September 6th, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Month in Review, or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

When I left you about month ago, the President had just signed the Budget Control Act. This legislation, agreed to by both Democrats and Republicans, set out top line federal spending number for the next 10 fiscal years and created a temporary Congressional committee charged with identifying long-term solutions to deficit reduction.  After accomplishing this herculean task, members of Congress departed Washington for their summer recess, and President Obama found some time for vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. I spent a quiet month in the DC area, which is usually a lovely time as the city virtually empties out. The calm was punctuated this year, however, by a 5.8 earthquake and a visit from Hurricane Irene, all in the same week!

Back to business…since the Budget Control Act was enacted, much attention has been focused on the new “super committee,” whose members were announced two weeks ago. The members of the committee are split evenly between the House and Senate, and Democrats and Republicans.  Senate committee members include Max Baucus (D-MT), John Kerry (D-MA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Pat Toomey (R-PA).  House committee members include Dave Camp (R-MI), Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Fred Upton (R-MI), Xavier Becerra (D-CA), James Clyburn (D-SC), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).  Senator Murray and Representative Hensarling will co-chair the committee. Politico reports that the committee will meet for the first time next week to adopt procedural rules, and will hold its first official hearing on Sept 13th , on the topic of “The History and Drivers of Our Nation’s Debt and Its Threats.”

Since the Budget Control Act directs a top-line spending limit for FY 2012 appropriations, the House and Senate can now work to complete  the FY 2012 appropriations process. While the FY 2012 budget resolution is about $7 billion less than the FY 2011 level, it is about $23 billion more than the FY 2012 number the House has been operating under.  Given this, it is likely that research budgets will generally fare well in FY 2012, with the real uncertainty coming in FY 2013 when results of the “super committee” deliberations will come into play.

The Senate this week is expected to officially adopt the negotiated FY 2012 spending level, and to start the process of allocating specific spending limits to each appropriations subcommittee.  The Senate Appropriations Committee will also consider the Energy and Water Development, Homeland Security, and Agriculture appropriations bills. These bills include the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, Department of Homeland Security Science Technology Directorate, and U.S. Department of Agriculture research programs, respectively.

In the House, the Appropriations Committee has already completed six of its 12 bills, and will likely not go back to reconsider those completed bills based on the new FY 2012 spending level. What they may do, however, is increase the allocation amounts for those bills that have not yet been considered, including Labor-HHS-Education which funds the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Regardless of how hard Congress works on its appropriations bills over the next month, it is highly unlikely that they will finish them all by the beginning of the next fiscal year which starts October 1st. so a continuing resolution of some sort will be likely.

Also of Note

Budget. While Congress continues its consideration of FY 2012 spending, the executive branch is working hard on building the FY 2013 budget request. On August 17th, the Office of Management and Budget, who oversees the President’s budget, issued guidance for federal agencies directing them to submit a FY 2013 budget at levels 5 percent less than the current FY 2011 spending. The guidance also directs agencies to identify additional spending cuts that would lower the budget by 10 percent, to “provide options to support the President’s commitment to cut waste and reorder priorities to achieve deficit reduction while investing in those areas critical to job creation and economic growth.” Let’s hope that research and education spending are included in the latter category.

Defense. In June, the Department of Defense (DoD) sought comments on proposed new regulations that would require additional safeguard protections for unclassified DoD computer systems.  These (technical!) regulations have caused concern for some extramural research organizations that in order to conduct DoD-funded research, they may have to use separate, restricted computer systems.  The Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Council on Government Relations (COGR)  submitted a joint comment letter to the DoD expressing concerns about the regulations.

NSF. The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced  that it is accepting nominations for the  2012 Alan T. Waterman Award. The NSF issues this award annually “in recognition of talent, creativity, and influence of a singular young researcher.”

NIH. On August 17th,  the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a request for information (RFI) on the future of the biomedical research workforce. Responses to this RFI will be considered by the working group on the biomedical workforce convened by NIH Director Francis Collins back in May. The committee is considering the overall makeup of the biomedical workforce, addressing such topics as treatment of postdocs, career opportunities, etc.  Comments are due to NIH October 7th.

On August 18th, a report published in Science demonstrated a 10 percent gap in R01 research grants awarded to white and black researchers. R01 grants are “the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by NIH.” These findings were particularly concerning, as black researchers already only represented 1.4% of the NIH applicants considered in the study.  NIH Director Francis Collins published a response to the study in the same issue of Science, and announced the creation of a new Advisory Group Diversity in Biomedical Research Working Group.

On August 23rd, the NIH released the final version of its conflict of interest rule. According to NIH, this rule provides “a framework for identifying, managing, and ultimately avoiding investigators’ financial conflicts of interest.”  The AAU issued a statement in response to the release of these regulations, which emphasized the importance of balancing the regulatory burden on research institutions and ensuring integrity of federally-supported research.

As reported back in July, The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is seeking public input to inform an update of regulations to protect human subjects in research. The HHS announced earlier this month that  it has extended the comment period to October 26th, which will allow research organizations additional time to sort through the complex regulatory proposal.

Patent Reform. The Senate is set to vote on cloture (essentially preventing a filibuster – for more info read this) for the America Invents Act, the patent reform bill passed by the House back in July. If the cloture vote succeeds, and vote in the full Senate should occur shortly thereafter. In other news, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued its eight millionth patent in August!

In Print

An August 8th article in the New York Times described a push to get more scientists to enter politics. Among other things, the article examined efforts of three of the few current and past members of Congress with physics backgrounds, Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, and former Reps Bill Foster of Illinois and Vernon Ehlers of Michigan.

In an August 11th piece in the Huffington Post, Are We Still a Nation of Science?, Editor-in-Chief of Science Progress Jonathan Moreno explores America’s historical embrace of science.

In an August 30th New York Times op-ed, Manufacturing a Recovery, MIT President Susan Hockfield describes the importance of American manufacturing to the country’s innovation system.

What’s On Deck

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

  • The House Appropriations Committee Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee will mark up it FY 2012 spending bill
  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Technology and Innovation Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Smart Grid.
  • The full House Science Committee will hold a hearing on Impacts of the LightSquared Network.
  • The House Research and Development Caucus will hold a Capitol Hill briefing on Small Modular Reactors.

Friday

  • The House Appropriations Committee Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education Subcommittee will mark up it FY 2012 spending bill.

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