June 11th, 2012, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Budget Crystal Ball

Last week kicked off on an ominous note, with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releasing its 2012 long-term budget outlook. The CBO is a non-partisan, independent organization that provides analysis to Congress on all things economic and budgetary. The long-term budget outlook analyzed two scenarios, one in which current laws stay in place (e.g., tax cuts do expire, scheduled spending cuts (a.k.a. sequestration) do take place) and another in which current laws are altered (e.g., tax cuts are extended, sequestration is stopped). As you can imagine, the former scenario looks a little rosier from a debt perspective. If things stay on course, the report finds the federal debt would “gradually decline over the next 25 years—from an estimated 73 percent of GDP this year to 61 percent by 2022.” If, however, current laws are altered to avoid spending cuts and not increase revenues (a.k.a taxes), the “federal debt would grow rapidly from its already high level, exceeding 90 percent of GDP in 2022.”

Despite this prediction of how altering sequestration could contribute to increased federal debt, nobody in Washington wants sequestration to happen. Many feel that the 7-10% cuts to discretionary spending scheduled to begin in January 2013 could harm our nation’s security and economy. The Secretary of Defense and the defense community, in particular, have been very vocal about how damaging sequestration would be to the nation’s security. The question is, can Congress come up with an alternative to sequestration that protects the country while also driving down the debt?

A newly formed group of organizations in Washington called the Non-Defense Discretionary (NDD) Summit is calling for Congress to do just that. So what is non-defense discretionary funding, and how does it affect research? Well, discretionary funding is all the funding that gets appropriated each year by Congress that is not mandatory (mandatory funding includes entitlement spending such as Medicare and Social Security), and is the pot of money that will be cut by sequestration in January. Discretionary spending can be broken up into two general categories, defense and non-defense. Defense discretionary spending covers the military (including its research programs), while non-defense discretionary funding supports everything else (e.g., education, research, social programs, etc.) The NDD Summit is hoping to provide a complementary voice to the defense community’s voice, outlining the impacts of sequestration to the nation beyond national security. The NDD has drafted an advocacy letter opposing sequestration and asking for a balanced approach to deficit reduction.

On the Hill, the House passed its FY 2013 Energy and Water; Homeland Security; and Legislative branch spending bills this week, bringing the total count of House-passed appropriations bills up to five. The House Appropriations Committee also began consideration of its FY 2013 agriculture spending bill (more details below). The Senate will markup its Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS)-Education FY 2013 spending bill next week, which includes funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The House has not yet provided a markup date for their version of the Labor-HHS bill, in part because the size of the bill makes it controversial.

If all this makes your head hurt, I recommend you distract yourself by watching this entertaining (and educational) video about a flame. The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, which was co-founded by actor Alan Alda (of M*A*S*H fame), sponsored a contest to see who could best describe what a flame is, with the winning video selected by 11-year olds!

Also of Note

Appropriations. As mentioned above, the House passed the FY 2013 Energy and Water spending bill last week. Despite a number of adopted amendments to the bill—including no less than two that would limit the ability of the government to force people to stop using incandescent light bulbs—there were no significant changes to funding levels for research programs at the Department of Energy (DOE) that were reported out of the full committee.

The House also passed the FY 2013 homeland security spending bill, with final levels for the Science and Technology Directorate similar to the levels reported out by the full committee.

The House Appropriations Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration subcommittee held a markup of its FY 2103 spending bill. According to Cornerstone, education and research programs at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would receive $691 million, a 2% decrease from FY 2012. Within NIFA, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s competitive research program) would receive $276, a 5% increase over FY 2012.

Budget. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released their annual joint memo to federal departments and agencies outlining priorities for research and development (R&D) in the FY 2014 budget request. Among the memo’s charges is the identification of R&D to help address the nation’s “grand challenges,” and efforts to avoid funding R&D that could be best funded by the private sector. The memo also identifies a number of areas where the White House expects agencies to work together in identifying collaborative research opportunities, such as advanced manufacturing, clean energy, and global climate change.

Education. On Thursday, the National Academies of Science will officially release a report entitled “Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security.” This report is being billed as a follow-up report to the National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which in 2007 issued a clarion cry for increased national commitment to federal support of research and education. This new report was requested by Congress to identify “the top ten actions that Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century.”

The National Science Foundation released an InfoBrief entitled Graduate Enrollment in Science and Engineering Grew Substantially in the Past Decade but Slowed in 2010. As the title suggest, the report finds that graduate student enrollment in the U.S. has grown by 30% over the last decade, but tapered off a bit most recently.

Health. Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), a historically vocal supporter of federal funding for NIH, wrote to the Secretary of HHS asking for a detailed account of how sequestration would be applied, and how the cuts would impact biomedical research and other health programs funded the Department. This is significant because the Administration has indicated publicly that it is not planning for sequestration, but the letter aims to identify what planning may be going on behind the scenes to implement the anticipated spending cuts.

Research. The National Science Foundation released its annual FY 2011 merit review report to the National Science Board. This report provides an annual look at the number of grant proposals received by the NSF, along with the success rates (number of proposals that are awarded), broken down by several categories. While the report finds that NSF received 7% fewer grant applications than last year, it also demonstrated that the number of proposals received by the agency has increased dramatically (60%) since 2001.

Over 26,000 people have signed a petition on WhiteHouse.gov asking the Obama Administration to “Require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.” This number is significant, since any petition on the website which receives over 25,000 signatures will be responded to by the White House. As ScienceInsider reports, however, the responses aren’t always the most meaningful.

Space. SpacePolicyOnline reports on NASA’s recent decision to cancel a mission called Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer (GEMS). GEMS would have explored “warping of space around black holes and map the structure of magnetic fields around neutron stars,” but was cancelled after an analysis showed the technology development would take much longer (and cost much more) than originally thought.

In Print

The New York Times reports in its piece entitled Ex-Spy Telescope May Get New Identity as a Space Investigator reports on the excitement surrounding satellite hardware formerly used by the U.S. government’s super-secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that has been turned over to NASA for re-purposing.

Bill Frist writes in The Week about how America must invest in research universities — or get left behind. The piece expands on its subtitle, “Gone are the days when Bell Labs was the nation’s prime innovator. Today, we must rely on universities — and those universities need our help”.

What’s on Deck

Tuesday (6/12)

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a subcommittee markup of the FY 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies spending bill.
  • The Friends of the VA Medical Care and Health Research (FOVA) will hold a Capitol Hill brief on the VA Medical and Prosthetics Research Program. Contract DMCCUE (at) navref.org for more information.

Wednesday (6/13)

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a subcommittee markup of the FY 2013 defense spending bill.
  • The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a full committee hearing on the nomination of Allison Macfarlane and re-nomination of Kristine L. Svinicki to be Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Thursday (6/14)

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a full committee markup of the FY 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies spending bill.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a full committee hearing on China and Clean Energy.
  • The National Academies will officially release their new report “Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security.”
  • The Department of Energy will hold a Capitol Hill brief highlighting their winning Clean Energy Business Plan “Elevator Pitches.” Contact Jane.Wise (at) hq.doe.gov for more information.
  • The National Science Teachers Association will hold a Capitol Hill briefing on Looking Toward the
    Next Generation Science Standards. Contact jpeterson(at) nsta.org for more information.

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