From the Hill – Winter 2011

R&D funding faces budget cuts

In the wake of Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections, funding cuts to rein in soaring federal budget deficits have jumped to the top of the congressional agenda. All domestic discretionary spending faces cuts, including R&D. Meanwhile, as of mid-December 2010, Congress still had not approved any appropriations bills for fiscal year (FY) 2011, which began October 1.

Although President Obama has directed non–national security agencies to reduce their budget requests for FY 2012, he has indicated that he might exempt R&D spending from cutbacks. “I don’t think we should be cutting back on research and development,” he said at a November 3 news conference.

However, the 2010 Republican agenda, called A Pledge to America, calls for severe cuts in government spending, including R&D. Republicans want to cut the level of discretionary spending to FY 2008 levels, which would result in multibillion-dollar cuts in the federal R&D investment. (The incoming Republican leadership recently clarified that the FY 2008 target would be adjusted for inflation.)

The hardest hit agencies would be the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. All were authorized at higher spending levels under the 2007 America COMPETES Act and have since received major funding increases. The NSF cuts would mean more than 1,400 fewer new awards than in FY 2010.

Other agencies that the Republicans are targeting for sharp cuts include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Departments of Education, Transportation, and Interior.

In addition, budget rollbacks would make it difficult for agencies to sustain their current level of commitment to multiagency initiatives such as the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Republicans have also proposed a hard cap on future growth of the discretionary budget, which would make it more difficult for Congress to implement R&D growth initiatives such as the President’s Plan for Science and Innovation and the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, currently under consideration in Congress.

Although A Pledge to America does not address R&D investment, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), the next chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said in a November 3 statement that his priorities would be checking runaway spending, strong oversight, and the use of science policy to drive innovation.

The Obama administration has continued to push R&D initiatives. In a November speech, the president announced his proposal for “a more generous, permanent extension of the tax credit that goes to companies for all the research and innovation they do.” The proposal would raise the base amount of credit from 14 to 17% for companies choosing to calculate their credit using the “simpler” formula.

Obama’s proposal comes in the wake of the release of the 2010 edition of the EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard, which reported that top U.S. companies cut R&D spending by 5.1% in 2009. Top European Union companies cut spending by 2.6%. Worldwide, the drop in R&D spending was only 1.9%, because of flat or growing investment by Asian countries.

Stem cell research funding in jeopardy

Strong support from the Obama administration appeared to clear the way for largely unfettered federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. But in a surprising decision on August 23, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction barring the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from funding the research, ruling that it was illegal under federal law.

The U.S. Justice Department quickly moved to appeal the injunction, and on September 27, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit ruled that federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research could continue while the appeals process moved forward.

In his August decision, U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth said that embryonic stem cell research was illegal under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The amendment, an annual feature in NIH’s appropriation bill, prohibits the use of federal funds on research that destroys an embryo. For more than a decade, the government has allowed the use of public funds for research on human embryonic stem cell lines as long as the derivation of the cells, which results in the destruction of an embryo, was carried out with private funds. The judge disagreed, ruling that it is not possible to disentangle embryonic stem cell research from the derivation of the stem cells.

The case before Lambert had been brought by two scientists, James L. Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Theresa Deisher of AVM Biotechnology in Seattle, who argued that the funding of embryonic stem cell research would cause them “irreparable injury” by increasing competition and therefore potentially taking funds away from adult stem cell research, their area of work.

For FY 2011, NIH has estimated that $358 million of its budget would go to human nonembryonic stem cell research and $126 million to human embryonic stem cell research.

After the August 23 decision was announced, NIH was forced to shut down its intramural human embryonic stem cell experiments and halt any grants or renewals that had not yet been paid out. Research that was already in progress was allowed to continue until at least the next renewal period.

Oil spill investigations continue

Although Congress has not enacted legislation to reform offshore oil drilling, investigations into the April oil well explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its effects on the Gulf Coast have continued. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing on seafood safety, and the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling held several meetings. Meanwhile, plans for research and Gulf restoration have begun.

At an August 19 House hearing, which was held while the House was out of session, Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA) was the only representative to attend. Markey cited reports from the Food and Drug and Administration that found there is little chance for bioaccumulation in seafood of chemicals used to disperse the oil, but noted this is the case for short-term exposure only. Markey stated that it is not known what long-term exposure will do to seafood, nor is it known whether dispersants will increase other toxic compounds in seafood.

Ian MacDonald of Florida State University testified about potential future declines in seafood species. He predicted that the Gulf leak will reduce ecosystem productivity by 10 to 15%, although he acknowledged that this will be difficult to quantify. He stated that the decline will push some species past the tipping point, with tuna, shrimp, fiddler crab, and a type of clam being the most affected. He called for a multiyear Gulf monitoring program to determine the oil’s effects.

Seafood safety was also debated at the September 27 Commission meeting. Bill Walker, director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said that no seafood has been deemed contaminated, but Steven Murawski, director of scientific programs and chief science advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, defended the temporary closing of fishing areas to safeguard public health.

Another late-September meeting focused on research needs. Nancy Kinner of the University of New Hampshire stated that before the well explosion, oil spill R&D was underfunded. More money, she said, should be targeted to Arctic and deep-water environments and further monitoring of the Gulf ecosystem. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson told the commission that more research was needed on dispersants.

In addition to threatening more than 1,000 miles of coastline and 38 species protected under the Endangered Species Act, the oil spill has shed light on the need to repair the overall Gulf ecosystem, which has lost land area about the size of Delaware during the past 50 years. The dams and levees along the Mississippi River that hold back the sediment that renews gulf marshes are the main culprits of the erosion.

A Gulf Coast restoration plan, written by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, recommends that Congress dedicate a significant portion of any penalties for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to a fund to address long-term Gulf recovery and restoration efforts. The report recommends the establishment of a Gulf Coast Recovery Council to manage the funds, coordinate recovery projects, and engage local governments and citizen stakeholders. As he awaits congressional action on the plan, President Obama issued an executive order to create an intergovernmental advisory body, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, chaired by EPA Administrator Jackson, as a bridge to the Recovery Council to begin restoration efforts.

Some research plans are also moving ahead. BP announced plans for the implementation of a $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) to study the environmental and public health effects of the spill. The fund will be managed by a board of scientists from academic institutions, which will be appointed by BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a partnership of the Gulf states. Research will be focused in five areas: physical distribution and ultimate fate of contaminants; chemical and biological degradation of the contaminants; environmental effects and ecosystem recovery; technology developments for oil spill detection, mitigation, and remediation; and human health.

Funds will be directed primarily to academic institutions in the region, but partnerships with institutions based outside the Gulf will be encouraged. A press release noted, “All GRI-funded research will be independent of BP, and the results will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals with no requirement for BP approval.” BP has already provided $30 million for research at universities in the Gulf region and $10 million for research on human health at NIH.

Export control reforms announced

In late August, the Obama administration provided its recommended framework for a proposed reform of the nation’s export control system. Earlier this year, the president had commissioned an interagency review of export controls based on an executive order issued at the end of the Bush administration.

The administration’s proposed reforms would attempt to harmonize and simplify the two major export control systems. The State Department controls the export of weapons and weapons components, and the Commerce Department controls commercial exports that might have a military application.

Although these dual systems both attempt to control the inadvertent release of sensitive technologies overseas, they are implemented in a dissimilar fashion. This point was emphasized by a National Research Council committee in the 2009 report Beyond Fortress America, which called the export control regime an antiquated artifact of the Cold War.

The Commerce Department’s control list, for example, is written in very narrow terms and specifies precise technical parameters to determine whether an item is controlled or not. The State Department’s list follows very broad categories, and whether an item is controlled depends on whether it falls into one or more categories. These rules make it difficult, for example, for universities conducting research in a range of engineering fields to determine whether basic research projects that involve foreign students or collaboration with international universities violate export laws.

After the interagency review, the administration announced the results of an intensive scrub of the categories on the State Department’s Munitions List. It found, for example, that of the 12,000 items in one category, about 32% could be decontrolled entirely and 26% could be moved to the less-stringent Commerce Control List.

The administration’s statement foreshadows a major simplification of the export control process. The White House has requested that the remainder of the Munitions List be reviewed, and the State and Commerce Departments will develop new criteria for determining what should remain on the control lists. The administration asked that the agencies create a “tiered” system to determine items that should receive “stricter or more permissive levels of control” based on their ultimate destination, end use, and end users. Furthermore, it recommends that a “bright line” be created between the two existing control lists in order “to clarify jurisdictional determinations and reduce government and industry uncertainty” on whether an item falls under the control of the State or Commerce Department.

The ultimate goal is to work toward developing a single export control list, but reactions to the proposed changes have been mixed. Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, lauded the announcement as “an important first step toward achieving meaningful and sensible export control reform,” saying that the reforms would “protect national security without disrupting university research” and that they were “intended to ensure that the world’s best talent can participate openly in that research.” Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, on the other hand, criticized the proposed reforms, saying that “we have already reduced controls to the bone.”

Science and technology in brief

  • President Obama on October 11 signed into law a bill authorizing funding and activities for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The law authorizes NASA funding for three years ($19 billion in FY 2011 to $19.96 billion in FY 2013), extends the life of the International Space Station by five years to 2020, provides support for private firms to ferry cargo and people into near-Earth orbit, funds an additional Shuttle mission, and invests in a heavy-lift vehicle program that will make use of expertise from the now-abandoned Bush administration Constellation program as well as the Shuttle.
  • Concerned about the supply of rare-earth elements and minerals essential to producing a wide variety of high-technology goods, the House on September 29 passed a bill that would create the Rare Earth Materials Program within the Department of Energy to quantify U.S. stocks of rare-earth metals and find new ways to collect, use, reduce, reuse, and recycle these metals. A similar bill is pending in the Senate. Once the leading producer of rare-earth metals—used in sectors ranging from the automotive to clean energy to national security— the United States now imports all of its supplies and does not have any active mines. Even if the United States could harvest its rare-earth metals, it does not have the manufacturing expertise to process the metals. The metals would need to be shipped to China for processing. China currently supplies about 97% of the world’s rare-earth metals, and there have been concerns that it might restrict exports to benefit its own industries.
  • On October 5, President Obama signed into law the Improving Access to Clinical Trials Act of 2009, aimed at facilitating participation in clinical trials for treating rare diseases. It would exclude up to $2,000 a year in compensation for participating in such trials from income calculated to determine eligibility for Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid.
  • In August, the government announced a $1.9 billion initiative to reform the system for identifying and manufacturing drugs and vaccines needed for public health emergencies. The proposed strategy is the result of a Department of Health and Human Services report on medical countermeasures. Meanwhile, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released its plan for improving the nation’s vaccine response.

“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science ( in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.

Cite this Article

“From the Hill – Winter 2011.” Issues in Science and Technology 27, no. 2 (Winter 2011).

Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Winter 2011