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.


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.


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 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 if left unaddressed. The participating nations would work collectively through the Montreal Protocol, established in 1987 to facilitate a global approach to combat ozone layer depletion.

The four co-chairs of the Congressional Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, which include Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Ben Cardin (D-MD), sent a letter to President Obama earlier this month to urge China’s president to support reduction of HFCs. In a press statement on behalf of the task force, Waxman iterated “The United States and China working together to tackle climate change is a major breakthrough.  A global phase-down of HFCs would eliminate more heat-trapping gases by 2050 than the United States emits in an entire decade.”

For the full announcement, click here. The Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change letter is available here.


On June 7, the National Science Foundation (NSF) published a new guidance memorandum regarding provision of a recently enacted law that restricts political science research funding through its social and behavioral sciences directorate.

“The Political Science Program in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) will continue to engage panels to review grant proposals, using the two National Science Board approved merit review criteria (Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts),” states the memorandum. “Panels will also be asked to provide input on whether proposals meet one or both of the additional criteria required for exceptions under P.L. 113-6, i.e., promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The memorandum notes that due to the new law, funding approval for NSF projects related to political science “may be delayed.”

Enacted through the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (P.L. 113-6) through language sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), existing law requires NSF to now restrict the issuance of political science grants solely to research projects that contribute to economic or national security interests. To view the guidance memo, click here.


On June 11, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard heard from witnesses on the importance of ocean research. The witness list included renowned Oscar-winning film director and environmentalist James Cameron.

After commenting on the length of the line outside the hearing room and praising the star witness, Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee Chairman Mark Begich (D-AK) noted that Cameron is one of only three humans to descend 6.8 miles into the Mariana Trench, the deepest known part of the Earth’s oceans while, in contrast, 500 people have traveled into outer space. He added that only 20-25 percent of the marine life in existence has been identified and 90 percent of the ocean floor remains uncharted. “Whether it’s ocean acidification, sea level rise, warming water temperatures or shifting fish populations, our oceans are changing,” said Begich. “If we are to prepare for these changes, we have to be better and more understanding of the oceans.” Both Chairman Begich and Subcommittee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) noted the importance of ocean research to their states and emphasized strengthening public-private partnerships in advancing ocean research, particularly in light of current fiscal constraints.

Cameron compared the ocean floor to an unexplored “dark continent,” noting that ocean trenches’ total area is larger than the entire continent of North America. He also noted his dives found new life forms never before recorded by science. He talked about the “Deep Sea Challenger,” a privately constructed submersible, which served as his vehicle of exploration into the ocean depths. His scientific team discovered 68 new species, which were presented at the December 2012 meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Cameron said that additional funding for ocean research is needed to help understand changes associated with global warming. “The ocean is an engine that drives weather, including the higher precipitation and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, the severe droughts and so on that are associated with climate change,” said Cameron. “To understand weather and climate, we must understand the ocean. And to do so, we can’t just sense them from satellites. They’re a vast three dimensional volume that is opaque from above. We need instruments and vehicles down there in the water column.” He also called for more investment in Science, Technology and Mathematics Engineering education.

View the full hearing here.


On June 12, House Space, Science and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Chris Stewart (R-UT) issued a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe requesting the scientific data the agency uses to make determinations on the health benefits of its air quality rules.

The letter criticizes EPA for still not providing the data as well as for not following up on a similar letter sent to Gina McCarthy, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation in March. McCarthy is also President Obama’s nominee to succeed departed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “EPA officials should justify their agenda through an open and transparent process that is based on good science, if they can,” states the June letter. “EPA has projected that its upcoming ozone standard will be the most costly environmental regulation in U.S. history.  Working families will bear these costs.  They have a right to know what scientific data supports EPA’s claims.”

The letter comes on the heels of a House Space, Science and Technology Subcommittee hearing earlier that day on EPA’s plans to review its National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone. The Clean Air Act directs EPA to review its ozone standards every five years. During the last review in 2008, the ozone standard was set at 75 parts per billion (ppb). While EPA has not yet announced a further reduction, Republican committee members are concerned the agency may lower the limit to 70 ppb. They also argued that EPA underestimates the role of background ozone which comes from natural sources such as wildfires or lightening as well as ozone from other countries outside US regulation.

View the full hearing here. View the Smith/Stewart letter, here.


On June 5, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittees on Research and Technology held a joint subcommittee hearing examining federal research into damage from tornadoes in the United States and legislation to reauthorize the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, which coordinates windstorm mitigation activities between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“Every year the federal government funds not only disaster relief but also emergency supplemental appropriations when states are hit particularly hard by unexpected disasters.  I believe that we need to be more responsible about planning how to deal with natural disasters and minimize the need for disaster supplemental funding,” asserted Research Subcommittee Chairman Larry Buschon (R-IN). He called for increased coordination at the federal level that also reduces agency duplication of responsibilities.

Research Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) sought to highlight the important role social science research plays in disaster mitigation. “In order for these efforts to be effective they cannot leave out the most critical component – people.  Understanding how people – such as state and local officials, business owners, and individuals – make decisions and respond to storm warnings is essential to designing effective strategies to prepare for, respond to and recover from a disaster.”

View the full hearing here.


On June 5, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published its plans for removing federal protections for gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

The proposal would remove remaining federal protections for grey wolves in the lower 48 states, save for the Mexican wolf subspecies inhabiting parts of New Mexico and Arizona, whose status would be upgraded to “endangered.” A minimum of 75 Mexican wolves have been reported in the region as of 2012. The delisting places monitoring of the wolves primarily in the hands of state wildlife agencies.

Prior to the rule, gray wolf populations in certain parts of the country had already been delisted. In 2002, the Northern Rockies area gray wolves exceeded minimum recovery goals of 300 for a third straight year and were delisted. A year prior, the Great Lakes population of wolves was delisted. FWS estimates that there are at least 6,100 gray wolves in the continental United States, 4,432 in the Western Great Lakes and 1,674 in the Northern Rockies. These populations exceed targets by as much as 300 percent, according to the agency.

A final determination on the proposal is expected for 2014. Public comments on the rule will be received through Sept. 11, 2013. For additional information on how to comment, click here.

For additional information, click here.


On June 11, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it is proposing adding captive chimpanzees for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The rule was prompted in part by a 2010 legal petition from a coalition of conservation associations, including the Jane Goodall Institute, to list both wild and captive chimpanzees as endangered. Currently, while wild chimpanzees are listed as ‘endangered,’ captive ones are listed as ‘threatened.’ The proposed rule finds that threats to wild chimpanzees have substantially increased since they were first listed in 1990. These threats include rising deforestation, poaching, capture for the pet trade and disease outbreaks.

Comments on the proposal must be received by August 12, 2013. Additional information on the rule is available here.



Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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