New ICE Guidance on Foreign Students Rescinded After Swift Pushback

On July 6, 2020, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a new guidance that would have forced international students to leave the U.S. if they did not participate in in-person instruction during the fall 2020 semester.

On July 14, the Administration announced that the controversial policy facing multiple lawsuits would be dropped.

The ICE guidance modified temporary exemptions issued in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those provisions allowed nonimmigrant students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation. Under the new policy, foreign students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall 2020 semester would have been forced to “depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.”

The directive received immediate opposition from the scientific and higher education communities.

The American Institute of Biological Sciences issued a statement endorsed by more than 30 of its member societies and organizations that called for the policy to be rescinded immediately. The statement argued, in part: “While all sectors of the United States economy, including higher education institutions, are working to identify responsible strategies for invigorating the economy during an on-going global health crisis, this policy punishes students and educational institutions for behaving responsibly. As we sadly continue to see in communities across the country, premature and poorly planned re-openings are contributing to rapid increases in COVID-19, and ultimately infusing additional risk and uncertainty into the economy. To effectively mandate that universities across the nation, regardless of local needs and institutional capacity, provide and then require students to participate in in-person instruction this fall is irresponsible and dangerous.”

On July 8, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed lawsuits against the new guidance on the grounds that the Administration had failed to follow appropriate federal procedures under the Administrative Procedure Act in crafting the policy. More than 200 other universities, including Columbia, Stanford, Duke, and Yale signed court briefs supporting the lawsuit. Another group of 20 universities in the Western United States filed a lawsuit on July 13 against the order. The directive was also facing a lawsuit from 19 state Attorneys General.

A federal judge in Boston announced on July 14 that the Trump Administration had agreed to rescind the policy. The temporary exemptions issued at the beginning of the pandemic allowing international students taking online courses to reside in the United States remain in effect.

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AIBS Supports Dr. Fauci: Science, Not Politics, Must Guide COVID-19 Response

The American Institute of Biological Sciences issued the following statement on July 14, 2020, supporting Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), after the White House initiated an active campaign to discredit him.

“The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) supports the development of public policy decisions based on scientific evidence. The COVID-19 pandemic requires evidence-based decision-making, which includes accurate monitoring of the incidence and spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the implementation of policy based on existing and emerging data.

The White House has initiated a political campaign to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci by suggesting Dr. Fauci made mistakes early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Fauci is a world-renowned expert on infectious diseases who has and continues to use data to advise the White House and public about the best ways to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. AIBS resolutely supports Dr. Fauci and the thousands of other public health professionals who are providing the leadership and dedicated work required to protect the public from this terrible disease.

All political leaders in the United States, regardless of office or location, must base public health decisions on the scientific and medical advice of recognized public health experts.”

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House Begins Work on FY 2021 Appropriations

Over the past two weeks, the House Appropriations Committee has swiftly advanced all twelve appropriations bills for fiscal year (FY) 2021. These bills will now be considered by the full House of Representatives.

The Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) spending measure would provide $8.55 billion to the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is $270 million increase from FY 2020. The President proposed a 6 percent cut for the science agency for FY 2021. Research and related activities within NSF, which includes the Biological Sciences Directorate, would receive grow by $230 million to $6.97 billion in FY 2021. Under the House bill, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would receive flat funding at $22.63 billion; the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would receive $1.04 billion, an increase of 1 percent over FY 2020; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would see an increase of $102 million to $5.45 billion in FY 2021.

The Interior-Environment bill includes $36.8 billion in discretionary funding, an increase of $771 million above the FY 2020 enacted level, and $5.11 billion over the President’s FY 2021 request. The measure includes $15 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations for investments in critical infrastructure. The Department of the Interior overall would receive $13.83 billion, $304 million above the FY 2020 enacted level. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would receive $1.6 billion, an increase of $37 million above FY 2020; the National Park Service would receive $3.22 billion, $55 million above FY 2020; and the Smithsonian Institution would be funded at $1.06 billion, 1 percent above FY 2020. The Bureau of Land Management would shrink by $28 million to $1.3 billion.

Funding for the U.S. Geological Survey would grow by 2 percent to $1.29 billion in FY 2021, with its Ecosystems Mission Area receiving $261.3 million. The bill modifies and expands upon the budget restructure proposed by the Trump Administration to include the Environmental Health and Land Change Science programs under the Ecosystems account. The President had proposed eliminating the Environmental Health account, but House appropriators have allocated a flat budget of $23.5 million for the program.

Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency would be augmented by $318 million (4 percent) to a total of $9.4 billion in FY 2021. The President had proposed shrinking the agency’s budget by 26 percent. The Science and Technology account at EPA would also see a 4 percent increase to $745 million.

The Labor, Health and Human Services spending plan includes $196.5 billion in discretionary funding, $2.4 billion above the FY 2020 enacted level and $20.8 billion above the President’s request. The measure provides $24.4 billion in emergency funding to support State and local public health departments, public health laboratories, and global health activities during the pandemic. The National Institutes of Health would receive $47 billion (an increase of $5.5 billion) overall, with $42 billion (increase of $500 million) in annual appropriations and $5 billion in emergency appropriations to improve capacity at research institutions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would receive $8 billion (+$232 million) in FY 2021, in addition to $9 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations to improve preparedness for public health emergencies.

The Energy and Water Development spending bill allocates $7.05 billion to the Department of Energy Office of Science, an increase of $50 million above FY 2020. The bill would boost funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), by $10 million to $435 million rejecting the President’s proposal to eliminate the agency.

The Agriculture-FDA bill provides $3.3 billion, $90 million above FY 2020, for agricultural research programs, including the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The bill targets funding to research to mitigate and stop devastating crop diseases, improve food safety and water quality, increase production, and combat antimicrobial resistance. Funding for ARS would be slashed by 10 percent to $1.45 billion, while NIFA, which partners with academic institutions to conduct research, education, and extension activities, would receive $1.57 billion, an increase of 3 percent above FY 2020. The bill boosts funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative by $10 million to $435 million.

Next week, the House of Representatives will consider a four-bill appropriations package or “minibus,” which includes spending bills for State-Foreign Operations, Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA, Interior-Environment, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. Lawmakers in the House are planning to swiftly advance and pass all FY 2021 appropriations bills by the end of July, while markups of spending legislation have been delayed in the Senate Appropriations Committee over partisan disagreements on police reform and COVID-19 spending. Both chambers of Congress will need to pass all 12 appropriations bills or pass a stopgap measure before the end of the fiscal year on September 30 to avoid a government shutdown.

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Hospitals Ordered to Bypass CDC, Send COVID-19 Data to Washington

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a notice ordering hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and send all COVID-19 patient data to a centralized database effective July 15, 2020. The directive has raised concerns about transparency and public access to data.

According to the order, HHS, and not CDC, will now collect daily reports about COVID-19 patients being treated at each hospital, the number of beds and ventilators available, and other information related to tracking and monitoring the pandemic. The new guidance also states that if hospitals were reporting this information to their states, they “may be relieved from reporting directly to the Federal Government if they receive a written release from the State stating that the State will collect the data from the hospitals and take over Federal reporting responsibilities.”

It is not clear if the new centralized HHS database — managed by TeleTracking, a Pittsburgh-based health data firm — will be open to the public, according to the New York Times. This could impact the work of researchers, modelers, and health officials who currently rely on CDC data to make projections and important decisions regarding the ongoing health crisis. Questions have also been raised about whether the contract to TeleTracking was properly awarded. “Given the importance of collecting this data as quickly as possible, I have several questions about the Trump Administration’s decision to award a multimillion dollar contract on a non-competitive basis to create a seemingly duplicative data collection system,” stated Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

According to officials, the change will streamline data gathering and assist the White House coronavirus task force in allocating resources such as personal protective equipment. HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo called the CDC’s system inadequate. He said that the two systems would be linked and CDC would continue to make data public. “Today, the CDC still has at least a week lag in reporting hospital data,” said Caputo. “America requires it in real time. The new, faster and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the coronavirus, and the CDC, an operating division of HHS, will certainly participate in this streamlined all-of-government response. They will simply no longer control it.”

The move has been criticized by former government health officials. “Centralizing control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus is dangerous and breeds distrust,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, former Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS. “It appears to cut off the ability of agencies like CDC to do its basic job.” Representative Donna Shalala (D-FL), who served as the Secretary of HHS under President Bill Clinton said: “Only the C.D.C. has the expertise to collect data… I think any move to take responsibility away from the people who have the expertise is politicizing.”

AIBS has endorsed a community letter led by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, HIV Medicine Association, American Society for Microbiology, and American Public Health Association, urging the Administration to reverse its decision to bypass the CDC in the collection of COVID-19 patient data in order to maintain the integrity of the data and keep public health data public. The letter calls for investing in data reporting at the CDC and highlights the importance of the data to inform state and jurisdictional responses.

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Faculty Concerned About Returning to In-Person Teaching

Faculty across the country are expressing concerns about the health implications of returning to in-person instruction this fall semester, according to a report by Inside Higher Ed.

A June 2020 survey of Purdue University faculty and staff members and graduate students, which received more than 7,000 responses, found that 53 percent of respondents felt unsafe about returning to campus for in-person classes in fall. Sixty-two percent of respondents felt at least somewhat unsafe teaching or interacting with students. Ninety-two percent said they were not confident students would “socially distance appropriately outside the classroom.” Just under 60 percent of respondents said they lacked confidence that students would wear masks “most of the time,” despite a rule requiring face coverings.

About three-quarters of faculty members at Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities surveyed by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties do not believe they can safely teach face-to-face in the fall semester. About 40 percent of faculty respondents reported having a medical condition that puts them at increased risk of severe illness as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 60 percent are very concerned about contracting COVID-19 or potentially exposing their family. Only 12 percent want to return to teach in person in fall.

Faculty members at numerous other institutions have completed similar surveys, launched petitions, published op-eds, and expressed concerns to their administrations and governing boards about returning to campus in the fall. Many have suggested that instructors should not be forced to teach in-person, and that teaching remotely shouldn’t require any special medical exemption.

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New Acting Director for NIFA

The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced on July 10, 2020, that Dr. Parag Chitnis will serve as the next Acting Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) - U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary extramural research funding agency.

“Dr. Chitnis brings more than 31 years of scientific research and experience to the Director’s office. He has been instrumental in providing steady leadership and support to NIFA during its transition to Kansas City last fall, in addition to playing a lead role on NIFA’s Project CAFÉ (Collaboratively Achieving Functional Excellence) initiative which aims to help NIFA maximize business operations to better serve its customers,” said Secretary of Agriculture Perdue.

Dr. Chitnis replaces former NIFA Director Dr. Scott Angle, who accepted a position as Vice President of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Dr. Chitnis has been serving as Associate Director for Programs where he has led the implementation of NIFA’s research programs. He previously served as Deputy Director for NIFA’s Institute of Food Production and Sustainability, which supports research and extension activities in plant, animal, and agricultural systems. Dr. Chitnis has also served as a research administrator at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. Dr. Chitnis has a B.S. in botany/plant breeding from the Konkan Agricultural University in India, an M.S. in genetics/biochemistry from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, and Ph.D. in biology from the University of California at Los Angeles.

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Now Online: AIBS Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists

Registration is now open for the Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists, an online professional development program from the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate programs in the United States do an excellent job of preparing students for careers in academia. As early career professionals and a growing number of reports note, however, many recent STEM graduates (including those with advanced degrees) are interested in employment in sectors beyond the professoriate by the time they complete their degree.

Scientists continue to report that they feel ill-prepared and ill-equipped to pursue employment in these settings.

To help scientists identify and successfully transition into the careers they desire, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) developed a program to help scientists hone and practice the skills needed to secure employment. AIBS’ Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists is an intensive multi-day program that blends lecture and hands-on exercises. Designed by scientists with years of work experience in diverse settings and a career coach, this program provides graduate students to senior scientists with the information, tools, and resources required to successfully identify and secure employment in a diversity of careers, including science policy, communications, researchers or program managers in the private sector, research funding organizations, non-profit management, international development, government agencies, and others.

Course participants will:

  • Identify and clarify career interests and opportunities by reviewing currently available jobs;
  • Learn to communicate their knowledge and skills to employers by providing tools and activities;
  • Develop strategies for finding employment;
  • Develop application materials with feedback from instructors;
  • Prepare for and practice different interview styles and scenarios.

Current graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and scientists interested in transitioning to a new employment sector should consider signing up.

This course will be offered online in three half-day sessions conducted on September 25, October 2, and October 9, 2020. The program will be offered live from 12:00 - 3:30 PM Eastern Time.

For more information, including a general program agenda, and to register, please visit: https://www.aibs.org/events/employmentbootcamp.html

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Enter the 2020 Faces of Biology Photo Contest

Enter the Faces of Biology Photo Contest for your chance to win $250 and to have your photo appear on the cover of the journal BioScience.

The competition, sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), recognizes scientists who use imagery to communicate aspects of biological research to the public and policymakers.

The theme of the contest is “Faces of Biology.” Photographs entered into the contest must depict a person, such as a scientist, researcher, collections curator, technician, or student, engaging in biological research. The depicted research may occur outside, in a lab, with a natural history collection, on a computer, in a classroom, or elsewhere.

The First Place Winner will have his/her winning photo featured on the cover of BioScience, and will receive $250 and a one year subscription to BioScience. The Second and Third Place Winners will have his/her winning photo printed inside BioScience, and will receive a one year subscription to BioScience.

The winning photo from the 2019 contest was featured on the cover of the April 2020 issue of BioScience.

Submissions must be received by 11:59:59 p.m. Eastern Time on September 30, 2020.

For more information or to enter the contest, visit https://www.aibs.org/public-programs/photocontest.html.

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Short Takes

  • The National Science Board (NSB) is accepting nominations for its 2021 honorary public service awards. The Vannevar Bush Award recognizes lifelong leaders in science and technology who have made substantial contributions to the welfare of the nation through public service in science, technology, and public policy. The Public Service Award honors individuals and groups for substantial contributions to increasing public understanding of science and engineering. Nominations are due by September 30, 2020. Learn more about the awards and submit a nomination at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/awards/.

  • The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is soliciting public comment on the proposed themes and framework of the Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5). Based on input received from this notice, USGCRP will develop an annotated outline, which will be released for public comment at a later date. USGCRP also requests public input on ways to make the assessment information accessible and useful to multiple audiences; specific types of detailed information on regional scales that would be most useful to stakeholders; how to best describe risks and impacts, as well as potential opportunities to reduce those risks and impacts on sectors of the economy and natural and social systems; new approaches to topics addressed in previous assessments; overarching themes that NCA5 should consider addressing; and other relevant topics. Comments must be received by August 10, 2020. More information can be found at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-07-10/html/2020-14904.htm

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) issued a report in 2015 that recommended strategic priorities for the National Science Foundation's Antarctic and Southern Ocean research for the next decade. NASEM is now seeking experts in areas of life sciences; cryospheric science; oceanic, atmospheric, and climate sciences; and polar-based astrophysics, to carry out a mid-term assessment of progress in addressing the research goals and to identify significant recent advances in scientific understanding and technical capabilities that would present new opportunities for progress toward these goals. The study will also address implementation challenges in advancing these research areas. Nominations are due July 20, 2020 at https://nas.us8.list-manage.com/track/click?u=18fe6f8f25ec0bc7509e65e97&id=cc4f94813f&e=cfc3938e72

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