Policy News: April 6, 2020

In This Issue:

Lawmakers Provide Additional Funding for Science Agencies in CARES Act, Funding Agencies Release New Guidance
NSF receives $76 million for coronavirus grants.

EPA Reduces Enforcement Activities, Extends Comment Period for “Transparency in Science” Rule by 30 Days
The comment period for the proposed rule closes May 18.

Executive Branch
NSF Director France Cordova completes her six-year term, Office of Science and Technology Director Kelvin Droegemeier to serve as acting NSF Director.

Federal judge orders the Army Corps of Engineers to complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

U.N. postpones climate talks to 2021.

Scientific Community
NSF Biological Sciences Directorate Advisory Committee schedules teleconference for April 30 and an LTER review is on the agenda. NSF seeks input about how to best communicate with the community.

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

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

Lawmakers Provide Additional Funding for Science Agencies in CARES Act, Funding Agencies Release New Guidance

Science Funding in the CARES Act

Lawmakers included pockets of additional funding for science agencies in the CARES Act, also known as the third coronavirus response bill. The total spending in the CARES act is around $2 trillion.

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) received $75 million for grants, supporting “real-time research at the cellular, physiological, and ecological levels to better understand coronavirus.” The agency received an additional $1 million for costs related to administering these grants.
  • The Department of Energy’s Office of Science received $99.5 million to support the operations of the national laboratories, including equipment and personnel to support research and development efforts related to coronavirus.
  • The U.S. Forest Service received $3 million in additional funding to reestablish scientific experiments disrupted by COVID-19, including Forest Inventory and Analysis activities.
  • The Department of the Interior’s departmental operations account received an additional $158.4 million for activities to prevent, prepare and respond to coronavirus, including biosurveillance of wildlife and environmental persistence studies.

Funding Agencies Response

The National Science Foundation’s Biological Science Directorate issued a letter providing guidance to grantees and the biological science community. Universities and other awardee organizations can issue a one-year no-cost extension without NSF approval. The awardee organization’s grants office must inform NSF of their intention to use a no-cost extension two weeks before the end of the award. Grant officers can also request additional no-cost extensions from NSF. BIO program officers will accommodate such requests for a second-year no-cost extension associated with delays due to COVID-19.

NSF has also posted an updated list of current NSF grant deadlines online. For more information, see the NSF coronavirus page.

A  Frequently Asked Questions document from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) details the agency’s guidance for grantees and potential grant applicants. The agency extended deadlines for several grant programs in response to COVID-19. NIFA grantees are authorized to continue charging salaries, stipends, and benefits to active USDA NIFA awards consistent with institutional policies. Grantees are also authorized to charge other costs to USDA NIFA awards that are necessary to resume activities supported by the grant. However, NIFA advises that recipients must not assume that supplemental funding will be available if charging of such costs results in a shortage of funds to eventually carry out the project.

Several NIFA programs will allow submission of COVID-19 relevant projects outside of their normal deadlines. The deadline for these submissions is May 21, 2020. For more information, see the NIFA coronavirus page.

The Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science issued a Dear Colleague letter in mid-March asking the scientific community for ideas about how the DOE and the National Laboratories might contribute resources to help address COVID-19 through science and technology efforts and collaborations.

EPA Reduces Enforcement Activities, Extends Comment Period for “Transparency in Science” Rule

Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency moved to reduce its enforcement of environmental laws. An order from Susan Bodine, the head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, allows industries to self-determine if they can comply with protections and waives certain enforcement fines.

Meanwhile, the EPA continues its work to finalize regulations before the end of President Trump’s current term in office. The agency extended the public comment period for its supplement to the proposed “Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule by 30 days. This rule, initially released in April 2018, prohibits the EPA from using scientific studies where the underlying data are not publicly available. The supplement expands the original rule so that it covers “influential scientific information,” in addition to significant regulatory actions. The agency defines influential scientific information as “information the agency reasonably can determine will have or does have a clear and substantial impact on important public policies or private sector decisions.” With the extension, the supplement to the rule will be open for public comment for a total of 60 days. In contrast, the comment period for the original 2018 rule was 120 days. The public comment period will now end May 18.

The scientific community, including ESA, have long pushed back against the transparency in science rule and its legislative predecessors, the HONEST Act and the Secret Science Reform Act, stating that the rule would prevent the EPA from using the best available science in decision-making. Environmental and public health groups also widely oppose the policy, citing concerns that the rule will be used to weaken clean air and water regulations. The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board has also criticized the proposal, writing that the EPA “has not fully identified the problem to be addressed by the proposed rule.”

Congressional Democrats have pushed back against the EPA decisions to reduce enforcement and to finalize the “Transparency in Science” rule. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) commented that the “Transparency in Science” rule may slow or hurt the agency’s ability to respond to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. The chairs of 14 House committees asked the White House Office of Management to “immediately reschedule all public hearings and meetings and extend public comment periods” using the comment period for the EPA transparency rule as an example.

The co-chairs of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, a group of House Democrats, also called on the EPA to reverse its decision to suspend enforcement, arguing that the EPA actions will “likely add patients to health care providers’ already overwhelming caseloads.”

A coalition of environmental groups filed an emergency petition for rulemaking requesting that the EPA require companies to provide public, written notice of any noncompliance with environmental regulations, as allowed by the EPA memo.

Executive Branch

White House: The Office of Science and Technology Policy extended the comment period for its request for information asking for “recommendations on approaches for ensuring broad public access to the peer-reviewed scholarly publications, data, and code that result from federally funded scientific research” until May 6, 2020.

NSF: Director France Cordova’s six-year term leading NSF as its 14th director ended March 31. In December 2019, the Trump administration nominated Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, a member of the National Science Board and an Arizona State University computer scientist, to replace Cordova. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has not yet held a confirmation hearing for Panchanthan. Current White House Office of Science and Technology Director Kelvin Droegemeier will serve as acting NSF director until Panchanthan is confirmed.

Department of Energy: The Office of Science and the Office of Fossil Energy announced that they are collectively offering $22 million for research potentially leading to breakthroughs in the effort to capture carbon dioxide directly from ambient air.

EPA: The Science Advisory Board (SAB) is seeking nominations for new members of the board and four of its standing committees — the Agricultural Science Committee, the Chemical Assessment Advisory Committee, the Drinking Water Committee and the Radiation Advisory Committee. The SAB is particularly interested in scientists with expertise in air and water quality, agricultural sciences, complex systems, ecosystem services and sustainability. Nominations should be submitted in time to arrive no later than May 1, 2020. The EPA anticipates announcing new SAB members by October 2020.

USAID: The PREDICT project received a six-month emergency extension, allowing the project to stay operational through October 2020. Previously, the program was slated to end in March 2020. The U.S. Agency for International Development declined to renew PREDICT for another five-year cycle in October 2019. PREDICT was designed to strengthen global capacity for detection and discovery of zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential.

PREDICT plans to use the additional funding to continue provide technical expertise to support the detection of SARS CoV-2 (COVID-19) cases in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The project will also investigate the animal source or sources of SARS CoV-2 using data and samples collected over the past ten years in Asia and Southeast Asia.

USFWS: The agency declined to provide Endangered Species Act protections for the bi-state distinct population segment of greater-sage grouse. USFWS originally proposed listing this population, which is found along the California-Nevada border, as a threatened species in 2013 and withdrew this proposed rule in 2015. In May 2018, a federal judge determined that USFWS acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner when it decided not to list the bi-state sage grouse and required USFWS to re-initiate a review of the species’ status. USFWS credited voluntary conservation efforts for reducing threats to the bird, avoiding the need for endangered species protections.


Pipelines: A federal judge ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to complete an environmental impact statement for the Dakota Access pipeline. The ruling determined that the Corps did not adequately address issues raised in comments submitted by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and other public comments from technical experts. In February 2017, the Corps concluded that granting an easement for the crossing of the pipeline would yield no significant environmental impact, exempting the agency from having to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement under the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.


U.N.: International climates talks scheduled for November 2020 in Glasglow, Scotland have been postponed until 2021, in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The conference site, the SEC Centre, is being converted into a temporary hospital to treat COVID-19 patients.

The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity has also postponed several of its meetings and moved to virtual meetings for time-sensitive discussions. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has also moved several upcoming meetings to virtual meetings, with plans for future in-person meetings.

Brazil: The head of Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, announced that the agency is reducing its efforts to combat environmental crimes, including deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Ibama said that the reduction was necessary because around a third of the agency’s officers are high-risk for coronavirus. Many officers are around 60 years old, in part because the agency has not hired new officers in years due to government hiring freezes.

Scientific Community

NSF: The Biological Science Directorate Advisory Committee will hold a teleconference April 30. Agenda items include a review of the charge for the Long-Term Ecological Research 40-year review and discussion of the research communities’ adaptation to COVID-19 restrictions.

A new survey is soliciting feedback from the scientific community about how NSF communicates with the community.

What We’re Reading

ESA In the News

ESA regularly issues press releases to the media about journal articles and other Society news. Press coverage is kept up-to-date on our “In the News” page. Check out news stories here.

ESA Correspondence to Policymakers

View more letters and testimony from ESA here.

Opportunities to get involved 

Virtual public meetings and conference calls:

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

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

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.

Send questions or comments to  Alison Mize, director of public affairs, Alison@nullesa.org or Nicole Zimmerman, public affairs manager, Nicole@nullesa.org

Visit the ESA website to learn more about our activities and membership.