From the Hill

From the Hill

R&D funding receives some good news amid major uncertainty

Despite continuing calls from many in Congress to cut spending, the fiscal year (FY) 2013 appropriations process has generally been positive for a number of R&D agencies, with some key science funders seeing surprising increases in the early going.

However, any good news must be tempered by the realities of the current fiscal climate. No funding legislation has been finalized to date; nor is it clear how many spending bills, if any, will be finalized and signed into law before the November elections. Equally unclear is the path to addressing the automatic across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, scheduled to begin in January 2013. These cuts would amount to roughly 8% for nondefense spending and 10% for defense, and although Congress and the administration are clearly concerned about the extent of these cuts, no agreement to roll back them back is yet in sight. Further, several proposals have emerged to shift the onus of these cuts to nondefense spending in order to protect the military. If this happens, it could result in severe long-run consequences for R&D funding.

Thus far, a handful of spending bills, including those funding the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs have been passed by the full House. None have passed the Senate, though several have made it through the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The House NSF/NASA bill is more generous in many areas than might have been expected, although R&D at most agencies would fall somewhat short of President Obama’s request. NSF R&D would receive a $221 million or 3.9% boost over FY 2012 levels, more than the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved in its version of the bill. The House also defeated a proposed floor amendment to cut an additional $1 billion from NSF, although amendments prohibiting funding for the Climate Change Education Program and for political science research at NSF passed.

NASA R&D would receive an increase of 1.3% or $123 million in the House-passed bill, with cuts to space exploration more than offset by increases elsewhere. The current Senate version would be somewhat more generous, providing a 2.5% or $230 million increase. Both chambers approved more spending than the administration requested for the Science Directorate, and both would seek to restore funding to NASA’s planetary science program in response to the administration’s proposed cuts. Many of the increases the administration has sought for R&D at the Department of Commerce appear to be holding up, with the House and Senate voting to increase R&D spending by more than 10% at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The House has been less generous at the Department of Energy. Although atomic defense R&D would be increased by 8.4% or $361 million, Office of Science R&D would be cut by 1.6% or $69 million, and clean energy and energy efficiency R&D would be slashed, as would the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The current Senate version of the bill, conversely, grants several programs modest increases from FY 2012, getting somewhat closer to the president’s request in many instances. Elsewhere, the House Appropriations Committee passed the Defense spending bill on a voice vote. The bill would reduce Department of Defense R&D spending by 1.1% or $793 million. However, this figure would still be 1.5% or $1.1 billion more than the administration’s request. Basic research would remain flat.

The Senate committee has voted to keep Department of Agriculture funding flat, although some key research programs would receive substantial boosts.

In the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate R&D would receive a 30% increase under both the House and Senate bills.

The EPA issues new air pollution rule; key Republicans object

Despite objections from some key Republican lawmakers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule on air pollution for the oil and natural gas industry on April 18, including the first-ever national standards on air pollution from hydraulically fractured gas wells.

The New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for crude oil and natural gas production require onshore gas wells to use reduced emissions completions (also known as “green completions”) to capture volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions that escape during the fracturing process. However, as a concession to industry groups that expressed concerns about having access to the technology in time for the rule’s enactment, the regulation allows for a two-year transition period, during which completion combustion devices, such as flares, can be used to burn off any gas that is released.

The EPA rule also provides emission standards for storage vessels and certain controllers and compressors, while revising previous VOC and sulfur dioxide emission standards for natural gas processing plants. In total, the EPA estimates that the new rule will reduce annual emissions of VOCs by 190,000 to 290,000 tons, air toxics by 12,000 to 20,000 tons, and methane by 1 to 1.7 million short tons by the time it is fully enacted in January 2015. This translates to an estimated cost savings of $11 million to $19 million, according to the agency.

Howard Feldman, the director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, signaled support, although not a definitive endorsement, for the changes in the regulation. Some environmental groups applauded the new standards but pushed for further federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing.

Some members of Congress objected to the change. A few days before the final ruling was issued, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), Ed Whitfield (R-KY), who chairs the panel’s Energy and Power Subcommittee, and committee chairman emeritus Joe Barton (R-TX) sent an open letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson expressing their reservations about the proposed ruling. “We are concerned about the rule’s potential to adversely impact both the near- and long-term production of oil and natural gas, including unconventional resources, at a time when domestic production is increasingly important to our national economy, jobs and consumers,” they said. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, wrote a similar letter, criticizing the EPA’s process for developing the standards.

Senate panel considers national standards for forensic evidence

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on March 28 to address the federal government’s role in establishing scientific standards for forensic evidence.

Currently, there are no national standards in forensic science, leaving interpretation of evidence, such as DNA and fingerprint matching, up to individual scientists and technicians. The rapid development of evidencebased standards is crucial because, said Rep. Tom Udall (D-NM), many prosecutors and lawmakers assume that forensic evidence has undergone rigorous scientific review, a misconception propagated by popular television shows.

Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) opened the hearing by outlining the unique position of forensic science: Although there are many fields of forensics, the discipline does not have a culture of science with a peer review process. Rockefeller announced his intention to prioritize the introduction of science into forensics, using the work of NSF and NIST for guidance. Rep. John Boozman (R-AK) discussed the importance of science-based forensic standards for homeland security and the U.S. justice system, citing a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, which called for the standardization of forensics.

The three witnesses at the hearing cited the need for more research to develop these standards. Eric Lander, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, described his experience as a scientific expert during one of the first DNA fingerprinting cases in the United States. He emphasized the need for collaboration between the science and law communities to develop standards for what constitutes a “match” and associated probabilities in forensic evidence.

NIST Director Patrick Gallagher agreed, saying his mission was to develop a science-based national system of measurements for forensics, in collaboration with the Department of Justice (DOJ). He defended the $5 million request for the initiative in the president’s FY 2013 budget and discussed allotment of the funding to priority program areas, such as the development of new reference methods and technologies for understanding crime scenes and identifying criminals.

NSF Director Subra Suresh highlighted the role of his agency in the development of forensics standards through its funding of basic research. Between 2009 and 2011, more than 100 NSF grants were awarded to support forensics research and education.

There was also discussion of necessary infrastructure to facilitate standards development. Boozman’s proposal to create an independent Office of Forensic Science at the DOJ was hailed as a good mechanism for interdisciplinary communication and collaboration by Gallagher, although Lander wondered if it would be able to do more than simply identify areas in need of work.

Cybersecurity bills advance in House, Senate

Congress continues to debate cybersecurity legislation, with the House passing the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA, H.R. 3523) and members of the Senate pushing for consideration of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (S. 2105).

Sponsored by House Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), CISPA passed the House by a vote of 248 to 168, with 42 Democrats voting for the bill and 28 Republicans voting against it. The legislation would remove legal barriers preventing the government and private companies from sharing information regarding cyberattacks and network security. It would also limit the federal government’s jurisdiction in seeking cybersecurity information.

CISPA passed a day after the Office of Management and Budget released a statement saying that President Obama would veto the bill if it reached his desk. The White House expressed concern that the bill does not adequately address individual privacy concerns and national infrastructure vulnerabilities. The bill has been referred to the Select Committee on Intelligence for consideration.

CISPA is similar to a Senate bill, the Strengthening and Enhancing Cybersecurity by Using Research, Education, Information, and Technology Act of 2012 (SECURE IT, S. 2151), in its focus on voluntary information sharing. SECURE IT, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and seven other Republicans, also includes clauses meant to strengthen criminal penalties for cybercrimes. The legislation has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. A House version of the bill (H.R. 4263), sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), is currently in several committees.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan Cybersecurity Act of 2012, sponsored by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME), would empower the Secretary of Homeland Security to conduct a top-level assessment of cybersecurity risks and develop requirements for securing critical infrastructure. It would also provide more privacy protection than CISPA or SECURE IT.

The White House has endorsed the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, although a coalition of several civil liberties groups has come out against it, saying the bill does not provide adequate privacy protection. The coalition, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology, is concerned that the bill would allow military spy agencies access to personal information and permit the federal government to use that information during unrelated criminal investigations. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has expressed similar concerns about the bill’s privacy protections. Although Democratic senators have said they are willing to add in more privacy protection clauses, House Republicans say they will not support any legislation that includes new regulations.

In the meantime, the House has passed several other cybersecurity bills. The Federal Information Security Amendments Act of 2012 (H.R. 4257) would update the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) to increase the responsibility of federal agencies to update information security infrastructure. The Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2012 (H.R. 2096) directs federal agencies participating in the National High-Performance Computing Program to draft and implement a Congress-approved cybersecurity R&D plan. The bill was introduced by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and passed the house by 396 to 10. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) sponsored the Advancing America’s Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Act of 2012 (H.R. 3834), which passed the House by a voice vote. The legislation would update the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991, which established the National High-Performance Computing Program.

Federal science and technology in brief

  • The National Institutes of Health has announced a new program to match researchers with a selection of pharmaceutical industry compounds in order to promote academic research to search for new treatments. The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences will initially partner with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly and Co., which have agreed to make dozens of their compounds available for a pilot phase. The initiative, Discovering New Therapeutic Uses for Existing Molecules, provides templates for handling intellectual property used in or developed through the program. Industry partners will retain ownership of their compounds, while academic research partners will own any intellectual property they discover, with the right to publish the results of their work.
  • The Obama administration released its National Bioeconomy Blueprint, outlining steps that agencies will take to drive economic activity powered by research and innovation in the biosciences. Areas of focus include energy, translational medicine, agriculture, and homeland security.
  • The U.S. Global Change Research Program has released the administration’s 10-year strategic plan for global change research. According to the press release, the strategy will expand “to incorporate the complex dynamics of ecosystems and human social-economic activities and how those factors influence global change.”
  • The EPA released its 17th annual inventory of overall emissions for six greenhouse gases. The total emissions for 2010, equivalent to 6,822 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, represent a 3.2% increase over 2009 levels. The EPA attributes the increase to increased energy use in all sectors of the economy, increased energy demand related to an expanding economy, and warmer weather during the summer of 2010.
  • The Food and Drug Administration has published three documents in the Federal Register to promote changes in the ways in which medically important antibiotics are used in food-producing animals. The first, a final guidance for industry called “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals,” recommends phasing out the agricultural use of medically important drugs. The second is a draft guidance for sponsors of certain new animal drug products, and the third is a draft proposed regulation for veterinary feed directives.
  • On April 24, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced the Broadening Participation in STEM Education Act (H.R. 4483) at a conference organized by the National Action Council for Minorities in Education. The bill aims to expand the number of minorities in undergraduate science, technology, math and engineering fields and would authorize NSF “to award grants to colleges and universities that want to implement or expand innovative, research-based approaches to recruit and retain students from underrepresented minority groups.”

“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.