From the Hill – Spring 2018
“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.
A funny thing happened on the way to the White House 2019 fiscal year budget, which the Trump administration released on February 12, 2018: Congress adopted a sweeping deal to substantially increase the budget’s spending caps. The administration had originally planned a repeat performance of last year’s budget, according to documents posted to the White House Office of Management and Budget website. This would have included a cut of more than 20% for basic science, with massive reductions to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), among other agencies. The administration also again planned on targeting environmental science programs, applied technology research within the Department of Energy (DOE), and other such programs.
But with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 on February 8, Congress demonstrated (not for the first time) an unwillingness to move the budget in the direction preferred by the administration. Congress added $68 billion to the nondefense discretionary cap in FY 2019, whereas the administration had intended to cut nondefense spending by $65 billion, according to its official documents.
This left a gap of $132 billion between what the law called for and what the White House was planning to request. In response to events, the White House made a last-minute decision to add $75 billion back into its budget. From a science and technology perspective, those changes primarily directed spending back into the budgets for a few big basic science agencies: NIH, NSF, and the DOE’s Office of Science, allowing them to stay closer to flat.
As a result, the budgets for those agencies look far different in this year’s request than last year’s request. (See the chart for a side-by-side comparison of the administration’s FY 2019 and FY 2018 proposals.) Note that the NIH increase is accounted for by additional funding in the area of opioids and the (unlikely) consolidation of NIH with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research; many individual NIH institutes would see funding reductions under the administration’s plan.
Below are estimates of major features of the administration proposal. It must be noted that the administration has not produced a fully detailed budget, so the figures cited are drawn from a variety of sources.
Department of Defense. Defense science & technology funding would receive a small 2.3% increase over FY 2017, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency budget would get a larger 19.1% boost spread across several areas including electronics, information and computer technology, aerospace programs, and biodefense.
National Science Foundation. The total budget would be just slightly below FY 2017 enacted level, with the introduction of a new “10 Big Ideas” initiative but with a reduction in the number of new research grant awards.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The administration focuses the agency’s investments on space exploration and planetary science, but terminates several earth science missions as well as development of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope.
Department of Energy. The budget request keeps the Office of Science at FY 2017 levels with advanced computing the priority and again recommends elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and reductions in other technology areas.
National Institutes of Health. Most individual NIH institutes would see roughly 2%-3% decreases below FY 2017 levels, though the NIH total would rise with opioids-related funding and the consolidation of multiple other federal agencies within NIH.
Details on many agencies are still emerging and may not be fully available for some time. On the other hand, as the chart illustrates, several research and development (R&D) areas outside the basic research realm would again be targeted for steep cuts, and many of these are copies of proposals from last year’s budget. Examples include:
- Elimination of climate research within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Support for only three of the eight Climate Science Centers within the US Geological Survey
- Termination of the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
- Termination of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant College Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve system
Congress appears to be on the verge of rebuffing many of these proposals for FY 2018, though final decisions on appropriations are yet to be determined.
Although the FY 2019 budget is ultimately a bit friendlier for many research programs, the White House could actually have gone further. Following the February 8 budget deal, the cap for FY 2019 stands at $597 billion—but the White House is recommending that Congress spend only $540 billion. That means the administration could have chipped in some extra funding to either roll back some of the reductions shown in the chart or increase investment in apparent priorities such as high-performance computing, cybersecurity, agricultural biotechnology, or other fields. Instead, the White House apparently decided that it would rather see that funding go uncommitted and unspent.
Of course, Congress may have no such qualms spending the money it has given itself. But before it can address FY 2019 spending, it must first finalize FY 2018 spending. Those negotiations may provide some clues into what Congress will do regarding FY 2019.
American Innovation and Competitiveness Act hearing
On January 30, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation convened a hearing on implementation of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), passed in the final days of the Obama administration. The AICA was the bipartisan compromise bill that emerged from dueling attempts at reauthorizing the landmark America COMPETES Act, which set ambitious budget-doubling goals for NSF and NIST, among other things; by contrast, the AICA authorizes 4% funding increases at both agencies. This funding level was scrutinized by the committee, which noted that China is now the world’s second-largest R&D funder, according to newly released data in NSF’s Science & Engineering Indicators report.
Noting tightening budgets and intensifying global competition, the committee discussed measures that NSF and NIST are taking to meet performance targets outlined in the AICA legislation. NSF Director France Córdova updated the committee on several foundation priorities, including increasing transparency and accountability of the merit-review process, strengthening management of multiuser facilities, and broadening STEM education and the I-Corps program. She also highlighted a foundation policy being renewed aimed at streamlining and reducing regulatory burdens for researchers. NIST Director Walter Copan discussed continuing efforts in cybersecurity research set forth in the institute’s Cybersecurity Framework and plans to increase laboratory work in the areas of bioeconomy, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things. He also expressed satisfaction with the AICA-mandated cost-share and re-competition guidelines for Manufacturing Extension Partnership Centers. Overall, Copan stressed that NIST could be doing more to facilitate technology transfer, his specialty. In lieu of giving formal testimony to the committee, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy provided a letter outlining the administration’s response to the AICA.
HHS Secretary Azar backs gun violence research
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he is encouraging federally funded research on gun violence, despite an amendment that Congress attached to a spending bill in 1996 that forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” Following passage of that amendment—which the National Rifle Association supported—Congress lowered the CDC’s budget by the exact amount it had been spending on such research, a move that has had a chilling effect on gun violence research for the past two decades. In 2016, more than 100 medical societies signed a letter asking Congress to lift the amendment, and following the Sandy Hook school shooting, President Obama signed an executive order directing NIH to fund research into gun violence, though that program has since ended. Azar told the committee, “We’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business, and so I will have our agency certainly working in this field, as they do across the broad spectrum of disease control and prevention.”
USGS officials resign over confidential data request
Two senior US Geological Survey officials have resigned following a request by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that they provide him with data on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The officials who stepped down said the request violated the survey’s scientific integrity policy that sensitive and potentially commercially valuable information was not to be shared prior to its public release. A spokesperson for the Interior Department said its Solicitor’s Office had determined that the secretary has the right to review data, draft reports, or other information that he deems necessary. The officials who resigned are Murray Hitzman, associate director for energy and minerals, and Larry Meinert, acting deputy associate director for energy and minerals. Meinert said that he was already planning to retire but that this incident spurred him to retire now. He added that he had no reason to believe that either Zinke or any of his deputies planned to use the information for personal gain.
Senate fails to pass immigration bill
The Senate failed to reach consensus on immigration reform, including legislation to set a path to citizenship for individuals covered under the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A bipartisan measure proposed by Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Angus King (I-ME) that included language to provide legal status to individuals covered under DACA and funding for a border wall failed to reach the requisite 60 votes to pass that chamber without a filibuster. A counterproposal sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that reflected the president’s position would have included DACA protections and funding for a wall, but also included more controversial policies such as the elimination of the diversity lottery visa and chain migration policies. The Grassley proposal also failed to pass the Senate, leaving the future of DACA recipients in limbo. Both the House and Senate claim they will continue to consider immigration legislation, but time is running out. Meanwhile, a second district court moved to block the termination of the DACA program, which was set to expire in early March.
Higher education groups express concern over Prosper Act
More than 35 higher education organizations, including the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Council on Education, sent a letter to the leaders of the US House of Representatives expressing concerns about the PROSPER Act. The act is a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and would make changes to loan repayment, scholarship, and other financial aid programs. The higher education groups warned that the legislation could “undermine the ability of students to afford and attend college.”
EPA’s Pruitt recaps first year
On January 30, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testified for more than two hours before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works—his first appearance before the committee since his confirmation hearing in January 2017. Committee Republicans praised the dramatic changes in policy at the agency under Pruitt’s leadership, while Democrats zeroed in on ethics issues under Pruitt’s tenure at an agency that in the past year has been accused of discrediting the role of science and intimidating career employees who appear not to agree with the Trump administration’s agenda. During questioning, Pruitt explained his policy for prohibiting EPA-funded scientists from serving on EPA advisory boards and councils as necessary to keep up the “independence of the review with respect to the integrity of that process,” and he evaded questioning from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on why three EPA scientists were instructed not to present their climate research at a conference on the Narragansett Bay in the fall. At the end of the hearing, Pruitt stated that his proposed red team/blue team exercise on climate change is still “under consideration” and that public reports that the White House has asked the agency not to move forward with the exercise are “untrue.” The New York Times reported on March 8 that there would be no such public debate.
Federal agencies develop toxicity testing road map
Sixteen federal agencies have partnered to develop a strategic road map for testing the safety of drugs and chemicals, saying the plan aims to “provide more human-relevant toxicology data while reducing the use of animals.” The road map was developed by the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods, which focuses on the development of toxicological testing methods that replace, reduce, or refine the use of animals, and it was published by the National Toxicology Program, part of NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Trump endorses right-to-try bill
In the State of the Union address, President Trump expressed his support for a so-called right-to-try bill, which passed the Senate in August 2017 but stalled in the House. The bill would allow terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs if they have exhausted all other options. In 2007, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that there is no constitutional right to experimental drugs that might only worsen a patient’s condition. Since then, several states have passed their own right-to-try laws. In 2009, Congress expanded the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to allow patients access to experimental drugs when there is no clinical trial available. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) expanded access policy guarantees a patient a response to a request within 24 hours—with a 99% approval rate, according to FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb. The policy requires that the drug must have shown “sufficient evidence of safety and effectiveness,” which usually means relying on data from Phase III trials or very compelling evidence from Phase II trials. Given the FDA’s expanded access policy, it may be unnecessary to adopt federal right-to-try legislation.