From the Hill
House votes to reauthorize America COMPETES Act
Despite strong Republican opposition, the House on May 28 approved the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 by a 262 to 150 vote. The legislation is designed to make investments in science, innovation, and education at three agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science. The bill puts basic research programs at the three agencies on a path to doubling authorized funding levels over 10 years.
The major issue of contention over the bill was the proposed increase in spending during a time of large and growing federal budget deficits. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill will cost $86 billion and that it authorizes nearly $23 billion more in spending than current appropriations. Republicans proposed eliminating funding authorizations beyond 2013, freezing funding for existing programs at current levels for 2011-2013 unless there is no budget deficit, and eliminating six new programs from the bill. Republicans also argued that the bill would put too much emphasis on technology commercialization as opposed to basic research.
According to Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, the Republican changes “would have saved over $40 billion and restored the original COMPETES priority of basic research. While I am glad we were finally able to reauthorize many of the important research and education program in this bill, the bill that passed today spends too much money, authorizes duplicative programs, and shifts focus away from the bill’s original intent.”
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, acknowledged that the federal budget deficits are serious, but argued that investment in the country’s future is essential. “If we are to reverse the trend of the last 20 years, where our country’s technology edge in the world has diminished, we must make the investments necessary today.”
Gordon pointed out that more than 750 organizations have endorsed the legislation, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, the Council on Competitiveness, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the National Venture Capital Association, TechAmerica, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the American Chemical Society, as well as nearly 100 universities and colleges.
The legislation would authorize $7.48 billion for NSF in fiscal year (FY) 2011, with the authorization level rising to $10.16 billion in FY 2015. It authorizes $991 million for NIST for FY 2011, rising to $1.2 billion in FY 2015. DOE’s Office of Science is authorized for $5.2 billion for FY 2011, increasing to $6.9 billion in 2015.
Key provisions for NSF include a requirement for the agency to set aside 5% of its Research and Related Activities funding for “high-risk, high-reward research.” The legislation would create an “Innovation Inducement Prize” program totaling $12 million for five prizes. The bill would change the current cost-sharing ratio for the Robert Noyce Scholarship program from an even split between the federal government and a research institution to a 70% federal share. It would establish workshops to help eliminate gender disparities in all federal science agencies and at undergraduate universities, and it would extend funding to researchers who take an extended leave of absence for care-giving responsibilities.
For DOE, the legislation contains a comprehensive five-year reauthorization of the Office of Science, a reauthorization of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, and the authorization of Energy Innovation Hubs, which are multidisciplinary collaborations designed to overcome a specific technological barrier to achieving national energy innovation goals.
The legislation would elevate the director of NIST to Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology. The ten NIST laboratories would be consolidated into six laboratories in order to meet the needs of the current high-tech sector, a plan endorsed by NIST leadership. With congressional approval, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology will be able to realign labs in order to meet new needs of the future high-tech industry.
The bill would change the cost-share ratio of the Manufacturing Extension Program (MEP) from 30:70 (federal government versus second party) to 50:50. The MEP, which is partially funded by state governments, universities, or nonprofit organizations, helps increase the competitiveness and technological expertise of small and mid-size manufacturers.
The COMPETES Act reauthorization would also require NIST to give “consideration to the goal of promoting the participation of underrepresented minorities in research areas supported by the Institute” when evaluating fellowships and postdoctoral applicants.
The legislation calls for guidance across agencies on key topics. The bill directs the Office of Science and Technology Policy to work with agencies to develop a consistent policy regarding the management of scientific collections and establishes a working group to coordinate federal science agency policies related to the dissemination of the results of federally supported research. In addition, the bill calls for coordination of federal STEM education activities and the creation of an advisory committee on STEM education. It also establishes an Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Department of Commerce and establishes the creation of regional innovation clusters.
Congress reconsiders rules on toxic substances
Congress is considering revamping the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed 35 years ago to regulate the use of harmful compounds. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has proposed a bill, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 (S. 3209), that would provide the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with greatly enhanced capabilities to collect information and regulate substances believed to be dangerous. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) have introduced a similar draft bill in the House.
Lautenberg’s proposed overhaul seeks to fix key problems with TSCA that were identified in a 2009 review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Under current law, the EPA must demonstrate that there is an unreasonable risk before it can require the testing of a compound. According to the GAO report, difficulties in accessing information, combined with the high burden of proof that TSCA requires in order to ban a chemical, renders regulatory action extraordinarily difficult. Problems remain with the system for introducing new chemicals, too. There is no requirement to submit hazard data for a new compound, and the publication of information collected is hampered by extensive confidentiality claims. These concerns led the EPA to issue a document titled Essential Principles for Reform of Chemicals Management Legislation, which spurred a series of congressional hearings on TSCA reform.
The new legislation seeks to address the problems identified by the GAO by improving the EPA’s ability to collect data and take decisive action. Whereas the EPA must now prove that a compound presents an unreasonable risk in order to implement a ban, Lautenberg’s proposal would implement a model in which companies must demonstrate a “reasonable certainty of no harm” prior to the introduction of a new compound. In order to accomplish this goal, companies would be required to submit a dataset containing hazard, use, and exposure information. The bill would attempt to ensure the accessibility of this information by requiring the EPA to review Confidential Business Information claims and allowing state governments to access confidential data. Furthermore, the EPA would be given strong authority to require testing of existing compounds. Resources would be focused on compounds prioritized as high risk based on their use, toxicity, and other characteristics.
One catalyst for TSCA reform has been a shift in attitudes among key industry players. Leading businesses and industry groups have become concerned because of increased public perception of the risks to human health posed by chemicals in consumer products. Industry supports improved regulatory authority, but it also wants to head off a potential major antichemical backlash that might result in obtrusive regulations similar to those implemented in the European Union. Consensus on such a plan does not exist yet. Although groups such as the American Chemistry Council agree with elements of Lautenberg’s plan, they remain wary of some of its provisions. In particular, the stringent “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard and the lack of provisions to preempt the implementation of stricter rules at the state level are likely to be sticking points.
Bill proposes incentives for carbon capture and storage
In late March 2010, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and George Voinovich (R-OH) introduced a draft of legislation that would provide extensive incentives for the development and deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. Capturing carbon dioxide ( CO2) from coal combustion and then storing it has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while allowing continued use of fossil fuels for energy production, but the technology is not yet available on the needed scale.
The bill would authorize $850 million over 15 years for R&D involving partnerships between the Department of Energy and the private sector. To stimulate technology implementation at the commercial scale, the bill calls for a “Pioneer” program to subsidize the construction of CCS facilities. The bill provides tax credits starting at $67 per ton of carbon sequestered. Finally, the bill would mandate the adoption of specific technology standards after the first 10 gigawatts of capacity is built, or in 2030. Funding would come from a tax levied on electrical power generation tailored to raise about $2 billion per year.
Although Rockefeller and Voinovich had indicated their intent to take on the thorny issue of liability in the final legislation, the version released doesn’t contain any details. Liability concerns are a major issue in the CCS field, because of potential leakage of injected CO2 as well as possible trespassing claims if sequestered CO2 seeps into adjacent properties. Without clear guidelines, corporations will have difficulty assessing the risks of engaging in CCS projects.
At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on April 20, numerous electrical industry representatives and CCS entrepreneurs expressed strong support for the Rockefeller-Voinovich proposal. Ben Yamagata of the Coal Utilization Research Council said, “This proposal in its entirety is the most comprehensive and far-reaching initiative yet proposed to address the variety of issues related to the successful widespread introduction of CCS technology.”
The Obama administration is also examining this issue. On February 3, 2010, the administration announced the formation of an interagency task force dedicated to tackling the challenge of implementing large-scale CCS within 10 years, with a short-term goal of having 5 to10 commercial demonstration projects running by 2016.
Federal science and technology in brief
- The EPA announced that it is formally listing Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used in consumer goods, as a “chemical of concern” and will require additional research on it. EPA joins the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in studying BPA. FDA announced in January 2010 that it had concerns about BPA and would study the potential health effects and ways to reduce exposure to BPA in food packaging. The listing does not trigger new regulations, but EPA officials said they would consider possible regulatory actions to address health effects, if necessary.
- On April 28, 2010, the federal government approved the first offshore wind farm in the United States. The Cape Wind project, off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, will have 130 windmills in Nantucket Sound and begin producing energy by the end of 2012. Average expected production will be roughly 170 megawatts, or almost 75% of the demand for Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The decade-long debate over the project may not yet be over, because opponents have vowed to challenge the decision in court.
- The Obama administration finalized rules that impose the first greenhouse gas emissions regulations on vehicles. Crafted jointly by EPA and the Department of Transportation, the rules require automakers to have an average fleetwide fuel economy of 34.1 miles per gallon by 2016, which is four years earlier than required by a 2007 law, and to meet certain greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
- Under the authority of the Clean Water Act, the EPA on April 1 announced tough new rules on mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The new regulations would sharply curtail the practice of dumping rubble from mountaintop mining, which can fill valleys and streams, leach toxins into watersheds, compromise water quality, and destroy ecosystems. Under current practices, the new requirements would all but eliminate mountaintop mining.
- Committees in the House and Senate are reviewing the proposed Federal Research Public Access Act, which would require agencies with research budgets of $100 million or more to provide online access to research manuscripts stemming from federal funding within six months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The bill gives individual agencies flexibility in choosing the location of the digital repository for this content, as long as the repositories meet conditions for interoperability and public accessibility and have provisions for long-term archiving.
- On April 15, the House Committee on Homeland Security reported out favorably a bill to reauthorize the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. The bill would increase authorized funding to $1.12 billion in 2011 and $1.16 billion in 2012, while also requiring administrative measures intended to make the department more effective and transparent. The bill authorizes funding of key research areas, especially cybersecurity. The directorate would be asked to develop more inherently secure Internet protocols, mitigate the effects of digital attacks, and support standardized testing of cybersecurity-related technology. The directorate would also be required to commission a National Research Council study on cybersecurity incentives. The study would tackle a number of provocative questions, including whether or not companies should be held liable for digital security failures. Chemical and biological security would continue to be a major focus of the S&T directorate’s research. The bill reasserts the importance of developing assays for biological and chemical agents, planning strategies for first responders, and developing advanced bioforensics techniques.
- On Earth Day, April 22, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing on the economic and environmental effects of ocean acidification, which occurs when CO2 dissolves into sea water. The majority of witnesses agreed that ocean acidification will greatly affect the ocean environment and could cause species extinction and food chains to collapse. Industry witnesses stated that damage to coral and shelled organisms will harm the fishing and diving industries. Also on April 22, the National Research Council released a report detailing needed ocean acidification research.
- The FDA released draft guidelines aimed at enhancing transparency in the work of its advisory committees. Currently, members of advisory committees can seek conflict-of-interest waivers. They must disclose work with a sponsor or competitor of a drug or device under FDA review. Under the new guidelines, they would have to go further, revealing publicly the names of the relevant companies and how much money is involved.
- The Engineering Education for Innovation Act, intended to strengthen engineering education in K-12 schools, was introduced in the House (H.R. 4709) and Senate (S.3043). The bill would implement many of the recommendations of the National Academy of Engineering report, Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects.
- On March 24, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved a far-reaching cybersecurity bill (S.773). The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV), the committee’s chair, would authorize cybersecurity R&D and workforce development through NIST and the NSF. It would also seek to improve coordination between the government and industry on cybersecurity issues and increase government oversight of companies designated as “critical infrastructure.”
- The NIH and FDA announced an initiative designed to boost translational research; that is, to speed up the process of improving medical therapies as a result of scientific breakthroughs. The agency will establish a Joint NIH-FDA Leadership Council and will put nearly $7 million over three years toward regulatory science, which would focus on better approaches to evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medical products.
- The NIH plans to launch a registry of genetic tests next year. NIH will collect and make publicly available information on genetic tests—there are currently more than 1,600—submitted voluntarily by test providers. The registry could, for example, allow doctors, researchers, and patients to locate labs that offer particular genetic tests.