May 31st, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Defending Silly Sounding Science

We’ll get to the shrimp on a treadmill later, but first an update on the FY 2012 appropriations process. The full House Appropriations Committee met for the first time last week to formally approve its Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 subcommittee allocations, which divides the total budget pie among subcommittees. The full committee also reported out its first two appropriations bills—homeland security, which includes the cuts to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate I reported on last week, and military construction/veterans affairs—which means they are now ready to be considered on the House floor.

The Senate will likely not do much on the FY 2012 appropriations process until the top line budget number is agreed on, and that probably won’t happen until the debt ceiling gets settled. As we’re still a ways from that, the Senate busied itself last week in part by holding symbolic votes on several proposed FY 2012 budget proposals. The Senate first voted on the House budget resolution, passed back in April, which cuts non-security discretionary spending by $46 billion and includes the controversial plan to fundamentally restructure Medicare. This resolution was rejected by a vote of 40-57. Senate Republicans then forced a vote on President Obama’s FY 2012 budget proposal, which did not gain a single vote from either party.

If you’re interested in learning more about the federal deficit/debt limit debate, I recommend visiting the The Peterson Foundation’s website for coverage of their 2011 Fiscal Summit held in Washington, DC last week. The Peterson Foundation provided funding to six think tanks of varying political leanings to come up with proposed solutions for solving the nation’s fiscal woes, all of which were presented at the summit. Speakers at the summit included such notables as former President Bill Clinton, Chair of the Senate Budget Committee Kent Conrad (D-ND), Chair of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council.

Also of Note

NSF. Fiscally conservative Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a report entitled “National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope,” accusing the National Science Foundation (NSF) of waste and mismanagement. The report received quite a bit of press, including a segment on ABC’s Good Morning America featuring two projects highlighted in the report, one that involves a shrimp walking on a treadmill and another involving a robot learning to fold laundry. The report also generated a number of positive responses on the benefits of NSF research and its long-established peer review practices, including this piece from MSNBC’s science blog which explained that the exercising shrimp was providing valuable insight into the health of marine organisms, and that the robot was breaking new ground on conducting unstructured tasks. Other responses of interest include a blog post from ScienceInsider and an article from LiveScience. According to the New York Times, NSF’s response to the report emphasized its “gold-standard approach to peer review of each of the more than 40,000 proposals it receives each year. While no agency is without flaws, NSF has been diligent about addressing concerns from members of Congress about workforce and grant management issues, and NSF’s excellent record of tracking down waste and prosecuting wrongdoing is apparent from Senator Coburn’s report. We believe that no other funding agency in the world comes close to NSF for giving taxpayers the best return on their investment.”

NIH. GenomeWeb reported on recent statements by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins in regards to the “sobering” outlook for NIH’s FY 2012 funding. The article references a recent Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, during which Director Collins described that in FY 2010, NIH funded approximately 9,300 grants with 20 percent of applications being funded. Referring to the the reduced funding for NIH included in the FY 2011 continuing resolution, he then told the Committee “We won’t do that well [in 2011],” Collins said. “If you have six grants in front of you, we’re going to fund one of them and five of them are going to go begging.”

SBIR/STTR. Having failed at efforts to reauthorize a comprehensive overhaul of the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, Congress passed a short-term extension of the program that will keep it alive beyond its May 31st expiration date through the end of September. The short-term extension does not include an increase in the set-aside of federal research dollars for the program, proposed in the Senate reauthorization bill, that many research entities opposed.

DOE. The Department of Energy (DOE) held its Energy Frontier Research Center Summit in Washington this week, featuring Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, among many other speakers. While in town for the summit, several EFRC directors, researchers, and students visited their members of Congress to discuss the benefits of the EFRC program, and participated in a reception on Capitol Hill in celebration of these unique university and national lab-based research centers.

Space. Vice President Biden gave a speech at the Kennedy Library in Boston, marking the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s “Moon Shot” Speech. In his speech, Biden spoke of the promise of R&D for the nation, saying “We cannot know with certainty what our fundamental recommitment to science, and research and development will yield. But we do know, from experience that the results will be greater than the sum of the parts, and the rewards will be far greater than the original investment. And we also know that the march into the future will continue whether we lead it or not.”

In print. In an op-ed in last weekend’s Washington Post, entitled “Go to China, young scientist,” a postdoc from Cambridge, Massachusetts urged young American scientists seeking a national commitment to research and science funding to go to China, rather than stay in the United States.

A Time Magazine column titled “The Next Great Resource Shortage: U.S. Scientists” discusses why it is important for the U.S. to improve and expand its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education capabilities. Some of the author’s recommendations to accomplish this include increasing the number of STEM teachers with strong STEM backgrounds, and exposing students to STEM disciplines early on in their academic careers.

The American Physical Society’s latest edition of their newsletter Capitol Hill Quarterly, includes a great op-ed from Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL) in which he discusses the tradition of excellence at the DOE’s Fermilab, located in his Congressional District, as well as the broader benefits to society of federal investments in science and technology.

The nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy released a policy brief on the Impact of the Children of Immigrants on Scientific Achievement in America, focused on the prestigious 2011 Intel Talent Search.  Among its findings was that while only 12 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born, 70 percent of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Search competition are the children of immigrants.

What’s On Deck

The Senate will, for all intents and purposes, be in recess next week, although they will remain in a “pro forma” session. A “pro forma” session means they will not conduct any official business, but will technically remain in session, in part to limit the President’s ability to make recess appointments.  The House will be in session next week.

The House Appropriations Full Committee will meet on Tuesday to consider the FY 2012 agriculture bill (including USDA’s research programs) and the Energy and Water Subcommittee will meet on Thursday to consider their FY 2012 bill (including DOE’s research programs).

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a number of hearings this week, including another in its series on the The American Energy Initiative, a look at the Department of Energy’s Role in Managing Civilian Radioactive Waste, and consideration of theGrid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act.

On Friday, The American Chemical Society and others will host a Capitol Hill brief on Chemicals in Our Lives: Science and Perceptions.

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