May 23rd, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Hitting the Ceiling

Note to readers: In an effort to make this blog a bit more user friendly for those not living and breathing science policy, I’ve included some explanatory statements in the text, and created a glossary to provide simple definitions of some commonly used terms. I’ve also instituted subheadings for ease of skimming. Lastly, look for next week’s update on Tuesday morning, as I will be busy enjoying Memorial Day on Monday!

This week started off with a bang, as the country officially reached its debt ceiling on Monday, May 16th. In a letter Treasury Secretary Geithner sent to Congress on Monday, he outlined limitations on government investment that would last until August 2, 2011, when the “Department of the Treasury projects that the borrowing authority of the United States will be exhausted.” Ouch.

On the Hill, last week was the first of this Congressional session when one chamber remained in session, while the other was in recess. The House and the Senate adopted independent calendars for 2011, partially because House members wanted to spend more time, at regular intervals, back in their districts. Because the House was in recess last week, not much movement was made on the deficit/debt limit debate, although I would argue that things in the Senate actually digressed!

The “Gang of Six” that had been working on a deficit reduction package became the “Gang of Five” after Senator Coburn (R-OK) withdrew from the group. According to the Washington Post, Coburn told reporters the group was talking “about the same things over and over and not getting any movement.” The “Gang of Five” has said they’ll continue to meet, but won’t put any consensus agreement forward without Coburn’s endorsement. This puts even more pressure on the group that Vice President Biden is leading, although that group didn’t meet this week due to the House recess.

Senator Conrad (D-ND) , Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, announced late in the week that he would further delay a Senate markup of a budget resolution for FY 2012. A markup is the process by which a Congressional Committee debates, amends, and rewrites proposed legislation. According to Roll Call, Conrad indicated that while the Democrats on the committee are close to an agreement, they want to wait to see how the Biden-led negotiations play out before proceeding.

Also of Note

Space. During a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Science and Space Subcommittee hearing last week on Contributions of Space to National Imperatives, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized NASA for it’s slow pace in determining next steps as the last space shuttle mission looms later this year. The Administration aims to shift NASA toward more commercial space exploration, with an increased focus on science and technology, while several lawmakers—including those representing states with huge NASA facilities such as Texas and Florida—have pushed to preserve the more traditional missions of the agency, and therefore the jobs in those states.

Defense. The House Armed Services Committee marked up their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on May 11th. The NDAA is annual legislation that gives direction to the Department of Defense (DoD) on how it should be run and funded. As legislative language often doesn’t allow much room for detail, Committees generally issue reports for complex legislation to provide more guidance on how it should be implemented. The Committee posted its 569-page report for the NDAA last week, which included positive language on the importance of defense basic research: “The committee recognizes the importance of basic research to the DoD and is encouraged by the Department’s continued emphasis in supporting funding increases in the budget request.” (p.96). On the same page of the report, the Committee also encourages the DoD to use basic research to increase international collaboration related to cybersecurity.

Homeland Security. The House Appropriations Committee marked up the FY 2012 Homeland Security appropriations bill. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate took a huge cut in the markup, with its budget authority reduced by almost half. The FY 2012 President’s request for DHS research and development, acquisition, operations, university programs, and laboratory construction was just over $1 billion, while the Subcommittee only allocated these programs just under $400 million. This is just the House “mark,” so the number will likely increase as the bill moves through the Democratic-controlled Senate, but this mark sends a message that S&T may be targeted as the appropriations process moves on.

Research. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech at Georgetown University on the government role in research and development. In the speech, Bernanke discussed the importance of economic growth to a society, and the central role that innovation and technological change play in creating growth. The speech is chock full of great statements in support of government funding for research and the need for a skilled scientific workforce in the U.S., so I urge you to read it. Here are a couple of teasers: “In the U.S., however, we have seen many examples–in some cases extending back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries–of federal research initiatives and government support enabling the emergence of new technologies in areas that include agriculture, chemicals, health care, and information technology” and “The declining emphasis on basic research is somewhat concerning because fundamental research is ultimately the source of most innovation, albeit often with long lags. Indeed, some economists have argued that, because of the potentially high social return to basic research, expanded government support for R&D could, over time, significantly boost economic growth.”

A new report issued last week by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) ranks the U.S. 22nd out of 30 countries in investing in university-based research. The report, “University Research Funding: The United States is Behind and Falling,” provides concerning statistics on how the U.S. lags countries like China, Korea, and the United Kingdom in investments in university research, and concludes: “Given the importance of university research to the U.S. innovation system, and the primary role that innovation plays in economic growth, competitiveness, and job creation, the data presented here should serve as a wakeup call for U.S. policymakers. We can no longer rest on our laurels and assume that our universities will continue to lead the world, just because they once did. The reason they led was no accident. It had nothing to do with our weather, our geography, or our culture. Instead, it had everything to do with the fact that after World War II, we, before any other nation, dramatically increased federal (and state) support for higher education generally and higher education research specifically.”

NSF. The National Science Foundation announced a critical revision to its guidance for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The NSF issued its guidance earlier this year, with a change that would prohibit any fellows from participating in teaching while on fellowships.* Several universities and fellows protested to this change, as many view teaching as a critical piece of the educational process, and it was not apparent that any stakeholder were consulted in the policy change. NSF reconsidered the policy and issued an updated guide this week, indicating “Each Fellow is expected to devote full time to advanced scientific study or work during tenure. However, because it is generally accepted that teaching or similar activity constitutes a valuable part of the education and training of many graduate students, a Fellow may undertake a reasonable amount of such activities, without NSF approval.”

What’s On Deck

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will continue its consideration of the American Energy Initiative. On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY 2012 Agriculture bill and The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on “Cybersecurity: Innovative Solutions to Challenging Problems.”

On Wednesday, The Joint Economic Committee will hold a hearing on “Innovation and Job Growth in the Life Sciences Industry.”

Also on Wednesday, The American Chemical Society, The American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) will host a Hill briefing on “Clean Energy: Perspectives on Sustainability.”

On Wednesday through Friday of this week, the DOE will hold a conference on “Science for Our Nation’s Energy Future,” highlighting the Department’s Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs). Registration for the conference is free and open to the public.

* I updated this section on May 23rd to reflect that the updated guidance would only affect teaching while a fellow, not teaching and conducting research while a fellow. Conducting research is obviously a critical part of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship!

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