From the Hill


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From the Hill

Economic stimulus bill provides major boost for R&D

The $790-billion economic stimulus bill signed by President Obama on February 17 contains $21.5 billion in federal R&D funding—$18 billion for research and $3.5 billion for facilities and large equipment. The final appropriation was more than the $17.8 billion approved in the Senate or the $13.2 billion approved in the House version of the bill. For a federal research portfolio that has been declining in real terms since fiscal year (FY) 2004, the final bill provides an immediate boost that allows federal research funding to see a real increase for the first time in five years.

The stimulus bill, which is technically an emergency supplemental appropriations bill, was approved before final work has been completed on funding the federal government for FY 2009. Only 3 of 12 FY 2009 appropriations bills have been approved (for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs). All other federal agencies are operating at or below FY 2008 funding levels under a continuing resolution (CR) through March 6.

Under the CR and the few completed FY 2009 appropriations, the federal research portfolio stands at $58.3 billion for FY 2009, up just 0.3% (less than inflation), but after the stimulus bill and assuming that final FY 2009 appropriations are at least at CR levels, the federal research portfolio could jump to nearly $75 billion.

Basic competitiveness-related research, biomedical research, energy R&D, and climate change programs are high priorities in the bill. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will receive $10.4 billion, which would completely turn around an NIH budget that has been in decline since 2004 and could boost the total NIH budget to $40 billion, depending on the outcome of NIH’s regular FY 2009 appropriation.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—the three agencies highlighted in the America COMPETES Act of 2007 and President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative—would all be on track to double their budgets over 7 to 10 years. NSF will receive $3 billion, DOE’s Office of Science $1.6 billion, and NIST $600 million.

DOE’s energy programs would also be a winner with $3.5 billion for R&D and related activities in renewable energy, energy conservation, and fossil energy, part of the nearly $40 billion total for DOE in weatherization, loan guarantees, clean energy demonstration, and other energy program funds. DOE will receive $400 million to start up the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), a new research agency authorized in the America COMPETES Act but not funded until now.

The bill will provide money for climate change–related projects in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There is also additional money for non-R&D but science and technology–related programs, higher education construction, and other education spending of interest to academia.

The bill provides billions of dollars for universities to construct or renovate laboratories and to buy research equipment, as well as money for federal labs to address their infrastructure needs. The bill provides $3.5 billion for R&D facilities and capital equipment to pay for the repair, maintenance, and construction of scientific laboratories as well as large research equipment and instrumentation. Considering that R&D facilities funding totaled $4.5 billion in FY 2008, half of which went to just one laboratory (the International Space Station), the $3.5-billion supplemental will be an enormous boost in the federal government’s spending on facilities.

Obama cabinet picks vow to strengthen role of science

Key members of President Obama’s new cabinet are stressing the importance of science in developing policy as well as the need for scientific integrity and transparency in decisionmaking.

In one of his first speeches, Ken Salazar, the new Secretary of the Interior, told Interior Department staff that he would lead with “openness in decisionmaking, high ethical standards, and respect to scientific integrity.” He said decisions will be based on sound science and the public interest, not special interests.

Lisa Jackson, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said at her confirmation hearing that “science must be the backbone of what EPA does.” Addressing recent criticism of scientific integrity at the EPA, she said that “political appointees will not compromise the integrity of EPA’s technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes.”

In a memo to EPA employees, Jackson noted, “I will ensure EPA’s efforts to address the environmental crises of today are rooted in three fundamental values: science-based policies and programs, adherence to the rule of law, and overwhelming transparency.” The memo outlined five priority areas: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality, managing chemical risks, cleaning up hazardous waste sites, and protecting America’s water.

New Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist and former head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, emphasized the key role science will play in addressing the nation’s energy challenges. In testimony at his confirmation hearing, Chu said that “the key to America’s prosperity in the 21st century lies in our ability to nurture and grow our nation’s intellectual capital, particularly in science and technology.” He called for a comprehensive energy plan to address the challenges of climate change and threats from U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

In other science-related picks, the Senate confirmed Nancy Sutley as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality at the White House. Awaiting confirmation as this issue went to press were John Holdren, nominated to be the president’s science advisor, and Jane Lubchenco, nominated as director of NOAA.

Proposed regulatory changes under review

As one of its first acts, the Obama administration has halted all proposed regulations that were announced but not yet finalized by the Bush administration until a legal and policy review can be conducted. The decision means at least a temporary stop to certain controversial changes, including a proposal to remove gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection.

However, the Bush administration was able to finalize a number of other controversial changes, including a change in implementation of the ESA that allows agencies to bypass scientific reviews of their decisions by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. In addition, the Department of the Interior finalized two rules: one that allows companies to dump mining debris within a current 100-foot stream buffer and one that allows concealed and loaded guns to be carried in national parks located in states with concealed-carry laws.

Regulations that a new administration wants to change but have been finalized must undergo a new rulemaking process, often a lengthy procedure. However, Congress can halt rules that it opposes, either by not funding implementation of the rules or by voting to overturn them. The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to vote down recent rules with a resolution of disapproval, but this technique has been used only once and would require separate votes on each regulation that Congress wishes to overturn. House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Select Committee on Global Warming Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA) have introduced a measure that would use the Congressional Review Act to freeze the changes to the endangered species rules.

Members of Congress have introduced legislation to expand their options to overturn the rules. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has introduced a bill, the Midnight Rule Act, that would allow incoming cabinet secretaries to review all regulatory changes made by the White House within the last three months of an administration and reverse such rules without going through the entire rulemaking process.

Witnesses at a February 4 hearing noted, however, that every dollar that goes into defending or rewriting these regulations is money not spent advancing a new agenda, so the extent to which agencies and Congress will take on these regulatory changes remains to be seen.

Democrats press action on climate change

Amid efforts to use green technologies and jobs to stimulate the economy, Congress began work on legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. At a press conference on February 3, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced a broad set of principles for climate change legislation. They include setting targets that are guided by science and establishing “a level global playing field, by providing incentives for emission reductions and effective deterrents so that countries contribute their fair share to the international effort to combat global warming.” The principles also lay out potential uses for the revenues generated by establishing a carbon market.

Also addressing climate change is the Senate Foreign relations Committee, which on January 28 heard from former Vice President Al Gore, who pushed for domestic and international action to address climate change. Gore urged Congress to pass the stimulus bill because of its provisions on energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean cars, and a smart grid. He also called for a cap on carbon emissions to be enacted before the next round of international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009.

In the House, new Energy and Commerce Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA), who ousted longtime chair John Dingell (D-MI) and favors a far more aggressive approach to climate change legislation, said that he wants a bill through his committee by Memorial Day. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would like a bill through the full House by the end of the year.

A hearing of Waxman’s committee on climate change featured testimony from members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of more than 30 businesses and nongovernmental organizations, which supports a cap-and-trade system with a 42% cut in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and reductions of 80% by 2050. Witnesses testified that a recession is a good time to pass this legislation because clarity in the law would illuminate investment opportunities.

Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chair Ed Markey (D-MA) has said that he intends to craft a bill that draws on existing proposals, including one developed at the end of the last Congress by Dingell and former subcommittee chair Rick Boucher (D-VA). Markey’s proposal is also likely to reflect a set of principles for climate change that he announced last year, along with Waxman and Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA). The principles are based on limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

President Obama has also taken steps to address greenhouse gas emissions. He directed the EPA to reconsider whether to grant California a waiver to set more stringent automobile standards. California has been fighting the EPA’s December 2007 decision to deny its efforts to set standards that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles by 30% by 2016. If approved, 13 other states have pledged to adopt the standards. Obama also asked the Department of Transportation to establish higher fuel efficiency standards for carmakers’ 2011 model year.

Biological weapons threat examined

The Senate and the House held hearings in December 2008 and January 2009, respectively, to examine the findings of the report A World at Risk, by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism. At the hearings, former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, the commission chair and vice chair, warned that “a terrorist attack involving a weapon of mass destruction—nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological—is more likely than not to occur somewhere in the world in the next five years.”

Graham and Talent argued that although the prospect of a nuclear attack is a matter of great concern, the threat of a biological attack poses the more immediate concern because of “the greater availability of the relevant dual-use materials, equipment, and know-how, which are spreading rapidly throughout the world.”

That view was supported by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-ME). Both recognized that although biotechnology research and innovation have created the possibility of important medical breakthroughs, the spread of the research and the technological advancements that accompany innovations have also increased the risk that such knowledge could be used to develop weapons.

Graham and Talent acknowledged that weaponizing biological agents is still difficult and stated that “government officials and outside experts believe that no terrorist group has the operational capability to carry out a mass-casualty attack.” The larger risk, they said, comes from rogue biologists, which is what is believed to have happened in the 2001 anthrax incidents. Currently, more than 300 research facilities in government, academia and the private sector in the United States, employing about 14,000 people, are authorized to handle pathogens. The research is conducted in high-containment laboratories.

The commission said it was concerned about the lack of regulation of unregistered BSL-3 research facilities in the private sector. These labs have the necessary tools to handle anthrax or synthetically engineer a more dangerous version of that agent, but whether they have implemented appropriate security measures is often not known.

For this reason, the commission recommended consolidating the regulation of registered and unregistered high-containment laboratories under a single agency, preferably the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Health and Human Services. Currently, regulatory oversight of research involves the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with security checks performed by the Justice Department.

Collins has repeatedly stated the need for legislation to regulate biological pathogens, expressing deep concern over the “dangerous gaps” in biosecurity and the importance of drafting legislation to close them.

In the last Congress, the Select Agent Program and Biosafety Improvement Act of 2008 was introduced to reauthorize the select agent program but did not pass. The bill aimed at strengthening biosafety and security at high-containment laboratories. It would not have restructured agency oversight. No new bills have been introduced in the new Congress.

Before leaving office, President Bush on January 9 signed an executive order on laboratory biosecurity that established an interagency working group, co-chaired by the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services, to review the laws and regulations on the select agent program, personnel reliability, and the oversight of high-containment labs.

Multifaceted ocean research bill advances

The Senate on January 15, 2009, approved by a vote of 73 to 21 the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, a package of five bills authorizing $794 million for expanded ocean research through FY 2015, including $104 million authorized for FY 2009, along with a slew of other wilderness conservation measures. The House is expected to take up the bill.

The first of the five bills, the Ocean Exploration and NOAA Undersea Research Act, authorizes the National Ocean Exploration Program and the National Undersea Research Program. The act prioritizes research on deep ocean areas, calling for study of hydro thermal vent communities and sea mounts, documentation of shipwrecks and submerged sites, and development of undersea technology. The bill authorizes $52.8 million for these programs in FY 2009, increasing to $93.5 million in FY 2015.

The Ocean and Coastal Mapping Integration Act authorizes an integrated federal plan to improve knowledge of unmapped maritime territory, which currently comprises 90% of all U.S. waters. Calling for improved coordination, data sharing, and mapping technology development, the act authorizes $26 million for the program along with $11 million specifically for Joint Ocean and Coastal Mapping Centers in FY 2009. These quantities would increase to $45 million and $15 million, respectively, beginning in FY 2012.

The Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act (S.171) authorizes an integrated national observation system to gather and disseminate data on an array of variables from the coasts, oceans, and Great Lakes. The act promotes basic and applied research to improve observation technologies, as well as modeling systems, data management, analysis, education, and outreach through a network of federal and regional entities. Authorization levels for the program are contingent on the budget developed by the Interagency Ocean Observation Committee.

The Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act establishes a coordinated federal research strategy to better understand ocean acidification. In addition to contributing to climate change, increased emissions of carbon dioxide are making the ocean more acidic, with resulting effects on corals and other marine life. The act authorizes $14 million for FY 2009, increasing to $35 million in FY 2015.

The fifth research bill included in the omnibus package, the Coastal and Estuarine Land Protection Act, creates a competitive state grant program to protect threatened coastal and estuarine areas with significant conservation, ecological, or watershed protection values, or with historical, cultural, or aesthetic significance.


“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.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 3 (Spring 2009).

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