From the Hill

From the Hill

Bush vetoes stem cell research bill

Within 24 hours of a Senate vote of 63 to 37 to approve the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, President Bush issued the first veto of his presidency, closing a chapter in a long and complex debate over the use of federal funds for human embryonic stem cell research. A vote to overturn the veto failed in the House.

The bill (H.R. 810), which was approved 238 to194 by the House in May 2005, would have loosened restrictions set by the president in August 2001, when he allowed federal funding of research only on stem cell lines derived from embryos 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 fund research on cell lines created after August 2001 that met specific ethical standards. Only those cell lines derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments and donated with the consent of the progenitors and without financial incentives would be allowed.

Human embryonic stem cells 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 and are slated to be destroyed 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.

Despite the president’s veto, congressional support for reducing restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research is growing. The Senate vote included 43 Democrats, 1 Independent, and 19 Republicans. More members of the House voted to overturn the veto than had voted for the bill in 2005.

After the presidential veto, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), who stunned the research community in 2005 by announcing his support for the House 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.”

House challenge to climate change research fizzles

Continuing challenges to studies by climate scientist Michael Mann and colleagues by climate change skeptics in the House, led by Rep. Joe Barton (RTX), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, appear to have fizzled after the release of a June 22 National Research Council (NRC) report that supported Mann’s conclusions. Barton, however, has vowed to keep his committee actively involved in the climate change debate and has requested two new studies on research practices in the field.

Despite the NRC report, which concluded that Mann’s statistical procedures, although not optimal, did not unduly distort his conclusions, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held two hearings in July, each lasting more than four hours. They focused on the statistical methods used in the 1998 and 1999 studies by Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes. Barton argued that the use of the studies in the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report justified a detailed examination of the methods involved. “A lot of people basically used that report to come to the conclusion that global warming was a fact,” he said.

Mann, Bradley, and Hughes reconstructed temperatures of the past 1,000 years. 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. They produced a graph that looked like a hockey stick: a long period of relatively stable temperatures, then a dramatic spike upward in recent decades. Critics of the research, however, argued that the hockey stick shape could simply be the artifact of incorrect statistical techniques, and climate change skeptics seized on the graph as a proxy for everything they believe is wrong about climate change research.

During the July 19 hearing, Edward Wegman, a George Mason University statistician, testified on behalf of the mathematicians who reviewed the Mann papers at the request of Rep. Barton. He stated, “The controversy of the [Mann] methods lies in that the proxies are incorrectly centered on the mean of the period 1902-1995, rather than on the whole time period.” He explained that these statistical procedures were capable of incorrectly creating a hockey stick shaped graph.

Gerald North, chair of the NRC committee, testified at the hearing that he agreed with Wegman’s statistical criticisms, but said that those considerations did not alter the substance of Mann’s findings.North said that largescale surface temperature reconstructions “are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that climatic warming is occurring in response to human activities.”

At a July 27 hearing of the committee, Mann, referring to his statistical techniques, said that “knowing what I know today, a decade later, I would not do the same.” But he noted that multiple studies by other scientists have reached similar conclusions: Temperatures have been far higher in recent decades.

The July hearings were only the latest round of attacks on Mann’s research. In July 2005, 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 coauthors, including every paper they had ever published, all baseline data, and funding sources. These requests were fiercely resisted by the scientific research community. Perhaps the harshest rebukes came from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), who called the investigation “misguided and illegitimate.”

Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee expressed frustration at the exclusive focus of the July hearings on just the two papers. They stressed that the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change would remain unaltered even if Mann had never written the papers in question. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) said 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 (DWA) called the hearing “an exercise in doubt.”

Barton said at the July 27 hearing that he had requested a study from the Government Accountability Office on federal data-sharing practices, particularly in climate science research, and that he 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.

Bills target attacks by animal rights activists

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 crime to harass, threaten, or intimidate individuals or their immediate family members whose work is are related to an animal enterprise (including academic institutions and companies that conduct research or testing with animals). It would also make it a 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 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 cosponsor of the legislation, outlined the key issue of the hearing: the need to balance law enforcement regarding crimes and the protection of First Amendment rights. He announced that an amendment will be introduced at markup that will serve to ensure that the bill doesn’t prohibit constitutionally protected activities, even though he believes that the bill already contains such language.

Michele Basso, an assistant professor of physiology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, testified about harassment she has received as a result of her research with primates. She said that animal rights activists protest regularly at her home, have signed her up for subscriptions to 50 magazines, and made numerous threatening phone calls. She said that university officials do not provide sufficient security and that she and some colleagues have thought about leaving the field and pursuing other research. She said that some colleagues in the United Kingdom are spending so much time on security measures that their research is suffering.

William Trundley, director and vice president of corporate security and investigations at GlaxoSmithKline, said 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.

The Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) of 1992 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, testified that AEPA is not sufficient to address the more sophisticated tactics used by animal rights extremists today. “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,” he said.

Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA) argued that these activities are already well covered by local and state laws and should be prosecuted at that level. 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 who commit these crimes often receive at most minimal fines or short jail sentences. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), a cosponsor of AETA, concurred with the witnesses that local laws cannot address the national scope of this activity.

A companion bill was introduced by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) in October but has not advanced out of committee. Committee staff said they are hopeful that the bills will advance in the fall of 2006.

Bills to boost competitiveness advance

In a vote demonstrating a bipartisan commitment to boosting U.S. economic competitiveness, the House Science Committee on June 7 approved the Science and Mathematics Education for Competitiveness Act (H.R. 5358) and the Early Career Research Act (H.R. 5356). The bills were originally introduced with only Republican sponsorship, but enough changes were made to bring all Democrats onboard.

Although Committee Chair Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) characterized the bills as complementing President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), White House science advisor John Marburger sent a letter to Boehlert stating that the bills contain “very high authorizations” of spending and would diminish the impact of the ACI.

The bills strengthen existing programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science. The Science and Mathematics Education for Competitiveness Act would expand NSF math, science, and engineering education programs, including the

  • Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to math and science majors in return for a commitment to teaching. The bill includes more specifics on the programs that grant recipients must provide for students to prepare them for teaching, including providing field teaching experience. It also allows those programs to serve students during all four years of college, although scholarships would still be available only to juniors and seniors, and raises the authorization levels for fiscal years 2010 and 2011. NSF will be required to gather information on whether students who receive the scholarships continue teaching after their service requirements are completed.
  • Math and Science Partnership Program, which would be renamed the School and University Partnerships for Math and Science. In addition to teacher training, the bill would allow grants for other activities, including developing master’s degree programs for science and math teachers.
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP), which provides grants to colleges and universities to improve undergraduate science, math, and engineering programs. The bill would allow the creation of centers on undergraduate education.

The legislation also requires NSF to assess its programs in ways that allow them to be compared with education programs run by other federal agencies.

The Early Career Research Act was amended to include provisions from H.R. 5357, the Research for Competitiveness Act, and passed unanimously. The bill authorizes programs at NSF and DOE’s Office of Science to provide grants to early-career researchers to conduct high-risk, high-return research. The bill also expands an NSF program that helps universities acquire high-tech equipment that is shared by researchers and students from various fields.

The amended bill also includes several provisions concerning the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A new section expresses the sense of the Congress that NASA should participate in competitiveness initiatives within the spending levels authorized in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 and allows NASA to establish a virtual academy to train its employees.

Committee backs funding for new energy technologies

The House Science committee voted on June 27 to approve the Energy Research, Development, Demonstration, and Commercial Application Act of 2006 (H.R. 5656), which authorizes $4.7 billion over six years for the development and promotion of new energy-related technologies. The committee, however, did not approve the creation of a new agency within DOE to accelerate research on targeted energy technologies.

The bill brings together multiple bills, including one that was introduced by Energy Subcommittee Chairman Judy Biggert (R-IL), to authorize and specify the implementation of the president’s AEI. The AEI provides for a 22% increase in clean-energy research at DOE.

Biggert noted the difficulties involved in altering U.S. energy-use practices and regulations. “To make significant progress down this path requires a steadfast commitment from Congress and the federal government to support the development of advanced energy technologies and alternative fuels that will help end our addiction to oil and gasoline,” she said. “The bill we are considering today includes provisions that do just that, by building on the excellent research and development provisions this committee included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.”

The legislation funds research in photovoltaic technologies, wind energy, hydrogen storage, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Grant money was made available for the design and construction of energy-efficient buildings, as well as for further educational opportunities for engineers and architects related to high-performance buildings. The bill also gives what Committee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (RNY) called an “amber light” to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), financing the program but requiring further analysis before large-scale demonstration projects can proceed. Under the GNEP, the United States would work with other countries to develop and deploy advanced reactors and new methods to recycle spent nuclear fuel, which would reduce waste and eliminate many of the nuclear byproducts that could be used to make weapons. Further support was given to FutureGen, which is aimed at developing an emissions-free coal plant with the capacity for carbon capture and sequestration.

The committee decided to seek further input from the National Academies on a proposal to create an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), patterned after the successful Department of Defense DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program. The National Academies recommended creating an ARPAE in its 2005 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Biggert was concerned whether this “new bureaucracy” would really help, and Boehlert worried that “a lot of unanswered questions” remained on the details of ARPA-E and expressed concerns about its funding. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), who introduced legislation in December 2005 to create an ARPA-E, maintained that the language was sufficiently clear and that the provision already represented a finished product from the National Academies when he introduced an amendment to establish ARPA-E within DOE. His amendment was defeated, and the committee kept language instructing the National Academies to create a panel to further study and make recommendations on the ARPA-E concept. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee supported the concept of ARPA-E when it passed S. 2197 in April 2006.

Energy research was also supported in H.R. 4761, the Deep Ocean Energy Resource Act, passed by the House on June 29. The bill authorizes two new DOE research and education programs at a combined total of $37.5 million a year for each of the next 10 years. The new programs would provide funding for grants to colleges and universities for “research on advanced energy technologies.” Specifically, the grants could be used for research on energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear energy, and hydrogen. The new programs would provide graduate traineeships at universities and colleges for research work in those same areas.


“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/spp) in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.