GSPA recipients bridge the gap between science and policy
Dec08

GSPA recipients bridge the gap between science and policy

In some respects, this year has been a politically tumultuous one for scientists working in federal policy. The US House Science, Space and Technology Committee has pushed legislation that would radically alter how the National Science Foundation prioritizes its budget and made repeated requests for information related to how certain federal agencies utilize science in their decision-making processes. While it is true that for some policymakers, their critique of scientific findings or priorities are based in fundamental differences of ideology, there are many others who are simply unaware of the degree of rigor involved in the scientific peer review process for science publications or the high level of transparency and competitiveness that constitutes the National Science Foundation’s merit review process for grant proposals. Consequently, it is critically important to maintain an open dialogue of communication between those who make science policy and those who practice the science. This is necessary to advance understanding of basic scientific research and seek consensus on how this research can be used to improve and improve our way of life. The Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) is one such tool the Ecological Society of America (ESA) uses to engage scientists in policy and help lawmakers understand the ecological research being conducted in their congressional districts and how it helps the communities they represent. During the most recent edition of the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, 2015 GSPA recipient Emlyn Resetarits (University of Texas-Austin) reflects on her experience. For Resetarits, meeting with congressional offices highlighted the “isolated scientific community” she operates in, given that certain ecological terms and species she referred weren’t immediately familiar to some of the legislative staff during their discussion. She hopes that more Members of Congress will hire scientists as policy aides, but noted it’s beneficial to continue a dialogue with not just offices that are less familiar with science, but also those that may be critical of certain scientific findings or processes. “I think we’re strengthened when we really are able to talk to people who disagree with us, take their doubts and incorporate it into our research or how we explain ourselves,” said Resetarits. “I think it strengthens how we do science when we talk to people who maybe disagree with us.” Resetarits encourages scientists looking to get involved with policy to volunteer with a local agency whose work they found valuable— noting that public speaking skill is vital for communicating scientific research to wide audiences. “Just being able to public[ly] speak to a general audience about what you do is really important and if you can do that, that will really give you a leg up on trying...

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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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ESA Policy News: December 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 BILL FUNDING AGENCIES THROUGH FY 2012 The week of Dec. 16, Congress passed H.R. 2055, an omnibus bill which funds the government through the remainder of the current fiscal year (FY) 2012, which ends Sept. 30, 2012. The bill passed the House by a vote of 262-121 and the Senate by a vote of 67-32. The omnibus bill incorporates the remaining nine appropriations bills that were not included in the “minibus” that passed earlier this year (P.L. 112-55). The new omnibus bill includes funding for the Departments of Interior and Energy as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. Energy and Water Overall, energy and water programs are funded at $32 billion for FY 2012, a $328 million increase over FY 2011. For Department of Energy science programs, the bill includes $4.9 billion, an increase of $46 million from FY 2011. The bill also includes $769 million for nuclear energy research and development, $43 million above FY 2011. For environmental management activities, the bill includes $5.7 billion, a $31 million increase over FY 2011. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is funded at $5 billion, a $145 million increase from FY 2011. The FY 2012 funding level for the Corps is also $429 million above the president’s request, one of the few agencies to enjoy this distinction this year. Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): $8.4 billion for FY 2012, $233 million below FY 2011.The conference agreement cuts $14 million (six percent) in clean air and climate research programs; $12 million (9.5 percent) in EPA’s regulatory development office; and $14 million (five percent) to air regulatory programs. The bill also reduces the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund by $101 million. Bureau of Land Management: $1.1 billion, $5 million below FY 2011. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: $1.5 billion, $28 million below FY 2011. National Park Service: $2.6 billion, $32 million below FY 2011. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement: $60 million (this agency was formalized in FY 2011). Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement: $76 million, including $15 million for oil spill research for this agency, formalized in FY 2011. U.S. Forest Service: $4.6 billion for the Forest Service in FY 2012, $91 million below FY 2011. Department of Defense Research and Development: $72.4 billion, $2.5 billion below FY 2011. Click here for the House summary of the omnibus bill or here for the Senate summary of the omnibus bill. A comprehensive listing of policy riders included in the bill...

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Forget peer review. Give everyone a grant.

A paper in Accountability in Research last week has stirred up significant controversy among researchers, science journalists and bloggers this week.  Directly from the abstract: “Using Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) statistics, we show that the $40,000 (Canadian) cost of preparation for a grant application and rejection by peer review in 2007 exceeded that of giving every qualified investigator a direct baseline discovery grant of $30,000 (average grant).” Richard Gordon, a radiologist, and Bryan Poulin, a business researcher, say in their paper that the current system is wasteful of taxpayers’ money.  They also suggest (in animated language) that if the peer-review process were abolished for baseline research, then innovative ideas would be encouraged.  For scientists requiring large amounts of money to conduct highly technical research, a separate peer-review system like the one we have today would suffice. The paper lists more than 20 reasons why our current granting system is flawed. One criticism stood out. When universities hire faculty, isn’t that already a peer-review process? Shouldn’t we trust the scientists who have put years of hard toil into earning a PhD and landing an academic job? Besides, there’s enough peer-review at later stages in the process: journal articles and conference proceedings are held up to rigorous scrutiny. Worse, perhaps the competition among scientists to “get a leg up” in the early stages of their careers dissuades students from entering the field. What would happen to the field of ecology if every qualified ecologist received $25,000 U.S. dollars to explore a new research idea? If it worked, then you’d have some data to put into that $500,000 grant application. If not, then you’d probably bark up another tree without wasting years trying to get money to test it out. What do you think? Does the current system encourage a “good old boys” club? Or would opening the floodgates for funding of a lot of misguided research? Read an extensive blog discussion of this article on A Blog Around the Clock. You can also request a copy of the paper from the very generous author, Richard Gordon, at gordonr at cc.umanitoba.ca Gordon, R., & Poulin, B. (2009). Cost of the NSERC Science Grant Peer Review System Exceeds the Cost of Giving Every Qualified Researcher a Baseline Grant Accountability in Research, 16 (1), 13-40 DOI:...

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Wikipedia: A scientific and educational opportunity

Emilio Bruna of the University of Florida wanted to assign students in his graduate seminar on plant -animal interactions something different than a term paper.  So he devised a novel plan that would help them learn some crucial concepts while writing concisely: rewriting Wikipedia entries.  I caught up with Emilio and student Kristine Callis, who is the first author of their resulting Trends in Ecology and Evolution paper, to learn about their experience. What prompted the idea to edit Wikipedia entries in class? Emilio Bruna: I was looking for an alternative to the standard research review paper for class, so I went onto Wikipedia.  I noticed that although some of those entries are really good, the ones for the class I was teaching, which was plant-animal interactions, were really bad. And it’s not the authors’ fault – they wrote about what they were interested in and what they knew. But I thought it was an opportunity to do better. So at first I thought I’d give it to them as an assignment.  And then the idea came up to write a paper about the experience, and that’s the product you can read in TREE. What was the assignment? EB: Students were working in groups of 3 or 4. Each group tackled a different Wikipedia entry: frugivory, herbivory, pollination, granivory and seed dispersal. The groups had to critique the entry, rewrite it, and upload the changes. Some groups had an easier time than others, depending on the critiques of other authors. Kristine Callis: All of us were familiar with Wikipedia, but we’d been told in the past, since most of us are teaching assistants, that you can’t really use Wikipedia because you don’t know how good the content is. By doing this project we discovered instead that there weren’t a lot of things in the entries that were outright wrong, but there were a lot of things that were either misleading or left out. Or, in some cases, given too much treatment? KC: Definitely. We discovered that most entries seemed to have an anthropomorphic spin. The human aspect is important, of course, but in many cases it went too far. For example, the entry for the term “frugivore” spent a lot of time talking about humans who eat only fruit. EB: That was everyone’s favorite. The fruitarians were a real highlight for us. Were other authors resistant to your changes? KC: At first we didn’t know how the culture of Wikipedia worked.  One group just uploaded their changes directly, so another author just reverted their changes back to the old entry. What we didn’t realize is that there is a...

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When scientific fiction replaces good science

Good science writers – as with all reporters – should verify the validity of their stories before publishing, making sure to cite the peer-reviewed research detailing a new discovery. But as in the case of the purported cane toad-eating frog, an exciting enough fact with weak empirical support can sometimes take off like….well, an invasive species. In 2005 and 2006, several media sources (including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, and ESA’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment) reported that the native Australian Dahl’s frog could survive after eating cane toad metamorphs, which are normally toxic to predators.  The report was exciting because the invasive cane toads have wreaked havoc on Australia’s ecosystems since their introduction in the 1930s, and this provided the first supposed evidence of a possible biocontrol to thwart the toads’ spread. The finding, however, was reported by a community watch organizer who had fed metamorphs to five Dahl’s frogs in a terrarium at his home. As Rick Shine and colleagues point out in a Dec. 10 e-view paper in Frontiers, titled “The myth of the toad-eating frog,” this finding was based on anecdotal evidence and lacked an appropriate sample size, control groups and replicated groups. The finding was not reviewed by scientists; indeed, even when reported in the media, no other scientists were contacted to comment on the story.  In a bizarre twist, Shine also reported in his paper that at least one prominent ecologist retold the story, believing it was supported by scientific evidence. When Shine and his colleagues tested the frog in a controlled setting with replication, randomization and appropriate sample sizes, they found that Dahl’s frog is just as susceptible to cane toad toxin as other native species. More than half of frogs that ate the toad metamorphs in captivity died. Further, the frogs that tried to eat cane toad tadpoles spit them out and learned to avoid them in subsequent trials. So, who’s responsible here? With today’s ease of self-publishing, the lines between expert and self-proclaimed pundit blur, making it ever more important for journalists to validate the reliability of their sources. But scientists are not guiltless – although this paper cries foul, it does so more than three years after the initial report.  If good ecological science is to inform public policy decisions, it’s up to scientists to ensure that the facts reported are...

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