections care materials and supplies;
    • Just over 47% were concerned about their ability to provide outreach opportunities for the public;
    • Nearly 47% were concerned about the loss of staff because of budget cuts;
    • 43.5% were concerned about their ability to meet existing grant and contract deadlines.

Survey results are available.

Follow-up surveys will be conducted to understand the effects of budget reductions that collections may experience, and the impact of COVID-19 prevention measures on scientific collections management and research productivity.

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Scientific, Medical Groups Oppose Political Interference with NIH Research Grant

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) joined 30 other scientific and medical associations to express deep concerns about the revocation of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded research grant to study coronavirus.

Last month, NIH terminated a peer-reviewed research grant awarded in June 2019 that was investigating how coronaviruses move from their natural hosts to humans. The decision came after unverified reports from U.S. lawmakers and conservative media suggested that the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, which employs a Chinese virologist who had been receiving funding from the grant in question.

“Not only is this decision counterintuitive, given the urgent need to better understand the virus that causes COVID-19 and identify drugs that will save lives, but it politicizes science at a time when, if we are to stamp out this scourge, we need the public to trust experts and to take collective action,” the societies wrote in a May 20, 2020 letter addressed to NIH Director Francis Collins. “The scientific community urges federal funding agencies and policymakers to ensure the transparency, openness, and collaborative nature of the American biomedical research enterprise. We call on the NIH to be transparent about their decision-making process on this matter. We urge federal funding agencies to safeguard the American biomedical research enterprise. The action taken by the NIH must be immediately reconsidered.”

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House Approves Next Coronavirus Stimulus, Includes Research Funding

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a new coronavirus relief package, The Heroes Act, on May 15, 2020. If passed by the Senate and signed by the President, this will be the fifth measure adopted by Congress to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $3 trillion stimulus bill includes $1 trillion in assistance for state, local, territorial, and tribal governments; $75 billion for coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and isolation measures; emergency supplemental appropriations to federal agencies; another round of direct payments; and $200 billion for a “Heroes’ fund” to provide hazard pay for essential workers.

The bill includes funds to support coronavirus-related research. The National Institutes of Health would receive $4.721 billion to “expand COVID-19-related research on the NIH campus and at academic institutions across the country and to support the shutdown and startup costs of biomedical research laboratories nationwide.” $4 billion would be directed to the Office of the Director, of which $3 billion would be available for “offsetting the costs related to reductions in lab productivity resulting from the coronavirus pandemic or public health measures related to the coronavirus pandemic” and the remaining $1 billion would “support additional scientific research or the programs and platforms that support research.” The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases would receive $500 million and the National Institute for Mental Health would get $200 million, “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”

The National Science Foundation would receive $125 million for grants to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” The bill allocates $1 million for a study on “the spread of COVID-19 related disinformation.” NSF could also transfer up to $2.5 million of its allocation to its “Agency Operations and Award Management” account for management, administration, and oversight of the funds provided.

Other research related highlights from the relief package include:

  • $40 million for the U.S. Geological Survey for biosurveillance and research related to wildlife-borne disease.
  • $50 million for the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental justice grants, including those investigating “links between pollution exposure and the transmission and health outcomes of coronavirus in environmental justice communities.
  • $8.4 billion for higher education institutions “to defray expenses (including lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, faculty and staff trainings, and payroll) incurred by institutions of higher education.”

The bill would provide $71 million to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “to support activities related to wildlife-borne disease prevention, with $50 million for grants through the State and Tribal Wildlife grant program.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services would receive $5 million to support libraries and museums with expenses associated with the pandemic, including operational support and providing technology and resources for their communities.

Republican lawmakers in the Senate have said they do not consider the House’s plan a serious legislative endeavor, according to E&E News. Some Democratic lawmakers have indicated that the bill is only a starting point for negotiations with the Senate and White House on government measures that need to be taken to respond to the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) criticized the bill as a “totally unserious effort” and a “Democratic wish list.” House Republicans characterized some of the research allocations as “wasteful spending.”

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House Relief Package Includes Scientific Integrity Amendment

The pandemic relief package, the Heroes Act, passed by the House on May 15, includes provisions of a scientific integrity bill that would protect federal scientists from political interference.

The Scientific Integrity Act or SIA (H.R. 1709), sponsored by Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY), was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in October 2019. Provisions of the legislation, which currently has 232 bipartisan cosponsors, were attached to the latest coronavirus relief measure as a manager’s amendment.

SIA requires federal agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research to adopt and enforce clear scientific integrity policies. The bill would prohibit the government from suppressing agency scientific research findings and intimidating or coercing individuals to alter or censor scientific findings.

Earlier this month, Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representatives Tonko, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Haley Stevens(D-MI), and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) sent letters to Senate and House leadership urging the inclusion of the SIA provisions in COVID-19 related legislation. The lawmakers wrote, in part: “Science underpins the response to the COVID-19 crisis. Whether it is a government official trying to help impacted citizens; a business owner trying to keep employees safe; or parents protecting their family, everyone needs access to the best and most up-to-date scientific information available. Scientific integrity ensures the quality and reliability of the federal science that governments, businesses, and individuals rely on, and we therefore request that you include H.R. 1709, the Scientific Integrity Act, (the SIA) into the next COVID-19 relief package.”

“I think everyone particularly in the time of a pandemic can see how important it is to hear from the scientific experts directly, without political filters,” said Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, according to The Hill. “The principles are that scientists have the right to speak out about their science and political officials can’t stop them from doing so.”

In related news, a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Inspector General (IG) based on a survey of 4,320 employees has found that 59 percent of agency staff have expressed “dissatisfaction with EPA’s culture of [scientific integrity].” Fifty-seven percent of EPA staff said they were dissatisfied with the agency’s release of scientific information to the public. The IG advised the agency “to examine the causes associated with the [scientific integrity] concerns identified in our survey and communicate the results to Agency employees, including planned actions to address the causes.” The report concluded that, “Improving implementation of the [scientific integrity] policy will enable the EPA to more effectively carry out its mission to protect human health and the environment.”

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Scientific Organizations Criticize EPA's Proposed Transparency Rule

AIBS has joined a coalition of scientific organizations in expressing concerns with a supplemental addition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” that would bar the use of scientific studies in crafting regulations unless the underlying data “are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.”

The supplemental notice to the proposed rulemaking, which was published on March 18, 2020, would further broaden restrictions on the type of scientific studies EPA can use when crafting regulations. The agency initially provided 30 days to submit comments on the supplemental addition, but later extended the comment period by another 30 days until May 18.

Expressing strong opposition to the supplemental, a group of 55 public health, medical, academic, and scientific organizations wrote: “Like the original proposed rule, this supplemental proposal would undermine sound science and put Americans’ health and the environment at risk. We are deeply concerned with EPA’s continued efforts to impede the use of critical science and implore the agency to withdraw the proposal.”

Another coalition of 38 scientific, engineering, and higher education organizations submitted joint comments to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler expressing concerns that the proposal would undermine EPA’s ability to use the best available science in crafting regulations. The comments read, in part: “While the supplemental attempts to clarify the original proposed rule and address concerns previously raised by the scientific community, the changes proposed by EPA add yet another set of issues and concerns that will negatively impact the use of science at EPA and do not resolve many of our original concerns. We strongly believe the proposed rule and supplemental would diminish the critical role of scientific evidence in decisions that impact the health of Americans. Simply put, excluding the best available science, as this proposed rule would do, puts public health and the environment at risk. We strongly request the EPA rescind this proposal in its entirety for reasons outlined below.”

Both letters have been endorsed by AIBS.

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Science Community Expresses Concerns with Executive Proclamation on Immigration

Thirty-six scientific organizations, including AIBS, have expressed concerns about the April 22, 2020, Executive Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak.

In a letter to President Trump, the groups wrote: “Our safety and return to daily activities following the COVID-19 outbreak will largely be delivered by America’s STEM enterprise. This enterprise will also play a vital role in U.S. economic recovery. Limiting immigration to the United States reduces our ability to attract the best available minds to this endeavor. We stand ready to work with you to formulate policies that accelerate this scientific and technological progress while invigorating our nation’s economy.”

The organizations have urged the White House to “prioritize the immigration of science and technology talent that will spur the scientific breakthroughs and economic growth of the United States that is needed for rapid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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On the Importance of Science to Society: A Call for Government Action

In the May 2020 issue of BioScience, AIBS President Dr. Charles Fenster and Executive Director Dr. Robert Gropp urge governments to coordinate to promote greater understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, including the development of a vaccine. They further call on governments to “build the infrastructure needed to foster timely scientific exchange and the conversion of scientific information into responsible public policy - both domestically and internationally, for the current and future crises.”

They further warn, “Understanding the origins of the current global health crisis resulting from the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, demands attention beyond the immediate needs of stopping its spread, caring for those suffering from COVID-19, finding medical interventions, and protecting healthcare workers. There will be more global health crises in the future, along with other global challenges, such as those arising from biodiversity loss and climate change. Society must do a better job of investing in scientific research and incorporating what is learned into responsible and forward-looking public policy—decisions guided by fact and not wishful or magical thinking.”

Read On the Importance of Science of Science to Society at https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biaa047

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Now Online: Enabling Interdisciplinary and Team Science

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, online 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.

Dates: June 15-16, 2020

Location: Online

Learn more and register at https://www.aibs.org/events/teamscienceevent.html.

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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

  • Center for Scientific Review (CSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched a new online portal through which scientific societies may recommend scientists to serve as NIH reviewers. This tool was developed in response to requests from professional societies for a way to recommend potential reviewers and is part of CSR's ongoing efforts to refresh and expand the pool of well-qualified reviewers in every area of science. Learn more at: https://www.csr.nih.gov/reviewmatters/2020/05/07/broadening-the-reviewer-pool-a-new-tool-for-societies-to-recommend-reviewers/

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is organizing a virtual workshop titled "Integrating the Science of Aging and Environmental Health Research" to be held on June 9-10, 2020. The workshop, which is part of the Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions project, will explore emerging research at the intersection between aging, longevity, environmental exposures, and human health. Workshop speakers will detail emerging research findings through two lenses: how environmental exposures influence or mediate aging and how aging influences environmentally-mediated health outcomes. For more information and to register, visit: http://nas-sites.org/emergingscience/integrating-the-science-of-aging-into-environmental-health-research/

  • Dr. Ottoline Leyser, a plant biologist, will serve as the next Director of the United Kingdom's (UK) research funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Leyser is the Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at University of Cambridge, a leading plant research center. She chairs the Royal Society's Science Policy Expert Advisory Committee and serves on the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours list for services to plant science, science in society, and equality and diversity in science. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences and a Member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the Leopoldina. She received her BA and PhD in Genetics from the University of Cambridge.

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