White House Announces 2022 R&D Budget Priorities

On August 14, 2020, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), issued its annual science and technology priorities memorandum. The document guides federal agency priority-setting in the coming budget cycle. The directive identified public health security and innovation, industrial leadership, national security, energy and environmental leadership, and space exploration as priorities for the fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget.

The Administration’s memo asserts that the federal government “serves as a catalyst for innovation by investing in early stage research, supporting workforce education and training, and optimizing research environments by streamlining administrative barriers and adhering to bedrock American values, such as free inquiry, competition, honesty, and inclusion.”

According to the memo, the Industries of the Future - namely artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information sciences (QIS), biotechnology, advanced communication networks/5G, and advanced manufacturing - will remain the Administration’s highest priority. One of the goals identified is “fulfilling President Trump’s commitment to double non-defense AI QIS funding by FY2022.”

The Administration’s FY 2022 budget priorities include a new R&D priority — American Public Health Security and Innovation — to streamline biomedical and biotechnology R&D aimed at responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring that the U.S. scientific enterprise is “maximally prepared for any health-related threats.” The memo directs agencies to prioritize research to ensure timely development of modernized devices and equipment, diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines to protect against infectious diseases or other bio-threats. The Administration also prioritizes improving epidemiological modeling to enhance the ability to predict future pandemics and accelerating “identification and selection of R&D investments including the rapid detection, containment, and treatment of infectious diseases.”

The guidance once again stresses prioritizing the bioeconomy, defined as the “science, infrastructure, innovation and technology, health, and national security that drive economic growth, promote health, and increase public benefit across the human, plant, and animal spectrums.” To enable bioeconomic opportunities, agencies have been directed to focus on “R&D that enables forecasting and analyses from comprehensive collections of epidemiological, clinical, and genomic data capable of driving supply chain resilience and economic growth across sectors such as healthcare and pharmaceuticals, engineering biology, nanobiotechnology, agriculture, and [Industries of the Future] including advanced manufacturing.” The memo calls for “evidence-based standards and research to rapidly and strategically continue improving biotechnology infrastructure that support human, plant, and animal safety.”

Energy and environmental priorities include early-stage research on technologies for harnessing nuclear, renewable, and fossil energy; efforts to map, explore, and characterize the resources of the exclusive economic zone; efforts to manage large volumes of ocean observation and research data; research to understand and respond to changes in the ocean system; a national strategy to improve the predictability of earth systems and meteorological services; and efforts to “to observe, understand, and predict the physical, biological, and socio-economic processes of the Arctic to protect and advance American interests.”

Included in the guidance are examples of four cross-cutting actions that spread across the R&D budgetary priorities and require departments and agencies to collaborate with each other and with other stakeholders. For one of these actions, optimizing research environments and results, the memo highlights four high-priority areas requiring attention: strengthening U.S. research security, reducing administrative burdens in federally funded research; improving research rigor transparency, and integrity; and creating a safe, diverse, inclusive, and equitable research environment. The remaining three cross cutting actions include building the science and technology workforce of the future; facilitating multisector partnerships and technology transfer; and leveraging the “power of data” by improving data accessibility and security.

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Fetal Tissue Ethics Board Recommends Rejecting Majority of Research Proposals

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board, which was appointed by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar in February 2020, has recommended that the Secretary withhold funding for most of the applications submitted to NIH to conduct medical research using human fetal tissue.

The Trump Administration first announced that it will restrict federal funding for medical research that uses human fetal tissue in June 2019. The new policy prohibits all intramural research, or research conducted within NIH, involving the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions. Extramural research projects, including research funded by NIH grants at universities, involving aborted fetal tissue are now required to go through an additional review process convened by an ethics advisory board after it has cleared the regular scientific review process.

After reviewing 14 research proposals last month, the Ethics Board has recommended in a report sent to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the Secretary only fund one of the proposals and withhold funding for the remaining 13. All 14 proposals had already been recommended for funding by scientific reviewers. The reason provided most commonly in the report for recommending against funding a proposal was the argument that sufficient ethical justification for using human fetal tissue was not provided. The only proposal that was approved for funding by the panel was for a study to use already obtained human fetal tissue stored in a biorepository to try to validate and improve an alternative model.

According to Science Insider, at least 10 of the Board’s 15 members have publicly opposed abortion, fetal tissue research, human embryonic stem cell research, or contraception. Two board members provided the following dissenting opinion to be included in the report: “This board was clearly constituted…so as to include a large majority of members who are on the public record as being opposed to human fetal tissue research of any type. This was clearly an attempt to block funding of as many contracts and grants as possible, even those responding to the NIH solicitation for proposals responsive to the notice: ‘Characterizing and Improving Humanized Immune System Mouse Models (IMM-HIS).’ This solicitation required comparison of current humanized mice made with human fetal tissue to proposed models that do not use human fetal tissue. The outcome of the Board’s deliberations are thus clearcut and will paradoxically fail to reduce the use of human fetal tissue in the development of humanized mice needed for therapy development including for COVID19.”

The report received swift criticism from the scientific community. “Crucial advances in biomedical research will be slowed because of the American restrictions on research using human fetal tissue,” said Christine Mummery, President of the International Society for Stem Cell. “People may die unnecessarily because the administration has allowed an ideological special interest group to hijack biomedical research.”

Last month, a coalition of 90 scientific, academic, and medical groups, including AIBS, sent a letter to the Ethics Board to express support for the continued use of human fetal tissue in biomedical research, arguing that the “long-standing existing review process for fetal tissue research ensures that research using fetal tissue is scientifically meritorious, legal, and ethically sound.”

The panel’s recommendations are not binding - the final decision about whether or not to fund each proposal rests with the HHS Secretary.

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White House Announces Nationwide Network of AI, QIS Research Institutes

On August 26, 2020, the White House, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) announced more than $1 billion in awards for the establishment of twelve new artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science (QIS) research and development (R&D) institutes nationwide.

NSF, in partnership with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the U.S. Department of Homeland’s Security Science and Technology Directorate, and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, will invest $140 million over five years in seven AI Research Institutes - five led by NSF and two led by USDA NIFA - with each institute receiving $20 million. These research and education institutes will be based at universities and will focus on AI related research areas, such as machine-learning, synthetic manufacturing, precision agriculture, and forecasting prediction. According to the Administration, this research will improve the national capacity in critical areas such as extreme weather preparedness, K-12 education advancement, next-generation workforce development, and agricultural resilience and sustainability.

The seven AI Research Institutes supported by NSF and NIFA include:

  • NSF AI Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate, and Coastal Oceanography at the University of Oklahoma, Norman.
  • USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems at the University of California, Davis.
  • USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management, and Sustainability at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • NSF AI Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy, and Manufacturing (or the NSF Molecule Maker Lab) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • NSF AI Institute for Foundations of Machine Learning at the University of Texas, Austin.
  • NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
  • NSF AI Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The AI institutes being awarded today comprise large, multi-disciplinary, and multi-sector collaborations: they bring together consortia of dozens of universities and other organizations, ultimately spanning academia, government, and industry,” said Michael Kratsios, U.S. Chief Technology Officer. “In effect, over the next five years, some of the best minds in the country will be tackling some of the grandest challenges that we face, both in terms of new AI techniques as well as breakthroughs in fields of science and engineering and sectors of our economy. And along the way, they will nurture the future American workforce in AI research and practice.”

In addition, DOE will provide $625 million over five years to establish five QIS Research Centers that will be led by DOE National Laboratory teams at Argonne, Brookhaven, Fermi, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. Academia and private companies, including IBM, Google, and Intel, will invest another $300 million in these centers that will focus on QIS research topics, such as quantum networking, sensing, computing, and materials manufacturing.

NSF’s AI Research Institutes and DOE’s QIS Research Centers will collectively serve as national R&D hubs for “industries of the future”, namely artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information science (QIS), 5G communications, and other technologies. According to the White House, this new network of institutes “will not only accelerate discovery and innovation, but will also promote job creation and workforce development” by including “a strong emphasis on training, education, and outreach to help Americans of all backgrounds, ages, and skill levels participate in our 21st-century economy.”

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Report Lays Out Plan for Strengthening Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has released a new report, Strengthening Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies: Recommendations for 2021 and Beyond, which outlines a road map for the next Administration to enhance scientific integrity across federal agencies.

“Independent science is under attack in government decisionmaking and its integrity must be restored,” states the report. “Government decisions affect our public health and safety and must be rooted in strong, independent science,” argues the report. “But the safeguards protecting government science have broken down significantly, with the Trump administration in particular laying bare the inherent weaknesses in existing scientific integrity standards, policies, and practices.”

The document cites multiple instances since 2017 in which political appointees “stalled scientific research, rolled back science-based public protections and policies, retaliated against government scientists, weakened and disbanded science advisory committees, failed to fill a large number of critical scientific positions, and undermined career staff.”

The report graded current scientific integrity policies across the federal government and found that the protections available to federal scientists and their work varied widely by agency. The analysis found, for example, that the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) media and social media policies are missing, with previous links now dead; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a suite of scientific integrity policies and resources, while the Department of Commerce does not; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been certified for ensuring its employees are aware of their whistleblower protections, while the Department of Agriculture has not.

UCS provides several recommendations for federal agencies to advance scientific integrity policies and practices, including ensuring open communication with the press and the public, enforcing clearance and review policies that protect scientific independence, preventing interference in data collection and research funding, and minimizing conflicts of interest in government science. The report recommends appointing officials to oversee scientific integrity, form intra-agency committees, and report annually on the state of scientific integrity within agencies. UCS also recommends educating and training federal workers on their rights and responsibilities. Finally, the report calls for providing safe and meaningful procedures to report and investigate scientific integrity violations and for establishing mechanisms to protect scientists from retaliatory actions and threats.

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Certain Endangered Species Susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, Study Predicts

A new computational study predicts that several critically endangered primate species are at a very high risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is responsible for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The research, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences this month, assessed the susceptibility of 410 species of vertebrates, including 252 mammals, to the virus and identified a number of mammals that can potentially be infected via their ACE2 proteins (angiotensin converting enzyme-2) - the main receptor for the virus.

The species identified by the study that are at “very high” risk of infection include the critically endangered Western lowland gorilla and Sumatran orangutan, as well as the endangered chimpanzee and bonobo. White-tail deer, Chinese hamster, muskrat, giant anteater, and marine mammals such as killer whale and common bottlenose dolphins are at a “high” risk of infection, while the Siberian tiger, sheep, cat, and cattle are at a “medium” risk of infection.

The results of this study can potentially help in the identification of intermediate hosts for the virus and therefore reduce the opportunity for a future outbreak of COVID-19. The researchers suggest that the species at highest risk for infection represent an opportunity for spillover of the virus from humans to other susceptible animals. According to a report in The Scientist, Dr. Harris Lewin, Professor of Evolution and Ecology and at the University of California, Davis and an author on the paper, argues that if there is an intermediate species between bats and humans it is likely in the two highest risk categories, which include fewer than 100 species. Dr. Lewin thinks wild hamsters might be worth looking into as possible intermediate hosts for transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from bats to humans.

Although these results still need to be confirmed empirically, they may potentially help to identify animal models of COVID-19 and assist the conservation of animals both in native habitats and in human care.

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2nd BCoN COVID-19 Survey: Operational Status, Economic Impacts and Plans for Reopening

In April, the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN) conducted a survey of the natural history collections/museum community to understand how COVID-19 related economic disruptions are affecting the work of professionals associated with such collections. The results were shared with the scientific community, including federal program managers and policymakers, in May 2020.

This second survey follows up on and uses some questions from a recent American Alliance of Museums request for information. This survey focuses on collections institutions rather than individual staff, with the goal of determining the impact of COVID-19 related economic disruptions on research and management of collections. The goal is to collect responses from as many institutions as possible; thus, one response per institution is optimal. If it is not possible to coordinate this, we would rather have multiple responses from an institution that we can combine, rather than no responses from an institution.

Institutions are invited to share information about their operating status - plans to re-open, operational status and limitations, closures, staff furloughs and Reductions in Force, program closures or terminations, and other disruptions to institutional operations. BCoN invites information from all types of natural history collection holding institutions, which includes natural history museums, natural science collections, arboreta and herbaria, or other facilities with natural science collections.

BCoN will share a summary of the results through a variety of venues, as we did with the previous survey. No information that identifies individual institutions by name is requested.

Please take the survey at https://bcon.aibs.org/2020/08/17/2nd-natural-history-collections-and-covid-19-survey-operational-status-economic-impacts-and-plans-for-reopening/

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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 STEM graduates (including those with advanced degrees) are interested in employment in sectors beyond the professoriate.

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 Employment Acquisition Skills Boot Camp for Scientists. This intensive multi-day program blends lecture and hands-on exercises. Designed by scientists with years of work experience in diverse settings and a career coach, the 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;
  • Learn to communicate their knowledge and skills to employers;
  • 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

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) has shared a collection of freely available resources to support the participation and advancement of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). These include reports that explore the wide range of structural, cultural, and institutional patterns of bias, discrimination, and inequity that affect women, and the steps that can be taken to increase representation in STEMM. Read more at: https://notes.nap.edu/2020/08/25/resources-to-increase-the-participation-and-advancement-of-women-in-stemm/

  • The National Academies recently appointed the ad-hoc committee for the Oil in the Sea IV: Inputs, Fates, and Effects consensus study. The committee will hold its first public meeting virtually on September 18, 2020 from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM EDT to explore the study's statement of task with sponsors and stakeholders. The committee will provide an update of the previous report's (Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects, 2003) inventory of the sources, composition, and quantity of hydrocarbon inputs as well as an assessment of the state of the science on the fate and effects of fossil fuel hydrocarbons in the marine environment. Register here.

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is inviting nominations for experts to serve on a panel that will provide advice to help clinicians respond to patient concerns about testing blood or urine for exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Fourteen members are sought with expertise in environmental epidemiology, exposure science, occupational and environmental medicine, analytical chemistry, medical toxicology, environmental sociology, and bioethics. Any questions or comments about the study should be sent to EBoyle@nas.edu. Nominations will be accepted until September 7, 2020 at https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5764442/NOMINATE-AN-EXPERT-Guidance-on-PFAS-Testing-and-Health-Outcomes

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