“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.
The never-ending budget debate
The House of Representatives and the Senate spent most of 2017 turning the annual budget process on its head, with the result that at the end of December there is no official budget for fiscal year (FY) 2018, which began October 1.
The annual budget resolution is intended to be the mechanism by which Congress establishes the overall spending framework within which the appropriations committees are supposed to operate when distributing funds to specific agencies and programs. The budget resolution is supposed to be completed by April 15, before the appropriations process really gets going. But this year, for a variety of reasons, the budget committees that draft these resolutions punted the work until much later. The House Budget Committee didn’t approve its budget plan until July, and it wasn’t approved by the full House until October. The Senate approved its significantly different budget resolution in October. Unable to reach final agreement, Congress was forced to approve a series of continuing resolutions that were necessary to keep the government operating in the absence of an approved budget. The most recent continuing resolution was passed December 22 and lasts until January 19, 2018.
The lack of a final budget resolution didn’t stop appropriators from trying to do their work. In fact, the House completed its annual appropriations, approving all 12 bills on schedule before the end of September. The full Senate failed to pass a single spending bill, but the Senate Appropriations Committee did produce its spending recommendations by early December. At this stage, the House appropriations differ significantly from the administration’s requests, and the figures from the Senate Appropriations Committee differ from both the administration and the House levels. But until there is a budget resolution that establishes overall spending levels, neither the House nor the Senate numbers can be considered final, so the two chambers cannot begin reconciling their differences.
The reality is that neither plan does much to resolve the major issue of the day for science and technology (S&T) funding where the current spending caps will end up. Under current law, the statutory caps on both defense and nondefense spending, which have been in place since 2011, are slated to decline by about one-half a percentage point below FY 2017 levels. The Senate budget resolution simply adopts the current caps, but Senate appropriators chose to ignore the scheduled decrease for FY 2018 and wrote their spending bills to the FY 2017 limit instead. The Senate budget numbers are functionally a placeholder, pending a deal to raise the spending caps later. If Congress does not vote to raise the budget ceiling, the Senate spending numbers would be subject to across-the-board reductions under the sequestration rules.
On the House side, appropriators remained within the limits for nondefense spending established in the budget resolution, but they approved defense spending that far exceeds the cap. The defense spending cap is unlikely to be raised because that would require 60 votes in the Senate, and Democrats are unlikely to go along with that. Thus, the House defense appropriations would be reduced according to sequestration rules.
The budget debate will pick up again in mid-January, when the continuing resolution expires, and Congress will again face the necessity of arriving at a budget deal. In the meantime, it is worth reviewing the science funding recommendations that emerged from the House and Senate appropriators.
Defense. The proposed Senate bill includes spending levels for S&T that are roughly equal to the FY 2017 budget and that are higher than what was recommended by the White House or approved by the House. Although the defense subcommittee of Senate Appropriations has been a supporter of Department of Defense (DOD) basic science in the past, this year’s legislation would cut basic research programs by $17 million or 0.8%. About half of this reduction would come at the expense of university partnerships. Naval basic science is actually increased by 5.8% across an array of fields, but this is offset by Army and Air Force reductions.
It’s a somewhat mixed bag for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Although the agency received a 4.9% increase, with space and electronic technology research boosted, the increase is smaller than that provided by either the House or requested by the administration, with constrained or reduced funding for materials, biotech, aerospace, and sensor technology.
Elsewhere, manufacturing research and development (R&D) is one of the brighter spots in the Senate bill, with several manufacturing S&T programs granted extra funding. An extra $25 million was added to the National Defense Education Program for manufacturing-oriented grants. Senate appropriators also increased DOD’s Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental by $5 million above the request and added $25.5 million for the new National Security Technology Accelerator, a public-private-academic consortium. Peer-reviewed medical research via the Defense Health Program received several hundred million dollars more than the request, though less than last year.
The Senate defense bill would exceed the current spending cap by $70 billion. As Democrats pointed out, that would mean DOD spending would be automatically ratcheted down substantially via sequestration unless Congress decides to roll back the spending caps approved in 2011.
Interior. The Senate Appropriation subcommittee’s draft bill would diminish the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) environmental and climate research activities, while keeping US Geological Survey (USGS) programs funded at last year’s levels. Within EPA’s discretionary budget, the S&T account would drop by 11.2% below FY 2017 levels; most core S&T research programs would be subject to reductions in the order of 10% to 12%. The House approved slightly larger cuts, and the administration had requested even steeper reductions. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said that if the Senate bill had received a markup, he would have offered an amendment including $200 million to restore proposed cuts to EPA’s core research and regulatory programs.
Of note, a provision in the Senate’s bill continues to prohibit EPA from using funds to implement a mandatory greenhouse gas reporting system within the agricultural sector. A separate provision would change federal policy to treat forest biomass activities as non-contributors of carbon dioxide, a concept known as “carbon neutrality.”
The USGS would see overall flat funding in the Senate bill, compared with a 4.2% reduction recommended in the House and a 15% cut requested by the administration. USGS climate R&D and Climate Science Centers would be flat-funded rather than reduced as the House and administration wanted. Meanwhile, Senate appropriators joined their House counterparts in rejecting the administration’s proposed elimination of the agency’s earthquake early warning system. Landsat 9 development is fully funded in the Senate bill.
Homeland Security. The Senate’s draft appropriations bill would cut the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) research activities and laboratory facilities funding. Still, overall R&D funding would remain significantly higher than either the House version or the administration’s request. S&T laboratory facilities would be subject to a 23.8% cut, whereas the House had recommended flat funding. University programs would also see a moderate reduction under the Senate bill.
For the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s R&D account, the Senate prescribes a 7.8% cut, in line with House and administration budget proposals. The bulk of this reduction would come from detection-capability development and assessment programs. The Transformational R&D account, which supports an array of R&D activities to support detection as well as university and Small Business Investment Research activities, would see a small cut. Nuclear forensics would also be trimmed.
Also included in the Senate’s bill is a provision that would provide $1.6 billion for President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) ridiculed the border wall proposal as “bumper sticker budgeting” and said he would have offered an amendment that would have blocked funding for the wall unless it was paid for by Mexico, as Trump promised during his election campaign.
National Science Foundation. The total NSF budget would decrease by $161 million or 2.2% below FY 2017 under the Senate legislation. Senate appropriators prioritized $105 million for construction of three Regional Class Research Vessels (RCRVs), continuing recent Senate efforts to shore up funding for the RCRV project, whereas the House offered no funding for RCRVs in its bill. Conversely, the Senate bill would cut NSF’s primary research account by 1.9% and NSF’s Education Directorate by 2% below last year.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Within NASA, Senate appropriators would impose a $234 million or 12.7% cut to Planetary Science, while keeping Earth Science funded at last year’s levels—the opposite of the approach taken by the House. The Senate’s move would allow the agency to continue funding for several Earth Science missions slated for elimination in the administration’s request, including the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3); the Plankton, Aerosols, Clouds, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder mission.
On the exploration front, the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Vehicle would be funded at FY 2017 levels, the same as in the House bill, as opposed to the cuts requested by the administration. The Space Technology directorate would see a 2% increase, including $130 million to preserve the RESTORE-L (a robotic spacecraft equipped with the tools, technologies, and techniques needed to extend the lifespans of satellites) from its requested elimination; the House provided only $45.3 million for RESTORE-L. NASA’s Office of Education, which was slated for termination in the administration’s request, was also protected in the Senate bill, with flat funding recommended for FY 2018.
National Institute of Standards and Technology. At the Commerce Department, NIST’s laboratories would see a small 0.7% uptick instead of the cut recommended by the administration. Notably, Senate appropriators rejected the administration’s proposed elimination of the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP); the House proposed a $30 million cut to MEP. Funding for NIST’s coordinating role within Manufacturing USA, the interagency network of public-private manufacturing innovation institutes, would be equal to the president’s request of $15 million in FY 2018, a $10 million decrease from last year.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Elsewhere in the Commerce Department, the Senate would maintain NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research at last year’s level, avoiding the 19% cut recommended by the House and the administration. Senate appropriators did side with the House in rejecting the administration’s proposed elimination of the National Sea Grant College Program. The Senate also sidelined the administration’s proposal to terminate federal funding for the National Estuarine Research Reserves System, as did the House. NOAA’s flagship weather satellites, the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system, would receive full funding for FY 2018. Notably, the Polar Follow On mission, which was targeted for big cuts by the House and administration, would instead gain $90.1 million above its FY 2017 amount of $328.9 million.
Transportation. The Senate committee took a similarly mixed approach for Department of Transportation (DOT) technology programs The committee granted a moderate funding increase above FY 2017 levels for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) NextGen initiative to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system. NextGen would receive $1.1 billion, whereas the administration had requested only $988 million in its FY 2018 budget proposal. Senate appropriators also granted a small increase for FAA’s research, development, and engineering program, mostly for advanced materials research for commercial aviation.
Grad students heave sigh of relief on tuition waivers
The final version of the tax reform bill passed in late December did not include a provision that was in the House version of the bill that would have required graduate students to pay taxes on certain tuition allowances, a change that would have significantly increased the tax burden for some students.
House considers five science bills on “Science Day”
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) named Monday, December 18, “Science Day” in Congress to acknowledge the five bipartisan bills from the Science, Space, and Technology Committee that were considered on the House floor that afternoon. The bills included H.R. 4375, the STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act; H.R. 4323, the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act; H.R. 4254, the Women in Aerospace Education Act; H.R. 1159, the United States and Israel Space Cooperation Act; and H.R. 4661, the United States Fire Administration, AFG, and SAFER Program Reauthorization Act of 2017.
Senate committee revisits law that may hinder battle against opioids
On December 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to discuss whether the 2016 Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act should be repealed or amended. The House and Senate had passed the bill unanimously, but critics charge that it strips the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of its most effective tool in combating the flow of opioids. Demetra Ashley, the acting assistant administrator of DEA, testified that under the law, DEA investigators face a greater challenge in proving that a company’s conduct poses an immediate danger of death or harm, making it more difficult to shut down shipments of painkillers from a distributor to a pharmacy for these cases. She noted that Congress should choose between repealing and amending the law. Senators split largely along party lines in opinions on what changes Congress should make to the bill.
Reprieve for ARPA-E
In December, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent federal agency, officially found that the Department of Energy violated federal law when it withheld previously approved funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) earlier in 2017. According to the GAO, the move violated the Impoundment Control Act, a federal law that requires the executive branch to obligate funding appropriated by Congress. The Trump administration proposed eliminating ARPA-E in its FY 2018 budget request and also began to freeze funding before Congress had given its consent. The funding in question has since been released.
Assessing NASA progress
On December 15, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report assessing the progress that NASA has made on scientific priorities outlined in the Academies’ 2011 decadal survey. A Midterm Assessment of Implementation of the Decadal Survey on Life and Physical Sciences Research at NASA concludes that NASA should “raise the priority of scientific research that addresses the risks and unknowns of human space exploration” and stresses that it should develop a US strategy for the International Space Station beyond 2024.
Improving undergraduate STEM education
On December 12, the National Academies released Indicators for Monitoring Undergraduate STEM Education, which offers a framework to track progress toward assessing the quality and impact of undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The report identifies three overarching goals to improve undergraduate STEM education: increase students’ mastery of STEM concepts and skills; strive for equity, diversity, and inclusion of STEM students and instructors; and ensure adequate numbers of STEM professionals.