From the Hill – Fall 2015
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.