From the Hill – Summer 2016

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 – Summer 2016.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 4 (Summer 2016).

Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Summer 2016