Policy News: January 11, 2021

The Katherine S. McCarter

Graduate Student Policy Award

Applications are now being accepted.

ESA is now accepting applications for its 2021 Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award. Offered each year, this award gives graduate students science policy training and opportunities to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Visit the ESA website for more information and details on application requirements. The deadline to apply is Jan. 15, 2020.

In This Issue:

Congress Completes FY2021 Appropriations, Provides Increase to the National Science Foundation
NSF receives $8.48 billion, a 2.5% increase.

Trump Administration Finalizes Environmental Regulations, Fate of Regulations Unclear in the 117th Congress and Biden Administration
Rules would allow limit the use of science in Environmental Protection Agency decisions and weaken bird protections.

Transition Tracker for President-elect Biden
Biden nominates Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (D) to be commerce secretary.

House Science Committee reintroduce signature bills to increase diversity and rural participation in STEM

Executive Branch
Auction for oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge draws limited interest.

Scientific Community
National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine seeks experts to serve on a study committee about addressing inaccurate and misleading information about biological threats.

The U.N.’s annual emission gap report warns that the world is heading towards 3°C of warming.

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

ESA Correspondence to Policymakers

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

Congress Completes FY2021 Appropriations, Provides Increase to the National Science Foundation

A COVID appropriations omnibus bill was enacted Dec. 27, 2020. The over 5,000-page bill consolidated regular annual government spending for fiscal year (FY) 2021 and a COVID relief bill. 

The coronavirus relief provisions include $82 billion for education, including $22.7 Billion for a Higher Education Emergency Fund. This falls short of the $120 billion in emergency funding requested by higher education groups to support the nation’s colleges and universities. 

The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund is split into the following categories:

  • $20.2 billion for public and private, non-profit institutions of higher education, including those that serve students enrolled exclusively in distance education, to be distributed by a formula taking into account head count and full-time equivalent enrollment.
  • $1.7 billion for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and certain other institutions.
  • $113 million for institutions of higher education with unmet need.

Colleges and universities can use this funding to provide emergency grants to students or to purchase personal protective equipment and cover other coronavirus health and safety costs. The bill also limits aid to about 30 private colleges and universities that have over 500 tuition-paying students and assets of over $500,000 per student.

In the regular spending bills, the National Science Foundation receives $8.48 billion, a 2.5% increase from FY 2020. The Research and Related Activities account, which funds most NSF grants, gets a 2.6% increase.

The U.S. Geological Survey receives $1.3 billion, a 3.51% increase. Lawmakers also approved a proposal from the agency to restructure the budget and move the environmental health program and the Climate Adaptation Science Centers into the Ecosystems Mission Area. The cooperative research units receive $25 million, a $1 million increase. The Climate Adaption Science Centers receives $41 million, an around $3 million increase. Lawmakers reiterate their direction to establish a Midwest Climate Adaptation Center.

Other Interior Department agencies receive budget decreases. The National Park Service receives a 7.5% cut; the Bureau of Land Management’s budget is cut by 4.39%; and, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s budget is cut by 3.6%.

The U.S. Forest Service receives $7.4 billion, including $285.76 million for the agency’s Research and Development program. This budget represents around a $10 million increase for research, taking into account a plan to centralize Forest Service operations expenses.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s budget increases by 2.8% to $1.57 billion, while the agency’s main competitive grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, receives a $10 million increase to $435 million. The Agricultural Research Service gets a 5% cut, with cuts mainly from the agency’s buildings and facilities budget line while there is 5.5% increase for salaries and expenses.

After years of record increases, the budget for the Energy Department’s Office of Science remains largely flat at $7.026 billion, a .4% increase, but the Biological and Environmental Research programs receives $753 million, a 4% increase.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration receives $5.4 billion overall, a 1.5% increase.

The Environmental Protection Agency receives a 2% increase.

Congressional Review Act May Be Used to Rollback the Trump Administration’s Midnight Environmental Regulations in the 117th Congress and Biden Administration

In two last-minute developments, the Trump administration finalized rules limiting the use of science in Environmental Protection Agency decisions and redefining “take” under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These rules follow other recently finalized rules to redefine habitat under the Endangered Species Act, change how the Environmental Protection Agency weighs “co-benefits” in air quality regulations and more (see ESA Policy News, Dec. 21, 2020).

With Democrats holding the White House and slim majorities in the U.S. House and the Senate, Congress could use the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn these rules.  The 1996 Congressional Review Act only requires a simple majority vote in both the House and Senate, with the president’s consent, to cancel a regulation finalized within the final 60 congressional legislative days, which would most likely include any regulation finalized after Aug. 2.  In 2017, Republicans used the CRA to kill the Bureau of Land Management’s revisions to its land management planning regulations among other Obama-era regulations.

The EPA’s “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information” rule limits the EPA’s use of science where the underlying data is not publicly available. The scientific community, including ESA, has opposed this rule since it was first proposed in 2018, as well as its legislative predecessors the HONEST Act and the Secret Science Act. Scientific and public health groups said that it will limit the wide swaths of research and data that the EPA could use to make informed policy decisions and fulfill their mission to protect the public health and environment. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory has also criticized the rule, writing in a 2020 draft commentary that the rule does not fully identify what problem the rule addresses and “may not add transparency, and even may make some kinds of research more difficult.” 

Another newly finalized rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) does not apply to the “incidental take” or accidental killing of birds. This rule formalizes a 2017 Interior Department legal opinion, which ‘clarified’ that the law only applies to the intentional killing of birds. Unless Congress overturns this regulation under the Congressional Review Act, the Biden administration will have to undergo the formal rulemaking process to reverse the rule.

Previous administrations have prosecuted and fined companies for violations of the MBTA that harm protected birds. Notably, BP paid a $100 million fine under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

In August 2020, a federal judge in New York struck down the 2017 legal opinion, finding the Interior Department’s interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is “contrary to law.” Trump’s Justice Department announced in October that it is appealing that decision. Defenders of Wildlife vowed to challenge the rule in the courts.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) is expected to reintroduce the Migratory Bird Protection Act (H.R. 5552), which requires USFWS to create a permitting program for the incidental take of migratory birds during commercial activities. Biden’s pick to be Interior secretary, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), was an original co-sponsor of Rep. Lowenthal’s bill.

Transition Tracker for President-elect Biden

President-elect Joe Biden continued to announce his picks for cabinet nominations and top political appointments in the executive branch.

Biden nominated Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (D) to be the secretary of the Department of Commerce that includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The President-elect also announced 21 senior appointments to the National Security Council, including Tarun Chhabra who will be senior director for technology and national security and Melanie Nakagawa who will be senior director for climate and energy. Chhabra worked for the National Security Council during the Obama administration and is currently a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Nakagawa is a former climate change advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry. These positions do not require Senate confirmation.

For more information as President-elect Biden names new nominees and the Senate schedules confirmation hearing, see ESA’s transition tracker.


Science Committee: Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas reintroduced the STEM Opportunities Act (H.R. 204). This bill requires federal agencies to collect demographic data on grant recipients and STEM faculty, take other steps to implement evidence-based policies to increase the number of women, minorities and other groups underrepresented in STEM and support these groups’ success. Johnson and Lucas introduced similar legislation in 2019 during the 116th Congress and the bill passed the full U.S. House in October 2019. A companion bill introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) did not pass the U.S. Senate. A version of this bill has been introduced to every Congress since 2007.

Lucas and Johnson also reintroduced the Rural STEM Education Act (S. 210). This bill directs the National Science Foundation to fund STEM education research focused on rural areas and recommends that NSF dedicate $12 million annually toward efforts to increase rural students’ participation in STEM. A version of this bill passed the U.S. House in September 2020. The U.S. Senate did not consider this bill.

Another newly-reintroduced bll from Lucas and Johnson, the Supporting Early Career Research Act (H.R. 144) authorizes $250 million to the National Science Foundation to award two-year postdoctoral fellowships to help keep researchers whose employment opportunities have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the STEM pipeline.

Legislative updates:

  • The full U.S. Senate approved a bill (H.R. 4044) to reauthorize the National Estuary Program through 2026 and double the authorized funding for this program.

See ESA’s Legislative Tracker for more updates on legislation relevant to the ecological community.

Executive Branch

White House: President Donald Trump vetoed the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S. 906). This bill phases out large-mesh drift gillnets used in commercial fishing in federal waters off California’s coast. The California State Legislature passed a plan to phase out these nets in state waters in 2018. The bill easily passed both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate with bipartisan support. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) vowed to reintroduce the bill in the 117th Congress.

Arctic: A Bureau of Land Management lease auction for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge attracted limited attention from the oil and gas industry. In total, the state of Alaska and two small oil companies were the only bidders in all of the lease auctions and only 11 out of 22 parcels received any bids. The high cost of building infrastructure for drilling in the area, low oil prices and the potential that the Biden administration could block drilling all deterred potential bidders. All major U.S. banks have pledged not to finance development in the refuge.

In November 2020, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency released a proposed rule, which, if finalized, would prohibit financial institutions from refusing to finance entire business categories, assuming that those business activities are legal. The public comment period for this proposed rule closed Jan. 4, 2021 and the administration has not finalized this rule.

USDA: President Donald Trump named Carrie Castille to be director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Castille previously led the USDA’s food production and conservation efforts in the mid-South. Before joining the USDA in 2017, she was an assistant professor at Louisiana State University and Senior Advisor to the Commissioner for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Castille is expected to serve a six-year term. Trump’s previous NIFA director, Scott Angle, resigned after two years on the job.

NOAA: ESA submitted comments to the National Weather Service (NWS) National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) on the management of user access of the NCEP web services. The National Weather Service proposed limiting the number of users allowed access to NOMAD weather data information to 60 per hour, which would disadvantage ecologists. ESA highlighted the importance of this data for ecological forecasting research and recommended limiting the size of downloads per minute rather than the number of hits per minute so that users who only need small-sized files, such as ecological researchers, will not be impacted.

NOAA report finds that 2020 was the fifth warmest year on record. The United States experienced the a record number of billion dollar climate and weather disasters in 2020, including western wildfires, three major tornado outbreaks and seven tropical cyclones.

NPS: A provision in the omnibus appropriations and coronavirus relief bill designates West Virginia’s New River Gorge as a national park, making the area the country’s 63rd national park.

Scientific Community

NASEM: The National Academies is seeking nominations of experts to serve on a study committee dedicated to addressing inaccurate and misleading information about biological threats through scientific collaboration and communication. This committee will analyze how scientists can determine which claims may be addressed by defensible scientific information and how scientists can work together to address those claims. The study will suggest a strategy for developing an international network of scientists to address inaccurate and misleading claims and will engage scientists from various countries. NASEM is seeking scientists with multiple areas of expertise, including ecology. For more information, see the study websiteNominations are due by Jan. 16, 2020.

ESA: A new report in Issues in Ecology, Innovative Finance for Conservation: Roles for Ecologists and Practitioners, offers guidelines for developing standardized, ethical and effective conservation finance projects. ESA will hold a webinar on Jan. 14 that will provide an overview of key highlights from the report. The benefits of private funding sources and examining recommendations from the report for various stakeholders who wish to develop, apply, and evaluate privately financed projects designed to conserve biodiversity improve human livelihoods will be discussed. Register here.

NSF: A new model developed by the National Science Foundation allows the agency to predict and find potentially improper grant payments. The model is open-source and NSF is planning to share it with other grant-making agencies.


CBD: The Open-ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will hold a webinar on Jan. 12 to explore the linkages between the issues of climate change and biodiversity, ways to improve synergies between climate change and biodiversity conservation actions, and enhance coordination between the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. This webinar is the first of of a series of stakeholder webinars.

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.