March 14th, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Back to the Drawing Board

State of Play

The budget debate continued on Capitol Hill this week, with the Senate voting on two proposals to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year (FY 2011). The Senate first voted on H.R.1, the bill passed by the House on February 19th that would slash $61 billion in spending, including significant cuts to research and education. This bill did not pass, with a vote of 44 to 56. The Senate  then voted on the Democratic alternative proposal which would cut $6B from current spending and continue most research agencies at current levels. This bill also failed, and received fewer Democratic votes than H.R. 1, with a vote of 42 to 58. While neither measure was expected to pass, the votes sent a message to the House that additional negotiations would be needed to reach a final compromise. So, Congress headed back to the drawing board this week to design a long-term spending solution.

In response to the votes, Speaker Boehner (R-OH) called on the Senate to provide a viable alternative solution to H.R. 1, indicating that he’s not going to “sit up here and negotiate with myself” if no Senate alternative is put forward. Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) countered, calling on the House to “come to the table with a serious proposal.”

On Friday March 11th, the House revealed another short-term spending bill that would fund the government for an additional 3 weeks beyond March 18th, an acknowledgment that more time would be needed to come to a spending compromise. This short-term spending bill would cut another $6.1 billion from current levels, continuing the $2 billion reduction per week trend begun with the current short-term compromise. The cuts in this 3-week proposal would come from a combination of program reductions and earmarks, including research-related earmarks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Most major research agencies, however, are protected in this short-term measure. The Senate appears to be on board with this proposed short-term continuing resolution, and may vote on it as early as Tuesday, March 15th.

It is unclear how many more weeks of short-term funding proposals the Congress will consider, but if they continue down this path with $2 billion a week in spending cuts, it will not take long to reach the level of cuts called for by the House Republicans.

During debate on the spending bills on March 9th, Senator Bingaman (D-NM) expressed his concerns about cuts to science and energy research, stating “The first area of cuts I wish to talk about contained in H.R. 1 that will severely impact our Nation for years to come and have an effect on how many jobs we can actually create is the area of science and energy innovation.”

A group of businesses including Boeing, DuPont, Texas Instruments, Microsoft, and State Farm also weighed in with Senate leadership this week in a letter coordinated by the Business Roundtable that emphasized the importance of funding for basic research and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

The Congressional Budget Office this week issued a report on options to reduce the deficit through cutting discretionary and mandatory spending. Included in the recommendations is a proposal to bring National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding back to 2008 levels, and to shift funding for applied research at the Department of Energy (DOE), in areas such as fossil fuels and nuclear energy, to DOE’s basic research programs. In reading the report, I enjoyed coming across several references to research results used to justify the CBO’s recommendations.

On Tuesday March 8th, the Senate passed the patent reform bill The America Invents Act (S.23) with a bipartisan vote of 95-5. This bill aims to reform the nation’s patent system and reduce the existing backlog of patent applications. It also brings the American system in line with other countries through implementation of a first-inventor-to file approach. The House is expected to introduce a companion bill later this month.

On Wednesday March 9th, the Senate Small Business Committee Wednesday approved The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S.493) to reauthorize both programs for eight years. The SBIR and STTR programs, which have been surviving on short-term reauthorizations since 2006, are funded through a fixed percentage of federal research and development funding, which would increase if this legislation passes.

Also on Tuesday March 8th, The House Energy and Commerce Committee Energy and Power Subcommittee reported out H.R. 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, by voice vote. This bill would block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating large carbon dioxide polluters. The measure will next be considered by the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, but faces an uphill battle as President Obama has threatened to veto a measure of its kind.

On Thursday March 11th, National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Subra Suresh testified in front of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, and Justice.  During this hearing, Director Suresh stated “The mission of NSF is to sustain that excellence as we continue to lead the way for the important discoveries and cutting-edge technologies that will help keep our Nation globally competitive, prosperous, and secure.”

Also of Note

All eyes are on Japan as they recover from the record-breaking 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit on Friday morning. The damage there was less than it may have been elsewhere, due to Japan’s extensive disaster warning system and building codes, surely in place thanks to significant government investment in these areas.  Authorities there are also closely monitoring the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan that sustained an explosion on Saturday March 12th. Senator Rockefeller (D-WV) expressed his concern for the situations in Japan, and used the opportunity to call for “continued investments in America’s premier weather prediction and ocean science agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).”

President Obama touted the importance of investments in research twice this week, first on Tuesday March 8th at an appearance at Massachusetts’ TechBoston Academy, stating ” in the same way that we invested in the science and research that led to the breakthroughs like the Internet, I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, and educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game.” On Friday March 11th, the President included a plug for research in a press conference focused on the situation in Japan, stating “The principle that I’ve tried to put forward since the State of the Union is we’ve got to live within our means…We can’t stop investing in research and development. We can’t stop investing in infrastructure — those things that are going to make us competitive over the long term and will help us win the future.”

Fareed Zakaria penned a column in the March 8th Washington Post on “America’s Grim Budget Outlook” in which he highlighted the roles that science and technology have played in America’s economic history: “America’s growth and prosperity over the past few decades have been consequences of major investments made in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of those are…massive funding for science and technology that produced the semi-conductor industry, large-scale computing, the Internet and the global positioning system. When we look back in 20 years, what investments will we point to that created the next generation of growth for the next generation of Americans?”

On Wednesday March 9th, The Administration launched its $12 million i6 Green Challenge. This program, coordinated by the DOE in conjunction with the Department of Commerce and several other government agencies, will “support awards for six teams around the country with the most innovative ideas to drive technology commercialization and entrepreneurship in support of a green innovation economy, increased U.S. competitiveness and new jobs.”

What’s On Deck

On Tuesday March 15th, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology (S&T) will testify in front of the House Science Committee on the DHS FY 2012  budget. On Wednesday March 16th, The Secretary of Energy will testify in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on DOE’s FY 2012 budget. On Tuesday March 15th, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on challenges facing NASA. On Thursday March 17th, the Senate Energy Committee will hold a hearing on investment trends in clean energy.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold hearings this week on the FY 2012 budget requests for the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (full list here). The House Appropriations Committee will hold hearings on the full DOE and DOE Office of Science budget request for FY 2012 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) FY 2012 research budget.

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