From the Hill


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From the Hill

R&D funding picture continues to be mixed

On November 18, President Obama signed into law the first two bills governing spending for fiscal year (FY) 2012, which began October 1. As is to be expected in a difficult budget environment, with cuts becoming the norm, the outcome for R&D funding in a number of agencies was mixed. However, there was some good news: During the conference session designed to deal with differences between the House and Senate bills, two agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)— ended up with more money than in either separate bill.

In the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bill, NSF received $7 billion, $173 million or 2.5% more than in FY 2011. But this funding level was still well short of the president’s request of $7.8 billion, which would have been consistent with his plan for doubling the agency’s budget. NIST was funded at $751 million, a $1 million or 0.1% increase. However, the bill funds only one of the Industrial Technology Services (ITS) programs, the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Funding was eliminated for the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortium, the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, and the Technology Innovation Program.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration received $17.8 billion in the bill, a $648 million or 3.5% decrease. The House bill eliminated funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, but the conference sided with the Senate and funded the project at $530 million.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fared the least well in the bill with an estimated R&D investment of $620 million, $28 million or 4.3% less than in FY 2011 and $116 million or 15.8% less than the president’s request. The administration had proposed the establishment of a National Climate Service within NOAA, and although the proposal was supported by the Senate, the conference sided with the House and did not fund the new line office.

The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies appropriations bill provides $17.5 billion for the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is $72 million or 0.4% less than FY 2011 and $1.8 billion or 9.4% less than the president’s request. The projected USDA R&D investment in the bill is $1.9 billion, $120 million or 6% less than last year and $136 million or 6.7% less than the request. The Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s intramural funding program, is funded at $1.1 billion, a $39 million or 3.4% cut from FY 2011. The National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the USDA’s extramural funding program, received $1.2 billion, a $13 million or 1% cut from last year. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, NIFA’s competitive funding program that has seen gains in recent years and was slated for an increase under the president’s request, was funded at $264 million, the same level as FY 2011.

Other appropriations bills, including the one that funds the National Institutes of Health, were still being worked on when this issue went to press.

In October, the Senate Appropriations Committee released the draft text for its Interior and Environment appropriations bill. The bill would fund the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey at $1.064 billion, $20 million or 1.8% less than FY 2011. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Science and Technology account would receive $809 million, $4 million or 0.5% less than last year, but $54 million more than the House.

The House Appropriations Committee released a draft Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill in late September that would fund the NIH at $31.8 billion, the level of the president’s request and a $1 billion increase over FY 2011. The bill does not mention the proposed new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, but it does contain provisions on the number of new and competing grants that NIH must fund (a minimum of 9,150 across the entire NIH) and the balance between extramural and intramural support (a 90-10 split).

House committee examines implications of Russian rocket crash

On October 12, the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing on the recent crash of a Russian rocket and its implications for the future of the International Space Station (ISS) and space flight.

Because of the cancellation of the Constellation program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will depend for the foreseeable future entirely on Russia to ferry supplies, fuel, and astronauts to and from the ISS. So when an unmanned Russian Soyuz rocket—the same type of rocket slated to be used for future manned flights—crashed into the mountains of Siberia earlier in 2011, it raised concerns about the strength of the Russian space program and its relationship with NASA.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) inquired about NASA’s involvement in the Russian space program’s investigation of the rocket failure. He also asked about the level of risk this setback introduced for the U.S. astronauts already onboard the ISS and the research they are conducting.

William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, assured the committee that the Russian space program was extremely cooperative in conducting their investigation, even allowing NASA to conduct their own independent study. The cause of the recent crash was determined to be contamination in the fuel lines, probably introduced during late-stage inspections. This is an issue of quality control, he said, not a system failure that indicates a problem with the Soyuz rocket type, which has been flying successfully for many decades. He said he is confident that the current three-person crew aboard the ISS is safe. In addition, he said that NASA has contingencies in place to return them to Earth and operate the station remotely if necessary. Research is continuing, he said, although a larger crew would allow for additional studies. He concluded, “If we all work together, the ISS will continue to be an amazing facility that yields remarkable results and further benefits for the world.”

Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council Task Force on ISS Operational Readiness, echoed Gerstenmaier’s claim that the Russian space program is competent and highly cooperative, posing no threat to the future of U.S. participation in the ISS. Stafford, who has worked closely with the Russian space program since the era of the Soviet Union, said, “I can attest to their thorough and complete approach to problem solving and to their robust manufacturing and test program philosophy.”

The hearing also touched on the future of commercialization of U.S. space flight. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) asked if NASA’s dual focus on partnering with Russia and encouraging domestic commercial projects could create problematic competition in the future. Gerstenmaier insisted that NASA will continue to have both needs, and that he does not expect that commercialization will make NASA’s partnership with Russia redundant.

Senate committee votes to overhaul controversial education law

In a bipartisan 15-7 vote on October 20, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions voted to overhaul the controversial Elementary and Secondary Education Act, often referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Above all, the bill would eliminate the contentious adequate yearly progress standard that is used to measure gains in proficiency through the use of standardized test scores. In September, the Obama administration offered states the opportunity to seek waivers for the math and reading standards, and more than 30 states have applied.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-WY) said that the reauthorization was long overdue and that numerous compromises were made in the spirit of advancing a feasible, bipartisan bill.

An amendment submitted by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and cosponsored by Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) would provide funding to ensure the integration of new technology into classrooms and the education system in general. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) supported the amendment, saying that it helped to address her concern that the education sector is not taking advantage of the predominance of technology in the lives of today’s youth. She said, “We have to deliver education to kids in a way that is relevant and captures their attention.” Despite Enzi’s concerns about potential difficulties in implementing the program in rural schools with small budgets, the amendment was agreed to by a voice vote.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), along with co-sponsors Blumenthal and Murray, introduced an amendment to establish an Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education (ARPA-ED) within the Department of Education. ARPA-ED would pursue “breakthrough research and development in education technology” and provide “effective use of technology to improve achievement for all students.” The creation of ARPA-ED was initially proposed in President Obama’s FY 2012 budget request with an initial request of $90 million. The Bennet amendment would fund ARPA-ED from the already existing Investing in Innovation fund at an amount not to exceed 30% of its budget. The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

The Senate’s comprehensive approach to the legislation is in contrast to the House, which has been approaching reauthorization of the education law in a piecemeal fashion.

House members debate new National Ocean Policy

The House Natural Resources Committee held two hearings in October that focused on President Obama’s new National Ocean Policy (NOP), which was created by an executive order signed on July 19. Republicans on the committee expressed some concerns about the policy, including whether it would increase restrictions on ocean, coastal, and inland economic activities. Committee Democrats largely supported the new policy.

The NOP creates a National Ocean Council tasked with improving the stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources and streamlining the more than 140 regulations currently in place. Under the Council, regional planning bodies will be created to implement coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP), which the order defines as “a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science.”

The main goal of the NOP is to increase the consistency of the decision-making and regulatory processes and allow the United States to manage its ocean and coastal resources to maximize benefit from all of the desired uses. The NOP has 10 objectives ranging from promoting ecosystem health and the use of the best available science in decisionmaking to maintaining maritime cultures and promoting public understanding. It divides the United States into nine regions, with each region having a regional planning body tasked with a CMSP for that region.

At the first hearing, held October 4, a series of criticisms of the NOP, summarized on the committee Web site, were raised by Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), witnesses, and representatives from multiple coastal states. Their concerns centered on the lack of congressional approval or legislative authority for the creation of a NOP. The critics were uncomfortable with a perceived underrepresentation of stakeholders and local entities and said that ocean zoning would restrict access to ocean and coastal resources in unacceptable ways.

Witnesses at the October 26 hearing countered these arguments, noting that the NOP invites state, tribal, and local entities to participate in the regional planning bodies. They said that CMSP is distinct from ocean zoning and that, in any event, ocean zoning is not mandated under the NOP.

Ranking Member Ed Markey (DMA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) defended the NOP, citing bipartisan support for a comprehensive ocean plan during the past 10 years and the support of 22 coastal states that have expressed a need for a NOP. They argued that the NOP would improve communication and coordination between stakeholders and, by harmonizing regulations, reduce regulatory uncertainty and encourage investment.

At the October 26 hearing, the committee heard from representatives of the administration: Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and co-chair of the National Ocean Council, and Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Ad-ministration (NOAA).

In their opening remarks, Sutley and Lubchenco both stressed the importance of ocean and coastal resources to the entire nation and the need, recognized by both the current and the previous administrations, for an integrated approach to the management of those resources. Lubchenco pointed out that more than half of the U.S. population lives in coastal regions and 60% of gross domestic product is related to ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources. Lubchenco said that the current chaotic regulatory system discourages investment in the development of ocean and coastal resources, saying that “The National Ocean Policy creates order out of chaos.” Sutley noted that members of industry, fishermen, and the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have supported a CMSP and also emphasized that CMSP does not constitute ocean zoning.

The Republican Committee members’ questions were largely comprised of demands to know what the administration saw as the statutory authority to implement the NOP. They also resisted acknowledging the distinction between ocean zoning and CMSP. Several committee members aggressively sought assurances that the NOP would not further restrict the use of ocean and coastal resources.

Although both parties on the committee recognize the need for a revised regulatory structure with regard to ocean and coastal resources, strong disagreements remain over whether the NOP is the appropriate way to proceed. Sutley and Lubchenco argued that the NOP would create information-sharing bodies that would better inform decisionmakers.

Federal science and technology in brief

  • On November 2, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved several bills, including the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2011, which calls for a national strategy and implementation plan to address harmful algal blooms and hypoxia (inadequate oxygen supply to cells and tissues). Similar legislation was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in July.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a blueprint for biomedical innovation featuring seven steps: rebuilding small business outreach services; building infrastructure to drive and support personalized medicine; creating a rapid drug development pathway for targeted therapies; harnessing the potential of data mining and information sharing; improving the medical device review process; training new innovators; and streamlining FDA regulations. “Our innovation blueprint highlights some of the initiatives FDA will be implementing that [new scientific] opportunities are translated into safe and effective treatments that can help keep both American patients and American industry healthy and strong,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
  • The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness released an interim report titled “Taking Action, Building Confidence.” The report groups its recommendations into five initiatives: (1) investing in infrastructure and energy development; (2) encouraging entrepreneurship and accelerating the number and scale of young, small businesses and high-growth firms; (3) fostering investment, within the United States; (4) simplifying regulatory review and streamlining project approvals; and (5) ensuring U.S. talent to fill existing job openings as well as to boost future job creation. The Council plans to address the major factors underpinning national competitiveness in its year-end report.
  • The House passed by voice vote legislation that would prohibit U.S. airlines from complying with a European Union (EU) climate change law that will soon subject any airplane flights into or out of an EU airport to the European cap-and-trade restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. The EU’s high court is examining the legality of the proposal, which is also opposed by other countries. The Senate is not likely to take up the measure.
  • • On September 26, the National Institutes of Health released a revised policy on managing conflicts of interest (COI) in the initial peer review of NIH grant and cooperative agreement applications. The revised policy is particularly intended “to facilitate reviews that involve multi-site or multi-component projects, consortia, networks, aggregate data sets, and/or multi-authored publications.” The policy covers both federal employee and non-federal members of scientific review groups, including mail reviewers. Non-federal members, in particular, may not participate in the review of an application if they have “a real COI or an appearance of a COI with [the] application.” Bases for COI can include “employment, financial benefit, personal relationships, professional relationships, or other interests.” The new policy applies to all applications submitted for the September 25, 2011 deadline and thereafter.

“From the Hill” is adapted from the newsletter Science and Technology in Congress, published by the Office of Government Relations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 28, no. 2 (Winter 2012).

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