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CA Senate Group to Take Up Measure on New Program Using Life-Sci Pros to Advise State Lawmakers

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A California state Senate committee will hold a hearing June 24 on a measure, recently passed by the state's Assembly, that would declare it ethical for lawmakers who solicit advice from life-sciences professionals and others hired through the new California Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program.

The state Senate Rules Committee will take up Assembly Bill 573, a measure stating that the services of fellows hired under the program "are not compensation, a reward, or a gift to a member of the legislature" under California Government Code Section 8920, part of the state's Code of Ethics.

The fellowship program, overseen by the nonprofit California Council on Science and Technology, places PhD-level, or equivalent, science and tech professionals in various state legislative offices, where they help lawmakers shape legislation on issues of science and technology.

According to the council, the full cost of the fellowships will be borne by nonprofit contributions received by CCST. Funding for the first five years of the fellowships has been secured, with the lead gift provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the council has told lawmakers.

"The fellows will learn the intricacies of the California legislative process and will provide legislators and their staffs with clear and unbiased advice, answers to technical questions, and clarification of policy options for issues with science and technology related attributes," according to the program's web site.

The program is modeled on the 35-year-old Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program offered in Washington, DC, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with an eye to helping craft federal policy by placing the fellows in positions within the US Congress.

" We hope to place up to 10 in the Assembly and Senate in the fall of 2009," Susan Hackwood, the CCST's executive director, told BioRegion News on Thursday, via e-mail. She added she did not yet know in which legislative offices the fellows would work.

"We are really excited about starting this S&T Policy Fellowship program — it has been several years in the making — and are now reviewing applicants and will be interviewing the first batch of candidates," Hackwood added.

AB 573, introduced by Assembly member Anthony Portantino (D-Pasadena), advanced earlier this month to the state Senate after it passed the Assembly by 78-0 on a third reading. Earlier, the legislation cleared the Assembly's higher education committee by 9-0, and its rules committee by 8-0.

"Given that California's legislators must address multifaceted policy issues with increasingly complex and interrelated components based on science and technology, including, but not limited to, biotechnology, nanotechnology, energy, water, transportation, and health care, it is vitally important that the members receive the benefit unbiased advice from science and technology experts so that the Legislature may make informed decisions on those issues," the bill states as a justification for the program.

The text of that justification was changed by a single word since the bill was introduced on Feb. 25 — lawmakers substituted "unbiased" for the original word, "nonpartisan."

"CCST is non-partisan, so it seemed an appropriate language change," Hackwood told BRN.

Among life-sci groups supporting the bill, and the underlying sci-tech fellows program, is BayBio, the industry association for the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California.

"Creating a reservoir of professional scientific advice is one of the wisest things the state of California can do. Hopefully that rises above politics at some point in the summer," no matter how soon lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger resolve the state's budget mess, Matthew Gardner, president and CEO of BayBio, told BRN. "It's a good way for California to create professional science policy advisors."

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