November 19, 2018

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NSF Bio Recinds Proposal Submission Caps

The National Science Foundation’s Biological Sciences Directorate announced Nov. 15 that it is rescinding a controversial policy that limits the number of proposal submissions to its core programs to one Principal Investigator (PI)/Co-PI submission per year. This change is effective immediately and applies to grant applications in Fiscal Year 2019.

NSF made the PI/co-PI cap policy in mid-September 2018 fearing it would receive a flood of research proposals after BIO eliminated proposal deadlines. The scientific community strongly opposed the change, which seemed to lack supporting evidence that the restrictions were needed. The Ecological Society of America spearheaded an effort to rescind the policy. Twenty scientific societies joined ESA and sent a joint-society letter to NSF Director France Cordova opposing the policy. In a separate action, over 70 individual scientists a letter of objection to Director Cordova (see ESA Policy News, November 5, 2018).

The BIO Advisory Committee met in a teleconference Nov. 16 and approved the formation a new subcommittee to review the effects of the switch to no proposal deadlines for submissions and the associated workloads for NSF and reviewers to determine if any policy changes are needed. The subcommittee will consist of current members of the BIO Advisory Committee, an NSF representative and representatives of the scientific community that BIO serves. The committee is now working to determine what communities should be represented on the subcommittee and to identify potential individual members.

Science Magazine published an article highlighting ESA’s involvement advocating for NSF to lift the PI cap on behalf of the ecological community.  

Mid-term Elections Bring New Science & Environmental Leadership to Congress

When the 116th Congress begins in January, Democrats will assume the majority in the House of Representatives and committees relevant to science and environmental policy will have new leadership. New committee chairs have pledged to use their positions to re-center the role of science in policy. Already, the likely new chairs of the House Science, Natural Resources, and Energy and Commerce committees are planning two days of hearings on “the effects of climate change and the need for action.”

House Science, Space and Technology Science Committee: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) is the front runner to serve as chairwoman. Johnson has been the ranking member of the committee since 2010. Before her election to Congress, she worked as a psychiatric nurse. Under current Chairman Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) leadership, the Science Committee held hearings questioning mainstream climate science and highlighted individual NSF grants perceived to be wasteful. Smith introduced the HONEST Act, which would limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of science in regulations where the underlying data are not publicly available.

If appointed chair, Johnson pledges to prioritize STEM education, to protect science from political influence, and to promote understanding the science behind climate change. Johnson may also continue the committee’s bipartisan work on combating sexual harassment in the sciences. The Washington Post reported that she aims to review the EPA’s proposed secret science rule as well.

Smith is retiring and did not seek re-election. It is not yet clear who will serve as the committee’s ranking member — Vice Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Energy Subcommittee Chair Randy Weber (R-TX) are both possibilities

House Natural Resources Committee: Ranking Member Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) is the top candidate to serve as committee chairman. Grijalva has promised to investigate corruption in the Interior Department under Secretary Ryan Zinke. As ranking member, Grijalva criticized the National Park Service for removing mentions of climate change from a report on sea level rise, and the Department of the Interior’s ‘Secret Science’ policy (see Policy News Oct. 22, 2018).

House Appropriations Committee: Appropriators in the 116th Congress could also increase or restore funding for science programs, including those concerning climate science. Current Ranking Member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) will probably serve as the chair of the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), a strong supporter of NASA’s earth sciences program, will serve as the chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee.

Climate Policy: Nineteen of the 43 Republican members of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group of lawmakers dedicated to taking action on climate change, either lost re-election or will retire. This number includes the caucus’ Republican founder, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL). The caucus uses a ‘Noah’s Ark’ approach, which means one Democrat and one Republican must join at the same time. The Citizen’s Climate Lobby, the organization that started the caucus, said in a statement that the group will find a new Republican to co-chair the caucus and that “reports of the death of the Climate Solutions Caucus are greatly exaggerated.” Separately, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), who co-sponsored Curbelo’s carbon tax legislation, said that he intends to continue Curbelo’s work on climate change in the Republican caucus.

Meanwhile, the favored candidate for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that the House Democrats plan to relaunch the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Republicans disbanded this committee after they took control of the House in 2011. From 2007 to 2011, the committee held hearings on climate policy, leading to legislation creating a cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions. Democrats are deliberating internally on whether this committee will have legislative jurisdiction and who will serve on this committee.

Scientists in Congress: Nine STEM related professionals were elected to Congress; eight Democrats and one Republican. The 314 Action Fund, a group dedicated to electing scientists to public office, is celebrating the victories of the eight candidates it endorsed with some scientific background. These future Members of Congress include several engineers, an ocean scientist, a dentist, a nurse who is a health policy expert, and a pediatrician.

Senate: Though the Senate will retain a Republican-majority, the chamber will see some movement in its committee leadership positions. Current Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-SD) will leave that position in order to become the Republican Caucus’ majority whip. Commerce, Science and Transportation Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) lost his bid for re-election. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is the next highest ranking Democrat on the committee, but it is unclear if she is interested in giving up her spot as the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to serve as ranking member in the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee.


Coast Guard Reauthorization Act: The full Senate voted to approve S.140. The bill includes a compromise measure that tasks the EPA with setting standards for ballast water discharges and authorizes the Coast Guard to enforce these standards. Similar legislation failed in April, when lawmakers tried to attach provisions that would have weakened ballast water discharges standards in Great Lakes (see ESA Policy News, April 23, 2018).

Park Service Director Confirmation Hearing: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider President Trump’s nomination of David Vela to lead the National Park Service. In his opening statement, Vela highlighted his love of the national parks and his long career of working for the Park Service. Vela promised to confront the Park Service’s culture of sexual harassment and fix the agency’s deferred maintenance backlog. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) criticized Vela for not providing specific information on what he would do to stop harassment. Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said that she hopes to confirm Vela after the Thanksgiving recess.

Forest Service Hearing: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing about sexual harassment in the U.S. Forest Service, featuring Chief Vicki Christiansen, USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong and former agency employee Shannon Reed. Lawmakers supported Christiansen’s efforts to combat harassment, such as setting a reporting hotline and creating a Work Environment and Performance Office, but criticized the agency for being slow to change its culture and create consequences for perpetrators. In turn, Christiansen asked for Congress’ help in ‘untangling’ a privacy law that helps shield perpetrators.

Legislative updates:

  • Eighty-five House Democrats, led by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), introduced a resolution (H.Res 1145) recognizing the findings of the most recent International Panel on Climate Change report that calls to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and urges support of “bold climate action.”
  • The full House voted to approve the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Act (H.R. 4033). This bill reauthorizes the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program, a partnership between state governments, the federal government, the USGS, and universities that provides funds for the production of geologic maps.

Executive Branch

BLM: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is abandoning an effort to permanently sterilize wild horses in Oregon to control the horses’ population growth and effects on ecosystems. The agency had planned to remove the ovaries of 100 mares gathered from the Warm Springs Herd Management Area. Animal rights groups sued to stop the plan, arguing that the sterilization is “barbaric.” The motion filed by the Department of Justice states that although the BLM no longer plans to sterilize the horses, the agency is retaining the portion of the Record of Decision that allows BLM to remove horses by adoption or moving them to long-term pens and corrals.

Interior Department: The agency announced that it plans to extend a public land order protecting a 37.5 acre buffer zone around the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Interior first issued the order in 1979 that was set to expire in 2019. President Theodore Roosevelt established the refuge in 1903 as the country’s first national wildlife refuge. The Interior Department is accepting comments on this action on the Federal Registerthrough Feb. 11, 2019.

National Science Board: President Trump appointed five new members to the National Science Board (NSB) and renewed the terms of two current members. The NSB is the governing board of the National Science Foundation, and it is responsible for deciding the agency’s strategic direction. The NSB also advises the president and Congress about science and engineering issues. The five new board members are neurobiologistMaureen Condic, mechanical engineer Suresh Garimella, Auburn University President Steven Leath, planetary scientist Alan Stern and biotech CEO Stephen Willard. The two returning members are Geraldine Richmond and Maria Zuber.

NSFScience Magazine is reporting that the agency is planning to test the feasibility of including questions about gender identity and sexual orientation in its annual Survey of Earned Doctorates. A letter sent to NSF from primarily social scientific societies and others spurred the change. There is currently little data available about LBGTQ+ representation in STEM. More information about LGBTQ+ scientists and engineers could help address disparities in educational and work opportunities, as well as income disparity. These gender and sexual orientation questions likely will not appear in surveys until 2021.


Red Wolves: A federal judge in North Carolina placed a permanent injunction on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) shoot-to-kill authorization for the critically endangered American red wolf. The ruling states that the USFWS has failed to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act with its handling of the red wolf population. This injunction is permanent and cannot be overturned by USFWS, and the agency cannot kill or authorize the killing of red wolves without showing “that such red wolves are a threat to human safety or the safety of livestock or pets.” Now, USFWS will need to review and propose revisions to its red wolf management policies. The agency has referred questions to the Department of Justice, which is reviewing the decision.

Earlier this year, USFWS proposed allowing private landowners in eastern North Carolina to kill red wolves on their properties and limiting its management efforts to a small population of wolves in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

California public lands law:  A district court judge blocked the implementation of a California law that would have given the California Lands Commission first preference for buying federal lands, ruling that the law “unconstitutionally directly regulates the federal government concerningthe federal public lands.” California claims that the law was crucial for protecting public lands.

Keystone XL: A federal judge ruled to temporarily block construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, until the administration conducts a more thorough examination of its possible environmental impacts. One of President Trump’s first actions upon taking office was to issue an executive order reversing President Obama’s blocking of the pipeline’s construction. Judge Brian Morris of the United States District Court for Montana claimed that the Trump administration failed to provide a “reasoned explanation” for the course reversal, and that they ignored the most recent and scientifically accurate data in favor of using more convenient outdated information. Construction was set to begin early 2019.

Youth Climate Lawsuit: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily halted the Juliana v United States lawsuit Nov. 8. The order gives the plaintiffs, represented by Our Children’s Trust, 15 days to respond to the stay. In the Juliana case, twenty-one youths, ages 11 to 22, sued the U.S. government for insufficiently addressing climate change and infringing on their right to a safe climate. Preparations for the trial continue and a lawyer from the plaintiffs said that they hope that the trial will begin as soon as possible.


Alabama: Officials from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources told fishermen that there will be no oyster harvest season this year due to low oyster populations. This is the first time that the state has closed its oyster fishery due to a lack of oysters. The low oyster populations could be due to several factors — including agricultural runoff, the disposal of dredge spoil in rivers, and extended periods of low oxygen and low salinity in coastal waters in 2017, which led to low numbers of juvenile oysters.

California: Voters rejected a measure that would have approved an $8.9 billion bond for water infrastructure, including $2.4 billion for watershed protection and restoration, $2.1 billion for water conservation measures like recycling and alternative supplies, and $750 million to improve disadvantaged communities’ access to clean drinking water. Conservation and environmental groups were split on the measure, known as Proposition 3. The California Sierra Club opposed the measure on the grounds that the measure would largely benefit agricultural interests with limited benefits to taxpayers at large.

Illinois and Oklahoma: The Associated Press is reporting that the two states are joining together to address pollution in the Illinois River and develop a science-based watershed management plan. Poultry operations in northwest Oklahoma may be a contributing factor to the pollution.

Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Public Radio reports that a retired state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wetland ecologist Pat Tronchell says that the DNR approved the construction of golf course on a rare and ‘globally significant’ wetland, despite her determination when she was a DNR employee that the project did not meet state wetland standards. DNR officials told Tronchell, that the permit for the golf course had to be approved and – if employees did not approve the permit — they implied employees would be fired or reassigned. Kohler Co. owns the property. The project’s progress is stalled due to litigation.


The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Updated:  The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced Nov. 14 the mountain gorillas’ status changed from “critically endangered” to “endangered.” The great ape subspecies is found only in in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Reports of over 1,000 of the gorillas are tremendous, especially in a politically unstable area experiencing conflict. The Red List was last published in 2008 reporting an estimated 680 gorillas.

The Fin Whale status moved from Endangered to Vulnerable with its population reaching 100,000 individuals. By the 1970s, commercial hunting had decimated the whale’s population, but bans and protections throughout its range are credited with its rebounding numbers.

Scientific Community

IPBES Invasive Alien Species Assessment: ESA is assisting the U.S. government in identifying experts for an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Assessment of Invasive Alien Species. Expert nominations are due to ESA by Dec. 3, 2018. For more information on the assessment and requirements, click here.

Europe’s ‘Plan S’: Over 950 scientists signed a letter criticizing European science agencies’ open access plan, also known as ‘Plan S.’ The letter states that the EU’s plan to ban grantees from publishing in paywalled journals “goes too far,” “is too risky” and is unfair to scientists. The scientists also express concerns about the plan’s effects on existing journals, such as society journals, and researchers’ access to these journals.

Federal Register Opportunities

Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

Visit this page on ESA’s blog for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register, including upcoming meetings and regulations open for public comment.