What you can do

  • We will be holding a webinar for our Op-Ed Project (Building a Better Society Through Science) this Thursday, November 9, at 1 pm EST/10 am PST. See details here.
  • If you have an advanced degree in earth, environmental, or health science, click here to sign an open letter from the Union of Concerned Scientists opposing Scott Pruitt's removal of scientists from EPA advisory roles (see article below).

Pruitt removes scientists from EPA advisory boards

On October 31, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt announced that scientists currently receiving grant money from the EPA would be immediately barred from its advisory boards. Many of the scientists were removed without warning, some learning of their ouster via text messages or news reports. Pruitt also named new heads of the EPA's three advisory panels: industry consultant Tony Cox replaced University of Iowa professor Deborah Swackhamer; waste-disposal executive Paul Gilman replaced Drexel University epidemiologist Ana Diez Roux; and Michael Honeycutt, a state toxicologist from Texas who has opposed stronger EPA clean-air standards, replaced University of Iowa environmental scientist Peter Thorne. On November 3, five House Democrats, including ranking members of two committees, sent a letter to Pruitt, challenging his decision and writing "[Your] directive suggests a motive less about independent science and more about stacking these boards with representatives of regulated industries." Pruitt's announcement drew additional scrutiny as he paraphrased the Bible to explain his rationale for the policy shift.

Republican tax bill targets graduate student tuition waivers

On November 2, Republicans in the House introduced their long-awaited tax reform bill, the "Tax Cuts and Jobs Act". The bill, which is being considered in the House Ways and Means Committee, includes massive tax cuts for the wealthy, while substantially increasing the deficit and, and increasing the tax burden for many middle-income earners. Of particular note to the scientific community, the bill includes a provision to tax tuition waivers for graduate students. On November 6, the American Council on Education (ACE), along with 45 other higher-education professional associations, sent a letter opposing the tuition waiver tax to House Ways and Means chair Kevin Brady (R-TX) and ranking member Richard Neal (D-MA). ACE warned that this and other cuts to post-secondary education in the proposed bill would discourage student enrollment, devastate the teaching and research missions of universities, and increase the collective cost of college attendance by $65 billion over the next 10 years. The National Association of Graduate and Professional Students is organizing opposition to the plan under the Twitter hashtag #ReworkTheReform, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten stated, "This tax plan is a plan to end U.S. leadership in higher education. It's not going to make America great; it's going to take America backward."

Sam Clovis withdraws from consideration for USDA post

Sam Clovis withdrew his name from consideration as the Department of Agriculture's chief scientist on November 2. Recently released court documents showed that Clovis, during his time as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, brought George Papadopoulos into the campaign and discussed development of Russian contacts with him. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts. In a transcript of testimony before Congress released November 6, Carter Page further implicated Clovis, citing his direct knowledge of meetings with high-ranking Russian officials. Clovis's nomination had already been controversial because of his lack of the scientific credentials officially required for this position, as well as his skepticism about climate change. Clovis says he will continue in his role as a White House adviser to the Department of Agriculture.

House science committee chair Lamar Smith to retire from Congress

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, announced on November 2 that he will retire from Congress when his term ends in 2018. Smith, a climate change skeptic, has angered scientists by aiming barbs and the occasional subpoena at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the EPA, and the Department of Energy. Smith would have been required under Republican committee term limits to relinquish the chair even if re-elected. If Republicans retain the House in 2018, possible replacements for Smith include Reps. Frank Lucas (R-OK), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Mo Brooks (R-AL), but science lobbyists are likely to favor Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), whose district is home to Fermilab and the Argonne National Laboratory. If Democrats retake the House in 2018, ranking House Science Committee member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) would be a leading candidate to replace him.

NASA nominee faces sharp criticism in confirmation hearing

Rep. James Bridenstine (R-OK), President Trump's choice for NASA head, was met with resistance in his Senate Confirmation hearing on November 1. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) described the job as needing "a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent," and added, "Frankly, congressman Bridenstine, I cannot see how you meet these criteria." Bridenstine has faced pushback in the past few months, as members of both parties have criticized his nomination. Bridenstine has demonstrated a desire to move NASA's focus away from science research and toward military and commercial space development, a dramatic departure from NASA's current role. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is meeting on Wednesday, November 8, to consider his nomination.

Also on November 8, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is holding a hearing on the nominations of Kathleen Hartnett White to the Council on Environmental Quality and Andrew Wheeler to be Deputy Administrator of the EPA.

Senate finds that Russian hacking much worse that previously reported

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee on October 31, lawyers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter revealed the staggering scale of Russian interference and its use of social media and ads to sow civil discord and manipulate US elections. Much of the disinformation is attributed to The Internet Research Agency, a "troll farm" funded by the Russian government. Facebook also reported that, on its platform alone, Russian disinformation campaigns reached as many as 150 million Americans —more than the 139 million who actually voted in the 2016 election. More than 2,750 Twitter accounts were traced to Russian-run trolls, including popular right-wing personalities who had tens of thousands of followers and were cited by Trump administration members and major news outlets. Many of the Russian-funded ads show a level of sophistication that alarmed members of Congress, but tech-company lawyers admitted they did not know the full extent of the problem, nor how to prevent it in the future.

Senate hearings to cover rural Internet, and consumer protection

On November 7, the Senate Science Committee's Communications Subcommittee is holding a hearing on "Advancing the Internet of Things in Rural America." On November 8, the full committee is holding a hearing on "Protecting Consumers in the Era of Major Data Breaches." Current and former executives from companies impacted by large-scale data losses will address issues surrounding Yahoo's 2013 breach, which was recently revealed to have affected all of its three billion users, and Equifax, which suffered a 2017 breach that resulted in the loss of sensitive personal and financial information for an estimated 145 million individuals.

Quick takes

  • The National Climate Assessment released a report finding "no convincing alternative explanation" for climate change other than human activity.
  • The Administration's adversarial stance towards science will severely impact important USDA functions, including rural development, public health, food stamps, school lunches, and meat inspection.
  • Two bills passed by the House Natural Resources Committee could weaken the U.S. Endangered Species Act; one could override species protection based on its economic impacts, and the other requires that agencies enforcing the ESA use only data collected by affected states.
  • The White House will nominate Linda Capuano to lead the Energy Information Administration, the Department of Energy agency that provides data, reports, and forecasts on trends in energy markets.

Highlights from partner organizations

  • On November 15 in Washington, DC, the National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering will hold a convocation on revitalizing university-industry partnerships. Prospective attendees can learn more and register for the convocation here.

Have comments or something to add? Contact the RISE Stronger Science & Technology Policy Working Group at [email protected].

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