Latest news from the UO

  • Biden FY22 skinny budget proposal includes increases for the Pell Grant, education and health spending

    April 14, 2021 12:07 pm On April 9, President Joe Biden sent a letter to congressional leadership outlining his request for FY22 discretionary spending. The “skinny budget” includes investments in public health, the economy, the climate crisis, advancing equity, restoring America’s global standing and confronting 21st century security challenges. A formal budget request is expected in May. The 58 page request can be found here. The $1.5 trillion budget includes a 40 percent increase in education spending and an increase for health but provides little detail about allocations to specific higher education programs, apart from a recommendation for an increase to the Pell Grant. Overall, the budget represents an 8.4 percent increase over the current fiscal year. The proposed budget also requests significant increases for federal research investments, including increases for: the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy Office of Science, NASA, and climate research across several federal agencies. It also proposes funding for the creation of two new federal research agencies -- ARPA-H on health research and ARPA-C on climate-related science -- modeled on the Department of Defense’s DARPA. Financial Aid: The budget would increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $400 to approximately $7,000 in FY22. It also proposes making Pell Grants available to DACA recipients. The proposal notes that the investment in the Pell Grant program “is one piece of a more comprehensive proposal to double the maximum Pell Grant.” Research and development: The request includes:  $15 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), approximately 17 percent increase from the FY21 enacted level;  $10.2 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF), a 20 percent increase above FY21 ($8.5 billion). This level of funding would support $1.2 billion for climate and clean energy related research, increase by $100 million funding for programs that aim to increase participation of groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering, and establish a new Directorate for technology, innovation, and partnerships within NSF to help translate research into practical applications (no funding level is specified for the new directorate); $46.1 billion for the Department of Energy (DOE), a $4.3 billion or 10.2 percent increase from FY 21 enacted level. The President’s request prioritizes and increases investments in climate-related research across several federal agencies. The discretionary request proposes over $4 billion to fund a broad portfolio of research across multiple agencies including the Department of the Interior, NASA, the National Science Foundation and others to improve understanding of the changing climate and inform adaptation and resilience measures. The President's request is silent on other student aid and student success programs such as the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG), Federal Work Study (FWS), TRIO, Title VI (International Education Programs), and the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN). The request is also silent on the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH). The Association of American Universities (AAU)’s overview of the proposal can be found here.

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  • White House releases $2.25 trillion American jobs plan

    April 14, 2021 12:01 pm On March 31, the White House released a framework for a $2.25 trillion, eight-year infrastructure package that aims to improve the nation’s transportation, renewable energy, and manufacturing infrastructure, including significant funding for scientific research. According to a White House fact sheet, the American Jobs Plan will include funds to “create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China.” The Association of American Universities (AAU) issued a statement about the bill, saying it would “help undo years of neglect to the foundation of America’s scientific and innovation leadership by ramping up investments in basic science, critical technologies, research infrastructure, innovation incubators, and manufacturing.” The AAU summary of the American Jobs Plan outlines specific provisions of interest to research universities:   $300 billion for innovation, commercialization, and manufacturing; $180 billion for research and development and the technologies of the future; $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage; $40 billion for high demand sector-based training programs; and $12 billion for community college facilities and technology. A visual breakdown of the infrastructure plan can be found here. This is the first of two plans the Administration will release as part of its “build back better” agenda. The administration is expected to release a second plan in April that will reportedly total $1 trillion and include proposals to expand health care, extend the child tax credit, and expand access to K-12 and higher education, including proposals for universal preschool and free community college. The second plan is expected to include tax increases for the highest income earners to offset proposed new expenditures.

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  • UO discovery could one day help rejuvenate the adult brain

    First published in Around the O on April 14, 2021. Imagine a drug that could temporarily reenergize plasticity in the brain to treat autism or schizophrenia, or even help an adult’s aging brain pick up a new language or learn to play a musical instrument. Such are the potential, down-the-road medical implications of a discovery made by a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Neuroscience lab of Chris Doe, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor in the UO’s Department of Biology. In a basic science study detailed April 7 in the journal Nature, Sarah Ackerman identified nonelectrical cells that transition the brain from a highly plastic state, open to rapid learning, into a less moldable, mature state in the developing central nervous system of fruit flies. The cells, known as astrocytes for their star-like shapes, and associated genes eventually could become therapeutic targets, Ackerman said. “All of the cell types and signaling pathways I looked at are present in humans,” she said. “Two of the genes that I identified are susceptibility genes linked to neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and schizophrenia.” The failure to close so-called critical periods of brain plasticity in development also is associated with epilepsy, she said. “In childhood, you can rapidly learn new tasks, remember things and learn new languages, all of which becomes harder as we age,” Ackerman said. “The reason for that is that the circuits in the young brain are really plastic; they can change in response to experience and activity. I am interested in the mechanisms that regulate that shift from that plastic and dynamic state to the more stable adult state.” Astrocytes are glial cells found in large numbers in the central nervous system. They have diverse roles that are based on where in the brain and spinal cord they are active.  They are, Ackerman said, “the guardians of synapses in terms of assuring proper functioning in both their formation and later performance.” In the research, Ackerman focused on the motor circuitry of Drosophila fly larvae over specific points in development. These invertebrates are standard research models that allow rapid genetic exploration of molecular mechanisms using human-related genes. Ackerman used light-based optogenetics to selectively turn motor neurons off and on. The neurons, she said, exhibited striking changes to their shape and connections — their plasticity — in response to the manipulations. Curiously, Ackerman’s team saw astrocytes pouring into the nervous system, extending fine projections and enveloping neuronal connections just as the circuitry switches from a plastic to stable state. Ackerman then screened for candidate genes associated with astrocytes to determine which molecular pathways direct the window to close and shut down motor plasticity. That work pointed directly at neuroligin, a protein on astrocyte projections, that binds to neurexin, a receptor protein on dendrites from developing neurons. Eliminating that genetic pathway extended plasticity, while precocious expression of these proteins closed plasticity too early in development. Both proteins are present in the human nervous system. Changes in the timing of plasticity also were found to later impact behavior. A brief extension of plasticity resulted in abnormal crawling of the fly larvae several days later. Extending periods of plasticity in human development, Ackerman said, are tied to neurodevelopmental disorders. A tragic human example of how vital this critical period is, Doe said, may be the case of abandoned Romanian children found in an orphanage in the 1980s. Hundreds of babies had been neglected except when they were fed or washed, according to news reports. The neglect would have occurred during that key period of plasticity when experiences and learning mold the brain, Doe said. When later removed from the orphanage four of every five of the children were unable to engage socially, according to research that followed the children into adulthood. “If we can understand that mechanism of the closing of this critical developmental period, we could possibly reopen plasticity in children that were neglected or in adults who want to learn a new language or learn a new task,” Doe said. That therapeutic potential is a long way off, the UO researchers said, but it is a major future goal. Any such drug that may be developed will require precise titration to find “the sweet spot for plasticity,” Ackerman said. Her research will next move into similar studies in vertebrates, specifically in zebrafish, which were developed into a model research organism at the UO in the 1970s. Co-authors with Ackerman and Doe were former UO undergraduate student Nelson A. Perez-Catalan, now in a postbaccalaureate program at the University of Chicago, and Marc R. Freeman, director and senior scientist of the Vollum Institute at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. Ackerman’s research involved mentoring UO undergraduate students, Doe noted. Perez-Catalan won a 2020 undergraduate research award for his work, which was detailed in his thesis “Jack-of-all-trades, The Role of Astrocytes in Circuit Formation and Plasticity.” The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and National Institutes of Health funded the research through grants to Doe and Freeman, a former postdoctoral researcher in Doe’s UO lab. Ackerman was supported by a Milton Safenowitz Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded in 2017 by the ALS Association for research related to which amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. —By Jim Barlow, University Communications

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  • Study unlocks how wild bees can survive habitat pressures

    First published in Around the O on April 12, 2021. A research team led by University of Oregon biologist Lauren Ponisio has uncovered how native bee species may be best equipped to survive intensive agricultural practices and climate change in California’s Central Valley. Wild bees that are persisting amid shrinking habitats are those that are flexible in their pollination behavior when around other wild bee populations, Ponisio’s team reported in a study published April 1 in Nature Ecology & Evolution. The research examined 1,150 network interactions involving 157 wild bee species and 152 plant species at 63 sites spread across three counties. The final analysis focused on adult bees from 31 species whose pollination activities with at least five plants overlapped during crop-growing seasons. “We looked at the ability of these bees to change their roles in these plant-pollinator interaction networks,” Ponisio said. “This ability proved to be important for which species persisted in the landscape as well as for the higher number of habitat patches being occupied.” A key to that vitality was the ability of bee species to choose plants being less targeted for pollination by competing species, said co-author Marilia Gaiarsa, a postdoctoral researcher in Ponisio’s former lab at the University of California, Riverside. Ponisio joined the UO’s Data Science Initiative in July 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Biology. She’s also a member of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution. Gaiarsa is now a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Zurich, where she is studying the response of species interactions to climate change. “In the Central Valley, there are areas of intensive industrial agriculture, monocultural farming, that are experiencing a 90 percent habitat loss for native bees,” Ponisio said. Understanding what factors promote ecosystem health and ecosystem services, including pollination, Gaiarsa said, is vital for helping species facing extinction from such drivers as intensive agriculture, deforestation and climate change. “One way to turn around these negative effects is through the process of ecosystem restoration,” she said. “By going into a degraded area and planting native plants known to be important resources for bees, we can restore some of the lost interactions and potentially restore the populations of these species.” The valley is a product of large land grants obtained for farming years ago. Large, single-crop enterprises dominate the region. Over time, hedgerows were added between some farms to restore patches of native plants that support native species, especially bees crucial to pollination. Bees, in turn, need the plants’ nectar for nutrition. Hedgerows observed in the study were created by planting flowers along the margins of fields more than a decade ago in a project led by study co-author Claire Kremen, Ponisio’s doctoral adviser at the University of California, Berkeley. “At these hedgerows there are tiny patches of bee populations in these seas of monoculture agriculture,” Ponisio said. “Some colonize these patches; others go live in them for a while but eventually go extinct.” By looking at the population dynamics of various species, the researchers sought to understand if some visited different habitat patches and, in turn, how well they persisted. Occupying different patches, Gaiarsa said, should increase interactions at each site and potentially increase plant diversity and overall ecosystem health. “If a particular bumblebee species pollinates several plants that are only pollinated by a couple of other bee species, maybe that bumblebee species will be able to colonize more habitat patches because there may be very little competition with other bees for its plant resources,” she said. The Army Research Office, National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture supported the project. —By Jim Barlow, University Communications

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  • Higher ed associations release key immigration priorities

    April 6, 2021 04:17 pm In March the Association of American Universities (AAU), the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). and nine other higher education associations compiled a list of key immigration priorities. The intent is to provide the higher education community’s consideration of proposed immigration legislation, as well as regulatory or executive action on immigration issues, especially related to COVID-19. The priorities include: Support for Dreamers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program; Strengthening the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program Strengthening international student enrollment; Reforms for F-1 student visas; and Employment visa reform. More details can be found here.

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  • NSF reauthorization bill introduced in the US House

    April 5, 2021 02:32 pm On March 26, the National Science Foundation for the Future Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.  The bill would authorize funding for the entire agency from FY22-26, increasing funding about 6 percent each year to a total of $13.3 billion in FY26, up from its current funding of approximately $7 billion/year. The bill would also create a new “Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions”, which would be charged with supporting use-inspired and translational research. The bill would also authorize increases to STEM education and training programs, including the Graduate Research Fellowship Program and NSF Research Traineeship Program. Federal agencies are subject to periodic ‘reauthorizations’ that create opportunities to update spending authority and establish new statutory responsibilities. Association of American Universities (AAU) President Barbara R. Snyder issued a statement applauding the measure’s “bipartisan support for making the bold federal investments in scientific research that help us stay at the forefront of global scientific advancement.” American Educational Research Association Executive Director Felice J. Levine said, “It is refreshing to see a commitment to basic science, including education research; appreciation of the need for expanded statistics and data regarding science and the scientific workforce; and a fundamental understanding of why the National Science Foundation was created and the importance of substantial investment in its mission and leadership for advancing science and our larger society.” The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) has published a section by section summary of the bill. It is expected that several US Senate committees will begin work in April on a revised version of the bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is pursuing an approach known as the Endless Frontiers Act that would dramatically expand support for NSF. A version of the bill circulated in 2020 would have renamed the agency. That provision has been dropped.

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  • US House passes bill that would provide permanent protections for Dreamers and DACA recipients

    April 5, 2021 10:32 am On March 18, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 on a vote of 228 to 197. Nine Republicans joined all Democrat members in support of the bill. If enacted, the bill will provide permanent protections and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. The bill covers only individuals who were already in the United States at the beginning of the year and would not apply to migrants who entered the country after January 1, 2021. The bill “eliminates the ambiguity in their lives and recognizes the talents and indispensable contributions Dreamers make to our country,” US Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), a primary sponsor, said on the House floor. Association of American Universities (AAU) President Barbara R. Snyder said in a statement, “Many of these young undocumented immigrants are students, scholars, and scientists at America’s leading research universities, and they make invaluable contributions to science, our economy, our national security, and our communities...These bright young people – who are American in every way – deserve the kind of certainty that only legislation can provide.”The AAU and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities joined the American Council on Education (ACE) and 50 other higher education organizations to send a letter to Senate leadership in support of S.264, the Dream Act, another approach to protecting DACA enrollees. The H.R. 6 bill is now awaiting consideration in the US Senate.

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  • Older people may struggle as transportation shifts, study finds

    First published in Around the O on April 5, 2021. In the not-too-distant future urban areas are expected to see a shift from individual automobile ownership to a broad alternative use of readily available rideshare services including autonomous vehicles to get around. The shift, however, could leave some people, particularly older adults with variety of cognitive and physical impairments, struggling to negotiate both accessibility and the technology involved in the process, according a new report co-authored by two researchers in the University of Oregon’s Urbanism Next Center. Done in collaboration with the AARP and nonprofit Rand Corp., the report published by the AARP Public Policy Institute provides a framework for research that addresses accessibility and helps to guide governments and private sector companies involved in the transformation with a checklist for thinking about impacts and barriers. “What became clear in our research is that older adults face a number of direct and indirect barriers to fully engage in new mobility options,” said Nico Larco, director of Urbanism Next and co-director of the UO’s Sustainable Cities Initiative. “The transportation revolution is not being built now with them in mind,” he said. “While there are companies and local governments seeking to address issues that are critical to older adults, harder-to-serve populations are getting little attention.”  The report, “Older Adults, New Mobility, and Automated Vehicles,” is based on a review of transportation literature, interviews with public- and private-sector players involved in urban planning and a roundtable discussion with 25 U.S. experts. Among the concerns noted are issues of autonomous vehicle safety, from personal injuries to crash prevention to protection of pedestrians, as well as accessibility issues, including the use of smartphones for hailing services and paying online, affordability, and cognitive, physical and language barriers. Also addressed are supply-side factors, including vehicles that can accommodate goods or personal mobility-assistance items, and such things as consistent service availability and safety, especially under differing weather conditions. The report’s five co-authors also noted that urban planners will need to address the infrastructure for curb and sidewalk management, safe pickup and disembarking areas for users and sufficient public transportation alternatives to meet riders’ special needs. “One thing that is absolutely clear is the need for further research and discussion,” Larco and report co-author Tiffany Swift wrote in a blog post about the report on the Urbanism Next website. “We need a better understanding of the opportunities and pitfalls offered by AVs and shared mobility. We need to understand how individuals with multiple limitations (economic, geographic, physical and/or cognitive) are able to use or not use these services.” Co-authors with Larco and Swift on the report were the Rand Corp.’s Laura Fraade-Blanar, Ryan Best and Marjory S. Blumenthal. The AARP Project Manager for the report was Jana Lynott. —By Jim Barlow, University Communications

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  • Series on sexual assault in Alaska wins SOJC’s Payne Award

    First published in Around the O on April 2, 2021. In 2018, the Anchorage Daily News asked readers if they would share their stories of sexual violence to help determine why assault and murder cases in Alaska were increasing in numbers and severity. More than 200 people responded. The news staff partnered with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network to publish “Unheard,” a compilation of 29 stories from women and men speaking about their experiences with sexual assault. Their respectful exploration of this sensitive topic earned the 2021 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the UO School of Journalism and Communication. Established in 1999 by the family of Seattle broadcasting legend Ancil Payne, the award recognizes the tough choices journalists make behind the scenes to meet the rigorous ethical standards of the journalism profession and bring the truth to the public despite personal, financial, legal or political pressures. The Payne Award’s focus on difficult ethical choices sets it apart from most other national journalism awards. “The nominations were exceptional this year, and the discussion about the ethical decisions the journalists faced was eye-opening and insightful,” said Juan-Carlos Molleda, Edwin L. Artzt Dean and professor in the School of Journalism and Communication. “The Anchorage Daily News/ProPublica collaboration stood out for a primary reason: The reporters set a strong example for the best ways to respectfully and humanely give voice to survivors of sexual assault while presenting a diversity of perspectives.” Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault cases in the nation. Approximately one-third of women in Alaska have experienced sexual assault at some point in their lifetime. Reporters for the two news organizations spoke with an initial group of respondents as well as hundreds of additional sexual assault survivors to identify recurring themes and systemic problems in how Alaskan police, prosecutors and courts handle sexual assault cases. “They often told stories of being sexually abused as children and again and again throughout adulthood,” said Kyle Hopkins, co-writer of the series and special project editor at the Anchorage Daily News. “When they reported the crimes, police sometimes failed to investigate, or prosecutors declined to file charges. After failing to see justice, some stopped reporting the rapes altogether.” Hopkins said two principles guided his team’s decisions. First, they couldn’t compromise their reporting standards in any way, meaning every story would be subject to the same rigorous fact-checking process as any piece they publish. Second, they would honor the participants’ wishes at every opportunity. They shared their experience in their own way, providing as much detail as they were comfortable with sharing. They worked with the newspaper’s photographers to create images that suited them, including decisions about the location, wardrobe and others they wanted in the picture. The journalists also followed five guiding principles when conducting their reporting: do no harm, adhere to journalistic standards, protect sources, avoid stigmatization and stereotyping, and avoid sensationalism. “In general, we avoided gratuitous detail in favor of clear-eyed and simple language that didn’t shy away from the horrors of these attacks but did not veer into over-description,” Hopkins said. “Another way we sought to avoid sensationalism was to not share links to individual survivors’ profiles so that they would not be the target of doxing or other derogatory comments.” At the end of the project, the staff arranged a Zoom meeting so all the participants could meet one another. The news organizations also partnered with the Anchorage Museum to set up an outdoor display of the survivors’ photos and stories with accompanying audio as another way for stories to be heard. The Ancil Payne Award Selection Committee, which includes working journalists and journalism educators, also recognized Amy Brittain, Reena Flores and Bishop Sand of The Washington Post, the Mississippi Free Press staff, and Margie Mason and Robin McDowell of the Associated Press as Ancil Payne Award finalists. “This year’s nomination pool included major national and international news organizations, regional and community journalists and several young journalists of color who bravely challenged conventions and assumptions in their newsrooms,” said Tim Gleason, journalism professor and director of the Payne Award. “The judges were inspired by the commitment of these young journalists to their communities and to the future of journalism.” Mason and McDowell won the 2016 Payne Award for their “Seafood from Slaves” series. This year they spent more than two years reporting “Fruits of Labor,” a series of interviews from children and palm oil workers who were trafficked, enslaved, abused and raped. The most important goal for the reporters, even more important than publishing the story, was protecting the workers at all costs. The Washington Post finalist is the first podcast the Payne Award Selection Committee has recognized. The seven-part podcast “Canary: The Washington Post Investigates” explores the decisions of two women to share their accounts of sexual assault and the consequences of those choices. “Canary” reveals systemic problems within the criminal justice system that illustrate how difficult it is for survivors to feel any sense of justice. The Mississippi Free Press finalist is for “‘The Fabric is Torn in Oxford’: UM Officials Decried Racism Publicly, Coddled it Privately.” A public records request provided the media outlet thousands of emails and other documents from the University of Mississippi, where a group of anonymous whistleblowers unearthed a collection of emails between university officials and wealthy donors expressing racist views. The newsroom balanced the need to protect the identities of the whistleblowers and other sources. The School of Journalism and Communication invites the UO community to the virtual Ancil Payne Award ceremony April 29 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The 2020 and 2021 winners of the Payne Award, as well as the 2021 finalists, will discuss their stories and behind-the-scenes ethical decisions during a moderated conversation and audience Q&A. The event is free, but registration is required. —By Joanna Mann, School of Journalism and Communication

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