From the Hill – Summer 1997

Balanced budget agreement bodes ill for science

Despite proposals by prominent members of Congress to significantly increase R&D spending over the coming years, the recent balanced budget agreement between Congress and the White House will almost certainly put a severe squeeze on science funding.

Under the new plan, more than half of the money needed to balance the budget by FY 2002 would come from discretionary spending, which funds defense and all non-entitlement domestic programs, including federal support for R&D. Because spending on entitlement programs is expected to continue to grow rapidly, discretionary spending, which now accounts for a third of the federal budget, would dip below 30 percent by FY 2002.

The budget resolution approved by Congress would cut defense R&D by 18 percent between FY 1998 and FY 2002. The resolution set nondefense discretionary spending at $261 billion in FY 2002, a cut of nearly 6 percent from this year’s level after adjusting for inflation.

Here is a rundown on key nondefense spending areas under the balanced budget plan:

General science, space, and technology: This area function includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), most of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the physics programs in the Department of Energy (DOE). Most of the spending in this general area, except for the space shuttle and NSF’s education activities, is classified as R&D. An American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) analysis of President Clinton’s proposed budget projected cuts in R&D in NASA (down 11.9 percent), NSF (down 7.5 percent), and DOE Physics (down 11.2 percent) by FY 2002 after inflation. The cuts would be even steeper under the budget resolution, because it allocates $2 billion less over five years than the president had proposed. The resolution calls for a FY 1998 allocation of $16.2 billion, which is $240 million less than the president’s request. This leaves little room for the 7 percent increase for NSF that House authorizers and many in the scientific community have called for.

Commerce and housing credit: The Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is the only R&D program singled out as a “protected domestic discretionary priority” in the budget agreement and funded at the president’s requested level. The AAAS analysis of the president’s budget projects that NIST’s laboratory program would be cut by 5.4 percent by FY 2002 but the Advanced Technology Program would get a 63 percent increase.

Health: The budget resolution would spend $2.8 billion less over five years in this area than the president had requested, resulting in a 15 percent cut in real terms by FY 2002. Because the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget accounts for more than half of the discretionary spending ($13 billion out of $25 billion in FY 1997) in this area, the resolution leaves no room for any additions to the NIH budget unless there are unprecedented cuts in non-NIH programs, such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Ryan White and other HIV programs, and food- and worker-safety programs. The FY 1998 allocation for this function is $150 million below the FY 1997 level, leaving no room even for the president’s requested 2.7 percent increase for NIH, much less the 7 percent or greater increases called for by key members of Congress. Although the Senate approved (by a vote of 98 to 0) a “sense of the Senate” amendment that federal investment in biomedical research should be doubled over the next five years, the amendment allocated no additional funds.

It is impossible to project total federal R&D spending based on an analysis of the budget resolution. However, the current numbers indicate that, if the resolution remains in place, the cuts would be significantly greater than the 14 percent decrease in federal R&D funds by FY 2002 projected from analyzing the president’s budget.

Although the budget resolution is important as a guide for appropriations committees in dividing up the total pool of discretionary spending, its functional allocations are binding only for FY 1998. The allocations will be revisited each year to adjust for changing economic conditions and priorities. Even in FY 1998, appropriators will have some freedom to shift funds between functions if programs serving different functions are in the same appropriations bill.

House approves patent system reform bill

On April 23, the House passed a bill that would make numerous changes in the nation’s patent system, after modifying a controversial provision that would require earlier disclosure of patent information.

H.R. 400, introduced by Rep. Howard Cobble (R-N.C.), would convert the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) from a federal agency to a wholly owned government corporation acting under the guidance of the Commerce Department. It would also require the PTO to make patent applications public 18 months after they are filed, whether or not a patent has been granted. Currently, patent information is made public only after a patent is issued.

Some members of Congress, led by Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (D-Calif.), opposed the early disclosure of patent applications, arguing that it would allow big companies, including foreign firms, to steal ideas from independent inventors before they could be patented. Proponents of the bill, including many large U.S. corporations, argue that earlier disclosure would prevent needless duplication of innovative work and speed the flow of new technology into the marketplace. It would also bring the U.S. system into line with the patent systems that exist in most other countries. Proponents point out that the bill provides inventors with royalties if other parties are found to have profited from the use of information in the published application.

The debate resulted in the approval of an amendment proposed by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) that would exempt small businesses, universities, and individual inventors from the 18-month publication requirement. House backers of the original bill remain hopeful that the Senate bill, which is similar to the original House measure, will not include the exemption and that it can be excised in a House-Senate conference committee. President Clinton has not taken a position on the legislation.

Space station construction delayed

Since Russia became a partner in the international space station, congressional leaders have worried that Russia would be unable to meet its commitments. Their worries were borne out at a House Science Committee hearing on April 9, when Wilbur Trafton, NASA’s associate administrator for spaceflight, announced that because Russia was behind schedule in building a key component, construction of the space station would be delayed by up to 11 months. The planned launch of the first sections of the station has now slipped from November 1997 to “no later” than October 1998.

Committee chairman Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisc.) opened the hearing by saying, “I have spent the last four years hoping that I would not have to utter the words, `I told you so.’ But I think the day has finally come.” He reiterated a litany of promises made by the administration, NASA, and the Russian government about Russia’s commitment to the station. Despite his disappointment and frustration over the delay in building the $60-billion orbital outpost, Sensenbrenner said that he continues to support the program. Other key committee members concurred.

Trafton said that NASA would reallocate $200 million from the space shuttle program to ensure that a contingency plan can be prepared in case Russia fails to deliver the station’s service module, which will include crucial devices and systems for maintaining proper orbit. Committee members immediately criticized the reallocation, citing concerns over shuttle safety as funding for the shuttle program has declined.

In an effort to keep the space station on track, Sensenbrenner and Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, proposed an amendment to a bill authorizing civilian space activities. The amendment, which was passed by the committee, would prohibit the transfer of U.S. funds to pay for work that Russia has already pledged to do; require NASA to develop a contingency plan to replace the Russian hardware; require NASA to certify every month that Russia is or is not on schedule; require the president to decide by August 1, 1997, whether or not to permanently replace the service module; and ban U.S. astronauts on the Russian Mir station unless NASA certifies that Mir meets or exceeds U.S. safety standards.

Cloning raises difficult issues for Congress

The recent successful cloning of an adult sheep-raising the possibility that a human could also be cloned-is presenting the federal government with some serious and difficult policy issues. Soon after the news of the birth of Dolly, Congress and the administration began considering action to limit human cloning research and to ban the actual cloning of a human being. Many scientists and ethicists, however, are warning against swiftly implementing legal restrictions without first thoroughly analyzing all aspects of cloning technology.

President Clinton set the stage for the cloning policy debate on March 4 by banning the use of federal funds for human cloning research and requesting that the private sector voluntarily abstain from such research for 90 days. He also asked the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to investigate the implications of human and animal cloning. The commission’s report was expected to be ready by early June.

In Congress, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) introduced legislation to prohibit the use of federal funds for research involving human cloning. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) introduced a similar bill in the House and proposed a second bill that would make it illegal to clone a human being. Whereas Bond emphasized the moral problems with human cloning in proposing his bill, Ehlers argued that his intention was to protect scientific research in the long run.

Although scientists and ethicists generally agree that there are some uses of cloning technology that clearly are morally wrong, the federal role in regulating cloning remains uncertain. According to scientists, cloning research has the potential to produce enormous health benefits. Ian Wilmut, who directed the Dolly project, told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Subcommittee on Public Health on March 12 that cloning and the genetic manipulation it allows make it possible to create better genetically engineered animals for use in treating human diseases. Cloned and genetically modified animals could also be used as models for studying human disease. Eventually, Wilmut said, cloning technology could make it possible to regenerate human tissue such as spinal cord tissue. Although expressing strong opposition to human cloning, Wilmut urged Congress not to “throw out this particular baby with the bath water” by passing overly restrictive legislation.

Also at the hearing, NIH director Harold E. Varmus expressed concern with the proposed bills, arguing that “the discussion is actually running ahead of the science” because the ability to clone humans is still remote. He pointed out that of the 277 embryos created through use of Wilmut’s cloning technique, only Dolly survived. In addition, it is more difficult to create cloned human embryos, because human embryonic cells begin differentiating at an earlier stage than those of sheep. Varmus urged that legislative action be put off until the cloning issue can be fully investigated; otherwise, he said, potential benefits may be lost.

Now that the initial public excitement over cloning has died down, Congress does not seem to be in a hurry to rush through legislation. Although there is very little opposition to the idea that human cloning is wrong and that banning it is justifiable, members of Congress are recognizing that they must work to craft policies that clearly discriminate between beneficial research involving cloning and actual wrongful cloning of people.

Clinton speaks out on science

In a speech at Morgan State University’s commencement on May 18, President Clinton addressed a variety of broad science issues, emphasizing social responsibility in the application of new knowledge. He also challenged AIDS researchers to develop a vaccine for the disease within 10 years.

Speaking in the wake of events such as the cloning of an adult sheep and the discovery of possible life on Mars, Clinton said that although science holds great promise for the future, with the potential to improve lives and strengthen the nation, “Science often moves faster than our ability to understand its implications, leaving a maze of moral and ethical questions in its wake.”

The president highlighted and illustrated some basic principles that society should use in applying new knowledge. Citing the Tuskegee experiment, in which a group of African Americans infected with syphilis were left untreated so that researchers could watch the disease progress, Clinton stated that science should be conducted for the benefit of all citizens, not just the privileged few. (On behalf of the government, the president formally apologized for the Tuskegee experiment in early May.) Clinton also urged Congress to pass legislation prohibiting insurance companies from using information gained from genetic screening to discriminate against individuals and called for strong protection of individual privacy against the threat of potentially invasive information technologies. Finally, he reminded the audience that “science is not God,” and that advances such as cloning require renewed attention to issues of individuality and faith.

Clinton compared the new push to develop an AIDS vaccine within 10 years to the moon landing program of the 1960s. He said that NIH would establish a new center for AIDS vaccine research to help achieve the 10-year goal. He also pledged to seek international support for the effort. Skeptics, including AIDS activists, quickly pointed out that Clinton made no mention in the speech of seeking increased funding for the initiative.

Air quality debate intensifies

With the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) facing a July 19 deadline to make final its proposed tougher air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter, the standards are under increasing attack in Congress. Congressional interest in the subject has been intense, with more than 15 hearings held. Typifying the tenor of the debate, Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee’s Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee, has accused EPA of concealing information on the new standards from Congress.

The focus of the debate has been on EPA’s finding that very fine particles in the air-those smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter-can make people ill. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to set ambient air quality standards solely on the basis of public health considerations.

But members of Congress and others, in addition to criticizing the cost of the new regulation, have argued that EPA’s scientific evidence is insufficient. Short-term research on the health effects of particulate matter has been relatively extensive, showing a “reasonable” correlation between the fine pollutants and human illnesses. But only two long-term studies have been conducted. Although both have shown a more significant correlation than have the short-term studies, members of Congress argue that two studies are not enough.

In late May, the White House, in response to criticism from Democrats on the Hill, asked the National Economic Council, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of Management and Budget to coordinate an internal review of the proposed standards. The move prompted speculation that the standards might be softened.

Large Hadron Collider backed

After helping to strike a deal that more clearly defines the extent of U.S. participation in the planned international Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., chairman of the House Science Committee, has endorsed the project. The recent agreement on U.S. participation also makes it more likely that Congress will back the plan as well. Proposed by the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), the LHC would be the world’s most advanced high-energy physics facility.

Although President Clinton wants the United States to contribute $450 million to the LHC between FY 1998 and FY 2004, the House Science Committee refused to provide any funding for the project until various questions about the extent of U.S. participation could be answered. Sensenbrenner took these concerns to CERN and to the Department of Energy, which would oversee U.S. participation, and an agreement was reached.

The agreement states that the United States will not be required to spend more than its predetermined contribution if cost overruns occur. It requires that the United States be consulted if the LHC’s technical specifications are changed. It also guarantees access by U.S. researchers to the LHC and outlines U.S. participation in the CERN council. The CERN council was expected to approve the agreement at its June meeting.

Cite this Article

“From the Hill – Summer 1997.” Issues in Science and Technology 13, no. 4 (Summer 1997).

Vol. XIII, No. 4, Summer 1997