Policy News: June 17, 2019

In This Issue:

NSF BIO Advisory Committee Considers NEON User Engagement, No-deadline Policy
A subcommittee tasked with understanding the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) user engagement recommended the formation of a separate entity for community user engagement.

Member Opportunities
Apply to join the Rapid Response Team.

Congress
House Science Committee holds hearings on IPBES Global Assessment, harassment in the sciences.

Executive Branch
Executive order directs agencies to eliminate 1/3 of advisory committees. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board votes to review the proposed “transparency in science rule.” USDA plans to move research agencies to Kansas City.

States
Minnesota creates pollinator habitat incentives program.

International
World Biodiversity Forum is now accepting proposals.

Scientific Community
NAS membership approves by-laws amendment to allow the Academies to expel harassers.

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.

NSF BIO Advisory Committee Considers NEON User Engagement, No-deadline Policy


A subcommittee tasked with understanding National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) user engagement recommended the formation of a separate entity for community user engagement. This entity would interact directly with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to accomplish NEON’s mission and would be independent of the NEON contractor Battelle Memorial Institute. The NSF-funded half-billion-dollar ecological observatory’s construction is now completed and it is the first continental-scale platform for ecological research.

Directorate for Biological Sciences Advisory Committee (BIO AC) member and University of Minnesota plant ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares provided an update on the subcommittee’s findings during a May 24 meeting held at NSF in Alexandria, Virginia. The subcommittee’s full report is not yet available to the public.

The subcommittee concludes that the independent entity should maximize users’ sense of excitement about NEON, and facilitate and enhance dialogue between NEON and the ecological community, thereby building end-user trust. It should have convening power, be representative of the research community, be led by the scientists and provide a unified voice for the community. It should also empower the scientific community and serve as a scientific incubator to co-generate ideas. Another important function of the entity will be to regularly evaluate NEON by surveying users on the program’s strengths and weakness and broadly distributing the results of these evaluations. The entity could also provide large-scale peer reviews of NEON’s scientific protocols, such as the ones used by the IPCC and IPBES.

According to the subcommittee, potential vehicles for community engagement and communication may include events at major conferences, workshops and unconferences and an online platform.

The subcommittee members explored models from similar entities across the scientific community, including LIGO, the Ocean Observatories Initiative, and the Long-Term Ecological Research Network. It also considered current avenues used by the scientific community to provide input to NEON, Battelle and NSF, including the Science, Technology and Education Advisory Committee (STEAC) that reports to Battelle, and the technical working groups. The subcommittee found that another entity is needed to engage the scientific community fully.

The BIO AC voted to accept the report from the subcommittee ‘as is’ without any modifications. Cavender-Bares read a statement from ESA that largely echoed the subcommittee’s recommendations.

NSF Director France Cordova joined the meeting and said that she has read the subcommittee’s report and will use it as NSF staff discusses the best management structure for NEON. Cordova broke down NEON management needs into three categories, emphasizing the different skill-sets need for each category: 1) Operations: keeping instruments in working order 2) Science: ensuring that data is usable and 3) Outreach: engaging the user community through outreach and ensuring that data is used by the scientific community and provides value to the country.

Battelle’s current contract to operate NEON expires in October 2020. It is the default position of NSF that operations awards for all facilities are competed openly. The NSF fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget submission to Congress says that an additional 12 months of funding to Battelle is authorized but will only be awarded at the NSF Director’s discretion in FY2021. In a follow-up message to ESA, NSF said that there are no specific plans to issue a solicitation for NEON management that NSF can share at this point.

NEON completed construction and became fully operational in early 2019. Battelle briefly disbanded – and then reinstated – the STEAC in January 2019. Concurrently, NEON Chief Scientist Sharon Collinge resigned after Battelle fired two senior staff members without her knowledge. Battelle’s Chief Scientist Michael Kuhlman said that the decision to disband the STEAC was based on his “erroneous assumption that such advisory bodies were routinely reconstituted at the change of leadership of NSF large facilities.”  In 2016, NSF changed NEON’s management from NEON, Inc. to Battelle.

Nine of the 20-members of the STEAC resigned May 22 citing its lack of independence and its inability to communicate directly to NSF. Cavender-Bares read critical statements about Battelle and user engagement from two STEAC members who recently resigned. Letters from these STEAC members are posted online.

No-Deadlines and Proposal Caps

BIO Director Joanne Tornow told the AC that grant proposal submissions to BIO are down 27% since the beginning of the switch to no-deadline proposals in 2018. NSF’s Geosciences Directorate also experienced a significant decline in the number of proposal submissions when they switched to no-deadlines in 2015.

Immediately after the switch to no-deadlines, BIO imposed a one proposal submission per PI cap, but then lifted this cap after pushback from the scientific community, including a letter to Cordova from ESA and 20 other scientific societies. Tornow said that there are no plans to reimpose the one-proposal cap.

Another subcommittee presented its work to develop metrics to understand the impact of the switch to no-deadlines. The subcommittee has curated a data set for FY 2016-2018 for comparison. As much as possible, the subcommittee will try to incorporate metrics to track the impact of the no-deadline for PI gender and ethnic diversity, the PI career-stage, typical size of an awardee’s institution, types of projects and collaboration. The subcommittee is also interested in understanding the impacts of no-deadlines on the overall funding rate and the proposal review process, including the speed and ease of review, number of panels and the number of people invited to participate in panels. The subcommittee will have data using these metrics in winter 2020.

Call for New ESA Rapid Response Team Members


We are expanding the Society’s Rapid Response Team (RRT), a diverse group of about 50 ecologists who are subject matter experts and help ESA address policy and media opportunities in a timely and effective manner. ESA invites any member to apply to be a member of the RRT. By applying, you are raising ESA’s ability to connect ecologists with policymakers and to provide information to the media.

One of ESA’s central missions is to share ecological information with policymakers and members of the media. Since the Society opened its Public Affairs Office in 1983, ESA has served as a trusted source of ecological information. The establishment of the RRT in 2005 enhanced our ability to respond to time-sensitive issues, such as 2010’s BP oil spill and to the more recent Hurricanes Irma and Maria. ESA also encourages RRT members to alert the Society to policy issues or other opportunities.

Find more and how to apply here.

Congress


Appropriations: The House Appropriations Committee moves all 12 appropriations bills forward. These bills largely include increases for ecological science (see Policy News, May 28, 2019 & Budget Tracker). The full House started consideration of the first 2020 omnibus spending bill, which includes funding for the Department of Energy, the week of June 10, but did not complete votes on all amendments to the bill before Congress recessed for the weekend. An amendment approved by the full House increased funding for research on harmful algal blooms by $6.2 million. Next, the House will vote on another omnibus package including spending bills for NSF and the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture.

On the Senate side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) are working with the White House to reach an agreement to raise the budget caps and avoid mandatory, across the board budget cuts or sequestration. It is unclear how – or if – the Senate appropriations process will move forward without a budget deal.

Top House and Senate leaders from both parties plan to meet with the White House the week of June 17 to negotiate a spending deal.

Nominations: The Senate confirmed Susan Combs to serve as the Department of the Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget June 5. President Trump originally nominated Combs in 2017. Combs attracted wide attention in spring 2018 when former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appointed her to serve as acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks because of her work opposing Endangered Species Act protections as a Texas state official. More recently, Combs worked as a senior advisor in the Interior Department, managing the agency’s reorganization efforts.

The Senate Environment and Public Works and Energy and Natural Resources Committees held confirmation hearings for Robert Wallace, the Trump administration’s pick to serve as assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. This position oversees the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Wallace generally received bipartisan support and Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) and Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) promised to advance Wallace’s nomination quickly. This position has been vacant since 2011. Wallace led government relations for General Electric’s energy division from 1995 to 2011. Before that, he worked for the National Park Service as assistant director for congressional and legislative affairs during the Reagan administration and worked as the Republican staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

IPBES: The House Science Committee held the second congressional hearing on the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) global assessment report, which concludes that over a million species are at risk of extinction. IPBES past chair Sir Richard Watson and report author Dr. Kate Brannan presented the report’s conclusions. Members of Congress and witnesses did not question the report’s accuracy, unlike an earlier House Natural Resources Committee hearing where Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) compared IPBES scientists to Chicken Little. Science Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) expressed the need for innovation to alleviate the biodiversity crisis and the role of agriculture in protecting biodiversity through voluntary conservation programs. Republican witness Jeff Godwin of the Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, OK highlighted agricultural practices and principles developed by farmers that improve biodiversity. Dr. James Porter, an emeritus professor at the University of Georgia, presented on the importance of coral reefs and their declining biodiversity.

Ocean Acidification: The full House approved four pieces of legislation addressing ocean acidification with wide, bipartisan support. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Rep. Don Young’s (R-AK) COAST Research Act (H.R. 1237) reauthorizes ocean and coastal research monitoring programs and creates an Ocean Acidification Advisory Board. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s (D-ME) Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act of 2019 (H.R. 1716) directs NOAA to study the impact of ocean acidification on coastal communities and similarly, Rep. Bill Posey’s (R-FL) National Estuaries and Acidification Research Act (H.R. 988) directs the National Academies of Science to study the impacts of ocean acidification on estuarine environments. The Ocean Acidification Innovation Act (H.R. 1921) – sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), Young and Bonamici – directs federal agencies to create prize competitions to increase the ability to research, monitor, and manage ocean acidification and its impacts.

Harassment in Science: The House Science Committee held a hearing to consider the Combatting Harassment in Science Act (H.R. 36), co-sponsored by Committee Chairwomen Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK). Paula Johnson, the president of Wellesley College and the co-chair of the committee that prepared the 2018 National Academies of Sciences report on sexual harassment in science, presented the report’s key findings. John Neumann of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) presented the GAO’s preliminary findings of how the federal science agencies address harassment.

Executive Branch


White House: President Trump signed an executive order June 14 requiring federal agencies to slash the number of federal advisory committees. The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) was enacted in 1972 to ensure that advice by the various advisory committees formed over the years is objective and accessible to the public. The US General Services Administration administers FACA implementation. Its website says “there are approximately 1,000 federal advisory committees and 50 federal agencies with FACA programs in effect at any given time.” The executive order states that agencies “terminate at least one-third of its current committees,” and it caps the total number of committees at 350 for all agencies combined. FACA committees largely provide scientific advice and stakeholder input to agencies. The National Science Foundation’s FACA committees for each of its directorates would fall under the government-wide review. Merit review panels are exempt from the executive order.

Federal committees established by other laws are exempt from the executive order although they too may be under the axe. The White House also asks agencies to evaluate advisory committees created by federal law, such as the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, and potentially recommend legislation to terminate these advisory committees. Federal agencies would be able to apply for waivers from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Agencies must provide a report to the OMB director by August 2019.

White HouseThe Washington Post reported that the Office of Legislative Affairs, Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council intervened to censure the State Department’s testimony about the national security implications of climate change. Rod Schoonover, a senior analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and a former professor of chemistry and biochemistry, prepared the testimony and represented the State Department. In an unusual move, although the State Department allowed Schoonover to appear and give oral testimony at the committee hearing, he was not allowed to submit his written testimony. Later, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) entered Schoonover’s testimony into the official record during a House Budget Committee hearing.

Army Corps of Engineers: Federal agencies released a proposed update to National Wetland Plant List. This list is used to delineate wetlands under the Clean Water Act. Agencies have proposed adding eight plants to the list and reclassifying the status of five plants. Comments on the proposed wetland indicator status ratings will be accepted through Aug. 9, 2019.

EPA: Members of the Science Advisory Board agreed to review the agency’s “transparency in science” rule, which seeks to restrict the EPA’s use of science, including peer-reviewed articles, when the underlying data is not publicly available. The group will release their review by fall 2019 before several board members’ terms expire and before the EPA plans to release the final rule.

The SAB also considered reviewing the EPA’s proposed revised Waters of the U.S. rule and voted to provide a “commentary” on the science behind the WOTUS rule. The SAB completed a review of the previous WOTUS rule in 2014.

Interior: A report by the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) concludes that the federal government should not charge for Landsat satellite data. The report concludes that the revenue generated by charging fees for Landsat data would likely be less than the costs to the government to implement a fee program and Landsat data users would likely choose to download from similar European satellites instead of paying for Landsat data.

USDA: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) will relocate to the Kansas City metropolitan area. Perdue first proposed moving NIFA and ERS to a location outside of the Washington, DC area in August 2018, citing a desire to move the agencies closer to the country’s agricultural producers. The scientific community has largely opposed the move and expressed concerns that the move will force agency scientists to retire or leave the federal government and delay research results. ERS and NIFA employees have both unionized in recent weeks to fight the move. At a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing, Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, pointed out that university agricultural extension agents – not NIFA staff – interact directly with farmers. A provision in the House’s Agriculture Appropriations bill for FY 2020 blocks the USDA from relocating NIFA and ERS, but the USDA plans to complete the move by the end of fiscal year 2019.

USDA APHISThe agency started the process of drafting a new environmental impact statement for its predator damage-management program in Idaho. In this program, APHIS personnel kill wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, bears and other animals that hunt livestock, deer and elk. In 2018, a federal court sided with conservation groups and ruled that the agency did not sufficiently justify the environmental impacts of this program in its 2016 environmental assessment.

USFS: A new proposed rule could overhaul the way that the agency complies with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said that the changes are necessary to reduce the amount of time spent on NEPA analysis and increase the speed and volume of projects to improve forest health, reduce wildfire risk and improve infrastructure. New NEPA exemptions in the proposed rule would allow up to 4,200 acres of commercial logging, if the logging project is combined with ecological restoration activities. Other exemptions would allow the Forest Service to build up to five miles of roads and convert unauthorized, unofficial roads to official Forest Service roads without completing NEPA analysis. The Forest Service is accepting public comments on the rule through Aug. 12, 2019.

USFWS: Five independent peer-reviewers of the agency’s proposed rule to remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered species largely contested the science in the rule. Some reviewers questioned the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to treat gray wolves in the continental US as a single population, rather than determine distinct population segments for wolves, calling this determination “an extreme oversimplification.” All reviewers found “demonstrable errors of fact or interpretation” in the rule.

NSFThe agency announced 33 finalist entries for in its 2026 Idea Machine competition. Ideas include “Designing Ecosystems for the Future,” “Large Landscape Resilience by Design,” and “Saving Coral Ecosystems.” Comments on the entries are due June 26, 2019.

States


Minnesota: A provision in the state’s omnibus environment bill provides $900,000 to the board of water and soil resources to reimburse homeowners for planting pollinator-friendly plants and creating pollinator habitat in their yards.

International


Convention on Biological Diversity: The World Biodiversity Forum is now accepting proposals for thematic sessions and interactive workshops. The deadline for submissions is July 21, 2019, and the meeting will take place in Davos, Switzerland in February 2020. The forum aims to “redefine and set the agenda for biodiversity” over the next ten years and supports the Convention on Biological Diversity’s “New Deal for Nature” to be forged at the end of 2020. For more information, see the forum website.

Scientific Community

NAS: The membership of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine approved a by-law amendment to allow the Academies to expel members who violate the organization’s new code of conduct, including “proven cases of sexual harassment.”

Federal Register Opportunities


Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

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 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

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@esa.org or Nicole Zimmerman, public affairs manager, Nicole@esa.org

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

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