Start of the 112th Congress. The 112th Congress officially got underway on January 5 with the swearing-in of Members of the House of Representatives. The House's first order of business was the selection of Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House and the adoption of new budget rules.
Due to the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) this past weekend, the House has canceled virtually all legislative activity for this week -- the only vote expected is on a resolution condemning the incident. Rep. Giffords was re-elected to her third term in November 2010 and during the 111th Congress chaired the House Science and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Incoming Committee Chair Ralph Hall issued a statement on the shooting.
Congressional Organization Continues. - The House Science and Technology Committee, has been renamed the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
- The Republican members of the subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been announced.
- The House Appropriation Committee has announced the Chairs, Members, and the lead majority staff for each of the 12 subcommittees.
- Rep. Virginia Foxx (NC-5) has been named chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness.
COMPETES Act Signed into Law. On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed the America COMPETES Act into law. In his blog on January 5, OSTP Director John Holdren said that the signing represented a "significant commitment to maintaining America's place as a leader in innovation and ingenuity." AAAS sent a letter thanking the President for signing the legislation into law.
Demand for H1-B Visas Slows in 2010. The issuance of H-1B visas, used by foreign professionals holding at least a Bachelor's degree who are sponsored by a U.S. employer to work in a specialty occupation in the U.S, slowed in 2010. Every April, 65,000 visas are made available. In 2008, the quota was reached in 1 week. In 2009, the quota was reached in December. By the end of 2010, 11,000 of the annual quota were still unclaimed. Of an additional 20,000 set aside for foreign workers with advanced degrees, 300 were still available at the end of the year. Speculation on the reasons for the downturn range from the possibility of increased scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (because of significant rates of inaccurate or fraudulent information in previous years' applications), to the increasing availability of U.S.-born job candidates (due to earlier waves of job losses) and the expense to employers of "applying for H-1B visas and relocating foreign workers to the United States."
NSF Announces Initiatives. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has updated guidelines for its Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) investment area . The initiative, with participation from all 11 NSF directorates and offices, "seeks to enable the discoveries needed to inform actions that lead to environmental, energy, and societal sustainability." Also, NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences distributed a dear colleague letter to the extramural research community last week, announcing that the FY 2011 agency budget includes funds for a new initiative referred to as Science of Broadening Participation (SBP). The funds will support research "to better understand the barriers as well as factors that enhance our ability to broaden participation in STEM."
FDA Issues Informed-Consent Rule. The Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule on January 4, putting it in compliance with the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 (FDAAA), which requires that informed-consent documents for all participants in clinical trails include a statement that "clinical trial information will be entered into ... the clinical trial registry databank maintained by the National Library of Medicine." The rule, intended to promote transparency for participants and patients, takes effect on March 7, 2011.
FDA Seeks Comments on Actions to Improve Transparency. The FDA is seeking comments on "19 action items and five draft proposals to improve transparency to regulated industry." Among other groups, regulated industry consists of providers of food, drugs, and medical devices. The proposals include (1) providing a timeline for the creation of guidance; (2) the posting of FDA employee presentations to external audiences to the FDA website; (3) providing submitters an expected decision date on appeals; (4) a review of existing procedures to evaluate importers that electronically file product information; and (5) the initiation of "a planning process to develop a web-based system that provides information about importing requirements." The proposals can be found in the recently released report titled "FDA Transparency Initiative: Improving Transparency to Regulated Industry." Comments can be submitted to http://www.regulations.gov and are due by March 6, 2011.
NIH Delays Move of Research Chimps, Requests IOM Report. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has decided to delay moving a colony of chimpanzees from the Alamogordo Primate Facility, where the animals had not been available to researchers, to the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas. Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and animal rights groups had lobbied for this decision. Before transferring the aging chimps, NIH has asked the Institute of Medicine to conduct an "in-depth analysis to reassess the need for the continued use of chimpanzees" in biomedical research. The move is expected to postpone the move for two years.
People in the News. - Ezekiel Emanuel is leaving the Office of Management and Budget, where he has been the White House lead health advisor, to return to NIH where he directs the Department of Bioethics. He was heavily involved in drafting the President's health care initiative.
- The Food and Drug Administration's Principal Deputy Director, Joshua M. Sharfstein , is leaving the FDA to serve as the secretary of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Sharfstein had previously served as a key aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and as health commissioner for the City of Baltimore.
- Cora Marrett has again been nominated by the President to be Deputy Director of NSF. She had been nominated for this position last year, but the Senate failed to act on her nomination before the 111th Congress came to a close. Marrett served as Acting Director of NSF prior to the confirmation of Subra Suresh as NSF Director in the fall of 2010.
- Gene L. Dodaro was approved by the Senate on December 22 to be the eighth Comptroller General of the U.S. and head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and was sworn in on December 30 for a 15-year term. Dodaro is a career civil servant who joined GAO in an entry-level auditing position in 1973. He has been acting Comptroller General since 2008.
British Medical Journal Claims Autism-Vaccine Data Were Faked. On January 5 the British Medical Journal charged Andrew Wakefield with faking the data used in his research which purported to show a link between vaccines and autism, and which led thousands of parents to withhold vaccinations from their children. Wakefield's study was published in the journal Lancet in 1998, but the paper was formally retracted by Lancet in February 2010, after several of Wakefield's co-authors withdrew their names from the study. The BMJ 's editors said Wakefield's work "was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud." Wakefield is no longer allowed to practice medicine in the UK, nor does he have a license to practice in the U.S., although he now runs an autism center in Austin, TX.
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National Academies Release Report on Research Training in the Biomedical, Behavioral, and Clinical Research Sciences. The National Academies have released their most recent review of the National Research Service Award Program (NRSA). The recommendations call for increased funding to support more NRSA positions; reinstituting a 2001 commitment to increase pre-doctoral and post-doctoral stipends; expanding the Medical Science Training Program by at least 20%; changing the indirect rate on training grants and K awards; improving the professional and career development of trainees; and more reliable data management that can support improved program evaluation and future coordination.
New Mexico Environmental Regulations Blocked. Newly-elected New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has stopped the state's register from publishing a regulation to curtail the state's greenhouse gas emissions by 3% annually, and another that would require dairies in the southern part of the state to control waste discharge. Without being published in the state's register, the rules will not go into effect. Additionally, Governor Martinez has dismissed members of the Environmental Improvement Board, a group which voted to cap emissions from stationary sources, on the grounds that they were "interested in advancing political ideology." Martinez has appointed Harrison Schmitt, a climate change skeptic, geologist, former NASA astronaut, and former U.S. Senator, as Secretary of the state's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
New Uranium Mill Gets License. Colorado regulators have approved a radioactive-materials license for a new uranium mill which, when complete, will be the first new uranium mill in the U.S. in over 25 years. Anticipated to take a year to build, the mill will be in the Paradox Valley, a remote rural area of southwest Colorado near the Utah border. It will crush uranium ore and begin processing it, producing up to 850,000 pounds a year of yellowcake to be used in nuclear power plants. However, more permits are required before the mill can operate, and the new mill has been opposed by some environmental and public health groups.
China Signs S&T Cooperative Agreements with Chile , Columbia, and Ecuador. New science and technology agreements highlighting China's growing interest in collaboration with South American countries will bring new money and opportunities to agriculture, information and communication technologies, renewable energies, and anti-seismic engineering. China has similar agreements with Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba.
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