Scientific Societies Highlight Pandemic Work, Urge NSF to Continue Support

Forty-three scientific societies, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), have written to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to highlight the important role scientific associations have played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our societies engage in an array of activities, consistent with the goals laid out in the National Science Board’s Vision 2030,” the groups note. “As a key component of the science and engineering ecosystem, we are in a position to provide our expertise and efforts to reach broad segments of the scientific community in ways that other institutions cannot.”

The letter lists crucial activities scientific organizations, including AIBS, have engaged in during the pandemic. Important AIBS work highlighted include:

  • AIBS launched “Building More Resilient Societies and Organizations.” A discussion series where leaders from 130 scientific societies and related organizations share resources and identify strategies for tackling issues such as racism and bias in science, building more financially resilient scientific professional associations, and opportunities to deploy new communication tools to foster scientific engagement among scientists from different fields and regions.
  • AIBS partnered with the Natural Science Collections Alliance and the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections to conduct a series of surveys to identify the financial and human resource impacts of COVID-19 related disruptions on the scientific and educational programs of natural history museums, university natural science collections, botanical gardens, herbaria, tissue collections, living collections, and other related scientific infrastructure.
  • AIBS is actively researching gender bias in grant peer review. Findings from this work will inform the development of best practices for increasing equity in the grant peer review processes used by funding organizations and agencies.

Furthermore, the signatories call on NSF to continue to support the valuable programming provided by scientific societies and foster a culture of innovation to meet the needs of the scientific community. “With the proliferation of online meetings necessitated by the pandemic, we encourage NSF to seize this opportunity to support new forms of innovation in this space,” the groups urge. “Traditional success metrics for meetings will change, and NSF has a role to play in helping the larger scientific enterprise understand what works in this new environment. Additionally, NSF can support our efforts to promote new ways for scientists to connect across disciplines. Whereas it has traditionally been uncommon for scientists to travel to an in-person meeting outside of their discipline, the relatively low-cost investment of attending online meetings allows scientists to explore new topics and opportunities.”

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Science Groups Oppose Executive Order Banning Federal Diversity Training

AIBS has endorsed a community letter urging the Trump Administration to rescind its elimination of federal employee training programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion as specified in the September 4, 2020 Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies and the September 22 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.

According to the Executive Order, “Instructors and materials teaching that men and members of certain races, as well as our most venerable institutions, are inherently sexist and racist are appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country, even in components of the Federal Government and among Federal contractors.” The order directs federal agencies, the uniformed services, and government contractors to end “divisive” racial sensitivity trainings. The order also prohibits federal grant funds to be used to promote “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating.”

Opposing the directive, the science groups argue, in part, “Federal employees are an important part of the scientific community and play a crucial role in creating a diverse scientific workforce. Sensitivity training helps employees become more aware of barriers to increased diversity, motivates positive behaviors and attitudes, and improves cognitive skills. Increased diversity within the scientific workforce accelerates innovation and increases productivity, leading to greater scientific progress that provides the foundation for America’s economy, security and quality of life.”

“Empirical evidence shows that diverse perspectives lead to better solutions to problems, better decision-making and better outcomes,” the groups note. “Similarly, scientific breakthroughs and discoveries are better enabled through inclusive workplaces that allow contributions from a range of diverse perspectives.”

The community letter urges the Administration to lift the restrictions on race-related training in the Federal government “to help create and sustain a more diverse and productive scientific community.”

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Science Associations Urge Rigorous Assessment of Vaccine Safety, Efficacy

AIBS has joined fourteen other scientific societies in urging Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn to adhere to stringent scientific and medical standards while assessing the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

The letter responds to President Trump’s claim that a COVID-19 vaccine would probably be available before Election Day. This raised concerns about political interference in the vaccine approval process.

The scientific coalition urged FDA “to exercise the independence and scientific rigor for which the FDA is known” and warned that “allowing a vaccine to enter the marketplace prior to a rigorous assessment of its safety and efficacy would undermine vaccine confidence in the nation, erode the public’s trust in the agency, and risk the health of the American public.”

“The approval of a low-efficacy vaccine could lead to a false sense of protection, resulting in the easing of public health measures, and that will exacerbate the pandemic,” the groups note. “Approving a vaccine without adequate testing could result in adverse impacts and worsen the already significant anti-vaccination sentiment.”

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Congress Passes Stopgap Measure, Relief Talks Resume

Congress has now passed and the President has signed a continuing resolution to keep the government open in the new fiscal year (FY), which started on October 1, 2020. The stopgap measure will allow federal science agencies to continue operating at FY 2020 budget levels. Decisions about FY 2021 appropriations bills have been deferred until December 11.

Pandemic relief negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House restarted earlier this month, after the House of Representatives passed a pared-down version of the Heroes Act. The revised stimulus package trims $1.2 trillion from the initially proposed $3.4 trillion measure, but Republican lawmakers said the $2.2 trillion price tag was still too high. “We’re in very near agreement on all the COVID things that matter,” said Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO). “What we’re not in agreement on is about $1 trillion worth of other things.”

The updated Heroes Act includes $2.9 billion in emergency relief for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is just short of the $3 billion allocated for the agency in the RISE Act - a measure endorsed by more than 300 higher education, research, industry groups, and associations, including AIBS. The latest House bill would allocate $2.587 billion for NSF’s Research and Related Activities and $300 million for the Education and Human Resources account. The measure also includes $1 million for a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine study on the current understanding of the spread of COVID-19-related disinformation on the internet and social media platforms. Other notable provisions in the bill include:

  • $4.7 billion for the National Institutes of Health to expand COVID-19-related research.
  • $392 million to address coronavirus-related needs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  • $20 million for the National Institute for Standards and Technology to support development and manufacturing of medical countermeasures and biomedical equipment and supplies to address the coronavirus.
  • $11.9 billion for higher education institutions.
  • $50 million for the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate links between pollution exposure and the transmission and health outcomes of coronavirus in communities that have experienced disproportionate negative health outcomes.
  • $135 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services to support libraries and museums with costs and expenses associated with coronavirus.
  • $45 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service and $20 million for the National Park Service to respond to the pandemic.

Days after relief talks resumed, President Trump abruptly announced on Twitter on October 6 that he had ordered an end to relief negotiations until after the November election, rejecting the Democrats’ latest proposal and calling on the Senate to instead focus their attention on confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The decision drew bipartisan criticism from lawmakers. “Now is not the time for the Congress to stop doing its work,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). “Alaskans desperately need relief to help mitigate both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.” Then on October 8, Trump announced that his Administration had once again resumed negotiations with congressional Democrats.

Disagreements persist between the White House and Congress on the price tag of the next stimulus package. Democrats continue to resist going below $2.2 trillion. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was initially willing to go up to $1.6 trillion, but on October 9, he proposed a slightly larger $1.8 trillion relief measure with additional funding for state and local governments and direct stimulus checks. The latest White House proposal drew bipartisan opposition, with Republican lawmakers criticizing the spending as too high and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) saying that the measure did not contain enough spending for unemployment insurance, schools, states and local government, and testing.

At one point, President Trump expressed support for a stand-alone legislation to send another round of $1,200 direct payments. That proposal has been rejected by Speaker Pelosi, who wants to pass a more comprehensive package. Senate Republicans on the other hand do not favor a comprehensive bill.

According to news reports, prospects for the next relief measure being passed before the elections look dismal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he plans to focus on confirmation hearings for the new Supreme Court nominee over the next few weeks and indicated that Republicans will “reengage” in relief talks after the elections.

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Trump Administration Proposes New Student Visa Restrictions

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a proposed rulemaking on September 25, 2020 that would impose new restrictions on international student visas. The proposed changes would require international students to apply for a visa extension after fixed terms of two to four years.

Essentially, an expiration date would be placed on most student visas that previously lasted the duration of a student’s degree program. Most international student visas would expire after four years, while some students, depending on their country of origin, would have to apply for an extension after two years - specifically students born in countries on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List, including Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. Requests for extensions of stay could be approved “if the additional time needed is due to a compelling academic reason, documented medical illness or medical condition, or circumstance that was beyond the student’s control.” Many in the academic community worry that the limited visa terms could make it challenging for international students to complete graduate and doctoral programs.

According to the Trump administration, these changes are necessary to increase oversight of international students and address visa fraud and overstay issues.

The proposal has received swift pushback from advocates of international students. “This proposed rule is set to replace a proven, flexible policy that has served international students and exchange visitors for decades, with one that is both complicated and burdensome,” said Esther Brimmer, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, according to Inside Higher Ed. “In a system that is already extremely complex, this rule would undoubtably create a high degree of uncertainty for international students and exchange visitors…Sadly, this proposal sends another message to immigrants, and in particular international students and exchange visitors, that their exceptional talent, work ethic, diverse perspectives, and economic contributions are not welcome in the United States.”

The scientific community is concerned that the new restrictions could weaken scientific research and undermine U.S. global leadership. “Science is international,” said Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That’s one reason why our academic setting is so strong.”

The directive was also rebuked by members of the House Science Committee. “The proposed rule from DHS is just the latest attempt by the Trump administration to isolate the United States’ scientific and academic enterprise and lock out the global talent we need to remain a leader on the world stage,” stated House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight Chairman Bill Foster (D-IL). “This anti-immigrant proposal serves only to antagonize students, particularly those with African and Middle Eastern nationalities, seeking to learn from and contribute to our nation’s science and research institutions.” The lawmakers urged that the 30-day comment period be extended to allow for a serious review and discussion of proposed rule’s impacts.

DHS will be accepting public comments on the proposed rulemaking until October 26, 2020.

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NSF BIO Changes Solicitations Process

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO) has announced changes to their program solicitation process, specifically the migration of BIO’s “no-deadline” solicitations from FastLane to Research.gov.

BIO will require submission of full proposals via Research.gov or Grants.gov for program solicitations that have no deadlines in the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB), the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS), the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB), and in the Research Resources Cluster of the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI).

According to BIO Assistant Director Joanne Tornow, the migration of these solicitations to Research.gov is the first step in an NSF-wide effort to modernize their proposal submission and review systems. The new system is intended to improve user experience while reducing administrative burdens. “We expect that new solicitations for the affected programs will be published in the coming weeks and that the migration of those solicitations to Research.gov will be effective 90 days after the new solicitations are published,” stated Tornow.

NSF will be holding a series of BIO-wide virtual office hours, where the research community can learn more from BIO program officers about the migration and overall modernization efforts. The virtual office hours will occur on Monday, October 19 at 11 AM EDT; Tuesday October 20 at 10 AM EDT; Wednesday, October 21 at 1 PM EDT; and Thursday, October 22 at 3 PM EDT. Members of the community are invited to register for these sessions at https://www.nsf.gov/events/eventsumm.jsp?cntnid=301092&org=BIO.

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NASEM Webinar: Research Strategy to Examine the Taxonomy of the Red Wolf

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is releasing a new report on the research strategy for the red wolf (Canis rufus) taxonomy to determine the classification of currently unidentified canid populations in southeastern United States. The independent study was requested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This report builds on a 2019 NASEM report that found that red wolves constituted a taxonomically species distinct from the extant gray wolves and coyotes.

A report release webinar will be held on Tuesday, October 20, 2020 at 1:00 PM EDT. Dr. Joseph Travis, Past President of AIBS, Distinguished Professor of Biology at Florida State University, and Chair of the report’s panel, will present the report’s findings and conclusions.

Register at: https://nasem.zoom.us/webinar/register/WNvYjEGxFPTcCTY8sJ9pBX2w?mccid=6177c5dcd9&mc_eid=a271cda812

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Short Takes

  • The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has appointed environmental researcher Dr. Geoffrey Plumlee to the agency's newly established position of Chief Scientist. Plumlee previously served as Senior Science Advisor to the USGS Director and Associate Director for Environmental Health. He has a bachelor's degree in geology from the University of New Mexico and earned his Ph.D. in geochemistry from Harvard University. "USGS has such a wide range of expertise and addresses such a broad range of complex science topics, no one individual can provide expert guidance on it all," noted a USGS spokesperson, according to E&E News. "The Chief Scientist must be able to seek, integrate and interpret expert input from many different sources within and outside the USGS." According to the spokesperson, "the position of chief scientist was added to align the USGS with other science and technology organizations that have similar Chief Technology Officer or Chief Scientist positions."

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Board on Life Sciences is seeking nominations of experts for a workshop on Quantum Science Concepts in Enhancing Sensing and Imaging Technologies: Applications for Biology. This workshop will facilitate a better understanding of current and future applications of quantum-enabled sensing and imaging technologies on different fields of biology. Six committee members from academia, government, industry, and other sectors, with expertise in biological imaging or sensing, quantum biology, biological physics, cell and molecular biology, microbiology and other relevant life, physical, and engineering fields, are sought. The workshop committee will plan talks, panels, and discussions with the goal of bringing together experts working on state-of-the-art quantum-enabled technologies. Nominations can be submitted until October 30, 2020.

  • The National Academies' Board on Life Sciences has announced a series of webinar discussions on issues related to the life sciences. The discussions will be used to guide future activities of the Board. Two open webinars are scheduled for October 16, 2020. The first, titled, Inequities in the Life Sciences: Understanding the Issues, will be held from 2:00 to 3:00 PM ET. The second, titled, Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Life Science Enterprise, is scheduled for 3:10-4:40 PM ET. Register at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/nasem-board-on-life-sciences-board-meeting-open-session-1-tickets-123002432587

  • The National Academies' Institute for Laboratory Animal Research is requesting nominations of experts to serve on a standing committee to inform future updates or additions to The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. The panel will aim to provide a venue for the exchange of ideas and knowledge sharing among federal government agencies, academic communities, the private sector, and other stakeholders engaged in animal research, research training, experimentation, biological testing or for related purposes or other special categories involving research animals. Member of this interdisciplinary committee are required to be scientists and veterinarians with training in Laboratory Animal Medicine. The deadline to submit nominations is Tuesday, October 13, 2020: https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5897789/Call-for-Nominations-Standing-Committee-for-the-Care-and-Use-of-Animals-in-Research

  • The National Academies has launched a national committee that will serve as the voice of the U.S. scientific community during the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which will run from 2021 to 2030. The U.S. National Committee for the Decade is comprised of the experts who regularly advise the National Academies' Ocean Studies Board, joined by experts who advise the National Academies' Science and Technology for Sustainability Roundtable, Marine Board, and Gulf Research Program. Committee functions include establishing communication channels among participating organizations, organizing webinars, and convening meetings to promote and highlight Decade activities. Visit the Ocean Decade U.S. website.

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