TREASURY ISSUES RULE LIMITING EXCHANGE WITH CUBA
The United States Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control has announced an interim rule that will make changes to the regulations governing travel between the United States and Cuba. The interim rule takes effect 30 June 2004, however, OFAC is accepting public comments which could inform how and whether the final rule is issued. The rule changes are in response to a Presidential directive issued on 6 May 2004 which directs federal agencies to implement certain recommendations contained in a May 2004 "Report to the President from the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba." With respect to travel to Cuba to participate in professional meetings, OFAC is clarifying current regulations. Briefly, the current general license for this travel is modified such that authorized "travel-related transactions incident to certain professional research in Cuba does not extend to transactions incident to attendance at professional meetings or conferences in Cuba." OFAC further notes that "to the extent that a professional researcher believes that attendance at a particular meeting or conference in Cuba is important to his or her research and the meeting or conference does not qualify under the general license" the researcher may request a specific license from OFAC.
OFAC is changing current regulations to reflect a new policy concerning certain educational activities in Cuba. The new regulations restrict the availability of specific licenses to institutions to undergraduate and graduate institutions. Furthermore, any students that wish to use an institution's license (i.e. participate in an educational exchange program) must be enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate degree program at that institution. Moreover, employees of the licensed program must now be full-time employees of the institution holding the license, part-time or contract, temporary employees do not qualify to travel under the institution's license. The new rule also requires that some currently approved educational activities in Cuba must now be a minimum of 10 weeks in duration in order to qualify for a license. Some educational exchange program officials have indicated that these changes will significantly curtail educational opportunities for U.S. students. Approved activities that will not be required to meet the 10 week minimum requirement include: graduate research in Cuba; sponsorship of a Cuban national to teach or engage in other scholarly activities in the United States; and organization of and preparation for licensed educational activities.
For detailed information about the new rule, please visit the OFAC website at:
//www.treas.gov/offices/eotffc/ofac/actions/20040616.html. Comments on the interim rule may be submitted via //www.treas.gov/offices/eotffc/ofac/comment.html.
SCIENCE COMMITTEE REQUESTS FOLLOW-UP INVESTIGATION OF VISA DELAYS
Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), along with Committee Member Curt Weldon (R-PA) and Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), today issued a request to the General Accounting Office (GAO) for a follow-up investigation of U.S. policies for issuing visas to science students and scholars. The Committee has been concerned that visa applicants have faced unreasonable delays, discouraging them from coming to the U.S. and potentially hurting U.S. competitiveness.
Earlier this year, the GAO completed a report for the Science Committee titled Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars (GAO-04-371), which recommended steps for the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation to take to improve the visa process. At a Committee hearing on the report on Feb. 25, Boehlert told the witnesses that the Committee would be following up to see that they implemented the recommendations. (For further background on the US visa issue, see "US Visa Delays: Keeping Scientists from Where They Want to Be?" available free online at: //www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washington_watch_2004_04.html)
The new letter asks GAO to see how the agencies are implementing its recommendations, and in particular to examine how visa requests from Russia are being handled - a particular concern of Weldon's. "As a senior member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees, I am well aware of the many threats that our nation faces, and I believe we were right to enhance our security measures in the wake of the September 11 attacks. But we cannot allow security to be an excuse for inefficiency - especially when these inefficiencies are needlessly discouraging the world's best current and future scientists from coming to the U.S.," said Boehlert. "Earlier this year, the GAO identified real problems with our visa system and they suggested ways to solve some of these problems without compromising security. The purpose of this follow-up investigation is to examine progress toward the implementation of these recommendations and other efforts to streamline the visa process."
"Homeland Security remains a top concern for the United States. However, I feel that it is important to support foreign exchange programs designed for our young scientists and students," said Weldon. "This cooperation between schools and countries is crucial to everything from health discoveries to space programs." At the February hearing, GAO testified that it took an average of 67 days to adjudicate Visas Mantis requests, or visa applications that could involve sensitive science or technology, but that the wait could be as short as a few days or as long as 300 days. They also found that personal interviews with consular officers also contributed to visa delays and that many consular staff were concerned that they were contributing to the wait because they lacked clear guidance on when to seek Visas Mantis checks and on whether the checks provided enough background information.
The GAO recommended that the Secretary of State, in coordination with the FBI Director, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, develop and implement a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process and urged the Secretary to consider the following actions: 1) establish milestones to reduce the current number of pending Visas Mantis cases; 2) develop performance goals and measurements for processing Visas Mantis checks; 3) provide additional information, through training or other means at consular posts, to clarify guidance on the overall operation of the Visas Mantis program, including when Mantis clearances are required, what information consular posts should submit to enable the clearance process to proceed as efficiently as possible, and how long the process takes; and 4) work to achieve interoperable systems and expedite transmittal of data between agencies. (Visas Mantis is the security check that is designed to protect against the transfer of sensitive technologies.)
HOUSE PASSES FY 05 INTERIOR SPENDING BILL
On 18 June 2004, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 4568, legislation making fiscal year 2005 appropriations for the Department of the Interior and related agencies. The spending bill was adopted by a vote of 334-86. One of the few amendments adopted by the House was offered by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). The Hunter amendment "places restrictions on the use of recreational fees for biological monitoring studies under the Endangered Species Act." According to official documents, the purpose of the amendment is to prohibit the use of funds in the bill for salaries and expenses of any employee for the expenditure of user fees for the costs, in whole or in part, of the biological monitoring of a species on the endangered list. H.R. 4568 also includes spending for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). While $18 million in program cuts proposed in the administration's budget request were restored and the USGS received a modest $7 million increase over FY 04 levels, many scientific programs would have their budgets trimmed. Most of the budget growth is attributable to increased funding for the USGS' new Enterprise Information initiative that seeks to centralize and coordinate information-related activities administered by various scientific and administrative programs. With respect to biological research, the House would provide $ 171,976,000, a $4,372,000 increase over the President's budget request but $2,553,000 below the 2004 enacted level. The significant changes from the President's budget request include increases of $602,000 to restore streamlining reductions, $2.8 million to restore the interagency cooperative fire science program, $500,000 for manatee research, $170,000 for equipment at the Anadromous Fish Research Lab, $250,000 for the Great Lakes Deepwater Large Vessel program, $400,000 to restore the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and $500,000 for a general increase to the Cooperative Research Unit program. The House would cut $350,000 from the Klamath Basin initiative. The appropriations committee further directed that the USGS spend an additional $75,000 for the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study for chronic wasting disease research and $250,000 to continue the Delaware River Basin Ecologically Sustainable Water Management Project.
In drafting the legislation, members of the House Appropriations Committee also expressed their concerns with the growth and long-range plan for the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII). In report language accompanying H.R. 4568, Representatives specifically noted that "the number of planned regional and thematic nodes is too high and inadequately justified." The Committee is skeptical that 12 separate regions are necessary to distribute electronic information over the World Wide Web. If the language is approved by the Senate, the Survey would be required to "locate all new 'thematic' nodes in the same physical location as existing regional nodes and to consolidate operational expenses." While supporting an increase for the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units, the House expressed a concern about the strategic vision and planning for this system. The Survey is thus directed to provide members of the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations a long-term plan no later than 31 December 2004.
NATIONAL ACADEMIES TO ISSUE REPORT ON PRESIDENTIAL AND FEDERAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY APPOINTEES
The National Academies Committee on Ensuring the Best Science and Technology Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Appointments is interested in receiving comments from the science community on the issue of the appointment of scientists, engineers, and health professionals to presidentially appointed positions within the federal government and to federal advisory committees whose charge is science-based policy or to review research proposals. The Committee is charged with addressing the barriers to appointing the most qualified candidates for science and technology presidential appointments and will examine the appointment process and the principles that should be observed in selecting scientists, engineers, and health professionals to serve on federal advisory committees. This is the third NAS report on this issue and will be based on the two previous versions, which were prepared for the 1992 and 2000 presidential transitions. This report is scheduled to be released in November 2004, following the presidential election. The Committee requests comments, in 3 pages or less, on any of the following issues: 1) What do you believe are the major obstacles in recruiting the best scientific and technical leadership for science and technology presidential appointments? 2) How do you believe the presidential appointment process for science and technology positions can be improved? 3) What principles should guide the selection of scientists, engineers, and health professionals to serve on federal advisory committees associated with science-based policy or to review research proposals?
Comments should be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by 1 July 2004. More information is available online at www.nationalacademies.org/presidentialappointments/. Additionally, the U.S. General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative branch, released a report in April 2004. The GAO study, "Federal Advisory Committees: Additional Guidance Could Help Agencies Better Ensure Independence and Balance", was requested by House Science Committee members Reps. Johnson (D-TX) and Baird (D-WA). This report may be obtained by searching the GAO website (www.gao.gov) for GAO-04-328.
NEW IN BIOSCIENCE: "WILL SCIENCE BE HITTING THE CAMPAIGN TRAILS THIS YEAR?"
In an election year dominated by war and the American economy, an odd movement is afoot: Leading politicians on both sides are talking about science. The conversation revolves around two issues, names, (1) the use and interpretation of science in policy decisions and (2) federal funding levels for scientific research. Much of the discussion has been fueled by reports that accuse the Bush administration of suppressing or distorting scientific analyses. The earliest report on the issue, "Weird Science: The Interior Department's Manipulation of Science for Political Purposes," was released in December 2002 by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Resources. Eight months later, the House Government Reform Committee, at the request of Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), issued its own report, "Politics and Science in the Bush Administration."
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