New Legislation Introduced to Address Foreign Influence in

As highlighted in an April 2019 editorial in BioScience, U.S. lawmakers are increasingly concerned about foreign threats to the U.S. scientific research enterprise, including threats to national security and the theft of intellectual property. Policymakers in Congress and federal agencies continue to explore how to maintain an open and collaborative scientific environment that simultaneously prevents foreign interests from stealing U.S. research. The most recent proposal from Congress comes in the form of bipartisan legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate.

The Safeguarding American Innovation Act (S. 3997) was introduced by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, to “help stop foreign governments, particularly China, from stealing American taxpayer-funded research and intellectual property developed at U.S. colleges and universities.” The bill has bipartisan support - with eight Republican and five Democratic co-sponsors. According to Senator Portman, the bill would “help us stop foreign governments from stealing our research and innovation while also increasing transparency to ensure that taxpayers know when colleges and universities accept significant foreign funding.”

If enacted, the legislation would punish individuals with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment for intentionally failing to disclose foreign support on federal grant applications. The bill would require the State Department’s exchange program sponsors to “have safeguards against unauthorized access to sensitive technologies and report to State if an exchange visitor will have access to sensitive technologies.” Another provision would allow the State Department to reject visa applications from foreign nationals “when it is contrary to U.S. national security and economic security interests of the United States.”

The bill would mandate a standardized grant process and authorize the Office of Management and Budget to work with federal grant-making agencies to oversee research security. In addition, the reporting threshold for U.S. institutions receiving foreign gifts would be lowered from $250,000 to $50,000 and the Department of Education would be given authority to punish schools that fail to appropriately report such gifts.

Some in the research community are concerned that the legislation could restrict collaborative science. According to Science Insider, the Association of American Universities, a 66-member coalition of research institutions, said in a statement that “key provisions in the bill are overly broad and will only serve to harm American science without improving national security… We appreciate that Senators Portman and Carper have changed language in certain sections of the bill in response to concerns raised by our universities, but the breadth of the current bill language could still block talented students and scholars from coming to the U.S., where they advance our science and economic interests.”

This is not the first measure proposed by lawmakers to deal with academic espionage. Last year, lawmakers in both chambers introduced legislation intended to address foreign threats to the U.S. research enterprise.

In related news, Science Insider recently reported that fifty four scientists have resigned or been fired as a result of an ongoing investigation by the National Institutes of Health into the failure of its grant recipients to appropriately disclose financial ties to foreign governments. In over 90 percent of those cases, the undisclosed funding came from China. Michael Lauer, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at NIH, reported that in the majority of the cases, the person under investigation was an Asian man in his 50s. Roughly three-quarters of the researchers under investigation had active NIH grants and nearly half of them had at least two grants.

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National Survey Shows Significant Improvements in Evolution Education

A recent survey from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and Penn State University found that public high school biology teachers are more likely to teach evolution as settled science today than they were twelve years ago.

The 2019 survey of 752 public high school biology teachers, conducted by Eric Plutzer, a political scientist and polling expert at Penn State University, was designed to replicate a similar national survey that Plutzer and his colleagues had done in 2007. Results from the survey were recently published by Plutzer and NCSE’s Glenn Branch and Ann Reid in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach.

The survey showed that the proportion of US secondary-school biology teachers who “present creationism as a scientifically valid alternative to evolution” dropped from 32 percent in 2007 to 18 percent in 2019. The amount of class time spent on human evolution increased by almost 90 percent during this period.

NCSE’s Executive Director Ann Reid wrote in a column for Nature that the results “show a rise not only in the time spent teaching evolution, but also in the proportion of educators emphasizing the scientific consensus.” The average number of hours spent on teaching evolution increased by 25 percent between 2007 and 2019. The percentage of high school biology teachers who emphasized the scientific consensus on evolution while giving no credence to creationism increased from 51 percent in 2007 to 67 percent in 2019.

“Much credit is due to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a set of benchmarks released in 2011 that emphasizes evolution as a core concept,” according to Reid. “The 44 US states that have adopted these, or standards based on the same framework, have seen the greatest improvements.”

The report concludes, that “scientific and educational institutions should continue their efforts to add scientific rigor to standards, seek out and promote textbooks and other resources that cover evolution thoroughly, support professional development opportunities for teachers, and support teachers who come under pressure from parental or community members who resist evolution instruction or advocate for the inclusion of creationism.”

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NOAA Leadership Violated Scientific Integrity Policy, Report Says

According to a review conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration that was released on June 15, 2020, leaders of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy by issuing a statement contradicting the National Weather Service after President Trump claimed that Hurricane Dorian would impact Alabama.

Last September, it was reported that the President pressured White House aides to have NOAA publicly correct forecasters at the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service (NWS), who insisted that Alabama was not actually at risk from Hurricane Dorian. NOAA, the parent agency for NWS, then issued an unsigned statement on September 6, 2019 saying the Birmingham NWS office was wrong to refute the President’s warning.

According to the report, Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs and former NOAA Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director Julie Kay Roberts violated codes of the agency’s scientific integrity policy. “The development of the statement was not based on science but appears to be largely driven by external influence from senior Commerce [Department] officials who drafted the [September 6] statement,” the report concluded.

The report recommends that NOAA staff undergo mandatory scientific integrity training and that the agency formalize an intra-agency agreement to guide interactions between the Commerce Department and NOAA officials when drafting NOAA communications. It also calls for establishing protocols with the Commerce Department’s Inspector General’s office or other agencies to investigate alleged violations of scientific integrity involving senior NOAA and Commerce political leadership.

NOAA leadership has accepted the findings of the report. “NOAA welcomes the report and its recommendations, which would strengthen the policy of consulting NOAA scientists in developing communications materials involving their expertise,” said Scott Smullen, Acting Communications Director at NOAA. “Scientific integrity is at the core of NOAA’s work and is essential for maintaining the public’s trust in the agency’s ability to provide accurate, thorough and timely science.”

The investigation was requested by Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY), two NOAA employees, a former NOAA Administrator, among others, and was conducted on NOAA’s behalf by a panel convened by the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution located in Washington, DC. There are two other investigations looking into this controversy - one by the House Science Committee and the other by the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General.

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USDA Announces Modernization Blueprint for Forest Service

The Secretary of Agriculture has issued a memorandum to the United States Forest Service that serves as a blueprint for modernizing the agency’s systems and approaches.

“It is the first priority of the Forest Service to serve the American people and work in ways that exemplify the values of Shared Stewardship. We need modern systems and approaches and less complicated regulations to serve our customers and improve our delivery of the goods and services that the American people want and need from the Nation’s Forest System,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

According to the Secretary, the purpose of the blueprint is to establish vision, priorities, and direction on four areas of the agency’s work: increasing the productivity of national forests and grasslands; recognizing and valuing grazing on national grasslands as essential for their management; increasing access to national forest system lands; and expediting environmental reviews. The memo directs the Forest Service to increase the use of natural resources from national forests, encourage grazing on public lands, and further speed up environmental reviews by limiting the number of pages and time spent on completing environmental documents, “including categorical exclusions, environmental assessments, and environmental impact statements.”

The guidance has received criticism from conservation groups. “This is a road map to national forest destruction,” said Randi Spivak, Director of public lands at the Center for Biological Diversity. “In the midst of the climate and extinction crises, Perdue offers a dystopian vision of expanding mining, fracking, logging and grazing in national forests. This will increase air and water pollution, kill wildlife, and increase carbon pollution.”

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NIH Updates Sexual Harassment Reporting Policy

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has issued new guidance on reporting cases of sexual harassment by grant recipients. Grantee institutions will now be required to report to the agency when an investigator is removed from an NIH grant because of findings or allegations of sexual harassment.

In an editorial for Science, NIH Director Francis Collins and his colleagues wrote: “In 2019, the NIH began to bolster its policies and practices to address and prevent sexual harassment. This included new communication channels to inform the agency of instances of sexual harassment related to NIH-funded research. This week, the NIH announces a change that will hold grantee institutions and investigators accountable for this misconduct, to further foster a culture whereby sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors are not tolerated in the research and training environment.”

According to the new guidance, NIH also expects grant recipients “who request changes in either investigators or movement of a grant to a new recipient institution to promptly inform the agency, whether changes are related to concerns about safety and/or work environments (e.g., because of concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions).” The agency will use this information in making grant related decisions, including “putting into place appropriate institutional oversight mechanisms or remedies, or deciding whether to grant institutional requests about personnel on grant awards, thus connecting information to direct consequences.”

The new policy went into effect on June 12, 2020. Additional information about NIH’s policies on sexual harassment be found at https://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/harassment.htm

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NSF Extends NEON Operations and Management Competition Deadlines

In response to the uncertainties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has further extended the deadline for submission of full proposals for the competition of management and operations of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) until September 2021.

“Extending the deadline is necessary to ensure a fair and equitable process, allowing all applicants to participate in activities such as NEON site visits at a time when we can better maintain the health and safety of everyone involved including NEON employees,” stated Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences Directorate Joanne Tornow. “Maintaining the stability of the Observatory while we conduct a robust and open review process is a key priority for the agency. As such, Battelle Memorial Institute, the current manager of NEON operations, will continue to manage the Observatory through the extended review process, and NSF anticipates no adverse impact to operations as a result of the full proposal deadline extension.”

Any questions about the extension or NEON in general may be directed to Roland Roberts, NEON Operations Program Director, at rolrober@nsf.gov.

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Now Online: AIBS Communications Boot Camp for Scientists

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is offering a professional development program designed to enhance the communication skills of scientists, particularly those interested in communicating with decision-makers and the news media. The program is an excellent way to develop new communication skills and identify effective methods for broadening the impact of research and education programs.

The AIBS Communications Boot Camp for Scientists expands on AIBS’s highly successful media and science policy training workshops. The Boot Camp meets the needs of everyone from graduate students to senior researchers and program administrators to newly elected professional society leaders.

The Boot Camp will be offered as an intensive, two-day, hands-on online training program on July 13-14, 2020.

Participants will learn:

  • How to communicate science to non-technical audiences
  • How to identify and define the audience you need to reach
  • How to tell a resonant story that informs decision-makers
  • How to prepare for and participate in a news interview
  • What reporters are looking for in an interview
  • How to protect your scientific reputation
  • How to advocate for your work within your home institution
  • How to hone your written communication skills to increase your impact and influence
  • How to write and pitch press releases
  • How to write Op-Eds
  • How to leverage social media
  • How the nation’s science policy is developed and implemented

Learn more about the program and register now at https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/communicationsbootcamp.html.

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Short Takes

  • National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins has appointed Dr. Richard P. Woychik as Director of NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) located at the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. NIEHS conducts and supports environmental health sciences research to address real-world public health needs. Dr. Woychik had been serving as the Acting Director of NIEHS since October 2019. Dr. Woychik earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Case Western Reserve University and has extensive expertise in mammalian genetics and environmental epigenetics.

  • The Ocean Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is seeking experts to study the United States' contributions to global ocean plastic waste. The committee will examine, evaluate, and assess various aspects of plastic waste and provide recommendations on means to reduce waste. The study will result in a published consensus report to be completed in the Fall of 2021. Expertise in the following categories is needed: waste management, resource economics, marine policy, environmental policy, marine conservations, physical oceanography, ocean observing, coastal management, and plastics recycling. Nominations will be accepted until July 17, 2020 at https://nas.us8.list-manage.com/track/click?u=18fe6f8f25ec0bc7509e65e97&id=f500949b28&e=cfc3938e72

  • Through its Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics for Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) initiative, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) aims to reduce COVID-19 associated morbidity and mortality disparities for vulnerable, and underserved populations that are disproportionately affected by, have the highest infection rates of, and/or are most at risk for adverse outcomes from contracting the virus. NIH has announced four funding opportunities as part of the $500 million RADx-UP initiative. Learn more at: https://t.co/6s80FjpIHq

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