April 4th, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review and Return of the Cherry Blossoms!

State of Play

The cherry blossoms returned to Washington last week, along with members of Congress after their spring recess.  While negotiations on federal spending levels continued, Democrats and Republicans appeared to be coalescing around a spending bill with $33 billion in cuts from current levels, much less than the $61 billion in cuts included in the House-passed H.R. 1, but much more than the $10 billion in cuts most recently proposed by the Senate. In remarks to the press on Wednesday, Vice President Biden stated,  “I think we’re making good progress. We’re all working off the same number now…the Democrats are in full agreement on what we don’t want to do in that number. We don’t want to eviscerate the ability of the economy to grow.” During his weekly address on Saturday, however, Speaker of House John Boehner (R-OH) stated, “Now, you’ve heard Democratic leaders claim an agreement has been reached on this issue, but let me be clear.  There is no agreement.  Republicans continue to fight for the largest spending cuts possible to help end Washington’s job-crushing spending binge.” It is not yet clear whether cuts to research funding will be included in any proposed spending package.

A coalition of business, university, science and engineering organizations in Washington wrote to Congressional leaders, urging them to take a comprehensive approach to the federal deficit. In this letter, signatories including Norm Augustine, retired Chair and CEO of Lockheed Martin; John Engler, President of the Business Roundtable and former governor of Michigan; Chuck Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering (and former President of MIT);  Deborah L. Wince-Smith, President and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness; Bob Berdahl, President of the Association of American Universities (AAU); and Peter McPherson, President of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), argue that proposed cuts to research and development “would weaken our nation and reduce the standard of living of current and future generations.”

A bipartisan group of 64 former senior government officials and other economic experts, through the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, also wrote a letter to Congressional leaders “urging them to work together to devise a comprehensive federal deficit reduction plan.” The Blue Dog Democrats, a group of fiscally conservative House members, also released their Benchmarks for Fiscal Reform, an “aggressive set of targets for long-term fiscal reform and deficit reduction that includes cutting the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years, with the largest deficit cuts in history by 2014.

On Thursday, a group of university presidents met with U.S. Democratic Senators to discuss the important role that university-based research scientific research can play in economic growth. The event, organized by The Science Coalition and The Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, included  the presidents  of Northeastern University, West Virginia University, the University of Vermont, Wayne State University, Emory University, the University of Maryland, Stony Brook University, and North Carolina State University.

Also of Note

The Small Business Administration (SBA) held a roundtable at MIT on reducing barriers to entrepreneurism, as part of the White House’s “Startup America” Initiative. Participants in the roundtable included Secretary of Energy Steve Chu; Director of the SBA Karen Mills; Director of the Economic Development Administration (EDA) John Fernandez; Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Peggy Hamburg; and head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) Cass Sunstein, along with university researchers, representatives from local government, and entrepreneurs. After a plenary session on barriers to entrepreneurship, the group broke out into smaller “listening sessions” where participants provided feedback on barriers they had experienced, such as immigration limitations and challenges associated with doing business with the U.S. government.

During this roundtable, Secretary of Energy Steve Chu announced a new program called “America’s Top Energy Innovator,” which would allow startup companies to more easily license technologies coming out of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) national labs (for more on the economic impact of national labs, see a new report out of the University of Colorado showing that national labs there gave the local state economy a boost of $1.5 billion a year). Also on the energy front last week, President Obama delivered an address at Georgetown University on “America’s Energy Future”, in which he outlined steps to reduce the U.S. dependency on imported oil and innovate towards a clean energy future. Senator Bingaman (D-NM), Chair of the Senate Energy Committee, penned a piece in the latest edition of Issues in Science and Technology on Congress’ energy agenda, which highlighted the significant role that R&D could play in meeting the nation’s energy goals.  The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a new report this week entitled Lean, Mean, and Green: Energy Innovation at the Department of Defense (DoD), describing the emphasis DoD has placed on reducing energy consumption within both their operational and fixed footprints.

The Director of MIT’s Energy Initiative, Dr. Ernie Moniz, along with witnesses from the DOE, the Union of Concerned Scientists, PSEG Power, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), testified before the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee on nuclear safety. Dr. Moniz’s testimony focused on the complex nuclear fuel cycle and issues surrounding re-licensing of older nuclear power plants.

MIT Professor Dr. Kerry Emanuel, along with witnesses from The University of California Berkeley, The University of Alabama at Huntsville, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Troutman Sanders LLP, testified before the Full House Science Committee on examining the process used to create science and policy regarding climate change. Dr. Emanuel’s testimony opened with the statement, “I am here today to affirm my profession’s conclusion that human beings are influencing climate and that this entails certain risks,” a view not necessarily shared by his fellow witnesses. Questioning during this hearing focused on the need for more research on global climate change, and a more balanced debate on its causes.

During a hearing before The House Appropriations Committee on the FY 2012 Health and Human Services (HHS) budget request, Secretary Kathleen Sebelieus discussed, among other topics, the detrimental effects that the cuts proposed in H.R.1 could have on ongoing National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants.  At a health care caucus discussion, Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and current Presidential hopeful, outlined his method for balancing the federal budget in the 1990s which included smart reductions and targeted funding increases to research agencies such as the NIH.

On March 31st, The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement held a hearing on the H-1B visa program.  Witnesses at the hearing hailed from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the law firm of Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP, and the Morrison Public Affairs Group. While some witnesses argued for a higher cap on the H-1B visa program, others advocated for an increased number of permanent green cards for a broader swath of high-skilled workers. A new study out this week by TechAmerica Foundation, the non-profit branch of the industry group TechAmerica, reported that one out of every four scientists and engineers in the U.S. is foreign-born.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet held a hearing this week on the House patent reform bill, The America Invents Act (H.R. 1249). During the hearing, John Vaughn of AAU testified on behalf of six higher education associations regarding their views on the bill. Other witnesses included the head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; the President and CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable; and the General Counsels for Proctor& Gamble and Cisco Systems.

What’s On Deck

On Wednesday and Thursday, April 6th-7th, hundreds of scientist, engineers, educators, technology professionals, and students (including 20 from MIT’s Science Policy Initiative) will descend on Washington DC as part of the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group annual Congressional Visits Day. This event, organized by a working group of professional, scientific, and engineering societies, higher education associations, institutions of higher learning, companies, and trade associations, is aimed at raising visibility of and support for science, engineering, and technology.  If you’ve ever wondered about the research footprint in your home state, one of the organizers, the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America (ASTRA), has created up-to-date summary sheets of R&D spending in each state. Also on April 7th, The House R&D caucus, in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), will host a briefing on the budget outlook for research and development.

Hearings of interest this week before The House Appropriations Committee include the FY 2012 budget requests for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and DoD Health Affairs (full list here). The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold its second day of hearings on the America Energy Initiative, and also on the U.S. government response to the nuclear disaster in Japan.

The Senate Appropriations Committee this week will hold a hearing on the DoD Health Programs, and The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing this week on DOE’s biofuels programs.

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