Congress to Pass Stopgap Measure to Avoid Shutdown

With negotiations over COVID-19 pandemic relief stalled, lawmakers are looking to pass a stopgap funding bill to keep the government operational in the new fiscal year which starts on October 1. A stopgap funding measure is required because the House and Senate have not yet agreed on and passed appropriations bills to fund the government in fiscal year 2021.

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reached an agreement to pursue a clean short-term spending bill earlier this month, the House passed a bipartisan continuing resolution on September 22 extending federal funding through December 11. The Senate is expected to pass the bill this week.

The measure would provide $21 billion to replenish funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation, a farm safety net program, which has made $6.5 billion in emergency payments to help farmers cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Democrats initially excluded the farm aid from the continuing resolution over concerns that the Trump Administration would utilize that funding for political gains with agriculture interests in rural areas and petroleum refiners that fail to get biofuel mandate waivers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) criticized the exclusion, saying the bill “shamefully leaves out key relief and support that American farmers need. This is no time to add insult to injury and defund help for farmers and rural America.”

After negotiations, Democrats agreed to include the farm payments after they were able to get $8 billion in additional federal nutrition assistance included in the measure. The bill would also restrict the farm aid from going to petroleum companies. Speaker Pelosi said that this would “increase accountability in the Commodity Credit Corporation, preventing funds for farmers from being misused for a Big Oil bailout.”

After passing the continuing resolution, lawmakers in the House are now looking to restart pandemic relief negotiations. According to reports, Speaker Pelosi has directed committee chairs to draft a new pared-down relief package that costs between $2.2 trillion and $2.4 trillion. The House is expected to remain in session in October to pass a relief measure should a deal surface. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) said about the likelihood of a coronavirus stimulus deal that “there’s always a chance for anything around here, but it would be very slim I think.”

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NASEM: Biological Collections Need National Strategy, Increased Investment

According to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), biological collections - living and natural history specimens, biological materials, and data in museums, stock centers, research centers, and universities - are in need of long-term financial sustainability, digitization, recruitment and support of a diverse workforce, and infrastructure upgrades.

The report, Biological Collections: Ensuring Critical Research and Education for the 21st Century, which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), argues that biological collections are an “invaluable, and often irreplaceable, component of the nation’s scientific enterprise.” Collections provide a wide range of benefits for the scientific community, including important resources for formal and informal education. Collections research is also responsible for many basic science discoveries and innovations, including advancing our understanding of biodiversity loss, global change, and human diseases.

“Many biological collections are at a critical juncture,” said Dr. James Collins, a past-president of AIBS and co-Chair of the report committee and Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University. “Biological collections need increased investment to serve us in the way we expect, while at the same time expanding their potential for new uses related to science and society.”

The committee articulated the following vision for the biological collections community in the next decade: “To provide long-term support for collections-based scientific research, instill a culture of proper stewardship for and access to biological specimens, build and grow biological collections to better represent global biodiversity in space and time, promote access to biological collections as important educational resources for the general public, and encourage the exchange of biological resources and knowledge.”

To achieve this vision, curators, collection managers, directors, and users of biological collections will need to address four interrelated issues: upgrading and maintaining the physical infrastructure and the growth of collections; developing and maintaining of the tools and processes needed to transform digital data into an easily accessible, integrated platform; recruiting, training, and supporting a diverse workforce of the future; and ensuring long-term financial sustainability.

According to the report, “sustained support will be paramount in keeping collections open, supporting their growth, and ensuring they are available for research.” The committee recommended that NSF continue to provide long-term funding for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. The report suggests that individual collections should explore new revenue streams, such as pay-for-use models, licensing systems, or charging for custom datasets. To secure financial sustainability, the collections community must collaborate with professional societies, business strategists, and communications experts to develop management training programs and strong business models.

The panel called for professional societies and associations to “collaborate and combine efforts aimed at addressing community-level infrastructure needs of the nation’s biological collections,” including creating a national registry to document the location, size, and holdings of the collections in the United States. Opportunities and benefits of greater professional association engagement in collections are also a topic that received attention during the 2019 AIBS Council Meeting, Beyond Specimens (https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biaa084).

The report suggests that the workforce pipeline for biological collections is underdeveloped and calls for cultivating a highly skilled workforce. This requires collections, host institutions, professional societies, and funders to collaborate to develop and strengthen the pipeline. “The skill sets of collections managers and directors in particular should be broadened to include strategic leadership, fundraising and donor relations, personnel management, informal education, and public communication.”

To ensure access to collections, specimens and their data need to be digitized. The report calls for the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences, in partnership with other directorates and federal agencies, to fund the digitization of biological collections and the development of a “permanent national cyber infrastructure” to connect all types of biological collections.

According to Dr. Shirley Pomponi, co-Chair of the panel and research professor at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, “Strategic planning, coordination, and knowledge-sharing are critical for the community of collections directors, managers, and curators as they work to meet complex needs of society and the scientific community.”

NSF, the largest supporter of biological collections in the country, has a critical role to play. According to the report, “NSF should lead efforts to develop a national vision and strategy, such as a Decadal Survey, for the growth of biological collections, their infrastructure, and their ability to serve a range of scientific and educational needs.” NSF should also help establish a permanent National Action Center for Biological Collections, the report states, to coordinate action, knowledge, resources, and data-sharing.

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American Society of Human Genetics Denounces Unethical Use of False Genetic "Theories"

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) has issued a statement reinforcing facts about human genetics and expressing strong opposition to efforts that bend genetics knowledge for social or political ends.

The statement reads, in part: “Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories or races, and any efforts to claim the superiority of humans based on any genetic ancestry have no scientific evidence. Moreover, it is inaccurate to claim genetics as the determinative factor in human strengths or outcomes when education, environment, wealth, and health care access are often more potent factors. There is no factual basis for attempts to define communities or regions of people with “good” or “bad” genes and a century of science has debunked such claims, which can feed discredited views and racist ideologies. Unchecked, unethical application of false genetic “theories” have resulted in past atrocities from forced sterilizations to the Holocaust and can still fuel unethical social policies worldwide today. Over the decades, our field also has reflected on its own role in such now-condemned ideas, and we speak out vocally as a community and as individuals to combat their resurgence.”

ASHG urges advancing the ethical use of genetics and genomics knowledge for “the profound good it can realize, including better, more precise healthcare that leverages what we are discovering about human genetic commonality and diversity.”

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Global Biodiversity Goals Not Being Met, Says UN Report

A new report from the United Nations (UN) concludes that the world has not met any of the targets set 10 years ago by the Convention on Biological Diversity for protecting nature.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, published by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on September 15, 2020, serves as a final report card on progress on the 20 global biodiversity targets, known as the Aichi biodiversity targets, established in 2010 with a ten year deadline. The report found that despite some progress, natural habitats have continued to shrink, large numbers of species remain threatened by extinction from human activities, and environmentally harmful government subsidies have not been eradicated.

Although none of the 20 targets have been fully achieved, six targets have been partially achieved, including those related to protected areas and invasive species. Protected areas have increased substantially from 10 percent to at least 15 percent terrestrially, and from 3 percent to 7 percent of the ocean. These figures, however, are still short of the targets of 17 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Forty-four percent of key biodiversity areas are now protected, compared with 29 percent 20 years ago. Good progress has been made on identifying, prioritizing, and eradicating invasive alien species. The rate of deforestation has fallen globally by about a third compared to the previous decade. On average, countries report that more than a third of all national targets are on track to be met.

The report found that although the use of fertilizers and pesticides has stabilized globally, biodiversity continues to decline in landscapes used to produce food and timber. Food and agricultural production remains among the main drivers of global biodiversity loss. Furthermore, despite the recent rate of deforestation being lower than the previous decade, deforestation may be accelerating again in some areas. “Loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitats remains high in forest and other biomes, especially in the most biodiversity-rich ecosystems in tropical regions,” the report states. “Wilderness areas and global wetlands continue to decline. Fragmentation of rivers remains a critical threat to freshwater biodiversity.”

$500 billion in harmful government subsidies for agriculture, fossil fuels, and fishing are particularly of concern. “We are still seeing so much more public money invested in things that harm biodiversity than in things that support biodiversity,” said David Cooper, lead author of the report and Deputy Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The report calls for moving away from “business as usual” across a range of human activities, including agriculture and industry. It emphasizes the need to bring biodiversity into mainstream decision making and policies across all economic sectors.

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WHO, NASEM Unveil COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation Plans

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a preliminary framework for the global allocation of COVID-19 vaccines when they become available. The plan is intended to guide policymakers at the global, regional, and national level in their allocation and prioritization decisions about vaccines.

WHO’s “fair allocation mechanism” emphasizes equitable allocation of vaccines and lists groups of people that should have priority access. The plan proposes vaccine distribution in two phases. In the first phase, all countries would receive vaccine doses in proportion to their population size - initially enough quantities to immunize 3 percent of their population with priority given to frontline medical workers and then additional doses until 20 percent of a nation’s population is immunized. In the second phase, vaccines to cover additional populations would be distributed to countries based on the country’s “COVID threat and vulnerability.” The WHO framework developed by its Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization calls for higher income countries to ensure that lower income countries receive vaccines in the early days of allocation.

WHO announced on September 21 that countries representing nearly two-thirds of the world’s population have joined its plan to fairly allocate COVID-19 vaccines. High-income countries that have joined WHO’s list of partners in the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility includes Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Peru. Notably, China and the United States have not signed on. Many questions still remain on how the distribution plan will be implemented and how other higher income countries would be persuaded to join.

The WHO guidance follows a similar draft plan released earlier this month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) which not only identifies priority groups but also ranks them in order of who should get vaccinated first. The NASEM framework proposes a five-phase plan to allocate vaccines, recommending that health-care workers and first responders be the first to be vaccinated, followed by people with underlying conditions and older people in densely populated settings, then essential service workers - such as teachers, grocery-store, transit and postal workers - and people in homeless shelters and prisons, then young adults and children at increased risk of exposure, and finally all remaining residents.

The NASEM plan also addresses people from minority groups who are over-represented in essential service jobs and have disproportionately higher rates of infection. “We really are trying to make sure that people of color, who have been disproportionately impacted, will also have priority — but for the factors that put them at risk, not highlighting just their racial and ethnic makeup,” said Helene Gayle, Co-chair of the NASEM panel that authored the plan.

The NASEM committee is expected to release their final guidance, which was requested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health, in October. CDC will consider NASEM’s recommendations in developing its own vaccine-allocation plan. The WHO strategic advisory group will continue to update its plan, including assigning rankings to its priority groups and incorporating new data from vaccine trials.

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Climate Science Critic to be Appointed as NOAA Chief Scientist

The White House will appoint Dr. Ryan Maue, a meteorologist and former researcher at the Cato Institute, to serve as the new Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), according to The Washington Post.

Maue currently serves as the developer of weathermodels.com, a website that offers weather related information, maps, and tools. He previously worked as an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank involved in efforts to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change.

Maue acknowledges that humans contribute to climate change but has challenged connections between extreme weather events and climate change. He has been critical of climate scientists, as well as activists and policymakers pushing for climate change policy. The position does not require Senate confirmation. As NOAA’s Chief Scientist, Maue will set oceans and atmospheric research priorities for the agency.

“Based on his record of engagement with climate science community and the public, I’m skeptical that Maue would be acting in good faith as a leader at NOAA,” stated Gretchen Goldman, Research Director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It is alarming to see NOAA appoint yet another person who doesn’t align with mainstream climate science.”

Earlier this month, NOAA appointed David Legates, a climate science denier, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction. Legates, a professor of geography at the University of Delaware who is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a think tank funded partially by the fossil fuel industry, has long questioned that human activity is causing global warming.

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SPNHC Panel Discussion on Actions to Conserve Biodiversity

The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) is hosting a panel discussion to consider how the biological collections community can most effectively contribute to protecting biodiversity.

Join the SPNHC Biodiversity Crisis Response Committee and a panel of five experts on October 7, 2020 from 11:00 - 1:00 PM EDT.

Panelists include:

  • Dr. Tara Cornelisse, an insect conservation biologist and Senior Scientist with the Endangered Species Program at the Center for Biological Diversity.
  • Dr. Robert Gropp, Executive Director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
  • Dr. Rebecca Johnson, Chief Scientist and Associate Director for Science at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
  • Dr. Jeremy Kerr, University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation and Professor and Chair of Biology at University of Ottawa.
  • Henry McGhie, founder of Curating Tomorrow, a consultancy that aims to help museums and their partners connect with sustainable development goals, climate action, and nature conservation.

Register at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/spnhc-panel-discussion-on-actions-to-conserve-biodiversity-tickets-121073635503

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Last Chance to 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

  • Members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, led by Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), have introduced bipartisan legislation to create a new postdoctoral fellowship program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help keep early career researchers whose employment opportunities have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the STEM pipeline. "I am deeply concerned about the disappearance of STEM job opportunities and the potential long-term consequences for our STEM pipeline," stated Chairwoman Johnson. "For established researchers, the COVID-19 crisis has severely limited their access to their laboratory space. But for early career researchers, these disruptions come at a critical juncture in their research career, threatening to derail their career path." The Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act (H.R.8044) would allocate $250 million over fiscal years 2021 and 2022 "to prevent the loss of research talent due to job market disruptions caused by any economic decline during and after the pandemic."

  • A group of nearly 40 Democratic Senators are calling on the Commission on Presidential Debates "to break precedent and publicly call on the moderators" to include climate change in the topics that will be addressed during the debates. In a letter led by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), the lawmakers argued: "This is not just any election. It is one that will determine how our country responds to the worsening climate crisis that we face each and every day--we don't have another election cycle to wait." The request came after it was reported that climate change was not on the list of topics to be discussed during the first debate on September 29. Earlier this month, more than 70 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a similar request to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

  • 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/.

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