Scientist citizens—biologists on Capitol Hill

By Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst and Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs “The Congressman believes strongly in the value of fundamental research the National Science Foundation makes possible and will continue to support it.” “…the Senator is concerned that NSF funds some “silly research” such as a study on duck penises….” These are just a few examples of what various congressional staffers said to scientists participating in last week’s Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition Congressional Visits Day, co-organized by the Ecological Society of America and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.  For many scientists, it was their first time to step into the marble-floored congressional buildings on Capitol Hill.  Their goal: to meet with their congressional delegations, highlight the value of federally supported science, and, hopefully, begin to cultivate professional relationships with policymakers. Over 30 graduate students, field researchers and professors visited 55 congressional offices to highlight the contributions of federally supported biological research programs to their respective states and the nation.  It was an energetic group that found compelling ways to make their message resonate with policymakers. As evidenced by the quotes above, while congressional offices varied in how they viewed sustained funding for federal science programs, the scientists participating in the meetings used their local ties as well as areas of common interest to connect with policymakers. One of ESA’s Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) recipients, Matthew Berg, for example, an eco-hydrology graduate student at Texas A&M University, has a folksy Texas charm.  Focusing on his state’s water limitations, he talked about the role federal agencies play there in enabling monitoring and research into water-related issues. But before he even got to those points, Matt had successfully established himself as a fellow Texan: he was wearing his “Aggie” ring—the massive Texas A&M ring widely known to all alums of that institution and instantly recognized from across the room.  Upon entering his Congressman’s office, Matthew’s ring was immediately spotted by a young, broad-shouldered man who was sporting the same ring and the two swapped stories about their alma mater while we waited.  And then the staffer with whom Matt was actually meeting appeared and he, too, was wearing the same ring.  This common denominator fostered an easy rapport between the grad student and the congressional staffer and a productive dialogue ensued. Scott Collins and Don Natvig, professors at the University of New Mexico, had the advantage of being able to offer congressional staff a tour of an especially alluring research area: the Sevilleta Long-term Ecological Research site. Collins is director of the Sevilleta LTER while Natvig is director of the Sevilleta Field Station.  The two invited...

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ESA Policy News: March 22

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CONGRESS PASSES MEASURE FUNDING GOVERNMENT THROUGH FY 2013 This week, Congress passed H.R. 933, a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the remainder of current Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, which ends Sept. 30. The bill in effect prevents a government shutdown when the current CR runs out at the end of the month while giving some federal agencies slightly more latitude in how they allocate funding. The measure does not nullify the sequestration of automatic spending cuts (5.3 percent to non-defense programs, 7.9 percent to defense programs) implemented March 1 under the Budget Control Act. President Obama is expected to sign the measure. The $984 billion bill is altered from the House version in that it adds funding language for the agriculture, homeland security and commerce justice and science appropriations bills. The House version had only incorporated appropriations bills that fund the Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs agencies. Incorporating the language of actual bills gives federal agencies greater direction and specificity in how to distribute funding than what is provided by a simple CR. While overall funding in the bill was not increased, funding levels for several programs within agencies were reshuffled to sustain critical initiatives. For the National Science Foundation in FY 2013, the Senate-passed bill includes a $221 million increase over FY 2012 for a total of $7.25 billion. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is funded at $17.5 billion in FY 2013, less than the $17.8 billion it received in FY 2012. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will receive $5 billion for FY 2013, above the $4.9 billion funded in FY 2012. For agriculture research programs, the FY 2013 bill provides $1.074 billion for the Agricultural Research Service (down from $1.09 billion in FY 2012) and $290 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (up from $264 million in FY 2014). Among the amendments adopted was one from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless such research was certified to promote the national security or economic interests of the United States. The Senate also adopted by unanimous consent an amendment from Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) to shield farmers who store fuel on their property from an Environmental Protection Agency oil spill prevention rule. Another amendment from Coburn to shift funding within the National Parks Service to ensure national parks are open to the public and allow White House tours to resume failed 44-54. An additional Coburn...

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ESA Policy News: October 12

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.  EDUCATION: SUBCOMMITTEE CHAIRMAN REQUESTS GAO REVIEW OF REGULATORY IMPEDIMENTS TO UNIVERSITY RESEARCH  On Oct. 3, House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a review of regulatory actions that may hinder research at the nation’s universities. The letter comes following  a recent report from the National Research Council of the National Academies entitled Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. Among its recommendations was a call to “reduce or eliminate regulations that increase administrative costs, impede research productivity, and deflect creative energy without substantially improving the research environment.” The National Academies report also recommends raising government, industry and philanthropy support for Research and Development (R&D) to three percent of Growth Domestic Product, fully funding the America COMPETES Act and “doubling the level of basic research conducted by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.” To view Rep. Brooks’ letter, click here. The full National Academies report and a PDF summary is available here. FORESTS: SUPREME COURT SUSTAINS ROADLESS RULE On Oct. 1, the United States Supreme Court stated it would not review a Clinton administration roadless rule that protects 45 million acres of national forest from road construction and logging. The decision ends a decade of legal challenges that began when the rule was first finalized in January 2001. Petitioners had asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision last year by the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Clinton rule and reversed a US district judge’s determination that the rule had created de facto wilderness and violated the National Environmental Policy Act. Petitioners included the state of Wyoming, the Colorado Mining Association and the American Petroleum Institute. After the ruling, Gov. Matt Mead stated that while he had concerns about what the decision would mean for economic opportunity in his state, he intends to work collaboratively with the US Forest Service to address these issues. INTERIOR: NOMINATIONS SOUGHT FOR CLIMATE CHANGE ADVISERS The US Department of Interior (DOI) is seeking nominations for a new panel to be composed of outside scientific experts to help inform the agency’s work on the impacts of climate change on natural resources. Those nominated would serve on DOI’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science. The committee will advise the US Geological Survey’s National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC)...

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ESA Policy News: June 22

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE COMMITTEE MOVES AGRICULTURE, INTERIOR SPENDING BILLS  This month, the House Appropriations Committee has continued work on its Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 spending bills. Most recently, it has released legislation funding environmental and agricultural federal programs. On June 19, the committee approved its Agriculture Appropriations Act for FY 2013. That day, the committee also released its FY 2013 Interior and Environment appropriations bill, which was marked up by subcommittee the following day. Agriculture In total, the Agriculture Appropriations Act for FY 2013 includes $19.4 billion in discretionary spending, a $365 million reduction from FY 2012 and $1.7 billion less than Obama’s FY 2013 budget request. Agricultural research programs, including the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, would be funded at $2.5 billion, a $35 million reduction from FY 2012. The Natural Resources Conservation Service would receive $812 million, a $16 million decrease from FY 2012. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would receive $787 million, $33 million below FY 2012. A funding program to help farmers make environmental improvement on their lands was cut by $500 million compared to the current farm bill’s authorized levels. Interior The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Act for FY 2013 contains $28 billion in funding, a cut of $1.2 billion below FY 2012 and $1.7 billion below the president’s FY 2013 budget request. The bill funds the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Forest Service and related environmental initiatives. EPA funding undergoes a particularly high number of cuts in the House bill. The bill funds EPA at $7 billion, a $1.4 billion (17 percent) cut from FY 2012. This brings total funding in the bill below FY 1998 levels. The legislation continues a cap on EPA’s personnel at the lowest number since 1992 and cuts the office of the EPA administrator by over 30 percent. The EPA Congressional Affairs office receives a 50 percent cut. For additional information on the Agriculture bill, click here. For additional information on the Interior bill, click here. OSTP: SCIENCE COMMITTEE REVIEWS WHITE HOUSE PRIORITIES On June 20, 2012, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee hosted White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren for a hearing entitled “Examining Priorities and Effectiveness of the Nation’s Science Policies.” During the hearing several Republicans inquired if the U.S. was maintaining investment in certain areas, including space technology and high-energy physics, relative to other countries. Holdren responded that the U.S. remains “on the cutting edge” and “unmatched”...

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Scientists discuss federal role in hydraulic fracturing research

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst   The issue of hydraulic fracturing, a fairly new energy production method, has spurred intense debate, in part due unfamiliarity with the overall process. Recently on Capitol Hill, a group of federal scientists discussed their research in an attempt to inform the ongoing policy debate by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. On June 9, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) sponsored a briefing entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing: the State of Science.” During the briefing, federal scientists highlighted recent research  findings on  hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and also touched on  potential ecological impacts of the process. The speakers noted that while information to date suggests that the overall process is safe with proper monitoring efforts, additional research is needed to quantify its long-term effects. Speakers noted that groundwater contamination from imperfect cementing, existing wells, cracks in rock and levels of seismic activity are all variables that present some potential environmental risk factors of fracking. Brenda Pierce, Coordinator for the Energy Resources Program at USGS, discussed the program’s lead role in assessing energy resources for the onshore United States.  She  noted that assessments of recoverable energy resources change over time due to technological advancements and improved geologic understanding, among other factors. Rick Hammack, Natural Systems Monitoring Coordinator for the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory discussed the multifaceted role his agency and others, including the USGS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, play in monitoring the environmental impacts of shale gas development. Hammack stressed that the overall process takes five years, including one year of scientific study before fracking begins, several years of monitoring and assessment during energy production and a period of assessment after production is completed. Consequently, Hammack noted, it may be some time before we have a full picture of the environmental impacts from fracking and continued investment in research is important. Bill Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Hazards at USGS, touched on the research USGS, other federal agencies and universities are conducting to better understand human-induced seismic activity from oil and gas production. Noting that mid-continent earthquakes have increased significantly in recent years, Leith clarified that the risk is manageable and that the fracking process itself has not triggered an earthquake large enough to raise safety concerns. Leith’s presentation, however, noted that the subsequent wastewater injection, which transmits wastewater from fracking into deep disposal wells, can cause earthquakes large enough to be felt and cause damage, though only a small fraction have caused earthquakes large enough to be of public concern. Leith believes that further research...

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ESA Policy News: May 18

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE CJS BILL CUTS NOAA, RESEARCH INITIATIVES On May 10, the House passed H.R. 5326, the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which includes funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), among other agencies. The bill passed by a vote of 247-163 with 23 Democrats joining all but eight Republicans in supporting the measure. Democrats supporting the measure included House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norman Dicks (D-WA) and House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA). In total, the bill provides $51.1 billion in funding for FY 2013, $1.6 billion below FY 2012 and $731 million below the president’s FY 2013 budget request. The White House has released a statement of administration policy declaring that President Obama will veto the bill, if it is presented to him in its current form. The administration asserts that the bill’s overall funding level violates those set by the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25), agreed to in August of last year, and says  that the cuts included in the bill will be a detriment in furthering “economic growth, security, and global competitiveness” for the nation. While applauding the funding for the Office of Science and Technology Policy as well as the $7.3 billion funding level for NSF, the White House says that significant funding cuts to NOAA would adversely affect the agency’s ability to implement the nation’s fisheries and oceans stewardship programs. The House bill must be reconciled with the Senate CJS bill approved in committee last month.  For additional background on the House and Senate CJS appropriations bills, see the April 20 edition of ESA Policy News. To view the full White House statement of administration policy on the House CJS appropriations bill, click here. HOUSE: SCIENCE SUBCOMMITTEE CONSIDERS POTENTIAL OF OIL SHALE DEVELOPMENT On May 10, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment convened for a hearing entitled “American Jobs and the Economy through Expanded Energy Production:  Challenges and Opportunities of Unconventional Resources Technology.” “The amount of energy under own soil is striking.  With continued technological advances and the right policies to enable access to these resources, America could become the global leader in energy production for the next generation and beyond,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD). “The Green River Basin, located in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, may contain up to three trillion barrels of oil, more potential oil than the rest of the world’s current oil reserves...

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Increase in magnitude 3+ earthquakes likely caused by oil and gas production (but not fracking)

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer WE don’t typically think of the middle of the US as earthquake country, but small earthquakes, many just on the edge of perception, send shock waves through the prairies and southlands more than twenty times a year, on average,  and have done so since regular monitoring began circa 1970. They are becoming more common. Over the last few years, earthquakes in the magnitude 3-6 range have increased in frequency, and people are starting to notice. In 2011, 134 quakes of magnitude 3 or higher shook central North America, up from 87  in 2010 and 50 in 2009. Last week, USGS geologist Bill Ellsworth linked the increasing incidence of quakes to oil and gas production. He told the Seismological Society of America meeting in San Diego that forcing wastewater deep underground appears to be triggering earthquakes.  An abstract posted to the meeting site stated that “the seismicity rate changes described here are almost certainly manmade,” triggering a wave of news reports. Many headlines erroneously implied that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale rock for natural gas production directly triggers earthquakes. Earthquakes are a known hazard of deep wastewater injection wells. Geologists and engineers discovered the complication in the 1960s, when injections of contaminated water from a big surface reservoir into a 12,000 ft deep well at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal chemical munitions plant triggered a series of over 700 earthquakes in the Denver area. Not all deep injection wells trigger earthquakes, but if they are in the vicinity of a fault, the increasing fluid pressure in the pores of the rock can relieve the friction resisting slippage (strain) between the rock layers. It accelerates the timetable on a jolting slip in the fault. The effect is accentuated if fluid is pumped in fast. It takes time for the liquid to disperse and pressure to return to equilibrium (hydrostatic pressure), and in the meantime, the dynamically heightened pore pressure opposes the weight of the rock on top, “floating” it. Surface reservoirs, flooded mines, extraction of large amounts of oil, gas or ore, and geothermal energy projects can also stimulate earthquakes. “Manmade” earthquakes, it turns out, are not a novelty at all. Fracking is in the hot seat because the method has expanded so rapidly and successfully in the last decade. The process uses a lot of water. Ecologists have pointed out potential risks to surface water quality, and the void of empirical data on impacts. Fracking forces water (mixed with proprietary additives, some of which are fairly nasty) horizontally through shale rock to open pores, releasing natural gas.  Some 25-50 percent of the fluid returns to...

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ESA Policy News: April 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CJS BILLS SUPPORT SCIENCE, SENATE TRANSFERS SATELLITES TO NASA The week of April 16, both the House and Senate Commerce Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittees approved their respective funding bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. In total, the House CJS appropriations bill would provide $51.1 billion to all agencies under its jurisdiction, a reduction of $1.6 billion below FY 2012 and $731 below the president’s request. The Senate bill would fund all agencies under its jurisdiction at $51.862 billion, a $1 billion reduction from FY 2012.  While the House bill’s funding levels are overall less than the Senate, both chambers supported increases in key science agencies in comparison to the current fiscal year. The Senate CJS bill would also move funding for weather satellite procurement from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There has been bipartisan, bicameral criticism directed at NOAA’s costly satellites. According to Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the move would save $117 million in FY 2013 and reduce duplicative federal activities. Enclosed are funding levels for key science bureaus outlined within the House and Senate bills: The National Science Foundation House: $7.333 billion, an increase of $299 over FY 2012. Senate: $7.273 billion, an increase of $240 million over FY 2012. NASA House: $17.6 billion, $226 million below FY 2012 Senate: $19.4 billion, an increase of $1.6 billion over FY 2012. (*The increase is due to the bill’s provision transferring weather satellite procurement from NOAA to NASA. Absent these funds, the bill would mean a $41.5 million cut for NASA. NOAA House: $5 billion, $68 million above FY 2012 Senate: $3.4 billion, $1.47 billion below FY 2012 For additional information on the Senate CJS bill, click here. For additional information on the House CJS bill, click here.  APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE RELEASES FY 2013 ENERGY AND WATER BILL On April 17, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee released its funding bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. The bill, which funds federal programs for the Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water programs within the Department of Interior, would be funded at $32.1 billion, $965 million less than the president’s request, yet a slight increase from FY 2012. Department of Energy (DOE) – DOE would receive $26.3 billion, $365 million less than FY 2012. DOE environmental management activities would be funded at $5.5 billion, $166 million below FY 2012. The bill increases funding for nuclear security by $300 million from FY 2012 and would direct funding...

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