“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 () in Washington, DC.
Future uncertain for COMPETES legislation
The America COMPETES Act first became law in 2007 with the goal of promoting innovation and boosting U.S. global competitiveness. It was reauthorized in 2010 and is once again up for reauthorization. Although the 2007 bill had bipartisan support, division along party lines is hurting chances for a comprehensive 2014 reauthorization.
There are currently four COMPETES bills; the House Republicans initially split the legislation into two separate bills: the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act and the Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America (EINSTEIN) Act. Democrats in the House and Senate each proposed their own versions. Hence, the outlook for the most recent iterations of the bill is uncertain.
The FIRST Act proposed a two-year reauthorization (FY 2014-FY 2015) for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), with both agencies receiving a 1.5% increase in FY 2015. The EINSTEIN Act reauthorized the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (OSC) but not the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which was created under the 2007 COMPETES bill.
The two versions prepared by the Democrats propose four-year reauthorizations (FY 2015-FY 2019) at higher funding levels. However, these bills differ from one another in a few key areas. The House Democrats’ bill (H.R. 4159) reauthorizes NSF, NIST, and DOE OSC, and focuses on four goals: supporting research, fostering innovation, creating jobs, and improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. In order to support research and foster innovation, the bill would increase funding for the three agencies by 5% each year, and it would reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative, ARPA-E, a Regional Innovation Program, and the DOE Innovation Hubs. It would also establish the Federal Acceleration of State Technology Commercialization program in order to “advance United States productivity and global competitiveness by accelerating commercialization of innovative technology by leveraging federal support for state commercialization efforts.” Provisions for job creation in H.R. 4159 would include offering federal loan guarantees to small and mid-sized manufacturers to help them stay competitive, improving NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, and helping local governments employ more technologies that improve energy efficiency.
Efforts to support and improve STEM education and the STEM workforce would include establishing an ARPA-ED to invest in R&D for educational technology, providing grants for students who receive STEM-related undergraduate degrees, and increasing participation by women and minorities in STEM fields.
The Senate bill (S. 2757) reauthorizes NSF and NIST from FY 2015-FY 2019, but excludes DOE, which is not within the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The bill would provide annual increases for both agencies at 6.7%. Other goals include improving STEM education, supporting NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) directorate, reducing administrative burdens for government researchers, maintaining attendance at science conferences, and supporting NSF’s merit review process.
Like the House Democrats’ bill, S. 2757 prioritizes STEM education and the STEM workforce; the bill directs the National Science and Technology Council to collect input from various stakeholders on the five-year STEM education reorganization that was approved in the 2010 COMPETES Act. The bill would also establish a subcommittee to review administrative burdens on federally funded researchers and issue a report containing recommendations for improving efficiency in the grant submission and review processes. This is likely a response to findings of a recent National Science Board report, which concluded that grant applicants often spend more than 40% of their work time on administrative tasks.
Finally, the Senate offers support and praise for NSF’s merit review process, but does require a report from the agency detailing steps taken to improve transparency and accountability. This appears to be in response to certain provisions in the FIRST Act, which would have required NSF to write a justification for each grant awarded that certifies that the research in question would accomplish at least one of a few specified national goals.
It is this example of policy-related language coupled with low funding levels that has made it difficult to move a bipartisan bill forward in the House. Although the FIRST bill was voted out of both the subcommittee and full committee, the votes fell along party lines and received little support from the scientific community. The EINSTEIN bill received a hearing but was not marked up as a stand-alone bill. That legislation was absorbed into a broader Department of Energy Research and Development Act of 2014, which authorized funding for a range of DOE programs.
Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Brian Higgins (D-NY) introduced legislation to facilitate funding increases for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, the potential for NIH budget growth is currently limited by the tight cap on discretionary spending. The bill, dubbed the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act, would adjust the spending cap to allow for increased NIH appropriations of up to 10% above the current year estimate for two years, and up to 5% thereafter.
The House passed by voice vote the bipartisan Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act of 2014 (H.R. 2996), introduced by Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) in partnership with Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA). The legislation would establish a Network for Manufacturing Innovation Program within the National Institute of Standards and Technology with the goal of improving U.S. manufacturing competitiveness.
The House of Representatives passed the American Super Computing Leadership Act of 2014 (H.R. 2495) and the Tsunami Warning, Education, and Research Act (H.R. 5309). The supercomputing bill would require that the Department of Energy develop, through a competitive merit review process, a program for partnerships between national laboratories, industry, and universities for exascale supercomputing research. The tsunami legislation would reauthorize funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation and Tsunami Research programs.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy released its policy for institutional oversight of life sciences dual-use research of concern (DURC). The policy details the necessary oversight to identify DURC and implement risk-mitigation measures. The policy covers specific types of experiments, such as enhancing the harmful consequences of an agent or toxin for 15 pathogens and toxins, including avian influenza virus. Accompanying the new policy are two complementary documents: A Companion Guide of Tools for the Identification, Assessment, Management, and Responsible Communication of Dual Use Research of Concern and Implementation of the U.S. Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences DURC: Case Studies.
The White House released a National Strategy on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria that outlines five goals for combating the spread of resistant bacteria. The goals of the strategy are to: slow the emergence and prevention of their spread; strengthen efforts to identify cases of antibiotic resistance; advance the development and use of rapid diagnostic tests; accelerate basic and applied research of new antibiotics, therapeutics, and vaccines; and improve international collaboration. President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the enactment of the strategy as well as creating a new Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria to be co-chaired by the secretaries of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services. As part of the overall strategy, the administration is directing the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to co-sponsor a $20-million prize for the development of a rapid point-of-care diagnostic test to assist health-care workers. Timed to coincide with the release of the White House strategy, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its report on Combating Antibiotic Resistance. The report outlines a series of recommendations for the federal government that parallel many of the actions outlined in the White House national strategy. The PCAST report assesses antibiotic resistance within human health care, including prescription overuse; animal agriculture, including promoting animal growth; drug development; and surveillance and response.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) introduced the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (H. R. 3410), which would direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to include the threat of electromagnetic pulse events as part of scenario planning, including the role that research and development can play in strategic planning. The bill passed the House on December 1 by voice vote, and will be considered by the Senate next.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (R-CA) introduced the National Laboratories Mean National Security Act (H.R. 3438), which would permit organizations funded by the DHS Urban Areas Security Initiative—a program to help local communities prepare and protect against acts of terrorism—to work with Department of Energy’s national laboratories in their community. The bill passed the House unanimously under a suspension of the rules vote, which requires a 2/3 majority.
On November 26, President Obama signed into law the Traumatic Brain Injury Reauthorization Act of 2014 (S. 2539), introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), which reauthorizes appropriations for programs and activities at the Department of Health & Human Services relating to the study, prevention, and treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI). In addition, the bill would direct the agency to improve interagency coordination of federal TBI activities.
Federal budget debate goes down to the wire
With its winter recess approaching and the continuing resolution on the budget about to expire on December 12, Congress continued its practice of just-in-time decisionmaking.
The latest proposal to keep the government from shutting down, while also responding to concerns surrounding the president’s executive action on immigration, is to fund the majority of the federal government via an omnibus bill and extend funding for immigration programs only until next year when the new Congress is in place and able to negotiate with the administration.