Breaking down the nation’s current fiscal crisis

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Background Last week’s non-defense discretionary spending (NDD) summit emphasized the theme of a balanced approach towards addressing the nation’s growing national debt. Whether you value investments in scientific research, education or the environment, the current debate over our nation’s fiscal crisis deserves close attention as it will determine long-term investments in a broad spectrum of federal programs that impact everyday life for millions of Americans. Due to Congress’s political inability to tackle the federal debt in a meaningful fashion, in 2011, it passed the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25), a law that sets an automatic trigger across discretionary spending programs in January 2013 totaling $1.2 trillion unless Congress develops an alternative plan to reduce the federal debt by at least that amount. Broken down, the spending cuts total $54 billion per year (7.5 percent) to defense programs and $54 billion per year (8.4 percent) to non-defense programs through Fiscal Year 2021. As policymakers work address the nation’s growing federal deficit, it is helpful to take a step back to examine what is and what is not the driving force behind the national debt. Perspectives on what’s a stake with reference to the upcoming sequester can be found in a report the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), which gives a succinct summary: “Our unsustainable fiscal situation is driven by healthcare inflation, the retirement of the baby boomers, and an inefficient tax code that raises too little revenue. Yet the sequester does nothing to address these problems, instead cutting almost exclusively from defense and non-defense discretionary spending, which are already projected to decline substantially as a percentage of the economy over the coming decade.” Discretionary spending As emphasized during the NDD summit, further cuts that strictly focus on non-defense discretionary spending are economically unwise and ineffective at bringing any long-term deficit reduction. An Aerospace Industries Association report concludes that well over one million jobs would be lost between 2013-2014 if the non-defense discretionary spending cuts are implemented (in total, 2.14 million jobs would be lost, if the defense cuts are included). According to BPC, non-defense discretionary spending accounts for 13 percent of the budget while defense spending accounts for 14 percent of the budget. A report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes that discretionary spending as a whole is already projected to fall over the next ten years: “By FY 2022, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline projections, discretionary spending will fall to 5.6 percent of GDP, its lowest level ever,” the CRS report states. Further, according to BPC, full implementation of the sequester will only delay by two...

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Lubchenco: “This is the time of ecology”

By Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst During the opening plenary of ESA’s 97th Annual Meeting, attendees witnessed firsthand the power individuals working together have to make things happen in their communities. The plenary kicked off with the presentation of the Society’s 2012 Regional Policy Award to Ken Bierly of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board who was “greatly honored” and “deeply appreciative” of the award. Bierly thanked a host of individuals he had worked with who played a pivotal role in “helping us to manage our environment in a meaningful way.” His work on freshwater resources in the state of Oregon has helped to restore marshes and streams as well as protect water quality in rivers and streams, which help sustain fish and wildlife habitat and preserve natural resources that human communities depend on. The  keynote address was given by Jane Lubchenco, Administrator for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Lubchenco asserted that “this is the time of ecology.”  Referring to scientists who are engaged in policy, Lubchenco likened the process to a relay race where scientists ‘pass the baton’ to one another, noting that this is necessary to sustain engagement and community networking over time.  Lubchenco dedicated her presentation to Elinor Ostrom who once stated “the goal now must be to  build sustainability into the DNA of our globally interconnected society. Time is the natural resource in shortest supply.”  Although Ostrom was an economist,  Lubchenco cited her as “an ecologist by thinking,” and discussed how her research highlighted how ordinary people working collectively could be successful in driving positive change in their communities. In her speech, Lubchenco outlined NOAA’s many initiatives, including a National Ocean Policy that streamlines the responsibilities of several dozen federal bureaus, restoration of the Gulf of Mexico, fisheries management that is influenced by science, and a climate adaption strategy to help mitigate impacts of climate change. She further noted that, during her tenure, the agency has reformed the National Climate Assessment to increase public input. There is also legislation underway to reestablish a Chief Scientist at NOAA, who could be appointed without Senate confirmation, a condition that has left the position vacant for the past 16 years. Noting that NOAA is the nation’s oldest scientific agency in the federal government, Lubchenco touted NOAA’s position as being at the forefront of agencies that use science to inform policy. Lubchenco mentioned that the agency has begun work on its own scientific integrity policy before the president issued his call for all federal agencies to promote scientific integrity throughout the executive branch.  She also touted the importance of “use-inspired research” that has tangible and direct benefits to communities and asserted that...

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Northwest leaders: coal export proposal deserves environmental review

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst A proposal to develop new marine coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington, which could ship between 75 million and 175 million tons of Powder River Basin coal annually to Asia, has drawn concern from environmentalists in the region. The National Wildlife Federation and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders have released a report outlining various environmental concerns to local communities brought on by coal production in the region. The six export terminals would be located in Cherry-Point, Grays Harbor, Longview, Port of St. Helens, Port of Morrow and Coos Bay. In the report, entitled “The True Cost of Coal,” the authors state that the proposed projects would pose threats to public health and set back decades of successful environmental recovery efforts in the region.  Among the detriments cited in the report are air pollution from coal dust, noise pollution and congestion from increased train traffic, increased risk of invasive species from tanker traffic as well as mercury deposition and ocean acidification, which could lead to the loss of salmon and steelhead, critical to the regional economy. A number of local communities and organizations, including Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and Oregon’s Environmental Justice Task Force and the American Indian Yakama Nation tribe, have called upon Governor John Kitzhaber (D-OR) to delay any coal-export projects until a comprehensive health impact assessment is completed. The effort is being pushed by mining corporations, including Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and Ambre Energy North America. The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which advocates for the aforementioned entities, contends that “the proposed terminals would create thousands of new jobs and generate tens of millions in additional tax revenue for schools and other services in Washington and Oregon. The group’s website further maintains that the six proposed coal export terminals “can be built in a safe and environmentally responsible way.” The issue has garnered attention from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) has introduced H.R. 6202, the True Cost of Coal Act. The bill imposes a $10 per ton tax on coal and establishes a Coal Mitigation Trust Fund to mitigate potential negative environmental impacts of coal transportation. The bill is unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled House. Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Denny Rehberg (R-MT), both supporters of Powder River Basin coal production, have been joined by leading Republicans and some Democrats in calling on the Obama administration to initiate project-specific permit reviews rather than the broad environmental impact assessments environmental advocates endorse. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has issued a letter requesting that the Bureau of Land Management and...

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Time to Restore Balance

By Terence Houston, science policy analyst and Nadine Lymn, director of public affairs Yesterday afternoon, several hundred individuals from organizations representing education, science, and other communities that make up the non-defense discretionary (NDD) part of the federal budget held a rally on Capitol Hill.  Their objective: to raise awareness that unless Congress takes action, across-the-board federal spending cuts are slated to go into effect on January 2, 2013 as mandated by the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25). Speakers called for both political parties to come together and focus on a consensus bipartisan solution towards bringing down the national debt. Senator Tom Harkin (photo on right), who chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, asserted that it is “time to restore balance to the conversation.” The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) projects that implementation of these cuts, also referred to as sequestration, could lead to the loss of over one million jobs in the United States between 2013 and 2014. In its report entitled “Indefensible: The Sequester’s Mechanics and Adverse Effects on National and Economic Security,” BPC notes that even if implemented, the sequester will ultimately prove ineffective in the long run, delaying by only two years the date when publicly- held United States debt surpasses 100 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. “Our unsustainable fiscal situation is driven by health care inflation, the retirement of the baby boomers, and an inefficient tax code that raises too little revenue,” the report notes. “Yet the sequester does nothing to address these problems, instead cutting almost exclusively from defense and non-defense discretionary spending, which are already projected to decline substantially as a percentage of the economy over the coming decade.” Consequently, instead of functioning as a meaningful debt reduction, the sequestration will take a machete to vital discretionary programs including cuts to scientific research ($1.1 billion), special education ($1.1 billion), air transportation security and traffic control ($1.6 billion), disaster relief ($0.7 billion) and disease control ($0.5 billion) with negligible long-term benefits and very significant immediate consequences for Americans. The BPC report reinforces the reality that meaningful deficit reduction must include a focus on revenue reforms and mandatory spending programs as initially suggested by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly known as the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction effort. Additional speakers at the rally included House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA), City of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Knott Mechanical President  Martin G. Knott Jr., and Rita Ngabo, a social worker and single mother. The rally was...

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ESA Policy News: July 13

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. WILDFIRES: FEDERAL MANAGEMENT EFFORTS CONTINUE A number of federal agencies, including the US Forest Service (FS), the Department of Interior (DOI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Defense, are continuing to support community recovery efforts from wildfires in Colorado and across the western US. As of this week, there are 40 large wildfires reported in the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Alaska, according to DOI. Federal officials report that wildfires nationwide have burned over three million acres, slightly above the 10-year average for this time of year. President Obama formally declared Colorado a federal disaster area on June 29, upon a request from Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and the state’s entire congressional delegation. The designation will offer federal money for assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including temporary housing, debris removal and repairs to public facilities. The president toured the state in late June and DOI Secretary Ken Salazar visited Colorado Springs in July to survey damage and meet with first responders and other local officials. The FS has also opened a public comment opportunity to seek input on its broader forest conservation efforts. The comment period ends Aug. 13. For more information, click here. To view the National Interagency Fire Center’s recently released National Wildland Significant Fire Potential Outlook for July – October 2012, click here.  BUDGET: ESA JOINS EFFORT TO PREVENT NONDEFENSE DISCRETIONARY CUTS On July 12, the Ecological Society of America joined nearly 3,000 national, state and local organizations in signing a letter to Members of Congress requesting that they take a balanced approach to deficit reduction that does not include further cuts to nondefense discretionary (NDD) spending. The organizations are representative of a wide breath of fields that benefit from federal NDD programs including science, education, health and civil rights. The letter comes ahead of a potential across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending in Jan. 2013 that the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25) stipulates. Under the current law, the $1.2 trillion in cuts would come 50 percent from defense spending and 50 percent from non-defense discretionary spending. The letter notes the important role NDD programs play and urges Congress to work to reduce the deficit in a manner that prevents further significant cuts to these programs. “In total, if Congress and the President fail to act, between fiscal 2010 and 2021 NDD programs will have been cut by 20 percent overall. Such indiscriminate cuts...

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Court upholds EPA climate rules

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst  During a week of landmark (some might call “supreme”) judicial rulings at the federal level on issues concerning immigration and healthcare, another pivotal ruling was issued from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that gave legitimacy to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The three-judge panel unanimously denied industry and state petitions that sought to invalidate the federal agency’s position that greenhouse gases pose a health risk and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The court held that EPA’s endangerment finding and tailpipe rules on greenhouse gases are “neither arbitrary nor capricious and found the agency’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act to be “unambiguously correct.” Challengers to the EPA rules included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Mining Association, the National Association of Manufacturers as well as the states of Texas and Virginia. Judges on the panel consisted of two appointees from President Clinton and one (the Chief Justice) from President Reagan. The ruling will in no way slow continued attempts from the legislative branch to prevent EPA from implementing regulations that seek to curb greenhouse gas emmissions. A host of riders included in the House Interior Appropriations bill that would seek to prevent funding a host of EPA initiatives that seek to regulate everything from greenhouse gas emissions and asbestos to pesticide labeling and lead paint. The Republican-controlled House has already passed bills that seek to stifle EPA’s regulatory reach, including a bill from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), who was highly critical of the court ruling. To date, President Obama has not had to wield his veto pen for the bills his administration opposes because the Democratic-controlled Senate’s key leaders have supported EPA’s regulatory efforts.  However, because Senate Democrats lack a strong supermajority, it is difficult to get partisan legislation through the Senate, whose rules often require 60 votes to counter a filibuster whereas the House generally runs under a simple majority rule. For better or worse, the court system is not held by policymakers as the final arbiter over whether an existing law or statute is legal or constitutional. However, there is a consensus that once a court has ruled on a given issue, overturning such a ruling is difficult given the diverse interests (and individuals), which must all be in strong unison among the legislative and executive branch to do so. Photo Credit:...

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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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Science <-> Democracy

Is science the foundation of democracy? DICK Taverne is a career politician, currently a member of the British House of Lords, and champion of science in public life (married, perhaps not incidentally, to a microbiologist for over fifty years).  In a lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine in London last week, he explained why he believes “science has made us more democratic, more tolerant, and more compassionate.” The lecture is the capstone on his tenure as founding chair of the British charity Sense About Science. He organized the charity ten years ago to encourage scientists to participate in public discussions on science – discussions he felt were sadly impoverished – and “increase public awareness of the role of science in making us more civilized.” Taverne says that the spirit and methods of science are the foundation of democracy, not necessarily through direct application of scientific knowledge and facts, but in the rather egalitarian expectation of a shared reality, in which subjective opinion, taboos, and dogma may be challenged. He adds that democracy also supports science. In countries where authority cannot be challenged, good science in is short supply. Thus he thinks it very unfortunate that British politicians are so ignorant of how science works, and so uninterested in finding out. While the public and its political representatives appreciate the technological and heath advances that science brings, the philosophical application of science is a more esoteric, even uncomfortable, idea. The lecture itself is quite entertaining, but the extended question and answer session is also worth a listen. Here are a few out-takes: Roland Jackson, CEO of the British Science Association: The public is actually looking for scientists to show a little humility, to not actually give the impression that they know everything, can control everything, can sort of do things to society, but will engage with society’s values. I think that’s a really important message for scientists to understand, or they’ll lose public trust and confidence. Moderator replies: I’ve heard that comment about scientists so much. Sense about Science works with thousands of people, and I rarely meet the kind of person who thinks they know everything…[on the contrary] I get frustrated that scientists will say they know nothing, when they so clearly know something. Jackson replies: The point I’m making is about perception, it’s not about what scientists are really like…when they speak as humans…then the public is much more likely to engage and respond, and to trust. Taverne: In the end, the democratic process is not too bad…I wouldn’t denounce the whole democratic process as irrational, though it has many irrational elements. On the question of values:...

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