HR669 and some unintentional effects on US science?

(this is ANOTHER post that was mysteriously unpublished. The whole thing is a bit moot now: the bill died in committee, which is a good thing although I’m not aware of any alternative being raised, which is probably a bad thing. Anyway, feel free to ignore this)
Grrlscientist is worried about a new bill going through the US Congress. The intent of the bill (H.R. 669: Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act) is laudable:

To prevent the introduction and establishment of nonnative wildlife species that negatively impact the economy, environment, or other animal species’ or human health, and for other purposes.

The Union of Concerned Scientists give a good overview of why such a bill is needed. The problem is that it the way the bill is set up, it has the potential to do much more, including quite a bit of harm.
Grrlscientist has mainly addressed the effects on the pet industry, and Mike Dunford has explained why he likes the bill. I want to (largely) concentrate on what the bill may mean for scientists.

We can all read the full text of the bill for ourselves, but briefly what it says that a risk assessment system should be set up to decide which species can be imported into the US. An assessment will place a species into three classes:

  1. Approved for import
  2. Unapproved (i.e. prohibited from importation)
  1. Insufficient scientific and commercial information to make a determination

Unless a species is approved for import, it cannot be imported or exported, or even moved from one state to another. It also cannot be possessed, traded, or bred, or released into the wild. There are a few exceptions: there is a list of species for which this does not apply (dogs, cats, sheep, goldfish etc.) and a system will be set up to give permits for importing species for “scientific research, medical, accredited zoological or aquarium display”.
Initially the Fish & Wildlife Service will have to work out the details of the assessment, and then have 36 months to produce a list of approved and unapproved species. For some reason, the criteria for adding species to this list are laxer than will apply to any species added later.
Much of this is sane and sensible. The details of how it is to be implemented are left to the bureaucrats to sort out, and presumably some of them are sane and sensible too. But there are some aspects of the bill that are problematic, and some that look like they will have consequences that are just stupid.
The bill does not give any allowance for geography. If it is judged that a species can cause harm, it is banned. If it could only cause harm in, say Guam or Hawaii, it has to be banned throughout the US. Or, it could be declared safe when it isn’t, which is just as nuts (this latter course of action would still allow local law to ban the species, but at the expense of truth and accuracy).
The bill will also cause a horrible backlog. The US Fish and Wildlife Service will have 3 years to assess every non-native species that it presently in the US. This is a huge job: there are over 2500 non-native species of fish alone in the pet trade, which equates to about 2½ to be assessed per day. Add on that all the other species of mammal, bird, reptile, spider etc. that is kept as a pet and you can see that it’s a big job. And then look at all the non-native species that are kept in labs, zoos, etc. I’m sceptical that they will be able to provide anything other than a cursory examination for most species.
What of the species that are not assessed? What if, for example, they did not get round to Drosophila melanogaster? Then anyone working on it is in trouble. Just because it had not been assessed, it would be illegal to import or export the species. Or send it to a colleague in another state. Or breed or even keep the species (ha! That’s one way of stopping genetics research in the US. Free American genetics students from the fruit fly, I say! Force them to work on mosses instead). Now, life being what it is, I can almost guarantee that some species will be missed, either because someone doesn’t realize, or forgets, or because the US Fish & Wildlife doesn’t have time to process all of the species.

Should he be worried?
Some species that are used in labs will be judged to be a threat if they escape, and be banned. There is a provision in the bill for this:

In General- The Secretary may issue a permit authorizing importation otherwise prohibited under section 6(a)(1), for scientific research, medical, accredited zoological or aquarium display purposes, or for educational purposes that are specifically reviewed, approved, and verified by the Secretary, if the Secretary finds that there has been a proper showing by the permittee of responsibility for the specimen and continued protection of the public interest and health with respect to the specimen.

OK, two important problems, and then the killer. First, one can only import the species. There is no provision for breeding or transporting the species. So, sorry. If fruit flies are on the banned list, there’s nothing you can do about it, except pay for breeding facilities in Canada. I guess Sarah Palin would be happy.
The second problem – there is no provision for conservation. Captive breeding, even of species already held in the US, will be hit. Every species will have to be assessed, and if it is felt that a species could be a threat if it is imported, then the breeding programme will have to stop. It won’t even be possible to send specimens abroad to continue the programme. Some conservation effort may fall under the rubric of scientific research, but surely not all. And even then, one could only import a species, not breed it.
And now the big doozy. What will happen with new invasive species? They will obviously be on the banned list. But any research into them will be severely limited because it would be illegal to breed them (i.e. keep stocks for research) or even bring them into the lab (that would count as possession, right?). The bill manages to ban research into mitigating the very problem it seeks to address.
Permits won’t change this: the only thing they would allow is for more individuals to be brought in! There is an exception: the rules will not apply to “any action by Federal or State officials [seeking to] to prevent the introduction or establishment of nonnative wildlife species”. So, researchers at state universities might be able to continue their work, if they are classed as state officials rather than employees. I don’t know the US regulations, but it is not obvious how a university researcher can be viewed as a state official – can they really act as an agent of the state? If somebody knows, please tell me!
I think it is clear that the present version of the bill could be quite harmful to US science. But there are several things that could be changed to improve it. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Allow for approval and prohibition of species to be geographically delimited. This could be as simple as allowing different decisions for the continental US and for archipelagos and islands like Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands and Guam.
  2. Change the transitional rules. One option might be to have a list of species that have been kept in captivity in the US for some time, and allow them to be kept until a full assessment has been done. This should be easier to set up: one just needs proof that the species has been bred in the US. Species that have been bred, and for which there is no urgent or obvious threat can then be assessed later, without penalizing researchers or breeders.
  3. Extend the scope of permits, so that they cover anything that can be done to an approved species (with the current clause to ensure suitable safeguards). This would then allow research into invasive species.
  1. Allow permits for a wider range of activities: conservation is a must, and some catch-all is needed for other worthy things that we can’t think of.

What can one do if one is worried by this bill? Writing to your representative is a must. There is a website which has more advice on action. Personally I think stopping HHR669 is excessive: the aims are fine, it’s just poorly implemented. But nobody seems to have set up a guthr669andreplaceitwithsomething yet, so this is the next best thing.
But finally, there is some good news in this bill for scientists. If you are an evil botanist or mycologist, then you aren’t affected. Your plans to bring down the US and thereby the world are not affected. And you get to practice your gloating to your evil zoologist friends too.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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