April 25th, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Calm After the Storm

With Congress in recess and most schools on spring break, Washington was eerily quiet last week. For those of us still here, this made commuting a breeze and every line just a bit shorter, but clearly the calm won’t last long. Congress is set to reconvene on May 2nd, with the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget battle and the federal deficit weighing heavily on the minds of its members.

The FY 2011 continuing resolution (CR) that I reported on last week contains two provisions that will impact federally-sponsored research.  First, the CR removed a cap on indirect costs reimbursements for basic defense research. This cap, implemented back in FY 2008 by the late Congressman John Murtha (D-PA), then Chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, holds universities responsible for significant costs related to conducting basic research that are not reimbursed by the government. Several university and research-related associations have advocated for removal of this cap since its inception. The bill also prohibits certain scientific international collaborations between the U.S and China, specifically involving NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). According to Science Progress, this provision stems from the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA), a “fierce opponent of the Chinese government.”

Despite the recess, a number of House Appropriations Subcommittees issued their guidance on programmatic requests for FY 2012. These are requests from members of Congress to appropriators asking for their support of certain federal programs. Historically, this guidance would also have included information on how to request earmarks, but those are currently banned. It is unclear if  the ban on earmarks will give these programmatic requests more meaning than in years past. Without earmarks, requests for increased support of certain federal programs may give members something to take home to their constituents as proof of their efforts in Washington; however, members are reluctant these days to put their name on anything that involves government spending.

Also of Note

A group of 140 university presidents and chancellors, including President Hockfield of MIT,  sent a letter to the Secretary of Commerce pledging expanded efforts to foster economic growth.   The lead author of the letter, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, writes “Universities participate in regional innovation clusters, partner with existing companies to commercialize federally-funded research, nurture startups, attract and motivate commercialization talent, and educate and train a world-class workforce.” Mary Sue Coleman is Co-Chair of the Department of Commerce’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a new Advisory Committee focused on the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), which organizes peer review groups that evaluate grant applications submitted to the NIH. The CSR Advisory Council (CSRAC) replaces the NIH Peer Review Advisory Committee. Since 1946, CSR’s mission has been to “see that NIH grant applications receive fair, independent, expert, and timely reviews — free from inappropriate influences — so NIH can fund the most promising research.”

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, issued a piece on how they think the Department of Energy (DOE) budget should be trimmed in FY 2012. With regard to the Department’s scientific discovery and innovation agenda, the author recommends that “In the near term, Congress should make immediate cuts to the programs that fall under scientific discovery, innovation, and applied-research categories. Congress should then phase out federal funding for basic research.” One argument behind this recommendation is that industry and philanthropists will pick up the tab for the most critical research projects. This is curious, as corporate investments in basic research have been steadily declining. Without a clear return on investment, as is the case with basic research by definition, what would motivate industry to invest?

During an interview with FOX News, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) discussed the importance of innovation to economic growth. When asked what the Republicans’ plan is to grow the economy, in addition to tax cuts and deregulation, he answered “innovation…Our growth agenda is focused on trying to reinstill the sense of entrepreneurial spirit…That’s how America has led…Why Google, Apple, Amgen, Facebook, Genentech? Why are they all here? Born out of the backyards, garages, and basements of America. It’s because we believe in opportunity for America.” Let’s hope that Majority Leader Cantor also realizes that the technologies behind many of these companies were born out of federally supported research.

Vinton Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, penned an opinion piece in last week’s Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Fire up American Innovation.” Cerf argues that the United States needs to improve K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, create a national culture that honors its scientists and engineers, and attract foreign talent to the U.S.

President Obama hosted a group of senior government leaders and stakeholders at the White House to discuss comprehensive immigration reform.  A background document released by the White House prior to the meeting described one of the President’s priorities as “immigration laws should encourage high-skilled individuals we train in our world-class institutions of higher education to stay in the United States and create jobs.”

What’s on Deck

There are no hearings to report on for next week, as Congress will be in recess.

On Monday, The Environmental and Energy Study Institute will hold a briefing on Capitol Hill on a “new report from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that details for the first time what the effects of climate change will be per degree of global temperature increase.”

Save the Date

The Coalition for National Science Funding will hold its annual Capitol Hill exhibition and reception on Wednesday May 11th from 5:30 pm-7:30 pm in Rayburn House Office Building B338-340. The focus of this year’s reception is STEM Research and Education: Underpinning American Innovation.

The Howard Baker Forum, The Bipartisan Policy Center, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will host A National Summit on Advancing Clean Energy Technologies: Entrepreneurship and Innovation through High Performance Computing on May 16th-17th.

The President’s Science Advisor, John Holdren, will give a lecture at the George Washington University on May 4th entitled Science and Technology Policy Challenges and Opportunities in the Obama Administration.” Bill Bonvillian, Director of MIT’s Washington DC Office, will make introductory remarks.

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