Author Archives: William B. Bonvillian

From the Hill


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Congress advances spending bills for NSF, NASA, Energy, and USDA

In mid-May, the House Appropriations Committee approved FY 2017 spending bills covering the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Agriculture, while Senate appropriators passed their transportation, commerce, justice, and science bills providing funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the commerce agencies.

The House Committee’s energy-water bill (H.R. 2028) would increase DOE’s Office of Science budget by $53 million or 1% above FY 2016 levels, whereas the president sought a 4.2% funding boost. DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would see a large reduction of $248 million or 12% below FY 2016 levels, though House appropriators did provide substantial funding increases for grid-related research and development (R&D) and for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The energy bill now awaits action from the House floor. The Senate approved its energy and water appropriations bill by an overwhelming 90-8 vote. Like the House bill, it provides only a 1% increase for the Office of Science. The bill does not include the administration’s request for a major funding increase for low-carbon energy technology as part of the Mission Innovation Initiative.

The House Appropriations Committee also approved its FY 2017 agriculture spending bill. The agency’s R&D funding would drop by 3.7% below FY 2016 levels and 1.4% below the president’s request to a total of $2.3 billion in FY 2017. The agriculture bill now heads to the House floor for consideration.

The Senate’s commerce, justice, science bill (S. 2837), approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, would grant NASA a small $21 million increase above FY 2016 levels, as compared to the president’s proposed reduction of $1 billion in the NASA discretionary budget. Funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion would receive increases rather than the administration’s proposed cuts, whereas the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) would also see additional funding above the request, though still 3.5% below FY 2016 levels. Elsewhere in the bill, NSF would be essentially flat-funded from FY 2016 levels compared to a 1.3% discretionary increase sought by the administration. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology would both see very modest increases in overall budgets.

The Senate transportation, housing and urban development (THUD) bill (S. 2844) was also approved by committee. Surface transportation funding in the bill is consistent with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act reauthorization reached last winter, according to the committee. The THUD bill now heads to the Senate floor.

Senate hearing on leveraging US federal investments in science and technology

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a May hearing to explore how a reauthorized America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act can improve the US science and technology enterprise. The committee heard from Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; Kelvin Drogemeier, vice chair of the National Science Board; David Munson, Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan; and Jeannette Wing, corporate vice president for research at Microsoft. The hearing featured questions from members on regional innovation programs that leverage science and technological advances to improve local economies; ways to improve US education; and ideas for improving coordination across federal agencies and the academic and private sectors. No specific timetable was set for introducing the legislation currently being drafted by the committee, but chairman John Thune (R-SD) stated in his opening remarks that he is “hopeful the bill will be ready in the coming days.”

Bill to improve understanding of space weather introduced

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced legislation that follows on the White House’s recent Space Weather Strategy and would codify responsibilities of federal agencies with oversight of space weather research and forecasting, including DOD, NASA, NOAA, NSF, and the Department of Homeland Security. The legislation covers everything from clarifying that NSF and NASA should pursue the basic scientific research needed to better understand and, ultimately, predict space weather events, to other agencies’ responsibilities to provide forecasting services and assess space and ground-based infrastructure vulnerabilities to space weather events. The bipartisan bill has received praise from members of the scientific community and is moving quickly toward a markup by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

Senate committee passes SBIR/STTR reauthorization

The Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee passed a bipartisan reauthorization of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, which receive a guaranteed percentage of federal agencies’ extramural research and development budgets. Participating agencies are those that spend more than $100 million on extramural research, and the reauthorization bill would make the program permanent rather than require reauthorization every five or six years. In addition, it would increase the percentage devoted to programs from the current 3% to 6% for non-defense agencies and 5% for the Department of Defense (DOD) by 2028, and institute a suite of reforms. The bill now awaits action by the full chamber. The House Small Business Committee has also passed reauthorization legislation that includes smaller increases over a shorter time period and includes fewer program reforms. That bill is awaiting action by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee before it can move forward. Finally, in its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017, the Senate Armed Services Committee included language that would make the DOD SBIR and STTR programs permanent.

Senate passes bipartisan energy policy modernization act

On April 20, the Senate passed by an overwhelming vote of 85-12 a bipartisan comprehensive energy bill that touches on many aspects of federal energy policy—from efficiency standards and programs to natural gas export authority—and includes provisions that reauthorize the DOE Office of Science and ARPA-E. The bill authorizes increased funding targets for DOE-Science and ARPA-E for the next five years and rescinds unused or unneeded program authorities initiated by the prior two America COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010. A companion bill passed by the House late last year started on the same bipartisan track, but the final bill is considered decidedly more partisan than the newly passed Senate bill. The House bill also does not contain research-related provisions due to the differing jurisdictions of the relevant House and Senate committees. Energy research provisions are included in the separate House-passed version of COMPETES and differ from the Senate comprehensive bill. Hence, the House and Senate bills will now need to be reconciled, which legislators plan to do via a conference committee to get to a final compromise bill to send to the president for signature.

Senator Flake releases science-focused “Wastebook”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) released his new report at a press conference on May 10, followed by a speech on the Senate floor two days later, and several press appearances. Whereas past “wastebooks” have included scientific research among other federal spending the senator considers wasteful, this report focuses solely on scientific research, including references to several grants that are no longer active. In releasing the report, the senator argues that the government should pay more attention to how its research funds are distributed, particularly when there are pressing priorities in areas such as medical science. Citing a current lack of transparency, Sen. Flake released companion legislation that would require more specific public accounting of funds spent on each individual project supported under a grant, a proposal that runs contrary to the current bipartisan push to lessen administrative burdens on researchers.

Hill addendum

OSTP announces National Microbiome Initiative

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a collaboration between federal agencies and the private sector to take a more cooperative approach to studying the microbiome of a range of ecosystems. The National Microbiome Initiative will focus on three specific goals: support interdisciplinary basic research; develop platform technologies to share information and knowledge; and expand participation through citizen science and public engagement.

NSF releases future vision for research

NSF director France Córdova has published a list of nine ideas intended to shape the foundation’s investments in the future. The list includes six research ideas:

• Harnessing data for twenty-first century science and engineering

• Shaping the new human-technology frontier

• Understanding the rules of life: predicting phenotype

• The quantum leap: leading the next quantum revolution

• Navigating the new Arctic

• Windows on the universe: the era of multi-messenger astrophysics

NSF reports increase in US graduate enrollment in science and engineering

NSF’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) released an updated report showing that the number of science and engineering (S&E) graduate students increased by 5.5% between 2013 and 2014, rising from 570,300 to 601,883. NCSES cites that much of this growth stems from a continuing increase in the enrollment of foreign graduate students on temporary visas, which grew by 7.4% between 2012 and 2013, and by 16.0% between 2013 and 2014. The report also finds that the number of S&E graduate students primarily supported by federal sources declined by 8.2% between 2009 and 2014, while those primarily on self-support increased by 26.7% during the same time period.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 3 (Spring 2016).

From the Hill


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“From the Hill” is adapted from the e-newsletter Policy Alert, ­published by the Office of Government Relations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC.

Congressional budget deal eases spending limits

Nearly a month after avoiding a September shutdown, congressional leaders and the White House produced the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, a two-year deal to partially roll back the spending caps and to increase discretionary spending in FY 2016 by 5.2%. The deal allows federal agencies to avoid a return to sequestration-level spending and suspends the debt ceiling for over a year. The agreement should be a boon to federal science agencies, which had been operating with relatively modest appropriations during the summer.

To fully understand the contours of the deal, it’s worth taking a short stroll back in time. When the Budget Control Act was signed into law in 2011, it first established an original spending cap baseline and created a joint congressional committee to come up with some kind of trillion-dollar grand bargain to further reduce deficits. When the congressional committee failed to reach an agreement, the Budget Control Act required sequestration to kick in, resulting in across-the-board cuts in FY 2013, and capping federal agencies at a new lower spending baseline for the rest of the decade. This would have resulted in tens of billions of dollars of cumulative cuts in the federal R&D budget.

Fortunately, Congress did not abide by the original law. Every year the sequestration-level spending caps have been in place, Congress has acted to allow for additional spending. Nevertheless, total R&D spending fell by 9.3% in FY 2013, but the reduction would have been much greater under the rules of the Budget Act.

The challenge facing policymakers this year was that the prior deal lifted the caps only in FY 2014 and FY 2015. This meant a return to the sequestration-level baseline in FY 2016. Unsurprisingly, the president’s budget again proposed to roll back the spending caps with a big increase in FY 2016. This would have moved research agency budgets most of the way back to the pre-sequestration spending baseline. But Congress remained unwilling to follow the administration’s lead and in spring 2015 approved a budget resolution that locked in sequestration-level spending and recommended further reductions in future years. The research budget developed by appropriators pointed toward lean times for science.

The agreement reached in October will result in a research budget much closer to the president’s request than to what Congress had developed during the summer. The total discretionary budget will rise 5.2% in FY 2016 and remain flat in FY 2017. Unless Congress acts again to raise the spending ceiling, the budget will revert to the previous sequestration baseline in FY 2017.

A politically important aspect of the deal is how it treats Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, also known as war funding. The president had proposed a $58-billion OCO budget, which is not subject to the spending caps. Congressional defense hawks initially sought to bulk up the OCO budget as a means to skirt around the spending caps. In the final deal, policymakers did agree to increase the OCO budget over two years, but by only about $15 billion, and this is split between the Department of Defense and the Department of State, ensuring the defense/nondefense spending balance remains unchanged.

To offset this extra spending, the budget deal includes a combination of health savings, reductions in agriculture crop insurance subsidies, and other provisions. Congress would cover some of the costs through a series of changes to the Social Security disability and Medicare programs. Another significant offset calls for the sale of 58 million barrels of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next decade. The deal also incorporates a handful of minor tax code adjustments and several other revenue changes.

This all matters for science funding because discretionary spending and R&D tend to move hand-in-hand: Individual agencies may fare better or worse in different years, but overall research funding closely tracks total discretionary spending. Science advocates will make their case for the importance of research to the nation’s well-being, but stakeholders will be doing the same for other components of the discretionary budget.

Now that Congress has reached this agreement, appropriators will still have to hammer out a final spending bill, perhaps in the form of omnibus legislation. Here, appropriations from this summer may provide some clues. For instance, Senate appropriators sought to give the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a $2-billion increase, the largest single-year increase in a decade, and the budget deal improves the odds that NIH will receive it. A bipartisan coalition of more than 100 House members led by Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), and David McKinley (R-WV) sent a letter to House Appropriations Committee leadership supporting the increase.

The administration had sought increases of more than 5% for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, and a 5.2% discretionary-spending increase might open the door to these increases (as Rep. John Culberson [R-TX], chair of the NSF appropriations subcommittee, suggested back in May). Supporters of the administration’s manufacturing innovation initiative also hope to see some gains.

Elsewhere, appropriators face difficult decisions about funding for advanced computing and fusion energy research at DOE, and proposed cuts to basic research at the Defense Department. It also remains to be seen how appropriators will cope with major proposed cuts to social sciences and geosciences at NSF. The president’s proposed increases for climate science and renewable energy will remain controversial, but extra fiscal room might temper any push for cuts. Congress has given itself a mid-December deadline to make these decisions.

House to debate energy regulations

The House will debate two Senate-passed resolutions this week to overturn Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate-control regulations under the Congressional Review Act. S.J. Res. 23 would set aside an EPA rule for new and modified generating plants fueled by coal. S.J. Res. 24 would nullify a companion EPA rule setting greenhouse-gas emissions from existing coal-fired electric plants.

Science Committee and NOAA battle continues

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) responded in late November to a letter sent by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker requesting that NOAA comply with its previous requests (including a subpoena) for specific communications regarding the NOAA research paper on the global warming “hiatus” published in Science. The response from NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan was firm: “I have not or will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me.” The conflict between NOAA and the committee continues to draw attention, including an intersociety letter from eight professional societies led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science arguing that the threat of legal action could have a chilling effect on science. Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) recently argued in an op-ed in The Washington Times that the research paper focused on surface temperature data rather than atmospheric satellite data and is therefore flawed.

Bipartisan senators ask GAO to study climate change costs

Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sent a letter last week asking the Government Accountability Office to study three questions: (1) What is known about how estimates of economic benefits and costs of climate change in the United States are developed?; (2) what is known about the estimated range of economic benefits and costs of climate change in the United States (a) at present and (b) in the near future assuming no change in federal policy?; and (3) based on these estimates, what federal policy actions could have the largest influence in offsetting federal costs associated with climate change?

NSF releases updated data on higher education R&D

The National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has published updated data for FY 2014 from its Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey. An accompanying InfoBrief reports that federal funding for higher education R&D declined by 5.1% between FY 2013 and FY 2014 and has fallen over 11% since its peak in FY 2011—the longest multiyear decline in federal funding for academic R&D since the beginning of the annual HERD survey in FY 1972.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 2 (Winter 2016).