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AWIS in Action! Advocacy and Public Policy Newsletter March 2013
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AWIS In Action!

 Advocacy & Public Policy Newsletter   ~   March 2013
In This Issue
 
Congress Avoids Shutdown, Passes Continuing Resolution
 
This week Congress came together collectively to pass another continuing resolution budget bill to avoid the government shutdown. The bill went from the House to the Senate where, of more than 100 proposed amendments to the bill, only a few were seriously considered. It ultimately passed in the Senate with reasonable bi-partisan support before being sent back to the House, approved there, and then sent on to President Obama for approval. The current bill is not a complete budget and only continues funding until September 2013. The budget bill does not, however, address the Sequester. Due to the failure of members of Congress to reach an agreement on deficit reduction by the beginning of March, the implementation of sequestration, with its painful across the board cuts for non-defense and defense discretionary spending, has begun. Agencies began releasing their plans for unpaid time off for their employees, reduced funding for grants and programs, and cutting access for participants in certain programs.

The debate continues between choosing obvious, painful ways to implement the cuts, and less obvious, but equally damaging outcomes. For example, the Grand Canyon National Park will be cutting its access by two hours a day and the bathrooms will be cleaned less frequently, while other national parks and museums will have to cancel summer camps, shorten hours, reduce summer hires, and find other ways to accommodate. More painfully, the Head Start programs in Columbus and Franklin, Indiana, are losing two classrooms today. They struggled with how to equitably select which children in poverty to evict from the program and ultimately opted for a lottery system. It isn’t just kids and families that are being pinched by this. Food safety and drug approval pipelines may be slowed with less staff to monitor and test products, according to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg. The National Institutes of Health, in anticipation of Congress’s failure to resolve this, has already been reducing payments on grants. NASA was called in to testify this week about how national security may be endangered by failing to enable us to detect threats from space and thus why funding cuts will further cripple their ability to protect us.

What remains clear is that, while science usually enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, some members have started suggesting they should have more oversight over which programs to cut and keep. Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ) entered an amendment to the budget bill above to eliminate $10 million of National Science Foundation (NSF) funds allocated for political science research and transfer $7 million to the National Cancer Institute. Other similar attacks are being made to cut climate change research from NASA or all social science research funded by the NSF. While the nuanced value of some projects may not always be clear at a glance (please recall Sarah Palin’s condescending comments about scientists using fruit flies to investigate autism or Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) recent claims that the is NSF giving people money to play World of Warcraft, enabling members of Congress, less than 10% of whom hold any kind of STEM or medical degree, to cherry-pick the research they perceive as being valuable is a slippery slope.
   
New House Bill Supports Women and Minorities in STEM
 
Many different events, from rallies and lectures to multi-day events, have been occurring all over the Capital to celebrate Women’s History Month and AWIS has been actively engaged in the celebrations. This included participation in the Society of Women Engineer’s (SWE) Capitol Hill Day this past week, the theme of which was "Diversity and Inclusion.” SWE’s Hill Day included an evening reception with several notable speakers who offered their own interpretations about the importance of inclusivity and diversity in engineering disciplines as well as STEM at large.
 
One of the speeches given by members of Congress at the event included an announcement by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (pictured here with Amanda Bryant-Friedrich, Ph.D., professor of medicinal biochemistry at University of Toledo and chair of the AWIS diversity task force), ranking member on the House of Representatives Space, Science, and Technology Committee. This week she introduced an exciting piece of legislation H.R. 1358, which aims to increase the strength of the American workforce by addressing the issues leading to the failure to retain women and minorities in the STEM field. 
 
The Quandary of Postdoc Economics
 
The National Postdocs Association’s (NPA) Annual Meeting convened this month in Charleston, South Carolina, with postdocs and postdoc office managers meeting to discuss issues ranging from how to establish an office of postdoctoral affairs to the provocative idea of accreditation for postdoctoral training in a fashion akin to residency training for doctors. AWIS public policy fellow Erin Cadwalader, Ph.D., and AWIS Past-President Donna Dean, Ph.D., were invited to speak about the importance of negotiating salary and startup packages and how to go about doing it.

The keynote address of the conference was offered by Science Careers 2012 Person of the Year, Paula Stephan, Ph.D., professor of economics at Georgia Tech University and author of "How Economics Shapes Science.” Stephan spoke about the supply and demand which has led to an increasing number of scientists and engineers engaging in postdoctoral training, particularly in fields which rarely saw these kinds of training fellowships in the past. It has little to do with needing more training to be successful at a professional level (ignoring the increasing rate of expected publications for an academic job, which has generally increased along with the years of training). Rather, the number has boomed in biomedical research with the doubling of the NIH budget at the beginning of the past decade along with increases in other research funding agencies budgets, and the current economic downturn of the past five years. Bottom line: there are fewer jobs for the really well-educated individuals in society. And, at an average hourly wage of $14.82 without benefits, from an economic perspective, postdocs are the best bang for the buck a university can buy.

Stephan argues that this current trend is unsustainable and predicts a pending crisis, due in part to the increased constraints on current budgets which may persist for many years. Currently the supply outweighs the demand. Training fewer scientists is one way to shift the supply ratios. She also recommends decreasing demand by mandating increased postdoctoral salaries with benefits. However, while the NIH has indicated they will be making a modest increase in postdoc salaries, it seems unlikely other agencies will follow suit as there is no incentive to do so. In lieu of anyone curbing the supply of freshly minted PhDs (because while not as cost effective as postdocs, graduate students are also cheap labor), doing a better job of educating students about what they are really getting into earlier in their careers, disconnecting the research enterprise from "training”, and helping trainees develop the skills needed to find a job which complements their scientific training, should be more rigorously applied to both graduate student and postdoctoral training. Whether there will be a full-blown crisis, or whether it will be more of a whimper in the dark for the high number of under or unemployed scientists, only time will tell. In the meantime, we continue to encourage the professional development of our own members. To quote Howard Ruff, "It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.” 
 
 M3 The Maddening Monthly Mention
 
 * Hypocrisy of Compassion *
 
Earlier this month, a prominent member of the Republican Party unexpectedly renounced his position on gay marriage and has instead come out in support of it. Or rather, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) now supports marriage for same-sex couples. For my part, I am glad. But while I am happy to now have two Republican members of Congress who favor this position, I am frustrated by his motivation. Portman has a son who is gay. And so, because someone he loves is directly impacted by this legislation, he now looks at this issue through a different lens. Le sigh.

Most members of Congress have not struggled out of poverty. By this line of reasoning, it is not surprising that many of them lack empathy towards the poor. Cutting social safety nets is less of a worry because they may not personally know any mothers who will lose access to SNAP, a program which provides nutrition assistance to women, infants, and children. Being in a higher socio-economic bracket, they may not be as aware that they know victims of domestic violence, which may explain why
it took so long to finally pass the newest version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). And chances are, most of their friends haven’t been facing foreclosure since the housing economy collapsed, but I’m guessing they probably had some buddies on Wall Street which is why they were more eager to help them out. Many of the more obstinate members of Congress, who don’t believe we still have a problem as a nation when it comes to advancing and retaining women, may not have a woman in their family who has faced a hostile work environment.

As a nation we encourage girls and women to go into science, only to find they often face a chilly climate where they are undervalued, underappreciated,  discriminated against, and often worse. I have a new reason to want to see more women and girls in STEM. Eventually some of them will have brothers, fathers, and grandfathers in positions of power. Whether in academia, industry, or Congress, imagine the reaction of a research university president when he discovers his daughter, a PI at another institution, is having to pump breast milk in the bathroom because there are no other places in her building fit to accommodate this oh-so-unnatural activity. Imagine the reaction of a member of Congress whose granddaughter has a boss that is making unwanted sexual advances and she doesn’t know to whom she can safely appeal at her university without damaging her own career prospects. Imagine the CEO whose sister has been told she can only take two weeks off for maternity leave if she doesn’t want to lose her top position because her small firm has less than 50 employees and doesn’t qualify under FMLA. Perhaps this happens all the time and I am naïve in hoping that Senator Portman is the rule rather than the exception. But I remain optimistic that there is a critical mass, a tipping point where if we get enough women making their way up the pipeline, becoming empowered and advancing, the obstacles they face will not go unnoticed by the men in their lives with the power to do something about it. Otherwise, that would truly be an outrage.

 
In This Issue
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