From the Hill
Bush budget outline leaves little room for research spending increases
The fiscal year (FY) 2002 budget blueprint released by President Bush on February 28 may lack details, but the framework it sets out leaves little room for increases in R&D funding. Although the president has shown strong support for biomedical R&D at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and military R&D at the Department of Defense (DOD), most other R&D agencies would receive flat funding or slight increases that do not keep up with inflation.
In his February 27 budget address, Bush called on Congress to “finish the job” of doubling the NIH budget in the five years between FY 1998 and 2003. The budget blueprint does indeed keep NIH on this track, requesting an unprecedented $2.8 billion or 13 percent increase to $23.1 billion.
The president made a passing reference during the speech to his intent to increase military R&D. The budget outline requests an overall increase in the DOD budget of 4.8 percent to $310.5 billion, including a $2.6 billion increase for R&D in new technologies with the intention of adding a total of $20 billion over five years. In FY 2001, DOD R&D is $41.8 billion. It is unclear, however, how much of the increase would go to basic or applied research as opposed to development, or how much of the increase would be devoted to the administration’s high priority of developing a national missile defense system. It is also unclear whether there will be offsetting cuts in other DOD R&D programs.
The large increases at NIH and DOD may well push total federal R&D to $95 billion. Total federal R&D reached a record $90.9 billion in FY 2001, a 9.1 percent increase over FY 2000.
Other agencies will not fare so well, however. Despite an estimated $5.6 trillion surplus over the next 10 years, the Bush budget would allow discretionary spending to grow only at the projected rate of inflation, with a slightly higher 4 percent or $25 billion increase in FY 2002 to $661 billion. Nearly $22 billion of the FY 2002 increase would go to DOD, the Department of Education, and NIH, leaving all other discretionary programs with flat funding.
Although the National Science Foundation (NSF) enjoyed a 13 percent increase in its budget and its R&D funding in FY 2001, the FY 2002 budget blueprint would provide only a tiny increase. The total NSF budget would be $4.5 billion, just $56 million or 1.3 percent above FY 2001. The president proposes an expansion of NSF’s science and mathematics education activities, so NSF R&D (three-quarters of the agency’s budget) would stay even with FY 2001 or even decline. The budget proposes a new multidisciplinary mathematics research initiative, but there are no details on how the nanotechnology and information technology research initiatives–for which NSF is the lead agency–would fare.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would see its total budget increase by 2 percent to $14.5 billion in FY 2002 after a nearly 5 percent increase in FY 2001. NASA’s R&D (two-thirds of the agency’s budget) would see a similar increase. The only specific figure in the budget blueprint is a proposed 64 percent increase to $476 million for the Space Launch Initiative. The blueprint proposes increases for the International Space Station, the Mars program, and Earth Observing System satellites, but there would be reductions in other areas, including cancellations of the X-33 and X-34 vehicles and a mission to Pluto.
The most precipitous decline in R&D funding could come at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science. DOE would see its total budget decrease 3 percent to $19 billion in FY 2002, likely squeezing its R&D programs ($8 billion in FY 2001, 12 percent more than in FY 2000). The blueprint promises a 5 percent increase for the Stockpile Stewardship Program, the core of DOE’s defense R&D activities, but it is unclear how the agency’s nondefense science and energy R&D programs will do.
Although details are not available in the budget blueprint, it is rumored that steep cuts are also being considered for the Department of the Interior’s lead science agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, which has a FY 2001 budget of $883 million, more than 60 percent of which is R&D.
The Commerce Department’s budget would decline 6 percent in FY 2002 to $4.8 billion, putting a squeeze on its R&D programs as well, which make up one-fifth of its total budget. Bush would eliminate the $145 million Advanced Technology Program, a Clinton administration pet project that House Republicans have targeted for elimination for several years.
Criticism of Bush’s approach to R&D funding has come from many corners. In a March 9 New York Times op-ed article, former President George H. W. Bush’s science advisor D. Allan Bromley wrote that the proposed budget “jeopardizes the nation’s ability to achieve” Bush’s three central goals of improved education, a tax cut, and a restructured military.
“Both the tax cut and the spending that would support educational and military buildups depend upon an estimated $5.6 trillion surplus over the next 10 years,” Bromley wrote. “Where is all that money coming from? There are several sources, but the major driver of our nation’s economic success is scientific innovation.” After accounting for inflation, NSF, NASA, and DOE, “the three primary sources of ideas and personnel in the high-tech economy,” receive cuts. “The proposed cuts to scientific research are a self-defeating policy,” Bromley concluded. “Congress must increase the federal investment in science. No science, no surplus. It’s that simple.”
Criticism has also surfaced on Capitol Hill. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.Mex.) expressed dismay about the DOE request. “This proposal appears to cut programs–such as basic science, renewable energy, and oil and gas research and development–by about $1 billion,” he said. “Clearly, we don’t know all the details of the plan, nor do we know where a majority of the cuts will fall, but it’s hard to see how we can have a comprehensive energy strategy while making cuts to R&D.” In addition, he said, “I’m concerned about what kind of impact these cuts could have on our [national] labs.”
Republicans also expressed concern about the budget blueprint. At a March 6 hearing on NIH funding, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.Mex.) praised Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson for increasing the NIH budget, but went on to say, “You can’t increase one piece of science in America . . . and leave the other kinds of research in the doldrums. . . . You will have to come to the realization . . . that to increase NIH 20 percent and not to increase the National Science Foundation . . . those aren’t going to mesh. . . . You can’t cut the DOE’s research programs and think that the NIH is going to succeed at curing all of our ills.”
Key unresolved science issues to be revived in 107th Congress
The 107th Congress is poised to pick up several key science issues from its predecessor. Among the legislation left unfinished and likely to be reintroduced are bills to double R&D funding, improve science education, prohibit genetic discrimination, and ensure continued federal support of embryonic stem cell research.
During the 106th Congress, the Senate twice passed by unanimous consent a bill authorizing a doubling of federal funding for nondefense science and technology programs. The bill was supported by many scientific societies, universities, and industry groups. But twice that doubling was blocked in the House by former Science Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wisc.), who argued that passing broad multiyear authorization bills would diminish the science committee’s legislative authority.
Now, however, with Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) succeeding Sensenbrenner as chairman of the Science Committee, the outlook for the bill has improved. In a January 31 speech, Boehlert said that he was “kindly disposed” to the doubling bill and said it “might do some real good because it would put Congress on the record as saying that science spending is a real priority.” But he also expressed caution, saying, “We need to ask tough questions like: Why double? What are we going to get for that money? How will we know if we are under- or overspending in any field?” Increased science funding, he continued, is “a case that is going to have to be made agency by agency, as well as in general terms.”
The effort to double the R&D budget received a boost in January 2001 when the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, endorsed it. “In a knowledge-based future,” the commission’s report states, “only an America that remains at the cutting edge of science and technology will sustain its current world leadership.” The report said the federal government “has seriously underfunded basic scientific research in recent years.” (The Hart-Rudman report is available at www.nssg.gov/phaseIIIwoc.pdf.)
Science education. While President Bush and a group of moderate Senate Democrats have put forth broad, widely publicized proposals for rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, four lesser-known bills that specifically address math and science teaching in grades K-12 have been reintroduced in the House.
Three of the bills (H.R. 100, 101, and 102) were originally introduced in April 2000 by Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) and are known collectively as the National Science Education Acts. H.R. 100 and 101 would establish programs at the National Science Foundation and Department of Education that place more emphasis on teacher recruitment, retention, mentoring, and professional development. H.R.102 would create a tax credit for teachers.
The centerpiece of the Ehlers’ proposal, H.R. 100, has received bipartisan support and passed the Science Committee unanimously in July 2000, but it failed to pass the full House because of a last-minute disagreement over the eligibility of private schools for funding under the act’s “master teacher” grant. According to Ehlers, H.R. 101 had strong enough support to pass the Committee on Education and the Workforce, but there was not enough time to mark it up before the end of the session. H.R. 102, which was referred to the Ways and Means Committee, was opposed by the committee’s chairman, former representative Bill Archer.
The remaining bill, H.R. 117, which was originally introduced at the end of the last Congress by Reps. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Connie Morella (R-Md.), would authorize $5 billion in grant programs for states to improve the recruitment and retention of math and science teachers. The proposal would implement some of the recommendations contained in a September 2000 report by the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, a major national commission chaired by former senator John Glenn. The bill was introduced on October 19, too late for the House to take action on it.
The Hart-Rudman report may help to spur investment in science and math education as well as in R&D. The report describes a growing need to revitalize science and math education programs. “The quality of the U.S. education system,” the report finds, “. . . has fallen well behind those of scores of other nations. This has occurred at a time when vastly more Americans will have to understand and work competently with science and math on a daily basis.”
The report recommends a National Security and Technology Education Act to fund a comprehensive program to produce the needed numbers of science and engineering professionals as well as qualified teachers in science and math. The act would include “reduced-interest loans and scholarships for students to pursue degrees in science, mathematics, and engineering; loan forgiveness and scholarships for those in these fields entering government or military service; a National Security Teaching Program to foster science and math teaching at the K-12 level; and increased funding for professional development for science and math teachers.”
Genetic discrimination. As scientists learn more and more about the human genome, ethical concerns are receiving more attention. In summer 2000, Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sounded an alarm about the misuse of genetic test results. “Already, with but a handful of genetic tests in common use, people have lost their jobs, lost their health insurance, and lost their economic well being due to the unfair and inappropriate use of genetic information,” he told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
In response to these concerns, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill (H.R. 2457) to prohibit employers and insurance companies from discriminating against individuals based on genetic information. No action was taken on the bill, but Slaughter plans to reintroduce it, and supporters hope that the rising profile of human genome research will improve its prospects. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) introduced a similar bill in the Senate (S. 1322) that also failed to move forward.
Stem cells. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was one of the most emotionally charged issues debated in the last Congress. This area of research is a newly developing field that involves the derivation of stem cells from human embryos. These cells are undifferentiated, which means they have the ability to grow into nearly any type of tissue in the human body. Although scientists believe that such cells hold great promise for the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes, critics object to the research because it involves the destruction of human embryos. Proponents of the research point to the fact that the embryos used would come from fertility clinics that planned to destroy them anyway, but opponents hold that the destruction of any embryo is morally equivalent to the killing of a human being.
NIH said in the summer of 2000 that it would begin funding embryonic stem cell research, but President Bush has asked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which houses NIH, to study the issue, and he may consider reversing the decision. Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS Subcommittee, which funds NIH, plan to reintroduce legislation that would explicitly provide for federal funding of the research.
Administration puts new medical privacy rules on hold
The battle over medical privacy escalated recently when Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson postponed enactment of federal privacy regulations scheduled to take effect in February 2001. The regulations were mandated by the 1996 passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Thompson said the postponement stems from the Clinton administration’s failure to submit the regulations for congressional review. However, advocates say that postponing the rules will solve little and could serve to compromise the essential regulations.
When Congress passed HIPAA in 1996, the essential aim was “administrative simplification” that would allow the health care industry to more easily computerize patient medical data and increase the efficiency of its records system. Although HIPPA did not impose explicit health privacy rules, many believed that increased computerization would heighten the risk of medical information abuse. As a result, HIPPA mandated that HHS take on the task of drafting health privacy regulations. Further, HHS was given the power to implement the regulations if Congress was unable to pass its own health privacy legislation within a three-year period. In 1997, former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala completed the proposed health privacy regulations, and in October 1999, when no health privacy legislation had managed to make it above the subcommittee level, then-President Clinton and Shalala introduced the regulations for public comment. The final rules were published in the Federal Register on December 28, 2000.
Under the regulations, patients are able to view and copy their health records and may request that incorrect information be changed. Individuals are also able to request a history of authorized disclosures of their information and may request that restrictions be placed on its dissemination. In addition, the regulations require health care providers to obtain written consent from patients for the use or disclosure of information in their medical records. Finally, the new rules allow providers to be held accountable for information that is improperly used or distributed. According to testimony by Leslie G. Aronovitz, director of Health Care Program Administration and Integrity Issues at the General Accounting Office, “the regulations will act as a federal floor in establishing standards affecting the use and disclosure of personal health information.” As a result, they will affect virtually every patient, health plan, physician, pharmacy, and medical researcher in the country.
Proponents of the regulations say that the new rules are long overdue and will increase the public’s trust in the medical research and health care communities. They say that the current lack of protection forces people to be wary of what they tell researchers and caregivers. And without the protection afforded by the regulations, patients will be increasingly unwilling to share sensitive information that could be used against them in employment or health coverage decisions. As Janlori Goldman, director of Georgetown University’s Health Privacy Project, said recently, “We have mapped the genome, but people are afraid to get tested. The Internet can deliver cutting-edge research and health care services, but people are unwilling to trust their most sensitive information in cyberspace.”
Opponents of the proposed regulations include health care providers, health plans, pharmacies, health clearinghouses, medical research facilities, and various medical associations. Although most opponents agree that there is a need for increased medical privacy, they are convinced that the drastic changes and levels of ambiguity contained in the proposed regulations would make implementation and compliance impossible, as well as extremely expensive.
Critics are also concerned that the new rules might compromise patient care. John P. Houston, a lawyer at the UPMC Health System in Pittsburgh, sees the regulations as “so restrictive that they could impede patient care and disrupt [the] essential operations” of hospitals and research facilities. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he was “stunned and terribly worried” by the rules. In a recent hearing, he raised concerns about the small rural medical clinics on which much of his state relies, clinics that are already “struggling to keep their doors open.” Roberts is convinced that forcing these clinics to adhere to such stringent regulations would force them to either forego patient care or perhaps even to close down completely.
Advocates respond to such criticisms by pointing out that the proposed regulations were extensively reviewed and amended during 2000. HHS addressed more than 52,000 comments, many of which were from the health care community. They argue that problems are likely to rise in the implementation of any set of medical privacy regulations. But those problems can be dealt with as they arise. It makes no sense to endlessly delay the rules. As Gary Claxton, the Clinton administration official who led the writing of the rules, told the New York Times, “People in the [health care] industry should get on with the business of carrying out the rules, but instead they want to keep talking forever…They are not interested in giving patients control or even a say over how their personal medical information is used.”
Boehlert is new chair of House Science Committee
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) is the new chairman of the House Science Committee, replacing Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wisc.), who now chairs the Judiciary Committee. Because of Boehlert’s commitment to the importance of federally funded R&D, members of the scientific community expressed optimism about the appointment.
In a recent speech to the Universities Research Association (available at www.house.gov/boehlert/uraspeech.htm), Boehlert said he intends to build the Science Committee into “a significant force” in Congress. He said he would seek to “ensure that we have a healthy, sustainable, and productive R&D establishment, one that educates students, increases human knowledge, strengthens U.S. competitiveness, and contributes to the well-being of the nation and the world.” He said he would try to “increase research funding in general and funding for the physical sciences in particular.”
Boehlert outlined three initial priorities: addressing deficiencies within primary- and secondary-level science and mathematics education; energy policy, with particular focus on alternative sources of energy and on conservation and efficiency; and the environment.
Boehlert also said he is concerned about the burgeoning research-based relationship between universities and industry. “That partnership, encouraged by legislation, is having many beneficial effects,” he said. “But it’s time we make sure that we understand better how it’s affecting the university.” He said the Science Committee would examine issues such as the free flow of information, the nature of university research, and the development of intellectual property.
Boehlert said he will not hesitate to “ask tough and uncomfortable questions to ensure that the scientific community is acting in its and the nation’s long-term interests.” At the same time, however, he said that he would work hard to be the science community’s “staunchest ally and fairest critic.”
“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/spp) in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.