President Signs Executive Orders as COVID Relief Negotiations Collapse

After COVID relief negotiations between White House representatives and Democratic congressional leaders reached an impasse, President Trump signed a series of Executive Orders on August 8, 2020, the White House argued would restore lapsed benefits and address some of the pandemic’s economic impacts.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin began negotiations on the next coronavirus stimulus after Senate Republicans introduced a $1 trillion relief package on July 27. The House had passed a broader $3 trillion measure - the Heroes Act - in May. Talks broke down when an agreement could not be reached on unemployment benefits and additional state and local government aid. Trump said that he was open to future talks but in the meantime announced Executive Actions that he argued “will take care of, pretty much, this entire situation.”

The Executive Orders signed by President Trump aim to extend the enhanced unemployment benefits and eviction moratorium, to defer payroll tax payments from September through December for people earning less than $100,000, and to extend student loan payment relief. Some of the Executive actions are expected to face legal challenges. Setting aside the legality of the actions, many warn that the directives are too confused to implement.

Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer said the orders were legally questionable and do not address COVID-19 testing, funds to help schools reopen safely, or additional aid for states and local governments. They expressed disappointment at the “unworkable, weak and narrow policy announcements to slash the unemployment benefits that millions desperately need and endanger seniors’ Social Security and Medicare.”

One of the Executive orders would provide $400 in weekly enhanced unemployment aid, but calls on states to pay 25 percent of this funding. Many states are currently struggling with budget shortfalls as a result of the economic crisis, which makes it unlikely that these benefits will reach the unemployed. The federal contribution would be redirected from disaster relief funding at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Schumer said the plan was unworkable as “most states will take months to implement it, because it’s brand-new, it’s sort of put together with spit and paste. And many states, because they have to chip in $100 and they don’t have money, won’t do it.” Schumer also criticized the move to draw $44 billion from FEMA “when we’re at the height of hurricane season.”

The federal moratorium on evictions expired last month. Pelosi noted that Trump’s eviction order calls on the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to consider “whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions of any tenants for failure to pay rent are reasonably necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 from one State or possession into any other State or possession.” Pelosi criticized the order explaining, “While it has the illusion of saying, ‘We’re going to have a moratorium on evictions,’ it says, ‘I’m going to ask the folks in charge to study if that’s feasible’.”

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are calling for the White House to resume negotiations on a relief package. “Congress must act quickly,” said Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). “There are constitutional limits on what the president can do to help through executive orders.” She pointed to the Paycheck Protection Program, which “cannot be extended by executive order.” Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) called the order to defer payroll taxes “unconstitutional,” arguing, “President Trump does not have the power to unilaterally rewrite the payroll tax law. Under the Constitution, that power belongs to the American people acting through their members of Congress.”

With the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) facing severe economic losses as a result of the pandemic, Democratic lawmakers have been pushing for $25 billion in funding for the USPS - an amount recommended by its board of governors. Democratic leaders have also proposed an additional $3.5 billion in supplemental funding to support elections during the ongoing pandemic. In May, a bipartisan group of Senators requested Congress provide emergency aid for USPS in the next stimulus package. President Trump suggested earlier that he was opposed to the USPS funding because it would help universal mail-in voting this fall. He alleged that mail-in ballots will lead to fraud, despite experts insisting otherwise. But later, on August 14, Trump said that he would approve funding for USPS as part of a relief package if Democrats capitulated on certain White House priorities.

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Judge Strikes Down Changes to Migratory Bird Protections

A federal judge at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has ruled against the Trump Administration’s effort to narrow the reach of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918.

A 2017 legal opinion by the Department of the Interior solicitor’s office concluded that incidental bird take resulting from an otherwise lawful activity is not prohibited under MBTA and that the protections only apply to the intentional taking of a bird. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the term “take” means “to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect, or attempt to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect,” with “incidental” take referring to an unintentional taking.

The 2017 opinion has been widely criticized by conservation groups. Lawsuits challenging the opinion, filed by the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and a coalition of states led by New York, alleged the Interior Department violated the Administrative Procedure Act when it adopted the new interpretation of the law. “At the behest of the oil and gas industry, and with no consideration of the resulting impacts to migratory birds, the [2017] Opinion reinterpreted the MBTA to exempt effectively all industrial activities from the Act’s reach,” the challengers wrote in a legal brief.

On August 11, 2020, Judge Valerie Caproni ruled to vacate the 2017 opinion. “It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime. That has been the letter of the law for the past century,” stated Judge Caproni. “But if the Department of the Interior has its way, many mockingbirds and other migratory birds that delight people and support ecosystems throughout the country will be killed without legal consequence,” she added.

Conservation groups applauded the ruling. “This decision confirms that Interior’s utter failure to uphold the conservation mandate of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service simply cannot stand up in a court of law,” said Katie Umekubo, Senior Attorney at NRDC. “With the legal basis for its actions over the past year defeated, the administration should expect more defeats in court if they try to lock in their attempt to roll back the MBTA,” said Sarah Greenberger, Interim Chief Conservation Officer for the National Audubon Society.

Interior Department spokesperson Conner Swanson said the decision “undermines a common sense interpretation of the law and runs contrary to recent efforts, shared across the political spectrum, to de-criminalize unintentional conduct.”

USFWS also issued a proposed rule in February 2020 that would codify the 2017 opinion. Interior and USFWS are currently reviewing the comments received in response to the proposed regulation and it is unclear how the ruling will impact the review process.

Lawmakers in the House are considering related legislation that would clarify regulatory protections for migratory birds. If enacted, the Migratory Bird Protection Act (H.R. 5552), would amend MBTA to ensure that the “prohibition on the unauthorized take or killing of migratory birds includes incidental take by commercial activities.” The measure was approved by the House Committee on Natural Resources in January 2020.

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House Science Panel Chair Calls on NASEM to Study Racism in Science

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has requested the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) investigate systemic racism in academic research.

In a July 29, 2020 letter to Dr. Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, Chairwoman Johnson asserts: “We must meet this moment in history with a rigorous and thoughtful analysis of the extent to which the U.S. scientific enterprise perpetuates systemic inequities to the detriment of society as a whole, as well as how those inequities are manifested.” She has called on NASEM to install a panel of experts to “assess the influence of systemic racism in academia on the careers of individuals belonging to racial and ethnic groups historically underrepresented in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce.”

Johnson asks that the panel examine the ways in which systemic racism in research and learning environments influences the recruitment, retention, and advancement of marginalized racial and ethnic groups across disciplines. The letter also recommends examining the extent to which racism has shaped research agendas and limited the breadth of research topics and diversity of researchers receiving federal funding; identifying policies and strategies that have been the most successful in addressing systemic racism; and identifying principles for sustainable organizational cultural change to address systemic racism and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in academic studies and careers.

According to Science Insider, NASEM is preparing to conduct such a study in response to the request. “I am quite excited about doing this study,” said Dr. McNutt, who thinks this study could set the stage for addressing systemic racism in academia in the way that a 2018 NASEM report jumpstarted conversations and actions on sexual harassment in science. According to McNutt, before that report, “we had fooled ourselves into thinking that the problem had mostly been solved. We were so wrong. It had just gone underground. I worry that it is the same story with racism.”

Last month, the House of Representatives passed a fiscal year (FY) 2021 appropriations bill containing an amendment offered by Chairwoman Johnson directing the National Science Foundation to allocate $1.5 million to fund such a study. The measure must still be agreed to by the Senate and signed into law by the President.

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Scientists Concerned About Change to NSF GRFP Solicitation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has updated the guidance for its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) by announcing three high priority research areas for 2021: artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and computationally intensive research.

The updated program solicitation encourages applications in “all disciplines supported by NSF that incorporate these high priority research areas.”

According to a report by Nature, some NSF-watchers worry that this update to emphasize research in applied computational science will significantly limit funding for fundamental science, particularly since NSF is the major US agency which has a mandate to promote and support all basic scientific research. Kelsey Lucas, a marine and aquatic comparative biomechanist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a former GRFP recipient, argues that the concentration of funding in certain fields without expanding the program means that other areas, including basic science, will get less funding.

“These are focus areas that are already, right now, very well-funded,” said Michael Hoffman, a computational biologist at the University of Toronto, who received the fellowship in 2003. Hoffman argues that the strength of the GRFP is that it trains scientists across a broad range of disciplines that are not typically funded by other agencies. And that is critical because “you can never predict which areas are going to have the really important discoveries.”

The GRFP supports graduate students pursuing full-time research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or in STEM education with the goal “to help ensure the quality, vitality, and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States.” Each year, NSF awards about 2,000 graduate fellowships.

Critics of the new guidance are also concerned that the narrower focus on computer science could put under-represented groups at a disadvantage. Nature notes that 80 percent of GRFP recipients between 1994 and 2004 were white. Roughly 19 percent of US computer-science bachelor’s degrees went to Black and Latino students and 19 percent went to women in 2016.

According to NSF, the policy change is part of “a coordinated federal strategy to secure America’s position as a global leader in research and innovation”, but that the fellowship “will continue to encourage and accept applications in all eligible fields of science and engineering.”

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Lawmakers Express Concerns About BLM Nominee

In an August 10, 2020, letter to President Trump, all Democratic Senators expressed opposition to William Perry Pendley’s nomination to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The letter, led by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Joe Manchin (D-WV), was signed by all 45 Democratic Senators, as well as Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME). Concerns highlighted in the letter include Pendley’s climate change denial, advocacy for selling public lands, and attempts to undermine tribes.

“Over the years, Mr. Pendley has consistently called for selling off public lands, which runs contrary to the balanced approach to managing public lands policy in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976,” the letter reads. The letter cites a statement from Pendley calling climate change “political science or junk science, not real science.” The lawmakers also highlight Pendley’s interactions over the years with Native American tribes: “Mr. Pendley has on many prior occasions mischaracterized, mocked, or undermined tribes’ experiences, rights, and religion. This includes arguing against legal precedent that views tribal members as members of sovereign political entities, rather than as a racial group.”

The Senators urge Trump “to identify a new, qualified candidate for this critical position - one who supports public lands and the mission of the Bureau of Land Management.”

Mr. Pendley is currently serving as Deputy Director for Policy and Programs at BLM and is also exercising the authority of the Director. He was nominated by the White House to lead BLM in June 2020. He previously served as President of Mountain States Legal Foundation, as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps, and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Energy and Minerals in the Reagan administration. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has yet to schedule his confirmation hearing.

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Prepare Your Resume, Hone Your Interview Skills

Registration is 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 COVID-19 pandemic has changed how science is being conducted in 2020. You are invited to share how you are conducting your research in these unusual times.

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

  • A new special collection of natural history collection-related articles from BioScience highlights some of the exciting new ways scientists and educators are mobilizing and using biodiversity data from natural history collections. The collection entitled, "Natural History Collections: Advancing the Frontiers of Science," is available at https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/pages/natural-history-collections.

  • On April 1, 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested nominations of scientific experts from a diverse range of disciplines to be considered for appointment to the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) and four SAB standing committees. On April 15, a federal district court vacated the grants policy articulated in EPA's 2017 federal advisory committee membership directive. As a result of that decision, the EPA is extending the nomination period until August 31, 2020. Appointments are anticipated to be filled by the start of Fiscal Year 2021. More information can be found at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-08-14/html/2020-17742.htm

  • 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 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. AIBS, 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, to be held on August 25, will address lessons learned from planning the Digital Data and SPNHC conferences and will include topics such as Zoom, social media, audience engagement, managing expectations, etc. Webinars will be held from 2:00 - 3:30 ET. All webinars will be recorded and held on Zoom. Visit the webinar series page for more information: https://www.idigbio.org/content/webinar-series-adapting-covid-resources-natural-history-collections-new-virtual-world

  • The Department of Defense has issued a Request for Information for its National Defense Education Program to inform future solicitations. The purpose of the RFI is to survey industry (to include non-profits, academia, large, and small businesses) for relevant information on three focus areas: Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, outreach, and workforce development; Biotechnology education and workforce development; and Enhanced civics education. Input can be submitted until August 28, 2020. Further information is available at: https://www.grants.gov/web/grants/view-opportunity.html?oppId=328298

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