In defense of federally-funded research
Jun27

In defense of federally-funded research

A continued drive towards fiscal belt-tightening by lawmakers in Congress has spurred unprecedented attempts to curb federal investment in scientific research. With a continued unwillingness by members of both major parties in Congress to tackle a comprehensive bipartisan plan to reduce the national debt that includes mandatory spending reform and tax reform, non-defense discretionary spending programs are continuing to be scrutinized for initiatives that seem duplicative or frivolous. For discretionary spending programs that fund scientific research, this means targeting grant proposals that may be perceived as frivolous. The highlighting of research initiatives is nothing new. However, until recently, the lambasting of such programs was usually limited to a minority of lawmakers. These attempts to belittle the value of certain areas of scientific research were often tempered by members from both parties with more expertise on scientific research issues who recognize the role science investment plays in maintaining the United State’s global competitiveness.  Unfortunately, political extremists have grown to a level of influence that now a certain degree of catering to their agenda is apparently necessary to sustain normal order. Just this past March, Congress approved by voice vote an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) to the Consolidated and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (P.L. 113-6) prohibiting the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science research unless such research was certified to promote the national security or economic interests of the United States. The fact that the language was passed by voice vote meant that no Senator sought to contest the amendment during floor debate in a meaningful way. More recently, House, Space, Science and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) floated a draft bill, the High Quality Research Act, which would require NSF to certify that every research project meet certain criteria as being in the national interest of the United States.  Though the draft legislation has garnered no shortage of push back, both from inside and outside Capitol Hill, federal efforts to redirect how science funding is distributed and determine what projects are funded are expected to continue, nonetheless. In the latest edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, Matthew Berg, a recipient of ESA’s 2013 Graduate Student Policy Award, discusses his interactions with congressional offices who questioned the value of certain science research projects. Berg stressed the importance of emphasizing local connections that resonate with each particular congressional office. “Tailoring the message to each individual office was hugely important. I addressed the importance of [Texas A&M University] as a local economic driver to the local congressman I met with first. I pointed to water supply issues to the Senator from the San Antonio and Edwards...

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ESA Policy News: June 14
Jun14

ESA Policy News: June 14

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. EDUCATION: STEM REORGANIZATION EFFORT MEETS BIPARTISAN CRITICISM On June 4, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened for a hearing examining the Obama Administration’s proposed reorganization of Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering (STEM) programs outlined in its proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget. Under the plan, 110 of 226 federal agency STEM programs would be eliminated. The plan would house STEM programs primarily under three agencies: the Department of Education (DOE), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Smithsonian Institution (SI). DOE would oversee K-12 programs, NSF would oversee undergraduate and graduate programs while the Smithsonian would be responsible for informal science education. The proposal, an effort on the part of the administration to deal with the reality of current fiscal constraints, was met with inquiries and skepticism from both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and former chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) were all particularly concerned with the reorganization’s impact on STEM programs within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The reorganization would cut NASA programs by one-third. NASA’s STEM programs would lose $50 million under the reorganization effort.  There were also bipartisan concerns that the reorganization does not include enough focus on vocational training programs or programs that seek to increase STEM participation among underrepresented groups, including women and minorities. Members of Congress expressed concern that the reorganization effort was decided primarily through the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, with little input from school districts, non-profits, universities or the federal agency program managers responsible for the programs slated for elimination. “In addition to being concerned about the process, I have serious concerns with the budget proposal itself.  To be blunt, it seems to me it was not very well thought out,” stated Ranking Member Johnson. Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren noted that no one wants to see their own programs reduced or eliminated. View the full hearing here. CLIMATE CHANGE: US, CHINA REACH DEAL ON HFC EMISSIONS On June 8, the White House announced that the United States had reached an agreement with China to reduce the use of use of heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are greenhouse gases used in refrigerator and air conditioner appliances. The most common types of HFCs are anywhere from a hundred to a thousand times as potent as carbon dioxide in warming the planet. According to the White House, HFC emissions could grow to nearly...

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Sequestration impacts national park summer destinations
Jun03

Sequestration impacts national park summer destinations

By Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Planning a summer visit to a US national park this summer? The parks will be open, but the overall quality of the trip may be somewhat lessened due to the ongoing budget sequestration which went into effect March 1. Since then, Congress has legislatively decreased the burden for some federal programs whose responsibilities hit close to home. After Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asserted that sequestration would lead to furloughs for meat inspectors, Congress wholly neutralized the sequester for federal meat inspections (at least the threat of tainted meat can still spur quick bipartisan action among federal lawmakers). Faced with increased travel delays on their own flights to and from Washington, Congress also took action to end furloughs for air traffic controllers. Outside of those actions, federal agencies have received little relief from Congress in minimizing negative impacts to vital programs. One misconception is the degree of leeway federal agencies have in the implementation of sequestration. The across-the-board cuts are mandated to occur equally across all federal programs unless Congress has legislatively either added or redirected funding. Among federal entities struggling to cope is the National Park Service. In the most recent edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington, 2013 Ecological Society of America Graduate Student Policy Award winner Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie discusses the impacts of sequestration on her federally funded research at Acadia National Park and Congress’ apparent acceptance of sequestration as here to stay. Indeed, to the outside observer, Congress seems to have ceased work on a “grand bargain” to neutralize the sequester for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013 and is returning to a “business as usual” mindset, despite the fact that, as MacKenzie elaborates, business is very much not usual for many researchers and conservationists across the country: By mid-April when we were in DC, it seemed like people in DC had kind of forgotten about the sequester–that it had lost this immediacy, but for me it was still a very immediate thing, so during the Congressional Visits Day, I talked about the sequester every chance I got. And I was really lucky that my lab had NSF [National Science Foundation] funding when my Park Service grant was sequestered and that kind of fit into our narrative of asking for sustained NSF support…..but I also wanted use this opportunity to remind my congress people that the sequester was already hurting science…I’m also surrounded by a bunch of people who work for the National Park Service and are facing similar challenges… This past Earth Day, Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell elaborated on the impacts sequestration will have...

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ESA Policy News: May 31
May31

ESA Policy News: May 31

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. BUDGET SEQUESTRATION: COMMITTEE REPORT HIGHLIGHTS IMPACTS ON NATIONAL PARKS House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward Markey (D-MA) recently released a report further detailing sequestration’s impacts on national parks. Noting that visitors to national parks spent about $30 billion in 2011, the report highlights several impacts it says are unavoidable. The report was released May 24, to coincide with Memorial Day weekend and the beginning of summer park visitation season. Under budget sequestration, non-defense discretionary spending for all federal agencies is cut across all programs by five percent, leading to staff furloughs, hiring freezes as well as service cutbacks. The report details cutbacks at 23 of the 400 US parks. Several, such as Grand Canyon National Park and Glacier National Park will see reduced hours for their visitor centers. Reduced visitor hours at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia will reportedly deny access to 20,000 park visitors. The report also concludes that most parks will offer fewer educational opportunities and other special programs to visitors. In addition, parks will have less capacity to handle emergencies, such as coping with extreme weather events,   or law-enforcement situations, such as poaching and other crimes. Park repairs, maintenance of park facilities (including rest rooms) will also be scaled back due to sequestration, the report finds. View the full report here. NOAA: SCIENCE COMMITTEE EXAMINES AGENCY WEATHER FORECASTING RESEARCH On May 23, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on the Environment held a hearing entitled “Restoring US Leadership in Weather Forecasting.” The hearing examined legislation that intends to reprioritize research initiatives at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A sentiment among congressional Republicans on the subcommittee is that NOAA invests too much on climate research compared to weather research. “In 2012, NOAA barely spent one-third of the resources on weather research as it did on climate research,” asserted Environment Subcommittee Chairman Chris Stewart (R-UT) in his opening statement. In referencing disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and the tornado that hit Oklahoma, he stated “We have seen the devastating effects that severe weather can have on this country, and this bill would establish a priority mission for all of NOAA to improve forecasts and warnings to protect lives and property.” Environment Subcommittee Ranking Member Susan Bonamici (D-OR) expressed concern that the legislation might hamper investment in NOAA’s other priorities. She pointed out that NOAA’s broad mission includes collecting weather data as well as research to help understand and anticipate ecosystem changes that may impact coastal communities. “NOAA has a sweeping...

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ESA Policy News May 17
May17

ESA Policy News May 17

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. NSF: FORMER DIRECTORS EXPRESS CONCERN WITH DRAFT PEER REVIEW BILL On May 8, six former officials who headed the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Science Board during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations sent a letter to the leadership of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee expressing concern with the High Quality Research Act. The draft bill would require the NSF Director to provide Congress with information certifying research projects meet certain national interest requirements before they can be funded, which has been interpreted as negating NSF’s existing scientific peer-review process for funding research. “We believe that this draft legislation would replace the current merit-based system used to evaluate research and education proposals with a cumbersome and unrealistic certification process that rather than improving the quality of research would do just the opposite,” the letter states. “The history of science and technology has shown that truly basic research often yields breakthroughs – including new technologies, markets and jobs – but that it is impossible to predict which projects (and which fields) will do that.” The High Quality Research Act, proposed by House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), has yet to be introduced and there is no indication yet whether or when the committee will move on the bill. The draft legislation has already met strong opposition from scientific societies and universities as well as House Science, Space and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) who asserted that the bill would “undermine NSF’s core mission as a basic research agency.” View the directors’ letter here. NOAA: CARBON DIOXIDE LEVELS REACH NEW MILESTONE The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have peaked above 400 parts per million (ppm), the first time since measurements began in 1958. According to NOAA, the global carbon dioxide average was 280 ppm in the 19th century preceding the industrial revolution and has fluctuated between 180-280 ppm over the past 800,000 years. The agency asserts that a concentration this great has not been seen in at least three million years. The news got very little reaction from key leaders on Capitol Hill, on either side of the aisle in both the House and Senate. The exceptions were Democratic leaders on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “We know that the Earth is warming, sea ice is disappearing, the glaciers are receding, the oceans are acidifying, and sea levels are rising. We know all of this from climate...

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