From the Hill


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From the Hill

R&D funding picture remains mixed, as budget negotiations stall

The laborious process of crafting a federal budget for the next fiscal year (FY) 2013 appeared set to grind to a halt, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said on July 31 that they had reached an agreement on a continuing resolution to fund the government through March 2013. The agreement became necessary when congressional leaders recognized that with the election looming, neither chamber was likely to approve the 12 spending bills before the beginning of FY 2013 on October 1.

The agreement also appeared to settle a running dispute between the parties over total FY 2013 spending. The 2011 debt-ceiling agreement established a discretionary spending cap of $1.047 trillion. Although the administration and Senate Democrats have abided by this agreed-on limit, the House GOP passed a budget resolution that capped overall spending at $1.028 trillion. The lower cap had drawn the ire of Democrats, and the White House had consistently promised to veto any spending bill that abides by the lower cap. The House position has been jettisoned, at least for now.

Despite the apparent settlement of the dispute, Congress remains at an impasse on negotiations to avert the “sequestration” cutbacks required for both defense and nondefense spending set to begin in January 2013. Negotiations are under way to avert the across-the-board 10% cuts to defense and 8% cuts to nondefense spending, and a number of Republicans have said they may be willing to consider revenue increases as a part of the package. Even so, support for deep cuts remains strong in some quarters, particularly for nondefense discretionary spending, a category that includes virtually all federal spending outside of defense and entitlement spending and virtually all nondefense R&D. Nondefense discretionary spending was targeted for cuts in the House-passed budget resolution, and similar proposals to protect defense spending at the expense of nondefense spending have been attached as riders to other bills.

To combat these attempted cuts, approximately 3,000 organizations from across the public interest spectrum recently sent a letter to Congress asking for a responsible deficit-reduction approach that does not include further cuts to nondefense discretionary spending, which has already been cut by about 10% since FY 2010. Projecting the effects of this approach into the future, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has estimated that shifting the planned cuts entirely to nondefense areas could result in a reduction of 18%, or $52 billion, in nondefense R&D funding at science agencies over the next five years.

Pressure also remains intense on the defense side, as defense contractors, who have long argued that the cuts will force them to fire thousands of employees, have said they will be required under federal law to issue layoff notices by November 2, which is 60 days before the cuts begin to take effect and just a few days before the elections. Reports by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Aerospace Industry Association have placed budgetcut– induced job losses at one to two million. Congress passed legislation that requires the administration and Pentagon to explain exactly how the across-the-board cuts would be allocated, as the Office of Management and Budget begins consultations with the agencies on these questions.

Even as the overall picture remains cloudy, there nevertheless has been some progress on spending bills on the House side. On August 2, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its version of the FY 2013 Defense Appropriations bill, after the full House passed its own version two weeks earlier. According to AAAS estimates, the bill would reduce Department of Defense (DOD) R&D by $1.9 billion or 2.5% below FY 2012 levels, nearly equal to the overall cut proposed by the administration. In contrast, the House version would reduce overall DOD R&D by about half as much. Basic research across all military departments and agencies would be funded at roughly $2.1 billion under all three proposals, whereas applied research funding in the Senate bill is more generous than in either the administration or the House proposals. As in prior years, and mirroring the House, the Senate Committee has restored substantial funding to R&D in the Defense Health Program, which the administration had targeted for a nearly 46.9% cut. The FY 2013 Interior/Environment spending bill is now the lone R&D-heavy spending legislation yet to be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

A House appropriations subcommittee passed the Labor, Health, and Human Services spending bill on July 18, which would keep National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding flat for FY 2013, similar to the Senate version of the bill. The House bill would terminate the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and mandate a 90/10 split for extramural/intramural research and a 55% split for basic research at NIH, in an attempt at ensuring that both kinds of research remain priorities for the agency. The subcommittee would also reduce the maximum salaries that institutions can charge to NIH as a cost-saving measure.

On June 29, the full House voted 261 to 163 to approve the FY 2013 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill. According to AAAS estimates, the Department of Transportation would receive approximately $1 billion for R&D funding in FY 2013, an increase of $70 million or 7.4% above FY 2012 levels, although less than the president’s request. The Federal Highway Administration would receive most of the R&D boost sought by the administration, reaching $494 million, 20.2% higher than in FY 2012.

On June 28, the House Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2013 Interior and Environment appropriations bill, which would slash R&D funding at the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Forest Service. According to AAAS estimates, the bill would fund Interior R&D at approximately $740 million, $122 million or 14.2% below the president’s budget request and $56 million or 7.1% below FY 2012 levels. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) R&D would be cut by 14.4% below the president’s request and 8% below FY 2012. EPA funding would be reduced by 10.2% below the president’s request and 8.9% below FY 2012. The cut is almost entirely in EPA science and technology, and the committee also passed several amendments to limit the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and toxins.

On June 19, the House Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2013 agriculture funding bill (H.R. 5973). According to AAAS estimates, the bill would cut U.S. Department of Agriculture R&D by 4.5% below the president’s request and 5.9% below FY 2012, although part of this apparent cut is attributable to the end of the biomass R&D program, which is up for reauthorization in FY 2013 in the current farm bill. Although the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture would be cut, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative would receive a boost of 4.6% above current-year funding. The bill generally falls short of the president’s request and the current Senate version of the bill (S. 2375), which was passed by committee on April 26 and awaits floor action.

House Republicans hold controversial hearings on EPA rules

The House held two controversial hearings on the EPA on June 6, addressing the effects of recent rules on the oil and gas industries. The Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power invited several stakeholders to express their concerns about EPA enforcement in Region 6, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment’s hearing focused on the costs and benefits of recent EPA rules, featuring witnesses from industry groups.

House Republicans used the hearings to criticize the EPA, saying it interferes with state regulations, unfairly burdens coal and other fossil fuel industries, and creates standards based on faulty science. At the Energy Committee hearing, Barry Smitherton, chairman of the Texas Railroad Com- mission, discussed the Range Resources case. In December 2010, the EPA issued an emergency endangerment order to the Range Resources Company against the advice of the commission, which serves as a state regulatory agency. It was later discovered that Range Resources was not responsible for the groundwater pollution that the EPA had detected, and the order was lifted, but only after the company spent millions of dollars defending itself, according to Smitherton.

At the Science Committee hearing, Tom Wolf, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Energy Council, said the New Source Performance Standards for carbon dioxide emissions worked for natural gas plants but were impossible for coal-powered plants to meet with the currently available technology. He said the large leap in standards would create a roadblock for coal producers, instead of the intended incentive for innovation.

At the same hearing, Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD), and Michael Honeycutt, chief toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, discussed what they saw as the EPA’s overestimation of the benefits conferred by its rules.

Democrats on both subcommittees criticized the hearings’ intentions. Energy and Environment Subcommittee Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) called the Science Committee’s hearing “one more forum for specific big industries to air their grievances about the EPA.” Energy Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) called his colleagues’ opening statements “part of the fact-free, anti-EPA rhetoric of the Republicans.”

Bills introduced to improve forensic science

Kirk Odom served 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was convicted on the basis of a mistaken victim identification and faulty forensics. Thirty years later, DNA testing on a hair found at the crime scene, as well as stains on pillowcases and the victim’s clothing, proved that he was innocent. Odom was the third person in three years to have his conviction overturned because of unreliable hair analyses in Washington, DC.

Nationwide, there have been 292 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States since 1989, and, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that helps prisoners who were wrongly convicted, about half of those wrongful convictions were due at least in part to poor forensic science.

Congress is considering several new bills in response to these recent events, as well as an investigative report by the Washington Post and a 2009 National Research Council (NRC) study, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.

Last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy (DVT) introduced the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act (S. 132). It would establish an Office of Forensic Science in the Department of Justice (DOJ) that would be responsible for creating and implementing uniform standards and enforcing regulations, as well as a Forensic Science Board to determine research priorities. (The placement of such an office in the DOJ runs counter to the NRC report, which said that a new and independent organization would be needed to regulate the forensic community, because no existing government agency has a relevant mission statement or the appropriate resources to take on this task.) The bill would also require that any labs or individuals receiving federal funding be accredited based on standards outlined by the new Board and Office of Forensic Science. The bill is currently being considered by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

In July, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) introduced the Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012 (S. 3378), which directs the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop standards for forensic scientists and establish a Forensic Science Advisory Committee. It would be composed of research scientists, forensic scientists, and members of the legal and law enforcement communities and chaired by the director of NIST and the attorney general. Rockefeller’s bill would also establish a National Forensic Science Coordinating Office in the National Science Foundation to develop a research strategy and provide grant money for forensic science research centers. S. 3378 is currently being reviewed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced a companion bill, H.R. 6106, which has been referred to the House Committees on Science, Space, and Technology, as well as the Judiciary Committee.

The proponents of the bills believe that nationally recognized standards and a strong peer-review process, much like the one that helps to regulate the rest of the scientific community, will result in better research and more accurate analyses and lead to fewer wrongful convictions.

Senate committee examines EPA rule on air pollution from fracking

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety held a hearing on June 19 to review new EPA air standards for hydraulically fractured natural gas wells and oil and natural gas storage.

The EPA rule, which was finalized on April 18, includes the first-ever national standards on air pollution from gas produced in wells using a process known as fracking. Members of the oil and gas industry have criticized the new rule for its potential impact on domestic natural gas production.

Opening statements and comments at the hearing fell along party lines. Subcommittee Chairman Thomas Carper (D-DE) praised the EPA for addressing the lack of fracking regulations in most states, and Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) insisted that air pollution is a national issue because it does not follow state boundaries. On the other side, Subcommittee Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) criticized the Obama administration for working against the natural gas industry, despite its “all-of-the-above” energy rhetoric. Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) brought up recent EPA controversies and argued that the regulation of fractured wells should be left to the states.

The first panel featured Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, who said the recent rule on air emissions was achievable, would result in cost savings, would reduce air pollution, and would not slow natural gas production. She also described changes made to the final version of the rule in response to industry feedback, which included the introduction of a transition period before the use of reduced emission completions (also known as “green completions”) would be required. Green completions capture natural gas that is emitted during a well’s flowback period, preventing the release of volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. The final rule also includes a new subcategory of wells in low-pressure areas. These wells are not required to use green completions, because the new technology is not cost-effective in those cases.

On the second panel, Fred Krupp, a member of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board Natural Gas Subcommittee, outlined the subcommittee’s findings that oil and natural gas production results in the emission of toxic air pollutants such as carcinogenic benzene, ground-level ozone, and methane, which he said causes global warming at a rate 72 times higher than that of carbon dioxide.

John Corra and William Allison, representatives of state regulatory agencies in Wyoming and Colorado, respectively, highlighted the current environmental regulations in their states, which the EPA used as the basis for the new rule. Both stressed the importance of allowing states flexibility during implementation, because the use of green completions is not technologically or economically feasible at some sites.

Tisha Schuller, the president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, expressed her concerns that the EPA overestimated the benefits of the rule by overestimating the emissions from fractured wells and overestimating the cost savings from the rule, while underestimating the costs for new equipment and regulatory and administrative requirements. Darren Smith, the environmental manager at Devon Energy Corporation, suggested that the EPA overestimated the current emissions from fractured wells.

Carper ended the hearing by hailing the rule as “common sense.” Although the witnesses agreed that the rule needs some tweaks before it is fully implemented in 2015, the debate overall seemed to be, as McCarthy said, a question of whether the rule was “good or very good.”

Federal science and technology in brief

  • The AAAS Office of Government Relations has developed a Web site (http://elections.aaas.org/2012/) that describes and tracks the presidential candidates’ positions on science, technology, and innovation issues.
  • New rules proposed by the Small Business Administration for the Small Business Innovation Research program and the Small Business Technology Transfer program are causing a stir among industry advocates. The rules could eliminate a requirement that grant applicants be majority-owned by a U.S. resident or company. Instead, they propose that applicants must operate primarily in the United States or “make a significant contribution to the U.S. economy,” without a U.S. ownership requirement. There are also concerns that the new proposal could create a loophole that opens the door for large companies, in addition to small businesses, to receive grants.

“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 29, no. 1 (Fall 2012).

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