January 16th, 2012, by Abby Benson  

Month in Review, or Year in Preview

As Washington slowly wakes up from its holiday nap, I find myself looking forward to the year ahead. The relief of finally having the FY 2012 appropriations cycle completed—on a positive note for research funding—will be short-lived, as the President readies to give his State of the Union on January 24th and to deliver his FY 2013 budget request to Congress on February 6th.

Looming large over the FY 2013 appropriations cycle is the threat of sequestration, which is scheduled to begin in January of next year. If implemented, this process would cut 7%-10% of federal discretionary spending. While there will likely be attempts to alter the outcome of sequestration, all government spending in this debate is not created equal. Members of Congress and Secretary of Defense Panetta have already vocalized the potential threat to national security if defense spending takes a hit, but protection of defense spending could mean even deeper cuts to non-defense spending that supports basic research. Any efforts to alter sequestration will likely be hampered by the fact that 2012 is an election year, which means that any significant legislation would have to be completed by the summer. At that point, Congressional members and staff will be fanned out across the country in support of various elections. The post-election lame duck session will likely be crammed with must-do items (including possibly “fixing” sequestration) before the new Congress convenes in January.

Members of the House return to Washington tomorrow, followed by members of the Senate next week. The two chambers will likely pick up where they left off in December, considering legislation aimed at boosting the struggling economy.

Also of Note

Appropriations.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has completed its appropriations tables and analysis of final FY 2012 funding for major research agencies.  The American Institute of Physics’ FYI blog also provides great summaries of how research fared in FY 2012.

Health. As reported previously, the final FY 2012 appropriations bill formally established the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). On January 6th , the NIH posted a notice of its plans to transfer existing programs and grants to the new center.  This notice provides background information on NCATS, and a list of programs that it will house.

In an unprecedented move, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an advisory committee to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), requested that HHS ask researchers studying avian flu to redact portions of their results due to security concerns. HHS’s December 20th press statement details the concerns, which center around the ability to replicate the research results. This issue was widely reported (and debated) in the press, you can read just two of the accounts in The Washington Post and ScienceInsider.

On January 10th, the NIH issued two requests for information (RFIs) of interest to the research community. The first RFI seeks input to inform the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director’s Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce. The deadline to submit comments is February 24th. The second RFI seeks input to inform the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director’s Working Group on Data and Informatics, which addresses policies affecting the “management, integration, and analysis of research data and administrative data.” The deadline to submit comments is March 12th.

Science. On December 20th, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released another Wastebook 2011, which “details 100 of the countless unnecessary, duplicative and low-priority projects spread throughout the federal government.” This report, similar to previous versions released by Senator Coburn, includes several “silly sounding” research grants funded by the NSF and the NIH.

On January 10th, the National Science Board (NSB) released a report entitled “National Science Foundation’s Merit Review Criteria: Review and Revisions.”  This report examined the two merit criteria used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) when reviewing research proposals, Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.  The report recommends that the criteria remain in place, but recommends the creation of a working group to update them.

Innovation.  On January 6th, the Department of Commerce delivered a report to Congress entitled, “The Competitiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States.”  This report, required by the America COMPETES Act, recommends continued federal investment in research, education, and infrastructure to support U.S. competitiveness.

MIT. In support of my growing numbers of MIT-affiliated readers, I will include this category from time to time, to share items of special significance to science policy. The MIT News Office is a great source of information for all MIT news.

On December 19th, MIT announced a new online learning initiative called MITx, which will offer certain courses through an interactive online platform.  MITx will aim to supplement the educational experience of MIT students, and to reach virtual learners all around the world, while supporting research into the online learning experience. Also in the news, President Obama awarded MIT Professor Mildred Dresselhaus and MIT alumnus Burton Richter the Fermi prize, one of the government’s oldest and most prestigious  awards for scientific achievement.

In Print

James Gorman’s New York Times piece entitled “Elevation of the Chimp May Reshape Research” looks at the NIH’s recent decision to reevaluate the way it funds research that uses chimpanzees.

Also in the New York Times, Adam Davidson’s piece “Will China Outsmart the U.S.?”  looks at the state of corporate research and development in the U.S. and around the world.

In an inspirational piece in the Washington Times entitled “Keep American Science Alive,” Huda Akil writes about the importance of research being viewed as discovery, not just an economic driver.

Science Magazine held a a live chat on the topic “Can Science Spending Survive Partisan Politics?” with Joel Widder and Michael Stephens. You can watch the archived discussion at the link above.

In a Nature piece entitled “Blue-sky Bias Should be Brought Down to Earth” Daniel Sarewitz argues for increased support for mission-based research agencies (e.g., U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency) as budgets continue to be squeezed.

In a New York Times piece entitled “A Shrinking Military Budget May Take Neighbors With It,” Binyamin Appelbaum explores potential threats to innovation stemming from cuts in Department of Defense (DoD) research.  This article spurred a few counterpoint pieces, including Robert Wright’s in The Atlantic and Ezra Klein’s in the Washington Post.

In the Huffington Post, Margaret Anderson provides her take of the “Top 10 Medical Research Trends to Watch in 2012.” The list includes NCATS, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) efficiency, and health information technology.

Larry Bock writes in the Huffington Post about “A Resolution We Cannot Afford to Break ,“ which is to increase the number of Americans entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

What’s on Deck


  • The American Security Project will host a briefing in DC on the Research and Development Gap.


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