Programs: Science and Policy
S&T Newsletter: July 2006
Senate Passes Stem Cell Bills
Within twenty-four hours of Senate passage of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810) by a vote of 63-37, President Bush issued his first veto, closing a chapter in a long and complex debate over the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Those who voted in favor of the bill included 43 Democrats, 1 Independent and 19 Republicans, a reflection of the growing interest in the field across party lines.
Following the presidential veto, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), who voted in favor of the bill, stated, “I am pro-life, but I disagree with the president’s decision to veto the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. Given the potential of this research and the limitations of the existing lines eligible for federally funded research, I think additional lines should be made available.”
After the White House ceremony the House took to the floor again to sustain the President’s veto, although a few Members who voted against the bill in 2005 voted in favor of the bill this year; an indication of the shifting nature of opinions.
Last year in May, the House passed the stem cell bill by a vote of 238-194 after a lengthy and passionate debate on the floor. Two months later, Senator Frist stunned the research community with his announcement of support for the House bill and thus raised hopes that the legislation would be brought to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the first session in 2005.
Momentum to get the bill through both chambers, however, quickly stalled when the Senate became preoccupied with hurricane recovery and reconstruction, and Supreme Court nominations. It took the Senate Majority Leader an additional year to negotiate an agreement over what additional measures should be included in a package to bring to a vote in his chamber.
In late June of this year, Senator Frist announced that he had reached a unanimous consent agreement to consider three bills that address stem cell research, including H.R. 810. The other two bills to be offered included legislation introduced by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) that would ban ‘fetal farming’ and a bill sponsored by Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) that would authorize the government to fund research utilizing embryonic stem cells obtained through alternative methods that do not involve the destruction of human embryos. This type of research, however, is already allowable for federal funding and thus does not require separate legislation. The Santorum bill is unrelated to the current funding restrictions on research involving the creation or destruction of a human embryo, which fall under the Dickey amendment that is included annually as part of the NIH appropriations bill.
Both the less contentious bills were passed unanimously by the Senate and were expected to easily pass the House and then go to the President’s desk for signature. The House leadership placed the legislation on the suspension calendar, meaning that the Brownback and Santorum bills would require a two-thirds majority (285 votes). Unexpectedly, the chamber failed to reach this threshold on the Santorum bill, with a vote of 273-154. Thus, only the fetal farming ban and H.R. 810 were sent to the White House.
At the heart of the stem cell debate are human embryonic stem cells, which are derived from several-day-old embryos and can theoretically differentiate into virtually any type of human cell, from blood cells to skin cells.
Proponents of federal support for embryonic stem cell research argue that excess embryos left-over from in vitro fertilization that are slated for destruction could be donated for research. Opponents, however, argue that such research would still condone the destruction of a human embryo and that federal dollars should not be used.
In August 2001, President Bush issued a policy that would allow federal funding of research involving human embryonic stem cell lines but only on those already derived by that date. Proponents of H.R. 810 argued that many of those original cell lines are unsuitable for research and that the original number expected to be available were overestimated. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act would have allowed the government to conduct research on cell lines created after August 2001.
Representatives Mike Castle (R-DE) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), the original sponsors of the House bill, have indicated that they plan to reintroduce the bill during the next congressional session.
-- Joanne Carney
Since its use in the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the “hockey stick” graph has become a fixture in the public consciousness of global warming. The methods leading to the temperature graph’s characteristic shape have come under dispute in recent years, and the latest round of contestation has unfolded in the U.S. Congress. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held two hearings in July, each lasting more than 4 hours, during which two requests for studies, one each from GAO and NAS, were announced.
The hockey stick discussion refers to 1998 and 1999 studies by Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes. Because direct temperature measurements date back only 150 years, the researchers used proxy measurements, including tree ring growth, coral reef growth, and ice core samples, to reconstruct temperatures of the past one thousand years. Due to the sharp upward spike in recent decades, the graphs resemble a hockey stick lying on the ground. The criticisms of the mathematical averaging process suggested that the characteristic shape of the graph could be produced as an artifact of incorrect statistical techniques.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee commissioned its own panel of statisticians to review the pair of papers that generated the graph and the Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations convened on July 19 to examine the reports. The Committee leadership reasoned that the papers’ use in important documents such as the 2001 IPCC report justified examination of the details of the statistical methods involved. “A lot of people basically used that report to come to the conclusion that global warming was a fact,” said Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX).
During the hearing, Edward Wegman, a statistician at George Mason University, testified on behalf of the mathematicians who reviewed the Mann papers. Wegman stated, “The proxy data exhibiting the hockey stick shape are actually decentered low.” Wegman showed that the procedure used by Mann was in principle capable of distorting the shape of a graph, though he did not provide an alternative reconstruction of the original Mann data. Surprisingly, there was no actual dispute over the shape of the famous hockey stick graph after all, since nobody argued that its shape would be altered through the use of different techniques. Wegman additionally advocated that “evaluation by statisticians should be standard practice” in the grant applications of any scientific study with policy implications.
Mann himself was absent, and the studies he published subsequent to the 98/99 papers were not discussed, nor were papers that reached the same conclusion by other scientists. Other evidence for global warming was similarly eschewed, as the committee attempted to discern why centering the mean around recent years was less satisfactory than alternative procedures of averaging proxy data.
Committee Democrats’ frustration at the hearing’s exclusive focus on two papers was apparent, as they stressed that the well-established scientific consensus on the reality of anthropocentric global warming would remain unaltered even if Mann had never written the papers in question. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) exclaimed he was “stupefied” at the narrow scope of the hearings, and said that Congress was “particularly ill-suited to decide scientific debates.” Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) called the hearing “an exercise in doubt.”
It was not the first foray into the issue for the subcommittee. Last July, Chairman Barton and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) solicited not just the climate papers in question, but large volumes of material from Mann and his co-authors, including every paper they had ever published, all baseline data, and funding disclosures. This political pressure generated some fierce resistance from the scientific research community, including AAAS (link), though some of the harshest rebukes were issued from Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), who called the investigation “misguided and illegitimate.”
At Chairman Boehlert’s request, the National Academy of Sciences recently reviewed this issue. In a report released on June 22, entitled Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, the Academy concluded that, while Mann’s statistical procedures weren’t optimal, the procedure did not unduly distort his conclusions, which the Academy reinforced. “The basic conclusion of Mann et al. was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on icecaps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years.” Due to the degree of uncertainty in the temperature estimates from many centuries ago, the Academy did not support Mann’s specific claims that the 1990s was the hottest decade and 1998 the hottest year in the past millennium.
Gerald North, chair of the National Academies report, testified at the July 19 that he agreed with the statistical criticisms of Wegman, but that those considerations did not alter the substance of Mann’s findings. North sustained the conclusions of the National Academies report, and reminded the Committee that large-scale surface temperature reconstructions “are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that climatic warming is occurring in response to human activities.”
A follow-up hearing held on July 27 contained many of the same points, with Mann present. Though he stated, “Knowing what I know today, a decade later, I would not do the same,” regarding his statistical techniques, Mann noted that multiple studies by other scientists that have reached similar conclusions: that recent temperatures have been far warmer in recent decades. Several of the committee members took issue with the peer-review process, with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) stating that Mann’s paper was “only corroborated by a social network.”
During the hearing, Chairman Barton announced that he had requested a study from GAO on federal data sharing practices, particularly in climate science research, and planned to request a study from the National Research Council’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences on how to involve more disciplines in climate change research, a point made in earlier testimony by Wegman.
These requests, along with Chairman Barton’s comment that “this committee holds a key role in any climate change policy” signal that the Energy and Commerce Committee will continue to study climate change. Only time will tell if this interest plays beyond the Hockey Stick.
-- Eric Martin
Last week the House Republican leadership pulled two “sunset commission” bills from floor consideration. H.R. 3282, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), and H.R. 5766, sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), both advocate the formation of commissions to evaluate government agencies and programs, giving the commissions power to recommend the elimination or restructuring of those programs. Neither bill exempts any program from consideration—including science programs. Though fans of sunset commissions say they could help cut down on government inefficiency, opponents say they are a way for members of Congress to pass the buck—and some of the power—on the appraisal of government programs.
Brady’s bill was pulled first, on July 25, to make way for Tiahrt’s bill. House leaders were prepared to vote on the Tiahrt bill on July 27 but pulled it when they found that too many of their fellow Republicans had doubts about the bill. CongressDaily reported the bill fell victim to a larger debate on legislation overhauling earmarks and granting the president line-item veto power. Both sponsors also acknowledged that their different bills were being confused with each other.
H.R. 3282, the Brady bill, would create a single standing commission; the majority leadership in the House and Senate would each name half of the dozen members (eight of whom would be from Congress). Agencies would come up for review by this commission every 12 years. Should Congress not act to reauthorize the program within one year of the review’s conclusion, the program would be automatically abolished—even if the commission had supported that program. This would force Congress either to include authorization bills in its busy lineup or to kill programs through inaction, though an option does exist to extend an agency’s life for two years.
H.R. 5766, on the other hand, would authorize the creation of multiple ad hoc citizen commissions with seven members appointed by the White House to examine particular agencies or programs for one year. The formation of these commissions determines which programs are up for review. There is no automatic termination provision, but the bill would institute a fast-track vote procedure. This would mean a 10-hour limit on floor debate with no procedural motions.
The White House also released a sunset commission proposal, sponsored by Brady, but this bill, H.R. 3277, did not make it to the floor for a vote.
In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH) had included a sunset commission in his own budget reform bill, S. 3521, which also featured the line item veto. Just as in the House, Gregg has reportedly found difficulty drumming up support for his bill, so its prospects are uncertain.
The Tiahrt and Brady bills may return after the August recess.
-- Erin Heath
With science permeating policy issues from agriculture to stem cells to climate change, the House Science Committee held a hearing on July 25 to assess the sources of scientific advice to Congress. The witnesses were united in their views that Congress is lacking credible, relevant sources of scientific information.
The witnesses stated that Congress receives an abundance of information, with AAAS Science and Policy Programs Director Al Teich noting that Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than 1995, predominately from electronic communications. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) summarized the issue: “We do not suffer from a lack of information here on Capitol Hill, but from a lack of ability to glean the knowledge and to gauge the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amounts of information and advice received on a daily basis.”
Rep. Holt, who has introduced bills in previous sessions of Congress to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), testified that since OTA was defunded in 1995, Congress has “not gotten what we need in order to do the people’s work.” Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) echoed those concerns, saying “We certainly could use in-house help in sorting through conflicting expert opinion.”
Dr. Catherine Hunt, President-elect of the American Chemical Society, presented options for bridging this gap: "Congress should consider establishing an in-house science and technology unit that supplements their capabilities and provides timely, thorough assessments for decisions on issues involving a wide range of science, engineering, and technology." She continued, "This unit could be housed in the Congressional Research Service (CRS) the Government Accountability Office (GAO), or stand alone as a congressional support agency."
Discussions centered largely on the legacy of OTA and the possibility of re-creating it. For Rep. Gordon, programs like OTA hold the promise of authoritative and respected answers to many difficult science questions considered by Congress. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) took a different approach, stating that he preferred to seek his own studies so as to have more control over them. Even supporters of OTA acknowledged that, if funded, OTA would have to be structured differently to address concerns from Members like Rohrabacher that the agency did not produce timely, nonpartisan analyses.
Despite the case made for addition congressional science support, Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) find the prospects for OTA bleak, stating, "I was a strong defender of OTA - and I voted against defunding it - but OTA is not likely to be coming back any time soon."
-- Kasey White
Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to address the growing issue of attacks, particularly on laboratories, by extremist animal rights groups, which Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC) said are having a “chilling effect” on research.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing in May on H.R. 4239, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), sponsored by Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI). The bill would make it a federal crime to harass, threaten or intimidate individuals or their immediate family members who are related to an animal enterprise (including academic institutions and companies that conduct research or testing with animals) and make it a federal crime to cause economic disruption to an animal enterprise or those who do business with animal enterprises, an intimidation technique called tertiary targeting. The bill also adds penalties and allows victims to seek restitution for economic disruption, including the reasonable cost of repeating any experiment that was interrupted or invalidated as a result of the offense.
Chairman Coble, a co-sponsor of the legislation, outlined the key issue of the hearing: the need to strike a balance between law enforcement of these crimes and protecting First Amendment rights. He announced that an amendment will be introduced at markup that will serve to ensure the bill doesn’t prohibit constitutionally protected activities, even though he believes that the bill already contains such language.
Dr. Michele Basso, Assistant Professor of Physiology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, testified about harassment she has received due to her research using primates. For example, animal rightists protest regularly at her home, have signed her up for subscriptions to 50 magazines, and made numerous threatening phone calls. In response to a question by Representative Chabot, she said that university officials do not provide sufficient security and, with further prompting, said that she and some colleagues have thought of leaving the field and pursuing other research. She said that some colleagues in the United Kingdom are finding that they are spending so much time on security measures that their research is suffering.
William Trundley, Director, Vice-President of Corporate Security & Investigations, GlaxoSmithKline, highlighted the global implications of this movement stating that his company has been under attack in both the United States and United Kingdom. He said that many employees, whom he described as “traumatized,” have had their property vandalized and researchers’ families have been harassed.
Currently, animal enterprises are protected under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) of 1992. The AEPA protects animal enterprises against physical disruption or damage, but says nothing about tertiary targeting of people or institutions that conduct business with an animal enterprise. Brent McIntosh, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice, testified that the AEPA is not sufficient to address the more sophisticated tactics used by animal rights extremists today. His testimony noted, “The bill under consideration by the Subcommittee would fill the gaps in the current law and enable federal law enforcement to investigate and prosecute these violent felonies.”
Rep. Delahunt (D-MA) argued that these activities are already well covered by local and state laws and should be prosecuted at that level, a point also made by witness William Potter, a freelance journalist. However, both McIntosh and Basso testified that local law enforcement authorities see these activities as minor crimes (spray painting, trespass, etc.) and generally have little inclination to pursue the perpetrators. Further, those committing these crimes often receive at most minimal fines or short jail sentences. Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA), a co-sponsor of AETA, concurred with the witnesses that local laws cannot address the national scope of this activity.
A companion bill was introduced by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) in October, but has not advanced out of committee. Committee staff are hopeful that the bills will advance this fall.
-- Deborah Runkle
In a marathon hearing dedicated to investigating the policy implications of global warming, the House Committee on Government Reform announced that it wanted to make climate change a new priority. “Too many elected officials have for too long been M-I-A on this issue,” said Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA). “We hope to begin changing that,” he continued.
The Committee wanted not only to solicit data on climate change, but also to understand the rationale behind current U.S. policies. To that end, they heard from James Connaughton, Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Connaughton defended President Bush’s environmental policies and said “the President and his Administration are firmly committed to taking sensible action on climate change.” A barrage of questions arose from committee members who criticized the Administration’s policies on topics ranging from energy policy to vehicle gas mileage standards. Many Members questioned the sufficiency of current protections to deal with the severity of global warming.
The Committee leadership sent a follow-up letter to Connaughton requesting further information on the relationship between CEQ and other government agencies. The letter, signed by Davis and Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA), was concerned with the extent to which the CEQ might “manage or influence statements by government scientists,” and specifically asked Connaughton for documents surrounding the activities of former CEQ Chief of Staff Philip Cooney. Cooney, a former oil lobbyist with no scientific training, was active in reviewing scientific reports on climate change and his edits increased the level of uncertainty contained in them.
Several scientists spoke about the current state of their understanding on the topic. Roger Pielke Jr., a Professor at the University of Colorado, testified that anthropogenic climate change is “a reality,” and said that pay-offs arising from current decisions to regulate greenhouse gasses would come only on a long-term basis. But Pielke additionally stressed the potential short-term benefits that new policies could bring about, such as energy independence, job-production from new technologies, and a decrease in the level of particulate air pollution.
Business gave their perspective as well. A representative from Wal-Mart stores, the world’s largest retailer, spoke about the company’s response to global warming, as well as their efforts to reduce energy use and eventually to rely wholly on renewable energy.
CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE
Superfund: Overview and Selected Issues (RL33426)
This report provides a background and overview of the Superfund program, the federal government’s primary program for cleaning up contaminated waste sites and protecting public health from the release of hazardous substances. The report additionally examines several topics that have recently received interest, including Superfund’s funding, appropriations, interaction with abandoned and contaminated hardrock mines, and role at animal feeding operations.
Alternative Fuels and Advanced Technology Vehicles: Issues in Congress (IB10128)
High oil prices have generated increased congressional interest in U.S. fuel supply, and within the past year there have been multiple pieces of legislation dealing with the topic. Alternative fuels and advanced technology vehicles are viewed by proponents as necessary changes for the future, but economic barriers remain the major obstacle to their implementation. This report discusses the possible incentives for the commercialization of these new technologies, and follows related provisions through various legislation in the 109th Congress.
NASA: Long-Term Commitment to and Investment in Space Exploration Program Requires More Knowledge (GAO-06-817R)
This report, requested by Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), raises several concerns about financial risks in NASA's acquisition strategy for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which is slated to replace the Space Shuttle. NASA plans to spend nearly $230 billion over the next two decades implementing the Vision for Space Exploration using a "go as you can afford to pay" approach, wherein lower-priority efforts would be deferred, descoped, or discontinued to allow NASA to stay within its available budget profile. GAO found that "NASA's acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls, because it commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case."
Nutrigenetic Testing: Tests Purchased from Four Web Sites Mislead Consumers (GAO-06-977T)
GAO testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging on the results of a year-long investigation of the at-home genetic testing industry. The testimony emphasized that gaps in current law lead to little government oversight of these tests. The GAO investigated four companies that sell genetic tests designed to provide health-related information without physician approval, concluding that all “mislead” customers by “making health-related predictions that are medically unproven and so ambiguous that they do not provide meaningful information to consumers.”
These reports are currently only available on the NAS website, but hard copies will be available shortly.
New Source Review for Stationary Sources of Air Pollution (ISBN: 0309102782)
This NRC report examines changes to the New Source Review, a part of the Clean Air Act that governs large, stationary sources of air pollution such as factories and power plants. Though modeling can provide some insight, the report found that it is impossible to quantify with certainty the changes' impact on emission levels, human health, or energy efficiency, because existing models have limitations and data so far are scarce. Although the report's analysis focuses on the likely effects of EPA's 2002 and 2003 revisions to the rules – changes that have since, in large part, been struck down by federal courts – it can serve as a case study for how future revisions could be assessed.
- A Framework for Understanding Electronic Voting (Letter Report )
Some U.S. jurisdictions will use electronic voting in the November 2006 congressional elections. This letter report, based on a workshop held on May 12 in Washington, D.C., describes the status of equipment deployment and gauges the jurisdictions' readiness in light of the findings of the 2005 Research Council report Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting.
BACK TO TOP
AAAS Urges Comprehensive Effort on Stem Cells
AAAS wrote to leaders in Congress and the White House, encouraging them to back efforts to expand federal support for stem cell research. AAAS Board of Directors Chairman Gilbert Omenn and CEO Alan I. Leshner sent a letter to each member of the Senate urging that federally funded researchers be granted access to additional embryonic stem cell lines. After the bill's passage, Omenn and Leshner sent a letter asking President Bush not to veto the bill and thanked Senate supporters of stem cell research for their efforts.
AAAS Encourages Senate to Fund Broad Research Portfolio
AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner sent a letter to leaders of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies to thank them for supporting "a broad, balanced portfolio of investments in research and development." Leshner had earlier written to ask them to "consider proposals that will allow Congress to support research across agencies and disciplines"
AAAS Testifies on Science Advice
Al Teich, Director, AAAS Science and Policy Programs, testified before the House Science Committee on scientific and technical advice for Congress on July 25, 2006.
AAAS Comments on NSF's Draft Strategic Plan
AAAS Board of Directors Chairman Gilbert Omenn submitted comments on NSF's draft strategic plan, commending the agency for its commitment to “strengthen fundamental research across the full spectrum of science and engineering."
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
Stem Cells: Saving Lives or Crossing Lines
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Carnegie Institution of Washington
This conference will discuss the complexities of human embryonic stem cell research policy in the United States and examine future policy alternatives by looking at initiatives outside the country. The goal is to introduce a new and more effective dialogue regarding safeguards against reproductive cloning while advancing research. This conference is the third major stem cell conference in the Baker Institute’s Science and Technology Policy Program’s series. For questions, please contact Dr. Kirstin Matthews.
New research by Jacobus Biesmeijer (yes, this is pronounced "Bees-meyer") shows that the diversity of bees and the plants they pollinate have both decreased since 1980 in Britain and the Netherlands. It is too early to tell if the bees are disappearing because the plants are, or vice versa, but the researchers do think the two trends are linked to each other.
21 July 2006, Science