November 5, 2018

NSF BIO Introduces One Proposal Cap for PIs, ESA and Other Societies Respond

Under a new National Science Foundation Directorate for Biological Sciences (NSF BIO) policy, researchers can only submit one grant proposal to the BIO directorate’s core funding programs per year as a principal investigator (PI) /Co-PI. Scientists can serve as “senior personnel” on an unlimited number of grant submissions a year. NSF BIO made this change in tandem with the directorate’s switch to no proposal deadlines for its core programs.

ESA, along with 20 other scientific societies, sent a letter to NSF Director France Cordova requesting that NSF-BIO reconsider and rescind this new policy. The letter notes that other NSF directorates, including the Geosciences Directorate and the Engineering Directorate, have switched to no-deadline proposals without limiting the number of proposals per year per PI. The societies highlight that the change could put biological and ecological scientists at a disadvantage compared with scientists who receive funding from other NSF directorates. Eventually, the change may translate into universities preferring to sustain or add faculty lines in areas without caps on submissions. The cap could also lead to less collaboration among scientists submitting proposals to NSF BIO and reduce the willingness of researchers to submit high-risk, high-reward ideas.

Similarly, 70 scientists sent a letter to NSF director France Cordova expressing their concerns with the one proposal cap. Science Magazine published this letter and covered the NSF leadership’s response.

On Nov. 1, NSF published an announcement in the Federal Register that the BIO Advisory Committee will be convening Nov. 16 to discuss BIO proposal submission limits and to launch a subcommittee on the topic. The public may go to NSF to listen to the meeting discussion, but there is not a remote access option. For information on how to attend, see the Federal Register notice.

Visit this page to see the full letter and the list of scientific societies that signed the letter.

Voters to Weigh in on Salmon Habitat, Carbon Fee, Renewable Energy and more

As voters head to the polls across the U.S. tomorrow, they will have the opportunity to weigh in on issues in some states – and affect policy on renewable energy, oil and gas drilling and fish habitat regulations.

Alaska: Ballot Measure 1 would change the state’s regulations for permitting projects that affect salmon and anadromous fish habitat. If passed by voters, the measure would strengthen the requirements for the Fish Habitat Permit process. Large projects would be affected such as the Pebble Mine project inthe Bristol Bay area (see ESA Policy News, June 11, 2018). The ballot initiative would require the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to clearly define standards for anadromous fish habitat protection. It would also require the agency to hold public hearings before approving projects that could impact anadromous fish habitat if a member of the public requests a meeting.

Washington: Voters could approve the country’s first carbon fee. Initiative 1631 would impose a $15 per ton fee on carbon emissions in 2020. Starting in January 2021, the fee would increase $2 each year until the state meetsits 2035 goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The state aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035. Seventy percent of revenue from the carbon fee would go toward clean air and clean energy projects with another 25 percent going toward climate adaption projects in the state’s forests, coasts, streams and wetlands and 5 percent would fund projects to help communities prepare for climate change.

Washington voters rejected another measure, Initiative 732, that would have imposed a carbon fee in 2016. Opponents of Initiative 732, including large environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, argued that the initiative would have disproportionately hurt low-income communities. Many former opponents of Initiative 732 back Initiative 1631.

Arizona: Proposition 124 would amend the state’s constitution to require the state’s utilities to obtain 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030. Currently, utilities must obtain 8 percent of their electricity for renewable energy and in 2025 that number will increase to 15 percent.

Nevada: Similarly,  Question 6 will require utilities to purchase 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. In 2017, Nevada’s General Assembly passed a bill that would have required 40 percent renewable energy by 2030, but Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) vetoed the bill.

Colorado: Proposition 112 would ban oil and gas development within 2,500 feet of “vulnerable” areas such as playgrounds, public parks, streams and rivers. Current state regulations allow oil and gas operations 500 feet away from homes and 1,000 feet away from schools.

Voters will also decide on an oil and gas industry-backed amendment to the state’s constitution that would guarantee compensation to landowners for state actions that result in reduced property values. Conservation groups oppose Amendment 74 and say that the measure would “paralyze” local governments and prevent them from shielding communities from environmental harm.


Ohio River Basin Climate Bill: Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) introduced legislation (H.R. 7087) that would address climate change in the Ohio River Basin. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Michael Doyle (D-PA) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), instructs federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to develop an interagency plan to prepare the area for the effects of climate change. Agencies would also be required to provide technical assistance to state, local and tribal governments in implementing the plan.

Executive Branch

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Leadership: President Trump nominated Aurelia Skipwith to be the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Skipwith is a lawyer with a master’s degree in molecular genetics who is currently the Interior Department’s deputy undersecretary of fish, wildlife and parks. Before this, she worked as counsel for two agribusiness companies and at Monsanto for six years in its regulatory sciences and corporate affairs departments. The Senate will need to confirm Skipwith andit is unclear if the Senate will approve her nomination before the end of the 115th Congress in Jan.

Margaret Everson will start in mid-November as USFWS’ principal deputy director. Everson currently works as the policy director for Ducks Unlimited and previously worked as counsel for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and as counsel for USFWS during the Bush administration.

Justice Department: Jeffery Bossert Clark was sworn in as the assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Energy and Natural Resources Division, which sues companies that violate federal pollution laws and represents the federal government in natural resources and public lands cases. Among other industry clients, Clark represented BP after the federal government and Louisiana parishes sued the company for damage from the 2011 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Clark also worked as the deputy assistant attorney general in the Energy and Natural Resources Division during the Bush administration.

Biomass: The EPA, the USDA and the Department of Energy sent a joint letterto Congress committing the agencies to promoting “the use of biomass as an energy solution” and that reiterates that energy from biomass is carbon neutral. The letter is a response to a mandate in the 2018 appropriations bill that required agencies to standardize policies on biomass and promote biomass.

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management: The Interior Department advanced a project titled “Liberty,” which would involve building an artificial gravel island to drill for oil in the Beaufort Sea, a body of water located off the coast of northern Alaska. Hilcorp Energy Company has attained conditional approval for the project from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and although further state permits must still be secured, production is expected to begin in 2023. There are similar artificial islands located around Alaska. However, this will be the first located on federal waters in the Arctic Ocean. It is estimated that 70,000 barrels of crude oil will be produced within the first two years. Hilcorp officials assure that the company put “years of study and due diligence” into ensuring that the project will be handled responsibly, and will not be damaging toward the Alaskan ecosystem. Still, environmentalists remain concerned, as an oil spill could be damaging to the ecosystem and the artificial island could throw off migration routes of wildlife.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Hawaiian Hawk: USFWS is proposing removing the Hawaiian hawk, also known as the ‘io, from the endangered species list. The agency has considered either downgrading the hawk from endangered to threatened for decades or removing the species from the endangered species list. This is the fourth time that USFWS has asked for public comments on removing the bird from the endangered species list since 2008. Comments submitted by biologists during previous comments period suggest that the hawk’s current range is about 60 percent of its historic range and that urbanization and invasive species still threaten the hawk’s survival.


Youth Climate Lawsuit: The Supreme Court issued an order allowing the Juliana v. United States lawsuit to move forward. In the Juliana case, twenty-one youth sued the U.S. government for insufficiently addressing climate change and infringing on their right to a safe climate. The order notes that federal government can still appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to stop the case from going to trial. 

Exxon Lawsuit: New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, claiming that the company lied to investors about the risks that climate change regulations could have on the company’s bottom line. The suit alleges that the company’s leaders including former CEO Rex Tillerson, were aware of the deception. Underwood said the AG’s office has evidence that the company kept two separate sets of books – one internal and one external – accounting for the cost of greenhouse gas regulations to the company. One key difference between this case and other recent lawsuits filed by states and cities claiming damages against oil companies is this case focuses on damages to Exxon’s investors, rather than damages to citizens. Underwood sued ExxonMobil under New York State’s anti-fraud law, the Martin Act. This law is one of the strongest laws in the country aimed at protecting investors from corporate fraud.

Gillnets: A federal judge in California ruled the Trump administration’s withdrawal of a regulation to limit bycatch from gillnets in waters off the coast of California to be unlawful. The regulation would place limits on the number of bottlenose dolphins, whales and sea turtles that could be unintentionally captured in gillnets and suspend swordfish gillnet operations in Southern California if this limit is exceeded. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service proposed the change in 2016 and the Trump administration withdrew the proposed rule June 2017, claiming that the harm to the fishing industry outweigh the environmental benefits. Environmental group Oceana challenged the decision in court. The ruling determines federal fisheries managers must reissue the regulations as written, or consult with the Pacific Fishery Management Council if they wish to revise them. The court did not force the National Marine Fisheries Service to implement the regulations immediately.

Canada Lynx: A district court in Montana ruled that USFWS has not done enough to protect the federally threatened Canada lynx from being injured or killed by traps intended for bobcats, stating that the agency’s regulation on incidental take of Canada lynx “does not set adequate triggers and fails to minimize take.” Conservation groups brought this lawsuit to court, claiming that the wording of the USFWS policy on incidental take of Canada lynx is ambiguous. The judge agreed with the conservation groups and ordered USFWS to review and clarify their previous “incidental take statement.” USFWS has until Nov. 9 to file a response. The current rule and statements regarding lynx capture will remain in effect until USFWS issues a new rule.

Vaquitas: A judge on the U.S. Court of International Trade upheld a ban on imports of seafood caught with gill nets in the Upper Gulf of California and agreed with conservation groups that the ban is necessary to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. The U.S. Court of International Trade originally issued this injunction in July. Shortly after, the federal government appealed the decision and claimed that the government had suffered “ongoing serious harm” as a result of the injunction.


Florida: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is seeking public comments to guide its development of regulations on the import of non-native species and potential additions to the list of prohibited species. The agency is soliciting feedback through an online survey.

Oregon: Gov. Kate Brown (D) issued an executive order Oct. 25 blocking offshore drilling in Oregon state waters (i.e., the 3 miles of ocean closest to the shore) and preventing the development of any associated infrastructure, such as docks or pipelines. Brown is the latest governor to block offshore drilling in response to the Trump administration’s efforts to expand offshore oil production. Both New Jersey and California have passed legislation aimed at stopping offshore drilling along their coasts. States cannot ban drilling in waters controlled by the federal government; however, orders like Brown’s make drilling less convenient and less profitable.

North Carolina: Gov. Ray Cooper (D) issued an executive order Oct. 29 committing the state to 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2025. Cooper is among 17 governors who pledged to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement despite President Trump’s plan to pull the U.S. out of the agreement. Some of the tactics that North Carolina will use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are reducing energy consumption in state government office buildings and creating infrastructure for electric cars.         

Puerto Rico: Following the prolonged power outage caused by Hurricane Maria, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló introduced a plan to transition the territory to 20 percent renewable electricity by 2025, 50 percent by 2040, and 100 percent by 2050. The proposed plan would cease all use of coal for electricity by 2028 and exempt solar panels from sales tax. The legislation would also end the monopoly status of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and privatize the island’s electric grid.


Australia: A new policy will require researchers to directly outline how their project will help to advance the country’s national interests when applying for grant funding from the Australian Research Council, the country’s major funder of research in the sciences and humanities. Education Minister Dan Tehan said this test is important because “the value of the project… is not always obvious to the nonacademic.” Researchers feel that this change is unnecessary and will add more red tape to the grant funding process. Australian researchers also worry about the lack of transparency when it comes to funding decisions. News outlets recently discovered that former Education Minister Simon Birmingham rejected 11 grant applications that were recommended for funding by an independent peer-reviewed panel. Tehan has promised that he would be more transparent in the grant funding decisions.

Canada: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan Oct. 23 to impose a carbon tax in six provinces and territories where governments have not imposed a carbon pricing scheme. Under the plan, the Canadian federal government will charge C$20 (US $15.34) per ton of greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2019, and by 2022, the government will charge C$50 (US $38.34) per ton.

China: The government announced a plan to overturn of a 25-year-old ban on the sale of rhino horns and tiger bones, legalizing their use in medicine and medical research. Under the new rules, tigers and rhinos must have been raised in captivity and any doctor using the horns or bones must be certified by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The use of wildlife products in traditional medicine is a highly profitable market. However, there is no proof that the remedies are beneficial to human health. Conservationists believe that this will lead to an increase in black market sales of rhino horns and tiger bones, as it is nearly impossible to tell from the bones if the animal was raised in captivity or poached. The Chinese government counters that a highly regulated legal market will eliminate the need for a black market and that it will reduce the strain on wild tigers and rhinos, as only animals raised in captivity, excluding zoos, will be used.

Europe: The European Parliament voted to completely ban some single-use plastics, such as cutlery, cotton buds, plastic straws, and coffee stirrers and ordered a decline in the use of plastics with “no alternative available,” such as sandwich wrappers. The legislation also sets a goal to recycle 90 percent of plastic drink bottles by 2025 and to reduce the plastic in cigarette butts by 80 percent by 2030. It is estimated that 150,000 tons of plastic end up in European waters every year. The initiative seeks to protect marine ecosystems from the dangers of plastics. The EU hopes the measure will go into effect by 2021. Representatives of the European Parliament and the European Council of government ministers will meet to finalize the decision in mid-Dec. 2018.

Iran: The government charged five conservation scientists with “corruption on earth,” a crime with a maximum penalty of death. All of the individuals work for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that monitors and works to conserve the country’s endangered species. Sources close to the Iranian government claim that the group used its research activities as a pretext to spy on military activities. The head of the U.N. Environment Program and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have condemned the charges.

Scientific Community

Scientists and Corporations Respond to a Health and Human Services Leaked Memo to Define Gender: The New York Times reported that it obtained a leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services which would “establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in education programs that receive government financial assistance… The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.'”

Over 1600 scientists signed an open letter strongly rejecting the underlying premise of the leaked memo, “This proposal is fundamentally inconsistent not only with science, but also with ethical practices, human rights, and basic dignity.”  In another statement, over 50 corporations with over $2.4 trillion in annual revenue and almost 4.8 million employees,  including Google, Apple, and Amazon, stated, “We, the undersigned businesses, stand with the millions of people in America who identify as transgender, gender non-binary, or intersex, and call for all such people to be treated with the respect and dignity everyone deserves.”

Carbon Sequestration: The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a consensus report calling for a new research initiative on carbon removal technologies to mitigate the effects of climate change and meet global climate goals. The report says that carbon sequestration should be considered as one of a ‘portfolio’ of approaches toward mitigating climate change, rather than the only stand-alone solution. Current carbon removal technologies are expensive and difficult to scale, but significant investment in these technologies could increase the feasibility of these technologies.

Earth Challenge 2020: The U.S. State Department, Earth Day Network and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars announced the Earth Challenge 2020 initiative. This campaign challenges people around the world to collect 1 billion data points of environmental indicators by April 20, 2020 – the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The initiative is currently looking for input on research questions to shape the challenge, partner organizations and expertise.

Student Debt Relief in Maine: The state is offering tax credits to help college graduates in the state with their student loans. Under the program, STEM graduates would be reimbursed if their student loan payments are higher than their taxes.

Federal Register Opportunities

Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations: