From the Hill

Applied research facing deep cuts in FY 2012 budget

The funding picture for most R&D agencies for the fiscal year (FY) 2012 is relatively bleak, as it is for most government functions. In actions taken thus far, basic research has generally been supported, whereas applied research programs would see deep cuts, in some cases more than 30%.

Congress is not expected to complete work on the FY 2012 budget before the new fiscal year begins on October 1. Debates over spending for this budget will focus on its composition, not its size, because the Budget Control Act of 2011, passed on August 2 to allow the U.S. debt ceiling to rise, set total discretionary spending at $1.043 trillion, down 0.7% or $7 billion from FY 2011.

Although the budget situation for R&D in the FY 2012 budget looks bad, the situation for the following fiscal year could be even worse. Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew sent a memo to department and agency heads dated August 17 providing guidance on the preparation of their FY 2013 budget requests. The memo directs agencies to submit requests totaling at least 5% below FY 2011 enacted discretionary appropriations and to identify additional reductions that would bring the total request to at least 10% below FY 2011 enacted discretionary appropriations.

The enactment of the Budget Control Act will not end the bitter controversies about the size and role of federal spending. The act requires $1.2 trillion in budget cuts during the next 10 years and calls for a 12-member congressional commission to find additional savings of up to $1.5 trillion by December 2011. The additional cuts can come from any combination of sources: reductions in discretionary spending, changes in entitlement programs, or revenue increases. However, if the commission can’t agree on a package of reductions, automatic cuts will occur. These cuts, which would have the greatest effect on discretionary spending, would occur on January 2, 2013.

In the meantime, work continues on the FY 2012 budget. As of August 31, the House had approved 9 of the 12 appropriations bills, the Senate only 1. Here are some highlights.

The House-passed Defense Appropriations Bill would increase funding for basic research by 4.3% and cut applied research by 3.2%.

In the House-passed bill, funding for Department of Energy (DOE) R&D spending is set at $10.4 billion, $166 million less than FY 2011 and $2.6 billion less than the president’s request. The Office of Science, which sponsors most of DOE’s basic research, is funded at $4.8 billion, a 0.9% cut from FY 2011 and $616 million or 11.4% less than the president’s request. Applied research programs face much larger cuts. The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program is funded at $1.3 billion, a $527 million or 40.6% cut and $1.9 billion or 59.4% less than the president’s request. The Fossil Energy R&D program is facing a cut of 22.5%.

In the House-passed bill funding the Department of Agriculture (USDA), R&D funding is $1.7 billion, $350 million or17.3% less than the president’s request and a $334 million or16.6% decrease from last year. The Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s intramural funding program, would receive $988 million, down 12.8%, and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the extramural funding program, would receive $1.01 billion, down 16.7%.

In the House Appropriations Committee–approved Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) face large cuts, whereas the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) fare better. Because of a cut to NOAA’s Operations, Research, and Facilities account, NOAA’s R&D spending will be down 9.2%. NASA is funded at $16.8 billion, down $1.6 billion or 8.9% from last year, with the largest cuts occur-ring in Space Operations, because of the end of the Space Shuttle program, and the Science Directorate, because of the cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope. The bill funds NIST at $701 million, a $49 million or 6.6% decrease. NSF is funded at $6.8 billion, the same as in FY 2011. Decreases in the Major Research Equipment and Fa-cilities account and other R&D equipment and facilities investments will be the main contributors to a small decrease in NSF’s R&D investment of $5 million or 0.1%.

The House-passed bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funds R&D at $416 million, down $296 million or 41.5% from last year.

The House Appropriations Committee–approved bill for the Depart-ment of the Interior increases R&D spending overall by $36 million or 4.7%. However, R&D at the Environ mental Protection Agency (EPA) would decline by $36 million or a 6.3% decrease, and it would decline $30 million or 2.8% at the U.S. Geological Sur-vey. The EPA’s Science and Technology Programs would be cut by 7.2% to $755 million, while the entire agency faces a 17.7% or $1.5 billion cut to $7.15 billion. The bill also includes a number of policy riders, many of which would limit the regulatory authority of the EPA.

The House passed the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2012 (H.R.2055) on June 14, and the Senate passed its version on July 20. The total R&D investment in the Senate bill is estimated at $1.16 billion, $144 million or 14.2% more than the president’s request and $2 million or 0.2% more than FY 2011, whereas the House would spend $1.06 billion, $44 million or 4.3% more than the president’s request and $98 million or 8.4%less than in FY 2011. Veterans Affairs (VA) also performs R&D for other fed-eral agencies and nonfederal organizations, which is estimated at $720 mil-lion for FY 2012. Adding this non–VA-funded R&D brings the total for VA-performed R&D to $1.87 billion in the Senate bill and $1.77 billion in the House bill.

House approves patent reform bill

On June 23, the House approved by a vote of 307 to 117 a patent reform bill that would give inventors a better chance of obtaining patents in a timely manner and bring the U.S. patent system into line with those of other industrialized countries. The bill would also provide greater funding for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to allow it to hire more examiners to deal with a backlog of more than 700,000 applications.

The Senate passed its own reform bill in March by a 95 to 5 vote, and differences between the legislation must be reconciled, most importantly the provision for providing more funding.

The Senate bill would deal with the underfunding of the patent office by allowing the PTO to set its own user fees and keep the proceeds instead of returning some of them to the U.S. Treasury. The House bill originally contained this provision, but it was changed during floor debate after Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) argued that the provision would limit congressional oversight of the patent office by circumventing the appropriations process. The bill was changed so that excess user fees would be placed into a PTO-dedicated fund that appropriators would direct back to the PTO. Some members of the Senate have objected to this change, arguing that it would jeopardize more funding be cause in the past, appropriators often have not spent funds that were supposed to be dedicated for a specific purpose. Despite these concerns, the Senate is expected to approve the House change.

The House and Senate bills would align the United States with international practice by granting patents to the first person to file them. Now, they are awarded to the first to invent a product or idea.

The change in the application system was favored by large technology and pharmaceutical companies, which argued that it would put the United States in sync with other national patent offices around the world and make it easier to settle disputes about who has the right to a certain innovation.

Many smaller companies and inventors opposed the change, however, arguing that it favored companies that could hire legions of lawyers to quickly file applications for new permutations in manufacturing or product design.

The Obama administration said it supported the House-passed bill as long as the “final legislative action [ensures] that fee collections fully support the nation’s patent and trademark system.”

Climate adaptation programs under fire

Republicans in Congress, having already blocked any legislation to mitigate climate change, are now aiming at programs dealing with climate change adaptation. Several of the appropriation bills being considered in the House would bar the use of funds for climate programs. Meanwhile, members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee are fighting an effort by NOAA to create a National Climate Service, which would consolidate the majority of climate programs into a single office to achieve efficiencies.

Rep. John Carter (R-TX) has sponsored an amendment to the DHS spending bill that would prohibit the department from participating in the administration’s Interagency Task Force on Climate Change Adaptation. Carter said participation is unnecessary because NOAA and the EPA already have climate programs.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) has proposed an amendment to the House Agriculture Committee appropriations bill that would prohibit funding for implementing the June 3, 2011, USDA regulation on climate change adaptation. Scalise’s staff said the congressman was concerned that the adaptation policy could lead the department to introduce greenhouse gas restrictions for farmers. The regulation calls for the USDA to “analyze how climate change may affect the ability of the agency or office to achieve its mission and its policy, program, and operational objectives by reviewing existing programs, operations, policies, and authorities.” It notes that “Through adaptation planning, USDA will develop, prioritize, implement, and evaluate actions to minimize climate risks and exploit new opportunities that climate change may bring. By integrating climate change adaptation strategies into USDA’s programs and operations, USDA better ensures that taxpayer resources are invested wisely and that USDA services and operations remain effective in current and future climate conditions.”

The spending bill for DOE would make a 10.6% cut in a program that includes climate research. In a statement, the House Energy Committee said that “The Climate and Environmental Sciences program devotes the majority of its funding to areas not directly related to the core mandate of science and technology research leading to energy innovations. Further, climate research at the Department of Energy is closely related to activities carried out in other federal agencies and may be better carried out by those organizations. The Department proposes to eliminate medical research focused on human applications in order to direct limited funds to on-mission purposes, and the Department should apply the same principles to climate and atmospheric research.”

At a June 22 hearing, members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee criticized NOAA’s proposed National Climate Service. Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) expressed concern that NOAA was implementing the service without congressional approval and questioned the service’s impact on existing research.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco testified that the service has not been established and that, when it was, it would allow NOAA to meet increased demand for information needed to address drought, floods, and national security while strengthening science. She said, “This proposal does not grow government, it is not regulatory in nature, nor does it cost the American taxpayer any additional money. This is a proposal to do the job that Congress and the American public have asked us to do, only better.”

Robert Winokur, deputy oceanographer of the Navy, testified that although he could not comment on the structure of a climate service, the Navy needed actionable climate information focused on readiness and adaptation and that the current structure makes it difficult to obtain the needed information.

Several members, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), reiterated Hall’s concern that NOAA was moving ahead with the climate service despite a provision in the FY 2011 appropriations bill that prohibits using funds for it. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) accused Lubchenco of “breaking the law” by still working to establish the climate service.

Role of government in social science research funding questioned

On June 2, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing to explore the government’s role in funding social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) science research. Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) said the goal of the hearing was not to question the merits of the SBE sciences, but to ask whether the government should support these “soft sciences.”

Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) said that support for NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences must continue, because the research funded is critical to programs such as disaster relief, benefits multiple government agencies and society, and is not funded elsewhere.

Myron Gutmann, assistant director of the SBE directorate, and Hillary Anger Elfenbein, associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, supported Lipinski’s statement by touting the social and fiscal value of various directorate grants. Guttman pointed to a study of auction mechanisms that was used by the Federal Communications Commission in developing auctions of spectrum, which she said ultimately netted the U.S. Treasury $54 billion. Gutmann cited another National Institutes of Health (NIH) study on economic matching theory that lead to better matching of organ donors and recipients, resulting in an increase in the number of organs available for transplant and saving lives. He argued that if funding is cut for SBE research, society will be deprived of solutions to its problems.

Elfenbein stressed that the application of basic research within the purview of the NIH directorate is often unknown and can take years to be realized. She argued that grants should not be singled out for termination based solely on the title of the grant application. She said that in 2007, a member of Congress singled out her grant to be cut because of its title, at about the same time as the U.S. military contacted her about how the re search could be applied in fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, supported the vast majority of SBE re search, but said that a small portion of the research is politicized and should be eliminated. In response, Elfenbein noted that the peer-review process greatly diminishes the politicization of science.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, stated that the majority of the NSF directorate’s re search could be carried out by other organizations. She cited the economic re search done by Adam Smith as proof that researchers can be successful without government funds and at low costs. Elfenbein and Gutmann responded that although other organizations fund SBE research, they typically fund only a small portion of the needed research, and each organization primarily targets applied research that fits mission needs. This means, they said, that some fields of science would remain unexplored.

When asked by Rep. Brooks how the government should cut funds if it were forced to do so, Elfenbein argued that the peer-review process should determine which projects get funded. She added that large cuts would turn away future Ph.D. candidates from the field. Gutmann said that even in a fiscally constrained period, it was important not to cut seed corn.

Science and technology policy in brief

• On July 27, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled in favor of the Obama administration policy allowing the National Institutes of Health to conduct research on human embryonic stem cells. He dismissed a suit in which plaintiffs claimed that federal law for bids the use of government funds for the destruction of embryos. Meanwhile, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) vowed to continue to push her bill that would codify into law the rules permitting ethical human embryonic stem cell research. DeGette reintroduced the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act (H.R. 2376) with a new Republican lead cosponsor, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. The bill would allow federal funding for research on stem cells obtained from donated embryos left over from fertility treatments, as long as the donations meet certain ethical criteria.

• On July 26, the House Natural Re sources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs held a hearing to examine how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) fishery research affects the economies of coastal communities that rely on commercial or recreational fisheries. NOAA’s fishery research and management are per formed under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which requires the use of “best available science” in establishing catch limits. However, several representatives at the hearing shared the concern of constituents working in the fishing industry who do not believe that best available science is being used because many stock assessments are old, incomplete, or missing. Recommendations to improve NOAA’s regulatory decision- making included more partnerships with universities and other research institutions, greater transparency, and improved stakeholder involvement in data collection and standard setting.

• The Department of Commerce Economic and Statistics Administration issued a report on women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce. The report, Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, found that women continue to be “vastly underrepresented” and hold fewer than 25% of STEM jobs. On a brighter note, women in STEM jobs earned 33% more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs, the report said.


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

Cite this Article

“From the Hill.” Issues in Science and Technology 28, no. 1 (Fall 2011).

Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2011