Science, Medical Groups Express Support for Fetal Tissue Research

The American Institute of Biological Sciences joined a coalition of 90 scientific, academic, and medical groups to express support for the continued use of human fetal tissue in biomedical research.

In a July 28, 2020, letter to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board, the groups argued, in part: “The long-standing existing review process for fetal tissue research ensures that research using fetal tissue is scientifically meritorious, legal, and ethically sound. The legal framework for this research prohibits people from profiting from acquiring, receiving, or transferring fetal tissue for research. Each research proposal has already been favorably evaluated by subject matter experts on NIH study sections for scientific and technical merit, including significance, innovation, and approach. As the nation continues to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, we urge you to consider the potential of fetal tissue research to accelerate the development of new vaccines and viral therapies, not only for coronavirus but also for other incurable viral pathogens such as Zika and HIV. Fetal tissue research has the potential to accelerate the end to the pandemic, reduce human suffering, and enable the U.S. to better respond to future public health threats.”

The coalition urged the board to consider the potential for fetal tissue research “to advance our understanding of human biology and the development of new treatments that will reduce suffering from human diseases.”

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RISE Act Introduced in Senate

On July 23, 2020, a companion measure to the House’s Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act (H.R. 7308) was introduced in the Senate by Senators Edward Markey (D-MA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Cory Gardner (R-CO). The bipartisan legislation would provide emergency relief funding for federal science agencies to support the research community during the ongoing pandemic.

The measure, which was introduced in the House last month by Representatives Diana DeGette (D-CO), Fred Upton (R-MI), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Frank Lucas (R-OK), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), and Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), would authorize approximately $26 billion in supplemental funding for federal research agencies to be awarded to research universities, independent institutions, and national laboratories to address the COVID-19 related disruption to federally funded research.

“The research enterprise and the researchers who contribute to it every day are vital to every states economy,” said Senator Markey. “We must act now 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 legislation has been endorsed by 181 Representatives, 33 Senators, as well as more than 300 higher education, research, industry groups, and associations, including AIBS.

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Senate Lawmakers Unveil Coronavirus Relief Measure

On July 27, 2020, Republican lawmakers in the Senate unveiled a $1 trillion stimulus package to address the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability, and Schools Act or HEALS Act includes $105 billion in education funding; a “liability shield” to protect businesses, universities, schools, and hospitals from coronavirus-related lawsuits; another round of direct stimulus payments to American households; additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program and emergency business loans; and a two-thirds reduction in emergency federal supplemental unemployment payments. The bill does not include any aid for state and local governments, but it allows for more flexibility in how states allocate funds.

Of the $105 billion proposed for education funding, $70 billion would be targeted to K-12 schools. Two-thirds of that funding is intended to help schools reopen for in-person teaching. Schools would need to meet certain “minimum opening requirements” established by their states to receive those funds. President Trump previously threatened to withdraw federal funding from schools that don’t reopen. Additionally, $29 billion would be directed to higher education institutions and $5 billion to governors to allocate to either higher education or K-12 schools. The Heroes Act - the $3 trillion relief package passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May - included $8.4 billion for higher education institutions. According to the New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has expressed support for providing more than $100 billion in relief funding for education.

The HEALS Act includes an additional $16 billion in funding for testing, contact tracing, and surveillance in states; $15.5 billion for the National Institutes of Health to reopen laboratories and conduct COVID-19 research; and $26 billion for COVID-19 vaccine, therapeutic, and diagnostic development, manufacturing, and distribution. The Senate package does not include funds for other federal science agencies. The House relief package proposed $125 million for the National Science Foundation for grants to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus” and $40 million for the U.S. Geological Survey for biosurveillance and research related to wildlife-borne disease, among other provisions.

The Senate bill includes the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE). The bill intends 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 was approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs on July 22, 2020, despite concerns expressed by higher education and research groups that the legislation could restrict collaborative science.

It remains to be seen how Democratic and Republican lawmakers will reconcile the differences between the two relief packages. Speaker Pelosi plans to push for more funding, particularly for schools, while Senator Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has warned against raising the price tag for the next relief bill above $1 trillion. Several Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns about spending more money in addition to the trillions already enacted. “[A]s it stands now, I think it’s likely that you’ll see a number of Republicans in opposition to this bill and expressing serious concerns,” said Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).

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USDA Warns About Mystery Seeds in the Mail

Residents across the United States have reported receiving suspicious packages of seeds in the mail, seemingly originating in China. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is working with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, other federal agencies, and State departments of agriculture to investigate.

Mysterious packages of seeds have turned up in at least two dozen states across the US, as well as in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Researchers at APHIS have identified at least 14 varieties of plants - including cabbage, mustard, herbs, and flowers, such as morning glory and hibiscus.

At present, the USDA has no evidence suggesting this is something other than a “brushing scam” - a marketing tactic used by sellers to send people unsolicited items and then post false customer reviews to boost sales.

The USDA is concerned that the seeds might contain pests or diseases or harmful invasive species.

According to Lee Van Wychen, Executive Director of Science Policy for the Weed Science Society of America, an AIBS member organization, the U.S. does not have much history of invasive plants coming in through uninvited mail. “But there are many instances of people ordering or bringing seeds/plant propagules with them from another country and they become invasive or noxious weeds,” said Van Wychen, according to E&E News.

The USDA advises everyone who receives unsolicited seeds in the mail to seal them in a bag, hold on to the packaging and mailing label, and immediately inform their state agriculture department. Officials have warned against planting or consuming any seeds from unknown origins. USDA is collecting these suspicious packages from their recipients to test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern.

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EU Leaders Shrink Science Funding in Budget Deal

At a five-day summit held in Brussels in July, European Union (EU) leaders agreed to a 7-year, €1.8 trillion budget and pandemic recovery fund, which includes €81 billion for Horizon Europe — EU’s flagship research program — and €750 billion for pandemic recovery.

For the next seven years, starting January 2021, Horizon Europe will receive a slightly higher funding level compared to its €80 billion predecessor program Horizon 2020 and nearly €13.5 billion less than the amount proposed by the European Commission in June. In fact, the core Horizon Europe budget for the 2021-2027 period, excluding the €5 billion in pandemic recovery funds, is now €76 billion. The European Parliament had initially requested €120 billion for the program.

Kurt Deketelaere, Secretary-General of the League of European Research Universities called the spending cuts “a major disappointment and a breach of trust,” given European politicians’ rhetoric on the importance of research, according to Science Insider. “In the end, the compromise was to spend less money on the recovery and lose all ambitions on innovation. This is bad news for European growth and competitiveness,” said Christian Ehler, the European Parliament’s spokesperson on research and development, innovation, industry and energy.

The European Research Council (ERC), EU’s basic research funding organization, will not receive any recovery funding under the agreement. This means that ERC could see its budget decrease next year. Jan Palmowski, Secretary-General of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, argued that Horizon Europe’s emphasis on innovation over basic science is a “massive problem” for universities, and the cuts amplify the disparity. “It will change the way our members engage within the program,” he added.

Parliamentary committees, the European Commission, and national governments will negotiate how the funding is divided up later this year using the European Council’s agreement as a basis. Rules of participation for non-EU countries in Horizon Europe will also be negotiated during those discussions. Lawmakers might still be able to increase ERC’s share of Horizon Europe’s allocation, but this would likely result in deeper cuts to other parts of the program.

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Webinar Series: Resources for Natural History Collections in a New Virtual World

Recognizing the rapid changes happening within museum communities and the efforts being made throughout the community to adapt to these changes, iDigBio is organizing a new webinar series, entitled, Adapting to COVID-19: Resources for Natural History Collections in a New Virtual World. The webinar series aims to help provide insight into how different groups and institutions are adapting to life in a quickly evolving world. The American Institute of Biological Sciences, the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), and the Natural Science Collections Alliance contributed to the planning of these programs.

The next webinar addresses lessons learned from planning the Digital Data and SPNHC conferences:

August 25: Executing Virtual Events: Lessons learned from Digital Data & SPNHC Conference Planners
Topics to include: Zoom, Social Media, Audience Engagement/Managing Expectations, Surveys, Day of Roles and Responsibilities, Future Considerations

Webinars will be held from 2:00 - 3:30 ET. All webinars will be recorded and held in Zoom.

Follow this Zoom link to join the webinars: https://ufl.zoom.us/j/99571640979?pwd=V0VwbDBySEtBYUptNUZ2L0RQNGh0UT0

Visit the webinar series page for information on the additional webinars that will be featured in this series: https://www.idigbio.org/content/webinar-series-adapting-covid-resources-natural-history-collections-new-virtual-world

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New Members Appointed to NSB

On July 20, 2020, President Donald Trump appointed new members to the National Science Board (NSB) — the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSB advises Congress and the Administration on issues in science and engineering.

The four new appointees to the 24-member Board will serve six-year terms:

  • Sudarsanam Suresh Babu: Governor’s Chair of Advanced Manufacturing at the University of Tennessee/Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
  • Aaron Dominguez: Provost and Professor of Physics at the Catholic University of America
  • Darío Gil: Director of IBM Research
  • Melvyn Huff: Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Roger Beachy, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, has been reappointed to serve a second six-year term on the NSB. Earlier this year, University of Texas at El Paso President Heather Wilson was appointed to serve on the Board as part of the class of 2026. The remaining two NSB members are expected to be appointed in the coming months.

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Register Now: 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 U.S. House of Representatives has passed two spending packages or "minibuses," which include ten of the twelve appropriations bills that need to be passed by both chambers of Congress to fund the federal government in fiscal year (FY) 2021. On July 24, 2020, the House voted 224-189 to pass a four-bill package including the Agriculture, Interior-Environment, Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, and State-Foreign Operations spending bills. Then, on July 31, the chamber voted 217-197 to approve a six-bill package including the Defense, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy and Water, Financial Services, Labor-Health and Human Services-Education, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development spending bills. Information about the provisions included in these bills can be found here.

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space is requesting community input on the next Decadal Survey on Physical and Biological Science in Space. The committee provides an independent, authoritative forum for identifying and discussing issues in space life and physical sciences with the research community, the federal government, and the interested public. Sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the survey, expected to begin in 2020, will establish priorities and provide recommendations for research in microgravity and partial gravity for the coming decade. Preliminary ideas regarding key issues, challenges and emerging topics in the field can be submitted at https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5321308/Microgravity-Decadal. There will be a formal call for nominations and white papers at a later date, but initial thoughts on potential study chairs and committee members may be sent to microgravity@nas.edu.

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's (NASEM) Gulf Research Program is holding a webinar, Restoring the Gulf after Deepwater Horizon: Perspective from the Front Lines, on August 4, 2020 at 3:00 PM Eastern time. Gulf Oil Spill settlements entrusted approximately $16 billion to federal and state authorities to restore ecosystems affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and to enhance the Gulf region's resilience against future disasters. During the webinar, leaders engaged in implementing this effort will provide their perspectives on how restoration and resilience projects are being designed and implemented, and what lies ahead. Panelists will discuss how needs are being identified, projects funded, their progress evaluated, and relevant data shared. Register for the webinar at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/restoring-the-gulf-after-dwh-perspective-from-the-front-lines-tickets-114480159238.

  • NASEM is soliciting experts to serve on a committee charged with identifying emerging scientific and technological advances from across a broad range of disciplines that the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Research and Development (ORD) should consider in its research planning to support EPA's mission for protecting human health and the environment. The Committee on Anticipatory Research for EPA's Research and Development Enterprise to Inform Future Environmental Protection will recommend how ORD could best take advantage of those advances to meet current and future challenges during the next 10-20 years. Nominations will be accepted until August 10, 2020. More information is available at https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5738324/Anticipatory-Research-for-EPA-s-Research-and-Development-Enterprise-to-Inform-Future-Environmental-Protection-The-Road-Ahead?mc_cid=7a49bde6d5&mc_eid=cfc3938e72.

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