ESA Policy News: December 14

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.


On Dec. 7, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) joined a host of other scientific societies, universities and business leaders in sending a letter, spearheaded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), urging President Obama and Congressional leadership to reach a compromise deal that averts the ‘fiscal cliff’ while preserving federal investment in scientific research. ESA had sent the White House and Congress a similar letter late last month.

The fiscal cliff includes a series of automatic discretionary spending cuts (sequestration) set to occur in January, if the Congress does not come up with an alternative plan to lower the deficit by $1.2 trillion before then either through spending cuts or revenue increases. Defense discretionary spending programs would be cut by 9.4 percent while non-defense discretionary spending programs would be cut by 8.2 percent under the automatic cuts.  The fiscal cliff also includes expiring tax cuts and unemployment benefits that, if left unaddressed, collectively threaten to plunge the economy into another recession. The letter encourages the president and congressional leaders to come up with a balanced approach to deficit reduction, noting the important role of science and technological investment.

“It is important to recognize that federal research and development (R&D) investments are not driving our national deficits,” the letter notes. “These investments account for less than one-fifth of the current discretionary budget, but discretionary spending is the only place where deep cuts will be made. Placing a significant burden on these crucial areas, as sequestration would do, is nothing less than a threat to national competitiveness.  We recognize that the United States faces severe fiscal challenges, and we urge you to begin to address them through a balanced approach that includes tax and entitlement reform.”

Both sides have put forward general plans that propose increased revenues and cuts to entitlement programs. However, despite several face-to-face meetings between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in the weeks since the election, Congressional Republicans and Democrats remain deadlocked over the particulars of a compromise proposal. With the holidays fast approaching, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has repeatedly asserted that the House will not adjourn until issues related to the fiscal cliff are resolved. The White House Office of Management and Budget has already begun directing federal agencies to begin planning for the sequester.

To view the joint society letter, click here. To view the ESA letter, click here.


On Dec. 12, Senate appropriators released a bill to provide emergency funding to states affected by Hurricane Sandy. The bill’s total amount of $60.4 billion matches the White House funding request, sent at the end of last week.

Like the White House request, the bulk of the bill is dedicated to transportation and infrastructure investment. The bill allocates $11.5 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster response and recovery efforts. The measure includes $17 billion in community development block grants for housing needs and $11 billion for transit repairs, which includes funding for the Federal Transit Administration (receiving the bulk of the funding), the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The US Army Corps of Engineers would receive $3.4 million to repair coastal projects. The bill also includes $810 million intended to address concerns about clean water programs and $1 billion for flood control and coastal emergency programs. The Senate bill also includes $810 million for Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water State Revolving Programs, $482 million for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, $348 million for the National Park Service, $125 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, $78 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service, $58 million for the Emergency Forest Restoration Program and $25 million for the Emergency Conservation Program.

The Senate intends to take up the bill next week, using a House-passed military construction and veterans appropriations bill as a vehicle. House Republicans, meanwhile, are researching whether specific requests for billions in aid are necessary. House appropriators would like to break the bill into parts, one addressing immediate needs and another supplemental addressing other projects. For additional information on the bill, click here.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco announced this week that she will exit NOAA at the end of Feb. 2013 after four years of service in one of the Obama administration’s key science agencies.

During her tenure as NOAA administrator, she worked to implement NOAA’s National Ocean Policy, further the agency’s scientific research into climate change and was among the major players in coordinating the federal response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster of 2010. While the National Ocean Policy was successfully implemented, the agency’s attempt to coordinate a national climate service was stifled legislatively by House Republicans, namely outgoing House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX), a vocal climate science skeptic.

A former president of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Lubchenco was among a team of scientists selected by President Obama to head agencies with significant science policy roles, including Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu, National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh and United States Geological Survey Director Marsha McNutt. Lubchenco spoke at this year’s ESA Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon and encouraged scientists to engage with policymakers and even consider public service in policy themselves.


On Dec. 7, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report requesting that the government increase investment in agricultural research in order to cope with a number of environmental changes that affect agriculture in the United States.

The report concludes that the current state of agriculture research remains ill-equipped to address many challenges facing the United States in the 21st Century. The report cites seven major priorities including the “need to manage new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increase the efficiency of water use; reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture; adapt to a changing climate; and accommodate demands for bioenergy—all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad.”

To view the White House press release, click here. View the full report here.


On Dec. 14, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new air quality standards for fine particles that come from auto tailpipes, power plants, drilling operations and boilers.

The new fine particle standards lower the limit from 15 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a year to 12 micrograms. According to EPA, less than 10 counties in the nation will need to consider any local actions to reduce fine particle pollution in order to meet the new standard by 2020, as required by the Clean Air Act. The remainder can rely on air quality improvements from existing federal rules to meet the new standard.

EPA’s existing soot standards were set in 1997. EPA’s science advisers had requested new standards in 2006 during the Bush administration, but the agency elected to let the existing standard remain in effect. After continuous court litigation, spearheaded by the American Lung Association, the National Parks Conservation Association and others, EPA tightened its standards in accordance with a court-ordered deadline. For additional information on the new standard, click here.


On Dec. 6, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was awarding $1.2 million in environmental justice grants for projects intended to address environmental issues faced by minority and low-income communities.

This year’s grants were awarded to 50 non-profit and tribal organizations in 26 states and Puerto Rico. Projects receiving funding this year include efforts to educate low-income individuals of the dangers of gardening in contaminated soil, improve air quality/ventilation in older homes, promote the use of safe pesticides in low-income housing and promote environmental stewardship in diverse communities. Environmental justice programs seek to bring parity to environmental policy decision-making that includes all races and income levels.

Additional information on EPA’s Environmental Justice Small Grants, including how to apply for the 2013 grants is available here (applications due Jan. 7). The full list of 2012 grant recipients is available here.


Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, who collaborated on the first two installments in the Terminator film franchise, are teaming up again – this time in an effort to save the world from the detrimental impacts of climate change.

The two have reunited to produce a documentary series on Showtime in 2013 that will focus on how humans are impacting Earth’s climate. The series, entitled “Years of Living Dangerously” will explore the issue in six to eight one-hour episodes.

Schwarzenegger, signed the nation’s first cap on greenhouse gas emissions during his term as California Governor. He has urged Republicans and Democrats to seek bipartisan solutions to address climate change and continues to promote efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and invest in green jobs through his own non-profit organization, the R20 Regions of Climate Action.

Cameron has been active in several conservation causes and has stated that his recent film “Avatar” was in part a message for humanity to stop damaging the environment. Cameron had also met with Environmental Protection Agency and BP leaders during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spill was eventually stopped using techniques similar to what Cameron recommended.


Dates are now set for the Congressional visits events in which recipients of the Ecological Society of America (ESA)’s 2013 Graduate Student Policy Awardees will participate.   This annual award, offered to up to three ESA graduate students, provides hands-on science policy experience including interacting with congressional decision-makers, federal agency officials, and others engaged in science and public policy.

GSPA winners participate in the annual Congressional Visits Day, a two-day event that will be held on April 10 and 11, 2013.  ESA covers travel and lodging expenses associated with this event for all GSPA recipients. ESA is co-organizer of Congressional Visits Day, sponsored by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition to promote federal investment in the biological sciences, particularly through the National Science Foundation.

The application deadline is January 7, 2013. For more information, click here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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