Author Archives: Alan Miller, Bill Godshall, Carlo Pietrobelli, Dale Jamieson, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Jessica R. Lovering, Joseph B. Lassiter III, Mark Bessoudo, Mary Woolley, Naomi Oreskes, Norman R. Augustine, Reiner Grundmann, Richard Hamblyn, Richard J. Bonnie, Roar Fosse, Robert L. Hirsch, Rush D. Holt, Sebastian M. Pfotenhauer, Sherwood Boehlert, William A. Sahlman

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).

Archives


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Skeletal Reflections

Chico MacMurtrie’s Skeletal Reflections is an interactive robot sculpture that has stored in its memory a library of body postures from classic painting and sculpture. A camera/computer attached to the robot records and analyzes the posture of people viewing the sculpture. When the viewer strikes a pose such as that of Rodin’s The Thinker, the robot also assumes that posture.

MacMurtrie is the artistic director of Amorphic Robot Works (ARW, http://amorphicrobotworks.org), a collective of artists, scientists, and engineers. Currently operating out of Brooklyn, New York, ARW is dedicated to the study and creation of movement as it is expressed in anthropomorphic and abstract robotic forms.

Skeletal Reflections
Chico MacMurtrie / ARW
Photo: Bobby N. Adams
Skeletal Reflections
Chico MacMurtrie / ARW
Photo: Bobby N. Adams
Skeletal Reflections
Chico MacMurtrie / ARW
Photo: Bobby N. Adams

Cite this Article

"Archives." Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 4 (Summer 2015).

From the Hill


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White House budget guidance

In early July, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued their annual joint memo identifying science and technology priorities for the FY 2017 budget. That memo provides guidance to federal agencies as they prepare their FY 2017 budget plans, which must be submitted to OMB for review in September before they’re sent to Congress by the president in February.

“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.

The FY 2017 guidance largely reiterates research and development (R&D) budget priorities from years past. A partial list includes:

Climate change. The memo highlights the need for “actionable data, information, and related tools” to assist with climate resilience and adaptation. Since the Republicans took back the House of Representatives in 2010, few areas of science and technology funding have been as controversial as climate science, with the possible exception of clean energy.

Clean energy. As in past years, the memo casts a wide net related to low-carbon energy technology, calling for grid modernization and innovation in renewable energy, transportation, and efficiency in homes and industry. But again, Congress tends to have very different ideas about where to put these dollars.

Advanced manufacturing, including enabling technologies such as nanotechnology and cyber-physical systems. Attempts to establish a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation have been a centerpiece of recent administration budgets. The network was authorized by law in December 2014, but so far funding has not been forthcoming.

Life sciences and neuroscience. This is one of the few areas on which both parties seem to agree, as reflected in the willingness of appropriators to embrace the BRAIN Initiative.

The memo also cites antimicrobial resistance, which received special focus in last year’s budget submission; biosurveillance; and mental health access. In addition, the memo directs agencies to prioritize resources for commercialization and technology transfer, requests agencies’ evaluation strategies for their R&D programs, and cites the Maker Movement as important potential collaborators.

Bipartisan energy bill passes Senate committee

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a broad, bipartisan bill aimed at modernizing the nation’s energy system—from infrastructure, to workforce, to R&D. The bill, a compromise worked out over several months by the committee’s chair, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), was intentionally kept free of the most controversial issues, such as lifting the existing U.S. ban on exporting oil, though they are all but guaranteed to be raised when the bill reaches the Senate floor for debate. Tucked inside the broad energy policy legislation is the bipartisan “E-Competes Act” championed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, which would authorize five years of 4 percent annual funding increases, beginning with FY 2015 levels, for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy. Though the bill is bipartisan, not everyone is supportive, with environmental groups notably expressing their displeasure with several of the bill’s provisions. No timetable has been set for the bill to reach the Senate floor.

House passes GMO labeling bill

The House has passed the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599) to regulate the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. The legislation will prevent states and other localities from enacting mandatory labeling of food that contains GMOs, while at the same time setting up a voluntary non-GMO certification to be run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. H.R. 1599 would block states that have already passed mandatory labeling laws from enforcing those regulations. The bill will also require that the Food and Drug Administration be consulted before a GMO is brought to market. This consultation is currently voluntary.

Supreme Court nixes EPA action

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have considered the costs of regulating emissions from power plants, before deciding that such regulation is “appropriate and necessary.” The EPA sought to regulate power plant emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants by using authority granted to the agency by the Clean Air Act to control air pollution. Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion for Michigan v. EPA, concluded that the EPA acted “unreasonably” in its interpretation of the Clean Air Act. Scalia was joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Roberts, and Kennedy. The majority position explains that it was irresponsible for the EPA to not consider a cost-benefit analysis of its regulation; “[i]t is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”

Senators create competitiveness caucus

In a recent op-ed in Roll Call, Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) call attention to policy areas where they say the United States is losing its competitive edge, and note that the nation is at what they term a “competitive inflection point.” In response, Coons and Moran are launching a new bipartisan Competitiveness Caucus in partnership with the Council on Competitiveness as “a forum to bring together Democrats and Republicans to address the most pressing issues facing our economy.” They plan to tackle issues ranging from transportation infrastructure, to tax policy, to federal support for R&D.

NASA plans human travel to Mars

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is seeking input at an October workshop from planetary scientists, space technologists, and human spaceflight experts on where to land humans on Mars. The event will be held October 27-30 at the Lunar Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas

Census Bureau launches annual entrepreneur survey

The Census Bureau is planning to supplement the Survey of Business Owners and Self-Employed Persons, which is conducted every five years, with an annual survey of entrepreneurs. Once approved by OMB, the survey should begin being implemented this fall and will include questions on innovation, R&D activities, and access to capital. The survey is funded jointly by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Minority Business Development Agency, and the Census Bureau.

Forensics labs discuss reforms

The International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management, organized by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, involved some 500 scientists, managers, and practitioners across a range of disciplines discussing the many factors that have contributed to the growing number of reports of flawed forensic science practices. A 2009 National Academies report highlighting the lack of scientific rigor underlying certain forensic science practices is largely credited with kicking off the ongoing process of reforms. A major focus of the recent meeting was on the lack of standard blinding procedures for most practitioners. In many labs, practitioners are privy to irrelevant (to a given forensic test) information with the potential to bias interpretation of the results. Participants at the meeting discussed the potential for implementing or adapting safeguards like blinding at diverse labs across the country.

Modernizing biotech regulatory system

On July 2, the administration issued a memorandum to the Food and Drug Administration, EPA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlining plans for modernizing the U.S. regulatory system for biotechnology products. According to the memo, a first task will be to clarify the responsibilities of each of the three agencies, and how each may overlap depending on the product. A second task will be to develop a long-term strategy to minimize the risks of biotechnology products. Finally, the administration will support an “independent analysis of the future landscape of the products of biotechnology” and has tasked the National Academies to lead the project. To maximize public engagement in these efforts, the administration plans to conduct a series of public meetings, the first of which will be held this fall in Washington, D.C.

Updated national HIV/AIDS strategy

The Obama administration has updated its National HIV/AIDS strategy for 2015-2020 to build on the foundation of the first comprehensive HIV/AIDS strategy that was released in 2010. This updated strategy will prioritize efforts to support groups that are most affected by HIV, and will focus on the following four actions: widespread testing and linkage to care; broad support for people living with HIV to enable them to remain in comprehensive care; universal viral suppression for people affected by HIV; and full access to comprehensive pre-exposure prophylaxis services within certain demographic groups.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 1 (Fall 2015).