From the Hill


From the Hill

Space station woes infuriate Congress

Cost and schedule overruns for the international space station program are increasingly exasperating members of Congress, even those who have fought long and hard to support the program. At a March hearing before the House Committee on Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Science Committee Chairman Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wisc.) compared the space station to the Titanic: “The Titanic struck a single iceberg, with tragic consequences. The space station seems to be careening from one to the next, none of which has been big enough to sink the program.” Added Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the subcommittee chairman, “I don’t know how much more of the international space station program we can stand.”

Much of the concern expressed at the hearing centered on the station’s increasing cost overruns. During the FY 1998 budget authorization process, NASA notified Congress that the station program would require an additional $430 million in funding authority because of Russia’s inability to provide the station’s service module on schedule; increased costs incurred by Boeing, the prime contractor; and the need for funding to avoid “future risks and unforeseen problems.” Congress, however, approved only $230 million of the request, taking money from the space shuttle budget and increasing overall appropriations. NASA now faces the task of convincing Congress that the remaining $200 million should still be approved.

To assist NASA, the president, in his FY 1998 emergency/nonemergency supplemental appropriations request, asked Congress to provide $173 million in transfer authority to NASA. But the request was met coolly by members of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, because the money would have to come out of accounts for funding space science, earth science, aeronautics, and mission support. Rep. Ralph Hall (D-Tex.) asked why appropriators should even bother funding science accounts if NASA was eventually going to transfer the money to another program.

Because of its various problems, the space station will now require an additional 18 months to complete and $4 billion in extra funding (some of which will be paid by Russia). The new overall price tag, which includes only construction costs, is about $19.6 billion, said Joseph Rothenberg, NASA’s associate administrator for space flight, at the hearing.

Members of the Senate have also told NASA that they will not tolerate any further cost and schedule problems. On March 12, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee passed a NASA reauthorization bill that limits space station construction spending to $21.9 billion.

Congress takes a hard look at health research priority setting

Science funding, particularly for biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is expected to increase significantly during the next few years. But a larger pie is still a limited pie, and research money for some diseases will increase more than money for others. With many groups vying for disease-specific funding, a continuing debate over how research priorities are set at NIH is intensifying. The 105th Congress, which has held several hearings on priority setting, has directed the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to assess the criteria and process that NIH uses to determine funding for disease research, the mechanisms for public input into the process, and the impact of statutory directives on research funding decisions. The IOM committee is expected to issue its report this summer.

The priority-setting process is complex and multitiered, possessing formal and informal components. In balancing the health needs of the nation with available scientific opportunities, criteria such as disease prevalence, number of deaths, extent of disability, and economic costs are weighed against technological developments and scientific breakthroughs. To find this balance, NIH relies on extramural scientists, professional societies, patient organizations, voluntary health associations, Congress, the administration, government agencies, and NIH staff. Accomplished investigators evaluate grant applications for merit. National advisory councils consisting of interested members of the public and the scientific and medical communities review policy. Outside experts, Congress, patient groups, the Office of Management and Budget, and other groups and agencies recommend budgetary and programmatic improvements. The final word on research programs, however, lies with the NIH director and the directors of the individual institutes.

Philip M. Smith, former executive officer of the National Research Council, has praised the current process as “pretty well right,” and the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences has said that the current structure provides “many avenues of influence.” However, others are concerned that it lacks a mechanism for public input. Instead of pursuing NIH channels, many groups seeking increased research funding on specific diseases appeal directly to Congress.

Congress has the power to earmark funds for particular research areas, a process that groups such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition believe is essential for maintaining public input. But many members of Congress are not comfortable with appropriating dollars on a political rather than a scientific basis. At a March 26 hearing held by the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health and Environment, Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) said that if Congress consistently followed the advice of the loudest and most persistent advocacy groups, limited research dollars would be monopolized, leaving countless scientific opportunities unfunded. Porter, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NIH, recognizes the authority that Congress has to earmark but strongly opposes moving one disease ahead of another politically. “It would be a terrible mistake,” he said, agreeing with NIH officials who stress the importance of leaving research spending priorities to scientists.

Government’s role in research studied

Most economists and science policy experts agree that the federal government’s role in funding basic research is irreplaceable. However, as the R&D process has become more complex during the past half-century, the line between research that generates broad benefits and research that primarily benefits private industry has become blurred. At an April 22 hearing, the House Science Committee heard various views on the appropriate roles of government and industry in funding research, as well as appropriate mechanisms for transferring new knowledge to the private sector. The hearing was the sixth held as part of the House’s National Science Policy Study, headed by Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), which is revisiting the landmark 1945 Vannevar Bush report that established the federal government as the primary source of funds for basic scientific research. The Ehlers study was expected to be submitted to the Science Committee by the end of June.

Claude E. Barfield of the American Enterprise Institute said he estimates that one-half to two-thirds of economic growth can be attributed to technology advances and that a solid basic research effort funded largely by the federal government underpins these advances. However, he pointed out that the federal government has limited resources and oversteps its role when it supports precompetitive commercial technology development, such as the Commerce Department’s Advanced Technology Program. George Conrades of the Committee for Economic Development agreed, stating that the development and commercialization of technologies is a private sector function, except where funding serves broader government missions such as defense.

However, Conrades said that most private basic research is designed to fill gaps in broader applied research programs aimed at developing new products. Because of this commercial orientation, industry will never make sufficient investments in basic research. In 1997, of the more than $130 billion that industry spent on R&D, less than 10 percent was for basic research. And industry’s investment is only one-quarter of the total U.S. basic research effort, according to a recent report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Although many members of Congress are critical of federal support for commercial projects, they recognize that states, with their more direct ties to industry, have a different role. William J. Todd, president of the Georgia Research Alliance, argued that his corporation, which was created by Georgia businesses, is one of the best examples of effective public-private partnerships. The alliance relies on the federal government to support basic research through competitively awarded grants to Georgia’s universities. This research then forms the basis of new discoveries and innovation, benefiting the government, business, and universities.

“Compromise” bill on encryption introduced

In the latest legislative attempt to deal with the controversial issue of encryption policy, Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced on May 12 what they call the E-PRIVACY Act (S. 2067). The bill would liberalize current restrictions on exports of encryption technology, but it also includes some law enforcement-friendly provisions, resulting in what its supporters say is a compromise.

The bill would allow continued access by U.S. citizens to strong encryption tools and would bar any requirement that users give a key to their data to a third party. (The administration and law enforcement agencies have insisted that access to encrypted data is essential for national security and for effectively prosecuting criminals.) It would alter current export policies by allowing license exceptions for encryption products that are already generally available, after a one-time review by the Department of Commerce.

The bill would also establish a National Electronic Technology (NET) Center within the Justice Department to help law enforcement authorities around the country share resources and information about encryption and other computer technologies. The NET Center would help officials with appropriate warrants gain access to encrypted data.

The Ashcroft-Leahy bill joins two bills that have thus far dominated the encryption policy debate in Congress. H.R. 695, introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), and S. 909, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), would eliminate the current cap on the power and sophistication of encryption exports. Instead, they would allow the government to approve exports based on the level of sophistication generally available abroad. The bills would also prohibit the government from forcing domestic encryption users to hand over copies of their keys to the data to a centralized government-sanctioned authority.

Software producers have led the charge against export restrictions, arguing that they damage U.S. competitiveness because strong encryption products are available internationally anyway. Advocates for privacy and free speech are also aligned against the administration position, arguing that Americans are entitled to unregulated use of encrypted communication. A powerful new coalition of software businesses and online advocacy groups called Americans for Computer Privacy was launched early in March and is now spearheading a campaign to liberalize encryption controls. Scientists also have a stake in this debate, because current encryption restrictions limit the ability of computer scientists studying cryptography to publish their findings.

On March 17, the Senate Constitution, Federalism, and Property Rights Subcommittee listened to testimony about the constitutionality of encryption regulations. One of the witnesses was Cindy Cohn, lead counsel for Bernstein v. the Department of Justice, et al. For six years, Daniel Bernstein, a computer scientist, has been trying to publish an encryption program that he wrote on the Internet, a violation of current U.S. policy. Arguing that his free speech had been violated, Bernstein took his case to court. According to Cohn, a federal district court in the Northern District of California ruled that “every single one of the current (and previous) regulations of encryption software are unconstitutional.”

Cohn said that the current legislative proposals regarding encryption do not address the issues raised by the Bernstein case. H.R. 695, for instance, “does not clearly protect scientists such as Professor Bernstein but only protects those who seek to distribute mass market software already available abroad. This means that American scientists can no longer participate in the ongoing international development of this vital and important area of science.” The new E-PRIVACY bill has been criticized for the same reason. Other witnesses outlined similar concerns, noting that framers of the U.S. Constitution regularly enciphered their correspondence, using techniques that led to modern digital encryption. The sole administration witness at the hearing, Robert S. Litt of the Department of Justice, in referring to the Benstein case, argued that “a restriction on the dissemination of certain encryption products could be constitutional” even if the products are being distributed for educational or scientific purposes.

New concerns about national security

Nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan and the possible leakage of sensitive satellite technology to China have once again focused Congress’s attention on national security issues. Soon after India’s nuclear tests were announced in May, Senate leaders pressed for a vote to force the administration to deploy a national missile defense system as soon as it is technologically feasible. Senate conservatives have been pushing for early deployment for several years, but the administration has resisted. The proposal, however, was defeated 59 to 41.

Meanwhile, the House turned its attention to the topic of technology transfer, after reports surfaced that critical technical knowledge may have been transferred to Chinese authorities when U.S. satellite makers launched their systems on China’s Long March vehicles. Concern that China might be able to apply such knowledge to improve its own missile capabilities led the House to overwhelmingly approve a ban on any further launches of U.S. satellites by the Chinese.

House approves database bill

On May 19, the House of Representatives passed the Collections of Information Antipiracy Act (H.R. 2652), introduced by Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC). The bill would strengthen copyright protection for database publishers.

Database producers have long been calling for legislation to prevent others from electronically copying their data, repackaging it, and selling it. However, some members of the science and education communities are concerned that the Coble bill is too broad and might unduly restrict access to valuable scientific data.

Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), ranking minority member of the House Science Committee, was the only member of Congress to speak out against the bill when it was brought to the floor. “The problem is that the bill has not found yet a proper balance between protecting original investments in databases and the economic and social cost of unduly restricting and discouraging downstream application of these databases, particularly in regard to uses for basic research or education,” Brown said.

Coble and Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), however, argue that the bill fills a gap in current U.S. copyright law while still addressing the concerns of the research and education communities. “We make a distinction here in this bill between commercial use of someone else’s property and the intellectual use. If people think we have not done the balance perfectly, I would be willing to listen, but they do not want to come forward with specifics,” Frank said. Earlier in the session, the bill was amended to make employees and agents of nonprofit and educational institutions exempt from criminal liability if they violate the proposed law.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 14, no. 4 (Summer 1998).