Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Science Policy Around the Web – September 8, 2017

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

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source: pixabay

Science funding

Congress Returns and Funding Anxiety Continues for Scientists

The summer recess is over, which means congress needs to get to work and pass funding bills to keep the government running past the end of fiscal year: September 30th. The agenda is full, including funding hurricane Harvey relief, raising the debt ceiling and allocating funds for 2018. The budget fight is bound to be full of surprises, even just last night Trump sided with democrats on these three issues, throwing most conservative GOP members for a loop. It remains to be seen how the 2018 budget will impact research, but here’s what we know so far.

The 2017 budget was considered a positive one for scientists, because the large cuts demanded by the president went unheeded by congress. The president requested to cut most federal agencies, and the EPA (-31%), NOAA (-22%) and FDA (-31%) were the largest targets.  However, most research institutions did not see major cuts, and although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget was requested to be reduced by 22%, it received a $2 billion raise.  The upcoming 2018 fight would pit the president’s proposed agenda against senate against house, providing a 3-way fight which leaves scientists in the middle of potentially hostile waters.

Proposed budgets by the house of representatives and senate are still being formulated, but there are already discrepancies between the two proposals. For example, the house proposes increasing NASA’s budget by $94 million (+1.6%), while the senate would reduce funds by $193 million (-3.3%). The discrepancies can be found even deeper in NASA’s budget, with reversed support for planetary science (increased spending from the house) and earth science research (cuts from the house, maintained spending from the senate). These cuts could impact our ability to monitor distant planets and moons which could be sustainable for human life. For example, an unmanned mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, slated to launch in 2020 and land in 2024 could be stalled. In flyby missions from 1995-2003, this moon was found to have brown sediment, a warm core and probably a salty ocean under an icy surface, making it similar, albeit colder, to our planet.

Back on earth, our ability to design new ways to produce renewable, sustainable energy could also take a hit, as funding may be cut from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). This department funds “high-risk, high-reward” projects and has only been in operation for 8 years, which makes it difficult to determine if the investment is worth the so far limited outputs. The senate proposes increasing this funding by 1.1%, while the house would scrap the project entirely.

Finally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is on the chopping block, with the house following the president with a 22% decrease in funding, while the senate only seeks to cut the budget by 1%. Controversial projects overseen by NOAA include the Polar Follow-On programme, which monitors weather in collaboration with NASA. Cutting this program could impact our ability to predict hurricanes, something not likely to sit well with voters and representatives in states impacted by current weather catastrophes.

Although there are big discrepancies in proposed budgets between the president, the house and the senate, time will tell how much cooperation the republicans and democrats can achieve by the end of the month to avoid a government shut down. On a positive note, the NIH can hope for a boost from the house and the senate, as funding human health is an issue which usually enjoys bipartisan support.

(Rachael Lallensack, Nature News)

The science of education

School’s Back in SessionGet your learning on!

School is back in session; teachers are teaching, students are learning, and education is supposed to be breaking down socioeconomic barriers. What can science do to help educators have the greatest impact on students? There’s an intersection between teaching strategy, learning, and education policy which can be implemented for better student outcomes.

A recent report by Science News describes new strategies developed in the lab to enhance student learning. However, researchers are finding that studies performed in a lab setting with college kids do not yield the same results for optimizing student performance when applied to a bustling classroom of younger students. For example, when college students were asked to read a passage and jot down notes, their recall of the reading assignment was improved a week later. However, younger grade school students were shown to need an extra cue to help connect associations and make memories “stick”. This strategy helps teach students how to recall information, providing an extra support link until they can perform this task without a second thought. Another ongoing study is helping students improve executive function in students as young as middle school. Researchers designed a video game which requires players to shift strategies as rules change mid-game, which thus far has positively impacted the students’ performance on cognitive tests.

Being able to adapt to new situations is a cornerstone of learning, and neuroscience has long been searching for the magic that makes this task easy sometimes but challenging othertimes. The methods to study this process are becoming more sophisticated. Researchers can now view single synapses coming and going, and in some cases receptors on those synapses popping in and out. But understanding brain-wide learning requires zooming out and looking at neural network activity. It seems intuitive that to learn something new, connections must be formed between brain areas. These associations “stick” that memory or fact somewhere in the brain. Indeed, people who are learning something new display greater “brain flexibility”: the ability to not only make new connections, but let some others fall apart. Children with low math performance actually had higher connectivity during brain scans while doing math problems. It seems forgetting unimportant information to make room for new ideas is as important as making just more new connections.  In addition, a researcher scanned himself three times per week for a year, and found his brain displayed greater flexibility on days when he was in a good mood. The balance between making new connections and letting others go may be the key to better learning.

As science puts more pieces together on how learning best occurs, we can see some things coming into focus to enhance student learning. People who can make new connections and loose old ones in a dynamic fashion can be better learners. Being in a good mood, meaning a stable home and school environment with food and housing security can lead to better brain flexibility. Teachers trying new strategies to enhance brain flexibility with their students could help the students learn how to absorb and use new information. All of this information can be used to inform policy on what makes for a successful student as we proceed through the academic year.

(Susan Gaidos, Science News; Laura Sanders, Science News )

 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 8, 2017 at 3:54 pm

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