Policy News: April 10, 2019

In This Issue:

Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award Recipients Visit the Hill to Advocate for Science Funding
Ten ecology graduate students visit Washington, DC to receive policy and communications training and meet with their members of Congress.

Agency Leaders Defend President’s Budget Request
More details about steep cuts to science programs released. Members of Congress are largely unhappy with cuts.

Senate version of the Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science Act released.

Executive Branch
The New York Times reports that political officials at Interior blocked the release of studies analyzing the impact of pesticides on endangered species.

Federal courts rule that public lands agencies did not adequately consider the climate impacts of oil and gas development.

Scientific Community
A National Academies of Science report concludes that red wolves are a genetically distinct species.

Federal Register Opportunities
Upcoming meetings and other opportunities for public involvement.

ESA In the News
View an up-to-date list of ESA’s media coverage.

Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award Recipients Visit the Hill to Advocate for Science Funding

Ten Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) recipients traveled to Washington, DC, from March 26 – 27, to learn about science communication, the legislative and budget process and to meet with their Members of Congress. This year’s award recipients are Kristina J. Bartowitz (University of Idaho), Vanessa Constant (Oregon State University), Hannah E. Correia (Auburn University), Brett Fredericksen (Ohio University), Sara Gonzalez (University of California, Santa Cruz), Emily Kiehnau (University of Oklahoma), Charlotte R. Levy (Cornell University), Timothy J. Ohlert (University of New Mexico), Christopher Kai Tokita (Princeton University), and Emory H. Wellman (East Carolina University).

After a day of training on March 26, the students stormed the Hill March 27 and met with over 30 congressional offices to request $9 billion in federal funding for the National Science Foundation in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 and robust funding for all scientific research. The meetings came just over two weeks after the White House released the first details about its FY 2020 budget. Congress, particularly on the House side, is just beginning to develop the FY 2020 federal budget, so these visits were timely.

The GSPA participants shared personal stories of how federal funding makes their research possible, emphasized the importance of federal funding for their institutions, and described how federal investments in scientific research benefit the Members of Congress’ districts and states. Students lucked-out this year and met, or snapped pictures, with Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY). Congressional offices were mostly supportive of science funding, and the participants’ messages were well-received. We look forward to seeing how the GSPA experience shapes their future career choices. Many GSPA alumni pursue fellowships and careers in the federal government.

NSF Director France Cordova testified on the administration’s FY 2020 NSF budget the day before the students’ Hill meetings. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs were testifying on the Hill to present their FY 2020 budgets to House and Senate appropriations subcommittees the day of the Hill meetings. Some GSPA students attended the Department of Energy appropriation hearing and viewed the budget process first hand. Outside of appropriations, debate on emergency funding for flood disaster relief in the Midwest, wildfires and hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, and a hearing on the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and airline safety dominated the atmosphere on the Hill.

During the training day March 26, after brief introductions in the ESA office, the group navigated the DC Metro subway system to hear a keynote from Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the American Association of Universities. Smith drew from his career working on Capitol Hill and in science policy to give the students context on how Capitol Hill works and how the federal government funds scientific research using the popular analogy of comparing the political process to a sausage factory. Smith co-authored Beyond Sputnik – U.S. Science Policy in the 21stCentury.

Later that morning, the graduate students heard from ESA members working in policy-related positions in Washington, DC about career options for ecologists. In the afternoon, GSPA participants received further training from ESA staff on the federal budget and how to effectively communicate with Congress.

See pictures from GSPA days on Flickr here or search #GSPA2019 on Twitter.

Agency Leaders Defend President’s Budget Request

In recent weeks, the heads of the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the Forest Service, United States Geological Survey, and other science agencies appeared before congressional committees to defend the Trump administration’s FY 2020 budget requests. The requests reflect the White House’s priorities and preferences. However, as in past years, it is unlikely that Congress will agree to fund agencies and programs at the levels requested in the president’s budget. Many lawmakers participating in the hearings pushed back against the administration’s proposed cuts.

The threat of mandatory, across-the-board cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending loomed over all of the hearings. The House and Senate Budget Committees are currently working on a budget resolution setting the overall level of federal spending for FY 2020 and it is not yet clear if lawmakers will reach a deal to avoid sequestration before October 2019.


Director France Cordova testified that the administration’s proposed 12% cut would mean that the NSF would  award 1200 to 1400 fewer grants in FY 2020 than in FY 2018 and award 400 fewer graduate research fellowships. In 2019, NSF awarded 19,107 grants. Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano remarked that the proposed cuts would “endanger the core missions at NSF.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Robert Aderholt (R-AL) positively highlighted NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and manufacturing research.

NSF’s budget request includes $756.6 million for the BIO directorate, a 9.7% cut from FY 2018 levels. At this funding level, NSF predicts that BIO’s funding rate for research grants will decrease from 24% in FY 2018 to 21% in 2020. The number of people involved in BIO activities will shrink from 13,764 in FY 2018 to 12,400 in FY 2020, including 291 fewer graduate students and 365 fewer senior researchers. The Division of Environmental Biology receives $141.7 million, an 8.6% cut.

The request includes a 7.8% cut to the National Ecological Observatory Network from FY 2018.

Forest Service

In an opening statement, House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) told Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen that the agency’s budget request “falls significantly short of what a reasonable budget request would look like,” highlighting the proposed cut to Forest Service R&D. Members of both parties disproved of proposed cuts to Forest Service programs throughout the hearing, including cuts to programs addressing invasive species.

The Forest Service’s FY 2020 budget request includes $5.7 billion for the agency overall, a 6% cut, and $254 million for Forest Service Research and Development, a 15% cut.


Chairwoman McCollum questioned USGS’ plan to cut funding to the Climate Adaption Science Centers and eliminate the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units. Ranking Member David Joyce (R-OH) criticized cuts to USGS programs addressing invasive species and harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes region.

Director James Reilly denied allegations from Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) that the agency has blocked the distribution of funds to the Climate Adaption Science Centers, but he defended the agency’s plan to reduce the number of Climate Adaption Science Centers to four from eight.


Chairman Serrano called the administration’s proposed cuts to NOAA ‘devastating’ during a hearing with acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs. The congressman criticized the administration’s proposal to eliminate “‘lower priority’ programs including Sea Grant, Coastal Zone Management Grants, Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, and Competitive Climate Research,” and called these proposals “non-starters.” Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) also questioned cutting the Sea Grant program.

The president’s budget request includes $4.5 billion for NOAA, a 17% cut. This includes a 10% cut to the National Marine Fisheries Service and a 41% cut for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric research.


Administrator Andrew Wheeler told lawmakers that the administration would reverse its proposal to cut funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative by 90% after President Trump said that he would fully fund the program at $300 million during a rally in Michigan.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) called the request to cut the EPA’s budget by more than 30% “a disappointment.” Subcommittee Chairwoman McCollum disapproved of the EPA’s plan to cut the Office of Research and Development by 34%. Senate Interior Appropriations Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) expressed concerns that the proposed cuts to the EPA would not effectively support the EPA’s “back-to-basics” approach and harm programs with bipartisan support.


Despite a proposed 8.5% cut to the Earth Science Directorate, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that the agency will continue its climate science work. He noted that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, which the administration proposed cutting last year, will launch next month and that the agency did not propose cutting this satellite this year.

DOE Office of Science

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) questioned Department of Energy Undersecretary for Science Paul Dabbar about the administration’s plan to cut funding for DOE climate science and renewable energy research.

The Department of Energy’s budget request cuts funding for the Office of Science to $5.5 billion, a 17.3% cut. Biological and Environmental Research is cut by nearly 30%. Within Biological and Environmental Research, Earth and Environmental Systems Science’s budget is cut from $139 million in FY 2019 to $93 million in FY 2020. Biological Systems Science is cut from $368 million to $327 million.


Harassment Legislation: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the Senate version of the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019. This legislation, if enacted into law, would establish an inter-agency working group to coordinate federal science agency efforts to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment involving grant personnel. It would also authorize a new NSF grant program for research into the factors contributing to, and consequences of, sexual harassment and examine interventions to stop and prevent harassment. House Science, Space and Technology Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) introduced similar legislation in January 2019.

Nominations: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) changed the Senate voting rule from 60 votes to a simple majority of 51 votes to pass and fast track stalled administration nominees. Normally, the Senate requires 60 votes to approve nominees that requires Republicans to garner votes from Democrats.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 14-6 to approve Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s nomination to serve as Interior secretary April 4. Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Sen. Angus King (I-ME), and all committee Republicans voted to for Bernhardt’s nomination. The Senate confirmed Bernhardt as deputy Interior secretary in 2017, and he has served as acting Interior secretary since Ryan Zinke resigned in January 2019. The full Senate will vote to approve his nomination.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved President Trump’s nominee to lead NOAA, former AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers by a party-line vote April 3. Trump first nominated Myers in October 2017, but his nomination stalled due to concerns about Myers’ lack of a science degree and perceived conflict of interests. All Republicans on the committee supported Myers’ nomination and all Democrats opposed the nomination.

House Appropriations Committee: Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano (D-NY) announced that he will retire at the end of the 116th Congress and will not seek re-election. Serrano has represented the Bronx in Congress since 1989 and became the chair of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee in January 2019. This subcommittee provides funding for NSF, NOAA and NASA, among other agencies.

House Budget Committee: Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) introduced the Investing for the People Act of 2019 (H.R. 2021), which would increase the federal spending caps for defense and non-defense discretionary programs. This includes a non-defense discretionary cap for FY 2020 of $631 billion, a 5.7% increase over the 2019 cap. The majority of federal science funding is non-defense discretionary spending.

Senate: Democrats announced that they will launch a Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. The special committee will only consist of Democratic Senators, but it will conduct investigations and hearings and issue findings on the consequences of climate change and “how acting on the climate crisis presents significant opportunities for jobs, public health, and the economy.” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) will chair the committee.

GAO: A new report examines nine selected federal agencies’ progress in implementing the scientific integrity requirements of the 2007 America COMPETES Act. All of the selected agencies have scientific integrity policies and most have taken steps to achieve the goals of their scientific integrity policies. The Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy does not have a designated scientific integrity official to oversee the implementation of scientific integrity policies. Five of the nine agencies – the Office of Fossil Energy, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NOAA, and USGS – have not monitored and evaluated the implementation of their scientific integrity policies.

Legislative updates:

  • The full House and Senate passed the Colorado Drought Contingency Plan Reauthorization Act (H.R. 2030 & S. 1057). The bill authorizes the Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation to implement the Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River. All seven states in the Colorado River basin – Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, approved this plan in March 2019.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved legislation from Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) re-authorizing the National Sea Grant College program (S. 910).
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Climate Action Now Act (H.R. 9), a mostly symbolic piece of legislation backed by House Democratic leadership that prevents President Trump from withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and requires the administration to provide a plan for the U.S. to meet the emissions targets of the Paris agreement.
  • Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced the Bolstering Long-Term Understanding and Exploration of the Great Lakes, Oceans, Bays, and Estuaries (BLUE GLOBE) Act (S. 933). This legislation establishes an Interagency Ocean Exploration Committee, based at the White House, to promote exploration and monitoring of the oceans. It also tasks the National Academies of Sciences to study the potential of an Advanced Research Projects Agency – Oceans (ARPA-O).
  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) re-introduced the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act (S. 1008). This bill would require NOAA to assess the shark fisheries management practices of other countries and allow shark, ray, and skate products to be imported to the U.S. if NOAA determines that the country has similar fisheries management practices to the U.S. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved similar legislation in 2018 during the 115thCongress.

Executive Branch

White House: President Trump signed a new presidential permit approving the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline for the second time. Trump’s move to issue permit rather than issue an executive order is designed to circumvent the courts because  the administration claims the courts cannot review a presidential permit, but legal scholars question this interpretation. In 2017, the president reversed an Obama administration decision stopping the pipeline by issuing an executive order authorizing the construction of the pipeline. Opponents sued and in November 2018, a federal judge in Montana stopped the Keystone project and required the State Department to conduct another analysis of the environmental impacts of the pipeline, including the climate impacts. Once again, opponents are suing to stop the Keystone permit.

In related and coordinated moves, Trump issued an executive order that requires the EPA to shorten the time states would have to review Clean Water Act (CWA) permits needed to begin pipeline construction. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Republican members sponsored the Water Quality Certification Improvement Act, S. 1087 that would limit states’ power to block CWA permits. 

Interior: The New York Times reported that acting Interior secretary David Bernhardt and other top political appointees in the Interior Department blocked the release of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) study analyzing the impact of some pesticides on endangered species. The study, completed by career scientists, concluded that chlorpyrifos and malathion “jeopardize the continued existence” of over 1000 federal endangered species. This study, if it were released and transmitted to the EPA, would have led likely led to further regulation of those pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) questioned Bernhardt on these revelations during Bernhardt’s confirmation hearing, calling him “another corrupt official.” Later, Wyden sent a letter to the Interior Department Inspector General asking for an investigation of the matter and for the IG to verify Bernhardt’s comments during the confirmation hearing. House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) sent another letter to Bernhardt requesting the “most complete” versions of the USFWS biological opinions for the pesticides.

USFWS: The agency proposed listing the Missouri distinct population segment of the eastern hellbender salamander as an endangered species. Missouri hellbenders’ population has declined more than 90% since the 1970s. Hellbender salamanders live in fast-flowing, cool and highly oxygenated streams. USFWS states that water quality degradation, habitat loss, and disturbance and disease contribute to hellbender declines in Missouri. The Ozark Hellbender distinct population segment, which is found in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, has been listed as an endangered species since 2011. USFWS is accepting comments on the proposed rule in the Federal Register through June 3, 2019.

USFWS declined to list nine species under the Endangered Species Act: the Arkansas mudalia, ashy darter, Barrens darter, Chihuahua scrufpea, coldwater crayfish, Eleven Point River crayfish, Spring River crayfish, Spring river crayfish, and Red-crowned parrot. For all of these species, USFWS determined that the stressors affecting the species were insufficient to jeopardize the species survival. However, USFWS invites additional information on the species biology and ecology. Contact information for USFWS staff working on these decisions is in the Federal Register Notice.


Oil and Gas Development: A federal judge in Alaska reinstated an Obama-era ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans March 30.The ruling determined that President Trump’s move to revoke this ban was illegal.

Earlier in March, in two separate rulings, federal judges halted oil and gas drilling plans on public lands in Wyoming and Colorado, stating that the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service did not adequately consider the climate impacts of oil and gas development when leasing public lands for drilling and approving new wells.

“Two for One Rule”: The Attorneys General of California, Oregon, and Minnesota filed a suit challenging President Trump’s “two-for-one” executive order which requires federal agencies to scrap two existing regulations for every new regulation. The lawsuit contests that the ‘arbitrary’ executive order has harmed the states by discouraging and delaying important public health and environmental regulations. Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that the executive order has caused agencies to fail to meet legal requirements, such as those of the Clean Air Act. A similar lawsuit filed by a coalition of public interest groups is also in the courts. In February 2019, a district court judge asked the groups to provide evidence that they had been affected by regulatory decisions impacted by the executive order.

National Monuments: A magistrate judge recommended rejecting a lawsuit filed by two Oregon timber companies that argued that President Obama exceeded his legal authority under the Antiquities Act when he added 48,000 acres to the Cascade-Siskiyou national monument in 2017.The timber companies contested that about 40,000 acres of the addition were already designated under the Oregon and California Revested Lands Act to be managed for commercial forest production. The judge noted in the decision that the Bureau of Land Management had already removed the majority of the area from timber production. This recommendation must still be reviewed by a district judge.

Federal Register Opportunities

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Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

Visit this page on ESA’s blog for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register
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ESA In the News

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ESA Correspondence to Policymakers

View letters and testimony from ESA here.

ESA’s policy activities work to infuse ecological knowledge into national policy decisions through activities such as policy statements, Capitol Hill briefings, Congressional Visits Days, and coalition involvement. Policy News Updates are bi-monthly summaries of major environmental and science policy news. They are produced by the Public Affairs Office of the Ecological Society of America.

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