February 28th, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Week(s) in Review, or Target Fixation

State of Play

During the last two weeks in Washington, the President and the House of Representatives both laid down their vision of what the country’s spending future should look like, and they could not be more different. With only one week left in session for Congress to sort out FY 2011 spending before the current continuing resolution expires on March 4th, all eyes seem firmly fixed on the target of government shutdown. 

On February 14th, The President issued his Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget, which emphasized many of the priorities he laid out in the State of Union earlier in the month, including “Winning the Future” through innovation, clean energy, research and development (R&D), and education. These investment levels will likely serve only as a high water mark during negotiations with Congress, given the completely unresolved state of FY 2011 funding. 

Two days earlier, in the wee morning hours of Saturday February 12th, The House passed their answer to the remaining FY 2011 spending, H.R.1, a continuing resolution for the remainder of the fiscal year which cut $61B from current FY 2010 spending. H.R.1 included staggering cuts to research funding and education programs, not coincidentally several of the same priorities President Obama would outline in his FY 2012 budget release two days later.  H.R. 1 would cut roughly 18% from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, 5% from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and 20% from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and reduce the maximum Pell grant by 15%. While these percentages represent the reduction in full-year spending, in reality they would have to be squeezed into the remaining 7 months of the fiscal year, making their impact even more dramatic. As just one example of the impact of these proposed cuts, the DOE would likely shut down user facilities and terminate or furlough thousands of staff, affecting both federal lab employees and university researchers all over the country.

Senate Majority Leader Reid responded to H.R. 1 by offering up a 30-day continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government running while the House, Senate, and Administration come to terms with how to move forward. Speaker of the House Boehner rejected this call, indicating that even a short term CR will need to include cuts or it wouldn’t have the votes to pass in the House. On Friday February 25th, the House revealed another short term CR (14 days) that would include $4B in cuts, many of which encompassed programs already cut in the President’s proposed FY 2012 budget. The Senate is apparently warming up to the idea of a short term CR with some cuts, and will debate their version of the legislation this coming week.

The current funding standstill needs to be resolved by March 4th, or the government will shut down. All involved parties are saying they want to avoid a shutdown, however they all continue to fixate on the target by not backing down. The Administration has remained quite silent on how they might message a shutdown in the event it does come to that. During the President’s weekly address this past Saturday, however, he warned Congress against sending him a budget with cuts to his priority areas that include innovation, R&D, clean energy, and infrastructure.

The proposed cuts outlined in H.R. 1 have resulted in several editorials/Op-Eds of interest during the past two weeks. Ray Orbach, former Under Secretary for Science at the DOE under President Bush, outlined his concern about science cuts in an editorial in Science Magazine. The Directors of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory expressed their opinions on the impact of science funding in a short piece in the Washington Post on Sunday morning. This was one of several pieces outlining the impact of H.R. 1 on a broad range of government programs.

Another piece in the Post series penned by General James Jones, former National Security Advisor to President Obama, highlighted the importance of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) to the country’s national security. ARPA-E is the only R&D agency that actually gained funding in H.R. 1. ARPA-E was authorized in the original America COMPETES Act, but the majority of its funding has come through one-time American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. stimulus) funding. H.R. 1 included $50 million for ARPA-E.  While this is enough to keep the lights on, it certainly won’t be able to support an expanded research portfolio.  ARPA-E has shown great promise during its short existence, as demonstrated by the Secretary of Energy’s announcement earlier this month that in a little over one year, six projects that received a total of $23.6 million in seed funding from ARPA-E had generated more than $100 million in outside private capital investment.

Also of Note

The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released their new R&D Dashboard, which should prove a useful tool to allow the public to track federal spending on research and development at the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This tool not only outlines where R&D spending is going, but also links it to specific outcomes such as publications and patents.

The research community learned this week that it is losing another champion in the Senate, with the announcement of Senator Bingaman’s (D-NM) decision to not seek another term. Senator Bingaman, the current Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has long been a champion of energy research funding, and was a driving force behind the first and most recent authorization of the America COMPETES Act. 

The Secretary of Energy announced that Arun Majumdar, the current Director of ARPA-E, will be promoted to Under Secretary of Energy, replacing Cathy Zoi, the Acting Under Secretary of Energy, who announced her decision to leave the government for a private sector position. Dr. Majumdar will continue to hold the position of Director of ARPA-E during the search for his replacement, which opens even more questions as to what the future holds for ARPA-E.

What’s on Deck

While the CR will be on the top of everyone’s minds this week, it looks like the Senate may take up patent reform legislation early next week when they return from recess. 

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the FY12 NASA budget, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on EPA’s “Greenhouse Gas Regulations and Their Effect on American Jobs.” In addition, a number of House and Senate Appropriations Committees will begin their hearings on the FY12 budget.

ARPA-E holds their annual Innovation Summit this week at the National Harbor. The inaugural Innovation Summit last year was a huge success, and brought together ARPA-E awardees and non-successful applicants with government and industry partners. Keynote speakers this year include U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus; former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Bank of America Chairman and former DuPont CEO Charles Holliday.

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