Sequester in review
In spite of substantial debate and controversy over the effects of indiscriminate across-the-board cuts in the days leading up to the deadline, sequestration went into effect on March 1 as required by law. Cuts to defense and nondefense R&D will total an estimated $9.0 billion from the fiscal year (FY) 2013 federal R&D budget. These cuts will place a particularly acute burden on government agencies, as they must be implemented nearly five months into the fiscal year.
As widely expected, Congress failed to pass a balanced alternative deficit reduction plan to replace the sequester. The House of Representatives, however, did pass an appropriations bill (H.R. 933) that would fund the federal government for the remainder of the 2013 FY. The legislation, which passed 267 to 151, would fund both defense and nondefense R&D at FY 2012 levels, although all R&D would remain subject to sequestration—a roughly 7.8% decrease for defense R&D and a 5.0% decrease for nondefense agency R&D. The House bill was written as an appropriations bill for the Department of Defense (DOD) and Veterans’ Affairs, and as a continuing resolution (CR) for the remaining agencies. This allowed the House to provide some flexibility to DOD and Veterans’ on how each could allocate the sequester cuts.
On March 11, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its revised version of the House bill. Both Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) agreed to the legislation that would continue to fund the government for the remainder of the FY. The revised “hybrid” bill does not eliminate the sequestration but does expand the House version by including additional flexibility for the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Commerce, as well as NASA and NSF. The bill also includes a small increase (a $71 million, pre-sequestration cut) for the National Institutes of Health. On March 20, the Senate voted 73 to 26 to pass its version of the Continuing Appropriations Act. The act includes an amendment submitted by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that limits funding for political science research at NSF; specifically, the agency will be able to fund political science research only if it is certified by the NSF director as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The next day, the House of Representatives voted 318 to 109 to approve the Senate’s changes.
President releases budget
The White House released its FY 2014 budget request on April 10. The president proposes a $3.8 trillion budget in FY 2014, projecting a $744 billion deficit. In R&D funding, the budget calls for $144.1 billion, including $69.7 billion for basic and applied research. In general terms, the budget shows a marked shift from defense to nondefense R&D, and from development to research. Perhaps most notable for R&D funding, however, is the president’s proposal to roll back sequestration. Provisions in the Budget Control Act currently cap discretionary spending at $966 billion in FY 2014, a level that House Republicans have embraced. However, the president’s budget and Senate Democrats propose returning the discretionary spending limit to the pre-sequester level of $1.057 trillion. Resolving this $91 billion difference is key for R&D funding, as the president’s budget is predicated on the higher spending level.
Failing to raise the cap would likely leave FY 2014 looking much like FY 2013, when R&D funding fell by more than $9 billion, or 6.7%, below the prior year, according to American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates. This decline comes on the heels of cuts in prior years, resulting in a three-year R&D decline of roughly 17%, which would be the largest relative decline in federal R&D funding in 40 years. Although some of the reduction in FY 2013 was due to funding cuts in final appropriations, the majority of it was the result of sequestration. Some agencies did appear to fare better than others in the final summation. For instance, NSF, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) all received funding boosts that partially or fully offset sequestration.
Because FY 2013 appropriations came a full six months late, the administration delayed its own FY 2014 request until April. Compared with postsequester FY 2013 estimates, the budget proposes substantial increases across virtually every major agency. Compared with FY 2012 (the last year before sequestration), the budget would boost nondefense R&D spending by 5.2% after inflation and cut defense R&D by 9.5%. The defense cuts are all in the development stage, and research spending would actually increase.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, the administration proposes a combined 4.9% increase above FY 2012 for R&D at the America COMPETES agencies (NSF, NIST, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science); a 4.2% increase for the Department of Agriculture, including a nearly 50% increase for extramural research; and a neardoubling of the DHS R&D budget for construction of the National Bio- and Agrodefense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. However, the budget also cuts 2.4% from NIH, 1.4% from NASA, and 5.4% from the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of the key increases are reserved for targeted programs intended to drive technological innovation, including smart systems, materials, and cyberinfrastructure research at NSF; the Space Technology mission at NASA; the Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative at the Department of Energy; and the National Center for Advancing Translational Science within NIH. DOD’s R&D budget would decline substantially, although basic research funding would increase.
Although the budget continues to make investments in the administration’s priority research areas, the overriding question is whether Congress can agree to a deal that raises the discretionary spending ceiling to make the president’s budget work. Barring an agreement, FY 2014 would end up looking similar to FY 2013, with billions of dollars in lost R&D falling victim to the nation’s fiscal challenges.
Budget proposal consolidates education programs
The Obama administration has proposed a reorganization of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education programs in what it says is an effort to more efficiently manage the $3 million that the federal government spends each year on science education, public outreach, and training programs for new scientists and engineers.
The president’s FY 2014 budget outlines a plan for reducing the number of active STEM programs from 226 to 112; 78 programs would be eliminated altogether, and 49 would be consolidated. The consolidated programs would be run under the auspices of one of three agencies: the Department of Education would manage precollege science and math education programs, NSF would manage undergraduate and graduate STEM training, and the Smithsonian Institution would manage any extracurricular STEM activities.
Although there would be budget cuts for specific agencies that would lose their STEM programs—most notably NASA, NIH, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration— the budget calls for a $3.1 billion investment in STEM education programs, a 6.7% increase from FY 2012 levels. The Department of Education alone would receive a 4.6% increase from FY 2012 levels to fund, among other things, a new Master STEM Teacher Corps Initiative and the STEM Teacher Pathways program, which was designed to prepare 100,000 new STEM teachers for the workforce in the next 10 years.
This proposal comes in the wake of a 2012 General Accounting Office (GAO) report that found that 83% of federally managed STEM programs overlapped to some extent, but less than half of these programs were coordinated with other agencies. The GAO also reported that agencies were not evaluating the success of their programs adequately.
“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.
On April 2, the White House announced that $100 million in its FY 2014 budget proposals would be designated for a new research initiative focused on the human brain. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative would include research investments from NIH, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and NSF, as well as public/private partnerships.
Congress in brief
- Congressional activity has recently cast a gloom over the future of social, behavioral, and economics (SBE) research. In late April, Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, submitted a letter to NSF requesting “access to scientific/ technical reviews and the Program Officers Review Analysis” for five SBE-related research grants. The letter elicited a sharp retort from the committee’s ranking member, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), expressing concern that it would “destroy the merit-based evaluation system at NSF.” Meanwhile, ScienceInsider reported on a discussion draft bill (not formally introduced) that would require NSF to certify that each grant met three specific criteria including: “is of the finest quality, is groundbreaking and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large” and is in the “interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science.”
- On April 26, the House approved the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H.R. 527). The bill authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to resume sales of “crude helium for federal, medical, scientific, and commercial use.” The legislation aims to stall a potential shortage of helium by creating a phased approach for access to and pricing of the helium reserve. The Senate has initiated hearings to consider the House bill.
- On April 16, the House passed two bills related to interagency cybersecurity research. The first bill, the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act (H.R. 756), would reauthorize cybersecurity research and education programs at NSF and NIST. In addition, it would require the administration to submit an assessment of cybersecurity risks across all federal agencies as well as a strategic plan to guide R&D. The second bill, the Advancing America’s Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Act of 2013 (H.R. 967), would reauthorize the interagency Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program created in 1991 to fund R&D in computing, networking, and software.
- A bipartisan group of eight senators formally unveiled their major immigration reform bill on April 17. The bill features a new class of visas for entrepreneurship and would significantly boost the number of H1-B visas available to immigrants with advanced degrees, particularly in math and science. The Senate Judiciary Committee quickly held hearings on the bill.
- The STEM Education Opportunity Act (H.R. 1353), introduced by Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY), would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow a tax deduction for students enrolled in STEM programs at institutions of higher education. The bill was introduced in the House on March 21 and has been referred to the Ways and Means Committee for consideration.
- On March 21, Science, Space and Technology Committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (DTX) introduced the STEM Opportunities Act of 2013 (H.R. 1358) to promote the participation of women and minorities in STEM fields. First, it would require NSF to collect comprehensive demographic data on the recipients of federal research awards and on STEM faculty at U.S. universities in order to better understand national patterns. It would also require the Office of Science and Technology Policy to address best practices across federal agencies to minimize the effects of implicit bias in the review of federal research grants.
- The Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 823) has been reintroduced by Rep. John Culberson (RTX) and four cosponsors. The bill would extend the term of the NASA administrator to six years, create a board of directors to oversee the agency, and restructure the budget. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on the legislation in late February.
- Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a new bill, Saving High-tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes (SHIELDS) (H.R. 845), that would protect U.S. innovators from “patent trolls” who buy very broad patents for products they did not create and then sue companies for infringement.