'Scientific balancing act' dominates AAAS top ten list of science policy stories for 2002

December 19, 2002

Balancing safety with scientific openness--and preventing fear from stifling scientific discovery--was cited today by the world's largest general scientific organization, AAAS, as the key science and technology policy issue to emerge in 2002.

Human cloning, stem cell science and protecting the planet's natural resources also appear on the 2002 AAAS Top Ten Science Policy List.

Prepared by experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the journal Science, the AAAS science policy list covers the following hot topics from 2002:

From visas for foreign students to research involving potentially dangerous pathogens, scientists around the globe began feeling the impacts of new American security policies in 2002. While protecting the nation from terrorists is clearly the top priority, some of the new security policies may ultimately make us less secure by weakening science and hindering advances that benefit people everywhere, said Al Teich, head of the AAAS Directorate for Science and Policy Programs. As an example of this "scientific balancing act," Teich points to government efforts to restrict access to "sensitive but unclassified" scientific information recently given a basis in law under the Homeland Security Act. Still lacking is a clear definition of the new category.

Non-U.S. students were walking a tightrope with the advent of two efforts: The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) for tracking their whereabouts; and the proposed Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security (IPASS) screening mechanism, aimed at identifying students from certain countries who apply to study sensitive fields. Meanwhile, a law intended to counter bioterrorism now requires university and other research laboratories to place strict controls over certain select agents (chemical and biological materials that could be used to make weapons) and imposes criminal penalties for violations. Finally, scientists, editors, and policymakers contemplated whether the government should screen certain potentially sensitive research articles prior to publication.

"Clearly, public safety must take precedence over all else," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer for AAAS. "But we don't want to impede the progress of science by overreacting. It's a complex issue that requires a balance between scientific openness and global security."

A bill banning all forms of human cloning-not just efforts to clone babies, but also basic research utilizing stem cells derived from research cloning that may someday yield treatments for Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders-passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year. But Senate Democrats blocked its consideration, leaving the total-cloning ban in limbo at year's end. With the Republicans regaining control of the Senate in November, the bill is likely to come up again next year. Meanwhile, other nations are also struggling with this issue, with the exception of the United Kingdom, which has implemented a policy supporting research cloning.

Wealthy nations this year sat up and took notice of key messages that emerged from the World Summit for Sustainable Development, held August-September in Johannesburg, South Africa. Discussions centered on such issues as energy resources and efficiency, water resources, sanitation, food supplies, and health. Increasingly, protecting natural resources is being seen as good business. After all, food shortages, unsafe living conditions, and related civil unrest in developing regions eventually threaten the stability and prosperity of other regions, too.

Imagine a common market for research and innovation throughout Europe--a kind of scientific equivalent to the region-wide market for goods and services. With considerable fanfare, the European Commission announced its Sixth Framework Program (FP6) for strengthening R&D in the EU countries and other European nations participating in its joint R&D efforts. FP6 will award €16 billion over five years in several priority areas including nanotechnology, life sciences, and information technology research, with an emphasis on transnational collaborations.

Efforts to kick the theory of biological evolution out of U.S. public school classrooms are taking a new twist. Instead of opposing evolution directly, evolution foes now are seeking to include intelligent design theory in science classrooms. Such efforts were seen in local and state school boards, including Cobb County, Georgia, and the State of Ohio during 2002. ID theory suggests that the complexity of DNA, for example, and the diversity of life forms can only be explained by a supernatural agent. Science educators will be keeping their eyes open to see where this issue pops up next in 2003. Meanwhile, the AAAS Board of Directors passed a resolution in October saying ID theory should be treated in the same manner as creationism or other family teachings--but not in science classrooms.

The Bush Administration's policy on human embryonic stem cell research, limiting research using federal funds to cell lines created before 9 pm August 9, 2001, has had a dampening effect on stem cell research in the United States. Less than a half-dozen of the purported 78 embryonic stem cell lines identified by the National Institutes of Health as meeting the President's policy guidelines are considered viable for research, and not all of those have made it into the labs of U.S. scientists. Outside the U.S., however, several countries, including Sweden, Israel, the U.K., and Singapore, have accelerated their embryonic stem cell research programs without the limitations that constrain U.S. researchers. There is one bright spot in the U.S. picture: in September, California passed a law that encourages embryonic stem cell research in the Golden State, and other states are poised to follow suit.

In the brief November lame duck legislative session, the U.S. Congress approved the creation of a massive new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), setting the stage for the largest federal government reorganization in half a century. The final bill includes a Directorate for Science and Technology headed by an under secretary and a Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA)--provisions that were not part of the Administration's original proposal. With bioterrorism R&D remaining in the National Institutes of Health and not shifting to the new department as originally proposed, the DHS R&D portfolio for FY 2003 will total somewhat less than $1 billion.

Actions on a few fronts suggest that the U.S. federal government may be coming to grips with several years of growing imbalances in federal support for different segments of the nation's R&D enterprise. With the projected completion of the doubling of the NIH budget in FY 2003, the Institutes, which fund mainly medical and life science research, will comprise 50 percent of federal funding for nondefense R&D and 56 percent of the government's total support for basic research. With encouragement from Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger, advocates for the physical sciences and engineering in the R&D community and in Congress moved to initiate doubling of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy Office of Science budgets. As of mid-December, a bill to authorize doubling of the NSF budget over five years had been passed by the House and Senate and was awaiting signature by the President. In addition, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an outside advisory body co-chaired by Marburger, has drafted, but not yet formally released, a statement calling for greater parity in funding among fields, to maintain overall strength of the nation's S&T efforts.

The United States pledged $70 million in support and rejoined UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. From the Great Barrier Reef to threatened indigenous cultures, UNESCO is devoted to preserving natural resources and native knowledge. America's reunion with UNESCO was welcomed by the organization and its members, from both developed and developing countries. Reentry is planned for September 2003. Among the remaining issues is whether the U.S. contribution to UNESCO would simply displace contributions of other nations or whether additional contributions will be placed in a special fund devoted to priorities supported by the U.S. and its allies--as the United Kingdom has advocated.

The biggest non-news of the year was the inability of the U.S. Congress to approve most of the legislation funding the federal government for FY 2003, leaving American scientists with FY 2002 funding levels until sometime in calendar year 2003. Although the new fiscal year began October 1, when Congress finally adjourned nearly two months later, only the Defense Department had FY 2003 appropriations. The rest of the government was operating under a continuing resolution that provides funds at FY 2002 levels through January 11, 2003. R&D contracts and grants were held up for lack of funds, and agencies that had planned new programs with the promise of increased funds found themselves unable to implement those plans. Ironically, among the programs most affected was NIH's high-priority bioterrorism R&D, which had been slated for a major increase.

Science Policy Blooper of the Year

FEAR KEEPS FOREIGNERS FROM U.S. LABS: Aiming to prevent terrorism, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) instead shot itself in the foot by deciding in April that it would no longer apply for visas to permit foreign scientists from any country to work in its labs. The new policy does not allow exceptions for researchers from friendly countries who pose little or no risk to the United States. "It's just easier for us to do this across the board," a spokesperson for the Secretary of Agriculture said when asked to explain this decision.

Science Policy Issues to Watch in 2003

PORK: The lack of final FY 2003 U.S. appropriations meant a sharp decline in congressionally-earmarked appropriations for R&D in the current year. However, it is anybody's guess what will happen in the late-night sessions when Congress reconvenes in January and is faced with the need to pass the '03 budget before the President's proposed budget for FY 2004 comes out in early February.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE: Reports began to surface late in the year about political litmus tests being applied to potential appointees to scientific advisory committees and even study sections that had formerly been regarded as non-political. Other reports indicated that materials relating to family planning and sex education were being removed from government web sites. Whether these reports are over-reactions to business as usual in the federal government or a new trend in the politicization of science may become clearer in the coming year.

Science Research Breakthroughs

What research breakthroughs emerged from laboratories in 2002? Small RNAs, which control much of a gene's behavior, and may further research on cancer, gene therapy, and stem cells, were hailed as this year's Breakthrough of the Year, topping the Top Ten list of scientific advances for 2002, published in the AAAS journal Science. For additional information on the Science list, see www.eurekalert.org , or contact the AAAS Office of Public Programs at 202-326-6440, or scipak@aaas.org.

Founded in 1880 by Thomas A. Edison, Science has been the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since 1900. The nonprofit AAAS is the world's largest general science organization

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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