November 21st, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Wrapping It Up

It was a big week for research on Capitol Hill, as most members of Congress wrapped up their business before the Thanksgiving holiday.  The House passed and the President signed the first FY 2012 “minibus” spending bill. This bill provides funding for research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (more details below under Appropriations). The bill also includes another short-term continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government running until December 16th, which will allow Congress additional time to complete the remaining FY 2012 spending bills. The Senate tried to move another minibus last week, which would have included the Energy and Water Development, State-Foreign Ops, and Financial Services bills, though a series of problematic amendments derailed that effort. It now looks like FY 2012 will be completed through an omnibus bill that includes the nine spending packages.

As I write this, members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction are likely wishing they could wrap it up, but are instead continuing negotiations as the Wednesday deadline looms near.  Amid continued reports of Republicans and Democrats rejecting each others’ plans last week, a bipartisan group of about 150 lawmakers held a press conference calling on members of the Committee to “go big.” The 40+ lawmakers who attended the press conference expressed support for a plan that would cut almost $4 trillion over the next 20 years, more than double the $1.2 trillion deadline the committee is aiming to meet. Despite these calls for compromise, reports on Sunday afternoon appeared to suggest resignation by both parties to failure. If the Committee does fail to reach a deal, the automatic spending cuts (“sequestration”) won’t kick in until 2013, after the next election, which may shift the balance of power.

The House last week also voted down a balanced budget amendment, in a vote that was required by the Budget Control Act.  The vote count was 261-165, a majority but not the two-thirds required for an amendment to the Constitution.  236 Republicans and 25 Democrats voted for the amendment, 161 Democrats and 4 Republicans opposed it.

Also of Note

Appropriations. As mentioned above, the President signed into law the first FY 2012 spending minibus which includes funding for NSF, NASA, NIST, NOAA, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under USDA, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). I’ve outlined some top-line numbers below, but more information can be found in the detailed conference report:

  • NSF: $7.03 billion, $173 million above FY 2011.
  • NASA: $17.8 billion, $648 million below FY 2011 (within NASA, however Science account was increased 3%).
  • NOAA: $4.89 billion, $306 million above FY 2011.
  • NIST: $751 million, $33 million above FY 2011.
  • NIFA: $1.215 billion, $128 million below FY 2011.
  • OSTP: $4.5 million, $2.1 million below FY 2011.
  • USPTO: $2.7 billion, $588 million above FY 2011.

The bill included an unexpected increase for NSF, beyond both the House and Senate passed levels. The James Webb Telescope at NASA, which was cut by the House and funded by the Senate, was included in the final bill. OSTP received a significant cut, stemming from a dispute between the John Holdren, Director of OSTP and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), Chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee, over collaboration with China. The bill also provided the full request for the USPTO, a significant increase over 2011 which should allow the agency to carry out new requirements in the recently passed patent reform legislation, the America Invents Act.

Energy. The Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General released a special report last week entitled “Management Challenges at the Department of Energy”, outlining recommendations the Department should take to increase efficiency and reduce costs. The report includes a recommendation to expand the Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR) to the entire science and technology enterprise at DOE (not just the applied programs), and to institute a process similar to the military Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) to look at the Department’s lab complexes.

On his next to last day at the DOE, Under Secretary for Science Steve Koonin testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on two pieces of legislation being considered by the Committee to create a coordinated government-wide energy policy and budget process (S.1807) and formalize the Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) (S.1703). The QER was recommended in a recent report from the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) entitled “Report to the President on Accelerating the Pace of Change in Energy Technologies Through an Integrated Federal Energy Policy.”  Also testifying before the Committee were MIT Professor Ernest Moniz, who co-led the PCAST report team, and Senator Pryor (D-AK), who introduced S.1703.

The American Academy of Arts and Scientists released a report entitled “Beyond Technology: Strengthening Energy Policy through Social Science.” This report came out of another recent recommendation by the above PCAST report for DOE to initiate with NSF  “a multidisciplinary social science research program that will provide critical information and support for policy development that advances diffusion of innovative energy technologies.”

Homeland Security. The Director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate, Dr. Tara O’Toole, testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies on Finding Smarter Approaches to Spur Innovation, Impose Discipline, Drive Job Creation and Strengthen Homeland Security. During the hearing, Dr. O’Toole outlined efforts DHS is making to streamline their research program and increase the return on investment of research funding.

Research. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee marked up a piece of legislation, the Grant Reform and New Transparency Act of 2011 (Grant Act) (H.R. 3433), that “directs agencies to establish uniform standards for how they notice, award, and disclose the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars spent each year through 1,670 discretionary grant programs.” Among the provisions included in the bill are the requirement for the government to create a single website for grant opportunities, and to make public detailed information about grant applications and review. The committee revealed the legislation just hours before the hearing, but it will likely receive much scrutiny from research organizations concerned about additional administrative burden.

The Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP), an association of federal agencies, academic research institutions, and research policy organizations, is seeking to reduce the administrative burden on researchers through a new data platform, the Science Experts Network and Curriculum Vitae (SciENCV). The goal of SciENCV is “to facilitate the exchange of ideas, locate individuals with special knowledge and skills, and advance a common understanding of scientific investments.”

Space. reported on two hearings last week related to NASA programs. Jim Green, Director of NASA’ s Planetary Science Division, and Mars scientist Steve Squyres argued for increased investment in Planetary Sciences before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  Later in the week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on NASA’s human spaceflight program, saying that “Contrary to popular belief, this has been an incredible year for NASA.”

In Print

In a Washington Post op-ed last weekend entitled “Before Solyndra, a Long History of Failed Government Projects,” Steven Mufson argues that DOE has misspent billions of dollars in basic research and advanced technology development funding. The piece concludes, “perhaps the federal government is, as former Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers put it, “a crappy VC,” or venture capitalist. Or perhaps it should stick to funding basic research. But if more recipients of Energy Department loan guarantees falter, they will become part of a long, if undistinguished, history of failure.”

In a recent editorial* in Science entitled “The Energy Research Imperative,” Bill Gates states that the U.S. should spend equal amounts on clean energy research as it does on health and defense research. Citing continuing reductions in American investments, Gates states: “It would be a serious miscalculation if America missed out on this singular opportunity.”

An article in the Massachusetts Boston Globe this week outlined the potential losses to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts if the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction does not reach a deal. The article reports that “the state stands to lose more than $680 million in federal research funding in 2013, or nearly 9 percent of the approximately $7.7 billion it is now estimated to receive, if a bipartisan deficit reduction panel does not hammer out a deal by Nov. 23rd and automatic cuts to defense and domestic spending are triggered.”

A piece in the Ohio Columbus Dispatch highlights the impact that deficit reduction cuts could have on medical research. The article quotes Dr. John Barnard of Nationwide Children’s Hospital as saying “Never before in history have we had a better opportunity to capitalize on the investments we’ve made in biomedical research and medical innovation…In the last 10 to 20 years, the amount of new knowledge that has been generated has been spectacular. And it’s only now that we’re in a position to recognize the dividends of that.”

What’s on Deck

Both the House and Senate are in recess this week. Happy Thanksgiving!


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